“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.

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British 1st Airborne Division: The Scottish Connection

Recently, my reenacting unit, the British 1st Airborne Division Living History Association, was invited to set up an educational display at a Scottish Highland Games event.  I wrote the following as a handout.

Traditionally, Infantry Regiments in the British Army were based geographically.  English Regiments were based on the county system, such as the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Cheshire Regiment.  Most Highland Regiments were based on the ancient clans, such as the Cameron Highlanders and Gordon Highlanders, and again, each had a designated geographic recruitment area.  Even the larger formations were based geographically, such as the 50th Northumbrian “Tyne and Tees” Division and the famous 51st Highland Division.

By contrast, when Britain’s Airborne Forces were first created in 1940, they were not restricted by such traditions.  1st through 4th Parachute Battalions recruited from all across Great Britain, but it was quickly discovered that the toughest and bravest paratroopers were Scotsmen.  Later Parachute Battalions were converted from existing infantry units, including 5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion, which had previously been the 7th Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

As an experiment, an entire Company was made up of Scotsmen:  C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, nicknamed “Jock Company”.  Naturally, a Scottish officer was needed to command the Company, and Major John Dutton Frost, originally of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) was selected.  Jock Company conducted Britain’s first major airborne action in February, 1942:  a raid against a German radar installation at Bruneval in occupied France.  Frost was then promoted to Lt. Colonel and given command of 2nd Parachute Battalion.

220px-john_frost

Lt. Col. John D. Frost in the uniform of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)

1st Parachute Brigade (1st, 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions) was sent to North Africa in November, 1942, and was in nearly constant action through March, 1943.  Back in Britain, the Airborne Forces continued to grow, and 1st Airborne Division was created.

In addition to paratroops, it was decided to train troops to deploy from gliders; these “air-landing” units took existing infantry battalions and converted them to the glider role.

1st Air-Landing Brigade consisted of one Scottish and two English battalions, as follows:

  • 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment;
  • 2nd Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment;
  • 7th Battalion, Kings Own Scottish Borderers (K.O.S.B.).

1st Air-Landing Brigade first saw action supporting the Invasion of Sicily in July, 1943; 1st Parachute Brigade was then utilized during the breakout from the beachhead.

In September, 1943, elements of 1st Airborne landed in mainland Italy, and the divisional commander, Major General George Hopkinson, was killed in action.  His replacement was Major General Robert “Roy” Urquhart, originally of the Highland Light Infantry.  When Urquhart took command, he appointed Lt. Colonel Charles Mackenzie as his Chief of Staff; Mackenzie had previously commanded 5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion.

Urquhart & Mackenzie

Major General “Roy” Urquhart with his Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Charles Mackenzie, at Divisional Headquarters during the Battle of Arnhem.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Urquhart commanded 1st Airborne during the epic Battle of Arnhem in September, 1944.  Lt. Colonel Frost and his 2nd Battalion captured the north end of Arnhem Bridge, the Division’s main objective.  However, the Division was surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned, and their relieving force never arrived.  7th K.O.S.B. was instrumental in holding the division’s defensive perimeter, but the survivors of the Division were forced back across the Rhine.

The Battle of Arnhem is remembered as one of Britain’s greatest feats of arms, and was famously depicted in the film, “A Bridge Too Far”.

Capt Ogilvie GPR

Captain James Ogilvie of D Squadron, No. 1 Wing, Glider Pilot Regiment, who famously wore his kilt to fly to Arnhem.  Ogilvie served in the Gordon Highlanders prior to volunteering as a Glider Pilot.  Photo from 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.

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.

“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.

*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.

 

Cold Steel: The Fairbairn Sykes Fighting Knife

The Second World War was a remarkable period of technological advancement. At its outbreak, some nations were still flying biplanes; by the end of the war, the first jets were being produced. The first true computer was invented as a tool for decrypting enemy cyphers. And yet, one of the most symbolic items from the period is the Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife, a dagger that is nearly Medieval in appearance.

