“Men With Tails”: The Denison Smock

History of the Denison Smock

Russia pioneered the use of military parachuting in the 1930’s, but it was the Germans who first used this new method of warfare in actual combat.  Prime Minister Churchill called for the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in June, 1940, inspired by the enemy’s successful use of glider and parachute troops during the invasion of Holland and Belgium.  Because the British were starting from the ground up, early Airborne equipment was often based on German designs.  The first British paratroopers wore a cotton gabardine garment officially termed “Jacket, Parachutist’s”, which was often called a “jump jacket” or sometimes a “step-in smock”.  It had full sleeves but only short legs, and a 3/4 length zip closure.  This item was worn over the standard wool battledress.  The British item was nearly identical to the German version, and troops of both nations called such a garment a “bone sack”.

Bruneval IWM

February, 1942:  men from C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, returning from the raid against the German radar installation at Bruneval, France.  Two of the men wear the “Jacket, Parachutist’s”; by the end of 1942, this item was replaced with the Denison smock.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The British determined that this item was not entirely suitable and developed a new airborne garment:  the famous Denison smock, officially named the “Smock, Denison (Airborne Troops)”.  Like its predecessor, it was intended to be worn over wool battledress.  It was designed in 1941, and was officially adopted and entered production in 1942.  While the Denison was designed with parachute troops in mind, it was also issued to glider troops.

The Denison was a true smock, in that it was pulled over the head.  There was a large opening that closed with a zipper, along with a collar lined in wool flannel.  The Denison was made from heavy cotton twill to make it windproof; its primary purpose was to keep the soldier warm during the flight and the parachute descent.  Unfortunately, however, it was not waterproof, and tended to get quite heavy in the rain.  Once on the ground, it was intended as a practical combat uniform.  As such, it was the first officially-sanctioned British item of dress to be camouflaged.  For the earliest versions, camouflage fabric was not available; sand-colored cloth was hand-painted with green and brown patches, using mops or large brushes.  This camouflage method was developed by Major Denison, for whom the garment was named.  Not surprisingly, the paint tended to wash out; eventually, screen-printed camouflage material was produced, but the brush-stroke effect was retained.  Each bolt of camouflage fabric was slightly different from the next.

AFPU Arnhem IWM

September, 1944:  Sergeants Smith, Walker and Lewis of the Army Film and Photographic Unit, who had been attached to 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The smock had four external patch pockets which closed with a snap or press stud, with the upper pair set at an angle; there were also two internal pockets.  There was a pair of shoulder straps or epaulettes, each held down by a green plastic button.  There were two tightening tabs at the bottom of the smock, and ventilation holes under the arms.  One of the most distinctive features of the garment was a flap attached to the back hem and snapped up between the legs to the front of the smock; the end of the flap had a pair of male snaps, and there were three pairs of female snaps at the front to allow some adjustment.  The purpose of this item was to keep the smock in place during the jump; it was to reduce the smock from filling with air and getting pulled up over the wearer’s head.  While this piece was more properly known as a crutch flap, the troops invariably named it some form of tail:  the terms “monkey tail”, “ape tail”, “donkey tail” and “beaver tail” are all documented.

12th Battalion Normandy IWM

June, 1944:  Soldiers from 12th Parachute Battalion, 6th Airborne Division, in Normandy.  Note the “ape tail” hanging down behind the kneeling man.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The original Denison smocks had tapered sleeves that ended in elasticized knit cuffs.  Like the crutch flap, the knit cuffs were intended to keep the garment from filling with air and causing problems during the parachute drop.

Officers wore their rank insignia on the shoulder straps of the Denison; NCO’s typically wore their rank chevrons on the right sleeve only.  Paratrooper’s jump wings were also worn on the right sleeve, while glider pilots wore their wings on the left breast.  No additional insignia was worn on the smock.

Eventually, a second pattern of smock was developed.  The sleeves of this second pattern smock were straighter and lacked the knit cuffs; instead, there was a tightening tab above the wrist.  This button-cuff variant proved less popular with the troops, and many of these Denisons were modified by having sock tops attached to the sleeves as an improvised knit cuff.  The second pattern smock was somewhat darker in color than the first pattern; the base fabric was light green rather than tan, with the green and brown blotches darker as well.  That said, most original smocks are quite faded, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the colors of one pattern from the other.

One problem with the first pattern smock was that no provision was given regarding the ape tail after the drop.  Soldiers were expected to either keep the tail snapped up between their legs or tuck it up behind the waist belt of the webbing equipment.  Neither approach was very satisfactory; keeping the flap between the legs tended to restrict movement, and tactical movement also negated the alternative, as it tended to pull the tail out from under the waist belt.  Some soldiers cut the tail off their smocks, while others found some method of pinning it up behind them.  In this respect, the second pattern smock was an improvement, in that a pair of press studs was added to the small of the back so the tail could be kept up out of the way; this also gave a more dignified, military appearance.

Late in the war, some officers, who purchased their own uniforms and were afforded a certain amount of customization, had their smocks made with a full-length zip.  Similarly, a large number of smocks were converted to a full-zip configuration after the war.

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Original Denison smock.  The colors of this smock are remarkable, as most original Denisons are significantly more faded than this.  The full-length zip is a postwar modification.  Photo by “Battery Sergeant Major” of one of the smocks in his personal collection.

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Detail from the above photo, showing the elasticized knit cuff.

The Denison smock was first used operationally by 1st Parachute Brigade in Tunisia, beginning in November 1942.  The smock proved enormously popular with the entire Brigade.  One of the few complaints, however, was that the desert sand tended to clog the zipper and cause it to break; many surviving Denisons show evidence of having the zip replaced at some point.  According to some sources, the earliest smocks had steel zippers; later brass zippers tended to be more durable.  When Major-General F.A.M. Browning visited the Brigade in December, 1942, he kept a detailed diary; attached was an appendix with his notes on the equipment used by the Brigade during the Airborne Forces’ first large-scale operations.

Major-General Browning’s Diary of his Visit to North Africa, December 1942
Appendix:  Weapons and Equipment

Camouflage smocks.  Have been an outstanding success and are much envied by the rest of the Army.  They would be better if more waterproofing is possible.  They require a belt of some kind if worn without equipment on patrol as they are loose-fitting but string tied round the waist is good enough.

(As quoted in Tunisian Tales by Niall Cherry)

During 2nd Parachute Battalion’s operation against the airfields at Oudna and Depienne, the enemy called on fighter aircraft to make strafing attacks.  However, the fighters completely missed the British positions.  The Officer Commanding, Lt. Col. John Frost, credited this escape to the camouflage afforded by the Denison smock, and other members of the Battalion agreed.  Later, Frost wrote in his autobiography about the Denison’s crutch flap.

A Drop Too Many
By Major General John Frost

We were the only troops out there who wore camouflaged smocks.  These smocks had a fork piece which was meant to be fastened in the front by two press studs.  These studs had a way of getting damaged or torn off and then the fork pieces hung down behind in a most unmilitary manner like a tail.  This much amused the Arabs, and despite all our other distinctive characteristics, they always referred to us as ‘the men with tails’.

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Another Denison smock owned by “Battery Sergeant Major”; the colors of this example are also in remarkable condition.  Note the “ape tail” at the bottom of the smock.

After these early experiences, Airborne Forces continued to expand, with every man issued a Denison smock.  This item particularly captured the attention of the British people with 6th Airborne Division’s successes in Normandy, followed by 1st Airborne’s heroic, but doomed, battle at Arnhem.  During the winter of 1944/45, the Denison smock was issued to the Commandos.

Reenacting Tips

For anyone choosing to reenact as British Airborne, the Denison smock is the most distinctive, and therefore most important, part of the impression.  Great care should be taken in choosing a Denison, and this is an item where the new reenactor should be willing to pay a little extra for a quality item.

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Photo by “Sedgwick Fairfax” of an original second pattern Denison smock in his collection.  The base color is greener than the smocks pictured above.  The wool flannel lining the collar is also clearly visible.

When I first started reenacting as 1st Airborne twenty years ago, reproduction Denison smocks were a new item, and only two or three companies made them.  Many of the more experienced members of my unit were still wearing originals.  Original Denison smocks have always been prized collector’s items, and now they are very expensive; additionally, originals at this point should be preserved and not exposed to the rigors of simulated combat.

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Detail of the button cuff from the above second pattern Denison.

Fortunately, there are now many reproductions available.  This article is not intended to endorse or condemn any one specific product, so no company names will be listed here.  Instead, the reenactor should look for muted colors; the biggest flaw with many reproductions is that the colors are much too vivid.  Secondly, because the Denison was designed to be worn over battledress, the fit should be long, loose, and baggy.  Additionally, reenactors should avoid smocks with a full-length zip.

Postscript

When I decided to write about this topic, I thought it would be an easy item to research.  However, many of the normal sources on the British Airborne Forces had little information on the development of the Denison smock.  Worse, the sources that did include detail tended to contradict each other, forcing me to try to sort fact from conjecture.  Fortunately, two of my close friends who own original Denison smocks were willing to help and provided detailed photographs for me to study; this article would not have been possible without their enormous assistance.  Additionally, the website of the Airborne Assault Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire (www.paradata.org.uk) was an excellent resource.  There is a book dedicated to the Denison that was published in conjunction with the Museum a few years ago, but it was a very limited release and I have been unable to acquire a copy; I will keep trying.

