To Carry the Load: The 1937 Pattern Web Equipment

History and Development

Throughout history, armies have needed to provide their soldiers a set of equipment to carry ammunition, rations, and other necessities.  Historically, this equipment was made of leather, and typically consisted of various pouches suspended from belts and shoulder straps.  If well-cared for, the leather was strong and durable; but if not properly maintained, or subjected to severe weather, it was liable to dry out and crack.

In the late 19th Century, military equipment was revolutionized by an American Army officer, Captain Anson Mills.  He noted that ammunition tended to get stuck in the individual cartridge loops of the leather belts worn by his men; he therefore experimented with a cartridge belt made from cotton canvas.  Pleased with the results, Captain Mills joined forces with a weaver; together, they designed machinery and established a factory for making cartridge belts made from a tightly-woven cotton webbing.  These were in turn adopted by the U.S. Army and used successfully in the Spanish-American War of 1898.  Soon after, a limited number of webbing bandoliers were used by British troops in the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902).

In addition to his American operation, Captain Mills established a second company in Great Britain:  The Mills Equipment Company, Ltd.  This company designed and produced the 1908 Pattern Web Equipment, the first complete set of non-leather infantry equipment adopted by the British Army.  During World War I, the 1908 webbing performed extremely well, and held up under the appalling conditions of trench warfare better than other armies’ leather equipment.

normandy webbing rsf

A section of 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, fighting in the Normandy hedgerows in June or July, 1944.  This is a good view of the 1937 Pattern web equipment:  the haversacks, entrenching tool carriers and waterbottle carriers are clearly seen.  The Bren gunner has covered his haversack with the camouflaged face veil.  Photo from the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

With the massive conscription efforts of World War I, millions of sets of 1908 Pattern webbing were produced.  At wars’ end, the Army was drastically reduced in size, and returned to its primary function of garrisoning the British Empire.  There were enormous stocks of 1908 Pattern equipment in stores, and the British government was reluctant to invest in developing a replacement.

In the late 1920’s, it was recognized that the nature of warfare was changing; accordingly, the government authorized the Mills Equipment Company to experiment with designs for a possible new set of equipment.  The Army maintained official oversight and established a committee to provide input, but otherwise Mills was left largely to their own development.  The designers wanted the new equipment to be lighter in weight than the 1908 Pattern.  Additionally, the Army was becoming increasingly mechanized.  It was assumed that troops would be transported to the front lines rather than having to march; to better accommodate usage in vehicles, the designers wanted to avoid having any components of the equipment hang below the waistbelt.  It was also assumed that the heavier and bulkier items of uniform and gear would be transported by vehicle and not carried by the soldiers themselves.

By 1932, the Mills Equipment Set Number 3 underwent troop trials, and was then officially adopted in 1934.  However, this set was never produced or distributed in large numbers; the adoption of the Bren light machine gun, and the need to carry its magazines, required a significant re-design.

The result was adopted and designated as the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment; the official training manual was published in 1939.  According to the manual, the 1937 Pattern was a direct descendent of, and improvement upon, the 1908 Pattern; unfortunately, the troops who transitioned from one to the other did not see it as an improvement.  However, in one major respect, it was a departure from all earlier designs.  Historically, the different arms had their own specific equipment; that is, one set for the infantry, another for the cavalry, and often yet another for the artillery and engineers.  The 1937 Pattern was designed to be used by the entire British Army; component pieces intended for one branch could be interchanged for other components.  The equipment was based around a waistbelt and a pair of braces, or shoulder straps.  From there, different pouches and packs could be attached depending on the role of the individual soldier; there were also items designed specifically for officers.  For the purposes of this article, only the infantry equipment will be examined in detail.

Like the 1908 Pattern, the 1937 Pattern equipment was made from cotton webbing.  The cotton yarn was pre-shrunk and dyed a light khaki color before weaving; the weave design was extremely tight for both durability and water-resistance.  The various buckles, keepers and press-studs (snap closures) were made of brass.

webbing desert

The 1937 Pattern Web Equipment for infantry:  waistbelt, braces, basic pouches, bayonet frog, entrenching tool carrier, and water bottle carrier.  Troops in North Africa typically wore their webbing without Blanco.  All photographs in this article are by the author of items in his collection, unless otherwise stated.

The Mills Equipment Company was the primary contractor, but with the outbreak of World War II, dozens of other manufacturers throughout Britain and the Commonwealth also made webbing equipment; it was produced in Canada, Australia, India and South Africa.  Canadian webbing was of very high quality, and tended to have a yellow tinge to its khaki color.  Indian and South African webbing tended to be much poorer in quality; the webbing itself was often less-densely woven, while the brass keepers were somewhat thin and flimsy.

Brass was a vital war material, as it was needed for ammunition casings.  As World War II progressed, the various buckles and keepers were sometimes made from mild steel with an anti-rust treatment.  Much post-war equipment was made with mild steel hardware painted black.

After World War II, the 1937 Pattern equipment soldiered on in Korea and several colonial conflicts during the breakup of the British Empire.  It was finally replaced by the 1958 Pattern Web Equipment, but the 1937 Pattern was used by cadets and reservists nearly to the end of the 20th Century.

