Army Numbers: “Etched Into the Soul”

Every British soldier was given an identification number upon enlistment; it was the responsibility of the Officer in charge of Records for each unit to assign and record each new recruit’s army number.  Since certain names were extremely common, the army number system was critical for correct identification and record-keeping.  Note:  The term “unit” is defined by the 1940 King’s Regulations as an infantry battalion, cavalry regiment, or artillery battery; it could also mean a Depot.  For this article, I am using the term more broadly.


The King’s Regulations (1940) and a Soldier’s Service and Pay Book (Army Book 64).  Author’s photograph of items in his collection.

Each soldier was issued with a set of identity discs which were stamped with his army number, name (surname and one or two initials) and religious preference.  The army number was recorded in the Soldier’s Service and Pay Book (Army Book 64) and any other Army Form or official document issued to the soldier, such as a pass (B. 295).  Additionally, unit records, such as conduct sheets and lists of wounded, recorded soldiers by both name and number.

During World War I, if a soldier transferred to a different unit, he was issued a new number.  This was no longer true by World War II; regardless of transfer, the soldier retained his original army number.  The 1940 edition of the King’s Regulations included a table (Appendix XIX) which allocated specific blocks of numbers to each of the Regiments and Corps.  This system pre-dated World War II; the table referenced an order issued in 1926 (Army Order 49).    Interestingly, some of the units listed in the 1926 order had been disbanded by 1940, but were still included in the Appendix, presumably because their number blocks had not been re-allocated.  A separate numbering system was used for officers, but was not described by King’s Regulations.

Field Return 2 Para

Army Form W. 3009E., Field Return of Other Ranks.  This form was completed on a monthly basis while a battalion was on active service, and attached to the War Diary.  Note that the soldiers are listed by army number first, then rank and name.  This example is from 2nd Parachute Battalion’s service in North Africa.

While a few units were assigned six-digit army numbers, most units were allocated blocks of seven-digit numbers.  In a few cases, a letter prefix was added to the recruit’s number; women had a “W” in front of theirs, while troops of the Royal Army Service Corps had either an “S” for supply or “T” for transport.

Changes were made as World War II progressed.  Amendments to the King’s Regulations were adopted in 1941 and 1943 which assigned additional blocks of numbers for some of the new units created since the outbreak of the war.  For example, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was formed in 1942; this Corps was responsible for the maintenance and repair of vehicles, weapons and equipment, relieving the Royal Army Ordnance Corps of such duties.  However, other new units, including the Parachute Regiment and Special Air Service, were never allocated number groupings during the war.  The numbers assigned in the 1941 and 1943 amendments had eight digits.

The mid-war period saw a significant shift in organization and training, which had an impact on the numbering system.  Previously, recruits were allowed to state a preference for the unit or type of work that interested them, such as the Royal Artillery or Royal Engineers; however, they were typically assigned where the need was greatest, frequently the infantry.  Historically, a recruit who joined the infantry was assigned to the local county regiment, which then was responsible for training its new members at its Regimental Depot.   In an effort to increase efficiency and standardization, the General Service Corps was established in 1942.  By 1943, most recruits were given a General Service Corps number and underwent General Military Training, including drill, basic weapons handling, anti-gas procedures, and rudimentary fieldcraft and tactics.  The new soldier also underwent interviews and aptitude tests to determine where he could be best utilized.  Once assigned to a regiment or corps, the soldier still retained his original General Service Corps number.  The traditional Regimental System started to break down during this period, as recruits were sent to wherever there was the greatest need, regardless of any geographic or other affiliation.  By this point, soldiers from London, Manchester, and other densely populated cities often found themselves not only in the English county regiments, but even Welsh and Scottish units.

Regardless of when a recruit joined the Army or the unit he ended up in, one of his first tasks was to memorize his new number, as Stanley Swift wrote in his memoirs.

“When we first arrived at the barracks, the sergeant presented a formidable list with everybody’s name typed on it.  There was absolutely no way of escaping.  We all began to hope, I’m sure, that somehow our name wouldn’t be on the list and we could go back home again.  But there your name was Mr. So-and-So.

At the same time we were given a rank – Mr. So-and-So no longer – and a number.  We were now soldiers.  Officially I was now Gunner S. Swift, 973307 (a number that is etched into my very soul), Twelfth Field Training Regiment, Royal Artillery, Borden, Hampshire.  It looked most impressive on paper.”

