“Men Apart”: The Red Beret

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

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

Beret Hartenstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Browning Oct 42

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

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

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

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

Italy 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Drop Too Many
Maj.-Gen. John Frost

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

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

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

Howard Beret 2

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

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

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

The Day the Devils Dropped In
Neil Barber

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

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

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

Arnhem Spearhead
James Sims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reenacting tip:

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

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

MontyBeret2

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

 

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“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.

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.

“Men With Tails”: The Denison Smock

History of the Denison Smock

Russia pioneered the use of military parachuting in the 1930’s, but it was the Germans who first used this new method of warfare in actual combat.  Prime Minister Churchill called for the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in June, 1940, inspired by the enemy’s successful use of glider and parachute troops during the invasion of Holland and Belgium.  Because the British were starting from the ground up, early Airborne equipment was often based on German designs.  The first British paratroopers wore a cotton gabardine garment officially termed “Jacket, Parachutist’s”, which was often called a “jump jacket” or sometimes a “step-in smock”.  It had full sleeves but only short legs, and a 3/4 length zip closure.  This item was worn over the standard wool battledress.  The British item was nearly identical to the German version, and troops of both nations called such a garment a “bone sack”.

Bruneval IWM

February, 1942:  men from C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, returning from the raid against the German radar installation at Bruneval, France.  Two of the men wear the “Jacket, Parachutist’s”; by the end of 1942, this item was replaced with the Denison smock.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The British determined that this item was not entirely suitable and developed a new airborne garment:  the famous Denison smock, officially named the “Smock, Denison (Airborne Troops)”.  Like its predecessor, it was intended to be worn over wool battledress.  It was designed in 1941, and was officially adopted and entered production in 1942.  While the Denison was designed with parachute troops in mind, it was also issued to glider troops.

The Denison was a true smock, in that it was pulled over the head.  There was a large opening that closed with a zipper, along with a collar lined in wool flannel.  The Denison was made from heavy cotton twill to make it windproof; its primary purpose was to keep the soldier warm during the flight and the parachute descent.  Unfortunately, however, it was not waterproof, and tended to get quite heavy in the rain.  Once on the ground, it was intended as a practical combat uniform.  As such, it was the first officially-sanctioned British item of dress to be camouflaged.  For the earliest versions, camouflage fabric was not available; sand-colored cloth was hand-painted with green and brown patches, using mops or large brushes.  This camouflage method was developed by Major Denison, for whom the garment was named*.  Not surprisingly, the paint tended to wash out; eventually, screen-printed camouflage material was produced, but the brush-stroke effect was retained.  Each bolt of camouflage fabric was slightly different from the next.

AFPU Arnhem IWM

September, 1944:  Sergeants Smith, Walker and Lewis of the Army Film and Photographic Unit, who had been attached to 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The smock had four external patch pockets which closed with a snap or press stud, with the upper pair set at an angle; there were also two internal pockets.  There was a pair of shoulder straps or epaulettes, each held down by a green plastic button.  There were two tightening tabs at the bottom of the smock, and ventilation holes under the arms.  One of the most distinctive features of the garment was a flap attached to the back hem and snapped up between the legs to the front of the smock; the end of the flap had a pair of male snaps, and there were three pairs of female snaps at the front to allow some adjustment.  The purpose of this item was to keep the smock in place during the jump; it was to reduce the smock from filling with air and getting pulled up over the wearer’s head.  While this piece was more properly known as a crutch flap, the troops invariably named it some form of tail:  the terms “monkey tail”, “ape tail”, “donkey tail” and “beaver tail” are all documented.

12th Battalion Normandy IWM

June, 1944:  Soldiers from 12th Parachute Battalion, 6th Airborne Division, in Normandy.  Note the “ape tail” hanging down behind the kneeling man.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The original Denison smocks had tapered sleeves that ended in elasticized knit cuffs.  Like the crutch flap, the knit cuffs were intended to keep the garment from filling with air and causing problems during the parachute drop.

Officers wore their rank insignia on the shoulder straps of the Denison; NCO’s typically wore their rank chevrons on the right sleeve only.  Paratrooper’s jump wings were also worn on the right sleeve, while glider pilots wore their wings on the left breast.  No additional insignia was worn on the smock.

Eventually, a second pattern of smock was developed.  The sleeves of this second pattern smock were straighter and lacked the knit cuffs; instead, there was a tightening tab above the wrist.  This button-cuff variant proved less popular with the troops, and many of these Denisons were modified by having sock tops attached to the sleeves as an improvised knit cuff.  The second pattern smock was somewhat darker in color than the first pattern; the base fabric was light green rather than tan, with the green and brown blotches darker as well.  That said, most original smocks are quite faded, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the colors of one pattern from the other.