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Cold Steel: The Fairbairn Sykes Fighting Knife

The Second World War was a remarkable period of technological advancement. At its outbreak, some nations were still flying biplanes; by the end of the war, the first jets were being produced. The first true computer was invented as a tool for decrypting enemy cyphers. And yet, one of the most symbolic items from the period is the Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife, a dagger that is nearly Medieval in appearance.

The early stages of the war saw a series of disasters for Great Britain and her allies. In April, 1940, the British and French launched a failed campaign in Norway to resist the German invasion. In May, Germany conquered France and the Low Countries, and the British were forced to withdraw from the European continent via the port of Dunkirk. Hitler then threatened to cross the English Channel and invade Britain.

Despite the menace of invasion, newly-appointed Prime Minister Churchill felt it was dangerous to take a purely defensive stance. Churchill insisted that Britain retain an aggressive spirit and the ability to strike back, even if on a limited scale. He recalled his time as a journalist covering the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). The Boers had used fast-moving equestrian raiding parties to harass and demoralize the much-better equipped British; the Afrikaans name for such a raiding party was Kommando.

In June, 1940, Churchill called on the War Office to create their own Commandos. These would be sea-borne raiding units who would launch surprise attacks all along the enemy-held coastline. The new Commando organization was to recruit highly motivated men, give them intensive training, and instill in them a spirit of aggression and determination.

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A British Commando during training, 1942.  While this method of carrying the knife looked very dramatic for the camera, this was only done in very limited circumstances.  Photo courtesy the Imperial War Museum.

The Commandos became famous for their spectacular operations. They destroyed high-value targets, such as the fish oil factories in Norway; glycerin, which was extracted from fish oil, was needed by the Germans to produce high explosives. Perhaps the greatest of the Commando raids was the destruction of the massive drydocks at St. Nazaire, France. Additionally, the raiders gathered intelligence and tested enemy strength and defensive capabilities. By striking up and down the coastline of occupied Europe, the Commandos forced the Germans to allocate men and materiel to static defense that would otherwise have been available for offensive operations. Possibly most important of all, the raids captured the imagination of the British people, and helped to bolster their morale during what otherwise were very dark days.

Two men were instrumental in the early training of the Commandos: William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes. These two had been friends and colleagues for many years, and the Commandos could not have chosen anyone better to conduct their training.

Fairbairn had served in the Royal Marines; he left the service while stationed in Shanghai, where he joined the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP), which kept order in the Anglo-American International Settlement portion of the city. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Shanghai had a reputation as the most dangerous city in the world. Trade with the West brought wealth, but that in turn attracted corruption and organized crime. In addition, China was undergoing political turmoil; the struggles between the Nationalists and the Communists often spilled into Shanghai, resulting in street brawls and political assassinations. The officers and constables of the SMP were under constant threat of violence; in response, the department became one of the best-trained and most effective police forces in the world.

Fairbairn began as a constable, and rose through the ranks to Assistant Commissioner. He became a leading authority on hand-to-hand combat; he was one of the first Westerners to study Eastern martial arts, including judo, jiu-jitsu, and kung fu. He wrote books on close combat and self-defense; he created his own system called “Defendu”, which combined and simplified the best techniques from the Asian teachings. Fairbairn, naturally, was responsible for training the SMP constables in hand-to-hand fighting.

Sykes worked part-time for the SMP as a reservist. His primary occupation was as a sales agent for numerous well-known firearms manufacturers; he himself was an expert shot and often participated in shooting competitions. He was also rumored to have been an agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service, better known as M.I.6. Sykes founded the SMP’s Reserve Unit, which specialized in hostage rescue and forced entry against barricaded suspects. The Reserve Unit was the precursor to modern police S.W.A.T. units.

The two men believed that the knife was actually more effective in close combat than the firearm. They often discussed their ideas on knife-fighting techniques as well as the design elements needed for a good fighting knife. They worked with the SMP’s armory to create a handful of prototypes.

In 1940, Sykes and Fairbairn returned to England and offered their services to the British government in support of the war effort. They were both commissioned as Army Captains, and given the responsibility to train the newly-formed Commandos. They also trained the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), the organization responsible for sending agents into occupied Europe to perform sabotage and recruit resistance fighters. Once the United States entered the war, Fairbairn was sent to North America to train agents of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.).

In November, 1940, Sykes and Fairbairn met with John Wilkinson-Latham, the director of the famous Wilkinson Sword company, in order to discuss designs for a new Commando knife. The resulting design was influenced by the knives that Fairbairn and Sykes had experimented with in Shanghai, as well as earlier designs produced by Wilkinson. There were several elements that all had agreed upon: the blade needed to be at least 6 inches long to penetrate heavy clothing and still ensure damage to vital organs; the blade needed to be slender and double-edged; it needed to be well-balanced, preferably hilt-heavy; there must be a cross-guard; finally, the grip needed to be deeply-checkered to prevent slipping.

FS Knife

Line drawing of the original pattern of Fairbairn Sykes knife.  Note the etched ricasso and the S-curve of the cross-grip.  Drawing from All-In Fighting, by W.E. Fairbairn.

The first knives produced were magnificent weapons. The blades were 6 7/8 inches long; they were drop forged and hand-sharpened. The knife had a ricasso, that is, a flat, unsharpened section at the base of the blade; the ricasso was etched with the Wilkinson Sword logo on one side, and the legend “The F-S Fighting Knife” on the other. The grips were made of solid brass, turned on a lathe, and given a distinctive “palm swell” to the shape. The grips were then checkered by hand. The cross-guard was given a gentle S-curve, also shaped by hand. These beautifully-crafted weapons were almost entirely hand-made, and only entrusted to Wilkinson’s most experienced craftsmen.

Fairbairn preferred knives with a reflective finish; he felt that, in a face-to-face confrontation, simply flashing light off the blade would cause the opponent to lose heart and give up the fight. Accordingly, the early F-S knives had highly-polished blades, while the grips and cross-guards were nickel-plated.

Naturally, these hand-made knives were costly and time-consuming to produce. As more orders were placed for fighting knives, Wilkinson had to modify the design to increase production. The ricasso was eliminated, and the cross-guard lost its distinctive S-curve. Despite these modifications, Wilkinson could not keep up with demand, and other Sheffield knifemakers started to receive orders.

Despite Fairbairn’s theory about the psychological advantage to a shiny knife, his theory really only applied to a direct fight. Commando raids were conducted at night, and surprise was essential. While the Commandos were trained in knife fighting to instill aggressiveness, in actual operations the primary use of the knife was silently eliminating enemy sentries. Similarly, the S.O.E. only used their daggers for clandestine operations. The second pattern knives eliminated the nickel plating; the grips and cross-guards were instead blackened, and many blades were blackened as well.

Figs A - D Attacks

More drawings from All-In Fighting.  Figures A & B illustrate slashing at the enemy’s arm or wrist, generally an easier target than other parts of the body; a deep slash will cause sufficient blood loss to disorient the enemy.  Figures C & D illustrate the two best methods of eliminating a sentry:  deep thrusts to the carotid (Fig. C) and subclavian (Fig. D) arteries.  This was a gruesome business, and Commandos had to be thoroughly trained to overcome any squeamishness.

The design was modified for a third time, again to increase production. The blades were sharpened by machine, not hand; the entire knife was given a black finish. The biggest difference was with the grips. They were no longer made from brass, which was a vital war material, particularly for making ammunition casings; instead, the grips were die cast out of a zinc alloy. These new grips were cast with a ribbed design, eliminating the need for checkering.

As time went on, the F-S knife was issued to other elite units, including Airborne Forces and the Special Air Service. A number of the Commando units incorporated the dagger’s distinctive shape into their insignia.

The Fairbairn Sykes knife, often called a “Commando dagger”, became nearly as well-recognized by the civilian populace as the Spitfire fighter. It was a symbol of defiance, of fighting spirit, of taking the war to the enemy by any means necessary.

Despite the magnificence of the weapon, there were issues. Unlike the American Ka-Bar knife, the Fairbairn Sykes was only intended for fighting, and not to be used as a multiple-purpose tool. The slender, graceful blade was rather delicate, and a number of soldiers managed to break the tip off of theirs by opening tinned rations or otherwise abusing their knives.

FS Knife Cooper 2

FS Knife Cooper

The author’s Fairbairn Sykes knife, sheathed and unsheathed.  While this knife is of  postwar manufacture, it follows the third wartime pattern.  The cross-guard is marked “R. Cooper, Sheffield, England”.

There were other issues, as well, such as finding an effective method of carrying the knife. Each F-S knife came with a leather sheath. The sheaths did not provide a tight fit, so a retaining strap that closed with a snap or press-stud was added. This strap was soon replaced by an elastic band; unfortunately, the elastic wore out quickly, and many knives were lost.

The sheaths came with four tabs, which were intended to be sewn onto the leg of the battledress trousers. However, early Commandos soon cut the sheath back off the trousers the first time they had to do laundry, and some soldiers even removed the tabs from the sheaths entirely.

Paratroopers were issued with special trousers with an oversized thigh pocket for carrying weapons or equipment. These Trousers, Parachutists’, also included a long, narrow pocket behind the outside seam of the right leg; this special pocket was intended for the F-S knife. The knife was entirely encompassed by this pocket to prevent it falling out during a parachute jump. However, it was difficult to quickly draw the knife in a fight, and the F-S knife was too delicate to cut oneself out of a parachute harness if needed. Additionally, early paratroopers complained that the sheathed knife dug into the knee when climbing the rough terrain found in Tunisia.

