Two weapons spring to mind when conjuring up an image of the Second World War commandos. The iconic Fairbairn and Sykes Fighting Knife popularly known as the ‘Commando Dagger’, and the Thompson Machine Carbine – the legendary ‘Tommy Gun’. However, it was the Bren Light Machine Gun (LMG) that became universally popular with the men that wore the green beret.
Introduced in 1935 as a replacement for the Lewis Gun, the Bren was initially built at the Royal Small Arms Factory in the London Borough of Enfield. It was based on the ZB 26 LMG which was designed by a small arms manufacturer in the city of Brno in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and derived its name by combining the first two letters in Brno and Enfield – BREN.
Weighing only 23 lbs (10.4 kg) the gas operated weapon could fire single rounds or automatic bursts of .303-inch (7.7 mm) ammunition from a 30-round magazine. The air-cooled barrel had a tendency to overheat with sustained firing, so the two-man gun team would always carry a spare barrel. Experienced gunners could change barrels in a few seconds – drills that were often practiced blind-folded or at times under duress.
The innovative nature of commando training at that time resulted in a departure from the traditional firing method, where the gunner lay in the prone position behind the gun. Inspired by the free-flowing firing from the hip of the Tommy gun, the commandos picked themselves up off the floor and took to hose-piping the enemy with the Bren.
In the publication Notes from Theatre of War No.11, compiled by The War Office after the successful destruction of a German battery by No.4 Commando during the Dieppe Raid, the following points were detailed with regards to the Bren:
‘The Bren did what it was expected of it. Thanks to concentration on judging of distance, accuracy of fire, and the use of cover, many Germans were killed by Bren fire. Considerable training in firing it from the hip during the assault produced striking results. The Bren proved a more effective weapon than the Thompson Machine Carbine when used from the hip in similar circumstances.’