Since starting my blog, one of my most popular articles has been the entry on tea. However, I have had it pointed out that I described tea being issued with various forms of rations, without explaining what those terms meant. This article will hopefully provide background for the tea article, as well as useful information on its own.
Whenever possible, British troops were fed hot, fresh food. In Army camps and garrisons, meals were prepared in cookhouses. Depending on the camp, meals could be consumed in large dining halls or tents, but they were also often taken back to the barracks, where each section room had its own table and benches. On operations, field kitchens were established as soon as it was deemed safe to do so; hot, fresh meals were considered essential both for nutrition and morale. However, troops at the front line, or on the move, had to rely on various forms of preserved foods. These rations were simple and monotonous at the outbreak of World War II, but became increasingly varied and sophisticated as the war progressed.
The rations issued to British soldiers in the early part of World War II were nearly identical to those issued during World War I. The mainstays were “bully beef”, “M & V”, biscuits, and tea, sometimes supplemented with chocolate.
Bully beef was tinned corned beef with a small amount of gelatin. Officially named “preserved meat”, the more common term of “bully beef” was derived from the French boef bouilli (boiled beef). It is one of the oldest forms of canned food, and has been issued to British troops since the Anglo-Boer War. Most bully beef was (and still is) made in South America; during both World Wars, Fray Bentos brand from Uruguay was the most common.
M & V
During World War I, the Maconochie Brothers company developed a tinned meat and vegetable stew, known by the troops as “M & V”. It could be eaten cold, but was much more palatable when hot. Upon introduction, it provided a welcome break from bully beef, but eventually became just as ubiquitous and monotonous.
Service biscuits were unsalted, hard, and dry, and were descended from the ships’ biscuits and hard tack that military forces had used for centuries. Kept in a sealed tin, they lasted for a very long time. They had little flavor, and were often called “tooth dullers”; many soldiers had to soak their biscuits in water or tea in order to chew them.
The British generally prefer their tea with milk and sugar, but this was impractical under field conditions. However, tins of sweetened condensed milk were issued for use in tea. The tea itself was simply black and loose-leaf; while cookhouses and field kitchens put the tea leaves in muslin sacks for brewing in large quantities, troops on the front line had to improvise ways of straining out the leaves.
As the war progressed, various forms of chocolate were often issued. Chocolate rations were not very sweet, and rarely made with milk, both because of shortages and to reduce the possibility of melting. Chocolate was high in calories, and was often fortified with vitamins; while not as enjoyable as pre-war civilian chocolate, it was lightweight, compact, and did not require any preparation.
The above items were the staples at the outbreak of war; while later rations became more sophisticated, they were still often based on the above.
The haversack ration was typically issued for field exercises in England, and consisted of a simple sandwich of meat or cheese with thickly-cut bread with butter or margarine; sometimes a meat pie or pasty would be given instead. This was often accompanied by a slice of fruitcake or an apple. Sometimes the haversack ration was used as an embarkation ration; for example, while assault troops were served a hot meal from the galley of a troopship, airborne soldiers would typically be given pasties or sandwiches to eat in the air.
The term “haversack ration” could also be applied to the simplest form of field ration, a tin of bully beef and a packet of biscuits.
The 24-Hour Ration was also called the Landing or Assault Ration. It consisted of a cardboard box that could fit inside the larger half of a mess tin; the box was treated with wax to make it resistant to both weather and gas attack. The contents were intended to provide enough calories for a day in a compact package, including what was called a “meat block”, a compressed piece of dehydrated meat; unlike modern jerky, the meat block was intended to be broken up into hot water before consuming. A similar item was the “oatmeal block”, which was also supposed to be broken up and boiled in water; it was very dense, and eating it on its own tended to cause stomach upset. Packets of dehydrated tea, including sugar and powdered milk, were included. The 24-Hour Ration also came with a small packet of biscuits, chocolate, boiled sweets*, salt, and a few sheets of latrine paper.
Two of the 24-Hour Ration packs were typically issued at the beginning of an operation, along with a small, folding solid-fuel stove known universally as a “Tommy Cooker”. After the first forty-eight hours of the operation, it was hoped that standard ration supply would be possible, based on the Composite Ration.
