“Men Apart”: The Red Beret

June, 1940, was a very difficult time for Britain.  France had fallen, and the British Expeditionary Force had just been evacuated from Dunkirk.  The German Blitzkrieg had shocked the world, and Britain braced for invasion.  While the military prepared for defense, many politicians wanted to seek peace with Germany in desperate hopes of preventing an invasion.

Winston Churchill had only recently been appointed Prime Minister.  He refused to capitulate to the enemy, and inspired the nation with his defiance and determination.  He believed that it was dangerous to take on a purely defensive posture.  If Britain was incapable of launching a major offensive into occupied Europe, small-scale raids could at least keep the enemy off balance, and boost the morale of the civilian population.

Beret Hartenstein

Maroon beret with Parachute Regiment cap badge on display at the Airborne Museum Hartenstein, Oosterbeek, Netherlands.  Author’s photograph.

It was with this mindset that, on June 22, 1940, Churchill called for the creation of the Airborne Forces, to be delivered both by glider and parachute.  Like the Commandos, these units were originally conceived as raiding forces to conduct small-scale sabotage and intelligence-gathering missions.  However, as the war progressed, the Airborne Forces grew to include two full divisions plus an independent brigade.

The first four battalions of paratroopers were made up of volunteers from all across the British Army.  At first, these men retained the insignia and headgear of their parent units.  The Scotsmen wore Balmoral bonnets, while the Irish had their caubeens; Guardsmen wore their peaked service dress caps; and everyone else had the envelope-style field service cap.

Eventually, the demand for more airborne units exceeded the number of available volunteers; existing infantry units were then converted into new parachute battalions.  Other infantry battalions were designated for glider training, although these units kept their original names.  Soldiers in both types of converted units were given the option of transferring out, and volunteers were recruited to fill the vacancies.  Many were unable to meet the demanding physical standards, and still more volunteers were needed.

As time went on and the Airborne Forces grew, it was realized that more structure was needed.  1st Airborne Division was created as a fighting organization on November 1, 1941.  To give the Parachute Battalions a parent organization, the Army Air Corps (AAC) was established on December 21, 1941; the AAC also had oversight of the newly-formed Glider Pilot Regiment.  On August 1, 1942, the Parachute Regiment was officially created within the AAC to give the Parachute Battalions more unity and sense of identity*.

Major-General F.A.M. “Boy” Browning was given command not only of 1st Airborne Division, but all Airborne Forces on October 29, 1941.  Browning was, perhaps, a surprising choice.  In most respects, he was a traditionalist:  a Sandhurst graduate and professional soldier from the Grenadier Guards, whose standards for smartness of appearance were known throughout the Army.  Browning was also known for his energy and enthusiasm, which were put to good use guiding the Airborne as they grew and developed.  Additionally, Browning’s drive and determination were necessary in obtaining both respect and resources from the Army establishment.

Browning Oct 42

Maj.-Gen. F.A.M. “Boy” Browning observing training jumps at Netheravon airfield; Browning wears the maroon beret with his rank insignia.  The photograph was taken in October 1942, and, to the author’s knowledge, is the earliest photograph showing the distinctive Airborne headwear.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

Shortly after taking command, Browning observed 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Parachute Battalions taking part in an exercise on Salisbury Plain.  He disliked seeing the variety of headgear worn, and was concerned it indicated a lack of group identity.

The first beret worn by British soldiers was the black beret of the Royal Tank Regiment (previously the Royal Tank Corps), who adopted their unique headdress in the mid-1920’s.  At the time, most of the Army was wearing a stiff peaked cap that gave a smart, soldierly appearance; however, this cap was thoroughly impractical for armored troops.  The beret was found to be ideal for wear in the tight confines of an armored fighting vehicle, as it was soft and shaped close to the head.  When a helmet was worn, the beret could be neatly rolled up and tucked inside the tanker’s coveralls.  For similar reasons, the beret was a logical choice for the Airborne; again, it could easily be tucked inside the jump smock.

The exact origins of the beret’s maroon color are unclear.  Some sources indicate Browning himself made the decision.  Many contemporaries said it was actually Browning’s wife, the famous novelist Daphne DuMaurier, who chose the maroon beret, although she later denied it.  Other sources credit Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, with the final decision.  What is clear is that the maroon beret was officially authorized on July 29, 1942 by Army Council Instruction 1596, and went into production shortly after.

Italy 44

A mortar crew from 4th Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade, fighting in Italy in Spring 1944.  Troops were supposed to wear their steel helmets in combat, but these paratroopers have opted for their berets.  Two of the men wear the cap badge of the Parachute Regiment, while a third man wears the badge of the Army Air Corps and the fourth has no cap badge at all.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

The maroon beret was worn by all members of the Airborne Forces:  officers and other ranks; paratroopers and glider troops; fighting men and support personnel.  Despite the actual maroon color, the troops nearly always referred to their new headdress as the “red beret”.  While some were dubious at first, the Airborne soldiers quickly grew immensely proud of the beret; it became an outward symbol of their elite status.

The first maroon berets were issued to 1st Parachute Brigade (1st, 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions) shortly before they were sent to North Africa in late 1942.  Originally, paratroopers were to wear the badge of the Army Air Corps, although some photographs from the North African campaign show soldiers wearing the cap badge of their original regiment.  By the summer of 1943, however, photos show only AAC badges being worn by paratroopers.  On May 25, 1943, a new badge was adopted for the Parachute Regiment; this was the well-known winged parachute with the crown and lion.  The 6th Airborne Division was also created in May, 1943; ironically, the paratroopers from 6th Airborne received the new badges first and the men of 1st Airborne did not receive them until they returned to England from the Mediterranean.  Glider pilots retained the AAC badge.

All battalions of glider infantry retained their original identity, and these soldiers wore their regimental cap badges on their berets.  Similarly, airborne-trained non-infantry troops, such as the Royal Engineers and Royal Army Medical Corps, wore their normal badges on their berets.  Browning’s intent in adopting a new form of headwear for all Airborne Forces was to foster a sense of unity and esprit de corps; the maroon beret did exactly that.

After the campaign in North Africa ended in 1943, the officers of 1st Parachute Brigade visited their wounded men.

“We took the opportunity of visiting our wounded in the base hospitals around Algiers.  The nursing sisters said, ‘You will have no trouble finding your men because they wear their berets all the time.’  So indeed they did.  Even in bed with pyjamas on.  In fact I heard that one tried to keep his on en route to the operating theatre.”

A Drop Too Many
Maj.-Gen. John Frost

Major John Howard, who famously led the glider assault on Pegasus Bridge, wrote about the beret in his memoirs.

“I was immensely proud to be a member of the Airborne and every time I met another man in a red beret, the smart salute with pointed fingers up to the cap-badge, gave me a thrill I could not have put into words.  It was an intense feeling of esprit de corps and being part of an elite band of men.  As long as I live, I will never forget that feeling of pride and brotherhood.”

The Pegasus Diaries:  The Private Papers of Major John Howard DSO
John Howard and Penny Bates

Howard Beret 2

Maj. John Howard’s beret displayed at the Memorial Pegasus, Benouville, Normandy.  Note the cap badge of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

One of the converted units was 10th Battalion, The Essex Regiment, which became 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, in late 1942.  Company Sergeant Major Jack Harries remembered:

“Certainly the issue of Para wings, the Airborne shoulder flash and the red beret seemed to transform men almost overnight, and suddenly you were part of an elite club of volunteers.”

The Day the Devils Dropped In
Neil Barber

James Sims volunteered for the Airborne in late 1943.  He underwent parachute training in February, 1944, after which he was issued his beret.

“Well, we had made it.  Out of an original contingent of 165 men about 60 of us had completed the course and were now paratroopers.

On the Friday morning there was the official parade and we were issued with our para wings, red berets and Parachute Regiment cap badges.  We removed our motley collection of headgear and donned our red berets for the first time.  It was one of the greatest moments of our lives and one of the proudest.”

Arnhem Spearhead
James Sims

One of the first major books about the British Airborne was written by Hilary St. George Saunders, who named his book The Red Beret after the iconic headwear.  The book was published just a few years after the war; Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery wrote the Forward.