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

Reenacting Tips

For the modern historian or genealogist, having a soldier’s army number can help with preliminary research; it should at least point to the unit in which the soldier originally enlisted, or at least prior to 1943.


The King’s Regulations (1940) and the A.B. 64 of 1619533 Gunner Laurence Newcombe of the Royal Artillery (Searchlights).  Author’s photograph.

Those who reenact the British Army of World War II should adopt an Army number and mark it in a reproduction A.B. 64 and identity discs.  These are some of the small details that greatly add to the living history experience.

Most British Army living history groups base themselves on a specific wartime company or battalion.  Issuing a historically accurate army number to a new recruit is quite easy so long as a copy of the King’s Regulations is available; if not, a copy of the wartime allocations accompanies this article.

My reenacting organization portrays 2nd Parachute Battalion, which recruited from all across the Army.  The Parachute Regiment and Army Air Corps were not allocated blocks of numbers during the war. When a new member joins the organization, he is tasked with researching a parent unit, and is given an army number accordingly.  We use the seven-digit numbering system; the Unit Leader or his deputy assigns the first three digits based on the 1940 KR’s, and the recruit chooses the last four.  For example, I chose The Buffs (Royal East Kent) as my parent unit; my reenacting army number begins with 632.

The King’s Regulations for the Army and the Royal Army Reserve (1940)

Section XIII. – Correspondence, Documents, Returns, Books and Records
4. – Records
Soldier’s Services

1698. (a) A soldier, when posted to a corps., etc., on enlistment, will be assigned an army number by the officer i/c records. The army numbers allotted to corps, etc., are given in Appendix XIX.

(b) A soldier, whether originally enlisted for service in the Regular Army, S.R. or T.A., will retain the army number originally allotted to him throughout his service, irrespective of any subsequent posting or transfer, except that any man deemed to have been enlisted into the Militia under the Military Training Act, 1939, who has previously been allotted an army number, will be allotted a fresh army number in accordance with the instructions contained in the Regulations for the Militia (other than the Supplementary Reserve), 1939, paras. 11 to 13, and the use of his previous army number will not be resumed.
An ex-soldier re-enlisting will resume the army number which he previously bore.

(c) As the R.A.S.C. is divided into two main branches, the following prefixes to army numbers will be used to denote the branches in which soldiers of that corps may be serving:–
S = Supply.
T = Transport.

(d) If a soldier of another corps re-enlists into, or transfers to, the R.A.S.C., the Officer i/c R.A.S.C. Records will notify to the soldier’s C.O. the prefix letter to be added to his army number.  A soldier of the R.A.S.C. re-enlisting into, or transferring to, any other corps will retain his army number but the use of the prefix will be discontinued.

(e) On conviction by court-martial (or on trial being dispensed with) on a charge of fraudulent enlistment, a soldier will resume the army number which was originally assigned to him.

Appendix XIX
Army Numbers Allotted to Corps, Etc.
(See para. 1698)

