“Men With Tails”, Part 2: The Parachutist’s Oversmock

In an earlier article, I wrote about the development of the famous Denison smock, as worn by the British Airborne Forces.  However, the Denison was only half of a two-part system.  The other component was the parachutist’s oversmock.

During the early days of the Airborne Forces, the uniforms and equipment were experimental.  The Royal Air Force naturally had an inventory of parachutes for escaping damaged aircraft, and the first paratroopers had to manually pull a ripcord to deploy their canopy.  It was not long before this method was determined unsuitable, and a static-line parachute was developed.  The volunteer paratroopers during those early days were certainly brave, as there were a number of injuries and even fatalities; each incident was thoroughly investigated and often resulted in a modification to the equipment or the training program.  The X-type static line parachute, also called the “Statichute”, eventually developed an impressive reputation for reliability.  However, there was still the occasional mishap, including incidents of the parachute canopy not fully opening and deploying; this dreadful situation was known as the “Roman candle”.

To reduce the number of accidents, it was considered vital to prevent any entanglements between the paratrooper, his equipment, and the parachute.  In 1942, the Denison smock and the parachutist’s oversmock were both adopted and entered production; together, these items replaced the earlier “step-in smock”.  The Denison was worn over the wool battledress uniform, but under the webbing equipment.  The oversmock was then worn over all other uniform and equipment items, separating them from the parachute harness and rigging lines.  Both the oversmock and the step-in smock it replaced were also called “jumping jackets”, which can easily cause confusion when reading original source material.

Oversmocks April 44

“Somewhere in England”, April 1944.  Paratroopers check their equipment prior to a training jump; the oversmock can be seen over the Denison and webbing equipment but under the parachute harness.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The parachutist’s oversmock was a sleeveless garment made from green denim material, with a full-length zipper.  Like the Denison smock, it had an “ape tail” to be snapped up between the legs to keep the garment in place during the jump.  However, the fasteners had a somewhat different arrangement; while the Denison’s ape tail snapped to the inside of the smock, the oversmock’s tail fastened to the outside.  The oversmock also had a pair of elasticized pockets near the bottom hem, each intended to hold a single grenade to assist in an opposed landing.

Oversmock Zipped

The 1942 pattern parachutists’ oversmock or jumping jacket; this example was made in 1945.  The full-length zipper, ape tail and grenade pockets are clearly seen.  Photograph by the author.

Oversmock Label

Label from the oversmock shown above.

While the Denison was designed for paratroopers, it was also issued to glider troops and, eventually, the Commandos.  By contrast, the oversmock was only ever used by paratroopers, as it was specifically designed to be worn during the parachute descent.  In training, the oversmock could be collected and returned to stores, but on operations, it was considered disposable and was to be removed and abandoned on the drop zone.

Many historians have written that the parachutist’s oversmock was not used until shortly before D-Day; however, there is evidence indicating that 1st Parachute Brigade used both the Denison and the oversmock in North Africa in late 1942.  Major General F.A.M. Browning visited the Brigade in December and noted both items in the appendix to his diary.

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

Jumping jacket.  New type very good.  Brigade dislike the idea of discarding it on landing as it is useful as a garment as well as a jumping jacket.

(As quoted in Tunisian Tales by Niall Cherry)

The above entry is in contrast to the earlier jumping jacket or “step-in smock”, which was typically retained after landing.

There is a remarkable photograph of troops from 2nd Parachute Battalion in North Africa showing at least one man wearing the oversmock.  This is the earliest photograph I have seen of this garment, a full year-and-a-half prior to D-Day.  Additionally, the man most clearly wearing the oversmock appears to be wearing it over the wool flannel shirt, without the Denison or wool battledress, corroborating Browning’s statement that it was “useful as a garment” in its own right.  Later photographs, however, only show the oversmock in its intended role for training or operational parachute drops.

Tunisia 1942

Men of the 2nd Parachute Battalion in North Africa soon after arrival in November, 1942.  The leading man is wearing the oversmock; his exposed sleeves appear to be those of the wool flannel shirt, without battledress or Denison.  He is wearing a cloth bandolier of rifle ammunition, but does not appear to have any webbing equipment.  The rest of the men look to be dressed more normally.

Reenacting Tip

As noted above, the parachutist’s oversmock was normally abandoned on the dropping zone; there is little reason to have one at a tactical reenactment.  However, it is a useful item to have for public displays, particularly at air shows.

Original oversmocks sometimes appear on the collector’s market and are generally less expensive than original Denison smocks.  However, larger sized oversmocks can be difficult to find.  Fortunately, quality reproductions of this item have recently become available at a reasonable price; I purchased one, and am very pleased with how well it compares to the original.

Arnhem Dakota

Operation Market Garden, September, 1944:  troops from 1st Airborne Division en route to Holland.  Wearing the oversmock over the webbing equipment gave the men a bulky appearance.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

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British 1st Airborne Division: The Scottish Connection

Recently, my reenacting unit, the British 1st Airborne Division Living History Association, was invited to set up an educational display at a Scottish Highland Games event.  I wrote the following as a handout.

