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British Army - Brigades

The brigade has been a key component of British Armies for centuries. A Brigade is a party or division of a body of soldiers, whether horse or foot, under the command of a brigadier. An army at the time of the Napoleonic Wars was divided into brigades of horse and brigades of foot: a brigade of horse was a body of eight or ten squadrons; a brigade of foot consisted of four, five, or six battalions, each of from 500 to 800 men. The eldest brigade had the right of the first line, and the second the right of the second, and the two next took the left of the two lines, and the youngest stood in the center.

A Brigadier was is the general officer who had the command of a brigade. The eldest colonels were generally advanced to this post. Brigadier-general was an appointment given to a senior colonel or lieutenant colonel, who was in command of more than one regiment; in other words, a brigade. The appointment lasted only as long as the officer was in command. He that was upon duty was brigadier of the day. They marched at the head of their own brigades, and were allowed a Serjeant and ten men, of their own brigade for their guard. A Brigade major was an officer appointed by the brigadier, to assist him in the management and ordering of his brigade.

The term brigade itself first entered the English language, like most military terms, from the French language. The word is first attested in the 15th century as a term for a larger military unit than the squadron or regiment and was first adopted when English armies began to consist of formations larger than a single regiment. The term’s origin is found in two French roots, which together meant roughly “those who fight.” The roots are the French verb brigare, meaning “to brawl” or “fight,” which was in turn from the late Latin word briga, which meant “strife” or “contention,” and the suffix –ade, which was a French adaptation of a suffix found in various other Romance languages, such as Provençal, which came from a form of the Latin past participle. In French the suffix came to have the meaning “the body concerned in an action or process.” Therefore, the original meaning of the term brigade would be something like “the body concerned with brawling or fighting.”

The force structure of the Army had always been a target of tinkering and major readjustments. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the level of the brigade. For most of the history of the Army, the brigade was a temporary wartime expedient organization led by a general officer.

In the mid-1970s tactical arguments persuaded the Germans to remodel their army on the brigade system at a time when British defense cuts did away with brigade headquarters. Mobile de fence presented vivid difficulties of command and control. The tactical brigade area may be some 15 kilometers wide and 40 kilometers deep. One British Corps commanded three divisions, two artillery brigades and the corps troops. Each division had two brigades, each of four major units, armored and infantry.

As described in June 1975, the brigade level of command would be removed, but in order to avoid too many subordinates under one commander, changes would also be made at the divisional level. We shall in future have four armored divisions, each rather smaller than the present three divisions, and a fifth field force consisting largely of infantry. By cutting out the brigade level of command, the number of major headquarters would be reduced from 12 to seven. Each of the new divisions would contain armored and reconnaissance regiments, mechanized infantry battalions, and artillery and engineer support. There would be five battle groups of armour and infantry, compared with four in the existing brigades. At unit level, there would be four squadrons in each armored regiment, and four companies in each infantry battalion, instead of three.

The May 1976 plan involved a radical reconstruction of 1 (British) Corps, which would replace the three divisions by four rather smaller new-style armored divisions. In the United Kingdom, with the elimination of the brigade level of command, Regular and Reserve forces would come under the command of 10 district headquarters. Three of these would provide a new kind of formation to meet our war-time commitments. These formations are to be known as field forces — a new name for a new kind of organization. Each field force would have five infantry battalions and support arms appropriate to its role.

The existing six brigade headquarters would disappear. The new-style armored divisions would exercise direct command of infantry and armored battlegroups which would contain four sub-units [aka battalions] rather than the previous three, and would concentrate on specialist and support functions. As a result of these changes, it was envisaged that the number of basic combat teams in the corps would be increased by a quarter, including those in a totally new formation, to be known as the 5th Field Force. This new formation would be created from within present levels of manpower. Battlegroups would be mixed units of armour and infantry in which the existing infantry battalions and armored regiments were deployed on operations and by combat teams, company-sized subunits of mixed infantry and armour.

The 7th Field Force was also to be operational by April 1978. It constituted the major formation required to place BAOR on a full war footing, and would be supplemented on general reinforcement with a large number of separate units and individual reinforcements. By the time that restructuring was complete, the number of general reinforcements sent to BAOR should be significantly increased. Home defense was to be the responsibility of the 8th Field Force, which would be operational by April 1977.

The abolition of brigade level of command in Germany was a disaster in practice. Moreover, it created vast turbulence for nothing. The system of task force groups which took the place of brigades in BAOR started off as a skeleton arrangement comprising a garrison brigadier and one or two people with him. But it was found that it was not possible to carry on operations for any length of time with so skeleton a force. They were gradually added to. The field exercises carried out in the autumn of 1976 thoroughly justified criticisms in 1974 of the plan to do away with brigade headquarters altogether. This scheme, put forward in the defense review, might have worked in 1980 if the right communication equipment were available then. It could never work with the signals equipment available in the 1970s.

