“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.

G Smock 1 Pic 2 - Cropped

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.

G Smock 1 Pic 2 - Detail

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’.

G Smock 4 Pic 3 - Cropped

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.

S Smock Pic 12 Detail

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.

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Boots, Boots, Boots, Part 2: A Tutorial

After I wrote my article, Boots, Boots, Boots:  A Living History Case Study, a number of my friends asked for a step-by-step guide to lacing ammo boots in the correct 1940’s manner.  They requested that I provide photographs to describe the method.  Here is the result.

Start by tying a small knot at one end of the bootlace.

Boots 1

Reproduction ammo boots from SM Wholesale.  All photos in this article by the author’s spouse.

The lace should then be threaded through the bottom eyelet of the arch side of the boot; thread the lace from the underside of the eyelet, and feed the lace through all the way to the knot at the other end.

Boots 2

Then thread the lace to the other bottom eyelet, this time from above.  This creates the first “rung” of the ladder-lacing method.

Boots 3

Next, take the lace across diagonally to the arch side of the boot and thread it through the next eyelet, again from behind.  Cross the lace over and create the second “rung”.

Boots 4

Boots 5

You can repeat these steps all the way to the top of the boot.  However, I normally do not lace the top two or three eyelets until I have the boot on my foot.

Boots 7

Once I reach the top of the boot, and no more rungs can be made, I thread the last eyelet from behind.

Boots 9

Boots 10

The remaining lace is then wrapped around the ankle two or three times (depending on how much lace is left).  The loose end is tucked under the wrap; I normally give it two or three tucks to ensure it does not come loose.

Boots 11

Boots 12

The gaiter is then put on normally.  Without any bow to make a lump, you should notice a smoother appearance to your gaiters.

Boots 13

The boots used in these photos are reproductions made by SM Wholesale, as used in the film, Dunkirk.  The quality of these boots is excellent.  Now I just need to give them a good polish.

 

Boots, Boots, Boots: A Living History Case Study

For the last twenty years, I have been actively involved in a living history organization dedicated to portraying the British 1st Airborne Division during World War II.

Much has changed in that time, both within our organization and in the overall living history community. In many ways, it is much easier now than it used to be.  When I first got involved, original WWII British uniforms and equipment were rather scarce, and there were few reproduction items available.  While books on WWII were plentiful, most of the ones available in the US were either general histories or had an American focus.  The internet was in its infancy.  It was not easy to research the history of the British Army while living in the US.

I want everything that I do to be historically correct, down to the smallest detail. Recently, I have been reevaluating many of the basics, and I have learned that some things that I was taught when I was new have turned out to have been incorrect, largely because the resources we have now were not available back then.

A couple years ago, I discovered that I was tying my bootlaces incorrectly.

Ammunition boots (or “ammo” boots) were adopted by the British Army during the Victorian period and were not replaced until the 1960’s. Ammo boots were ankle-high lace-up boots, made with pebble-grained leather uppers and hobnailed leather soles.  They were as tough as the men that wore them, and British soldiers marched in them across the world.

Ammo boots were “ladder laced”; that is, the laces gave the appearance of parallel lines, like the rungs of a ladder. They were never worn using the American-style crisscross pattern.  There are different methods of achieving the ladder effect.  The method that I was originally taught gave the correct parallel-lines appearance, and resulted in a normal bow at the top of the boot.  Sometimes the bows would give a bulky appearance to my gaiters, and every so often part of a bow would become untucked from under the gaiter, or worse, become untied.

GrenGuards 1944

Princess Elizabeth inspects the Grenadier Guards, May 1944.  The ammo boots, as to be expected, are clean and polished.  If one looks closely, one can see the parallel lines effect of British-style “ladder lacing”.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

A few years ago, a friend directed me to an online discussion board on British reenacting, including a debate over the correct British Army method of lacing boots. There were several people who posted comments insisting that bootlaces should never be tied in a bow.  The correct method, according to this discussion, was to start by tying a knot in one end of a lace and threading the lace through the bottom eyelet from behind.  The lace is then threaded through the other bottom eyelet from above, creating the first “rung” of the ladder.  The lace is taken diagonally back to the first row and threaded through the next eyelet, again from behind, then crossed over again to create the second “rung”.  This is repeated to the top of the boot.  There is then a length of lace remaining, which is wrapped a couple times around the ankle, and the loose end tucked under the wrap at least once, possibly two or three times.

The proponents of this method had served in the British Army in the early 1980’s, and used this method on DMS boots, the replacement for ammo boots.   Another fellow added that his father had been taught this method when he performed his National Service in the 1950’s, with ammo boots.

I was intrigued by this discussion, but I was concerned that the evidence given was from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. I wanted evidence from WWII.   I started looking closely at photos from the period, which all showed ladder-laced boots; but all the photos I found showed men wearing gaiters, which covered the boot-tops.

Fus Tom Payne Front

Fusilier Tom Payne, Royal Welch Fusiliers.  Fusilier Payne was the subject of a number of official photographs taken in Normandy in 1944, intended to show the appearance of a typical British soldier fighting in France.  While in the field, soldiers were not expected to polish their boots, although routine cleaning was essential to making them last.  The “ladder lacing” is clearly evident.

I stumbled across the evidence I needed quite by accident. I was preparing for an event and wanted to brush up on infantry tactics.  I pulled out my copy of the official 1937 Infantry Training manual; my copy was reprinted in 1941.  Even though it is an official publication, there are a number of advertisements at the front and back of the book; officers typically had to purchase their own copies, and the ads helped keep the cost down.  One of the ads is for Kiwi boot polish and includes a photograph of a pair of boots being worn without gaiters.  The photograph clearly shows the bootlaces wrapped around the ankles, without bows.  I finally had the evidence that I needed.

scan0013

Advertisement from the 1941 reprint of the 1937 Infantry Training manual.  Notice the bootlaces wrapped around the ankles.