Traditionally, Infantry Regiments in the British Army were based geographically.  English Regiments were based on the county system, such as the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Cheshire Regiment.  Most Highland Regiments were based on the ancient clans, such as the Cameron Highlanders and Gordon Highlanders, and again, each had a designated geographic recruitment area.  Even the larger formations were based geographically, such as the 50th Northumbrian “Tyne and Tees” Division and the famous 51st Highland Division.

By contrast, when Britain’s Airborne Forces were first created in 1940, they were not restricted by such traditions.  1st through 4th Parachute Battalions recruited from all across Great Britain, but it was quickly discovered that the toughest and bravest paratroopers were Scotsmen.  Later Parachute Battalions were converted from existing infantry units, including 5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion, which had previously been the 7th Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

As an experiment, an entire Company was made up of Scotsmen:  C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, nicknamed “Jock Company”.  Naturally, a Scottish officer was needed to command the Company, and Major John Dutton Frost, originally of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) was selected.  Jock Company conducted Britain’s first major airborne action in February, 1942:  a raid against a German radar installation at Bruneval in occupied France.  Frost was then promoted to Lt. Colonel and given command of 2nd Parachute Battalion.

220px-john_frost

Lt. Col. John D. Frost in the uniform of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)

1st Parachute Brigade (1st, 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions) was sent to North Africa in November, 1942, and was in nearly constant action through March, 1943.  Back in Britain, the Airborne Forces continued to grow, and 1st Airborne Division was created.

In addition to paratroops, it was decided to train troops to deploy from gliders; these “air-landing” units took existing infantry battalions and converted them to the glider role.

1st Air-Landing Brigade consisted of one Scottish and two English battalions, as follows:

  • 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment;
  • 2nd Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment;
  • 7th Battalion, Kings Own Scottish Borderers (K.O.S.B.).

1st Air-Landing Brigade first saw action supporting the Invasion of Sicily in July, 1943; 1st Parachute Brigade was then utilized during the breakout from the beachhead.

In September, 1943, elements of 1st Airborne landed in mainland Italy, and the divisional commander, Major General George Hopkinson, was killed in action.  His replacement was Major General Robert “Roy” Urquhart, originally of the Highland Light Infantry.  When Urquhart took command, he appointed Lt. Colonel Charles Mackenzie as his Chief of Staff; Mackenzie had previously commanded 5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion.

Urquhart & Mackenzie

Major General “Roy” Urquhart with his Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Charles Mackenzie, at Divisional Headquarters during the Battle of Arnhem.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Urquhart commanded 1st Airborne during the epic Battle of Arnhem in September, 1944.  Lt. Colonel Frost and his 2nd Battalion captured the north end of Arnhem Bridge, the Division’s main objective.  However, the Division was surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned, and their relieving force never arrived.  7th K.O.S.B. was instrumental in holding the division’s defensive perimeter, but the survivors of the Division were forced back across the Rhine.

The Battle of Arnhem is remembered as one of Britain’s greatest feats of arms, and was famously depicted in the film, “A Bridge Too Far”.

Capt Ogilvie GPR

Captain James Ogilvie of D Squadron, No. 1 Wing, Glider Pilot Regiment, who famously wore his kilt to fly to Arnhem.  Ogilvie served in the Gordon Highlanders prior to volunteering as a Glider Pilot.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

The Pass: Army Form B. 295

Like any large organization, the British Army generated a significant amount of bureaucracy, and the officers and men had seemingly mountains of paperwork to contend with.  While it may be true that “an army marches on its stomach”, it was also true that detailed records had to be kept of the units involved in the march, where they were headed, and how many rations were needed to fill their stomachs on their way.

It seemed that every specific task had its own designated form.  While the orderly room and quartermaster’s stores needed documentation in order to function, this enormous amount and variety of paperwork was met with bewilderment and scorn from the private soldier.  Bureaucratic paperwork was known as “bum fodder” or simply “bumf”* by the lower ranks; similarly, a sheet of latrine paper was ironically nicknamed the “Army Form, Blank”.

One form that was commonly encountered, and even coveted, by the private soldier was the Pass, Army Form B. 295.  Going absent without leave was a serious offense; specifically, it was a violation Section 15 of the Army Act, and could be punished by imprisonment.  Army Form B. 295 was written authorization for leave; the soldier had to keep the pass on his person, and present it on demand to his superiors as evidence of being on approved leave.

Pass 1918 Nat Army Museum

Army Form B. 295, printed in 1917, filled out and issued in 1918.  From the collection of the National Army Museum.

According to King’s Regulations (1940),

1601. (a) Every… pass will be made out on A.F. B295, and be granted and signed by the company, etc., commander. If the period of leave does not exceed 24 hours, a soldier will not be required to state on his pass where he is going, unless notification of his destination is considered desirable owing to local conditions, or is essential to enable him to procure a railway ticket at the military concession rate. Every pass will be stamped with the regimental office stamp before being issued.