There were two methods of carrying the knife that worked well. One was to obtain an extra bayonet frog to suspend the knife from the normal webbing equipment. The other version was to sew a pair of straps to the outside of the trouser leg to hold the knife in place. Since the early battledress trousers came with tightening tabs at the ankle, it appears these tabs were simply relocated to the thigh.

2 Para Officers Tunisia

Officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion in Tunisia, December 1942:  Capt. R. Stark, Lt. J. Brayley, and Maj. R. Ashford.  Ashford was killed only a few days after this photo was taken.

2 Para Officers Tunisia Closeup

Detail of Maj. Ashford.  Note the method of carrying the F-S knife on the left thigh.  The cloth tabs are most likely tightening tabs from the ankles that have been relocated to hold the knife.

The Fairbairn Sykes knife is still being made today. In 2005, Wilkinson Sword discontinued making them and sold their tooling to, rather ironically, a German company. Other Sheffield knifemakers still make them, and inexpensive copies are also made in India and Pakistan. Original wartime knives, however, are highly sought after by collectors, and are not cheap.

Personally, I have been fascinated by the Fairbairn Sykes knife since I was a teenager, even before I had any particular interest in World War II. I read articles in encyclopedias and knife collecting magazines because Ian Fleming described James Bond as using a “commando dagger”, and I wanted to learn what that meant. During and after college, my historical focus was on the Middle Ages, but I have always had an interest in both firearms and edged weapons used throughout history. One of the first birthday presents I received from my wife was a modern copy of the Fairbairn Sykes knife, made by R. Cooper of Sheffield. Like the originals, the sheath is quite loose, and the elastic retaining strap is weak; I have never carried my knife at a reenactment because I have been deeply concerned about possibly losing something of tremendous sentimental value.

Despite the knife’s light weight, the grip feels substantial in the hand. The balance and grace are exquisite. Fairbairn recommended handling the knife as often as possible and practicing making slashing attacks; these movements come quite easily because the weight is in the grip.

The Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife is a magnificent weapon. It should not be a surprise that it became such a strong representation of Britain’s defiance against the Nazi menace, and is still an iconic symbol of the war.

Memories and Memorial Day

As I write this, it is the last Monday of May. For my friends in the UK, It is the Spring Bank Holiday; here in the US, it is Memorial Day.

I have previously written a little about the history of Memorial Day, and compared it to November 11, Veterans Day in the US and Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth.

Earlier today, I paid my respects at the local National Cemetery. While there, I was reminded of May 2003, when my wife and I visited Normandy and Holland.

For my British friends, hopping across the English Channel to the French coast is an easy trip. From where I live in the Western US, it was a significant journey; one could almost call it a pilgrimage.

What we had originally planned as a sightseeing vacation in England become something more when we added a side journey to Holland and France; however, most of the itinerary had already been built out, and our time on the continent was limited. There was so much to see, and not enough time to do it. But I did not know if I would ever have the opportunity to go there again, and it was important to me to see where some of the most significant events of 1944 took place.

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Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy.  All photos in this article by the author’s spouse.

We crossed the English Channel by car ferry and landed at Sword Beach at dawn, aware of the peaceful nature of the journey. There at the ferry terminal in Ouistreham was a memorial dedicated to the Commandos and Combined Operations. Our first objective was to drive to Benouville to see Pegasus Bridge. From there, it was a short drive to Ranville and the War Cemetery where many of the graves were for soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division. We then went to the Merville Battery, then took the coast road through Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches. There were monuments and memorials everywhere we looked. Our day ended at St. Laurent-sur-Mer and the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

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Memorial to the 6th Airborne Division, built in September 1944 by Airborne Engineers

The next day was spent exploring Medieval history: the Bayeux Tapestry, the nearby cathedral, the massive castle in Caen, and the grave of William the Conqueror. Another day was dedicated to driving from Normandy to Arnhem, to see where 1st Airborne had fought; once we reached the Netherlands, we tried to follow the same route taken by XXX Corps during Market-Garden. We only had one full day and part of another for Arnhem and the surrounding area, and much of it was lost dealing with car trouble. But we made it to John Frost Bridge, the Hartenstein, and most importantly, the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.

Something that struck me, and what I felt compelled to write about today, was that the Americans and British took very different approaches to burying their fallen. The British believed in burying theirs where they fell. The Americans sent the remains of most their war dead back home; those who stayed in theater were collected in large, centralized cemeteries. There are dozens of British war cemeteries of different sizes across Europe, but all close to the battlefields. Just in Normandy, there are fourteen British and two Canadian cemeteries. There are just over 2,000 men buried at Ranville; in Holland, there are just over 1,700 at Oosterbeek. By contrast, there are only two American cemeteries in Normandy; the one at Omaha Beach has over 9,300 graves.

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The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, with the English Channel in the background

The headstones are different, as well. Each British marker is engraved with the cap badge of the soldier’s regiment or corps. Below the name and rank is often a short text chosen by the family; sometimes it is a verse from the Bible or a favorite poem, sometimes it is just a short statement about the man. Visiting the graves of the Airborne soldiers at Ranville and Oosterbeek, I felt like I learned something about each man buried there; it was a rather intimate feeling, making each loss that much more sad and personal.

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The American Normandy Cemetery and Memorial

The American cemetery was just as touching, but in a different way. There are over 9,000 white crosses, interspersed with the occasional marker topped by a Star of David. My wife was particularly touched by the Jewish graves, knowing what those men had died fighting against. The cemetery is enormous; standing at one end, we could not see the other. There was a vast ocean of white marble, and it was that enormity that overwhelmed us with grief. We could also look down the bluffs to see where so many had been killed coming off their landing craft and struggling up the steep terrain.

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Sgt. A. Ashworth of the Parachute Regiment, with a personalized inscription from his family.  Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery

After returning home, I was tempted to give up reenacting. As much as I have always enjoyed living history, visiting the graves of those who died liberating Europe was a sobering and life-changing experience. Shortly after, however, I attended a public event when a an elderly Englishwoman thanked me for wearing my battledress. She noted the Pegasus flash on my arm and told me that she had not seen one since her brother had served as a Glider Pilot. That experience warmed my heart and reminded me of the real reason I do what I do.

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Two unidentified soldiers of the Glider Pilot Regiment, Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery

“You Will Do Your Work on Water”: Hydration in the Field

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.

– Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din

The human body needs to be kept hydrated; a person can function longer without food than without water.  Therefore, no military equipment would be complete without giving the soldier a method of carrying water.

The standard British water bottles used in both World Wars were very similar; the Mark VI version issued with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment was replaced by the Mark VII, issued with the 1937 pattern equipment.  Both were made of enameled steel with a wool cover, with a stopper made of cork which was attached to the bottle with a short length of cord.  Each version held two Imperial pints of water, or 40 ounces.

Webbing Detail

The British Mark VII water bottle in its webbing carrier, attached to the 1937 pattern equipment.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

When the 1937 pattern equipment was adopted, the original intent was that the water bottle would be carried in the haversack, or “small pack” as it was commonly called.  However, a webbing carrier was also developed; it could attach to the ends of the braces and hang below the waistbelt.  Officially, use of the webbing carrier was not the preferred method.  In actual practice, however, more equipment was carried in the small pack than the designers had intended, and the troops were forced to use the carrier simply to make room.  Because of the inherent difficulties in resupplying Airborne troops, they typically carried two water bottles:  one suspended on the carrier and a second inside the small pack.

The original water bottle carrier was made of webbing straps.  A later version consisted of a webbing sleeve; while this version used more material, it was easier to manufacture and saved labor costs.  The earlier type was often called the “skeleton” carrier, and the later type the “envelope” carrier.  Some modern militaria vendors have tried to assert that the envelope version was only issued to Airborne troops, implying somehow that it was more rare or specialized, and therefore more desirable to collectors; that is completely untrue and easily disproven.

Three Carriers

Three water bottles with carriers.  The top right is the original version, sometimes called the “skeleton” carrier.  The other two are examples of the later “envelope” version.  Note the brass buckles for attaching to the brace-ends of the webbing equipment.

The envelope carrier has a web strap at the bottom to support the weight of the water bottle, but is open at the top.  The skeleton carrier has a retaining strap that is closed with a large snap or press-stud; some Indian-made versions closed with a buckle.  The intent was obviously that the water bottle would simply be lifted out, with the carrier remaining attached to the rest of the webbing.  However, I have found at living history events that this is easier said than done.  Over the years, I have used several different carriers, of both types, and all of them have been very tight.  Getting to the water bottle has often required significant effort, or assistance from a friend.  Between events, some of my friends have experimented with soaking the carrier in hot water and stretching; the most successful method involves placing wooden shims between the bottle and the wet carrier, then allowing it to dry.  I assumed that the carriers had all somehow shrunk while sitting in a warehouse for the last several decades; surely they could not have been so difficult to work with during wartime.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of my favorite authors is George MacDonald Fraser.  His book, Quartered Safe Out Here, is an extraordinary memoir of his service in Burma, fighting the Japanese as part of Slim’s 14th Army.  Fraser’s title was inspired by Kipling; I thought I would follow suit with this article.  There is a remarkable segment in Fraser’s book dealing with the water bottle and its carrier.  It is a somewhat lengthy and colorful narrative, full of slang and foul language; I will summarize rather than reprint it here.  A significant battle was going on, but Fraser’s section was on the flank and had not encountered the enemy.  It was a hot day, and one of the other soldiers found himself very thirsty and naturally wanted a drink.  He was the largest member of the section, and had a nickname that reflected his size.  He asked one of his section-mates to borrow his water bottle, as he could not easily get to his own.  His mate refused, but countered that he would help the first man with his own bottle.  What is significant in this exchange is the fact that the second soldier did not offer to pull the first man’s bottle out of its carrier; instead, he offered to unbuckle his comrade’s carrier from the rest of the webbing.  This exchange was astonishing when I first read it; my assumption that the carrier must have been easier to use in wartime was shattered.  The narrative continues with the troops finding a local well, using their slouch hats attached to rifle slings to bring up water, and adding purification tablets; all that effort was still apparently easier than accessing the water bottle.  It was at that point that the section took fire from the enemy, and Fraser ended up down the well.