The early stages of the war saw a series of disasters for Great Britain and her allies. In April, 1940, the British and French launched a failed campaign in Norway to resist the German invasion. In May, Germany conquered France and the Low Countries, and the British were forced to withdraw from the European continent via the port of Dunkirk. Hitler then threatened to cross the English Channel and invade Britain.

Despite the menace of invasion, newly-appointed Prime Minister Churchill felt it was dangerous to take a purely defensive stance. Churchill insisted that Britain retain an aggressive spirit and the ability to strike back, even if on a limited scale. He recalled his time as a journalist covering the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). The Boers had used fast-moving equestrian raiding parties to harass and demoralize the much-better equipped British; the Afrikaans name for such a raiding party was Kommando.

In June, 1940, Churchill called on the War Office to create their own Commandos. These would be sea-borne raiding units who would launch surprise attacks all along the enemy-held coastline. The new Commando organization was to recruit highly motivated men, give them intensive training, and instill in them a spirit of aggression and determination.

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A British Commando during training, 1942.  While this method of carrying the knife looked very dramatic for the camera, this was only done in very limited circumstances.  Photo courtesy the Imperial War Museum.

The Commandos became famous for their spectacular operations. They destroyed high-value targets, such as the fish oil factories in Norway; glycerin, which was extracted from fish oil, was needed by the Germans to produce high explosives. Perhaps the greatest of the Commando raids was the destruction of the massive drydocks at St. Nazaire, France. Additionally, the raiders gathered intelligence and tested enemy strength and defensive capabilities. By striking up and down the coastline of occupied Europe, the Commandos forced the Germans to allocate men and materiel to static defense that would otherwise have been available for offensive operations. Possibly most important of all, the raids captured the imagination of the British people, and helped to bolster their morale during what otherwise were very dark days.

Two men were instrumental in the early training of the Commandos: William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes. These two had been friends and colleagues for many years, and the Commandos could not have chosen anyone better to conduct their training.

Fairbairn had served in the Royal Marines; he left the service while stationed in Shanghai, where he joined the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP), which kept order in the Anglo-American International Settlement portion of the city. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Shanghai had a reputation as the most dangerous city in the world. Trade with the West brought wealth, but that in turn attracted corruption and organized crime. In addition, China was undergoing political turmoil; the struggles between the Nationalists and the Communists often spilled into Shanghai, resulting in street brawls and political assassinations. The officers and constables of the SMP were under constant threat of violence; in response, the department became one of the best-trained and most effective police forces in the world.

Fairbairn began as a constable, and rose through the ranks to Assistant Commissioner. He became a leading authority on hand-to-hand combat; he was one of the first Westerners to study Eastern martial arts, including judo, jiu-jitsu, and kung fu. He wrote books on close combat and self-defense; he created his own system called “Defendu”, which combined and simplified the best techniques from the Asian teachings. Fairbairn, naturally, was responsible for training the SMP constables in hand-to-hand fighting.

Sykes worked part-time for the SMP as a reservist. His primary occupation was as a sales agent for numerous well-known firearms manufacturers; he himself was an expert shot and often participated in shooting competitions. He was also rumored to have been an agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service, better known as M.I.6. Sykes founded the SMP’s Reserve Unit, which specialized in hostage rescue and forced entry against barricaded suspects. The Reserve Unit was the precursor to modern police S.W.A.T. units.

The two men believed that the knife was actually more effective in close combat than the firearm. They often discussed their ideas on knife-fighting techniques as well as the design elements needed for a good fighting knife. They worked with the SMP’s armory to create a handful of prototypes.

In 1940, Sykes and Fairbairn returned to England and offered their services to the British government in support of the war effort. They were both commissioned as Army Captains, and given the responsibility to train the newly-formed Commandos. They also trained the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), the organization responsible for sending agents into occupied Europe to perform sabotage and recruit resistance fighters. Once the United States entered the war, Fairbairn was sent to North America to train agents of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.).