Components

The infantry components of the 1937 Pattern webbing were as follows:

  • Waistbelt
  • Braces
  • Basic pouches
  • Bayonet frog
  • Waterbottle carrier
  • Haversack
  • Pack
  • Shoulder straps
  • Supporting straps

Details of these items follow.

Waistbelt.  The waistbelt was originally made in two sizes, labeled as small and large.  In 1941, an extra large size was adopted; the small size was later renamed as normal.  The belt was adjustable by placing two pairs of hooks into a series of loops on the inside of the belt.  The buckle was a simple clasp that relied on the tension caused by a tight fit to keep it closed.  The back of the belt had a pair of buckles to which the braces attached.

Braces.  The braces were made in two sizes, normal and long.  The braces were significantly narrower than those of the 1908 Pattern, except at the shoulders where the braces widened to better distribute the weight of the equipment.  The left brace included a small loop through which the right brace was fed; this loop was often eliminated in later production versions.

Basic pouches.  Two large pouches, designated as basic pouches, were attached to the front of the belt via brass hooks which were inserted into the belt’s loops.  The pouches also had buckles at the top for attaching the braces.  The basic pouch was designed to hold two magazines for the Bren L.M.G.; alternatively, the pouch could hold grenades or projectiles for the 2-inch mortar.  Rifle ammunition was issued in a cloth bandolier which was worn over the shoulder to allow the basic pouches to carry ammunition for the support weapons.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, many soldiers complained that their basic pouches were too low and hit their thighs when getting into a crouching or kneeling position.  Accordingly, the Mark II pouch was introduced, with the brass hooks moved down one inch, causing the pouch to ride slightly higher on the belt.  Many of the original pouches were retrofitted to the Mk. II configuration.  After the adoption of the Sten machine carbine, the Mark III pouch was adopted, as the earlier pouches were too short to snap shut when filled with Sten magazines.  In 1944, a quick-release tongue-and-loop fastener was adopted to replace the snap fastener; very few pouches with this fastener were issued during the war.

burma 44

Troops from the Royal Welch Fusiliers on patrol in Burma, December 1944.  The basic pouches and position of the waistbelt are clearly seen here.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

Bayonet frog.  As originally issued, the only item suspended from the waistbelt was the bayonet frog.  The Rifle, No. 1 Mk. III, with its lengthy 1907 Pattern bayonet, was still in use when the webbing was adopted.  However, the No. 4 Rifle and its short spike bayonet were under development, reducing the designers’ concern over an item hanging below the belt.  The bayonet frog incorporated a number of loops, the largest of which simply slipped onto the belt, rather than using any hardware.  The bayonet scabbard was held by a twin pair of loops at the bottom of the frog; the scabbard stud protruded between the loops.  Yet another loop at the top of frog went over the bayonet hilt to reduce movement; this upper loop was often eliminated once the spike bayonet went into production.  Later frogs also had to be slightly modified to allow the spike bayonet’s scabbard to sit in the right position; this was often done by making a hole or split in the upper of the twin loops through which the scabbard stud was inserted.

bayonet frogs

Bayonet frogs.  Notice how the frog had to be modified for use with the Number 4 spike bayonet.  Typically, a hole was cut in the upper of the twin loops; in this instance, the loop has been split, then stitched around the scabbard stud.

Waterbottle carrier.  The original waterbottle carrier was described as a framework of webbing straps; collectors sometimes call it the “skeleton-type” carrier.  Later in the war, a simple webbing sleeve carrier was adopted.  Originally, the waterbottle was intended to be carried in the haversack, and the carrier only used under certain conditions, but in actual practice it was nearly always suspended from the brace ends.  For more information on the waterbottle and carrier, please my earlier article on field hydration.

Haversack.  The haversack was often called the “small pack”, both by the troops who used it and by modern collectors.  The haversack had internal dividers; the smaller pockets were for the water bottle and mess tins, while the larger section was for the wool jumper or cardigan.  The groundsheet was folded and carried under the flap of the haversack; although not described in the training manual, the anti-gas cape was frequently rolled and tied to the top.  Invariably, troops carried more equipment in the haversack than the designers intended; although not an official practice, the tea mug was often suspended from the haversack by running a strap through the mug’s handle.

small packs

A pair of haversacks, one filled and one empty.  The right-hand haversack is in nearly-new condition and shows the color of the webbing when issued.  The left-hand haversack has been treated with Blanco, most recently with a modern substitute.  The left-hand haversack is unusual in that the buckles are brass, but the strap-keepers are steel.

small pack interior

Interior of the haversack showing the internal dividers and some of the typical contents (waterbottle, mess tins, and holdall).

Pack.  The 1908 Pattern pack was re-adopted, unchanged, for use with the 1937 Pattern equipment.  If the pack was worn, the haversack was moved from the back to the left side.  The pack was intended to carry the greatcoat, cap comforter, holdall (toiletry roll), towel, and a spare pair of socks.  However, the socks and holdall were more commonly carried in the haversack.  The pack was uncomfortable when worn, but fortunately this was rarely done, as the pack was typically kept with unit transport.  The pack was often called the “large pack” to better differentiate it from the haversack or “small pack”.