This story of unbuckling the water bottle carrier from the brace-ends must not have been an isolated incident, and I have been trying to find other examples.  While I have not found any other narratives, I did find a rather remarkable photograph showing this method.  The picture shows troops from 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden, and was taken near Divisional Headquarters in Oosterbeek.  The photo shows two Airborne soldiers in a slit trench; one is in the act of drinking water, with the water bottle very clearly still in the skeleton carrier.

Water Bottle Market Garden IWM

Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  The man on the left drinking from his water bottle has clearly detached the webbing carrier from the rest of his equipment.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

In another part of his memoir, Fraser describes being issued with a canvas water bag for certain patrols.  This water bag was a clever item; it had to be soaked in water prior to use, which would cause the fabric’s fibers to swell and, somewhat counter-intuitively, make the bag water-tight.  This item was called a “chaugle”, derived from the Urdu, but the troops often called it a “chaggle”.  I have only seen references to its use in the Far East, despite its obvious superiority to the enameled water bottle.

Providing clean water to the troops was a logistics challenge even in the best of conditions.  In the deserts of North Africa, fresh water had to be trucked out to the troops on a constant basis; it had to be chlorinated to kill any bacteria and prevent algae from forming during transport.  Even in Northern Europe, where troops could fill their water bottles from the many rivers and streams, it had to be assumed the water was contaminated.  In Fraser’s narrative, he referenced the use of water purification tablets.  These were universally issued regardless of theater, for use when the men had to obtain their own water.  The “sterilizing outfit” was issued as a small tin; inside were two glass bottles.  One bottle contained the actual purification tablets; however, these tablets gave the water an unpleasant flavor that was supposed to be neutralized by the tablets in the second bottle.  I have one of the tins in my collection, but not the glass bottles.  One of each of the tablets was to be dissolved in the water to be treated; shaking the water bottle was supposed to speed up the mixing of the contents.  In Fraser’s story, the soldiers argued whether chewing the pills prior to drinking the well-water would do any good.

sterlizing outfit

The sterilizing outfit:  the two glass bottles go inside the tin.  The “thio” tablets were supposed to counteract the unpleasant taste caused by the sterilizing tablets.  From the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

I feel rather relieved that my personal struggles using the water bottle at living history events seems to be an accurate reflection on historical precedent.  I have occasionally seen fellow reenactors hide modern plastic water bottles inside their basic pouches, but I consider that cheating and bad form.

Sterilizing - Directions

Instructions printed inside the lid of the sterilizing outfit tin.  Author’s collection; I only have the tin without the contents.

A note on terminology:  to the British, the item that held water was called a “water bottle”, while the American term for such an item was “canteen”.  In British usage, a canteen was a shop, restaurant, and social club specifically for service members.  As an American who reenacts as British, I believe it is important to use the correct terminology.

Boil Them Out and Pull Them Through: Rifle Cleaning

I recently re-watched a favorite episode of “Dad’s Army”, the classic comedy about the Home Guard.  This particular episode had a sequence that stood out to me.  The men return from a long nighttime patrol; they are cold and tired, but excitedly report they had fired at an enemy airplane.  Their officer announces he already has the kettle on, and the men’s spirits are raised in expectation of a hot cup of tea.  Their hopes are then dashed when the officer says the first kettle is for cleaning the rifles; once that task is done, they may have their tea.  The men clean their rifles, as ordered; not only are they still cold and tired, they are sullen and resentful.

I always disagreed with that approach.  I felt that a quick cup of tea would give the men’s spirits and energy a lift; not only would they clean their rifles more cheerfully, they would likely do a more effective job of it.

But this article is not about man management.  What also struck me about this sequence was that it reminded me of the first time I heard the phrase, “boil them out and pull them through”.

Oiler & Pull-Through

The Number 4 rifle with the oiler, pull-through and a 4×2 piece of flannelette removed from the butt-trap.  The sling, bolt and magazine are to be removed prior to cleaning.  All photos in this article are by the author.

I have been a firearms enthusiast even longer than I have been a reenactor.  As much as I love British history, I am grateful to live in a nation that still allows private firearms ownership.  I learned to clean my rifles with a cleaning rod with various attachments, as well as patches, brushes, and solvents.  I was taught to keep my weapons dry and well-oiled to prevent rust.  The idea of deliberately pouring water through a rifle was completely shocking when I first heard of it.

Most military ammunition, at least until the 1950’s, was made with primers that create a corrosive residue when fired.  Rather, these chemical salts themselves are fairly inert, but form an acid when mixed with water.  The salts dissolve so easily that humid air can form enough of the caustic substance to damage a rifle barrel; perhaps that Home Guard officer was right.  However, large amounts of water, especially when hot, will completely dissolve the residue and wash it away.  Therefore, standard British military procedure after firing a rifle, whether in action or simply on the range, was to pour boiling water through it.  The official training manual recommended using 5 to 6 pints of water; it also stated that using cold water was better than not cleaning the rifle at all.  There was even a funnel designed specifically to help guide the boiling water into the bore.  The barrel was then thoroughly dried and oiled to prevent rust.

Most British troops were not issued cleaning rods.  Normal cleaning was done with a “pull-through”, a length of cord with a loop at one end and a metal weight on the other.  A piece of soft cloth, called “flannelette”, was put into the loop of the pull-through.  The flannelette was manufactured as a four-inch-wide strip that was issued in a long roll; the cloth was marked with a line every two inches indicating where it was to be cut.  The individual pieces were then often referred to as “four by two”, and each soldier was issued with several pieces.

4x2 Flannelette 1

Flannelette, with one four by two piece removed from the rest of the sheet.

Each rifle was issued with a pull-through and a small oil bottle; these items were stored inside the rifle’s butt-trap.  That way, the pull-through and oiler were always with the rifle, and cleaning could be done in the field nearly as easily as in barracks.  The oil bottle was originally made of brass; during World War II the oiler was made in “Bakelite”, an early form of plastic, to save precious brass for ammunition.

Oiler 2

Bakelite oil bottle.  Note the “spoon” built into the lid.

The pull-through was also issued with one or two small squares of wire gauze.  To the modern eye, the wire gauze pieces look like they have been cut from a window screen.  The wire was fine enough that a gauze square could be wrapped around the pull-through to provide extra scouring ability.  However, excessive use of the wire gauze could cause barrel wear.  In peacetime, the gauze was only to be used when the rifle was exceptionally dirty, and only when authorized by the Armourer; a soldier could be put on a charge for using the gauze without authorization.  However, according to the 1942 training manual, gauze was to be kept on the pull-through in wartime.

Wire Gauze 1

A piece of wire gauze before attaching to the pull-through.

The sling, bolt and magazine were to be removed from the rifle prior to cleaning.  After “boiling out” the barrel, it would be “pulled through” with a flannelette until dry.  To do this, the rifle was held with the muzzle down and the pull-through’s weight fed into the breech until the weight appeared at the muzzle.  Then the butt was placed on the floor, the cord wrapped around the hand, and the flannelette pulled through the bore; this process was repeated until the barrel was dry.  Then a different flannelette was used, this time to apply oil to the barrel.

Feeding Pull Through

Pulling-through:  the weight is dropped down the bore.

The magazine, bolt, and the rest of the rifle would be carefully wiped down with an oiled cloth, which was often stored in the webbing entrenching tool carrier.  If necessary, the magazine could be disassembled by removing the spring and platform, but this was only to be done when very dirty.

It is worth noting that the 1942 Small Arms Training Pamphlet for the Rifle starts with cleaning and maintenance before moving on to aiming and firing.  The Pamphlet also has notes on the use of cover, and use of the rifle in strengthening exercises, such as holding the rifle in the firing position using only one arm.

Pulling Through 1

The flannelette is then pulled through until the barrel is dry.  The process is repeated with an oiled flannelette.

Old surplus .303 used to be fairly common, but is sadly becoming increasingly scarce.  Most modern gunpowder solvents should also effectively clean corrosive primer residue; but sometimes the old ways are the best ways, and I still boil out my rifle after firing surplus ammo.

Several years ago, I was at a gun store hoping to find some surplus .303.  I heard other customers raving about a new cleaning product called a “Bore Snake”.  I had to laugh; this revolutionary new product was just a fancy pull-through.

Film Review: The Way Ahead

While I generally enjoy films about World War II, I have a particular fondness for motion pictures made about the war while it was still being fought.  Not only are they entertaining, but as an amateur historian, I find them valuable tools in gaining an insight into the mindset of the time.