(b) If the whole Royal Army Reserve is called out, a soldier on pass will return immediately to his unit without waiting for instructions.

1604. A pass (other than a permanent pass) will not be granted for more than six days: for longer periods a furlough is necessary.

Like many Army Forms, the B. 295 appears to have been adopted in the late Victorian era; it was certainly well established by World War I.  The form itself evolved over time, with later versions typically containing more fields and requiring more detail than earlier versions.  There were also different publishers contracted to provide the forms, with some variances evident between contractors.

Pass 1932 Kings Own Royal Regt Museum

A.F. B. 295, printed in 1928, filled out and issued in 1932.  From the collection of the King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum.

The B. 295 was comprised of two portions.  The main part of the document was the pass itself, issued to the soldier; there was also a smaller piece, similar to a receipt or ticket stub, which was retained by the issuing officer and kept in company records.  The forms were distributed in pads, typically of 100 forms per pad, with each sheet having a perforated line for ease of separating the pass from the stub.

Despite the variances, all passes identified the soldier’s name, rank and Army number, the dates the pass was valid, and the signature of the issuing officer.  The rule about a soldier returning to his unit upon mobilization of the Reserve was often printed on the pass itself.

Pass 1952 Kings Own Royal Regt Museum

A.F. B. 295 issued in 1952.  Unfortunately, I cannot make out the printing date on this example.  It is also unclear why the stub was not detached and retained by the issuing officer.  From the collection of the King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum.

I have an original B. 295, which was printed in August, 1946, as indicated by the markings in the top left corner.  This form is on very thin off-white paper, and has grown even more delicate with age; there is also some discoloration at the edge of the form.  The entire sheet is still intact; that is, the pass has not been detached from the stub.  There are small holes showing where the form had been stapled as part of a pad.  This postwar pass has a specific space allocated for the unit stamp; unlike earlier versions, there is also a field for the unit telephone number.  The reverse of the pass has detailed instructions for a soldier who is injured or becomes ill while on leave, followed by instructions for the civilian doctor or dentist who treats the soldier.

B295 8-46 Front

The author’s original B. 295:  Pass.  The markings at the top left indicate a printing date of August, 1946.  The dark area to the right is a discoloration of the paper, not a photo error.

B295 8-46 Rear

Reverse of the same pass shown above.  Author’s collection.

Because my original form is so delicate, I keep it in a padded envelope in a desk drawer.  However, I decided to put my desktop publishing and paper crafting skills to the test by creating a reproduction pass.  I based my reproduction on the earlier, simpler versions of the form, partly to make the job easier, and partly because some of the later details were not likely to relate to a reenacting event.  I purchased a perforating tool to replicate the pass-and-stub format.  I then made pads by attaching the sheets to a cardboard backing, but I was only able to use 15 sheets per pad based on the limitations of my current stapler.

Several months ago, my reenacting unit attended an air show and set up an educational display for the public.  Any time one of the unit members wanted to leave our area and see the rest of the show, I filled out a reproduction B. 295 and handed it to him.  I enjoyed it as a small touch of living history; I hope the others did as well, although I suspect they probably grumbled about the “bumf”.

B295 Repro

The author’s attempt at a reproduction B. 295.

For any reenactor not wanting to go through the hassle of making their own B. 295, quality reproductions are available from Clever Forgery as well as Rob Van Meel’s Re-Print Military Literature; these professionally-made reproductions are far superior to my humble effort.

*Sometimes spelled “bumph”.

Book Review: The Pegasus Diaries

I recently read The Pegasus Diaries:  The Private Papers of Major John Howard, DSO.

I have read Stephen Ambrose’s well-known book, Pegasus Bridge, a number of times, and thoroughly enjoyed reading about the capture of the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal just after midnight on D-Day.  It was that book that inspired me to travel to Normandy and see the Benouville bridge in person.

Pegasus Diaries was published more recently, and I purchased it hoping it would give me additional insight into the planning and training that went into the operation.  However, that was not the focus of the book; instead, I learned about the life and personality of one of the greatest heroes of the Normandy campaign.

John Howard kept a personal diary from January, 1942, through early 1946.  His daughter, Penny, found the diary as a child, but was prohibited from reading it.  She did not see the diary again until after her father’s death in 1999.

Penny (now Penny Bates) decided to transcribe the diary into her computer.  This was not an easy task, as her father’s handwriting was very difficult to read; she was one of the few who could decipher it.  She then supplemented the diary with her father’s planning notes for D-Day and other documents, and decided to turn these sources into a personal narrative from her father’s perspective.  Because her father had worked closely with Stephen Ambrose for Pegasus Bridge, Penny wanted her book to be less about D-Day, and more about her father’s personality and family life.

Major John Howard

Major John Howard, D.S.O.

