As the Second World War came to a close, the British people turned their attention to the general election. Labour was in the perfect position. Its social and economic policies were well-suited to a Britain wounded by six years of conflict. Furthermore, the party was no longer constrained by the wartime coalition. Unfortunately, Labour would not “face the future” in a position of power. Winston Churchill, the conservatives, and their allies in parliament achieved a slim majority. With his office secure for the next five years, Churchill chose to focus on an old enemy: Russia. It soon became clear that Soviet promises of democracy in eastern Europe were worthless. The westward encroachment of Stalinist totalitarianism reinvigorated fears of world communism, and Churchill soon found allies in parliament. His role in the creation of the Soviet sphere was conveniently ignore. Despite Churchill’s growing hostility towards the Soviet Union, Britain was in no position to face Soviet forces in Europe. The nation was broke and all plans for war were considered infeasible. To make matters worse, American forces were being demobilised rapidly. Operation Unthinkable was extremely risky. Without American support, it was suicide. Peace would reign in the final months of 1945.
As relations between the Soviet Union and Britain deteriorated, so too did the Soviet-American relationship. Soviet troops refused to withdraw from Iran in 1946. That same year, the United States supported Turkey’s position in the Turkish Straits crisis. In 1947, pressure from the United States encouraged the governments of France and Italy to exclude communist parties from their respective legislatures. The ‘percentages agreement’ of 1944 then broke down with the arrival of Soviet aid in communist-controlled areas of Greece. Tensions between the West and East came to a head in June 1948. While discussing the Soviet blockade of Berlin with Truman, Churchill pushed for war. These meetings were held in private, but Churchill’s position was shared by fervent anti-communist elements in America. Truman favoured a policy of containment and stood his ground, choosing to airlift supplies into Berlin. However, in the months that followed, Truman wavered in the face of domestic pressure. In September, Truman endorsed an aggressive USAFE plan. Strategic bombers would strike Soviet bases in eastern Europe while the army opened a land route to Berlin. Hostilities would commence on the 15th of March.
The United States and its allies in Europe were unprepared for a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Nuclear strikes against critical Soviet bases were initially successful. The Red Army was paralysed, allowing an Anglo-American armoured force to reach Berlin in two weeks. However, the supply of nuclear weapons was limited, and the Soviet Union soon pushed back hard. In many cases, their forces were superior in quality and number. Soviet forces had pioneered the mass issuing of automatic weapons in Berlin four years earlier. Weapons like the SKS and the PPS-43 were soon joined by the new AK-47. British forces urgently required a replacement for the No. 4 rifle. As a bolt-action rifle, it was arguably obsolescent at the start of the Second World War. The EM-2 was already in development, but it was too complicated for immediate mass production. The British Army needed a solution without delay, and the Ministry of Supply turned to the home of the STEN.
Working under the direction of Harold Turpin, a team at the Sterling Armaments Company developed a new rifle in record time. It was of tubular construction, like the company’s earlier Patchett and STEN submachine guns. However, it employed a direct-impingement gas system. This meant the design was substantially more complex than the Patchett or STEN. However, the weapon was to be an assault rifle and the envisioned cartridge was considered too powerful. The locking surfaces of the bolt were triangular in an effort to reduce cost and production time. The bolt itself telescoped within a bolt carrier. When firing, a cam rotated the bolt as the carrier moved backward under gas pressure. These two components were then free to recoil backward. The barrel was taken directly from the No. 5 rifle. The chamber was shortened, and a hole was drilled for the gas port. It was otherwise identical. The pistol grip and trigger were originally developed for the Sten Mk V, though the trigger mechanism itself was different. A selector switch was provided for semi-automatic and automatic fire, while a cross bolt safety was employed. Ammunition was fed from a twenty-round box magazine on the left side of the weapon and empty cases ejected on the right. The rifle had no handguard or foregrip. Instead, a canvas sleeve was provided which wrapped around the barrel shroud and gas tube. Basic disassembly was accomplished by depressing a spring-loaded pin near the point where the stock met the receiver. This allowed the stock to be rotate 90 degrees anti-clockwise and removed. This exposed the trigger mechanism. The cap of the buffer tube could then be unscrewed, revealing the recoil spring for removal. Removing the charging handle on the right side of the weapon allowed the bolt and bolt carrier to be removed after the trigger assembly was removed.