In November, 1940, Sykes and Fairbairn met with John Wilkinson-Latham, the director of the famous Wilkinson Sword company, in order to discuss designs for a new Commando knife. The resulting design was influenced by the knives that Fairbairn and Sykes had experimented with in Shanghai, as well as earlier designs produced by Wilkinson. There were several elements that all had agreed upon: the blade needed to be at least 6 inches long to penetrate heavy clothing and still ensure damage to vital organs; the blade needed to be slender and double-edged; it needed to be well-balanced, preferably hilt-heavy; there must be a cross-guard; finally, the grip needed to be deeply-checkered to prevent slipping.

FS Knife

Line drawing of the original pattern of Fairbairn Sykes knife.  Note the etched ricasso and the S-curve of the cross-grip.  Drawing from All-In Fighting, by W.E. Fairbairn.

The first knives produced were magnificent weapons. The blades were 6 7/8 inches long; they were drop forged and hand-sharpened. The knife had a ricasso, that is, a flat, unsharpened section at the base of the blade; the ricasso was etched with the Wilkinson Sword logo on one side, and the legend “The F-S Fighting Knife” on the other. The grips were made of solid brass, turned on a lathe, and given a distinctive “palm swell” to the shape. The grips were then checkered by hand. The cross-guard was given a gentle S-curve, also shaped by hand. These beautifully-crafted weapons were almost entirely hand-made, and only entrusted to Wilkinson’s most experienced craftsmen.

Fairbairn preferred knives with a reflective finish; he felt that, in a face-to-face confrontation, simply flashing light off the blade would cause the opponent to lose heart and give up the fight. Accordingly, the early F-S knives had highly-polished blades, while the grips and cross-guards were nickel-plated.

Naturally, these hand-made knives were costly and time-consuming to produce. As more orders were placed for fighting knives, Wilkinson had to modify the design to increase production. The ricasso was eliminated, and the cross-guard lost its distinctive S-curve. Despite these modifications, Wilkinson could not keep up with demand, and other Sheffield knifemakers started to receive orders.

Despite Fairbairn’s theory about the psychological advantage to a shiny knife, his theory really only applied to a direct fight. Commando raids were conducted at night, and surprise was essential. While the Commandos were trained in knife fighting to instill aggressiveness, in actual operations the primary use of the knife was silently eliminating enemy sentries. Similarly, the S.O.E. only used their daggers for clandestine operations. The second pattern knives eliminated the nickel plating; the grips and cross-guards were instead blackened, and many blades were blackened as well.

Figs A - D Attacks

More drawings from All-In Fighting.  Figures A & B illustrate slashing at the enemy’s arm or wrist, generally an easier target than other parts of the body; a deep slash will cause sufficient blood loss to disorient the enemy.  Figures C & D illustrate the two best methods of eliminating a sentry:  deep thrusts to the carotid (Fig. C) and subclavian (Fig. D) arteries.  This was a gruesome business, and Commandos had to be thoroughly trained to overcome any squeamishness.

The design was modified for a third time, again to increase production. The blades were sharpened by machine, not hand; the entire knife was given a black finish. The biggest difference was with the grips. They were no longer made from brass, which was a vital war material, particularly for making ammunition casings; instead, the grips were die cast out of a zinc alloy. These new grips were cast with a ribbed design, eliminating the need for checkering.

As time went on, the F-S knife was issued to other elite units, including Airborne Forces and the Special Air Service. A number of the Commando units incorporated the dagger’s distinctive shape into their insignia.

The Fairbairn Sykes knife, often called a “Commando dagger”, became nearly as well-recognized by the civilian populace as the Spitfire fighter. It was a symbol of defiance, of fighting spirit, of taking the war to the enemy by any means necessary.