Reginald John Howard grew up in a large, working-class family in Camden Town, London.  His family called him “Reg”, but he preferred to go by his middle name.  As a child, John was intelligent and hard-working; he was a good student, and helped care for his eight siblings.  He became active in the local Boy Scout troop, through which he became an avid athlete, and also fell in love with the English countryside.

Howard joined the Army at the age of 19, and served seven years in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.  While a soldier, he met Joy Bromley, and they fell in love.  After proposing to Joy, Howard left the army in 1938 at the rank of Corporal.  He was then accepted into the Oxford City Police Force.

War broke out in September, 1939.  John and Joy were married in October, and shortly after, John was recalled to the Army and rejoined his regiment as a Corporal.  Howard was an exceptional soldier, and was quickly promoted to Sergeant, then Company Sergeant Major; in April, 1940, he was made Regimental Sergeant Major.

The Army expanded rapidly after war was declared.  There was a desperate shortage of officers, and Howard was recommended for the Officer Cadet Training Unit.  Upon graduation, Howard was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and assigned to be an infantry training officer.

Being athletic, hard-working, and energetic, Howard grew bored and frustrated as a trainer and wanted a more exciting position.  Upon the creation of the Airborne Forces, the Army decided to convert 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire L.I. to become a glider-borne unit.  Volunteers were needed; Howard thought the Airborne role would suit him, so he applied and was accepted.  Shortly after joining the battalion, Howard was given command of D Company, in February, 1942.  2nd Oxf. & Bucks. was part of 1st Airborne Division, then was transferred to 6th Airborne when that Division was created in 1943.

When Howard joined the battalion, most of the other officers had come from aristocratic families and had graduated from the Sandhurst military academy.  They looked down on Howard’s working-class roots and the fact that he had come up from the ranks.  While a lesser man may have been consumed by resentment, Howard turned his bitterness into determination and focus on his work.  He wanted to prove that he could be just as good an officer as the others, if not better.

Howard wanted D Company to be the best company in the Regiment.  At first, his men grumbled about how demanding he was; he had very high standards, particularly for physical fitness and stamina.  He also gave his men intensive training in weapons handling, unarmed combat, and tactics.  He made sure his men were proficient in the use of first aid and signals, driving various vehicles, and cooking rations in the field.  The Airborne was made up of volunteers who were more highly motivated and more intelligent than the average soldier.  While the men of D Company complained about how hard they had to work, they soon developed a tremendous respect for their energetic officer and took enormous pride in their unit.  While Howard’s experiences in the Officer’s Mess were difficult, he soon formed strong friendships with the junior officers in his company.

Gliders

Benouville, Normandy, as seen in July, 1944.  These three Horsa gliders had transported Major Howard and part of D Coy, 2nd Oxf. & Bucks just after midnight on D-Day.  The counterweight of the drawbridge can be made out through the trees in the background; Cafe Gondree can also be seen.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

In June 1942, Howard was promoted to Major; a month later, his son, Terry was born.  Whenever possible, Howard traveled home on weekends to spend time with his family.  Joy lived with her mother and stepfather, but eventually the Howards tried to find a home of their own, which was very difficult during wartime.  Daughter Penny was born in March, 1944.

Howard and D Company were recognized for their capabilities, and were chosen for one of the most important objectives of the invasion of Normandy:  the capture of the vital bridges at Benouville.  D Company spent several months rehearsing for the operation, even training on real bridges that were similar in size to their objectives.

When D-Day arrived in June, 1944, D Company captured both bridges intact, and held them against enemy counter-attacks.  They were reinforced by 7th Parachute Battalion, and then by ground forces from Sword Beach.  After the battle, the drawbridge over the Caen Canal was re-named Pegasus Bridge after the Airborne insignia depicting the Greek hero Bellerophon riding the winged horse Pegasus.  Similarly, the bridge over the Orne River was re-named Horsa Bridge after the main type of British glider.

Pegasus Bridge July 44

Another view of Benouville in July, 1944.  Cafe Gondree is to the right, the bridge to the left.  Notice the sign declaring the site as Pegasus Bridge has already been placed, a month after the bridge’s capture.  The Horsa gliders can be seen in the background.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

D Company had been led to understand that they would be withdrawn shortly after D-Day, so their hard-earned skills could be used again in further operations.  Instead, they, and the rest of 6th Airborne, were used as regular infantry and kept in the front lines until the end of August.  In all this fighting, D Company took numerous casualties, particularly amongst the officers and NCO’s.  Howard himself narrowly escaped death when a sniper’s bullet pierced his helmet, but only grazed his scalp.  2nd Oxf. & Bucks. were finally withdrawn to England, where D Company returned to training and began replacing losses.  Several of Howard’s friends had been killed in action; the sorrow of these losses combined with bitterness over being used as regular infantry when D Company’s talents and training should have been better utilized.