Perhaps my favorite wartime motion picture is “The Way Ahead”.  This is a propaganda film first released in 1944, and tells the story of typical new recruits coming together to form an infantry platoon.

Way Ahead Poster

David Niven portrays Lt. Jim Perry, the young officer assigned as Platoon Leader.  Perry had served in the Territorial Army (Britain’s volunteer reserve) before the war.  He is very keen on all things military; a more recent generation would call him “Army Barmy”.  His Platoon Sergeant is Sgt. Ned Fletcher, played by William Hartnell; he was a pre-war professional soldier.

Wm Hartnell Way Ahead

Sgt. Fletcher (William Hartnell) on the parade ground.

In contrast to the officer and sergeant are seven private soldiers, who had been called up from civilian life and sent to the Army.  They represent very different backgrounds and personalities.  The men resent being conscripted; some have families, others feel their civilian jobs were too important to have been taken from them.  They complain about their situation whenever they are out of earshot of their officer and sergeant.  Based on an early incident, they feel Sgt. Fletcher is unduly harsh to them.

There is tension within the group of conscripts, as well.  Pte. Beck, a former travel agent, is very enthusiastic and optimistic, which puts him at odds with the others.  Pte. Stainer has a boyish fondness for automobiles, and generally seems less mature than the others; he frequently makes threats and boasts, but does nothing.  Pte. Lloyd is reserved but somewhat sour; he gets angry with Stainer and decides to take action himself.  He complains to Lt. Perry about Sgt. Fletcher’s supposed unfair treatment.  Perry is baffled by the situation; he does not understand the men’s resentment.

Way Ahead Spud Bashing

Pte. Ted Brewer (Stanley Holloway) complains while his comrades peel potatoes.

Eventually, the men are allowed out of camp on a weekend.  They encounter some civilians and learn of their efforts to support members of the armed forces.  They meet a pilot of the RAF, who is on medical leave after having been shot down.  They also find themselves in a social situation with Lt. Perry; things start off quite awkwardly, but they finally start getting to know one another.  This is the film’s turning point; nothing is said outwardly, but the men’s attitudes change.  They realize they have been selfish and foolish; they finally become proficient soldiers and learn to work together, and they develop respect for their superiors.

Finally, the platoon completes its training, and is sent overseas to see action in North Africa.  After successfully defending against a German attack, the finale shows the men fixing bayonets and taking the fight to the enemy, with rousing music playing.

While some wartime films were made for escapist entertainment, many were made for propaganda purposes, including “The Way Ahead”.  While it would seem that the film was intended to teach conscripts what they could expect, by the time it was released in 1944, most young men in Britain were already in uniform.  “The Way Ahead” was really intended to bolster civilian morale, to say that the darkest days of the war were over and that final victory was around the corner.  It was intended to instill civilian confidence in the Army, its leadership and structure, and its fighting ability.  In 1944, everyone knew that the Allies were preparing to invade continental Europe; only the specifics were kept secret.  The final scenes highlight the successful Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algiers (Operation Torch) to remind the civilian populace of its success, and to prepare them for the upcoming invasion of Europe.  The film closes with the titles, “The Beginning”, likely a reference to Churchill’s speech about the great victory at El Alamein being “the end of the beginning”.

I enjoy the film as a piece of cinematic storytelling; the characters are interesting, and I like watching them learning to become soldiers and overcoming their differences.

As an amateur historian, I appreciate the film for how it depicts training and life in the barracks.  The men grumble that they are issued blankets, but not sheets.  They are seen cleaning rifles, polishing boots, and peeling potatoes.  There are repeated scenes of the men going through an assault course:  climbing walls, swinging on ropes, all while small arms are fired over their heads.  The men clumsily stumble through the first time, but each attempt shows significant improvement.

The men are in a fictional regiment:  The Duke of Glendon’s Light Infantry.  My favorite sequence is one in which the privates return to barracks after a field exercise; the men had intentionally gotten themselves disqualified so they could leave the exercise early.  Lt. Perry, normally calm and reserved, is visibly upset.  He explains the history of their regiment and its battle honours in an attempt to instill them with pride in their unit, to motivate them to act honorably and to take their training seriously.  It is as good an introduction to the Regimental System as any I can think of.

Way Ahead Bayonets

Lt. Perry (David Niven) and Pte. Beck (Leslie Dwyer) prepare to advance on the enemy during the film’s dramatic finale.

There is another set of characters, a pair of Chelsea Pensioners; they are former soldiers who live at the Chelsea Hospital, The British Army’s retirement home.  Their role in the film is similar to that of a Greek chorus; while they do not influence the plot, they comment on the progress of the war and compare it to their service.  They, too, had served in the same fictional regiment as Perry and his platoon, and are keen to see their descendants carry on the glories of their unit.

The film was released in the United States, under the title “The Immortal Battalion”; not surprisingly, I find the British version more emotionally satisfying.  The Chelsea Pensioners were edited out of the American version, causing it to lose some of the charm and humor of the original; it also loses some of its sense of continuity and stability, of the ability to ride out the storm.  The American title is also troubling to me; after all, it is the regiment that is important, not the battalion.  For many years, “The Immortal Battalion” was the only version available in the United States; fortunately, though, there is now a company producing NTSC Region 1 format DVD’s of “The Way Ahead” for the US market.

“The Way Ahead” was written by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov, and directed by Carol Reed.  It starred David Niven, William Hartnell, Peter Ustinov, Stanley Holloway*, James Donald, Leslie Dwyer, Jimmy Hanley, and John Laurie.

Way Ahead Group Shot

“The Way Ahead”:  the men prepare for their first action in North Africa.

*George MacDonald Fraser once wrote that all wartime British films featured Stanley Holloway, or at least that was how it seemed.

The Bren Light Machine Gun: Legendary Reliability

One of the most important and iconic weapons of World War II was the British Bren light machine gun.  The Bren’s distinctive top-mounted curved magazine made it easy to recognize by friend and foe alike.  Troops throughout the British Empire praised the Bren for its reliability.

burma 1945 - 2

A Bren gun position in Burma, 1945.  All photos in this article are from the Imperial War Museum.

During World War I, machine guns were used as defensive weapons, and were outstanding in that role; combined with barbed wire, they made it extremely difficult for the opposing force to advance.  Both sides used very similar machine guns as well as similar tactics, and a stalemate ensued.  Machine guns were belt-fed, mounted on heavy tripods, and fitted with a water-filled jacket to keep the barrel cool; with sufficient water and ammunition, a machine gun could fire almost indefinitely.  Because of their weight and bulk, they were not easily moved and therefore kept in emplaced positions.

The light machine gun appeared towards the end of the war in an effort to break the stalemate by giving more firepower to the advancing infantry.  These new weapons were air-cooled, portable, and typically magazine-fed.  Arguably the best light machine gun of the time was the Lewis gun; however, it was mechanically complex, required more advanced training than a rifle, and was somewhat unreliable.  However, it was vastly superior to the French Chauchat, which had a dreadful reputation for jamming; the American Browning Automatic Rifle (or “B.A.R.”), while more reliable, came out too late in the war to see much service.

In the 1930’s, the British Army’s Small Arms Committee began the search for a new light machine gun to replace the Lewis gun.  They tested a number of weapons, including the Danish Madsen and the French FM 24/29, which had replaced the despised Chauchat.  The American B.A.R. performed well in the trials and was an early favorite.  However, it had a significant flaw:  it had a fixed barrel, while the others had a detachable barrel.  After extensive firing, the gun needed to cool; continued firing would cause permanent damage.  The other light machine guns could have a spare barrel fitted, and then continue firing as before.  As the trials continued, a new favorite emerged:  the Czech Zb 26, made by the Brno arms factory.   The Czechs made updates to the design based on feedback during the trials; what started as the Zb 26 eventually became the Zb 30 and then the Zb 33.  The Brno designers called the final iteration the ZGB, which was adopted by the British government.

Late in the trials, the ZGB was given an endurance test.  The plan was to fire 150,000 rounds and see how many stoppages would ensue.  After about 146,000 rounds, the test was cut short because the gun was still firing as flawlessly as when it started, and the testers felt firing the last allocated rounds would simply be a waste of time and ammunition.

The original Zb series fired 7.92mm ammunition, the same round developed for the Mauser rifle.  Late in the trials, the ZGB design was converted to fire British .303 ammunition, and the plans were converted from metric to Imperial measurements.  A licensing agreement was signed allowing for the weapon to be built in Great Britain at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.  The gun was given a new name:  “Bren”, taken from “Brno” and “Enfield”.

The gun was officially adopted in 1935 and the first Bren was completed in 1937.  When the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) was sent to France and Belgium in 1939, enough Brens were available to equip most units.  However, the gun was still new, and evidence suggests that not all units had been effectively trained in its use.  Additionally, when the B.E.F. was first sent to the continent, most of the men were still wearing their old service dress uniforms with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment, which gave no method of carrying Bren magazines.  Fortunately, most troops were re-equipped with the 1937 pattern webbing and battledress before the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in May of 1940; the new equipment had been designed around the Bren, with pouches large enough for the magazines.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, the Army conducted an inventory and found there were only about 2,300 Brens available.  While most soldiers returned from France with their rifles, many of the Brens had been abandoned or intentionally destroyed, along with heavier weapons, vehicles, and supply dumps.  If the weapon had not been so new, and the men more thoroughly trained in its use, it may not have been left behind in such numbers.

