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In WWII the Allies were surrounded at Dunkirk as they waited for the Navy to ferry them back to England. In the movie "Dunkirk" there are entire Battalions of British troops standing in huge groups on the beach. Three German planes swoop down and drop bombs. Almost everybody hits the sand and covers their heads except for one guy who is seen standing and firing a bolt action rifle from a standing position, and another who is seen firing his weapon while lying on his back.

Dunkirk (2017) - The First Bombing Scene (2/10)

I looked into the effectiveness of firing rifles at WWII style fighter planes: Is it possible to shoot down a plane while just using a rifle during WW2? The answer seems to be that it is not very effective but also, not impossible. This raises some questions for me. Did army doctrine compel or forbid them from firing their rifles at planes. Are the men shooting because they are super disciplined and calculative soldiers, or because they are jaded, broken, contemptuous husks attempting to express themselves? Would an officer have had any opinion about which a soldier aught to do?

  1. Is this exactly what happened at Dunkirk?

  2. If every soldier on the beach made an attempt to shoot the planes, would they have taken them down?

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    Noting that most of the bullets fired from the ground will miss their intended targets, what goes up, must come down.
    – Spencer
    Apr 8, 2022 at 2:06
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    War is cold and rational, soldiering is psychological and hot blooded. Sometimes you do things not because they make sense, but because they are emotionally satisfying. Basic human instinct is to strike back at those who strike you, even if it is completely pointless The English Bulldog is venerated not because it is the biggest dog, but because it is willing to fight outside its weight class and is not intimidated by merely being outclassed.
    – MCW
    Apr 8, 2022 at 11:04
  • "Not very effective" is putting it mildly. Shooting down a fixed-wing aircraft with a pistol or rifle is about the equivalent of hitting a hole-in-one in golf. It is not impossible, but it is extremely rare. Apr 8, 2022 at 15:50
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    "Are the men shooting because they are super disciplined and calculative soldiers, or because they are jaded, broken, contemptuous husks attempting to express themselves?" This seems like a pretty glaring false dichotomy to me. The most likely reason is probably a 3rd reason: "they want to survive and so they are using the best/most immediately available weapon they have to attempt to fight back". Hand a soldier a gun and then attack them with some vehicle and they will probably shoot at the vehicle with that gun regardless of whether they are well-trained or not.
    – TylerH
    Apr 8, 2022 at 21:00
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    @LorryLaurencemcLarry your question doesn't ask whether or not shooting infantry rifles at a plane is the optimal thing for the soldiers to do, though. It asks whether these soldiers are being maximally rational agents or are "jaded, broken, contemptuous husks". That is a rather ugly false dichotomy.
    – Carcer
    Apr 9, 2022 at 19:22

5 Answers 5

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To answer the second part of your question, this WW2 British Army training film includes details of how ground fire from infantry should be directed at enemy aircraft. As you can see at about 20 minutes in, it shows section fire against a dive bomber. It gives no information about the effectiveness of such a defence, but it was certainly British Army doctrine to engage aircraft in such a fashion.

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    My father has a gun from the Japanese army, probably made around '43 or '44, which while handheld, was still quite long and only a single-shot. It has a switch whereby you can toggle on airplane sights. The rifle or whatever used somewhat large ammunition and was intended to be used by infantry against aircraft, but similar to your comment about the effectiveness, there are no confirmed cases where a gun of its type actually downed an Allied aircraft. Apr 8, 2022 at 15:38
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    I don't know about British forces, but when I served in the German army in the early 1980s, we still had anti-aircraft sights for the MG3 machine gun, and anti-aircraft tripods for mounting the MG3 on a swivel for defense against aircraft. During training, section fire from G3 assault rifles against slow low-flying aircraft was mentioned as a method of last resort, including doing so by falling backwards onto our backpacks.
    – njuffa
    Apr 8, 2022 at 22:46
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    @Panzercrisis: When I did some research on the Vietnam war back in college; I found that this stuff was effective. True, one shot isn't going to bring it down, but the accumulated damage of a few hundred bullet hits will cause problems. It lead to US planes flying higher to avoid being shot at by rifles, preferring to be shot at by AA guns.
    – Joshua
    Apr 9, 2022 at 4:16
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    @Joshua - I remember reading that in Vietnam, US and allied personnel flying in helicopters were often advised to sit on their helmets when flying low over territory containing opposition forces, and that casualties from small-arms fire had been recorded. Apr 9, 2022 at 10:43
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I must admit that I'm answering this without specific knowledge of British WWII regulations, but here is an American manual of the era, check page 29 (by page number) / page 36 (of the PDF document). Troops under air attack would be expected to fire their small arms when ordered fire, or to hold fire when there were no such orders.