One problem with the first pattern smock was that no provision was given regarding the ape tail after the drop.  Soldiers were expected to either keep the tail snapped up between their legs or tuck it up behind the waist belt of the webbing equipment.  Neither approach was very satisfactory; keeping the flap between the legs tended to restrict movement, and tactical movement also negated the alternative, as it tended to pull the tail out from under the waist belt.  Some soldiers cut the tail off their smocks, while others found some method of pinning it up behind them.  In this respect, the second pattern smock was an improvement, in that a pair of press studs was added to the small of the back so the tail could be kept up out of the way; this also gave a more dignified, military appearance.

Late in the war, some officers, who purchased their own uniforms and were afforded a certain amount of customization, had their smocks made with a full-length zip.  Similarly, a large number of smocks were converted to a full-zip configuration after the war.

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Original Denison smock.  The colors of this smock are remarkable, as most original Denisons are significantly more faded than this.  The full-length zip is a postwar modification.  Photo by “Battery Sergeant Major” of one of the smocks in his personal collection.

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Detail from the above photo, showing the elasticized knit cuff.

The Denison smock was first used operationally by 1st Parachute Brigade in Tunisia, beginning in November 1942.  The smock proved enormously popular with the entire Brigade.  One of the few complaints, however, was that the desert sand tended to clog the zipper and cause it to break; many surviving Denisons show evidence of having the zip replaced at some point.  According to some sources, the earliest smocks had steel zippers; later brass zippers tended to be more durable.  When Major-General F.A.M. Browning visited the Brigade in December, 1942, he kept a detailed diary; attached was an appendix with his notes on the equipment used by the Brigade during the Airborne Forces’ first large-scale operations.

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

Camouflage smocks.  Have been an outstanding success and are much envied by the rest of the Army.  They would be better if more waterproofing is possible.  They require a belt of some kind if worn without equipment on patrol as they are loose-fitting but string tied round the waist is good enough.

(As quoted in Tunisian Tales by Niall Cherry)

During 2nd Parachute Battalion’s operation against the airfields at Oudna and Depienne, the enemy called on fighter aircraft to make strafing attacks.  However, the fighters completely missed the British positions.  The Officer Commanding, Lt. Col. John Frost, credited this escape to the camouflage afforded by the Denison smock, and other members of the Battalion agreed.  Later, Frost wrote in his autobiography about the Denison’s crutch flap.

A Drop Too Many
By Major-General John Frost

We were the only troops out there who wore camouflaged smocks.  These smocks had a fork piece which was meant to be fastened in the front by two press studs.  These studs had a way of getting damaged or torn off and then the fork pieces hung down behind in a most unmilitary manner like a tail.  This much amused the Arabs, and despite all our other distinctive characteristics, they always referred to us as ‘the men with tails’.

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Another Denison smock owned by “Battery Sergeant Major”; the colors of this example are also in remarkable condition.  Note the “ape tail” at the bottom of the smock.

After these early experiences, Airborne Forces continued to expand, with every man issued a Denison smock.  This item particularly captured the attention of the British people with 6th Airborne Division’s successes in Normandy, followed by 1st Airborne’s heroic, but doomed, battle at Arnhem.  During the winter of 1944/45, the Denison smock was issued to the Commandos.

Reenacting Tips

For anyone choosing to reenact as British Airborne, the Denison smock is the most distinctive, and therefore most important, part of the impression.  Great care should be taken in choosing a Denison, and this is an item where the new reenactor should be willing to pay a little extra for a quality item.

S Smock Pic 1 - Cropped

Photo by “Sedgwick Fairfax” of an original second pattern Denison smock in his collection.  The base color is greener than the smocks pictured above.  The wool flannel lining the collar is also clearly visible.

When I first started reenacting as 1st Airborne twenty years ago, reproduction Denison smocks were a new item, and only two or three companies made them.  Many of the more experienced members of my unit were still wearing originals.  Original Denison smocks have always been prized collector’s items, and now they are very expensive; additionally, originals at this point should be preserved and not exposed to the rigors of simulated combat.

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Detail of the button cuff from the above second pattern Denison.

Fortunately, there are now many reproductions available.  This article is not intended to endorse or condemn any one specific product, so no company names will be listed here.  Instead, the reenactor should look for muted colors; the biggest flaw with many reproductions is that the colors are much too vivid.  Secondly, because the Denison was designed to be worn over battledress, the fit should be long, loose, and baggy.  Additionally, reenactors should avoid smocks with a full-length zip.

Postscript

When I decided to write about this topic, I thought it would be an easy item to research.  However, many of the normal sources on the British Airborne Forces had little information on the development of the Denison smock.  Worse, the sources that did include detail tended to contradict each other, forcing me to try to sort fact from conjecture.  Fortunately, two of my close friends who own original Denison smocks were willing to help and provided detailed photographs for me to study; this article would not have been possible without their enormous assistance.  Additionally, the website of the Airborne Assault Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire (www.paradata.org.uk) was an excellent resource.  There is a book dedicated to the Denison that was published in conjunction with the Museum a few years ago, but it was a very limited release and I have been unable to acquire a copy; I will keep trying.

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