“Men Apart”: The Red Beret

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

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

Beret Hartenstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Browning Oct 42

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

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

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

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

Italy 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Drop Too Many
Maj.-Gen. John Frost

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

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

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

Howard Beret 2

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

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

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

The Day the Devils Dropped In
Neil Barber

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

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

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

Arnhem Spearhead
James Sims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reenacting tip:

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

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

MontyBeret2

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

 

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Army Forms Update: B. 295 and C. 2118

In my professional life, I have learned the concept of “continuous quality improvement”, and I have tried to implement this practice into my historical endeavors, as well.  Whether it is research for my articles, or the displays I set up at public events, I try to avoid the idea of “good enough” and always look for ways to make improvements.

In recent articles, I wrote about two different Army Forms:  the Pass, B. 295; and the War Diary and Intelligence Summary, C. 2118.  In preparing both articles, I studied numerous photographs from various sources; I examined many more photographs than I ended up using in the articles.  I had made reproductions of both forms prior to writing the articles; since then, I decided I needed to make improvements to my reproductions.

War Diary Repro C2118

Updated reproduction Army Form C. 2118, War Diary or Intelligence Summary.

The War Diary and Intelligence Summary was the easier of the two to update.  I was already happy with the appearance of this reproduction; the text was correct, the font was a close match, and I had the right number of rows and columns.  However, I was dissatisfied with the size of the document once printed.  I had decided, for logistical reasons, to set up my reproduction so I could print it on standard US letter-sized paper, which is 8 ½ by 11 inches.  However, the original form is quite wide, and my reproduction did not have the right aspect ratio; I also trimmed away quite a lot of blank paper.  I recently attended a tactical reenactment where officers and NCO’s were required to write and submit intelligence reports.  I used my reproduction C. 2118, but found it was a little too small and did not have enough room to write as much information as I wanted; I ended up using several sheets over the course of the event.

When I first made my reproduction C. 2118, I used the default margin settings in Microsoft Word.  For my updated version, I narrowed the side margins and therefore widened the entire document; I also widened the center column (“Summary of Events and Information”), where most of the text is to be written.  The result looks closer to the original, at least to my eye.  It also has more usable writing space.

The Pass was more challenging.  As mentioned in my earlier article, while studying photographs of originals, I noticed there was a remarkable variety depending on the publisher and time period.  I decided that, rather than try to make a replica of any one specific version of the Pass, to instead make a reproduction that would have the right look but be useful at living history events.  Many of the later versions had fields that did not seem relevant for my purposes, such as the closest train station and hospital to the soldier’s destination; post-war B. 295’s, including the 1946 original in my collection, often had a field for the orderly room’s telephone number.  I wanted something I could issue to a member of my unit so he could leave our display and visit the rest of the event, such as an air show; I therefore based my reproduction on the earlier versions of the form.  I had used my reproduction passes at some events and they had worked well; but again, I felt improvements were needed.

Pass Repro B295

Updated reproduction Army Form B. 295 Pass.  Note the space for the unit stamp.

I remembered King’s Regulations (1940) required that “Every pass will be stamped with the regimental office stamp before being issued” [Sec. 1601 (a)].  Additionally, nearly all the photographs of issued passes showed that they had, indeed, been stamped.  The earlier passes had been stamped directly over the text of the form, but later versions had an allocated area for the unit stamp; I therefore created such a space on my reproduction.  I then found a company that makes custom rubber stamps and ordered one for my unit.  I added text to the top of the Pass referencing the rule about a soldier returning to his unit upon mobilization of the Reserve, which was common to many of the originals; I also changed the font on some of the text.

Like the War Diary, I think my revised Pass is a significant improvement.  I have another air show coming up in a couple weeks; I’m curious to see if my lads notice any differences in their “bumf”.

Blanco: 20th Century Pipeclay

In a recent article, I wrote about the development of the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment.  No article on the subject would have been complete without at least a reference to Blanco.  Since then, I have decided to explore the subject further.  The website Blanco and Bull has the most complete description and history of the product itself that I have seen.  This article, then, is intended as a social history of the use of Blanco by the common soldier.