Despite the magnificence of the weapon, there were issues. Unlike the American Ka-Bar knife, the Fairbairn Sykes was only intended for fighting, and not to be used as a multiple-purpose tool. The slender, graceful blade was rather delicate, and a number of soldiers managed to break the tip off of theirs by opening tinned rations or otherwise abusing their knives.

FS Knife Cooper 2

FS Knife Cooper

The author’s Fairbairn Sykes knife, sheathed and unsheathed.  While this knife is of  postwar manufacture, it follows the third wartime pattern.  The cross-guard is marked “R. Cooper, Sheffield, England”.

There were other issues, as well, such as finding an effective method of carrying the knife. Each F-S knife came with a leather sheath. The sheaths did not provide a tight fit, so a retaining strap that closed with a snap or press-stud was added. This strap was soon replaced by an elastic band; unfortunately, the elastic wore out quickly, and many knives were lost.

The sheaths came with four tabs, which were intended to be sewn onto the leg of the battledress trousers. However, early Commandos soon cut the sheath back off the trousers the first time they had to do laundry, and some soldiers even removed the tabs from the sheaths entirely.

Paratroopers were issued with special trousers with an oversized thigh pocket for carrying weapons or equipment. These Trousers, Parachutists’, also included a long, narrow pocket behind the outside seam of the right leg; this special pocket was intended for the F-S knife. The knife was entirely encompassed by this pocket to prevent it falling out during a parachute jump. However, it was difficult to quickly draw the knife in a fight, and the F-S knife was too delicate to cut oneself out of a parachute harness if needed. Additionally, early paratroopers complained that the sheathed knife dug into the knee when climbing the rough terrain found in Tunisia.

There were two methods of carrying the knife that worked well. One was to obtain an extra bayonet frog to suspend the knife from the normal webbing equipment. The other version was to sew a pair of straps to the outside of the trouser leg to hold the knife in place. Since the early battledress trousers came with tightening tabs at the ankle, it appears these tabs were simply relocated to the thigh.

2 Para Officers Tunisia

Officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion in Tunisia, December 1942:  Capt. R. Stark, Lt. J. Brayley, and Maj. R. Ashford.  Ashford was killed only a few days after this photo was taken.

2 Para Officers Tunisia Closeup

Detail of Maj. Ashford.  Note the method of carrying the F-S knife on the left thigh.  The cloth tabs are most likely tightening tabs from the ankles that have been relocated to hold the knife.

The Fairbairn Sykes knife is still being made today. In 2005, Wilkinson Sword discontinued making them and sold their tooling to, rather ironically, a German company. Other Sheffield knifemakers still make them, and inexpensive copies are also made in India and Pakistan. Original wartime knives, however, are highly sought after by collectors, and are not cheap.

Personally, I have been fascinated by the Fairbairn Sykes knife since I was a teenager, even before I had any particular interest in World War II. I read articles in encyclopedias and knife collecting magazines because Ian Fleming described James Bond as using a “commando dagger”, and I wanted to learn what that meant. During and after college, my historical focus was on the Middle Ages, but I have always had an interest in both firearms and edged weapons used throughout history. One of the first birthday presents I received from my wife was a modern copy of the Fairbairn Sykes knife, made by R. Cooper of Sheffield. Like the originals, the sheath is quite loose, and the elastic retaining strap is weak; I have never carried my knife at a reenactment because I have been deeply concerned about possibly losing something of tremendous sentimental value.

Despite the knife’s light weight, the grip feels substantial in the hand. The balance and grace are exquisite. Fairbairn recommended handling the knife as often as possible and practicing making slashing attacks; these movements come quite easily because the weight is in the grip.

The Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife is a magnificent weapon. It should not be a surprise that it became such a strong representation of Britain’s defiance against the Nazi menace, and is still an iconic symbol of the war.