Shoulder straps.  The shoulder straps could be used with either the pack or the haversack.  Each shoulder strap consisted of two lengths of webbing; the wide portion buckled to the top of the pack, and the narrow portion to the lower.  These component straps then joined at a brass hook for attaching to the basic pouch, intended to help distribute the weight.  Because of their shape, the shoulder straps are often referred to as “L-straps” by modern collectors.

Supporting straps.  The supporting straps connected to the shoulder straps and crossed over the pack; the name derives from the idea that they would help support the weight of the pack when worn.

Entrenching tool.  At first, the 1937 Pattern equipment did not include an entrenching tool.  In 1939, an entrenching tool with a fixed haft and square head was rushed into production; it was very similar in appearance to that used by the Germans.  Not many of these were issued, and those troops who did receive the item did not like it.  The 1908 Pattern entrenching tool was therefore re-adopted; this was a combination pick and shovel, with a removable handle or helve.  The Mark II helve, adopted in 1944, had lugs for attaching the Number 4 spike bayonet so the helve could be used as a mine-prodder; this version saw very limited use during the war.  The webbing carrier for the entrenching tool held the tool head inside a pocket, with the helve strapped to the outside; the carrier was suspended from the brace ends.  It was not uncommon for the helve to slip out of the carrier; an extra strap was added to the carrier in 1945, but few of this variant were issued before war’s end.

e-tool

The entrenching tool carrier; the tool’s head is enclosed in the webbing pocket while the helve is strapped to the outside.  Note that this is the Mark I helve; the Mark II had a bayonet lug for the spike bayonet.

How to Assemble

The following description is copied from the 1939 manual; however, the references to the manual’s photographs have been omitted.

  1. Fit the waistbelt comfortably tight by adjusting each end equally. Adjustment is made by withdrawing the double hooks (at the ends of the belt) from the loops woven inside and re-inserting them into loops a corresponding distance from each end.  Before re-inserting the hooks, the belt may be tried on, and adjusted as may be necessary.  Once the belt is fitted it need seldom be altered.  The hooks are inserted by pinching up the webbing… fasten the hook and loop buckle, by passing the hook part through the loop of the other part and not by catching the hook over the outer bar.
  2. Slip the bayonet frog over the left end of the belt and bring it to a position so that it will hang, when the belt is put on, upon the left hip.
  3. Attach the basic pouches on the outside of the belt by passing the double hooks over the upper and lower edges of the belt and inserting the hooks into the woven loops, so that they correspond each side, in a position to bring the buckles on top of the pouches in line with the centres of the shoulders.
  4. Pass one end of the right brace (without loop inside) through the loop inside the rear end of the left brace and attach the rear ends of each brace to the respective buckle on the back of the belt. Pass the front ends of the braces through the centre opening of the buckle on top of the basic pouches, taking care not to twist the braces in doing so.  Try the equipment on and make any necessary adjustment of the braces at all four points of attachment to ensure that they extend below the lower edge of the belt equally, thus ensuring that the wide portions of the braces lie evenly on the shoulders.  Finally, pass the free front ends of the braces down behind the pouches, between the back of the pouch and the web chape carrying the buckle, and pull down firmly.
assembly

This detail shows the method of assembly.  The backside of the belt has a series of loops for the hooks on the belt-ends as well as the hooks on the basic pouch.  The brace is buckled to the top of the pouch, and the waterbottle carrier buckles to the brace-end.

Orders of Wear

There were four designated Orders of Wear, as follows:

Marching Order:  waistbelt; bayonet frog; pouches; braces; pack with shoulder straps and supporting straps; haversack hung on left hip; waterbottle and carrier hung on right hip; entrenching tool carrier hung on rear.

Battle Order:  as Marching Order, but without pack; the haversack is worn on the back.  Officially, the waterbottle was to be carried inside the haversack in Battle Order, but this was rare in actual practice.

Musketry Order:  waistbelt; braces; pouches; bayonet frog.

Drill Order:  waistbelt and bayonet frog.

Differences from the Training Manual

The 1939 manual for the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment describes it as a development of the 1908 Pattern, but lighter in weight.  While it was lighter, it was not necessarily an improvement; the 1908 Pattern was well-balanced and comfortable, while it was difficult to adjust the 1937 Pattern to a comfortable fit.

The manual describes the haversack as being worn “rucksack-fashion”, and goes on to state that it was easy to remove and get to its contents (I laughed the first time I read that statement).  The haversack was best worn high on the back; if it hung low, it bounced during marching or running.  Unfortunately, tightening the shoulder straps to get the haversack to ride high made it much more difficult to take off.  Additionally, as noted above, far more items were carried in the haversack than originally intended; the increased weight and bulk also made it harder to get a comfortable fit.

The official manual also states, “When the equipment has once been properly fitted it will be kept assembled as far as possible.”  However, as noted above, Drill Order consisted of just the belt and bayonet frog.  Training sessions alternated between foot drill and fieldcraft, which meant frequent disassembly and reassembly of the equipment.  Further, many units ordered that the waistbelt was to be worn separately as a “walking out” item with best battledress.