Background

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the qualities that were considered most essential in a British soldier were a well-turned out appearance, and the ability to perform drill.  Buttons and boots had to be immaculately polished.  Leather equipment was typically issued in a light buff color, but had to be whitened by careful application of pipeclay; this chalky powder was mixed with water to make a paste.

Forcing soldiers to maintain a smart appearance was far more than just regimental vanity; it helped instill both pride and discipline.  This discipline was vital for the tactics of the time; smoothbore muskets were most effective when fired in large volleys, and it took an iron will to withstand an enemy’s fire while maneuvering into position.  More than anything else, it was this discipline that set the British soldier apart from his enemies.

While weapons and uniforms underwent significant transformation during the Victorian era, the attitudes of officers and NCO’s remained consistent.  Rifles replaced muskets, yet “spit and polish” was still considered more important than marksmanship.

Around 1880, the Joseph Pickering & Sons company developed a replacement for pipeclay; this was Blanco, promoted as a cleaner that could “remove stains and discolorations” from leather shoes, equipment, and sporting goods.  Blanco was produced as a cake of compressed white powder; like the pipeclay it replaced, it formed a paste when water was added.  It was promoted to both soldiers and civilians; however, the advertisements were somewhat misleading, as Blanco covered over discolorations rather than removing them.  Regardless, Blanco was found superior than pipeclay, and was officially adopted by the Army.

Blanco4

Blanco:  1950’s production Khaki Green No. 3 made by Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd. along with an Indian-made copy of the original white Blanco.  While the Indian version is noticeably smaller, the deep well is based on Pickering’s earliest products.  All photographs in this article are by the author.

While the soldier on home service or garrison duty was expected to have an immaculate appearance, standards were more relaxed on active service.  By the close of the 19th Century, British soldiers increasingly found themselves fighting enemies armed with rifles rather than swords and spears; soldiers on campaign were allowed to stain their leather equipment with tea to make it less visible.  The Army even adopted khaki uniforms for use overseas, although troops on home service still wore scarlet.  In response, Pickering’s developed Khaki Blanco, essentially the same product but with a coloring agent.

In the early 20th Century, cotton web equipment replaced leather.  Blanco was found to be even more effective on the new webbing; when applied with a stiff-bristled brush, one could get it into the weave of the material.  Khaki Blanco was already similar in color to the base webbing, but Pickering’s created new colors, including Web Blanco, which was a light pea-green.

After the Great War, Pickering’s adopted a numbering system for their products.  Khaki Blanco and Web Blanco were replaced by No. 61 Buff, No. 103 Khaki Green (Light), No. 97 Khaki Green (Medium), and others.  No. 97 was the color used by most units at the outbreak of World War II.  By D-Day, most units had adopted Khaki Green No. 3, or simply KG3.  While KG3 became the most common color, there were some units that retained other shades for the sake of their own traditions.

Impact on Soldiers

What was intended as a simple item to help give the soldier a smart appearance took on a life of its own.  Like its forebear, Blanco was one of the dreaded tools imposed on new recruits, who spent hours slaving over their webbing, polishing the brass and applying just the right thickness of Blanco.  This mindless and repetitive task was part of the Army’s procedure for turning individuals into well-disciplined soldiers.

To add insult to injury, Blanco was not typically an issued item; soldiers had to purchase their own from the NAAFI*.  Fortunately, NAAFI was a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of British servicemembers; they contracted with Pickering’s to make bulk purchases of Blanco to sell at the lowest price possible.

When first purchasing Blanco, the soldier would get it in a round box made of zinc, which would not rust when wet.  Refills were simply wrapped in paper.  Each cake was made as a flat-bottomed disc; the top was dished for holding a small amount of water to get mixed with the product.

Blanco1

Post-WWII cake of K.G.3 in the zinc box designed to hold Blanco.  Zinc was chosen because it does not rust when wet.