Corps, etc., Allotment of blocks of numbers

From                    To

Royal Army Service Corps 1 294,000
Household Cavalry:  The Life Guards 294,001 304,000
Household Cavalry:  Royal Horse Guards 304,001 309,000
Cavalry of the Line† 309,001 721,000
Royal Artillery
Field Branch
Coast Defence and Anti-Aircraft Branch
721,001 1,842,000
Royal Engineers 1,842,001 2,303,000
Royal Corps of Signals 2,303,001 2,604,000
Grenadier Guards 2,604,001 2,646,000
Coldstream Guards 2,646,001 2,688,000
Scots Guards 2,688,001 2,714,000
Irish Guards 2,714,001 2,730,000
Welsh Guards 2,730,001 2,744,000
The Black Watch 2,744,001 2,809,000
The Seaforth Higlanders 2,809,001 2,865,000
The Gordon Highlanders 2,865,001 2,921,000
The Cameron Highlanders 2,921,001 2,966,000
The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 2,966,001 3,044,000
The Royal Scots 3,044,001 3,122,000
The Royal Scots Fusiliers 3,122,001 3,178,000
The King’s Own Scottish Borderers 3,178,001 3,233,000
The Cameronians 3,233,001 3,299,000
The Highland Light Infantry 3,299,001 3,377,000
The East Lancashire Regiment 3,377,001 3,433,000
The Lancashire Fusiliers 3,433,001 3,511,000
The Manchester Regiment 3,511,001 3,589,000
The Border Regiment 3,589,001 3,644,000
The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers 3,644,001 3,701,000
The King’s Own Royal Regiment 3,701,001 3,757,000
The King’s Regiment 3,757,001 3,846,000
The Loyal Regiment 3,846,001 3,902,000
The South Wales Borderers 3,902,001 3,947,000
The Welch Regiment 3,947,001 4,025,000
The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry 4,025,001 4,070,000
The Monmouthshire Regiment 4,070,001 4,103,000
The Herefordshire Regiment 4,103,001 4,114,000
The Cheshire Regiment 4,114,001 4,178,000
The Royal Welch Fusiliers 4,178,001 4,256,000
The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers 4,256,001 4,334,000
The East Yorkshire Regiment 4,334,001 4,379,000
The Green Howards 4,379,001 4,435,000
The Durham Light Infantry 4,435,001 4,523,000
The West Yorkshire Regiment 4,523,001 4,601,000
The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment 4,601,001 4,680,000
The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry 4,680,001 4,736,000
The York and Lancaster Regiment 4,736,001 4,792,000
The Lincolnshire Regiment 4,792,001 4,848,000
The Leicestershire Regiment 4,848,001 4,904,000
The South Staffordshire Regiment 4,904,001 4,960,000
The Sherwood Foresters 4,960,001 5,038,000
The North Staffordshire Regiment 5,038,001 5,094,000
The Royal Warwickshire Regiment 5,094,001 5,172,000
The Gloucestershire Regiment 5,172,001 5,239,000
The Worcestershire Regiment 5,239,001 5,328,000
The Royal Berkshire Regiment 5,328,001 5,373,000
The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry 5,373,001 5,429,000
The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry 5,429,001 5,485,000
The Hampshire Regiment 5,485,001 5,562,000
The Wiltshire Regiment 5,562,001 5,608,000
The Devonshire Regiment 5,608,001 5,662,000
The Somerset Light Infantry 5,662,001 5,718,000
The Dorsetshire Regiment 5,718,001 5,763,000
The Royal Norfolk Regiment 5,763,001 5,819,000
The Suffolk Regiment 5,819,001 5,875,000
The Northhamptonshire Regiment 5,875,001 5,931,000
The Cambridgeshire Regiment 5,931,001 5,942,000
The Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment 5,942,001 5,998,000
The Essex Regiment 5,998,001 6,076,000
The Queen’s Royal Regiment 6,076,001 6,132,000
The East Surrey Regiment 6,132,001 6,188,000
The Middlesex Regiment 6,188,001 6,278,000
The Buffs 6,278,001 6,334,000
The Royal West Kent Regiment 6,334,001 6,390,000
The Royal Sussex Regiment 6,390,001 6,446,000
The Royal Fusiliers 6,446,001 6,515,000
The Inns of Court Regiment 6,802,501 6,814,000
Honourable Artillery Company (Infantry) 6,825,001 6,837,000
The King’s Royal Rifle Corps 6,837,001 6,905,000
The Rifle Brigade 6,905,001 6,972,000
The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers 6,972,001 7,006,000
The Royal Ulster Rifles 7,006,001 7,040,000
The Royal Irish Fusiliers 7,040,001 7,075,000
Royal Dublin Fusiliers* 7,075,001 7,109,000
Royal Irish Regiment* 7,109,001 7,143,000
Connaught Rangers* 7,143,001 7,177,000
Leinster Regiment* 7,177,001 7,211,000
Royal Munster Fusiliers* 7,211,001 7,245,000
Royal Army Medical Corps 7,245,001 7,536,000
The Army Dental Corps 7,536,001 7,539,000
Royal Guernsey Militia and Royal Alderney Artillery Militia† 7,539,001 7,560,000
Royal Militia of the Island of Jersey† 7,560,001 7,574,000
Royal Army Ordnance Corps 7,574,001 7,657,000
Royal Army Pay Corps 7,657,001 7,681,000
Corps of Military Police 7,681,001 7,717,000
Military Provost Staff Corps 7,717,001 7,718,800
Small Arms School Corps 7,718,801 7,720,400
Army Education Corps 7,720,401 7,732,400
Band of the Royal Military College 7,732,401 7,733,000
Corps of Military Accountants 7,733,001 7,757,000
Royal Army Veterinary Corps 7,757,001 7,807,000
Machine Gun Corps* 7,807,001 7,868,000
Royal Tank Regiment 7,868,001 7,891,868
Royal Armoured Corps 7,891,869 8,230,000
Militia 10,000,000 10,350,000
The London Regiment (T.A.)
The Auxiliary Territorial Service (Women) W/1 W/500,000


†The allotment of army numbers to the Royal Guernsey Militia, Royal Alderney Artillery Militia and Royal Militia of the Island of Jersey was discontinued in 1929.