A Brief History of the British 1st Airborne Division

The following is a very short history of the 1st Airborne Division; I plan to write a more extensive version in a future article.

The British Army’s Airborne Forces were first created in June 1940.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been impressed by the German use of parachute and glider troops during their invasion of France and the Low Countries, and sent a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff requesting that Britain develop a similar capability.

Originally, Airborne Forces were conceived as raiding forces to perform small-scale operations in occupied Europe for intelligence gathering, destruction of specific targets, and demoralization of the enemy.  Accordingly, No. 2 Commando was trained in parachuting and eventually became 1st Parachute Battalion.  2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions were then created; the three battalions comprised 1st Parachute Brigade.

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Paratroopers in 1942.  They are wearing the early “step-in” parachute smock, based on the German design, prior to the adoption of the camouflaged Denison smock.

Britain’s first use of airborne troops was a small raid against an Italian aqueduct near Tragino in February 1941.  This was followed by the first significant Airborne action, Operation Biting, in February 1942.  C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, attacked a German radar installation on the French coast at Bruneval; along with a radar specialist from the RAF, they captured key components of the radar, and were evacuated by sea by the Royal Navy.  The operation was a complete success.

1st Parachute Brigade was then sent to North Africa, attached to British 1st Army, in support of the Operation Torch landings in November 1942.  Each of the three battalions performed a separate operation.  The Brigade was then reunited and kept in the front lines for several months in the bitter fighting in Tunisia.  It was here that the British Airborne earned their nickname of the “Red Devils” for their ferocious fighting ability.  It was also where they adopted their war cry of “Waho Mohammed”, inspired by the natives’ calls from hilltop to hilltop.

2 Para Officers Tunisia

Officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion in Tunisia, December, 1942.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Airborne Forces were rapidly growing.  The Parachute Regiment was formed in August 1942, and its cap badge adopted in May 1943.  All Airborne troops wore the distinctive maroon beret and the divisional flash depicting the Greek hero Bellerophon, riding the winged horse Pegasus.  1st Airborne Division was created, including 2nd Parachute Brigade and 1st Air-Landing Brigade, which were flown in gliders, along with supporting elements from the artillery, engineers, medical corps, and others.  These new units were transported to Tunisia to join with the now-veteran 1st Parachute Brigade.

Pegasus Flash Printed

Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the insignia worn by all British Airborne Forces.

In July 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.  1st Air-Landing Brigade took part in the initial invasion, capturing the vital Ponte Grande Bridge near the beachhead.  Then, as British 8th Army pushed up the island’s east coast, 1st Parachute Brigade captured the Primosole Bridge.  Losses in both operations were heavy, but their vital objectives were taken.  Once Sicily had been secured, the Allies invaded mainland Italy.  2nd Parachute Brigade took part in this operation, and 1st Airborne’s commander, Major General George Hopkinson, was killed in action.  The Division returned to Britain to refit and replace losses; 2nd Parachute Brigade was detached from the Division and remained in Italy.

1st Airborne received a new commander, Major General Robert “Roy” Urquhart.  Additionally, 4th Parachute Brigade joined the Division, to replace 2nd Parachute Brigade.  In the summer of 1944, 6th Airborne Division spearheaded the Invasion of Normandy, while 1st Airborne was kept in reserve.  Several airborne operations were conceived to support the Allied breakout from the beachheads, but were all cancelled.

In September 1944, the Division took part in the epic Battle of Arnhem, part of Operation Market-Garden.  The Division found itself surrounded, out-numbered and out-gunned; they fought extremely bravely, but their relieving force never arrived.  Out of 10,000 men, only 2000 escaped across the Rhine; the rest were killed or captured.  The Division was never longer brought back to strength and was disbanded in November 1945.

Film Review: A Bridge Too Far

My two greatest passions are writing, and studying British military history; the purpose of this blog is to help me express both interests.  While I am fascinated by the entire history of the British Army, my particular focus is on the Airborne Forces during World War II.  It should not be a surprise, then, that one of my favorite films is A Bridge Too Far.  If anything, the only surprise is that it has taken me this long to write about it, although I have referenced it in some of my earlier articles.