“What manner of men are these who wear the maroon red beret?

They are firstly all volunteers, and are then toughened by hard physical training.  As a result they have that infectious optimism and that offensive eagerness which comes from physical well-being.

They have ‘jumped’ from the air and by so doing have conquered fear.

Their duty lies in the van of the battle; they are proud of this honour and have never failed in any task.

They have the highest standards in all things, whether it be skill in battle or smartness in the execution of all peace time duties.

They have shown themselves to be as tenacious and determined in defence as they are courageous in attack.

They are, in fact, men apart – every man an Emperor.

I have a great affection for these men, who were my comrades-in-arms on many battlefields in the Second World War.  And on those occasions where I myself wear the maroon beret I regard it as an outward sign of respect to grand fighters and good comrades.”

Montgomery of Alamein, F.M., Col. Cmdt., The Parachute Regiment
Forward to The Red Beret:  The Story of the Parachute Regiment at War 1940-45
Hilary St. George Saunders

After World War II, the airborne units of many nations adopted the maroon beret, inspired by the British example.

Reenacting tip:

WWII berets were larger and fuller than modern military berets; they had a taller crown and were worn pulled down to the right ear.  The cap badge was worn over the left eye.  A good quality reproduction will give a more authentic look than any currently-issued military beret.

*The creation of the Parachute Regiment changed the naming convention for these units:  1st Parachute Battalion became 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, etc.  However, the 1st through 4th Battalions tended to continue using their original names.

MontyBeret2

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery; this portrait was taken in late 1944.  In the summer of 1943, “Monty” visited 1st Airborne Division as they prepared for the invasion of Sicily; during his visit, he was presented with an Airborne beret.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

 

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Army Forms Update: B. 295 and C. 2118

In my professional life, I have learned the concept of “continuous quality improvement”, and I have tried to implement this practice into my historical endeavors, as well.  Whether it is research for my articles, or the displays I set up at public events, I try to avoid the idea of “good enough” and always look for ways to make improvements.

In recent articles, I wrote about two different Army Forms:  the Pass, B. 295; and the War Diary and Intelligence Summary, C. 2118.  In preparing both articles, I studied numerous photographs from various sources; I examined many more photographs than I ended up using in the articles.  I had made reproductions of both forms prior to writing the articles; since then, I decided I needed to make improvements to my reproductions.

War Diary Repro C2118

Updated reproduction Army Form C. 2118, War Diary or Intelligence Summary.

The War Diary and Intelligence Summary was the easier of the two to update.  I was already happy with the appearance of this reproduction; the text was correct, the font was a close match, and I had the right number of rows and columns.  However, I was dissatisfied with the size of the document once printed.  I had decided, for logistical reasons, to set up my reproduction so I could print it on standard US letter-sized paper, which is 8 ½ by 11 inches.  However, the original form is quite wide, and my reproduction did not have the right aspect ratio; I also trimmed away quite a lot of blank paper.  I recently attended a tactical reenactment where officers and NCO’s were required to write and submit intelligence reports.  I used my reproduction C. 2118, but found it was a little too small and did not have enough room to write as much information as I wanted; I ended up using several sheets over the course of the event.

When I first made my reproduction C. 2118, I used the default margin settings in Microsoft Word.  For my updated version, I narrowed the side margins and therefore widened the entire document; I also widened the center column (“Summary of Events and Information”), where most of the text is to be written.  The result looks closer to the original, at least to my eye.  It also has more usable writing space.

The Pass was more challenging.  As mentioned in my earlier article, while studying photographs of originals, I noticed there was a remarkable variety depending on the publisher and time period.  I decided that, rather than try to make a replica of any one specific version of the Pass, to instead make a reproduction that would have the right look but be useful at living history events.  Many of the later versions had fields that did not seem relevant for my purposes, such as the closest train station and hospital to the soldier’s destination; post-war B. 295’s, including the 1946 original in my collection, often had a field for the orderly room’s telephone number.  I wanted something I could issue to a member of my unit so he could leave our display and visit the rest of the event, such as an air show; I therefore based my reproduction on the earlier versions of the form.  I had used my reproduction passes at some events and they had worked well; but again, I felt improvements were needed.

Pass Repro B295

Updated reproduction Army Form B. 295 Pass.  Note the space for the unit stamp.

I remembered King’s Regulations (1940) required that “Every pass will be stamped with the regimental office stamp before being issued” [Sec. 1601 (a)].  Additionally, nearly all the photographs of issued passes showed that they had, indeed, been stamped.  The earlier passes had been stamped directly over the text of the form, but later versions had an allocated area for the unit stamp; I therefore created such a space on my reproduction.  I then found a company that makes custom rubber stamps and ordered one for my unit.  I added text to the top of the Pass referencing the rule about a soldier returning to his unit upon mobilization of the Reserve, which was common to many of the originals; I also changed the font on some of the text.

Like the War Diary, I think my revised Pass is a significant improvement.  I have another air show coming up in a couple weeks; I’m curious to see if my lads notice any differences in their “bumf”.

Blanco: 20th Century Pipeclay

In a recent article, I wrote about the development of the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment.  No article on the subject would have been complete without at least a reference to Blanco.  Since then, I have decided to explore the subject further.  The website Blanco and Bull has the most complete description and history of the product itself that I have seen.  This article, then, is intended as a social history of the use of Blanco by the common soldier.

Background

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the qualities that were considered most essential in a British soldier were a well-turned out appearance, and the ability to perform drill.  Buttons and boots had to be immaculately polished.  Leather equipment was typically issued in a light buff color, but had to be whitened by careful application of pipeclay; this chalky powder was mixed with water to make a paste.

Forcing soldiers to maintain a smart appearance was far more than just regimental vanity; it helped instill both pride and discipline.  This discipline was vital for the tactics of the time; smoothbore muskets were most effective when fired in large volleys, and it took an iron will to withstand an enemy’s fire while maneuvering into position.  More than anything else, it was this discipline that set the British soldier apart from his enemies.

While weapons and uniforms underwent significant transformation during the Victorian era, the attitudes of officers and NCO’s remained consistent.  Rifles replaced muskets, yet “spit and polish” was still considered more important than marksmanship.

Around 1880, the Joseph Pickering & Sons company developed a replacement for pipeclay; this was Blanco, promoted as a cleaner that could “remove stains and discolorations” from leather shoes, equipment, and sporting goods.  Blanco was produced as a cake of compressed white powder; like the pipeclay it replaced, it formed a paste when water was added.  It was promoted to both soldiers and civilians; however, the advertisements were somewhat misleading, as Blanco covered over discolorations rather than removing them.  Regardless, Blanco was found superior than pipeclay, and was officially adopted by the Army.

Blanco4

Blanco:  1950’s production Khaki Green No. 3 made by Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd. along with an Indian-made copy of the original white Blanco.  While the Indian version is noticeably smaller, the deep well is based on Pickering’s earliest products.  All photographs in this article are by the author.

While the soldier on home service or garrison duty was expected to have an immaculate appearance, standards were more relaxed on active service.  By the close of the 19th Century, British soldiers increasingly found themselves fighting enemies armed with rifles rather than swords and spears; soldiers on campaign were allowed to stain their leather equipment with tea to make it less visible.  The Army even adopted khaki uniforms for use overseas, although troops on home service still wore scarlet.  In response, Pickering’s developed Khaki Blanco, essentially the same product but with a coloring agent.

In the early 20th Century, cotton web equipment replaced leather.  Blanco was found to be even more effective on the new webbing; when applied with a stiff-bristled brush, one could get it into the weave of the material.  Khaki Blanco was already similar in color to the base webbing, but Pickering’s created new colors, including Web Blanco, which was a light pea-green.

After the Great War, Pickering’s adopted a numbering system for their products.  Khaki Blanco and Web Blanco were replaced by No. 61 Buff, No. 103 Khaki Green (Light), No. 97 Khaki Green (Medium), and others.  No. 97 was the color used by most units at the outbreak of World War II.  By D-Day, most units had adopted Khaki Green No. 3, or simply KG3.  While KG3 became the most common color, there were some units that retained other shades for the sake of their own traditions.