 

I tried this method of lacing my boots and wore them at the event, and I was pleased with the result. There was none of the bulky appearance to my gaiters that had previously concerned me, and nothing came untucked or peeked embarrassingly out from under the gaiters.  I have used this method ever since.

UPDATE:  Since I first published this article, I have received a number of requests asking for a tutorial on lacing ammo boots in the correct, 1940’s manner, including photographs. It is now available as a new article, found here:  Boots, Boots, Boots, Part 2:  A Tutorial

 

2nd Parachute Battalion: The “Mepacrine Chasers”

In June, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a memorandum to the War Office calling for the creation of an airborne unit. Churchill had been impressed by Germany’s use of parachute and glider troops during their invasion of France and the Low Countries, and felt Britain should have a similar capability.

It took time for the Airborne Forces to become fully developed. No. 2 Commando, consisting of 500 men, was given parachute training in the summer of 1940.  Airborne Forces were then expanded, and in September, 1941, 1st Parachute Brigade was created.  No. 2 Commando was renamed 1st Parachute Battalion, and 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions were established.  The new Battalions recruited soldiers from all across the British Army.  In those early days, the only Airborne-specific insignia was the parachute brevet (or “jump wings”); the famous maroon beret had not yet been adopted, and the new paratroopers continued to wear the insignia and headdress of their previous units.

2nd Parachute Battalion’s first Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Edwin Flavell, gave each of his officers a bright yellow lanyard to wear on the left shoulder, to distinguish them from officers of the other two battalions.  The “other ranks” (enlisted personnel) decided they wanted to wear the yellow lanyard, as well.  However, they had to make their own, which required a certain amount of improvisation and ingenuity.

The lanyards were made by cutting a length of rigging line, made of white silk or nylon, from a parachute after a training jump. This cord was braided or tied into a lanyard; those unskilled in making it themselves begged help from friends.

The most ingenious part of the process was dying the lanyard. Troops sent to the tropics were ordered to take Mepacrine, also known as Atabrine, a bright yellow medicine intended to fight malaria.  Continued use of this drug was known to turn the skin and eyes yellow; therefore, it was seen by the troops as a logical dye.  Mepacrine pills were acquired, then ground up and dissolved in water to turn the white lanyards a deep yellow or golden color.

atabrine

US-issued Atabrine; the British called it Mepacrine.  It was a common anti-malaria drug in the 1940’s, but continued use turned the eyes and skin a yellow color.

Intentionally damaging a parachute and misusing medical supplies were both serious offenses. The officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion would normally have punished anyone guilty of these military crimes.  However, they turned a blind eye and even unofficially encouraged the behavior.  The yellow lanyards became prized possessions; the men were immensely proud of their Battalion, symbolized by the yellow lanyard.

Eventually, 1st Parachute Battalion adopted a dark green lanyard, and 3rd Parachute Battalion adopted red.  However, their creation did not seem to have the same creativity behind them.

By the time James Sims joined 2nd Parachute Battalion in 1943, it was a veteran unit, having recently returned to England after bitter fighting in North Africa and Sicily.  Airborne Forces had expanded to two Divisions, the 1st and the 6th, and the maroon beret had been adopted for all Airborne Forces, including glider troops.  The Parachute Regiment had been formed officially, with its own insignia and cap badge.  However, in 1st Parachute Brigade, the colored lanyards were still in use to distinguish the different Battalions.

As described in Sims’ book Arnhem Spearhead, the yellow (or golden) lanyard was still made the same way as in the early days of the Battalion. Sims was given his when he first joined the Mortar Platoon of S Company.

They laughed at my discomfiture but suddenly one of them said, ‘Here, put this on.’ He handed me a beautiful gold lanyard, obviously made out of parachute nylon rigging line, the removal of which was a court martial offence.  This gold lanyard was worn only by the 2nd Battalion and was produced as follows.

After a jump a para would cut off a rigging line and secrete it about his person. Back at camp he would persuade someone skilled in the art to plait it into a lanyard.  He would then dissolve a mepacrine tablet in a saucer of water in which he would place the lanyard, leaving it overnight.  In the morning he would have a beautiful gold lanyard.  No one could recall the genius who first devised this unauthorized use of medical supplies, which was based on the idea that if these tablets could turn a man yellow they would do the same for nylon.  Because of this practice the 2nd Battalion were known in the First Para Brigade as the Mepacrine Chasers.  The 1st Battalion had dark green lanyards and the 3rd red.  Everyone in our battalion had a ‘larny’ lanyard, as it was known, and it was very highly regarded.

I belong to a living history organization which portrays B Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, and it is humbling to read about the extraordinary men whose history we try to preserve.  I gave a copy of Arnhem Spearhead to a close friend as a Christmas present.  Being an avid sailor and generally good with knotting and braiding, he decided to make a number of lanyards for us.  He used nylon parachute cord, and experimented with different formulas and concentrations of “RIT” dye.  Previously, I had worn a machine-made yellow lanyard from a surplus store; replacing it with a hand-made lanyard given to me by my friend is much more meaningful, and much closer to what the original lanyards represented.

2 Para Lanyard

Hand-braided, hand-dyed yellow lanyard, made based on the description in James Sims’ Arnhem Spearhead.

Arnhem Spearhead is out of print, but copies are often available online. Lt. Col. Flavell’s issue of the yellow lanyard to the officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion was recalled by the Battalion’s first Adjutant, and later, most famous commander, John Frost, in the book Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941 – 1945, by Robert Peatling.

More information on Maj. Gen. John Frost and 2nd Parachute Battalion may be found in an earlier blog post, here.

Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941 – 1945 by Robert Peatling