A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, and provides an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the subject.  Market Garden was a massive undertaking; three airborne divisions were to take bridges over the various rivers and canals of the Netherlands, with an entire corps sent as the ground-based relief column.  The battle raged for nine days in September 1944.  A Bridge Too Far gives a good overview of the significant events of this enormous, complex operation in the course of a three-hour movie; that is no small feat.  While it shows the overall “big picture”, it also shows something of the personalities of many of the key personnel involved, from generals down to enlisted men.  Despite the scope of the film, the human element is always very much present.

BTF_Spitfire

An early scene from A Bridge Too Far, in which a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire flies over the Dutch countryside.

The film was released in 1977, the same year as the original Star Wars.  While the one film broke new ground in special effects, the other used traditional techniques, but on an epic scale.  I like to think of Bridge in terms of “what you see is what you get”.  The filmmakers used eleven C-47 aircraft and dropped 1000 parachutists, including paratroopers from the British and Dutch armies.  They used as many real tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and scout cars as they could get their hands on.  They filmed on location in Holland, using the actual battlefields whenever possible.  Nijmegen Bridge in the film is the actual Nijmegen Bridge.  While Arnhem today looks nothing like it did during the war, the town of Deventer makes an excellent substitute, and its bridge over the Ijssel closely resembles the Arnhem road bridge at the Lower Rhine.  This was the first film to put the actors and extras through a “boot camp” to give them the right military attitude and bearing; this is now standard practice with war films.  Several of the key officers portrayed on screen served as consultants and advisors for the film.

The acting is excellent.  Dirk Bogarde portrays Lt. General “Boy” Browning as bristling with confidence, yet his eyes somehow convey his deepest doubts and fears.  Anthony Hopkins as Lt. Colonel John Frost shows massive calm and stoicism despite the chaos surrounding him.  Edward Fox has stated that portraying Lt. General Brian Horrocks was one of his favorite roles.  Many of the actors have a strong physical resemblance to the historical figures they portray.  Maj. General “Roy” Urquhart was unfamiliar with Sean Connery prior to the film, but his wife and daughters were thrilled with the casting.

Connery

Sean Connery as Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, talking to his signals officers.

The cinematography is outstanding, and Richard Attenborough’s direction is simply brilliant.  The ground battle begins with a rolling artillery barrage, followed by the advancing tank column.  When the tanks hit resistance, an air strike is called; the cameras follow the aircraft as they swoop in from behind the ground column.  This sequence is visually stunning; one could call it beautiful if it weren’t for the explosions, the carnage, the horror of war.  The failed German dash across Arnhem Bridge on the second day of the battle is equally spectacular; in fact, John Frost wrote that watching that sequence was more exciting than being there for the real event.  I first became familiar with this film on “pan and scan” VHS copies.  The epic scale and magnificent cinematography of this motion picture really benefit from modern DVD recordings and widescreen televisions, although I must confess that I have not seen it on Blu-Ray.

I have very few criticisms of this film, but of course, no motion picture is perfect.  There is too much reliance on composite characters.  For example, one of the most memorable characters is Major Harry Carlyle, yet no such person was at Arnhem; the character was based primarily on Major Digby Tatham-Warter, but also performed actions by Lt. Jack Grayburn, VC.  On that point, there were five Victoria Crosses awarded for the Battle of Arnhem, but none of the recipients are named in the film, although some of their actions are hinted at.

There are several key parts of the operation that the film ignores or glosses over.  There is also a subplot involving James Caan that, while interesting, does little to help the overall progress of the story; I have been known to fast forward through the entire sequence.  I love the fact that the film shows real paratroopers jumping out of real Dakotas, but I never understood why the filmmakers had the planes painted a dusty yellow instead of the correct olive green.