The section of the manual on care and preservation states, “Should the equipment become in a dirty or greasy condition, it may be washed, using warm water, soap and a sponge.  Then rinse with clean water, and when thoroughly dry apply the cleaner in the manner laid down in the instructions accompanying it.  No cleaner may be applied to the equipment unless previously approved by the War Office… The metal work will not be polished, but allowed to get dull, so as to avoid catching the rays of the sun.”

pouches

A series of basic pouches.  The one farthest left is a Mark II pouch, without Blanco; the remainder are Mark III pouches.  The center pouch was treated with a dark shade of Blanco, but much has worn off; the pouch left of center was treated with a lighter shade, but is remarkable in how well-preserved the Blanco is.  The two pouches on the right were both made in 1944 and feature the quick-release fastener as opposed to the brass snap-closure.

There were two approved webbing cleaners, although the term “cleaner” is rather misleading.  By far the more common “cleaner” was Blanco, made by Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd.  This was a cake of densely-packed colored powder; a wet brush or sponge was used to build up a paste and apply it to the webbing.  The Mills Equipment Company made their own webbing cleaner, which was a colored powder sold in a shaker tube; the powder was sprinkled onto the webbing prior to adding water and brushing into the webbing.

For something that was supposed to sustain the soldier on the battlefield, the recruit’s first exposure to webbing equipment was the obsession of his superiors with a smart parade-ground appearance.  Soldiers, especially new recruits, spent countless hours polishing the brass hardware and applying just the right amount of Blanco to their equipment.  If applied too thinly so that any of the actual khaki web showed through the Blanco, the soldier was punished; yet, if it was applied too thickly, it would crack and flake off, with a similar result.  Fortunately, once on operations, a more practical approach typically prevailed.

Tips for Reenactors

When I first started collecting webbing equipment in the mid-1990’s, 1937 Pattern web equipment was cheap and plentiful; that is no longer the case.  Most components are still available, although significantly higher in price, and some items require diligent searching of the internet.

Reproductions of most items are now readily available.  It appears that all reproduction 1937 Pattern webbing is made in India; when first on the market, these reproductions were of poor quality.  Fortunately, in recent years, the webbing itself has improved, although the brass hardware still seems a bit flimsy.

People today are generally larger than seventy years ago; most reenactors would be well-advised to purchase long braces and large or extra large waistbelts.  To help ensure the correct fit, remember that the waistbelt should be worn just below the ribcage, regardless of the modern concept of the waistline; far too many reenactors wear their webbing with the belt too low.

As noted above, it was common to wear the waistbelt separately as a “walking-out” item with best battledress.  Reenactors will frequently purchase a separate belt for this purpose; this seems like a reasonable solution, but historically, soldiers had to break down their equipment to wear just the belt.

Many reenactors use the Mark II entrenching tool helve, as many of these were made post-war and are now more common than the Mark I.  However, very few Mk. II helves actually saw wartime service.

Blanco is an interesting subject, and deserves its own article.  Suffice it to say here that original Blanco has become quite scarce, but reproductions and substitutes are now available.

webbing eto

The 1937 Pattern equipment as it would have been worn in Northern Europe, but without the entrenching tool.  Original Blanco is rare; this set of equipment has been treated with a modern substitute to replicate how it would have appeared operationally.  The parade ground would have seen a much heavier application of Blanco.

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“Men With Tails”, Part 2: The Parachutist’s Oversmock

In an earlier article, I wrote about the development of the famous Denison smock, as worn by the British Airborne Forces.  However, the Denison was only half of a two-part system.  The other component was the parachutist’s oversmock.

During the early days of the Airborne Forces, the uniforms and equipment were experimental.  The Royal Air Force naturally had an inventory of parachutes for escaping damaged aircraft, and the first paratroopers had to manually pull a ripcord to deploy their canopy.  It was not long before this method was determined unsuitable, and a static-line parachute was developed.  The volunteer paratroopers during those early days were certainly brave, as there were a number of injuries and even fatalities; each incident was thoroughly investigated and often resulted in a modification to the equipment or the training program.  The X-type static line parachute, also called the “Statichute”, eventually developed an impressive reputation for reliability.  However, there was still the occasional mishap, including incidents of the parachute canopy not fully opening and deploying; this dreadful situation was known as the “Roman candle”.

To reduce the number of accidents, it was considered vital to prevent any entanglements between the paratrooper, his equipment, and the parachute.  In 1942, the Denison smock and the parachutist’s oversmock were both adopted and entered production; together, these items replaced the earlier “step-in smock”.  The Denison was worn over the wool battledress uniform, but under the webbing equipment.  The oversmock was then worn over all other uniform and equipment items, separating them from the parachute harness and rigging lines.  Both the oversmock and the step-in smock it replaced were also called “jumping jackets”, which can easily cause confusion when reading original source material.