The alternative to shooting at aircraft is not shooting at aircraft. Reasons not to shoot at aircraft:

  • Shooting at aircraft may reveal the position of the ground unit. Not an issue in a besieged port.
  • Bullets fired up will come down, a mile or two away, and the shooter cannot effectively judge what they will hit. WWII military rifles had a caliber similar to medium machine guns, and those were used for indirect fire with appropriate sights.
  • Much ammunition will be expended to little direct effect.

On the other hand, there may also be good reasons to shoot:

  • A bullet might bring the aircraft down. A low-probability event for any one rifleman, but with many soldiers firing the odds add up. Medium machine guns were used for air defense at the time, and a rifle platoon could put as much lead in the air as a machine gun. For that matter, British fighters carried .303 machine guns, too. They would fire more bullets than any one soldier, of course.
  • Many bullets, or just their muzzle flashes, might cause the pilot to abort the attack run, or fire from less-than-optimum range.

The firing pattern prescribed for the machine guns of the American quartermaster company would basically fill the air with bullets and hope that the aircraft runs into one, by pure chance. Individual weapons would simply add to the density of fire.

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    Point 5 here is a very good one: a pilot attacking a position that shoots back is inevitably going to be more distracted, cautious, etc. So even without much hope of bringing the plane down, the distraction/deterrent effect can be positive for the troops on the ground. Apr 8, 2022 at 18:36
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    "Much ammunition will be expended to little effect" - apparently Spitfire pilots armed with eight Browing machine guns provided combat reports that "showed that an average of 4,500 rounds were needed to shoot down an enemy aircraft." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermarine_Spitfire#Armament Apr 9, 2022 at 12:16
  • @Andrew : this was similar with top-mounted machineguns on tanks. They rarely if ever scored any hit on ground attack aircraft, but it was good for crew morale to have the feeling of being able to fight back (and might cause the attacker to perform likely unnecessary evasive maneuvers and mess up his aim).
    – vsz
    Apr 11, 2022 at 6:13
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Well, the question in your title is not the question in the body...

But, for the question in your title, certainly the German army and air force wanted to do harm to those soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk. Of course. War.

The question of soldiers' obligations to (or prohibition from) shooting at airplanes attacking them is different. Given the general ineffectiveness of shooting rifles at airplanes (both inability to judge lead, and the small calibre making just very small holes in big sheets of metal), it'd be more sensible for people under air attack to get down and cover their heads.

Again, there are two fundamental reasons why shooting rifles at airplanes is not effective. (And, no, it's not so much that you'll miss and the slug will come down again...) First, it is insanely hard to judge lead time. This is why already anti-aircraft batteries operated primarily by humans do not hit so many planes. Second, even with large-ish calibre rifles, the little holes they'd make in nearly all parts of an airplane would be harmless. Sure, there are some spots that would really matter, but not so many... especially considering the typical armor-ing of vulnerable parts thinking of larger-calibre attacks.

But, sure, why not shoot at the enemy? I might not be able to resist, either, even though I have an idea of the probable futility. :)

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    The advantage of targeting a dive bomber is that they tend to be heating straight towards you, so you don't need to worry about lead time and the collision velocity of the bullet is higher.
    – DrMcCleod
    Apr 8, 2022 at 9:47
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    Regarding small calibre being "harmless": this is a bit of a red herring in context I think, as in 1940 it was still seen as sufficient for fighters to be primarily armed with rifle-calibre MGs. It was becoming apparent that more was needed - most air forces were adding higher calibre guns at this point - but guns of this size weren't seem as harmless per se. Apr 8, 2022 at 11:44
  • @Andrew : those which had rifle-calibre guns, had a whole bunch of them, often 6 or 8, and used at relatively close ranges, using tracers. Compare that to a bolt-action rifle firing the same bullet (without tracer).
    – vsz
    Apr 11, 2022 at 6:14
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To answer the 1st question:

Yes, this, has probably happened sometimes at Dunkirk since there were German airplanes and British riflemen there. Given their numbers, this might have been a frequent behaviour. However, this does not mean that this was the main issue that German airplanes had to face at Dunkirk.

The movie Dunkirk conveys the false idea of an empty beach on which soldiers were waiting passively, under fire, to be evacuated. The reality of Dunkirk is that:

  • Beaches were full of men and material, including anti aircraft guns and machine guns that would be more effective than rifles at shooting down aircrafts
  • There was heavy land fighting at the beginning especially, with the Germans trying to break through. They were repelled by French and British, and thus relied on the Luftwaffe
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Don't forget that early in WW2, a lot of WW1 thinking was still current, both officially and with individual officers/NCOs.

In WW1, rifles were used against aircraft; there were even special adaptations. Of course that was generally meant to be massed rifles. Th expected targets were also very slow aircraft by WW2 or even modern standards, but aircraft got a lot faster just prior to WW2 and armies always seem to train to fight the last war.

Coming to WW2, there were devices used to train riflemen in leading fast-moving targets, including (from their instructions) aircraft. This demonstrates that aimed rifle fire was still expected in an AA role.

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