Even the title itself is problematic.  At the end of the film, Dirk Bogarde, as General Browning, states, “we were trying to go a bridge too far”, referring to Arnhem, the farthest objective.  Cornelius Ryan was so captivated by this statement that he named his book after it, and the title carried over to the filmed adaptation.  However, current historians believe the statement is apocryphal, that is, Browning probably never said it.  After all, the operation was not just a thrust to gain territory in Holland; the entire point was to get across the Rhine, outflank the Siegfried Line, and invade Germany itself.

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The defense of Arnhem Bridge as shown in A Bridge Too Far.  This sequence was filmed in the town of Deventer, on the river Ijssel.

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The actual Arnhem Bridge; photo taken shortly after the battle.

I tend to nitpick this film because I have read more about the Battle of Arnhem than any other event in history.  However, if it had not been for A Bridge Too Far, I may never have studied Market Garden as intensely as I have and learned as much on my own.  If not for this movie, I may never have started reenacting as 1st Airborne, or been inspired to visit Arnhem itself, which I did in 2003.  Overall, I think it is one of the best motion pictures ever made about World War II.

Postscript:

I just watched the film again, and thought I should add a few comments.

Part of the decision behind 1st Airborne’s drop zones being so far away from Arnhem Bridge (about eight miles) was to avoid the enemy anti-aircraft batteries defending the airfield at Deelen.  Ironically, the take-off scenes in the motion picture were not filmed in England, but at the Deelen airfield.

The first few times I watched the film, I thought Ryan O’Neal was far too young to portray a general.  It was only later that I learned the officer he portrayed, Brigadier James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne, was only 37 during Market Garden.  A month later, upon promotion, he became the youngest major general in the US Army.

The film conveys the idea that a major factor in 1st Airborne’s problems at Arnhem lay in the breakdown of radio communications; this was certainly described in Cornelius Ryan’s original book.  While this may have come as a surprise to 4th Parachute Brigade and perhaps even Divisional Headquarters, this was nothing new to the more experienced 1st Parachute Brigade.  They had experienced similar problems in North Africa and Sicily, and anticipated them for Arnhem.  Lt. Col. Frost’s use of his hunting horn seems like a silly affectation in the film, but in reality, Frost and his officers had developed signals on bugles and whistles to convey simple messages on the assumption the radios would fail.

For related articles, please see the following:

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

2nd Parachute Battalion – The “Mepacrine Chasers”

Major General John Frost

Thoughts on Market Garden

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

One of my favorite motion pictures is Theirs is the Glory, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and released in 1946.  The film tells the story of the Battle of Arnhem, and it is quite remarkable.  Rather than making a movie in the traditional manner by hiring actors and building sets, Hurst and his team worked in close cooperation with the British Army.  Just over 200 survivors from the British 1st Airborne Division were transported back to the ruins of Arnhem and Oosterbeek to recreate the epic battle.  The movie is also inter-cut with footage from the actual operation.

Early scenes show the troops receiving their final mission briefings, then going to bed for some needed rest.  The sharp-eyed viewer will notice that, in the barrack scenes, the soldiers are wearing post-war wool shirts with collars, rather than the wartime collarless shirts.  One must remember that they were still serving soldiers when the film was made, and simply wore their normal clothing as issued.  They were not actors, and some of the lines are delivered in a rather stiff or subdued manner; but looking closely at their faces as the film progresses, the viewer gets some sense of the horrors these men survived.

Thers is the Glory Map

Lt. Hugh Ashmore of 21st Independent Parachute Company briefing his platoon.

Historical events are inevitably distorted in film, and this is no exception.  Some of the most important figures from the battle, including General Urquhart and Colonel Frost, were unable to appear, and the film makes it seem as though Major “Freddie” Gough of the Reconnaissance Squadron was in command at Arnhem Bridge.  However, most of the major events of the operation are portrayed as authentically as was possible.