Oversmocks April 44

“Somewhere in England”, April 1944.  Paratroopers check their equipment prior to a training jump; the oversmock can be seen over the Denison and webbing equipment but under the parachute harness.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The parachutist’s oversmock was a sleeveless garment made from green denim material, with a full-length zipper.  Like the Denison smock, it had an “ape tail” to be snapped up between the legs to keep the garment in place during the jump.  However, the fasteners had a somewhat different arrangement; while the Denison’s ape tail snapped to the inside of the smock, the oversmock’s tail fastened to the outside.  The oversmock also had a pair of elasticized pockets near the bottom hem, each intended to hold a single grenade to assist in an opposed landing.

Oversmock Zipped

The 1942 pattern parachutists’ oversmock or jumping jacket; this example was made in 1945.  The full-length zipper, ape tail and grenade pockets are clearly seen.  Photograph by the author.

Oversmock Label

Label from the oversmock shown above.

While the Denison was designed for paratroopers, it was also issued to glider troops and, eventually, the Commandos.  By contrast, the oversmock was only ever used by paratroopers, as it was specifically designed to be worn during the parachute descent.  In training, the oversmock could be collected and returned to stores, but on operations, it was considered disposable and was to be removed and abandoned on the drop zone.

Many historians have written that the parachutist’s oversmock was not used until shortly before D-Day; however, there is evidence indicating that 1st Parachute Brigade used both the Denison and the oversmock in North Africa in late 1942.  Major General F.A.M. Browning visited the Brigade in December and noted both items in the appendix to his diary.

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

Jumping jacket.  New type very good.  Brigade dislike the idea of discarding it on landing as it is useful as a garment as well as a jumping jacket.

(As quoted in Tunisian Tales by Niall Cherry)

The above entry is in contrast to the earlier jumping jacket or “step-in smock”, which was typically retained after landing.

There is a remarkable photograph of troops from 2nd Parachute Battalion in North Africa showing at least one man wearing the oversmock.  This is the earliest photograph I have seen of this garment, a full year-and-a-half prior to D-Day.  Additionally, the man most clearly wearing the oversmock appears to be wearing it over the wool flannel shirt, without the Denison or wool battledress, corroborating Browning’s statement that it was “useful as a garment” in its own right.  Later photographs, however, only show the oversmock in its intended role for training or operational parachute drops.

Tunisia 1942

Men of the 2nd Parachute Battalion in North Africa soon after arrival in November, 1942.  The leading man is wearing the oversmock; his exposed sleeves appear to be those of the wool flannel shirt, without battledress or Denison.  He is wearing a cloth bandolier of rifle ammunition, but does not appear to have any webbing equipment.  The rest of the men look to be dressed more normally.

Reenacting Tip

As noted above, the parachutist’s oversmock was normally abandoned on the dropping zone; there is little reason to have one at a tactical reenactment.  However, it is a useful item to have for public displays, particularly at air shows.

Original oversmocks sometimes appear on the collector’s market and are generally less expensive than original Denison smocks.  However, larger sized oversmocks can be difficult to find.  Fortunately, quality reproductions of this item have recently become available at a reasonable price; I purchased one, and am very pleased with how well it compares to the original.

Arnhem Dakota

Operation Market Garden, September, 1944:  troops from 1st Airborne Division en route to Holland.  Wearing the oversmock over the webbing equipment gave the men a bulky appearance.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The Pass: Army Form B. 295

Like any large organization, the British Army generated a significant amount of bureaucracy, and the officers and men had seemingly mountains of paperwork to contend with.  While it may be true that “an army marches on its stomach”, it was also true that detailed records had to be kept of the units involved in the march, where they were headed, and how many rations were needed to fill their stomachs on their way.

It seemed that every specific task had its own designated form.  While the orderly room and quartermaster’s stores needed documentation in order to function, this enormous amount and variety of paperwork was met with bewilderment and scorn from the private soldier.  Bureaucratic paperwork was known as “bum fodder” or simply “bumf”* by the lower ranks; similarly, a sheet of latrine paper was ironically nicknamed the “Army Form, Blank”.

One form that was commonly encountered, and even coveted, by the private soldier was the Pass, Army Form B. 295.  Going absent without leave was a serious offense; specifically, it was a violation of Section 15 of the Army Act, and could be punished by imprisonment.  Army Form B. 295 was written authorization for leave; the soldier had to keep the pass on his person, and present it on demand to his superiors as evidence of being on approved leave.

Pass 1918 Nat Army Museum

Army Form B. 295, printed in 1917, filled out and issued in 1918.  From the collection of the National Army Museum.

According to King’s Regulations (1940),

1601. (a) Every… pass will be made out on A.F. B295, and be granted and signed by the company, etc., commander. If the period of leave does not exceed 24 hours, a soldier will not be required to state on his pass where he is going, unless notification of his destination is considered desirable owing to local conditions, or is essential to enable him to procure a railway ticket at the military concession rate. Every pass will be stamped with the regimental office stamp before being issued.

(b) If the whole Royal Army Reserve is called out, a soldier on pass will return immediately to his unit without waiting for instructions.

1604. A pass (other than a permanent pass) will not be granted for more than six days: for longer periods a furlough is necessary.

Like many Army Forms, the B. 295 appears to have been adopted in the late Victorian era; it was certainly well established by World War I.  The form itself evolved over time, with later versions typically containing more fields and requiring more detail than earlier versions.  There were also different publishers contracted to provide the forms, with some variances evident between contractors.