Impact on Soldiers

What was intended as a simple item to help give the soldier a smart appearance took on a life of its own.  Like its forebear, Blanco was one of the dreaded tools imposed on new recruits, who spent hours slaving over their webbing, polishing the brass and applying just the right thickness of Blanco.  This mindless and repetitive task was part of the Army’s procedure for turning individuals into well-disciplined soldiers.

To add insult to injury, Blanco was not typically an issued item; soldiers had to purchase their own from the NAAFI*.  Fortunately, NAAFI was a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of British servicemembers; they contracted with Pickering’s to make bulk purchases of Blanco to sell at the lowest price possible.

When first purchasing Blanco, the soldier would get it in a round box made of zinc, which would not rust when wet.  Refills were simply wrapped in paper.  Each cake was made as a flat-bottomed disc; the top was dished for holding a small amount of water to get mixed with the product.

Blanco1

Post-WWII cake of K.G.3 in the zinc box designed to hold Blanco.  Zinc was chosen because it does not rust when wet.

Like many items in the British Army, the word Blanco was originally a noun but frequently used as a verb; a soldier Blancoed (or blanco’d) his webbing.  In this usage, capitalization and spelling lost any consistency.  Additionally, the Mills Equipment Company, the primary contractor for webbing equipment, created their own “web cleaner”; this was a loose colored powder sold in a shaker tube, but was still called Blanco by the soldiers.

Stanley Swift enlisted in the Royal Artillery in 1940 and wrote of his experiences.

“We were given blanco, a greenish type of chalk which when dipped in water became a liquid mass.  We had to blanco our equipment and polish our brass, which was a gorgeous shade of green when we received it, and clean and spit and polish some more.  It was punishment of the first order.  And it was evil the way we were expected to do everything in ten minutes and turn out on parade.”

After his initial training, Swift was transferred to the 5th Royal Horse Artillery.

“We arrived about 3:00 a.m. at Coggeshall, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the south of England, and we were immediately told to blanco our webbing as it was the wrong color for the regiment.  At 3:00 a.m.!”

After further training, Swift was sent to Egypt to join 8th Army.  The Allies had not yet taken control of the Mediterranean, so the convoy of troopships and escorts sailed all the way around Africa to the Suez Canal; the journey took several weeks.

“Such a great number of troops on board ship must be kept occupied, so each man was given a great lump of blanco.  This we were told to daub on our webbing equipment.  We didn’t take very kindly to this enforced activity, so everybody as one man threw his blanco into the ocean.  This time we must have dyed the sea green.  Nothing was ever said.  Our restlessness in being locked in a ship for a full month, crammed like sardines, was no joke, so it was well-meant to try to keep us occupied but not very successful.”

Oh, What a Lovely War!  A Soldier’s Memoir
Stanley Swift

Blanco2

Underside of the zinc box.  While zinc does not rust, it does slowly oxidize, and this tin developed a hole through the Pickering’s trademark.

James Sims had a similar experience when he joined the Royal Artillery in 1943.

“I completed almost a year at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain with the 4th Field Training Regiment, Royal Artillery, and didn’t much care for it.

If you had any spirit at all the RA seemed determined to break it.  Their attitude has been summed up as follows:

If it moves – salute it!
If it stands still – blanco it!
If it’s too heavy to lift – paint it!”

After meeting a recruiting sergeant from the Parachute Regiment, he volunteered for the Airborne Forces.

“…We had to report to Clay Cross, the Airborne Forces Depot near Chesterfield.  Here we were taught battle drill.  We were also given special lectures and shown training films.  There was some bull but it was nothing like as bad as in the RA.  We did, however, have to blanco our equipment for guards, even our para steel helmets.”

Arnhem Spearhead
James Sims

“Bull” was originally a term for polishing boots, but became soldier’s slang for any mindless, repetitive task.  Based on the statement about the helmet, it seems likely Sims was issued a jump helmet with a webbing chinstrap, which was typically Blancoed, as opposed to the earlier leather chinstraps.

After World War II, conscription continued through the 1950’s, and was known as National Service.  Even though the world had changed by this point, the British Army’s attitudes and methods had not.  Tony Thorne wrote of his experience of National Service.

“We were issued khaki belts and gaiters.  These have to be Blanco’d.  Blanco is not white as the name might imply, but khaki.  It is like a slab of chalk, which must be dissolved with water to exactly the right consistency, so that it can be painted on to the webbing smoothly.  In fact it produces tiny lumps like mother’s gravy, which then increase in size when they dry on the webbing.  The belt has little brass clips and the gaiters have little brass buckles at the opposite end to the black leather straps.  The brasses must be shone with Brasso and the leather straps must be polished with boot polish.  One of the miracles of military design is that all these cleaning materials are chemically allergic to one another.  If the tiniest spot of Brasso makes any form of contact with the Blanco on the webbing, a small white ring appears which remorselessly spreads outwards in ever-increasing circles until it forms a huge unsightly stain.  No man has ever discovered any method of removing this stain other than re-painting the dreaded Blanco about two hundred times.  Even then, one can collapse exhausted into the pit thinking that the damned spot is out, only to be greeted by it poking its head out anew at 5.30 am just half an hour before the morning inspection.”

Brasso, Blanco & Bull
Tony Thorne

While Blanco was consistently used in Britain and the European Theater, it was not suitable to all conditions.  Troops in the Far East learned that Blanco quickly washed off their webbing in the Monsoon rains; webbing had to be vat-dyed a jungle green color.  Troops sent to North Africa typically arrived with green-Blancoed webbing unsuited for the desert.  While some units used khaki Blanco, most troops used salt water and a stiff brush to scrub the green Blanco out of their equipment and allowed the webbing to get sun-bleached to a nearly-white color.

In the 1950’s, Pickering’s created a new webbing renovator, which was sold as a tin of colored paste.  The colors were based on Blanco, but the product was easier to apply.  The Army then adopted 1958 Pattern webbing equipment, which was manufactured in dark green.  While cadets and reservists continued using 1937 Pattern equipment through the 1980’s, Blanco finally became obsolete, and Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd., went out of business.

Reenacting Tips

Many years ago, my friend and I attended a public event; we wore our best battledress, and we had given our boots and cap badges a good polish.  We were approached by a pair of gentlemen who had served in the British Army and fought in Burma.  Living in the United States, meeting British veterans is a rare treat.  One of the pair had been a Regimental Sergeant Major; the other joked that the RSM had spent so much time up a tree in the jungle that he had grown a tail.

The former RSM said he had seen many reenactors over the years, but had never been impressed with them.  But he paid us a tremendous compliment by saying that we were by far the best he had seen, because we held ourselves with the correct military bearing, and we had taken the time to polish our boots and badges.  However, he then asked why my webbing belt was not Blancoed.

I was hugely embarrassed.  I tried to explain that Blanco had become extremely rare; at that point, I had only ever seen Blanco cakes on display at military museums.  He was astonished that something that had once been completely ubiquitous had become a collector’s item.

Millions of cakes of Blanco were produced over the decades, but most were used for their intended purpose.  Real Blanco was discontinued in the 1950’s; a post-war cake can occasionally be found by diligently searching internet auction sites, but it is rare, and it is not cheap.

Fortunately, a number of Blanco reproductions and substitutes have become available.  Two of the largest UK-based reenactment suppliers carry products they describe as “liquid Blanco”; these are essentially custom-colored paint.  I have not used these personally, but several friends have been pleased with these products.

Another vendor in the UK has managed to develop a true reproduction Blanco, that is, a cake of compressed powder.  The reproduction cake is somewhat smaller than the original, and the well is very shallow.  However, it is the closest item I have found to the original; it looks, feels, and even smells like original Blanco.  It even comes packaged in a reprint of Pickering’s paper wrapper, which is a nice touch.

A company in India produced its own version of Blanco for the Indian Army, and it is currently available through a US-based reenacting vendor.  Unfortunately, it is only available in white and khaki.  The Indian cake is smaller than the original, but it has a deep well on top like the early versions of Pickering’s.

