Weapons of War – Sten Submachine Gun
Adam Headley describes the development and service history of the famed family of submachine guns from the Royal Arms Factory.
Born from the exigencies of war, cheap to produce and the focus of a love-hate relationship with those who carried it, the ubiquitous Sten submachine gun served with British and Commonwealth troops in all theatres of World War Two. It was the automatic weapon of choice for covert operations and many were airdropped into the hands of partisans and special operations personnel behind enemy lines.
Perhaps the most famous use – or failed use – of the Sten occurred in occupied Czechoslovakia when agents executed Operation Anthropoid. The Czech operatives involved were trained assassins, schooled in the art of wartime murder by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Their target was the infamous Butcher of Prague, Reichsführer Reinhard Heydrich, bloodhound of the Nazi SS and recently appointed Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia.
Since his appointment by Führer Adolf Hitler in mid-1941, Heydrich had ruled Czechoslovakia with an iron fist, rounding up dissidents and ordering mass deportations and executions. Edvard Beneš, president of the Czech government-in-exile in London, believed his country was teetering on the brink of full absorption into the Third Reich and ordered a bold stroke to assure the Czech people that resistance would remain effective even though harsh retribution could be expected if the assassination of the high value target were successful.
Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, volunteer sergeants from the Free Czechoslovak Army, parachuted into their home country in the early morning darkness of December 29, 1941. They were armed with two primary weapons, the powerful modified No.73 anti-tank grenade and the 9mm Sten gun, lightweight, rather small and easily concealed. The assassins would strike Heydrich as he rode to his office in the capital city of Prague in his dark green Mercedes convertible. At an opportune time Gabčík would step into the street, and a torrent of bullets from the Sten gun would do the job, while the grenades would serve as backup if needed.
The pair spent the next few months lying low, making contacts and preparing for the attack. On the morning of May 27, 1942, Gabčík leaped into the roadway near Trolley Stop No.14 and pulled the trigger of his Sten as Heydrich passed. Click! Click! There was no fusillade of 9mm fire. The Sten had jammed, as it was prone to do. Kubiš lobbed a grenade that fatally wounded Heydrich, but both assassins and their accomplices were later cornered and perished. Bloody reprisals followed, but the butcher was dead in a clear statement of Czech resolve.
Prelude to the Sten
Although its performance during the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich was not the finest hour of the famed Sten gun, the weapon was a mainstay of the British and Commonwealth armed forces during World War Two. Both praised and cursed, the service life of the Sten actually extended into the 1960s and more than four million were manufactured both in Britain and Canada in numerous variants, or marks.
“Both praised and cursed, the service life of the Sten actually extended into the 1960s”
The evolution of the submachine gun had reached an operational milestone during World War One as the need to augment the firepower of the infantry rifle at the squad level was realised. German designers took the early lead with their introduction of the world’s first blowback-operated submachine gun, the Bergmann MP-18. During the interwar years, the Germans produced the MP-28, MP-34 and MP-36, followed by the iconic MP-38 and MP-40 designs.
The emergence of British-manufactured submachine guns during World War Two was driven largely by the loss of weapons and equipment abandoned in France when the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated at Dunkirk in the spring of 1940. Until that difficult time, the British Army had largely fielded the American-made Thompson submachine gun, purchasing these well-known weapons in large quantities.
The initial British-produced submachine gun of the war years was the Lanchester, manufactured mainly at the Sterling Arms Company in Dagenham. Named for its designer, George Lanchester, the 9mm weapon was a virtual copy of the German MP-28, firing up to 600 rounds per minute from a 32- or 50-round box magazine. Nearly 100,000 Lanchesters were produced between 1941 and 1945, primarily for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel responsible for security at ground installations. Although the Lanchester shared many common components with the standard-issue Lee-Enfield infantry rifle, its manufacturing process was complicated and the gun could not be produced in sufficient quantity.
The Stunning Sten
In the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation, The British Army was unable to purchase enough American Thompsons to reequip its combat troops. The situation was exacerbated by the difficulties encountered in the production of the Lanchester. Therefore, the Royal Small Arms Factory, f Enfield was charged with the development of a reliable, rapidly produced, and cost-effective alternative.
The result, for better and for worse, was the Sten gun, perhaps the most recognisable of small arms in the British arsenal during World War Two. Although the weapon was conceived after thorough study and evaluation of captured German MP-40 submachine guns, British designers Major Reginald V Shepherd, inspector of armaments at the Ministry of Supply Design Department of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich and Harold John Turpin, senior draughtsman of the Design Department, Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, are credited with the development of the Sten gun. In fact, the weapon’s name incorporates the first letters of the designers’ last names and the first two letters of the Enfield factory, where it was largely produced.
“The weapon’s name incorporates the first letters of the designers’ last names and the first two letters of the Enfield factory, where it was largely produced”
Like the Lanchester, the blowback, open bolt Sten gun was easily recognised with its 32-round detachable box magazine that loaded from the left side. Relatively light at 7.1 pounds (3.2 kg) empty, it weighed only 9 pounds (4.08 kg) fully loaded. It fired the 9mm Parabellum pistol cartridge at a rate of up to 600 rounds per minute and an effective range up to 110 yards (100m). The prototype Sten, designated the Mk.I, was handmade by Turpin at the Philips Radio Works, Perivale, Middlesex in late 1940 and early 1941. Its workmanship was admirable with a wooden foregrip, forward handle and portion of the stock. However, rapid production was critical as a Nazi cross-Channel invasion was expected.
Therefore, the time element and a measure of quality that had been afforded to the Lanchester were abandoned for production expediency. About 100,000 Mk.I variants were manufactured, incorporating a flash hider, which was discarded along with the wooden components in the later production Mk.Is. As manufacturing ramped up, the only machined parts of the Sten were the barrel and the bolt. Some early springs were obtained from hardware stores rather than made with precision by gunsmiths. Soon enough, the Sten was being manufactured with only 47 stamped and pressed metal components, welded together and sometimes stacked loosely in piles as factory workers laboured at breakneck speed. The slag was filed off, but that was the end of the finish niceties.
The Sten was defended and scorned in equal measures by the soldiers who carried it into battle; however, its firepower was overwhelming in close quarters, but it gained a reputation for unpredictable performance in the field. Although it provided ample fire support, the Sten tended to stick, particularly when the gun was dirty from prolonged use or the magazine interface was even slightly damaged. The Sten also had the nasty habit of sometimes firing uncontrollably in fully automatic mode after simply being jarred or bumped.
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