Pass 1932 Kings Own Royal Regt Museum

A.F. B. 295, printed in 1928, filled out and issued in 1932.  From the collection of the King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum.

The B. 295 was comprised of two portions.  The main part of the document was the pass itself, issued to the soldier; there was also a smaller piece, similar to a receipt or ticket stub, which was retained by the issuing officer and kept in company records.  The forms were distributed in pads, typically of 100 forms per pad, with each sheet having a perforated line for ease of separating the pass from the stub.

Despite the variances, all passes identified the soldier’s name, rank and Army number, the dates the pass was valid, and the signature of the issuing officer.  The rule about a soldier returning to his unit upon mobilization of the Reserve was often printed on the pass itself.

Pass 1952 Kings Own Royal Regt Museum

A.F. B. 295 issued in 1952.  Unfortunately, I cannot make out the printing date on this example.  It is also unclear why the stub was not detached and retained by the issuing officer.  From the collection of the King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum.

I have an original B. 295, which was printed in August, 1946, as indicated by the markings in the top left corner.  This form is on very thin off-white paper, and has grown even more delicate with age; there is also some discoloration at the edge of the form.  The entire sheet is still intact; that is, the pass has not been detached from the stub.  There are small holes showing where the form had been stapled as part of a pad.  This postwar pass has a specific space allocated for the unit stamp; unlike earlier versions, there is also a field for the unit telephone number.  The reverse of the pass has detailed instructions for a soldier who is injured or becomes ill while on leave, followed by instructions for the civilian doctor or dentist who treats the soldier.

B295 8-46 Front

The author’s original B. 295:  Pass.  The markings at the top left indicate a printing date of August, 1946.  The dark area to the right is a discoloration of the paper, not a photo error.

B295 8-46 Rear

Reverse of the same pass shown above.  Author’s collection.

Because my original form is so delicate, I keep it in a padded envelope in a desk drawer.  However, I decided to put my desktop publishing and paper crafting skills to the test by creating a reproduction pass.  I based my reproduction on the earlier, simpler versions of the form, partly to make the job easier, and partly because some of the later details were not likely to relate to a reenacting event.  I purchased a perforating tool to replicate the pass-and-stub format.  I then made pads by attaching the sheets to a cardboard backing, but I was only able to use 15 sheets per pad based on the limitations of my current stapler.

Several months ago, my reenacting unit attended an air show and set up an educational display for the public.  Any time one of the unit members wanted to leave our area and see the rest of the show, I filled out a reproduction B. 295 and handed it to him.  I enjoyed it as a small touch of living history; I hope the others did as well, although I suspect they probably grumbled about the “bumf”.

B295 Repro

The author’s attempt at a reproduction B. 295.

For any reenactor not wanting to go through the hassle of making their own B. 295, quality reproductions are available from Clever Forgery as well as Rob Van Meel’s Re-Print Military Literature; these professionally-made reproductions are far superior to my humble effort.

*Sometimes spelled “bumph”.

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.

 

“You Will Do Your Work on Water”: Hydration in the Field

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.

– Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din

The human body needs to be kept hydrated; a person can function longer without food than without water.  Therefore, no military equipment would be complete without giving the soldier a method of carrying water.

The standard British water bottles used in both World Wars were very similar; the Mark VI version issued with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment was replaced by the Mark VII, issued with the 1937 pattern equipment.  Both were made of enameled steel with a wool cover, with a stopper made of cork which was attached to the bottle with a short length of cord.  Each version held two Imperial pints of water, or 40 ounces.

Webbing Detail

The British Mark VII water bottle in its webbing carrier, attached to the 1937 pattern equipment.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

When the 1937 pattern equipment was adopted, the original intent was that the water bottle would be carried in the haversack, or “small pack” as it was commonly called.  However, a webbing carrier was also developed; it could attach to the ends of the braces and hang below the waistbelt.  Officially, use of the webbing carrier was not the preferred method.  In actual practice, however, more equipment was carried in the small pack than the designers had intended, and the troops were forced to use the carrier simply to make room.  Because of the inherent difficulties in resupplying Airborne troops, they typically carried two water bottles:  one suspended on the carrier and a second inside the small pack.

The original water bottle carrier was made of webbing straps.  A later version consisted of a webbing sleeve; while this version used more material, it was easier to manufacture and saved labor costs.  The earlier type was often called the “skeleton” carrier, and the later type the “envelope” carrier.  Some modern militaria vendors have tried to assert that the envelope version was only issued to Airborne troops, implying somehow that it was more rare or specialized, and therefore more desirable to collectors; that is completely untrue and easily disproven.

Three Carriers

Three water bottles with carriers.  The top right is the original version, sometimes called the “skeleton” carrier.  The other two are examples of the later “envelope” version.  Note the brass buckles for attaching to the brace-ends of the webbing equipment.