Blanco6

The zinc box only needed to be purchased once.  Refills came in a simple paper wrapper.  After World War II, the traditional printing was eliminated.

Some reenacting genius discovered a shoe cream that is a similar color to KG3 and applies easily to webbing.  A small amount of model paint can be mixed with the shoe cream to get even closer to the right color.  This shoe cream seems to be fairly similar in consistency to the post-war Pickering’s web-cleaning paste.  I have had very good results with the shoe cream mixture; it is easy to apply and is overall less messy than the liquids and compressed powders.  My only complaint is that it is not very durable and needs frequent touching-up.

Blanco5

1937 Pattern belt and braces drying after having been treated with a mixture of shoe cream and model paint.  The original Blanco was used to ensure correct color matching.

The Blanco and Bull website is an excellent resource; not only does it have more detail on the history of Blanco, it also compares the different reproductions summarized above.

Whatever method is used, do it outside and put down newspaper or plastic sheeting.  Just staging the photographs for this article turned my fingertips green; the stuff gets everywhere.

*The Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute, or NAAFI, is the organization responsible for maintaining shops and canteens for British servicemen and women.

The War Diary: Army Form C. 2118

One of the most important documents used by the British Army in both World Wars was Army Form C. 2118, the War Diary or Intelligence Summary.  War diaries were maintained by every infantry battalion and brigade, their equivalents in other branches (e.g., artillery batteries), and higher formations while on active service.  War Diaries were intended as unit-level operational histories, so they are an extremely valuable primary source and are critical to the military historian; additionally, war diaries and their attachments are sometimes studied by those interested in genealogy.

Most war diaries are held by Britain’s National Archives in the London district of Kew.  Since I live in the United States, getting to the National Archives and reviewing the original documents is a significant challenge.  However, I recently worked with The British Army War Diary Copying Service to obtain high-resolution images of 2nd Parachute Battalion’s records from its time in North Africa, covering the period November, 1942 through May, 1943.  This is a treasure trove of information, and it will take me some time to read and take notes on the diaries and attachments.  For now, I want to simply write about the form itself.

NA Trench Foot 1915

A typical war diary from World War I; this example is from the 75th Field Ambulance at Armentieres, 1915.  The text describes evacuation of the wounded and treatment for trench foot.  Like most war diaries, this document is held by the National Archives at Kew.

I have wanted to obtain a blank C. 2118 for my collection for a number of years, but have been unable to do so.  In fact, I have seen many photographs of completed war diaries from both World Wars, but have only rarely seen a blank form available for sale (and always too late to act on it).  Additionally, while this was designed as a dual-purpose form, I have only ever seen examples completed as a war diary, and not as an intelligence summary; war diaries were intended to be archived, while I suspect intelligence summaries were often destroyed for security reasons.  It is also interesting to note I have seen both typed and handwritten examples.

War Diary 2 Para Mar 1-4

War diary of 2nd Parachute Battalion, March 1943.  During this period, the Battalion was attached to British 1st Army in Tunisia, and saw almost continuous action.

Like all Army Forms, the document itself changed slightly over time; additionally, there were minor differences depending on the contracted publishing firm.  However, the C. 2118 seems to have been more consistent than some other forms, such as the B. 295 Pass.  A typical C. 2118 had a field at the top left for the month and year, with fields at the top right for the unit and commanding officer.  The bulk of the form was set up in columns for indicating the place, date, and hour for each entry; summary of events and information; and references to appendices.

War Diary 2 Para April 7-12

2nd Parachute Battalion, still in Tunisia; this extract is from April, 1943.

As a dual-purpose form, there were two headers, “War Diary” or “Intelligence Summary”, with a note to delete whichever heading was not applicable.  Each Army Form C. 2118 typically included the following text in the top-left corner:

“Instructions regarding War Diaries and Intelligence Summaries are contained in F.S. Regs., Vol. I and the Staff Manual respectively.  Title pages will be prepared in manuscript.”

While I do not have a copy of the Staff Manual, I do have a copy of the Field Service Regulations, Volume I; I have the 1930 version, as reprinted and amended in 1939.

Field Service Regulations
Volume I
Organization and Administration

1930, Reprinted with Amendments 1939

Chapter XVIII
Office Work in the Field

174.  War Diaries

  1. A war diary will be kept in duplicate from the first day of mobilization or creation of the particular command or appointment* by:–
    i. Each branch of the staff in the headquarters of a formation, a subordinate command and area or sub-area on the L. of C.
    ii. Unit commanders.
    iii. Commanders of detachments of a unit.
    iv. Officer i/c 2nd echelon, officers holding technical appointments (Sec. 36), and personal staff.
    v. Base, auxiliary and advanced depot commanders.
    vi. Heads of services and their representatives, controller of salvage and his representatives.
  2. A war diary is secret. Its object is to furnish a historical record of operations and to provide data upon which to base future improvements in army training, equipment, organization and administration.  It will be entered up daily, each entry initialed by the officer detailed to keep it, on A.F. C 2118.  It is to be noted that the extraction and retention of appendices, maps, &c., from a war diary is an offence under the Official Secrets Acts.
  3. The cover will bear the following inscription:–

    SECRET
    WAR DIARY
    OF
    …………………………..
    From……….          To……….
    (Volume……….)

  4. In so far as they are applicable the following points should be recorded when preparing a diary:–
    i. Important orders, instructions, reports, messages or despatches received and issued, and decisions taken.
    ii. Daily location. Movements during the past twenty-four hours and present dispositions.  March tables in the case of large units or of formations are of assistance.
    iii. Important matters relating to the duties of each branch of the staff.
    iv. Detailed account of operations. Exact hour of important occurrences, factors affecting operations, topographical and climatic.  Clear sketches showing positions of troops at important phases.
    v. Nature and description of field engineering works constructed, or quarters occupied.
    vi. Changes in establishment or strength. As regards casualties the names and ranks of officers and the number of other ranks or followers and of animals should be noted.  In addition in the case of units on the L. of C. changes in stores, transport, &c.
    vii. Meteorological notes.
    viii. Summary of important information received, whether military or political.
  5. Appendices as under will be attached to the original copy of each war diary:–
    i. A copy of each field return (A.F. W 3008 and A.F. W 3009) and of each operation or routine order or instruction issued during the period covered by the current volume of the war diary.
    ii. Copies of orders, or instructions, received from higher commands if no longer required for reference.
    iii. A copy of each narrative or report on operations drawn up by a subordinate formation or unit, including any sketches or maps relating thereto, to supplement the account of operations furnished in the text of the dairy (para. 4, iv, above).
    Appendices will be numbered, and each will have a brief descriptive heading naming the author.  References to appendices will be made in the last column of A.F. C 2118.
  6. All diaries will conform to the regulations for drafting orders, reports, &c. (See Volume II.)
  7. Disposal will be made monthly of war diaries as follows:–
    i. Unless otherwise ordered, the original copy of a war diary for the preceding month will be forwarded on the first day of the succeeding month direct to the officer i/c 2nd echelon for transmission to the War Office, care being taken that all its appendices are attached.
    ii. The duplicate copy, clearly marked as such, of a cavalry or infantry brigade or higher formation will be forwarded within a period of two months to the officer i/c 2nd echelon for transmission to the Under-Secretary of State, The War Office. The duplicate copies of the diaries of units will be sent within a period of three months to the officer i/c 2nd echelon to be transmitted to record offices at home for safe custody.

*In the case of formations and units of the Territorial Army, war diaries will be kept from the first day of embodiment.

The sheets were grouped together by month.  The cover sheet described above in (3) was published as its own Army Form, C. 2119.  The field returns mentioned above in (5)(i) were completed once per month and attached to the war diary as appendices.  The field returns indicated the strength of the battalion or other unit; W. 3008 gave a list of all officers, and W. 3009 was a tally sheet of other ranks (enlisted personnel) without giving individual names.  Casualty reports were handled separately.

War Diary Cover Feb 43

Army Form C. 2119, the monthly war diary cover page.