Another tragedy occurred in November, 1944.  Howard was driving home to Oxford to visit Joy and the children; while navigating a blind curve, he crashed head-on into an American Army truck that had pulled out of its convoy and into the wrong lane.  Howard’s lower body was shattered, and he spent several months in hospital.  While recovering, Howard learned about 6th Airborne being rushed back to the continent to help stop the enemy offensive in the Ardennes.  Then in March, 1945, 6th Airborne spearheaded the crossing of the Rhine and the attack into Germany itself.  Howard’s injuries were painful, but being away from his Battalion during these actions caused just as much misery.  By May, he had been released from hospital, but had to return for additional surgery, and missed out on the Victory in Europe celebrations.

J Howard Beret Helmet - Detail

Major John Howard’s beret and helmet, now displayed at the Memorial Pegasus in Benouville.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

John Howard never did fully recover from the driving accident.  He was forced to leave the Army, and spent the rest of his life using either crutches or a walking stick.  Howard had hoped for a long military career, and was deeply upset that this was cut short by his injuries; Joy, however, was quite happy not to have John sent overseas or being put in harm’s way.  Howard was able to focus his energy and talents on a successful career in the civil service.  He also gave several lectures on the Pegasus Bridge operation, and returned to Normandy nearly every June for the annual commemorations.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions on D-Day.

The book is quite extraordinary.  It is well-written, and an enjoyable read.  While I did not learn anything about the capture of Pegasus Bridge that was not already covered by other sources, it was fascinating to learn so much more about the man chiefly responsible for the success of the operation.  I already knew that John Howard had been a remarkable man, and this book brought to life his courage and determination.  The book also demonstrates the difficulties of trying to have a normal family life during wartime.  It is also a rather unique concept, in that Penny Bates wrote it in first-person narrative from her father’s perspective.  After I read the introduction, I was somewhat dubious about this approach, but the result was quite successful.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is already familiar with the story of Major Howard and D Company, 2nd Oxf. & Bucks.; it is an excellent insight into a true hero of the Normandy campaign.  For anyone else, I would suggest starting with Stephen Ambrose’s book and then following up with this one.

The Pegasus Diaries:  The Private Papers of Major John Howard, DSO is published by Pen & Sword, and is also available through Amazon and other sources.

Benouville

The Caen Canal was widened in the 1990’s, and the original Pegasus Bridge moved to a museum.  This photo shows the modern, longer bridge, with Cafe Gondree clearly seen on the opposite side of the canal.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

Book Review: Men at Arnhem

It is September as I write this; all month long, my thoughts have been on Operation Market Garden, and the annual commemorations held in the Netherlands.  I decided to re-read one of my favorite books on the subject, Men at Arnhem, by Geoffrey Powell.

Geoffrey Powell retired from the British Army in 1964 with the rank of Colonel.  He was originally an officer with The Green Howards, but was seconded to the Parachute Regiment.  For Operation Market Garden, he held the rank of Major, and commanded C Company, 156th Parachute Battalion; he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during the operation.  Men at Arnhem is Powell’s personal account of the battle.

156th Parachute Battalion was part of 4th Parachute Brigade, 1st Airborne Division.  For Market Garden, there were insufficient aircraft to take 1st Airborne to Holland in a single lift; 4th Parachute Brigade therefore dropped on September 18, 1944, as part of the second lift.  The element of surprise had been completely lost by that point, and the paratroopers took fire during their drop.  The original plan was to head to Arnhem and reinforce the troops who had made it to the bridge.  However, enemy strength was significantly greater than expected; every time the battalion tried to advance, they hit a blocking line and took substantial casualties.  They would regroup and try again, but with the same outcome.  The battalion commander was killed, and Powell took over leadership of what remained of the unit.  Eventually, the survivors were forced to fall back and go on the defensive; they held part of the perimeter at the village of Oosterbeek, outside Arnhem.  Starving and low on ammunition, they fought as best they could from the houses and gardens of the village.  By the end of the operation, only a handful were evacuated across the Rhine.

Hartenstein IWM

Troops of 1st Airborne Division on the grounds of the Hotel Hartenstein, Oosterbeek; the hotel was used as Divisional Headquarters during Market Garden.  The men are desperately trying to signal resupply aircraft, as the enemy had overrun the designated resupply dropping zone.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The book is very well-written.  The narrative flows easily, and the descriptive language is highly effective.  Stylistically, it seems like a novel, and the reader has to remember that this is not fiction; the tragic events really happened, and the descriptions of pain and loss reflect the author’s own experiences.

It helps if the reader already has a basic knowledge of the battle of Arnhem, as Powell provides little background information.  However, he describes the sensations of the battle, and his writing is highly evocative.  He describes the pressure of being under nearly-constant fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, as well as the deafening mortar and artillery fire, which drove some men to the edge of their sanity.  He expresses his frustration at the poor intelligence and the continual breakdowns in communications, as well as his bitterness at 2nd Army’s failure to break through and relieve the airborne troops.  Powell wrote about his pride in his battalion, its high level of training and esprit de corps, as well as the heartbreak of watching the unit get destroyed in just a few days.  He describes the sorrow of watching his friends and comrades being killed.  Powell felt tremendously guilty that he was unable to do more to save his men; the other survivors from the battalion, however, credited their escape to his leadership.