Near Tobruk 1941

Dug-in British troops near Tobruk, Libya, in 1941.  They were lucky to have a Bren; at this point, many troops were using the less-reliable Lewis gun.

As the war in North Africa intensified, there were insufficient Brens for the need, and stocks of old Lewis guns were brought out of storage.  Britain also ordered a number of B.A.R.’s from the United States; but by the time they arrived, Bren production had increased and most of the B.A.R.’s went to the Home Guard.  By late 1942, most units in the desert had been supplied with Brens.  Since the Bren was more reliable under desert conditions than most other machine guns, this gave the British an advantage.

Upon adoption, the Bren had been intended as a multiple-use weapon in order to replace both the Lewis light machine gun and the Vickers water-cooled gun.  A tripod was produced so that the Bren could be used in the sustained-fire role.  By adding an extra leg, the tripod could be reconfigured to use the Bren as an anti-aircraft (A.A.) weapon; if anything happened to the tripod extension, an S.M.L.E. rifle could be substituted.  A special A.A. sight could be clipped on the barrel, and an A.A. drum magazine was developed that could hold 100 rounds.

HomeGuard Bren 1941

England, 1941.  Volunteers of the Home Guard train on the Bren in the anti-aircraft configuration.  This Mark I still has the rear grip.

The Bren was also mounted on vehicles.  A brass-catching device, essentially a heavy canvas bag with steel mount, could be inserted into the ejection port.  Every vehicle with a Bren was supposed to be issued with the brass-catcher, but this did not always happen; crews of Dingo armored cars in particular were subject to having hot brass dumped on them.

Unfortunately, the Bren was not particularly successful as a multi-purpose gun.  Its slow rate of fire and magazine feed were not terribly effective for either the sustained fire role or as an anti-aircraft weapon.  The magazine feed was fine in open-topped vehicles, but very awkward in the cramped confines of a tank.  Eventually, the belt-fed Besa machine gun was adopted for use on tanks, and the old water-cooled Vickers gun was brought back into use for sustained fire in fixed positions.  The Bren was also replaced by dedicated anti-aircraft guns, including the 20mm Polsten and Oerlikon guns and the 40mm Bofors gun.

As an infantry weapon, however, the Bren was outstanding.  One Bren gun was issued to every eight-man section; its simple design made it easy to use.  While each section had a dedicated Bren gunner who was authorized to wear a specialist’s badge (either “LMG” or “BG”), all troops were trained on its use so they could take over in time of need.  The magazine feed meant that the ammunition was easily distributed throughout the section.  The Bren fired the same .303 round as the Lee-Enfield rifles; during lulls in the fighting, the riflemen would reload empty magazines from their bandoliers.

The Bren was extremely robust.  Its reliability was one of the main reasons it had been adopted, and the troops were very fond of it for that reason.  This reliability was helped by the sliding dust-covers over both the magazine well and the ejection port, designed to keep dirt and debris out of the mechanism.  Additionally, the gas system was adjustable; as cordite residue built up in the gun, a larger aperture in the gas regulator could be selected which would allow more gas to cycle through and work the action.

The Bren was also very accurate; in fact it was almost too accurate, and experienced gunners preferred using worn barrels to give a wider cone of suppressing fire.  The top-mounted magazine required that the sights be offset by about a half-inch; this was not enough to have an appreciable impact on accuracy, especially at longer ranges.    The Bren used an aperture rear sight and post front sight.  Mounted on the tripod, the Bren’s effective range was around 2000 yards; on just the integral bipod, it was effective to over 600 yards.

The standard magazine had been intended to hold 30 rounds; however, this tended to over-compress the spring and cause feeding issues, so standard practice was to load 28 rounds.  The magazine’s distinctive curved shape was required to accommodate rimmed .303 ammunition.  Care had to be taken when loading the magazines to avoid overlapping the rims; most stoppages were caused by poorly-filled magazines, not by any mechanical issues with the gun itself.  During trials, it was noted that the top-mounted magazine was faster and easier to change than guns with bottom-mounted magazines, particularly the B.A.R.  Additionally, the B.A.R.’s magazine only held 20 rounds, as a larger capacity would impede the use of low cover.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Bren was the ability to change its barrel quickly; no tools were needed for this process.  The magazine had to be removed and the magazine well’s dust cover closed.  Raising the barrel nut unlocked the barrel, which was then lifted away by the carry handle; the spare was then installed and the barrel nut pressed back down.  The barrel was changed after every 10 magazines during automatic fire, and a well-trained crew could do it in eight seconds.  The barrel’s muzzle spread out in a conical shape as a rudimentary flash hider; the cone allowed expanding gas to dissipate more quickly than a straight muzzle.

CleaningBren Normany1944

Normandy, 1944.  A Bren gunner has removed the barrel for cleaning.

The theoretical rate of fire was around 500 rounds per minute, but of course with magazine changes, the actual rate of fire was much lower, around 120 rounds per minute.  Bren gunners were trained to fire 4-5 round bursts in suppressing fire or in engaging an exposed enemy.  In the defense, gunners were taught to fire single rounds at suspected targets, not only to conserve ammunition, but also to try to disguise the nature of the gun and avoid becoming the enemy’s primary target.

The Germans used belt-fed air-cooled machine guns, namely the MG-34 and its successor, the MG-42.  These guns, particularly the MG-42, were noted for their high rate of fire.  They were extremely effective psychological weapons; troops confronted by these guns were terrified by the sound and easily suppressed.  But this rate of fire came at a cost.  The Germans went through a staggering amount of ammunition, all of which had to be carried by the infantrymen.  It generally took longer to reload a belt-fed gun than one that was magazine-fed.  The German guns also overheated much faster, and it was not as easy to change out their barrels; a thick felt pad was used to protect the soldiers’ hands while handling the hot barrel.  The Germans encountered times when the spare barrel needed to be changed before the original had sufficiently cooled.

The Bren could be operated by a single soldier, but was more effective when crewed by a gunner and an assistant (The Bren Number 1 and Bren Number 2).  The Number 1 carried the gun, three magazines (one in the gun, two in webbing pouches), and the spare parts wallet.  The Number 2 carried six magazines, two in his regular webbing equipment, and four in supplemental pouches.  He also carried the spare barrel in its dedicated webbing holdall.  Typically, both magazine changes and barrel changes were done by the Number 2.

All infantry tactics revolved around the Bren gun, as it was the section’s primary fire-producer.  Defensively, the Bren was put at the section’s flank in order to engage the attacking enemy with defilade fire.  While the rest of the section dug straight 2-man slit trenches, the Bren was placed at the apex of an angled trench, which gave better access for the Number 2 to change magazines and barrels.

In the attack, the section would break into two groups:  the Bren group consisted of the assistant section leader, the Bren Number 1 and Number 2; the section leader and the riflemen were the assault group.  The groups would then engage in fire-and-movement, one group providing covering fire while the other group advanced.  The goal was to get the Bren into a good position to engage the enemy and either destroy them or suppress them so the assault group could take the position.

The Bren was also an integral part of anti-tank tactics.  While the .303 round would not penetrate a tank’s armor, it could force the tank commander and any other crew to stay inside the turret, reducing their visibility and effectiveness.  Bren gunners were also taught to fire at a tank’s viewing ports and prisms; if this was not possible, they were to engage any supporting infantry.  All of these tactics made it easier for an anti-tank team to move up on the vehicle’s flank with a Boyes anti-tank rifle or a PIAT (projector, infantry, anti-tank).

The Bren had an attached bipod, which could be folded up when mounted on a vehicle or tripod, or to allow the gunner to get into deeper cover.  It also had a sling; the gun could be carried with the sling over the shoulder taking most of the weight, and the left hand steadying the gun.  This way, the gun could be fired from the hip while on the move.  The carry handle could be rotated into the “assault position”, although it was more common to hold the gun under the folded-up bipod when firing from the hip.

The first Bren gun, the Mark I, had a wooden rear grip, very much like the carry handle, but mounted under the buttstock.  Bren gunners were trained to grasp the pistol grip with the right hand and the rear grip with the left; no allowance was made for firing the gun left-handed.  While there was little recoil because of the mass of the gun, it still needed to be stabilized during firing.  However, it was soon found that the rear grip did not provide enough stability and troops were instead taught to grasp the wrist of the stock, that is, the narrowest part.  This method provided the stability needed.  The rear grip was then eliminated in future versions of the Bren, and even removed from existing guns.

The Mark I had a dovetail slot cut into the receiver, or body, to accept an optical sight, intended for use when firing from the tripod in fixed positions.  However, very few of the optical sights were issued; in fact, many of the sights were mounted on rifles and issued to snipers.  The Mark I* receiver eliminated the dovetail.

The Mark I had an elevating wheel for its backsight, adjustable bipod legs, and the charging handle could be folded flat against the receiver after the gun had been cocked.  The Mark II had a simpler leaf-type backsight, non-adjusting bipod legs, and a simpler, non-folding charging handle; it also had a simpler carry handle.  These modifications were intended to increase manufacturing production, and it was estimated that the Mk II was nearly 25% more efficient to build than the Mk I.  Towards the end of the war, the Mark III and Mark IV were approved for production; these Brens had shorter barrels than the earlier designs, and were intended for use by the Airborne forces, or in the jungle.  However, the Marks III and IV came out too late to see much wartime service.

burma 1945

Troops on the march in Burma, 1945.  Note the Bren gunner with the weapon resting on his shoulder.