Like the Army Form B. 295 Pass, I have created my own reproduction of the C. 2118 to use at reenactments and public displays.  I created the document in Microsoft Word, using tables and text boxes.  I found this form easier to reproduce than some others I have attempted.  However, since I used standard US-sized paper, the aspect ratio does not match the original.  Professionally-made reproductions are available from Rob Van Meel’s Re-Print Military Literature.

War Diary Repro

The author’s reproduction C. 2118, War Diary or Intelligence Summary

I would like to thank The British Army War Diary Copying Service, without whom this article would not have been possible.

Field Service Regs

Reproduction C. 2118 and original Field Service Regulations book.

Remembering Dennis Cutting, RASC

Years before I started this website, I was the editor and primary writer for “Sons of Bellerophon”, the newsletter for the members and friends of the British 1st Airborne Division Living History Association.  In late 2011, I was contacted by Evert Akkerman, who wrote for a Canadian newspaper for Dutch immigrants; he had conducted an interview with Dennis Cutting, a veteran of the Royal Army Service Corps who had jumped into Arnhem.  Mr. Akkerman wanted to share his interview with those he knew would appreciate it, and asked me to publish it in our newsletter, which I did.

I recently learned that Mr. Cutting passed away on December 4, 2018, at the age of 95.  I never met Mr. Cutting, but felt something of a personal connection because of this article.  I wanted to pay tribute to his life and deeds, so I decided to reprint the interview on my website.  Sadly, I have lost contact with Mr. Akkerman, but as he had previously shared this interview with me, I am sure he would not mind my publishing it here.

ARNHEM VETERAN DENNIS CUTTING:
“The Rhine was running with blood”
by Evert Akkerman

Since 2005, De Nederlandse COURANT [a newspaper for Dutch immigrants to Ontario, Canada – ed.] has interviewed a number of veterans who participated in the liberation of The Netherlands during World War II, as well a German veteran taken POW near Rotterdam in May of 1940 and a Dutch Navy veteran who fought in the Dutch East Indies.  By publishing their stories, we acknowledge what they sacrificed by risking their lives and being away from home for years.

After the 11/11/11 Remembrance Day ceremony at the Newmarket [Ontario] cemetery, I met Arnhem veteran Dennis Cutting and his wife Greta. I interviewed him shortly after at their Newmarket home. As 88-year-old Dennis’ memory is not as good as it used to be, Greta assisted by reminding him of stories he shared with her over the years.

Dennis Cutting was part of the 4th Brigade of the 1st British Airborne Division under Major-General Roy Urquhart, first as a Corporal and later as a Platoon Sergeant. He fought in North Africa (1942) and Italy (1943) and was dropped over Oosterbeek, just west of Arnhem, on the second day of Operation Market Garden (September 17-25, 1944). Men from the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade under Brigadier General Stanisław Sosabowski were dropped on the third day as the Allied forces faced the German 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions.

With Operation Market Garden, Field Marshal Montgomery wanted to cross the Rhine as a prelude to an attack from the north on the Ruhr. Allied forces were to capture a number of bridges over the main rivers in The Netherlands. Although there were some successes, the British 1st Airborne Division and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were facing strong German resistance and ran out of supplies. Of the 10,000 Brits parachuted at Arnhem, only 1,800 survived [or escaped capture – ed.]. The Poles suffered 590 casualties. The ultimate failure of Market Garden ended Allied hopes of finishing the war by Christmas 1944. In an unfortunate and undeserved slight, Montgomery made Sosabowski and his Polish forces the scapegoat.

EA: “What prompted you to enlist?”

DC: “In Britain, men and women 18 years and older had to enlist, so I did in June of 1941. I was sent to North Africa first and then to Italy. After that, we were sent home on leave and waited for D-Day. They said ‘Well boys, you were in North Africa, now you go get drunk a few times.’ We just hung on and hung on until September 17th, 1944.”

d cutting 11-11-2011

Dennis Cutting (center) with two other Airborne veterans at the Remembrance Day commemorations in Newmarket, Ontario, on November 11, 2011.  Photo by Evert Akkerman.

EA: “What instructions were you given before you were dropped over Arnhem?”

DC: “They told us, ‘OK guys, it’s going to be great, you’ll have a good landing, the KOSBies (the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, a regiment created in 1689 -EA) are going in with gliders before you and they’ll sweep the area clean.’ It was much worse than that. So many guys got knocked off.”

EA: “What happened when you landed?”

DC: “The operation was postponed a couple of times because it was foggy in Britain. We took off early in the morning on the 18th, with 20 guys in a plane. We were dropped over 2,000 acres of lovely green space, surrounded by forests. A perfect landing zone, but the Germans were shooting at us. You can’t imagine what it was like… I picked myself up, firing in all directions. I had a small British .303 rifle. Trouble was, it had one small magazine with 10 rounds. I fixed the bayonet… A German soldier was shooting at me and I couldn’t reload so I got him with my bayonet”.

EA: “Where did you go from there?”

DC: “We were running to a road that ran though the bushes. Some of our guys were in a building… You don’t know who was where.”

EA: “Did you get the chance to talk to German POWs?”

DC: “Yes, we took prisoners. I stopped one guy who wanted to shoot a German prisoner. I said ‘He’s just a human being.’ So he didn’t shoot him. The German soldiers were younger than we were, and we were 18 to 20 years old. You were an old guy at 22!  These young Germans spoke some English. They were called ‘Werewolves’ and had much better equipment than we did, better camouflage… They were up in the trees firing at us. I got an anti-tank gun, which is fired from the shoulder. The little bugger was up in a tree. I crawled up as close as I could get and realized I can’t hit him, so I hit the base of the tree. The tree came down with him in it. He was killed.”

EA: “Other than at your landing, did you have close calls?”

DC: “Sure, during the street fighting, we fought in Dutch houses for quite a while… There was a hospital left of us, about a quarter of a mile, and we were looking at a huge field of Dutch allotments, small gardens, and in these gardens the Germans had dug trenches. You could see blue steel helmets. We went into a Dutch house, went upstairs and I got down on a beautiful table – imagine that – with a Bren gun, firing at them. I said to two guys, ‘I can see them moving in a bloody great gun half a mile away.’ Then BOOM! They’d spotted me and a shell came through the room and blew me off the table. We were stunned, but not injured. They wanted to take me to the hospital, but I said no. One guy got a bullet through his front teeth and the bullet was lodged in the roof of his mouth. We each got a morphine injection, in the left shoulder. And it worked. This was in the medical pack that each of us got. We were told ‘Don’t give your morphine to someone else.’

Another time, I was sent on a mission to deliver a message, ‘We’ve been shot to pieces,’ to a large house some two miles away. There was hell going on. It was a trip through the bush on my own, at night, in the rain. Germans were coming by, talking and laughing, so I lay in a ditch and covered myself. After they passed, I delivered the message. When I got back, a glider pilot sent me on another mission: ‘Go up this road here, you’ll come up to the Hartenstein Hotel, which is now Divisional Headquarters.’ The Brits had taken it over from the Germans. So I go house to house and see this Dutchman, tall and skinny. He beckoned and waved me over. He pointed to a little girl and said she was his granddaughter. He said, ‘Follow her, close behind her.’ That’s how I got up there. The street was ablaze and there was still firing going on.”

EA: “Did you have time for meals?”

DC: “No. We had rations for 48 hours and we were there for 10 days. We had nothing left. One of the guys caught a white hen and we ate it raw. The Dutch didn’t have any food. We found a jar of pickles in a cellar and we got some apples, as it was September. I also ran out of ammunition, so I grabbed a German machine gun and used that. 10,000 guys went in, only 1,800 came back!”

EA: “How did the Dutch population respond to your arrival?”

DC: “They were happy, but they had nothing to give us. We were not far from a hospital, which had a water tap on the outside. The hospital was in German hands, while the medics were British, taken prisoner. We drew straws who would sneak up and fill a water bottle. That was all the water we had.”

EA:  “How did you make it out of there?”

