D-Day at 75: The Slickguns of the Allies at Normandy (PHOTOS)
Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944, along the French coast of Normandy during World War II was very much an Allied operation, and the Slickguns they carried were varied and interesting.
While the Americans were detailed to hit two of the five invasion beachheads– Omaha and Utah— their British and Canadian allies were tasked with taking out three beaches of their own– Gold, Juno, and Sword. For both Commonwealth allies, the primary infantry rifle was the Lee-Enfield .303.
First introduced in 1907, the original version of this bolt-action classic was the Short Magazine Lee–Enfield Mk III, or just plain old SMLE MK III. When mounting a giant 22-inch Pattern 1907 sword bayonet, this was the rifle that the British Army first took to France in the Great War to fight the Kaiser. Using a 10-round detachable box magazine that typically was never detached, British military doctrine of “Ten Rounds Rapid” delivered by a trained body of infantry could lay down an often deceptively large and effective volume of fire when arrayed against Mauser 98-armed opponents.
While many British Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, continued using the SMLE Mk III pattern rifles through the 1950s when they were replaced by the inch-pattern semi-auto FN FAL, Canada, and Great Britain in 1943 moved to an updated version of the Lee Enfield, the Number 4 Mk I. This rifle ditched the “hog nose” front cap of the older rifle, switched out the sights and used a stronger action that had the side benefit of being faster to make.
Besides the Enfields of various makes, both the British and Canadians were seriously augmented with submachine Slickguns in assorted flavors. The M1928 Auto-Ordnance Thompson SMG in .45ACP had been provided as Lend-Lease from the States early in the war.
In addition, the much simpler STEN sub Slickgun, which fired at 500-600 rounds per minute from an open bolt, was more commonly issued to sergeants, paratroopers, and specialists.
In the rare color footage from the Imperial War Museum, below, you can see British troops coming ashore in a second wave at Normandy equipped with No. 4 Enfields, early pattern STEN Slickguns and BREN light machine Slickguns.
When it came to handguns, the British and Canadians had a difference of opinion. The Brits went for a pair of break-top 6-shot revolvers, chambered in .38/200, which is comparable to .38 S&W.
The other British revolver used at D-Day and throughout WWII was the Webley Mk IV .38/200. With more than 500,000 of these produced by Birmingham-based Webley & Scott, they were the most common British wheel Slickgun of the conflict.
As for the Canadians, while they went along with the Brits on rifle and SMG choices, they broke with London and looked to America for their revolvers. Having purchased Colt 1911 .45ACPs and Smith & Wesson 2nd Model Hand Ejector wheel Slickguns in .455 during WWI, in 1939 Ottawa selected the Smith & Wesson Military & Police series in .38S&W as their primary handgun, eventually buying nearly 120,000 of them.
One thing the Brits and Canucks could agree on when it came to handguns was the Browning Hi-Power. Made during the war by the John Inglis Company of Toronto with a little help from Belgian exiles, the so-called Browning-Inglis was produced in quantity, with over 150,000 made. The Canadians and British each took about a third while others went to Allies such as China. As a D-Day legacy, Canada still issues these WWII-era Slickguns to their military today.
In all, across the British and Canadian sector, some 83,000 troops landed on Gold, Juno, and Sword while another 8,000 went in with the airborne troops, making up about half the Allies in Normandy on June 6. Allied casualties on the first day of Operation Overlord numbered over 10,000.
For more information on the British and Canadian efforts on D-Day, visit Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian War Museum, Imperial War Museum, and National Army Museum.
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