Originally, Bren gunners were trained to carry the gun by the carry handle.  However, “light machine gun” was a comparative term; it was only light compared to water-cooled machine guns.  The Bren Mark I weighed 23 pounds unloaded, well over double the Lee-Enfield rifle, and the Bren Mark II weighed slightly more.  Each full magazine weighed just short of three pounds.  When not in direct contact with the enemy, Bren gunners tended to march with the gun balanced on the shoulder, with a hand on the barrel to steady the gun.

The Bren was used throughout the British Empire.  Not only was it made at R.S.A.F. Enfield in England, it was also made by the John Inglis Company in Canada and the Lithgow arms factory in Australia.  The Indian Army began the war with the similar-appearing Vickers-Berthier; however, the gun was not sufficiently robust, and India adopted the Bren in 1942 and built them at the Ishapore factory.

RM Falklands

Royal Marines occupy a barn during the Falklands campaign, 1982.  The L4 L.M.G., in 7.62mm, faces the camera.

The Bren continued service after World War II; its reliability was again needed from the bitter cold of Korea to the jungles of Malaya.  When Britain adopted the NATO-standard 7.62mm cartridge in the late 1950’s, the Bren gun was converted to the new round and redesignated as the L4 L.M.G.  While new barrels and magazines were made, existing guns were rechambered to 7.62mm.  The new magazines were straight, not curved, and the muzzle cone was replaced with a “birdcage”-style flash hider.  If needed, the L4 was able to use the same magazine as the L1A1 self-loading rifle.  The L4 served nearly to the end of the 20th Century; its last use was in the 1991 Gulf War.

Gulf War

The last use of the classic British L.M.G.  This young soldier mans his L4 in the Persian Gulf in 1990, during the build-up to the liberation of Kuwait.

A Brief History of the British 1st Airborne Division

The following is a very short history of the 1st Airborne Division; I plan to write a more extensive version in a future article.

The British Army’s Airborne Forces were first created in June 1940.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been impressed by the German use of parachute and glider troops during their invasion of France and the Low Countries, and sent a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff requesting that Britain develop a similar capability.

Originally, Airborne Forces were conceived as raiding forces to perform small-scale operations in occupied Europe for intelligence gathering, destruction of specific targets, and demoralization of the enemy.  Accordingly, No. 2 Commando was trained in parachuting and eventually became 1st Parachute Battalion.  2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions were then created; the three battalions comprised 1st Parachute Brigade.

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Paratroopers in 1942.  They are wearing the early “step-in” parachute smock, based on the German design, prior to the adoption of the camouflaged Denison smock.

Britain’s first use of airborne troops was a small raid against an Italian aqueduct near Tragino in February 1941.  This was followed by the first significant Airborne action, Operation Biting, in February 1942.  C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, attacked a German radar installation on the French coast at Bruneval; along with a radar specialist from the RAF, they captured key components of the radar, and were evacuated by sea by the Royal Navy.  The operation was a complete success.

1st Parachute Brigade was then sent to North Africa, attached to British 1st Army, in support of the Operation Torch landings in November 1942.  Each of the three battalions performed a separate operation.  The Brigade was then reunited and kept in the front lines for several months in the bitter fighting in Tunisia.  It was here that the British Airborne earned their nickname of the “Red Devils” for their ferocious fighting ability.  It was also where they adopted their war cry of “Waho Mohammed”, inspired by the natives’ calls from hilltop to hilltop.

2 Para Officers Tunisia

Officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion in Tunisia, December, 1942.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Airborne Forces were rapidly growing.  The Parachute Regiment was formed in August 1942, and its cap badge adopted in May 1943.  All Airborne troops wore the distinctive maroon beret and the divisional flash depicting the Greek hero Bellerophon, riding the winged horse Pegasus.  1st Airborne Division was created, including 2nd Parachute Brigade and 1st Air-Landing Brigade, which were flown in gliders, along with supporting elements from the artillery, engineers, medical corps, and others.  These new units were transported to Tunisia to join with the now-veteran 1st Parachute Brigade.

Pegasus Flash Printed

Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the insignia worn by all British Airborne Forces.

In July 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.  1st Air-Landing Brigade took part in the initial invasion, capturing the vital Ponte Grande Bridge near the beachhead.  Then, as British 8th Army pushed up the island’s east coast, 1st Parachute Brigade captured the Primosole Bridge.  Losses in both operations were heavy, but their vital objectives were taken.  Once Sicily had been secured, the Allies invaded mainland Italy.  2nd Parachute Brigade took part in this operation, and 1st Airborne’s commander, Major General George Hopkinson, was killed in action.  The Division returned to Britain to refit and replace losses; 2nd Parachute Brigade was detached from the Division and remained in Italy.

1st Airborne received a new commander, Major General Robert “Roy” Urquhart.  Additionally, 4th Parachute Brigade joined the Division, to replace 2nd Parachute Brigade.  In the summer of 1944, 6th Airborne Division spearheaded the Invasion of Normandy, while 1st Airborne was kept in reserve.  Several airborne operations were conceived to support the Allied breakout from the beachheads, but were all cancelled.

In September 1944, the Division took part in the epic Battle of Arnhem, part of Operation Market-Garden.  The Division found itself surrounded, out-numbered and out-gunned; they fought extremely bravely, but their relieving force never arrived.  Out of 10,000 men, only 2000 escaped across the Rhine; the rest were killed or captured.  The Division was never longer brought back to strength and was disbanded in November 1945.

The Regimental System in the British Army

Much of why I enjoy writing about the British Army is because it has such a colorful history, and is steeped in tradition.  One of the most fascinating and distinguishing characteristics of the British Army is the Regimental System.  Some consider this system obsolete, and it has certainly faced challenges in recent years.  Nevertheless it is the primary source of the Army’s esprit de corps, ceremonial color, and connection to the past.

Great Britain is a much more regionalist country than the United States.  The United Kingdom contains within its borders an astonishing variety of accents, cultures, and traditions.  Historically, the infantry regiments were based geographically.  English regiments were based on the traditional counties, while Scottish regiments were based on the ancient clans, again with designated recruiting areas.  Soldiers in the same regiment were all from the same part of the country, with common backgrounds and experiences.  This has typically made it easy for soldiers within the same regiment to bond with each other.

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Victorian memorial window to the Border Regiment at Carlisle Cathedral.  Before amalgamation, the Border Regiment was the traditional infantry unit of Cumberland (now Cumbria).  Photo by the author’s spouse.

While it is common for officers to change units, it is rare for British enlisted soldiers to transfer regiments.  In the days of muskets and sabers, soldiers enlisted for life.  Therefore, once a man became a soldier, he served with the same men until killed or invalided out of the Army.  The same group of soldiers lived, worked, fought, and died side-by-side for decades.

The Royal Navy has always been popular with the British populace, but this was not true for the Army.  Historically, officers came from the aristocracy, but the enlisted men (the “other ranks”) came from the dregs of society.  Recruiting sergeants enticed the desperate poor with stories of excitement and plunder; magistrates would often offer Army service as an alternative to prison.  The Duke of Wellington believed that strict discipline was essential to prevent the common soldiery from descending into a lawless mob.  British society therefore distrusted and disliked soldiers, at least until the 20th Century and its massive conscript efforts during the World Wars.  Soldiers therefore learned to turn to each other for friendship and comfort.  One cannot really understand Kipling’s “Tommy” without this background.

These factors combined to make a soldier’s regiment very like his family.  Brigades and divisions are fighting formations, but it is the regiment which gives a soldier his pride.

The regiments were originally numbered, in order of their founding.  Most regiments took on an unofficial name, normally for the county where they were based, but sometimes for another distinguishing characteristic.  During the middle of the 18th Century, many regiments were known for their commanding officer.  For example, both the 3rd and 19th Regiments were commanded by colonels named Howard; to distinguish between them, the 3rd became known as The Buff Howards, and the 19th were the Green Howards, taken from the facing colors on their jackets.  In the late Victorian period, the numbers were abandoned and the names were formalized; the Green Howards kept their name, and the 3rd became the Royal East Kent Regiment (“The Buffs”).  The 42nd was always known as The Black Watch, possibly for the dark colors of its tartan, but other theories exist as well.

Buffs Drums

Regimental drums of the Royal East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) on display at the Canterbury City Museum.  Photo by the author.

The traditional regiments commemorated their great victories, and each celebrated its own unique Regimental Anniversary, based either on its founding or its most famous battle.  Battle Honours* were granted to the regiments involved in the campaign, and were emblazoned on each regiment’s Colours*, or flags, as well as on the bandsmen’s drums.  The Colours were carried into battle; when they inevitably became too damaged for continued use, they would be retired to a church or cathedral close to the regimental headquarters, and the Monarch would issue new Colours.  New recruits were taught the importance of their regiment’s history and past glories, and were instilled with a sense of duty to carry on its honor and traditions.

Wiltshire Colors Salisbury

Retired Colours of the Wiltshire Regiment that have been laid up at Salisbury Cathedral.  The oldest are merely scraps that have been preserved and attached to a mesh background.  Photo by the author.

