History of the Denison Smock
Russia pioneered the use of military parachuting in the 1930’s, but it was the Germans who first used this new method of warfare in actual combat. Prime Minister Churchill called for the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in June, 1940, inspired by the enemy’s successful use of glider and parachute troops during the invasion of Holland and Belgium. Because the British were starting from the ground up, early Airborne equipment was often based on German designs. The first British paratroopers wore a cotton gabardine garment officially termed “Jacket, Parachutist’s”, which was often called a “jump jacket” or sometimes a “step-in smock”. It had full sleeves but only short legs, and a 3/4 length zip closure. This item was worn over the standard wool battledress. The British item was nearly identical to the German version, and troops of both nations called such a garment a “bone sack”.
The British determined that this item was not entirely suitable and developed a new airborne garment: the famous Denison smock, officially named the “Smock, Denison (Airborne Troops)”. Like its predecessor, it was intended to be worn over wool battledress. It was designed in 1941, and was officially adopted and entered production in 1942. While the Denison was designed with parachute troops in mind, it was also issued to glider troops.
The Denison was a true smock, in that it was pulled over the head. There was a large opening that closed with a zipper, along with a collar lined in wool flannel. The Denison was made from heavy cotton twill to make it windproof; its primary purpose was to keep the soldier warm during the flight and the parachute descent. Unfortunately, however, it was not waterproof, and tended to get quite heavy in the rain. Once on the ground, it was intended as a practical combat uniform. As such, it was the first officially-sanctioned British item of dress to be camouflaged. For the earliest versions, camouflage fabric was not available; sand-colored cloth was hand-painted with green and brown patches, using mops or large brushes. This camouflage method was developed by Major Denison, for whom the garment was named*. Not surprisingly, the paint tended to wash out; eventually, screen-printed camouflage material was produced, but the brush-stroke effect was retained. Each bolt of camouflage fabric was slightly different from the next.
The smock had four external patch pockets which closed with a snap or press stud, with the upper pair set at an angle; there were also two internal pockets. There was a pair of shoulder straps or epaulettes, each held down by a green plastic button. There were two tightening tabs at the bottom of the smock, and ventilation holes under the arms. One of the most distinctive features of the garment was a flap attached to the back hem and snapped up between the legs to the front of the smock; the end of the flap had a pair of male snaps, and there were three pairs of female snaps at the front to allow some adjustment. The purpose of this item was to keep the smock in place during the jump; it was to reduce the smock from filling with air and getting pulled up over the wearer’s head. While this piece was more properly known as a crutch flap, the troops invariably named it some form of tail: the terms “monkey tail”, “ape tail”, “donkey tail” and “beaver tail” are all documented.
The original Denison smocks had tapered sleeves that ended in elasticized knit cuffs. Like the crutch flap, the knit cuffs were intended to keep the garment from filling with air and causing problems during the parachute drop.
Officers wore their rank insignia on the shoulder straps of the Denison; NCO’s typically wore their rank chevrons on the right sleeve only. Paratrooper’s jump wings were also worn on the right sleeve, while glider pilots wore their wings on the left breast. No additional insignia was worn on the smock.
Eventually, a second pattern of smock was developed. The sleeves of this second pattern smock were straighter and lacked the knit cuffs; instead, there was a tightening tab above the wrist. This button-cuff variant proved less popular with the troops, and many of these Denisons were modified by having sock tops attached to the sleeves as an improvised knit cuff. The second pattern smock was somewhat darker in color than the first pattern; the base fabric was light green rather than tan, with the green and brown blotches darker as well. That said, most original smocks are quite faded, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the colors of one pattern from the other.
One problem with the first pattern smock was that no provision was given regarding the ape tail after the drop. Soldiers were expected to either keep the tail snapped up between their legs or tuck it up behind the waist belt of the webbing equipment. Neither approach was very satisfactory; keeping the flap between the legs tended to restrict movement, and tactical movement also negated the alternative, as it tended to pull the tail out from under the waist belt. Some soldiers cut the tail off their smocks, while others found some method of pinning it up behind them. In this respect, the second pattern smock was an improvement, in that a pair of press studs was added to the small of the back so the tail could be kept up out of the way; this also gave a more dignified, military appearance.