DC: “We had to escape. At that point, the glider pilots took charge and sent messages. This was our biggest let-down: no radio communication. We had a couple of carrier pigeons, but somebody ate them.  We each got hold of the parachute strap of the guy in front of us. It was dark and it was raining, it was horrible. The glider pilots got a message through towards the Rhine. At a given time, the 8th Army, which was 20 miles away, would open up with all the artillery to make it look like an attack. Along the way, we found a young guy, an English soldier. He was lost, badly wounded and crying ‘I want my Mum.’ We gave him a morphine shot. He died… We were taught: ‘You can’t carry someone out, you can’t do it, you look out for Number One.’ We made it to the Rhine and the 8th Army had sent little boats, 12-footers. Everyone wanted to get in, which would swamp the boats, so a Sergeant Major drew his pistol, put himself between us and the boats and yelled ‘Stand back, you bastards!’  The Rhine was running with blood. Guys drowned… I saw one guy dive in and he was whipped away by the current. There was so much rain. The 8th was bogged down, couldn’t move their tanks.” [8th Army was in Italy at the time; 2nd Army was supposed to relieve 1st Airborne at Arnhem but never arrived – ed.]

After the war, Dennis and Greta met the parents of the young English soldier who cried for his Mum. “We met the boy’s parents in Holland in 1956. We were all gathered around a monument. People were talking and Dennis made a bit of a speech,” said Greta. “The boy’s parents had been going back and could never find anyone that could tell them anything about their son until they met Dennis.” 

EA: “So when you got across, did you get a dry bed and a shower?”

DC:  “Are you kidding me? We get across and there’s the military police, ‘OK you guys, over there is a hut.’ It was 6 by 6 feet. We got a mug of tea and piece of bread, which we were bloody glad to have, and then ‘OK soldiers, see that road? 20 miles, get cracking!’ It was 20 miles to Nijmegen, on a narrow road. I’d walked quite a way, got rid of heavy equipment and tossed away the rifles, so I was light. Then I saw a British truck. I ran like hell and grabbed the end of it. I tumbled in and it was full of wounded. I landed on a package of some sort and wanted to throw it out to make room. ‘What the hell are you doing with that?’ yelled a guy. Turns out he was a war correspondent and I was about to throw his notes overboard. His name was Stanley Maxwell [possibly Stanley Maxted – ed.]. I got to Nijmegen and saw a policeman. I asked him where Airborne Headquarters was. He said ‘It’s in the big abbey.’ So I took off. I was at the bottom of the steps and this bloody big guy comes down, six foot two… It was my older brother Sonny! He lifted me up. We were so happy. We had both been on the other side of the river.”

EA: “Where did you go next?”

DC: “I was sent to Belgium, where I stayed in a monastery in Leuven. They gave me a straw bed and a crust of bread. From there, I went to London by plane. That was it. Kaput!  A number of us were invited to Buckingham Palace, where we were presented to King George VI.  On that occasion, the parents of Flight Lieutenant Lord, who had piloted supply planes to Arnhem, received the Victoria Cross for him, posthumously. His parents stood right next to me.”

EA: “How long did you stay in London?”

DC: “A number of months… and then we were sent to Norway. While we were on the plane, an announcement came over the blower, ‘The war has ended.’  So these guys (the Nazis -EA) have said ‘We’re capitulating’ Norway is mountainous, so the plane comes down and then ‘boom-boom-boom’ the Germans fired at us with anti-aircraft guns. Shrapnel came through the fuselage but none of the 20 guys and the crew were hurt. We took over from the Germans and were instructed to dismantle all German aircraft, Messerschmitts. We took the propellers and the guns off. We got hold of German jeeps and used them. At some point, we went to a German camp with army huts – long tents, twenty feet wide, rows and rows together. There was one big German guard. We sent one of our best guys with a knife to sneak up from behind. He grabbed the guard by the neck and killed him. Then we fired in the air and out of all those tents tumbled naked German soldiers and Norwegian women. These Norwegians were starving too, as the Germans had taken all their food. We took small boats out, brought a number of German grenades and tossed them overboard. We came back with a boat full of cod and haddock and the Norwegians were cheering on the dock.”

EA: “Where were you when you found out that Hitler was dead?”

DC: “I don’t recall that at all… On the plane to Norway, we heard that the war was over. We dismantled planes and took prisoners. Also, we found loot in caves. We took big German trucks and loaded them up with liquor that the Germans had brought from Europe and stashed away in caves… Champagne, cognacs, perfumes… I cleaned my teeth with champagne before we had a party with nurses who were stationed nearby”.

Dennis and Greta met during the war and were married in April 1945. After Dennis returned from Norway and while Greta was pregnant with their first child, he was sent to Palestine for 18 months, assisting European Jews settle in Israel. He was finally demobilized in November 1947. In 1957, the family moved to Canada and settled in Newmarket, where Dennis started a butcher shop.

dennis & greta cutting - crop

Dennis and Greta Cutting in 2011; photo courtesy Evert Akkerman.

 EA: “Have you had reunions with your comrades?”

DC: “Yes, we visited Holland five times. When I was 71, we had the big celebration. I parachuted over Arnhem again, this time with my granddaughter.”

EA: “If you were young again, would you enlist again?”

DC: “Sure. I think it makes a man of everybody. I was from a small town, 1,600 people. My best friends had gone and I couldn’t wait to go.”

Greta: “These were the best years of our lives. Hard, but good. It didn’t hurt us. We had hard times, but we’re better people for it.”

EA: “Thank you for your service. It was an honour speaking with you.”

DC: “You’re very welcome.”

pegasus flash printed

The divisional flash of the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, depicting the mythical Greek hero Bellerophon riding Pegasus.

To Carry the Load: The 1937 Pattern Web Equipment

History and Development

Throughout history, armies have needed to provide their soldiers a set of equipment to carry ammunition, rations, and other necessities.  Historically, this equipment was made of leather, and typically consisted of various pouches suspended from belts and shoulder straps.  If well-cared for, the leather was strong and durable; but if not properly maintained, or subjected to severe weather, it was liable to dry out and crack.

In the late 19th Century, military equipment was revolutionized by an American Army officer, Captain Anson Mills.  He noted that ammunition tended to get stuck in the individual cartridge loops of the leather belts worn by his men; he therefore experimented with a cartridge belt made from cotton canvas.  Pleased with the results, Captain Mills joined forces with a weaver; together, they designed machinery and established a factory for making cartridge belts made from a tightly-woven cotton webbing.  These were in turn adopted by the U.S. Army and used successfully in the Spanish-American War of 1898.  Soon after, a limited number of webbing bandoliers were used by British troops in the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902).

In addition to his American operation, Captain Mills established a second company in Great Britain:  The Mills Equipment Company, Ltd.  This company designed and produced the 1908 Pattern Web Equipment, the first complete set of non-leather infantry equipment adopted by the British Army.  During World War I, the 1908 webbing performed extremely well, and held up under the appalling conditions of trench warfare better than other armies’ leather equipment.

normandy webbing rsf

A section of 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, fighting in the Normandy hedgerows in June or July, 1944.  This is a good view of the 1937 Pattern web equipment:  the haversacks, entrenching tool carriers and waterbottle carriers are clearly seen.  The Bren gunner has covered his haversack with the camouflaged face veil.  Photo from the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

With the massive conscription efforts of World War I, millions of sets of 1908 Pattern webbing were produced.  At wars’ end, the Army was drastically reduced in size, and returned to its primary function of garrisoning the British Empire.  There were enormous stocks of 1908 Pattern equipment in stores, and the British government was reluctant to invest in developing a replacement.

In the late 1920’s, it was recognized that the nature of warfare was changing; accordingly, the government authorized the Mills Equipment Company to experiment with designs for a possible new set of equipment.  The Army maintained official oversight and established a committee to provide input, but otherwise Mills was left largely to their own development.  The designers wanted the new equipment to be lighter in weight than the 1908 Pattern.  Additionally, the Army was becoming increasingly mechanized.  It was assumed that troops would be transported to the front lines rather than having to march; to better accommodate usage in vehicles, the designers wanted to avoid having any components of the equipment hang below the waistbelt.  It was also assumed that the heavier and bulkier items of uniform and gear would be transported by vehicle and not carried by the soldiers themselves.

