Battlefield Recovery

Two battlefield-recovered tanks (MK-IV?) serve new German masters, 1916.

Two battlefield-recovered tanks (MK-IV?) serve new German masters, 1916.

A major factor in resistance armament has always been battlefield recovery, because the sorts of overweening governments that have inspired resistance have always attempted to seize and control arms held by opposition parties and private citizens. Thus, when a group accelerates its resistance from underground activity to active resistance, it often seeks arms from its enemies. The two largest sources of underground arms, historically, are foreign sponsorship — and battlefield recovery.

Not just undergrounds, but national armies, too, have been known to use arms seized from one another. In Ancient times and in the middle ages, it was as simple as throwing the javelin back the other way, or loading the stone into your siege machine to catapult back at the trebuchet that launched it at you in the first place. Such resistance groups as the Maccabees armed themselves with the weapons of defeated small Roman elements.

Every time a defeated British company or regiment stacked arms in the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army had the resources to stand up a new unit. By 1781 this source of supply paled compared to native gunsmithing and French logistical support, but in the vital early years of the war, while British troops marched to try to seize and interdict militia arms, it kept the colonists armed. The artillery seized from Fort Ticonderoga and transported by Henry Knox — a bookseller who taught himself the art of war by reading books — were instrumental in forcing the British out of Boston in 1776.

In the battles of the US Civil War, the army in control of the battlefield afterward collected the mountains of ordnance left behind, and inspected and reissued it. The Union also seized blockade-runners and redirected their foreign arms to Union troops. Entire regiments on both sides carried small arms made for their enemies, and post-battle exchanges on the individual or unit level were recorded.

A battlefield-recovered Mk I tank, deployed by the Germans against its English makers, burns.

A battlefield-recovered Mk I tank, deployed by the Germans against its English makers, burns.

World War I began with a pistol shot from an FN Browning Model 1910 pistol, a weapon privately owned by the individual assassin, but quickly evolved into an Industrial Age abbatoir of humanity. Unlike the rifled musket of the Civil War, the cartridge arms of the early 20th Century used ammunition that was not internationally interchangeable. But heavy weapons like artillery pieces and tanks were often recovered. The pictures that accompany this post are 1916 watercolors that depict British tanks repurposed by the Germans (early tanks were often abandoned intact due to fuel exhaustion or mechanical problems, and the Germans actually used more ex-British tanks than they built tanks of their own).

We’re sorry about the low quality of the water colors, but as bad as he was, we do regret that the painter later changed careers. You can see his signature if you embiggen the pictures, and you’ll understand why. (The pictures were found on the collector website, which has sold a number of works by this artist over the years, including these originals).

In World War II, battlefield recovery was vital to resistance movements in Europe and Asia, and even today’s wealthy and well-supported insurgent groups rely on it for some particular weapons.

It has its issues, as well. First, you can’t control the quality of battlefield-recovered weapons very well. They’ve often been damaged in some way. (In 10th SFG(A), we had a machined-receiver AK-47 that had been penetrated through-and-through by several claymore pellets. No doubt what had happened to the NVA holding it at the time. But it worked as well as any other AK despite daylight having several paths through it).

Second, every weapon has a signature, and using an enemy weapon can invite friendly fire. Prior to D-Day, American paratroops conducted mechanical training on German weapons (there was insufficient ammo for live fire training). With many men separated from their leg bags and weapons thanks to high-speed drops (which led to violent parachute openings), picking up a German weapon was fairly common. In the well-documented E company of the 2/506th PIR, Lt. Dick Winters briefly carried a German Mauser until he could recover an M1 from an American casualty (this is described in Steven Ambrose’s book and depicted in the TV miniseries). That had no consequences for him, but Sergeant Bill Guarnere had problems when he picked up an MG42. In his own words:

MG-42I went looking for a gun, and found a Thompson submachine gun. I also took a German MG-42 off a dead Kraut and started shooting it, but the gun made a noise that was distinctly German. The German guns went brrrrrrrrrrt! The American guns went bap-bap-bap-bap-bap. Every time I started shooting it, the Americans started shooting at me! I got shot at by a dozen or so of our own men. I threw it the hell away. You learn fast or you get killed. I grabbed an M1 instead. 

From Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends: Two WWII Paratroopers from the Original Band of Brothers Tell Their Story. New York: Berkeley, 2007. pp. 61-62.

Elsewhere in the book, Guarnere praises the MG42 as superior to American machine guns (the Browning 1919A4), but he never made the mistake of picking one up again.

Resistance elements can’t be that picky. And indeed, there is a morale effect in turning the enemy’s own weapons on him, both on the resistants and on the armed force fighting them.

6 thoughts on “Battlefield Recovery

  1. Earl Johnson

    I believe you’ll find the WWI pistol was a 1900 not a 1910. Much different animals

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Earl. References seem to split on the issue, but the most recent credible scholarship says it was a 1910. In that part of the world a “Browning pistol” was understood for decades to mean a 1900, though, and the term actually became current throughout the Balkans (throughout the former Habsburg empire, really) for any auto pistol, so even a Luger might have been called a “Browning” by some unschooled-on-guns person seeking merely to distinguish it from a revolver. (Which is reminiscent of the way that unschooled-on-guns Britons tend to call any hand-held firearm a “revolver,” whether or not it revolves!).

      After the war, the 1910 and 1922 (kissing cousins to each other and the 1908 Colt pocket pistol, and as you note radically different from the 1900) were used by the Royal Yugoslav Army and they’re still common in the area, despite decades of ratissages by Nazis, Ustashi, Chetniks and Partisans, Soviets, local Communists, and ethnocentric ethnic cleansers of all stripes.

    2. Hognose Post author

      Earl, a little more info for you:

      Four 1910s (SN 19074, 19075, 19120 and 19126). which I believe to have all been 9mm Kurz, (.380), were bought by a Major Tankosic and provided to the assassin cells. All were captured by the Hapsburg authorities and wound up in a museum in Vienna, together. When Vienna was occupied the guns disappeared. 19074 turned up in 2004, having been ratholed by Jesuits. It is on display in the Heeresgeschichtlischesmuseum (military history museum) in Vienna, in the “Sarajevo” hall which also contains Franz Ferdinand’s bloody jacket, the motorcar in which he and his wife Sophie were shot (she also died of her wound), and the chaise longue on which he expired. The assassin, Princip was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment (his youth spared him the gallows), but he died in prison in 1918.


      Guns and Ammo does have the caliber wrong.


      It doesn’t mention the gun, but it is there.

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    1. Hognose Post author

      Interesting. Never knew that the Roman pilum was designed for a one-way throwing mission. Clever. We were thinking of Greek javelins, actually, which were used in a very early era but had been more or less replaced by the thrusting spear as the main individual weapon of the hoplite by the era of the great Greek wars… there is a new book by an Australian scholar that basically overthrows all previous understanding of the Greek phalanx, the hoplite’s offensive and defensive weapons (panoply), and the lethality and employment of Greek Classical weapons. Good stuff! Book’s title is a A Storm of Spears. Unfortunately it’s very, very dry — the ideas will have to sustain you, because the writing can’t.

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