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.

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Bully and Biscuits: British Rations

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

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.

Fray Bentos Tin 1944 IWM

“Bully Beef”.  This tin of Fray Bentos corned beef was made in 1944, and is from the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

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.

Biscuits

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.

Tea

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.

Chocolate

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.

Haversack Ration

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.

24-Hour Ration

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.

Compo Crate Stack

Composite ration crates being prepared for distribution.  Note that the pictured crates are all “Type F”, each containing bully beef.

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.

Emergency Ration

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.

Ration Tins

Various ration tins from World War II.  The Emergency Ration tin on the top right was made in Canada for naval use; the other Emergency Ration tin was issued by the Army.  The other items were all components of the Composite Ration.  Photo by the author of items in his personal collection.

Other Rations

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.

Conclusion

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.

Please also see Tommy’s Tea: The Significance of the Brew Up

*For my American friends:  “boiled sweets” is the British term for hard candy.

Tommy’s Tea: The Significance of the Brew Up

One must never underestimate the importance of tea to the British soldier. It’s true now; it was even more significant in WWII.

Tea was absolutely vital to the soldiers’ morale. Naturally, it contains caffeine and can provide a boost of energy; but there are many who find it calming, as well.  Tea is a part of British culture, even more so in the 1940’s than today.  To the soldier, it was more than just a beverage; it was a reminder of home, family, and happier times.

In barracks and camps, large urns of tea were housed in the cookhouses and dining halls. When soldiers were off duty, they could buy a cup at the NAAFI canteen found on every base (NAAFI was the Navy, Army, Air Force Institute).  There were also mobile canteens which followed the men on training exercises; most of these were operated by the NAAFI, but others were from the YMCA, Salvation Army, and other civilian organizations.

While tea breaks were commonly permitted on exercise, this was an impossible luxury in combat operations. Nevertheless, the troops became adept at quickly brewing tea at every possible opportunity.  Any time a halt was called, and if there were no bullets flying overhead, out would come the tea.

There is a sequence in the film “A Bridge Too Far” when Robert Redford accuses the Grenadier Guards of halting their advance in order to drink tea. I always thought that seemed a bit unfair, although that may have been how it appeared to the Americans.  I prefer the scene in which General Urquhart is upset at the challenges he is facing, so his batman hands him a cup of tea.  Urquhart complains, but drinks it anyway.

The Army issued portable petrol stoves in various sizes; the smallest had a single burner and was issued at the section level (8 men). However, the stoves were kept in the motor transport well behind the advancing infantry and were not available during a short halt.  Even if the “collective stove” was available, the early ones were unreliable and tended to clog with dirt and sand; this was a major issue in North Africa.  The troops were determined to have their tea, and therefore became masters of improvisation.

Some vehicle crews became adept at using a hot engine to boil water for tea. In North Africa, it was common to use a “Benghazi burner” or “Benghazi cooker”, which was simply a cut-down petrol or water tin, filled about halfway with sand.  The sand was then soaked in petrol and set alight, and could boil water in a very short amount of time.

Small folding stoves which used solid fuel tablets were developed; it was intended that every man should receive one, but priority of issue seems to have been for troops destined for Northern Europe.

Small batches of tea could be brewed in the standard mess tin. To heat it faster, the smaller side was used to make the tea, with the larger side on top as a lid.  For larger batches, an improvised kettle was often made from a ration tin.  Often, a rifle section or vehicle crew would designate one man to be in charge of making tea; sometimes, it was the most junior man, but often it was someone with a special knack for unpacking the supplies and getting the water on the boil in a hurry.

brew-up

Brewing up in a slit trench, Holland or Belgium, late 1944. The small stove is made from an artillery shell casing.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

While the tea bag had been invented prior to WWII, it was not common until after the war; most tea was loose leaf. Sugar was also issued, along with either powdered milk or sweetened condensed milk.  There was also an instant tea which consisted of dehydrated tea already mixed with sugar and powdered milk.  Tins of this mixture were included in the composite ration crates (known as “compo”).  These tins are popular with modern collectors; I have one in my collection.  Small packets of instant tea were also included in the 24 hour ration pack.

tea-tin

Instant tea ration tin, from the composite ration crate.  Author’s collection.

A note on soldier’s slang: the act of building a fire or lighting a stove and making tea was known as “brewing up”.  The tea break itself then became known as a “brew up”, and the equipment needed was the “brew up kit”.  The folding solid-fuel stove was known as a “Tommy cooker”.  However, with the British soldiers’ ironic sense of humor, when a vehicle caught fire, it was also said to brew up; the Sherman tank had a nasty tendency to brew up easily when shot, so it too was called a Tommy cooker.  “Gurkha Tea” contained more condensed milk than tea.

One of the best descriptions of brewing up is found in George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here, about his experiences in Burma in 1945.

Brewing up is not merely a matter of infusing tea; making the fire comes into it, and when you have lit and maintained fires in the monsoon, you have nothing more to learn. That came later; at Meiktila it was a simple business of assembling bamboo slivers, igniting them (no small thing, with Indian “Lion” matches which invariably broke and sprayed the striker with flaming phosphorus), and bringing about a gallon of water to the boil in the section brew-tin.  This was a jealously-guarded article, about a foot cubed, made by cutting a compo ration tin in two and piercing the rim for a handle of signal wire.  The casting in of the tea leaves from the section box was the crucial thing, followed by the ceremonial dropping in of two broken matchsticks to attract stray leaves; remove the tin from the heat, invite the guests to scoop out the brew with their piallas [“mugs” in Urdu], and tea was served, each man adding sugar and condensed milk to taste.

What is interesting about Fraser’s description is that he does not reference instant tea or folding stoves; perhaps these items never made it to the “forgotten” 14th Army in Burma. However, the importance he placed on the brew up was universal throughout the British Army.

For more information on British rations, including tea, click here.

anzio-brew-up

Brewing up at Anzio.  Notice the use of repurposed tins, both as stove and kettle.  Imperial War Museum.