By 1932, the Mills Equipment Set Number 3 underwent troop trials, and was then officially adopted in 1934.  However, this set was never produced or distributed in large numbers; the adoption of the Bren light machine gun, and the need to carry its magazines, required a significant re-design.

The result was adopted and designated as the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment; the official training manual was published in 1939.  According to the manual, the 1937 Pattern was a direct descendent of, and improvement upon, the 1908 Pattern; unfortunately, the troops who transitioned from one to the other did not see it as an improvement.  However, in one major respect, it was a departure from all earlier designs.  Historically, the different arms had their own specific equipment; that is, one set for the infantry, another for the cavalry, and often yet another for the artillery and engineers.  The 1937 Pattern was designed to be used by the entire British Army; component pieces intended for one branch could be interchanged for other components.  The equipment was based around a waistbelt and a pair of braces, or shoulder straps.  From there, different pouches and packs could be attached depending on the role of the individual soldier; there were also items designed specifically for officers.  For the purposes of this article, only the infantry equipment will be examined in detail.

Like the 1908 Pattern, the 1937 Pattern equipment was made from cotton webbing.  The cotton yarn was pre-shrunk and dyed a light khaki color before weaving; the weave design was extremely tight for both durability and water-resistance.  The various buckles, keepers and press-studs (snap closures) were made of brass.

webbing desert

The 1937 Pattern Web Equipment for infantry:  waistbelt, braces, basic pouches, bayonet frog, entrenching tool carrier, and water bottle carrier.  Troops in North Africa typically wore their webbing without Blanco.  All photographs in this article are by the author of items in his collection, unless otherwise stated.

The Mills Equipment Company was the primary contractor, but with the outbreak of World War II, dozens of other manufacturers throughout Britain and the Commonwealth also made webbing equipment; it was produced in Canada, Australia, India and South Africa.  Canadian webbing was of very high quality, and tended to have a yellow tinge to its khaki color.  Indian and South African webbing tended to be much poorer in quality; the webbing itself was often less-densely woven, while the brass keepers were somewhat thin and flimsy.

Brass was a vital war material, as it was needed for ammunition casings.  As World War II progressed, the various buckles and keepers were sometimes made from mild steel with an anti-rust treatment.  Much post-war equipment was made with mild steel hardware painted black.

After World War II, the 1937 Pattern equipment soldiered on in Korea and several colonial conflicts during the breakup of the British Empire.  It was finally replaced by the 1958 Pattern Web Equipment, but the 1937 Pattern was used by cadets and reservists nearly to the end of the 20th Century.

Components

The infantry components of the 1937 Pattern webbing were as follows:

  • Waistbelt
  • Braces
  • Basic pouches
  • Bayonet frog
  • Waterbottle carrier
  • Haversack
  • Pack
  • Shoulder straps
  • Supporting straps

Details of these items follow.

Waistbelt.  The waistbelt was originally made in two sizes, labeled as small and large.  In 1941, an extra large size was adopted; the small size was later renamed as normal.  The belt was adjustable by placing two pairs of hooks into a series of loops on the inside of the belt.  The buckle was a simple clasp that relied on the tension caused by a tight fit to keep it closed.  The back of the belt had a pair of buckles to which the braces attached.

Braces.  The braces were made in two sizes, normal and long.  The braces were significantly narrower than those of the 1908 Pattern, except at the shoulders where the braces widened to better distribute the weight of the equipment.  The left brace included a small loop through which the right brace was fed; this loop was often eliminated in later production versions.

Basic pouches.  Two large pouches, designated as basic pouches, were attached to the front of the belt via brass hooks which were inserted into the belt’s loops.  The pouches also had buckles at the top for attaching the braces.  The basic pouch was designed to hold two magazines for the Bren L.M.G.; alternatively, the pouch could hold grenades or projectiles for the 2-inch mortar.  Rifle ammunition was issued in a cloth bandolier which was worn over the shoulder to allow the basic pouches to carry ammunition for the support weapons.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, many soldiers complained that their basic pouches were too low and hit their thighs when getting into a crouching or kneeling position.  Accordingly, the Mark II pouch was introduced, with the brass hooks moved down one inch, causing the pouch to ride slightly higher on the belt.  Many of the original pouches were retrofitted to the Mk. II configuration.  After the adoption of the Sten machine carbine, the Mark III pouch was adopted, as the earlier pouches were too short to snap shut when filled with Sten magazines.  In 1944, a quick-release tongue-and-loop fastener was adopted to replace the snap fastener; very few pouches with this fastener were issued during the war.

burma 44

Troops from the Royal Welch Fusiliers on patrol in Burma, December 1944.  The basic pouches and position of the waistbelt are clearly seen here.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

Bayonet frog.  As originally issued, the only item suspended from the waistbelt was the bayonet frog.  The Rifle, No. 1 Mk. III, with its lengthy 1907 Pattern bayonet, was still in use when the webbing was adopted.  However, the No. 4 Rifle and its short spike bayonet were under development, reducing the designers’ concern over an item hanging below the belt.  The bayonet frog incorporated a number of loops, the largest of which simply slipped onto the belt, rather than using any hardware.  The bayonet scabbard was held by a twin pair of loops at the bottom of the frog; the scabbard stud protruded between the loops.  Yet another loop at the top of frog went over the bayonet hilt to reduce movement; this upper loop was often eliminated once the spike bayonet went into production.  Later frogs also had to be slightly modified to allow the spike bayonet’s scabbard to sit in the right position; this was often done by making a hole or split in the upper of the twin loops through which the scabbard stud was inserted.

bayonet frogs

Bayonet frogs.  Notice how the frog had to be modified for use with the Number 4 spike bayonet.  Typically, a hole was cut in the upper of the twin loops; in this instance, the loop has been split, then stitched around the scabbard stud.

Waterbottle carrier.  The original waterbottle carrier was described as a framework of webbing straps; collectors sometimes call it the “skeleton-type” carrier.  Later in the war, a simple webbing sleeve carrier was adopted.  Originally, the waterbottle was intended to be carried in the haversack, and the carrier only used under certain conditions, but in actual practice it was nearly always suspended from the brace ends.  For more information on the waterbottle and carrier, please my earlier article on field hydration.

Haversack.  The haversack was often called the “small pack”, both by the troops who used it and by modern collectors.  The haversack had internal dividers; the smaller pockets were for the water bottle and mess tins, while the larger section was for the wool jumper or cardigan.  The groundsheet was folded and carried under the flap of the haversack; although not described in the training manual, the anti-gas cape was frequently rolled and tied to the top.  Invariably, troops carried more equipment in the haversack than the designers intended; although not an official practice, the tea mug was often suspended from the haversack by running a strap through the mug’s handle.

small packs

A pair of haversacks, one filled and one empty.  The right-hand haversack is in nearly-new condition and shows the color of the webbing when issued.  The left-hand haversack has been treated with Blanco, most recently with a modern substitute.  The left-hand haversack is unusual in that the buckles are brass, but the strap-keepers are steel.

small pack interior

Interior of the haversack showing the internal dividers and some of the typical contents (waterbottle, mess tins, and holdall).

Pack.  The 1908 Pattern pack was re-adopted, unchanged, for use with the 1937 Pattern equipment.  If the pack was worn, the haversack was moved from the back to the left side.  The pack was intended to carry the greatcoat, cap comforter, holdall (toiletry roll), towel, and a spare pair of socks.  However, the socks and holdall were more commonly carried in the haversack.  The pack was uncomfortable when worn, but fortunately this was rarely done, as the pack was typically kept with unit transport.  The pack was often called the “large pack” to better differentiate it from the haversack or “small pack”.

Shoulder straps.  The shoulder straps could be used with either the pack or the haversack.  Each shoulder strap consisted of two lengths of webbing; the wide portion buckled to the top of the pack, and the narrow portion to the lower.  These component straps then joined at a brass hook for attaching to the basic pouch, intended to help distribute the weight.  Because of their shape, the shoulder straps are often referred to as “L-straps” by modern collectors.