Like many items in the British Army, the word Blanco was originally a noun but frequently used as a verb; a soldier Blancoed (or blanco’d) his webbing.  In this usage, capitalization and spelling lost any consistency.  Additionally, the Mills Equipment Company, the primary contractor for webbing equipment, created their own “web cleaner”; this was a loose colored powder sold in a shaker tube, but was still called Blanco by the soldiers.

Stanley Swift enlisted in the Royal Artillery in 1940 and wrote of his experiences.

“We were given blanco, a greenish type of chalk which when dipped in water became a liquid mass.  We had to blanco our equipment and polish our brass, which was a gorgeous shade of green when we received it, and clean and spit and polish some more.  It was punishment of the first order.  And it was evil the way we were expected to do everything in ten minutes and turn out on parade.”

After his initial training, Swift was transferred to the 5th Royal Horse Artillery.

“We arrived about 3:00 a.m. at Coggeshall, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the south of England, and we were immediately told to blanco our webbing as it was the wrong color for the regiment.  At 3:00 a.m.!”

After further training, Swift was sent to Egypt to join 8th Army.  The Allies had not yet taken control of the Mediterranean, so the convoy of troopships and escorts sailed all the way around Africa to the Suez Canal; the journey took several weeks.

“Such a great number of troops on board ship must be kept occupied, so each man was given a great lump of blanco.  This we were told to daub on our webbing equipment.  We didn’t take very kindly to this enforced activity, so everybody as one man threw his blanco into the ocean.  This time we must have dyed the sea green.  Nothing was ever said.  Our restlessness in being locked in a ship for a full month, crammed like sardines, was no joke, so it was well-meant to try to keep us occupied but not very successful.”

Oh, What a Lovely War!  A Soldier’s Memoir
Stanley Swift

Blanco2

Underside of the zinc box.  While zinc does not rust, it does slowly oxidize, and this tin developed a hole through the Pickering’s trademark.

James Sims had a similar experience when he joined the Royal Artillery in 1943.

“I completed almost a year at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain with the 4th Field Training Regiment, Royal Artillery, and didn’t much care for it.

If you had any spirit at all the RA seemed determined to break it.  Their attitude has been summed up as follows:

If it moves – salute it!
If it stands still – blanco it!
If it’s too heavy to lift – paint it!”

After meeting a recruiting sergeant from the Parachute Regiment, he volunteered for the Airborne Forces.

“…We had to report to Clay Cross, the Airborne Forces Depot near Chesterfield.  Here we were taught battle drill.  We were also given special lectures and shown training films.  There was some bull but it was nothing like as bad as in the RA.  We did, however, have to blanco our equipment for guards, even our para steel helmets.”

Arnhem Spearhead
James Sims

“Bull” was originally a term for polishing boots, but became soldier’s slang for any mindless, repetitive task.  Based on the statement about the helmet, it seems likely Sims was issued a jump helmet with a webbing chinstrap, which was typically Blancoed, as opposed to the earlier leather chinstraps.

After World War II, conscription continued through the 1950’s, and was known as National Service.  Even though the world had changed by this point, the British Army’s attitudes and methods had not.  Tony Thorne wrote of his experience of National Service.

“We were issued khaki belts and gaiters.  These have to be Blanco’d.  Blanco is not white as the name might imply, but khaki.  It is like a slab of chalk, which must be dissolved with water to exactly the right consistency, so that it can be painted on to the webbing smoothly.  In fact it produces tiny lumps like mother’s gravy, which then increase in size when they dry on the webbing.  The belt has little brass clips and the gaiters have little brass buckles at the opposite end to the black leather straps.  The brasses must be shone with Brasso and the leather straps must be polished with boot polish.  One of the miracles of military design is that all these cleaning materials are chemically allergic to one another.  If the tiniest spot of Brasso makes any form of contact with the Blanco on the webbing, a small white ring appears which remorselessly spreads outwards in ever-increasing circles until it forms a huge unsightly stain.  No man has ever discovered any method of removing this stain other than re-painting the dreaded Blanco about two hundred times.  Even then, one can collapse exhausted into the pit thinking that the damned spot is out, only to be greeted by it poking its head out anew at 5.30 am just half an hour before the morning inspection.”