The envelope carrier has a web strap at the bottom to support the weight of the water bottle, but is open at the top.  The skeleton carrier has a retaining strap that is closed with a large snap or press-stud; some Indian-made versions closed with a buckle.  The intent was obviously that the water bottle would simply be lifted out, with the carrier remaining attached to the rest of the webbing.  However, I have found at living history events that this is easier said than done.  Over the years, I have used several different carriers, of both types, and all of them have been very tight.  Getting to the water bottle has often required significant effort, or assistance from a friend.  Between events, some of my friends have experimented with soaking the carrier in hot water and stretching; the most successful method involves placing wooden shims between the bottle and the wet carrier, then allowing it to dry.  I assumed that the carriers had all somehow shrunk while sitting in a warehouse for the last several decades; surely they could not have been so difficult to work with during wartime.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of my favorite authors is George MacDonald Fraser.  His book, Quartered Safe Out Here, is an extraordinary memoir of his service in Burma, fighting the Japanese as part of Slim’s 14th Army.  Fraser’s title was inspired by Kipling; I thought I would follow suit with this article.  There is a remarkable segment in Fraser’s book dealing with the water bottle and its carrier.  It is a somewhat lengthy and colorful narrative, full of slang and foul language; I will summarize rather than reprint it here.  A significant battle was going on, but Fraser’s section was on the flank and had not encountered the enemy.  It was a hot day, and one of the other soldiers found himself very thirsty and naturally wanted a drink.  He was the largest member of the section, and had a nickname that reflected his size.  He asked one of his section-mates to borrow his water bottle, as he could not easily get to his own.  His mate refused, but countered that he would help the first man with his own bottle.  What is significant in this exchange is the fact that the second soldier did not offer to pull the first man’s bottle out of its carrier; instead, he offered to unbuckle his comrade’s carrier from the rest of the webbing.  This exchange was astonishing when I first read it; my assumption that the carrier must have been easier to use in wartime was shattered.  The narrative continues with the troops finding a local well, using their slouch hats attached to rifle slings to bring up water, and adding purification tablets; all that effort was still apparently easier than accessing the water bottle.  It was at that point that the section took fire from the enemy, and Fraser ended up down the well.

This story of unbuckling the water bottle carrier from the brace-ends must not have been an isolated incident, and I have been trying to find other examples.  While I have not found any other narratives, I did find a rather remarkable photograph showing this method.  The picture shows troops from 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden, and was taken near Divisional Headquarters in Oosterbeek.  The photo shows two Airborne soldiers in a slit trench; one is in the act of drinking water, with the water bottle very clearly still in the skeleton carrier.

Water Bottle Market Garden IWM

Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  The man on the left drinking from his water bottle has clearly detached the webbing carrier from the rest of his equipment.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

In another part of his memoir, Fraser describes being issued with a canvas water bag for certain patrols.  This water bag was a clever item; it had to be soaked in water prior to use, which would cause the fabric’s fibers to swell and, somewhat counter-intuitively, make the bag water-tight.  This item was called a “chaugle”, derived from the Urdu, but the troops often called it a “chaggle”.  I have only seen references to its use in the Far East, despite its obvious superiority to the enameled water bottle.

Providing clean water to the troops was a logistics challenge even in the best of conditions.  In the deserts of North Africa, fresh water had to be trucked out to the troops on a constant basis; it had to be chlorinated to kill any bacteria and prevent algae from forming during transport.  Even in Northern Europe, where troops could fill their water bottles from the many rivers and streams, it had to be assumed the water was contaminated.  In Fraser’s narrative, he referenced the use of water purification tablets.  These were universally issued regardless of theater, for use when the men had to obtain their own water.  The “sterilizing outfit” was issued as a small tin; inside were two glass bottles.  One bottle contained the actual purification tablets; however, these tablets gave the water an unpleasant flavor that was supposed to be neutralized by the tablets in the second bottle.  I have one of the tins in my collection, but not the glass bottles.  One of each of the tablets was to be dissolved in the water to be treated; shaking the water bottle was supposed to speed up the mixing of the contents.  In Fraser’s story, the soldiers argued whether chewing the pills prior to drinking the well-water would do any good.

sterlizing outfit

The sterilizing outfit:  the two glass bottles go inside the tin.  The “thio” tablets were supposed to counteract the unpleasant taste caused by the sterilizing tablets.  From the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

I feel rather relieved that my personal struggles using the water bottle at living history events seems to be an accurate reflection on historical precedent.  I have occasionally seen fellow reenactors hide modern plastic water bottles inside their basic pouches, but I consider that cheating and bad form.

Sterilizing - Directions

Instructions printed inside the lid of the sterilizing outfit tin.  Author’s collection; I only have the tin without the contents.

A note on terminology:  to the British, the item that held water was called a “water bottle”, while the American term for such an item was “canteen”.  In British usage, a canteen was a shop, restaurant, and social club specifically for service members.  As an American who reenacts as British, I believe it is important to use the correct terminology.

Boil Them Out and Pull Them Through: Rifle Cleaning

I recently re-watched a favorite episode of “Dad’s Army”, the classic comedy about the Home Guard.  This particular episode had a sequence that stood out to me.  The men return from a long nighttime patrol; they are cold and tired, but excitedly report they had fired at an enemy airplane.  Their officer announces he already has the kettle on, and the men’s spirits are raised in expectation of a hot cup of tea.  Their hopes are then dashed when the officer says the first kettle is for cleaning the rifles; once that task is done, they may have their tea.  The men clean their rifles, as ordered; not only are they still cold and tired, they are sullen and resentful.