Supporting straps.  The supporting straps connected to the shoulder straps and crossed over the pack; the name derives from the idea that they would help support the weight of the pack when worn.

Entrenching tool.  At first, the 1937 Pattern equipment did not include an entrenching tool.  In 1939, an entrenching tool with a fixed haft and square head was rushed into production; it was very similar in appearance to that used by the Germans.  Not many of these were issued, and those troops who did receive the item did not like it.  The 1908 Pattern entrenching tool was therefore re-adopted; this was a combination pick and shovel, with a removable handle or helve.  The Mark II helve, adopted in 1944, had lugs for attaching the Number 4 spike bayonet so the helve could be used as a mine-prodder; this version saw very limited use during the war.  The webbing carrier for the entrenching tool held the tool head inside a pocket, with the helve strapped to the outside; the carrier was suspended from the brace ends.  It was not uncommon for the helve to slip out of the carrier; an extra strap was added to the carrier in 1945, but few of this variant were issued before war’s end.

e-tool

The entrenching tool carrier; the tool’s head is enclosed in the webbing pocket while the helve is strapped to the outside.  Note that this is the Mark I helve; the Mark II had a bayonet lug for the spike bayonet.

How to Assemble

The following description is copied from the 1939 manual; however, the references to the manual’s photographs have been omitted.

  1. Fit the waistbelt comfortably tight by adjusting each end equally. Adjustment is made by withdrawing the double hooks (at the ends of the belt) from the loops woven inside and re-inserting them into loops a corresponding distance from each end.  Before re-inserting the hooks, the belt may be tried on, and adjusted as may be necessary.  Once the belt is fitted it need seldom be altered.  The hooks are inserted by pinching up the webbing… fasten the hook and loop buckle, by passing the hook part through the loop of the other part and not by catching the hook over the outer bar.
  2. Slip the bayonet frog over the left end of the belt and bring it to a position so that it will hang, when the belt is put on, upon the left hip.
  3. Attach the basic pouches on the outside of the belt by passing the double hooks over the upper and lower edges of the belt and inserting the hooks into the woven loops, so that they correspond each side, in a position to bring the buckles on top of the pouches in line with the centres of the shoulders.
  4. Pass one end of the right brace (without loop inside) through the loop inside the rear end of the left brace and attach the rear ends of each brace to the respective buckle on the back of the belt. Pass the front ends of the braces through the centre opening of the buckle on top of the basic pouches, taking care not to twist the braces in doing so.  Try the equipment on and make any necessary adjustment of the braces at all four points of attachment to ensure that they extend below the lower edge of the belt equally, thus ensuring that the wide portions of the braces lie evenly on the shoulders.  Finally, pass the free front ends of the braces down behind the pouches, between the back of the pouch and the web chape carrying the buckle, and pull down firmly.
assembly

This detail shows the method of assembly.  The backside of the belt has a series of loops for the hooks on the belt-ends as well as the hooks on the basic pouch.  The brace is buckled to the top of the pouch, and the waterbottle carrier buckles to the brace-end.

Orders of Wear

There were four designated Orders of Wear, as follows:

Marching Order:  waistbelt; bayonet frog; pouches; braces; pack with shoulder straps and supporting straps; haversack hung on left hip; waterbottle and carrier hung on right hip; entrenching tool carrier hung on rear.

Battle Order:  as Marching Order, but without pack; the haversack is worn on the back.  Officially, the waterbottle was to be carried inside the haversack in Battle Order, but this was rare in actual practice.

Musketry Order:  waistbelt; braces; pouches; bayonet frog.

Drill Order:  waistbelt and bayonet frog.

Differences from the Training Manual

The 1939 manual for the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment describes it as a development of the 1908 Pattern, but lighter in weight.  While it was lighter, it was not necessarily an improvement; the 1908 Pattern was well-balanced and comfortable, while it was difficult to adjust the 1937 Pattern to a comfortable fit.

The manual describes the haversack as being worn “rucksack-fashion”, and goes on to state that it was easy to remove and get to its contents (I laughed the first time I read that statement).  The haversack was best worn high on the back; if it hung low, it bounced during marching or running.  Unfortunately, tightening the shoulder straps to get the haversack to ride high made it much more difficult to take off.  Additionally, as noted above, far more items were carried in the haversack than originally intended; the increased weight and bulk also made it harder to get a comfortable fit.

The official manual also states, “When the equipment has once been properly fitted it will be kept assembled as far as possible.”  However, as noted above, Drill Order consisted of just the belt and bayonet frog.  Training sessions alternated between foot drill and fieldcraft, which meant frequent disassembly and reassembly of the equipment.  Further, many units ordered that the waistbelt was to be worn separately as a “walking out” item with best battledress.

The section of the manual on care and preservation states, “Should the equipment become in a dirty or greasy condition, it may be washed, using warm water, soap and a sponge.  Then rinse with clean water, and when thoroughly dry apply the cleaner in the manner laid down in the instructions accompanying it.  No cleaner may be applied to the equipment unless previously approved by the War Office… The metal work will not be polished, but allowed to get dull, so as to avoid catching the rays of the sun.”

pouches

A series of basic pouches.  The one farthest left is a Mark II pouch, without Blanco; the remainder are Mark III pouches.  The center pouch was treated with a dark shade of Blanco, but much has worn off; the pouch left of center was treated with a lighter shade, but is remarkable in how well-preserved the Blanco is.  The two pouches on the right were both made in 1944 and feature the quick-release fastener as opposed to the brass snap-closure.

There were two approved webbing cleaners, although the term “cleaner” is rather misleading.  By far the more common “cleaner” was Blanco, made by Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd.  This was a cake of densely-packed colored powder; a wet brush or sponge was used to build up a paste and apply it to the webbing.  The Mills Equipment Company made their own webbing cleaner, which was a colored powder sold in a shaker tube; the powder was sprinkled onto the webbing prior to adding water and brushing into the webbing.

For something that was supposed to sustain the soldier on the battlefield, the recruit’s first exposure to webbing equipment was the obsession of his superiors with a smart parade-ground appearance.  Soldiers, especially new recruits, spent countless hours polishing the brass hardware and applying just the right amount of Blanco to their equipment.  If applied too thinly so that any of the actual khaki web showed through the Blanco, the soldier was punished; yet, if it was applied too thickly, it would crack and flake off, with a similar result.  Fortunately, once on operations, a more practical approach typically prevailed.

Tips for Reenactors

When I first started collecting webbing equipment in the mid-1990’s, 1937 Pattern web equipment was cheap and plentiful; that is no longer the case.  Most components are still available, although significantly higher in price, and some items require diligent searching of the internet.

Reproductions of most items are now readily available.  It appears that all reproduction 1937 Pattern webbing is made in India; when first on the market, these reproductions were of poor quality.  Fortunately, in recent years, the webbing itself has improved, although the brass hardware still seems a bit flimsy.

People today are generally larger than seventy years ago; most reenactors would be well-advised to purchase long braces and large or extra large waistbelts.  To help ensure the correct fit, remember that the waistbelt should be worn just below the ribcage, regardless of the modern concept of the waistline; far too many reenactors wear their webbing with the belt too low.

As noted above, it was common to wear the waistbelt separately as a “walking-out” item with best battledress.  Reenactors will frequently purchase a separate belt for this purpose; this seems like a reasonable solution, but historically, soldiers had to break down their equipment to wear just the belt.

Many reenactors use the Mark II entrenching tool helve, as many of these were made post-war and are now more common than the Mark I.  However, very few Mk. II helves actually saw wartime service.

Blanco is an interesting subject, and deserves its own article.  Suffice it to say here that original Blanco has become quite scarce, but reproductions and substitutes are now available.

webbing eto

The 1937 Pattern equipment as it would have been worn in Northern Europe, but without the entrenching tool.  Original Blanco is rare; this set of equipment has been treated with a modern substitute to replicate how it would have appeared operationally.  The parade ground would have seen a much heavier application of Blanco.

“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.

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

Maj.-Gen. “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.-Col. 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

Capt. 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 of 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.