March 10, 2009

The Bren Gunner
Robert Rogge

The Bren was a light machine gun, air-cooled and magazine-fed. It was a damned good gun, but Jerry’s MG 42 spit out bullets at twice the speed of a Bren, maybe faster.

The Bren gunner in Ian’s platoon was a marvel. He could touch off single rounds with the selector set at auto and had a fine eye for ranges.

His number two man, who lugged the two boxes of ammo and the spare barrel, could swap mags in one second flat and was no mean gunner himself. They were the platoon’s firebase.

A Bren gunner’s life was scary. Rifle fire cracked sharply, but a Bren had its own sound, a heavier thumping that Jerry was always on the alert for. When he heard it, he turned everything he had on the sound and the Bren gunners took a lot of casualties.

Nobody ever volunteered for the job. “It’s like standing up and asking Jerry to take a shot at you,” one private said, “and he’ll do it, too.”

The Bren could be fired full auto or single shot. The banana-shaped magazines held thirty rounds. That was enough for two or three good bursts and a couple of follow-up shots.

The Bren gunner in Ian’s section tried to con him into taking up the weapon. He knew that Ian was a pretty good rifle shot and figured he’d be the same with a Bren. Ian gave it a go, against his better judgment.

They were in the shell of a steeple and the gunner was firing short bursts through a hole in the stonework. Ian and the number two were squatted down, reloading mags. The gunner emptied a mag, replaced it with another handed to him by his number two, and handed the Bren to Ian. “Here, you have a go at it.”

Ian held the weapon pointed up over his right shoulder and peeked through the hole. “I don’t see anything out there. What are you shooting at?”

“There’s a machine gun in that line of trees over to the left about three hundred yards. I’ve been putting bursts there to keep Jerry's heads down while our guys get through that damned wheat.”

Ian looked and saw the infantry moving slowly through the grain. “Okay, I’ll try it.”

He settled behind the Bren, moved it until it was lined up on the target and cut loose with a five-round burst.

The sights were offset to the left and Ian always wondered how they lined up with the barrel and put the bullets where you aimed.

He never did find out.

He emptied the mag and the last round was a tracer that made a red line straight from the steeple to the woods.

“Goddamn it!” the gunner, already moving, yelled at his number two. “You loaded a fucking tracer, you stupid shit!”

He scuttled backward and clattered down the stone steps with Ian and the number two right on his heels.

A savage burst of machine gun fire swept into the steeple, ricochets howling and screaming as the men ducked under a chunk of heavy beamed flooring.

The Bren gunner cursed his number two all the way back to their holes.

When he felt safe again, Ian yelled over to the gunner that he could keep his bloody Bren.

—Adapted from Fearsome Battle


Robert Rogge, an American, fought with the Canadian Army in World War II. He wrote of his experiences in Fearsome Battle. Under the pen name, Robert Elliot, he is also author of The Eagle's Height, a novel of air combat in World War I.

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