Each regiment had its own unique items of dress, many of which changed very little over the centuries.  Perhaps the most obvious symbol is each regiment’s distinctive cap badge, but there were other unique items, as well.  The Gloucestershire Regiment wore a secondary badge on the back of their headgear in memory of when their forebears fought back-to-back at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

Border Badge

The cap badge of the Border Regiment.

In the early days, most regiments only contained one battalion, and the terms could be used almost interchangeably.  As the Army evolved and the British Empire expanded, it became common for each regiment to have two battalions; one would serve overseas, while the other remained in Britain to recruit and train.  This system was formalized during the Victorian period.  During the massive conscription efforts of the two World Wars, most regiments grew as large as ten or more battalions.  With much of the Empire lost during the 1940’s and 50’s, there was much less need for the overseas garrisons that had once been the Army’s primary function.  Britain’s military focus turned to its commitment to NATO, and the country’s economic situation after the World Wars required spending cutbacks.  The government significantly reduced the size of the Army, and as a direct result, began consolidating many of the traditional regiments.

Today, the Army is at its smallest size, with the fewest regiments in its history.  The five regiments of Foot Guards remain and still perform their famous ceremonial duties and official function as the Monarch’s bodyguard.  Despite the common misconception, they are battle-ready soldiers who rotate their duties; when not in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats, they wear modern camouflage and equipment, and are often amongst the first units chosen for combat overseas.

Gren Guard London

A young Guardsman of the Grenadier Guards.  Most tourists mistakenly think of the Guards as “toy soldiers” who only perform ceremonial functions, yet the Grenadiers have recently seen combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

Today’s regiments do their best to maintain the traditions of their forbears.  The Royal Regiment of Scotland has four regular battalions, two battalions of reservists, and one company dedicated to ceremonial duties.  The regular battalions retained the names of some of the earlier regiments that were amalgamated into the new formation, including the Black Watch and the Royal Highland Fusiliers.  The Highlanders, the new unit’s 4th Battalion, represents the Seaforths, Gordons, and Camerons.  Another example is The Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, named in honor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.  The regiment represents the entire southeast of England; their cap badge incorporates a dragon to represent The Buffs, a heraldic rose to represent The Hampshire Regiment, and ostrich plumes in honor of the Princess.

tigers

Cap badge of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment

New regiments were created during World War II, such as the Parachute Regiment and the Special Air Service.  While they have not had the centuries of tradition to fall back on, they were quick to adopt their own traditions and “tribal” items.  A very famous example is the maroon beret of the Airborne Forces.  Most modern regiments have several types of headgear, depending on the level of dress:  a khaki beret for the field, a peaked cap for Number 2 Dress (similar to the old service dress), and a type of headgear for full dress dating to Victorian or even Regency times, such as a fur busby or a polished-steel helmet.  By contrast, the men of the Parachute Regiment only wear their distinctive maroon berets.  Even though historians often think of the Parachute Regiment as a newer unit, because of all the consolidations, it is now the oldest unamalgamated regiment in the British Army.

*While I normally write with American spellings, these terms seem more appropriate in British English.

Film Review: A Bridge Too Far

My two greatest passions are writing, and studying British military history; the purpose of this blog is to help me express both interests.  While I am fascinated by the entire history of the British Army, my particular focus is on the Airborne Forces during World War II.  It should not be a surprise, then, that one of my favorite films is A Bridge Too Far.  If anything, the only surprise is that it has taken me this long to write about it, although I have referenced it in some of my earlier articles.

A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, and provides an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the subject.  Market Garden was a massive undertaking; three airborne divisions were to take bridges over the various rivers and canals of the Netherlands, with an entire corps sent as the ground-based relief column.  The battle raged for nine days in September 1944.  A Bridge Too Far gives a good overview of the significant events of this enormous, complex operation in the course of a three-hour movie; that is no small feat.  While it shows the overall “big picture”, it also shows something of the personalities of many of the key personnel involved, from generals down to enlisted men.  Despite the scope of the film, the human element is always very much present.

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An early scene from A Bridge Too Far, in which a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire flies over the Dutch countryside.

The film was released in 1977, the same year as the original Star Wars.  While the one film broke new ground in special effects, the other used traditional techniques, but on an epic scale.  I like to think of Bridge in terms of “what you see is what you get”.  The filmmakers used eleven C-47 aircraft and dropped 1000 parachutists, including paratroopers from the British and Dutch armies.  They used as many real tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and scout cars as they could get their hands on.  They filmed on location in Holland, using the actual battlefields whenever possible.  Nijmegen Bridge in the film is the actual Nijmegen Bridge.  While Arnhem today looks nothing like it did during the war, the town of Deventer makes an excellent substitute, and its bridge over the Ijssel closely resembles the Arnhem road bridge at the Lower Rhine.  This was the first film to put the actors and extras through a “boot camp” to give them the right military attitude and bearing; this is now standard practice with war films.  Several of the key officers portrayed on screen served as consultants and advisors for the film.

The acting is excellent.  Dirk Bogarde portrays Lt. General “Boy” Browning as bristling with confidence, yet his eyes somehow convey his deepest doubts and fears.  Anthony Hopkins as Lt. Colonel John Frost shows massive calm and stoicism despite the chaos surrounding him.  Edward Fox has stated that portraying Lt. General Brian Horrocks was one of his favorite roles.  Many of the actors have a strong physical resemblance to the historical figures they portray.  Maj. General “Roy” Urquhart was unfamiliar with Sean Connery prior to the film, but his wife and daughters were thrilled with the casting.

Connery

Sean Connery as Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, talking to his signals officers.

The cinematography is outstanding, and Richard Attenborough’s direction is simply brilliant.  The ground battle begins with a rolling artillery barrage, followed by the advancing tank column.  When the tanks hit resistance, an air strike is called; the cameras follow the aircraft as they swoop in from behind the ground column.  This sequence is visually stunning; one could call it beautiful if it weren’t for the explosions, the carnage, the horror of war.  The failed German dash across Arnhem Bridge on the second day of the battle is equally spectacular; in fact, John Frost wrote that watching that sequence was more exciting than being there for the real event.  I first became familiar with this film on “pan and scan” VHS copies.  The epic scale and magnificent cinematography of this motion picture really benefit from modern DVD recordings and widescreen televisions, although I must confess that I have not seen it on Blu-Ray.

I have very few criticisms of this film, but of course, no motion picture is perfect.  There is too much reliance on composite characters.  For example, one of the most memorable characters is Major Harry Carlyle, yet no such person was at Arnhem; the character was based primarily on Major Digby Tatham-Warter, but also performed actions by Lt. Jack Grayburn, VC.  On that point, there were five Victoria Crosses awarded for the Battle of Arnhem, but none of the recipients are named in the film, although some of their actions are hinted at.

There are several key parts of the operation that the film ignores or glosses over.  There is also a subplot involving James Caan that, while interesting, does little to help the overall progress of the story; I have been known to fast forward through the entire sequence.  I love the fact that the film shows real paratroopers jumping out of real Dakotas, but I never understood why the filmmakers had the planes painted a dusty yellow instead of the correct olive green.

Even the title itself is problematic.  At the end of the film, Dirk Bogarde, as General Browning, states, “we were trying to go a bridge too far”, referring to Arnhem, the farthest objective.  Cornelius Ryan was so captivated by this statement that he named his book after it, and the title carried over to the filmed adaptation.  However, current historians believe the statement is apocryphal, that is, Browning probably never said it.  After all, the operation was not just a thrust to gain territory in Holland; the entire point was to get across the Rhine, outflank the Siegfried Line, and invade Germany itself.

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The defense of Arnhem Bridge as shown in A Bridge Too Far.  This sequence was filmed in the town of Deventer, on the river Ijssel.

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The actual Arnhem Bridge; photo taken shortly after the battle.

I tend to nitpick this film because I have read more about the Battle of Arnhem than any other event in history.  However, if it had not been for A Bridge Too Far, I may never have studied Market Garden as intensely as I have and learned as much on my own.  If not for this movie, I may never have started reenacting as 1st Airborne, or been inspired to visit Arnhem itself, which I did in 2003.  Overall, I think it is one of the best motion pictures ever made about World War II.

Postscript:

I just watched the film again, and thought I should add a few comments.

Part of the decision behind 1st Airborne’s drop zones being so far away from Arnhem Bridge (about eight miles) was to avoid the enemy anti-aircraft batteries defending the airfield at Deelen.  Ironically, the take-off scenes in the motion picture were not filmed in England, but at the Deelen airfield.

The first few times I watched the film, I thought Ryan O’Neal was far too young to portray a general.  It was only later that I learned the officer he portrayed, Brigadier James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne, was only 37 during Market Garden.  A month later, upon promotion, he became the youngest major general in the US Army.

The film conveys the idea that a major factor in 1st Airborne’s problems at Arnhem lay in the breakdown of radio communications; this was certainly described in Cornelius Ryan’s original book.  While this may have come as a surprise to 4th Parachute Brigade and perhaps even Divisional Headquarters, this was nothing new to the more experienced 1st Parachute Brigade.  They had experienced similar problems in North Africa and Sicily, and anticipated them for Arnhem.  Lt. Col. Frost’s use of his hunting horn seems like a silly affectation in the film, but in reality, Frost and his officers had developed signals on bugles and whistles to convey simple messages on the assumption the radios would fail.

For related articles, please see the following:

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

2nd Parachute Battalion – The “Mepacrine Chasers”

Major General John Frost

Thoughts on Market Garden