A new cartridge was developed in parallel at Radway Green. It incorporated lessons learned by the Ideal Cartridge Panel but used the existing .303 case as a starting point. It was dimensionally identical to .303 except at the rear, where the case was shortened. This allowed the cartridge to be used with existing barrels if the chamber was shortened, reducing the amount of re-tooling required in turn. The rim of the .303 was dropped in favour of a rimless design. While this decision led to smoother feeding, headspacing was an issue throughout the service life the Turpin. The Radway Green cartridge was adopted under the designation ‘Cartridge S.A. Ball, .303 Inch (Automatic), Mark 1’ and was later designated ‘7.7mm Ball L2A1’. However, the name ‘.303 Auto’ was coined soon after its introduction and has stuck ever since.
The Sterling rifle entered service in September 1949 as the ‘Turpin Machine Carbine Mark 1’. One thousand rifles were rushed to British troops in Belgium. Unfortunately, the available ammunition was expended in less than a week. This shortage lasted until November. By Christmas, a simple spike bayonet was introduced to replace the existing bayonet which had been borrowed from No. 5 rifle. Several flaws were discovered in the first months of operational service. During periods of extended automatic fire, the bolt carrier was known to crack. This occurred after the expenditure of several thousand rounds, but no doubt caused the death of several soldiers in the field. The canvas sleeve protecting the user’s hand was often lost and did little to insulate against heat. Welding quality was generally poor, though it was only considered insufficient in the case of early Enfield-manufactured rifles. The Turpin’s accuracy was adequate, but it was rather poor when compared to the No. 4 rifle. The twist-rate of the barrel was not well-suited to the .303 Auto cartridge. Despite these flaws, the Turpin supplanted the No. 4 wherever possible. By February 1950, a modified version of the Bren firing the .303 Auto cartridge was introduced.
The tide of war eventually turned against the Soviet Union. Oil production decreased substantially after the oil fields in Romania and Azerbaijan were bombed with nuclear weapons. The liberation of northern Iran by British and Indian forces limited oil further. While never able to completely suppress Soviet airpower, the air forces of the West became increasingly dominant in the skies over Europe. The mobility of Soviet armour also waned as oil was held in reserve for a massive counter-attack which would take place as hostile forces entered the Soviet Union. The ruins of Berlin were re-captured in June 1950. In September, the Soviet Union deployed its own nuclear weapons against the armies of the West. Ten devices were detonated, demonstrating the Soviet Union’s ability to mass-produce nuclear weapons and deploy them against real targets. A ceasefire was declared in October. The resulting peace agreement ended the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany. However, it also gave the Soviet government free reign over Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. The political independence of these states was severely curtailed in the years that followed. Stalin and his successors would extract whatever possible from these countries in preparation for a future war with the West which never occurred.
In 1956, a new version of the Turpin was introduced. This was initially known as the ‘Turpin Machine Carbine Mark 2’, but this name was soon superseded by the alphanumeric ‘L1A2’ designation. Similarly, the Mark 1 became the ‘L1A1’. The new version resolved many of the issues that had been encountered during the Soviet war, and manufacturing quality was generally much higher. A proper handguard was introduced alongside a more comfortable pistol grip. The gas tube, susceptible to damage, was encapsulated in a second tube. The old No. 5 rifle bayonet was reintroduced, replacing the austere spike design. New barrels were produced with a twist rate ideal for the .303 Auto cartridge. The cross-bolt safety was replaced with a third position on the fire selector switch. An adjustable flip-up rear sight was also introduced, superseding the original two-position design. The L1A2 remained in frontline service until 1987 when it was withdrawn in favour of a new bullpup design firing a small-calibre, high-velocity round. Several changes were introduced over the years, including a new flash hider and plastic furniture. However, these improved rifles retained the L1A2 designation. The L1A2 was sold to a number of Commonwealth countries and is still used by Indian police.