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.

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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

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

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

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

Capt Ogilvie GPR

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

The Pass: Army Form B. 295

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

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

One form that was commonly encountered, and even coveted, by the private soldier was the Pass, Army Form B. 295.  Going absent without leave was a serious offense; specifically, it was a violation 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.

Book Review: Men at Arnhem

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

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

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

Hartenstein IWM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men at Arnhem Cover

Flt. Lt. David S. Lord, VC

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

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

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

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

2.0.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakota Panniers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D Lord Marker

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

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

D Lord Window Down Ampney

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

Postscript:

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

*The four Airborne recipients of the Victoria Cross were:

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

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

 

Boiled Sweets and Airborne Rations

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

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

Boiled Sweets Tin_NEW

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

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

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

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

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

Ration S.T.6.

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

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

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

 

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

paratrooper haversack

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

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

Tins - Edited

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

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

Boiled Sweets in Tin

Barley sugars (left) and acid drops (right)

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

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