Maj Freddie Gough in Theirs is the Glory_0

Maj. “Freddie” Gough as he appears in the film.

As the story progresses, some civilians appear.  Stanley Maxted, the Canadian journalist who broadcast from the battle, acts as narrator; it is interesting to compare his narration to archived recordings of his original broadcasts.  Kate Ter Horst is shown sheltering wounded men in her home’s basement, including a very moving sequence in which she comforts the wounded by reading from the Psalms; she was known by the troops as the “Angel of Arnhem”.

The level of realism is impressive, but as always, there are some compromises.  Arnhem Bridge was destroyed shortly before the end of the war and had not been rebuilt in time for the film; a large matte painting had to be used instead.  Other locations are easily identified, however, such as the badly-damaged spires of St. Eusebius Church and St. Walburgis Church in Arnhem, and the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, which was used as the Divisional headquarters.  Major “Dickie” Lonsdale recreates his speech to a mixed force of defenders at the Old Church in Oosterbeek, just as he did towards the end of the fighting.

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The Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek.  This building was used as Divisional Headquarters, and was still battle-damaged when the film was made.

Most of the vehicles and weapons were real, with little use of props or special effects.  Troops can be seen firing actual flamethrowers, and the careful observer will notice the Bren guns firing real ammunition, including tracer, in a way that 1940’s film effects could not replicate.  However, a number of black powder charges were used to replicate artillery and mortar rounds, which caused a great deal more smoke than the real versions.

Comparisons with 1977’s A Bridge Too Far are inevitable.  A Bridge Too Far is epic in scale, and shows the entire operation, from British, American, and German perspectives.  Theirs is the Glory is more focused as it only shows Arnhem, and only from the British standpoint; Germans are rarely seen, even though their artillery fire is relentless.  However, there are some similar sequences in which the later film must have been influenced by the earlier.  For example, there is a famous scene in A Bridge Too Far in which a young soldier lifts a resupply container, puts it on his shoulder and starts running with it to friendly lines, until he is shot by a sniper.  The original drop containers weighed around 350 pounds when loaded with supplies; in Theirs is the Glory, a trooper attaches his toggle rope to a container and drags it behind him, which is much more realistic, but perhaps slightly less cinematic.  (Note:  for my review of A Bridge Too Far, click here.)

Theirs is the Glory is an extraordinary motion picture.  Anyone who enjoys World War II movies would enjoy it, and anyone with a particular interest in the British Airborne should see it.  It is also a good film for filmmakers to study, as it was made in such a unique way.

Theirs is the Glory is easy to find in the UK on Region 2 / PAL format DVD.  Americans and Canadians are not so lucky, as the DVD will not play in a normal Region 1 / NTSC format player.  Fortunately, Theirs is the Glory is often included in war movie DVD collections; it is currently available through Amazon US as part of a Best of British War Cinema 5-disc set.  It can also be found on YouTube.

There is also a new book that examines the films of director Brian Desmond Hurst and his portrayal of war and other conflicts; the focus of the book is “Theirs is the Glory”.  I have not had a chance to read the book, but I hope to in the future.

UPDATE:  I have just learned that Lieutenant Norman Hugh Henry Ashmore, pictured at the top of this article, died at the age of 95 on November 10, 2017.  Lt. Ashmore commanded No. 3 Platoon, 21st Independent Parachute Company (“The Pathfinders”) during the Battle of Arnhem, and recreated his role for Theirs is the Glory.

Theirs is the Glory: UK DVD through Amazon

Best of British War Cinema: US/Canada DVD set

Theirs is the Glory:  Arnhem, Hurst, and Conflict on Film

Theirs is the Glory UK DVD

DVD cover from the UK release; this version will not play in most North American players.

Theirs is the Glory Book

Cover of the recent book on Brian Desmond Hurst, focusing on his film about Arnhem

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