The 1977 Defence White Paper provided what some thought was a tongue-in-cheek obituary of the great defense review reorganization when it said: "The results of these trials have generally validated the reorganization plans although a number of modifications have proved necessary, chiefly in the arrangements for command and control within the division. Each new armored divisional headquarters will be given the capability of deploying, when required, two tactical command posts to exercise direct operational command of battle-groups. The command posts will be known as Task Force Headquarters when they are deployed." This was, no doubt, to get away from any possible idea that they might be brigade headquarters. The paragraph continued: "They will be headed by brigadiers who in peacetime will be garrison commanders." The weakness of the new plan was the lack of training. The old brigades exercised together. The ad hoc battle groups with their garrison commanders would not.

Anthony Kershaw (MP from Stroud), noted on 19 April 1977 that "One of the problems was the officers who command. They were to be the garrison commanders. But a good garrison commander should come from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps or from the Royal Engineers. They know how to run garrisons. A good commander in a battle situation does not necessarily find himself chosen from those corps, and he would probably be an appalling garrison commander. The gallant cavalry brigadier knows nothing about maintaining vehicles or about pay and would probably make a real "horlicks" of garrison commanding. On the other hand, the garrison commander who knows all about pay could not be counted on to make a real success of commanding a perfectly strange group which the poor fellow had never seen before taking over, apparently almost in the middle of a battle. He would have to be Alexander the Great to make anything at all of it."

The proven failure of task force headquarters, below divisional level, in place of brigade headquarters, was a very cheeseparing one. By 1980 many thought it would be much better to revert to the old command system, with brigade headquarters properly constituted, rather than the proposal of embroidering divisional headquarters with two brigadiers who apparently would have no permanent staff.

In January 1981, the British Army restored the badly missed brigade level of command within its armored and infantry divisions. The Army Board reintroduced the title of brigade into the British Army of the Rhine on 1 January 1981 and into United Kingdom Land Forces on 1 January 1982. Before then the division commander had a very broad and inefficient span of control over a large number of mechanized infantry battalions and armored regiments (battalions). Yet even with this change in command echelons, the regimental system still drove British organizational design and influenced the reconnaissance force structure within the division.

The brigades of an armored division, usually organized with triangular mix of tank regiments and mechanized infantry battalions, did not normally have a dedicated reconnaissance element. Instead, as in the US brigade, the battalions had their own reconnaissance platoons of eight Scimitar or Scorpion light tracked scout vehicles. Within the infantry divisions, however, the reconnaissance structure was somewhat more comprehensive. Brigades each had an organic reconnaissance regiment (battalion) equipped with Fox, Saracen and Ferret wheeled scout cars which doubled as the brigade's armor battalion. The infantry battalions also had wheeled vehicle-mounted scout platoons.

The locations and numbers of the brigade headquarters in the United Kingdom, some of which would move to Germany in war, were:

1st Infantry Brigade Tidworth
2nd Infantry Brigade Shorncliffe
2nd Signals Brigade Aldershot
5 Infantry Brigade Aldershot
8 Infantry Brigade Londonderry
11 Signals Brigade Liverpool
12 Signals Brigade London
15 Infantry Brigade Topcliffe
19 Infantry Brigade Colchester
23 Artillery Brigade Chester
29 Engineer Brigade Newcastle
30 Engineer Brigade Stafford
39 Infantry Brigade Lisburn
49 Infantry Brigade Chilwell
51 Highland Brigade Perth
52 Lowland Brigade Edinburgh

In order to improve the command and control arrangements for Home Defence, two new brigade headquarters were established on 1 January 1983. These were 42 Infantry Brigade at Chester and 54 Infantry Brigade at Grantham. The numbers allocated to brigades in Germany were 4, 6, 7, 11, 12, 20, 22, 24 and 33; 24 Brigade was re-located to the United Kingdom in March 1983.

The UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) set a new headmark for the UK’s Armed Forces: Joint Force 2025. Building on the changes of Army 2020, the British Army will be rebalanced to enhance it’s ability to generate a division capable of undertaking high-end combat operations while further reinforcing the Army’s contribution to domestic resilience and overseas engagement. The Army will move from having three armored infantry brigades, one ready at any time, to two armored infantry brigades and two new Strike Brigades, with one of each held at readiness. The Army will also reconfigure a number of infantry battalions to provide an increased contribution to countering terrorism and building stability overseas. They will conduct Defence Engagement and capacity building, providing training, assistance, advice and mentoring to UK partners. The Strike Brigades will be equipped with the new Ajax tracked vehicle family and a new Mechanised Infantry Vehicle.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2016 20:08:46 ZULU