Composite Ration (“Compo”)
The Composite Ration, universally known as “compo”, was intended as the primary method of provisioning troops in the field until a beachhead was secure enough to set up field kitchens. Compo came in a wooden crate and was supposed to be enough food for 14 men for a 24-hour period. The Composite Ration was specifically intended to provide much greater variety to the troops’ diet than had been previously possible. There were several different versions, labeled Type A through Type G (with biscuits) and Types 1, 2 and 3 (without biscuits). Types A through G were more common. When field kitchens were set up, their first priority was baking fresh bread, the rest of the food coming from Compo Types 1 through 3.
Type F came with 12 tins of “preserved meat” (the inevitable bully beef). The other types came with 10 to 14 tins of “meatstuff”, which could be any of the following: steak and kidney pudding; steak and kidney; Irish stew; stewed steak; haricot and oxtail; meat and vegetables; or pork and vegetables.
All compo crates came with tins of the same instant tea as the 24-Hour Ration. They also came with chocolate, boiled sweets, salt, margarine, soap, latrine paper, and cigarettes. The variable items included: sausages, bacon, “luncheon meat” (presumably something similar to American “Spam”), baked beans, sardines, fruit, vegetables, condensed soup, salmon, jam, cheese, and sweet puddings.
Compo was first issued to British 1st Army in North Africa, and became the standard as the war progressed.
Mess Tin Ration
This was not a specific item, but more of an improvised version of a haversack ration or 24-Hour Ration. Several of the smaller tins typically found in a Compo crate would be distributed individually and kept in the mess tin inside the small pack.
The emergency ration was an item of last resort and was only to be consumed when no other food was available. It consisted of a small, sealed tin containing an extremely dense slab of vitamin-enriched chocolate. The tin was embossed with a warning that it was only to be used on orders from an officer.
I have read a personal account in which the author described eating an “emergency ration” on the Normandy beaches that included a meat block and oatmeal block; I have not found any confirmation of this version, and I suspect he was actually describing the 24-Hour Ration. There were also tins of Horlicks malted milk tablets used by troops as a high-calorie emergency food.
Many of the ration items developed for Northern Europe were found unsuitable for use in India and Burma. The Pacific 24-Hour Ration contained small tins of meat, cheese, and jam; while the tins added weight, they provided greater weatherproofing to the contents than was possible with the standard 24-Hour Ration. There were also times when British troops in Burma were issued the American “K Ration”. Specific rations also had to be developed for Indian troops, with their various religious-based dietary restrictions.
There were other ration packs designed for specific troops or circumstances, including the Mountain (Arctic) Pack, and three different sizes of A.F.V. (armored fighting vehicle) Ration Pack, available in 2-man, 3-man, and 5-man versions.
The intent was for tinned rations and other preserved foods to be used as minimally as possible, but they were often the mainstay. In North Africa, the extreme temperatures made it difficult to store fresh food; additionally, much of the desert war was fluid, involving long drives and little opportunity for field kitchens to be established. In Europe, the field kitchens were supposed to be set up just a few days after D-Day, but because of the enemy’s frequent counter-attacks, it took weeks for the beachheads to be secure enough. Long usage of tinned rations required either lime juice or vitamin C tablets to be issued to counter scurvy.
Rations were typically heated at the section level, using portable petrol stoves. While the ration items were supposed to be palatable on their own, the designers fully expected troops to experiment with ways of combining the different items and providing their own seasoning.
My thanks to my online friends who provided clarification on the 24-Hour Ration and Pacific 24-Hour Ration packs.
*For my American friends: “boiled sweets” is the British term for hard candy.
For additional information and reenacting tips on rations, please see these articles:
War (No. 60): Thought For Food
Army Bureau of Current Affairs
December 25, 1943
The British Soldier: From D-Day to V-E Day
Volume 1: Uniforms, Insignia, Equipment
Histoire & Collections
Battlefield Rations: The Food Given to the British Soldier for Marching and Fighting 1900 – 2011
Helion & Company, Ltd., 2013
British Army Handbook, 1939 – 1945
Sutton Publishing, 1998
Frontline Cookbook: Battlefield Recipes from the Second World War
The History Press, 2012