Late in the war, some officers, who purchased their own uniforms and were afforded a certain amount of customization, had their smocks made with a full-length zip. Similarly, a large number of smocks were converted to a full-zip configuration after the war.
The Denison smock was first used operationally by 1st Parachute Brigade in Tunisia, beginning in November 1942. The smock proved enormously popular with the entire Brigade. One of the few complaints, however, was that the desert sand tended to clog the zipper and cause it to break; many surviving Denisons show evidence of having the zip replaced at some point. According to some sources, the earliest smocks had steel zippers; later brass zippers tended to be more durable. When Major-General F.A.M. Browning visited the Brigade in December, 1942, he kept a detailed diary; attached was an appendix with his notes on the equipment used by the Brigade during the Airborne Forces’ first large-scale operations.
Major-General Browning’s Diary of his Visit to North Africa, December 1942
Appendix: Weapons and Equipment
Camouflage smocks. Have been an outstanding success and are much envied by the rest of the Army. They would be better if more waterproofing is possible. They require a belt of some kind if worn without equipment on patrol as they are loose-fitting but string tied round the waist is good enough.
(As quoted in Tunisian Tales by Niall Cherry)
During 2nd Parachute Battalion’s operation against the airfields at Oudna and Depienne, the enemy called on fighter aircraft to make strafing attacks. However, the fighters completely missed the British positions. The Officer Commanding, Lt.-Col. John Frost, credited this escape to the camouflage afforded by the Denison smock, and other members of the Battalion agreed. Later, Frost wrote in his autobiography about the Denison’s crutch flap.
A Drop Too Many
By Major-General John Frost
We were the only troops out there who wore camouflaged smocks. These smocks had a fork piece which was meant to be fastened in the front by two press studs. These studs had a way of getting damaged or torn off and then the fork pieces hung down behind in a most unmilitary manner like a tail. This much amused the Arabs, and despite all our other distinctive characteristics, they always referred to us as ‘the men with tails’.
After these early experiences, Airborne Forces continued to expand, with every man issued a Denison smock. This item particularly captured the attention of the British people with 6th Airborne Division’s successes in Normandy, followed by 1st Airborne’s heroic, but doomed, battle at Arnhem. During the winter of 1944/45, the Denison smock was issued to the Commandos.
For anyone choosing to reenact as British Airborne, the Denison smock is the most distinctive, and therefore most important, part of the impression. Great care should be taken in choosing a Denison, and this is an item where the new reenactor should be willing to pay a little extra for a quality item.
When I first started reenacting as 1st Airborne twenty years ago, reproduction Denison smocks were a new item, and only two or three companies made them. Many of the more experienced members of my unit were still wearing originals. Original Denison smocks have always been prized collector’s items, and now they are very expensive; additionally, originals at this point should be preserved and not exposed to the rigors of simulated combat.
Fortunately, there are now many reproductions available. This article is not intended to endorse or condemn any one specific product, so no company names will be listed here. Instead, the reenactor should look for muted colors; the biggest flaw with many reproductions is that the colors are much too vivid. Secondly, because the Denison was designed to be worn over battledress, the fit should be long, loose, and baggy. Additionally, reenactors should avoid smocks with a full-length zip.
When I decided to write about this topic, I thought it would be an easy item to research. However, many of the normal sources on the British Airborne Forces had little information on the development of the Denison smock. Worse, the sources that did include detail tended to contradict each other, forcing me to try to sort fact from conjecture. Fortunately, two of my close friends who own original Denison smocks were willing to help and provided detailed photographs for me to study; this article would not have been possible without their enormous assistance. Additionally, the website of the Airborne Assault Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire (www.paradata.org.uk) was an excellent resource. There is a book dedicated to the Denison that was published in conjunction with the Museum a few years ago, but it was a very limited release and I have been unable to acquire a copy; I will keep trying.
*While this is the commonly-accepted reason for the garment’s name, historians have recently searched for evidence to support the story; they were unable to confirm the existence of the fabled Major Denison.