The revised edition includes a preface in which Powell explains that he initially found it very difficult to write about his memories of the battle.  To ease his difficulties, he wrote and originally published the book under a pseudonym, Tom Angus.  He changed the names of the people he described, and he wrote the narrative as he remembered it, which did not always match official records.

I have read a number of personal accounts of the Second World War; I consider Men at Arnhem as my favorite.  This is partly because of the subject matter; I have a particular fascination with 1st Airborne Division and Operation Market Garden.  However, it is the quality of the writing that truly impresses me; this is a powerful and evocative personal account that portrays the confusion and fear of combat, the author’s pride in his unit, and the tremendous sense of loss from the many casualties.  I cannot recommend this book enough.

Men at Arnhem is readily available through Amazon.  It is also available through the Airborne Shop, www.airborneshop.com, where all purchases provide funds for Support Our Paras, a charitable organization dedicated to assisting airborne soldiers and veterans.

Men at Arnhem Cover

Flt. Lt. David S. Lord, VC

This article originally appeared in “The Front”, the newsletter of the California Historical Group, and is reprinted here by kind permission of the editors.  This version has been revised and expanded since the original.

Flt. Lt. David S. Lord, VC, DFC (1913 – 1944)

Britain’s highest award for bravery and dedication to duty is the Victoria Cross.  There were five Victoria Crosses awarded for the Battle of Arnhem:  four of the recipients were soldiers of the 1st Airborne Division*; the fifth was a pilot of the Royal Air Force, named David Lord.

David Samuel Anthony Lord was born in Cork, Ireland, on October 18, 1913.  His parents were Welsh, and his father was an NCO in the British Army.  After the Great War, Lord’s father was sent to serve in India, and took his family with him; once he retired from the Army, he moved his family back to Wales.

2.0.1

Flt. Lt. David S. Lord, VC, DFC

Lord was raised Roman Catholic, and as a young man, he decided to study for the priesthood.  However, he quickly decided it was not his vocation, so he moved to London and attempted a career as a freelance writer.  This, too, did not work out, so in 1936, Lord joined the Royal Air Force.

Lord underwent pilot training, and was made Sergeant Pilot in 1939.  He was assigned to India and flew transport aircraft.  His unit, Number 31 Squadron, flew the Douglas DC-2, which was then replaced with the Douglas “Dakota”, the British name for the DC-3 / C-47.  He flew several transport and supply missions in India and Burma, including missions supporting the Chindits; he also spent time in Egypt and the Middle East.

In 1942, Lord was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, then awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943.  In 1944, he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant; he returned to England and was assigned to Number 271 Squadron.

No. 271 Squadron was based at the airfield at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire.  The Squadron specialized in Airborne operations, dropping paratroopers, towing gliders, and flying resupply missions.  As part of this Squadron, Lord supported 6th Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion.

In September 1944, Operation Market Garden was launched; 1st Airborne Division’s objective was the road bridge over the Lower Rhine in Arnhem.  It was hoped that the relief column would reach 1st Airborne in two days, but many felt that three or four days would be more realistic.  It was realized that aerial resupply would be a critical component of the operation.  While the plan was for the Division to occupy the town of Arnhem and its vital bridge, the nearby village of Oosterbeek also needed to be held, as the open fields north of the village could be used for resupply drops.

Lord was pilot and captain of one of 271 Squadron’s Dakotas which was specially equipped for resupply missions.  In addition to static lines for deploying parachutes, the airplane had rollers on the floor of the fuselage to assist in moving the heavy containers and panniers of equipment.  The Dakota had a crew of eight:  four RAF, and four air despatchers of the Royal Army Service Corps.  These air despatchers were specially trained in packing supply containers, loading them into the aircraft, and quickly getting them out of the cargo door to land accurately on the designated drop zone.  The air despatchers were issued parachutes, but rarely wore them as they interfered with working inside the airplane.

Dakota Panniers

Air Despatchers of the Royal Army Service Corps prepare to drop resupply panniers from a Dakota during a training operation.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The operation began on September 17.  On September 19, 271 Squadron, including Lord and his crew, flew a resupply mission.  News from Arnhem was scarce, and what did get through was not good:  the Airborne troops had encountered much heavier resistance than had been expected.  The Germans had reinforced their anti-aircraft batteries, and the “flak” was much heavier on the 19th than it had been the previous two days.

As Lord approached the supplies dropping zone, his airplane was hit, and the starboard engine caught fire.  However, Lord continued his descent to drop height, and rather than bailing out, the crew began dispatching their vital supplies.  The fighting on the ground nearly came to a halt as astonished soldiers watched the burning Dakota turn full circle and make a second pass over the drop zone.  Then the starboard wing collapsed, and the plane, engulfed in flames, plummeted to the ground.

