The Vickers Gun was perhaps one of the longest serving weapons in the Canadian arsenal, being employed from late 1915 or early 1916 up until after the Korean War. The Vickers began replacing the Maxim gun in British service as early as 1914; the gun was heavy - some 58 pounds - and cooled by a jacket of water around the barrel, mounted on a heavy tripod and requiring several ammunition bearers.
The Vickers was issued out four per infantry battalion, replacing the Colt machine guns, and was employed in separate machine gun units beginning in 1916. The Vickers was employed often as a form of light artillery - at times being fired indirectly (i.e. at targets not in sight of the gunner and/or not using a flat trajectory). The Canadian Machine Gun Corps continued in existence between the wars, and while the corps was dissolved in 1936, entire battalions were still designated as Machine Gun units. In World War Two, Machine Gun battalions fielded companies of Vickers Guns (as well as 4.2 inch mortars) and were grouped one per infantry brigade in the early years of the war, and eventually one per infantry division.
The Vickers was marked by sturdy reliability; firing from cloth belts it was not uncommon for a Vickers to fire several thousand rounds in a single action.
The Maxim, like any prototype, had much room for improvement, and Vickers used high grade steels and aluminum to reduce the weight considerably - by almost 25% in fact. The simple act of turning the toggle action upside down reduced the depth of the receiver by nearly half. Though stronger and lighter than the Maxim, the water-cooled jacket and heavy tripod still made the Vickers a heavy weapon. Air-cooled versions were used in aircraft, and some variants fired .50 calibre and 11mm rounds. The standard gun in Canadian service fired the standard .303 calibre round used in the Lee Enfield rifle and, later, the Bren Gun.
In 1915 and 1916, Canadian infantry battalions were entitled to four machine guns, either the Vickers or the Colt. In August 1916, the battalion MG detachments were reorganized into brigade machinegun companies, armed with 16 Vickers guns. One such company was assigned to every infantry brigade in the Canadian Corps. The battalion machinegun units were increased to 14 Lewis guns and 2 Colt machineguns. In early 1918 the brigade machine gun companies became Machine Gun Battalions, and were assigned one MG battalion per division. At first the battalions had three companies, and in May 1918 this increased to four, with a total complement of 96 Vickers Guns. In fact, the first machine gun units has been developed upon mobilization when Raymond Brutinel, a reservist officer, proposed the creation of a motorized machinegun unit. The Canadian Minister of Defence concurred, and the Canadian Machine Gun Corps was formed. Four batteries were equipped with Colt machine guns and sent to England, where British authorities objected to their use and did not send them to France until June of 1915. In August 1916, these motor machine gun soldiers became Corps Troops.
During the Second World War, machinegun support was again provided by specialist units. Upon mobilization, one machine gun battalion was assigned to each brigade of infantry; by the time the units went into action, only one machine gun battalion was assigned to each Division. Three machine gun companies, with three machine gun platoons of four Vickers guns each, as well as a heavy mortar company, made up the MG battalion.
Korea, Vickers Guns were assigned directly to the infantry
battalions, in a specialist Vickers platoon.
In addition to direct fire, Vickers Guns were often used indirectly; this type of fire was first used in the First World War. During Operation VERITABLE in Feb 1945, Vickers Guns added their fire to the "pepperpot" supporting fire that was used during the largest artillery operation of the Second World War. Vickers Guns had also "thickened" the barrages leading up to the assault on Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
A soldier firing the weapon grasped both traversing handles (A), and depressed the trigger (B) with both thumbs. The gun fired fully automatically - that is to say, as long as the trigger was depressed, the weapon would continue to fire until it ran out of ammunition. When the cartridge (C) is struck by the firing pin, the bulled (D) travels down the barrel and the locked barrel and locking mechanism start rearward. Gasses following the bullet expand in the muzzle attachment (E) and help the recoil action. Water (F), fed to the jacket by a hose, keeps the gun from overheating.