Brasso, Blanco & Bull
Tony Thorne

While Blanco was consistently used in Britain and the European Theater, it was not suitable to all conditions.  Troops in the Far East learned that Blanco quickly washed off their webbing in the Monsoon rains; webbing had to be vat-dyed a jungle green color.  Troops sent to North Africa typically arrived with green-Blancoed webbing unsuited for the desert.  While some units used khaki Blanco, most troops used salt water and a stiff brush to scrub the green Blanco out of their equipment and allowed the webbing to get sun-bleached to a nearly-white color.

In the 1950’s, Pickering’s created a new webbing renovator, which was sold as a tin of colored paste.  The colors were based on Blanco, but the product was easier to apply.  The Army then adopted 1958 Pattern webbing equipment, which was manufactured in dark green.  While cadets and reservists continued using 1937 Pattern equipment through the 1980’s, Blanco finally became obsolete, and Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd., went out of business.

Reenacting Tips

Many years ago, my friend and I attended a public event; we wore our best battledress, and we had given our boots and cap badges a good polish.  We were approached by a pair of gentlemen who had served in the British Army and fought in Burma.  Living in the United States, meeting British veterans is a rare treat.  One of the pair had been a Regimental Sergeant Major; the other joked that the RSM had spent so much time up a tree in the jungle that he had grown a tail.

The former RSM said he had seen many reenactors over the years, but had never been impressed with them.  But he paid us a tremendous compliment by saying that we were by far the best he had seen, because we held ourselves with the correct military bearing, and we had taken the time to polish our boots and badges.  However, he then asked why my webbing belt was not Blancoed.

I was hugely embarrassed.  I tried to explain that Blanco had become extremely rare; at that point, I had only ever seen Blanco cakes on display at military museums.  He was astonished that something that had once been completely ubiquitous had become a collector’s item.

Millions of cakes of Blanco were produced over the decades, but most were used for their intended purpose.  Real Blanco was discontinued in the 1950’s; a post-war cake can occasionally be found by diligently searching internet auction sites, but it is rare, and it is not cheap.

Fortunately, a number of Blanco reproductions and substitutes have become available.  Two of the largest UK-based reenactment suppliers carry products they describe as “liquid Blanco”; these are essentially custom-colored paint.  I have not used these personally, but several friends have been pleased with these products.

Another vendor in the UK has managed to develop a true reproduction Blanco, that is, a cake of compressed powder.  The reproduction cake is somewhat smaller than the original, and the well is very shallow.  However, it is the closest item I have found to the original; it looks, feels, and even smells like original Blanco.  It even comes packaged in a reprint of Pickering’s paper wrapper, which is a nice touch.

A company in India produced its own version of Blanco for the Indian Army, and it is currently available through a US-based reenacting vendor.  Unfortunately, it is only available in white and khaki.  The Indian cake is smaller than the original, but it has a deep well on top like the early versions of Pickering’s.

Blanco6

The zinc box only needed to be purchased once.  Refills came in a simple paper wrapper.  After World War II, the traditional printing was eliminated.

Some reenacting genius discovered a shoe cream that is a similar color to KG3 and applies easily to webbing.  A small amount of model paint can be mixed with the shoe cream to get even closer to the right color.  This shoe cream seems to be fairly similar in consistency to the post-war Pickering’s web-cleaning paste.  I have had very good results with the shoe cream mixture; it is easy to apply and is overall less messy than the liquids and compressed powders.  My only complaint is that it is not very durable and needs frequent touching-up.

Blanco5

1937 Pattern belt and braces drying after having been treated with a mixture of shoe cream and model paint.  The original Blanco was used to ensure correct color matching.

The Blanco and Bull website is an excellent resource; not only does it have more detail on the history of Blanco, it also compares the different reproductions summarized above.

Whatever method is used, do it outside and put down newspaper or plastic sheeting.  Just staging the photographs for this article turned my fingertips green; the stuff gets everywhere.

*The Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute, or NAAFI, is the organization responsible for maintaining shops and canteens for British servicemen and women.

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.

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

Maj.-Gen. “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.-Col. 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

Capt. 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.

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”.