Flying Officer Henry King, Lord’s navigator, bailed out of the doomed airplane, but he was the only survivor.  He was found by a patrol from 10th Parachute Battalion, who offered him a chocolate bar and a mug of tea.  The soldiers apologized that they had nothing else to offer; King was devastated to learn that the enemy had overrun the drop zone, and had captured most of the supplies.  By the end of the battle, King and his new friends from 10th Battalion were captured and imprisoned by the enemy.

At the end of the war, King was freed from the Stalag; as was customary with released prisoners, he was interviewed about his experiences.  According to King, Flt. Lt. Lord had been determined to get as many supplies to the men on the ground as possible.  When he learned there were still containers aboard after his first pass, he made a second run over the drop zone despite the damage to his plane.  Once the last container was out, Lord ordered the crew to bail out, but only King escaped.  Lord remained at the controls and made no effort to save himself, in a desperate effort to buy time for his crew to escape.  It was based on King’s testimony that Lord was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross.  The request was granted; as Lord had never married, the award was presented to his parents in November, 1945.

After the war, Major General R.E. (“Roy”) Urquhart, the commanding officer of 1st Airborne, wrote about the battle, including his vivid memories of Lord’s actions.

One Dakota was hit by flak and the starboard wing set on fire.  Yet it came on, descending to nine hundred feet.  It seemed that every anti-aircraft gun in the vicinity was sighted on the crippled aircraft.  With its starboard engine blazing, it came through to the dropping zone.  At the end of the run, the Dakota turned and made a second run to drop the remaining supplies.  From foxholes and slit trenches and from the restricted spaces to which we were trying to attract the pilots; from blasted buildings and ditches and emplacements of rubble and earth, the eyes of hundreds and probably thousands of careworn soldiers gazed upwards through the battle haze.  We were spellbound and speechless, and I daresay there is not a survivor of Arnhem who will ever forget, or want to forget, the courage we were privileged to witness in those terrible eight minutes.  It was not until some time after the operation that I learned the name of the pilot of that Dakota – Flight Lieutenant David Lord, of 271 Squadron.  We saw the machine crashing in flames as one of its wings collapsed, and we did not know that Lord had ordered his crew to abandon while making no effort to leave himself.  There was one survivor.  This incident was talked about long afterwards by men who had grown accustomed to bravery…

Arnhem
Major General R.E. Urquhart, C.B., D.S.O.

David Lord’s body was recovered and identified, and his remains are now at rest in the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.  Lord’s headstone is engraved with the crest of the RAF as well as the Victoria Cross.

D Lord Marker

David Lord’s grave at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.  The obscured text reads, “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Author’s photograph.

In England, little remains of the RAF airfield at Down Ampney.  However, the villagers commissioned a stained glass window for the local church of All Saints as a memorial to Flt. Lt. Lord and his comrades of 271 Squadron.

D Lord Window Down Ampney

Memorial window at All Saints church, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

Postscript:

On a personal note, I have only had one opportunity to visit the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.  While there, I made sure to locate Lord’s grave and pay my respects; I did the same with the other two V.C. recipients buried there.  Two years later, while touring the Cotswolds, I visited Down Ampney.  I had wanted to see the village as it was the birthplace of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; however, my strongest memory of Down Ampney is of the Lord memorial window at All Saints church.

*The four Airborne recipients of the Victoria Cross were:

  • Major Robert Cain, VC, 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment;
  • Captain Lionel Quirepel, VC, 10th Parachute Battalion;
  • Lieutenant John (“Jack”) Grayburn, 2nd Parachute Battalion;
  • Lance Sergeant John Baskeyfield, 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment.

Major Cain was the only survivor of the battle to receive the Victoria Cross; the other awards were granted posthumously.  Like Flt. Lt. Lord, Capt. Quirepel and Lt. Grayburn are buried at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery; L/Sgt. Baskeyfield’s body was never recovered.

 

Boiled Sweets and Airborne Rations

As a living historian, I enjoy private events where I can immerse myself in a World War II environment and attempt to live and train as a soldier of that conflict.  However, I also feel the need to be an educator, to share what I have learned with others.  Not only is this need to teach history part of the driving force behind my blog, it is also why I participate in educational displays at air shows and other public venues.

At public events, I have found that people are often drawn to my rations displays, and I spend much of my time describing the various items.  I own a number of original tins, including examples of the different boiled sweets tins from the Composite Rations (tins labeled “Boiled Sweets”, “Boiled Sweets, Salt & Matches”, and “Chocolate and Boiled Sweets”).  It may come as a surprise to my friends in the UK that the term “boiled sweets” is unknown here in the US, and I often have to explain that it is simply the British name for hard candy.  Americans, especially children, often find the term “boiled sweets” unappealing, so I like to offer a fruit disc or mint and describe how hard candy is produced*.

Boiled Sweets Tin_NEW

Boiled sweets tin from the Composite Ration.  Author’s collection.