Dick Raymond was a 16 year old American citizen living in upstate New York, the son of a chicken farmer, in January 1942. He ran away from home, crossed the border, and joined the Canadian Army. He served for a month before being thrown out, but soon tried again, meeting the recruiting sergeant at the border. A self confessed "underachieving high school drop out", Raymond had grown up listening to CBC Radio from Toronto. Canada sounded exciting to him, and when he was sworn into the Canadian Army, being told that Americans could keep their hands at their sides during the oath to the King, most of the men in the room did so. As told by Max Hastings in his book Overlord, Raymond "found the army tough. When he was foolish enough to reveal that he had some money, it was quickly beaten out of him. He learned to drink and to cheat with some thoroughness....He retained a low opinion of most of the officers corps. But he loved their regimental traditions, the pipes and kilts of the Canadian Scottish units. And for their lack of discipline, he came to admire immensely their behaviour on the battlefield."
By 1944, Raymond was a Corporal in The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, the machine gun battalion of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. Coming ashore on 7 June, he was separated from his unit, then rejoined them that night near Les Buissons where his platoon was firing in support of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders. The fighting was fierce, and Raymond described it as "just a straight shoot-out, both sides blasting at each other day and night....Watching infantry advancing across those open corn fields may not have been quite as terrible as the battle of the Somme, but at times it seemed to come pretty close to it." Mistakes were made in Normandy, and when 492 American Flying Fortresses dropped bombs on the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Raymond tells us that "A lot of our guns opened up on the Fortresses. Whey they hit one, everybody cheered."
Later, in the battle to close the Falaise Gap, the machine gunners of the Camerons were presented with more suitable targets, as the remnants of the German Seventh Army tried to flee the trap they were in. Raymond tells us that "It was the first time we had ever seen the German Army out in the open. We would see a group trying to run across a field from one wood to another, and watch some fall, some run on, some lie moaning in front of us. It was more of an execution than a battle. I remember feeling puzzled that it didn't upset me more."
Anti-Aircraft Version and Vehicle Mounts
The Toronto Scottish Regiment - one of three Machine Gun Battalions mobilized with the 1st Canadian Infantry Division (in 1939-40 they were assigned one per brigade, later cut back to one per division) - developed an anti-aircraft mount for the weapon. According to Carry On! The History of the Toronto Scottish Regiment (MG) 1939-1945:
At the same time the effectiveness of small arms fire against low-flying aircraft was realized by now and the more inventive minds of the Regiment soon produced an extended mounting which permitted the use of their guns in this ack ack role. Much credit is due the men who devised this mounting, for it was immediately adopted as standard equipment for all Canadian MG Battalions, and the British too employed it with excellent results.
Photos of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, the Machine Gun Battalion of 1st Canadian Infantry Division in Italy, show the Vickers also mounted to Universal Carriers. The Toronto Scottish history notes that they received British modified Bren Carriers for their machine gunners in Apr 1944 that "featured a recently devised mounting which permitted the firing of the Vickers from the vehicle."
The Vickers Gun required a large crew not just for the ammunition and water, but also for the amount of extra kit required to keep the gun operating, or to employ the gun in the indirect role.
Below: details of the ammunition box with web carrying handles.
At left, Vince Ciccini of Thorold, Ontario, in Korea with the Vickers Platoon of the Second Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. (Photo courtesy Art Johnson, Associate Curator, 48th Highlanders Museum.) At right, a standard water can. These water cans proved to be flimsy and unsatisfactory by British troops early in the Second World War, and eventually were widely replaced by copies of the German water cans (known as "Jerry cans"). The can remained in use as a water can for use with the Vickers. The cap is in brass and was often secured to the can by a chain.
A gunsight box, inscribed "SIGHTS LUMINOUS (WITH SHIELD) VICKERS 303 GUN 1 SET" The inside of the lid is lined with velvet. Box measures 1 13/16 inches long X 1 1/2 inches wide X 1 1/2 inches high.
Foresight Deflection Bar