I always disagreed with that approach.  I felt that a quick cup of tea would give the men’s spirits and energy a lift; not only would they clean their rifles more cheerfully, they would likely do a more effective job of it.

But this article is not about man management.  What also struck me about this sequence was that it reminded me of the first time I heard the phrase, “boil them out and pull them through”.

Oiler & Pull-Through

The Number 4 rifle with the oiler, pull-through and a 4×2 piece of flannelette removed from the butt-trap.  The sling, bolt and magazine are to be removed prior to cleaning.  All photos in this article are by the author.

I have been a firearms enthusiast even longer than I have been a reenactor.  As much as I love British history, I am grateful to live in a nation that still allows private firearms ownership.  I learned to clean my rifles with a cleaning rod with various attachments, as well as patches, brushes, and solvents.  I was taught to keep my weapons dry and well-oiled to prevent rust.  The idea of deliberately pouring water through a rifle was completely shocking when I first heard of it.

Most military ammunition, at least until the 1950’s, was made with primers that create a corrosive residue when fired.  Rather, these chemical salts themselves are fairly inert, but form an acid when mixed with water.  The salts dissolve so easily that humid air can form enough of the caustic substance to damage a rifle barrel; perhaps that Home Guard officer was right.  However, large amounts of water, especially when hot, will completely dissolve the residue and wash it away.  Therefore, standard British military procedure after firing a rifle, whether in action or simply on the range, was to pour boiling water through it.  The official training manual recommended using 5 to 6 pints of water; it also stated that using cold water was better than not cleaning the rifle at all.  There was even a funnel designed specifically to help guide the boiling water into the bore.  The barrel was then thoroughly dried and oiled to prevent rust.

Most British troops were not issued cleaning rods.  Normal cleaning was done with a “pull-through”, a length of cord with a loop at one end and a metal weight on the other.  A piece of soft cloth, called “flannelette”, was put into the loop of the pull-through.  The flannelette was manufactured as a four-inch-wide strip that was issued in a long roll; the cloth was marked with a line every two inches indicating where it was to be cut.  The individual pieces were then often referred to as “four by two”, and each soldier was issued with several pieces.

4x2 Flannelette 1

Flannelette, with one four by two piece removed from the rest of the sheet.

Each rifle was issued with a pull-through and a small oil bottle; these items were stored inside the rifle’s butt-trap.  That way, the pull-through and oiler were always with the rifle, and cleaning could be done in the field nearly as easily as in barracks.  The oil bottle was originally made of brass; during World War II the oiler was made in “Bakelite”, an early form of plastic, to save precious brass for ammunition.

Oiler 2

Bakelite oil bottle.  Note the “spoon” built into the lid.

The pull-through was also issued with one or two small squares of wire gauze.  To the modern eye, the wire gauze pieces look like they have been cut from a window screen.  The wire was fine enough that a gauze square could be wrapped around the pull-through to provide extra scouring ability.  However, excessive use of the wire gauze could cause barrel wear.  In peacetime, the gauze was only to be used when the rifle was exceptionally dirty, and only when authorized by the Armourer; a soldier could be put on a charge for using the gauze without authorization.  However, according to the 1942 training manual, gauze was to be kept on the pull-through in wartime.

Wire Gauze 1

A piece of wire gauze before attaching to the pull-through.

The sling, bolt and magazine were to be removed from the rifle prior to cleaning.  After “boiling out” the barrel, it would be “pulled through” with a flannelette until dry.  To do this, the rifle was held with the muzzle down and the pull-through’s weight fed into the breech until the weight appeared at the muzzle.  Then the butt was placed on the floor, the cord wrapped around the hand, and the flannelette pulled through the bore; this process was repeated until the barrel was dry.  Then a different flannelette was used, this time to apply oil to the barrel.

Feeding Pull Through

Pulling-through:  the weight is dropped down the bore.

The magazine, bolt, and the rest of the rifle would be carefully wiped down with an oiled cloth, which was often stored in the webbing entrenching tool carrier.  If necessary, the magazine could be disassembled by removing the spring and platform, but this was only to be done when very dirty.

It is worth noting that the 1942 Small Arms Training Pamphlet for the Rifle starts with cleaning and maintenance before moving on to aiming and firing.  The Pamphlet also has notes on the use of cover, and use of the rifle in strengthening exercises, such as holding the rifle in the firing position using only one arm.

Pulling Through 1

The flannelette is then pulled through until the barrel is dry.  The process is repeated with an oiled flannelette.

Old surplus .303 used to be fairly common, but is sadly becoming increasingly scarce.  Most modern gunpowder solvents should also effectively clean corrosive primer residue; but sometimes the old ways are the best ways, and I still boil out my rifle after firing surplus ammo.

Several years ago, I was at a gun store hoping to find some surplus .303.  I heard other customers raving about a new cleaning product called a “Bore Snake”.  I had to laugh; this revolutionary new product was just a fancy pull-through.

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