The cellophane-wrapped mints and fruit discs are good for public displays, as they are readily available in the US, making them easy for children to recognize and inexpensive for me to hand out.  As a reenactor and amateur historian, however, this is not good enough.  I want to learn as much as I can about the conditions and experiences of the wartime soldier, and if possible, replicate them for myself.  I have studied a number of books on British rations, including a few original training pamphlets.

In some respects, British soldiers were better off than civilians on the Home Front; for one thing, they were generally better fed.  The distribution of food for civilians was strictly controlled, and there were frequent shortages; sugar was particularly scarce and was considered a luxury item.  However, the government determined that it was essential that servicemembers have access to sugary foods.  Soldiers expended a great deal of energy marching, digging and fighting, and Army rations needed to be high in calories.  Boiled sweets were an important part of the 24-Hour Ration and the Composite Ration, both to provide energy and bolster morale.  The boiled sweets were not intended to be part of a meal; instead, soldiers were instructed to keep a few in a pocket so they could be eaten whenever a little extra energy was needed.  Additionally, it was not always convenient to get a drink of water under combat conditions; sucking a boiled sweet could help overcome the feeling of thirst.

Unfortunately, I have found very little detail regarding the boiled sweets; for years, I have been trying to learn more about the specific flavors or varieties that were issued.  I finally found some detail in a description of an Airborne-specific ration from a 1942 manual, as reprinted in a book I recently acquired.

Air Publication 2453, November 1942
Volume I, Section 2, Chapter 3
Personal Paratroop Equipment

Ration S.T.6.

This ration is intended to cover a period up to forty-eight hours and comprises the following items:–
One 12 oz. tin of corned beef, with key.
One 2 oz. tin of dripping spread.
Two tins of processed cheese.
One tin of tea and dried milk.
One box of matches.
One tin containing service biscuits, sweet biscuits, chocolate, acid drops, and barley sugar.

The ration S.T.6. is issued to paratroops at their operational base where the separate articles should be packed tightly in the smaller mess tin, using broken biscuits to prevent any possibility of rattle which might reveal to the enemy the whereabouts of a paratroop.  The method of packing is illustrated in fig. 3.  The larger mess tin is used as a lid when packing is complete.

(Reprinted in RAF Airborne Forces Manual:  The Official Air Publications for RAF Paratroop Aircraft and Gliders, 1942-1946)

 

The referenced illustration is one that I have seen many times.  Scans of “Figure 3:  Contents of Paratroop Haversack” have been available on the internet for years, without noting the original source; I am pleased to have solved that mystery.

paratrooper haversack

Illustration from Air Publication 2453, Volume I, Section 2, Chapter 3, originally published November, 1942.  Ration S.T.6. is stored inside the mess tin.

I have not seen any other descriptions or references to the S.T.6. Ration; it seems to have been a formalized version of the haversack ration, and I suspect it was superseded by the later 24-Hour Ration issued to all assault troops, not just paratroopers.  However, it was the last line of the itemized list above that stood out to me.  Acid drops and barley sugar are specific types of boiled sweets, and so far, this is the only source I have found with that kind of detail.  It certainly does not mean that all Army-issued boiled sweets were acid drops or barley sugars, but it does seem reasonable that these were included in other types of rations.  I will keep researching in hopes of learning more.

Tins - Edited

Rations display at an air show, with the items in the mess tin based on the accompanying illustration.  The boiled sweets, tea, and emergency ration tins are all originals; the corned beef and luncheon meat tins are modern that have been made to look as they would have during WWII.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

I recently visited my local import shops in hopes of obtaining barley sugars and acid drops; I found numerous chocolates and toffees, and even a few boiled sweets, but not the specific ones I wanted.  Fortunately, I found an internet-based vendor of traditional British confectionery that carries these items, and ships internationally.  My order recently arrived; while I plan to carry a pocket full of acid drops and barley sugars at my next living history event, I had to try a few first.  The acid drops are spherical and have a tart citrus flavor; they are similar to American lemon drops, but less sweet.  The barley sugars are elongated tablets with a mellow, sweet taste; they remind me of butterscotch, but more subtle.  I am looking forward to carrying these sweets in the field, and sharing with my friends.

Boiled Sweets in Tin

Barley sugars (left) and acid drops (right)

For more information on British rations, please see my earlier article on the subject by clicking here.

*Boiled sweets, or hard candy, are made by dissolving sugar and flavoring agents into water to make a syrup.  This flavored syrup is then boiled until nearly all the water evaporates, making the mixture extremely thick and sticky.  This substance is then molded or otherwise shaped, then allowed to cool and harden.

“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.

G Smock 1 Pic 2 - Cropped

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.

G Smock 1 Pic 2 - Detail

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’.

G Smock 4 Pic 3 - Cropped

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.

S Smock Pic 1 - Cropped

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.

S Smock Pic 12 Detail

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.

*While this is the commonly-accepted reason for the garment’s name, historians have recently searched for evidence to support the story; they were unable to confirm the existence of the fabled Major Denison.

 

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.

commando knife 2

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.

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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