1941 Amendment

Corps, etc. Allotment of blocks of numbers

From                    To

Intelligence Corps 10,350,001 10,400,000
Royal Army Pay Corps 10,400,001 10,500,000
Middle East, 2nd Echelon 10,500,001 10,508,000
The Army Dental Corps 10,510,001 10,530,000
Royal Army Ordnance Corps 10,530,001 10,600,000
Reconnaissance Corps 10,600,001 10,630,000
Army Catering Corps 10,630,001 10,655,000
Army Physical Training Corps 10,655,001 10,660,000
Royal Army Service Corps 10,660,001 11,000,000
Royal Artillery (Coast Defence and Anti-Aircraft Branch) 11,000,001 11,500,000
Pioneer Corps 13,000,001 14,000,000
Non-Combatant Corps 97,000,001 97,100,000

1943 Amendment

Corps, etc. Allotment of blocks of numbers

From                     To

The Lowland Regiment 14,000,001 14,002,500
The Highland Regiment 14,002,501 14,005,000
General Service Corps 14,200,001 15,000,000
India (for local enlistments into British Corps and Regiments) 15,000,001 15,005,000
Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers 16,000,001 16,100,000
Voluntary Aid Detachments W/500,001 W/1,000,000


The King’s Regulations for the Army and the Royal Army Reserve (1940)
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Davis, Brian L.
British Army Uniforms and Insignia of World War Two
Arms and Armour Press, 1983

Forty, George
British Army Handbook, 1939 – 1945
Sutton Publishing, 1998

Holmes, Richard
Soldiers:  Army Lives and Loyalties from Redcoats to Dusty Warriors
Harper Press, 2011

Swift, Stanley, and Luscher, Evelyn A.
Oh, What a Lovely War! A Soldier’s Memoir
Hellgate Press, 1999

The website of the British Army War Diary Copying Service

“By Order of an Officer”: The Emergency Ration Tin


One of the items most commonly issued to British troops in the Second World War was the emergency ration.  This was a small tin containing a dense, high-calorie slab of chocolate, which was only to be consumed as a last resort when no other food source was available.


World War II emergency ration tin from the collection of the Imperial War Museum.  Note the golden color from the waterproofing lacquer.  Unlike most surviving tins, this one still retains the clasped sealing band.

The emergency ration was described in a 1942 training pamphlet.

Operational Feeding:  The Use of Field Rations (1942)


    1. The emergency ration is for men temporarily out of reach of any other source of food. In order to save weight it is made as small and light as possible. Its purpose is only to ward off hunger and exhaustion for a period of about 24 hours.  It does not purport to be a complete day’s food.  It weighs ½ pound.


    1. Emergency Ration.  This consists of a small tin box about the size of a 2-oz. tobacco tin, and contains a solid mixture of a chocolate type of food, concentrated to give the maximum amount of food value for weight carried.  It is intended only to be used in EMERGENCY when all other sources of supply fail.  It is issued on the scale of ONE to every officer and man and MUST NOT BE EATEN EXCEPT ON THE ORDERS OF AN OFFICER.  It can be either chewed in small pieces or ground up and mixed with hot water to make a sustaining drink.

The lid of the tin was embossed with instructions, including a warning that the ration was only to be consumed on the orders of an officer.  The tin was made as weatherproof as possible; the exterior was treated with a waterproofing lacquer which gave it a golden color.  The lid’s raised edge contained a rubber gasket to prevent moisture getting inside the tin; a clasped metal band then sealed the tin shut.

Tins Repro & Orig

Two original emergency ration tins (below) with a reproduction from What Price Glory (above).  The lower right tin still has its waterproofing lacquer.  Author’s collection.

There was a pervasive belief amongst the soldiers, continued on by militaria collectors, that the emergency ration chocolate contained Benzedrine, an early form of amphetamine.  The lid’s embossed warning certainly seemed to give weight to the theory, however recent historians believe there was never any truth to the rumor.  The chocolate was probably enriched with vitamins and may have contained caffeine.  However, to my knowledge at least, the exact contents have not been determined, although there must be a wartime record of the ingredients in an archive somewhere waiting to be discovered.  Regardless, the intent of the emergency ration was to provide as many calories as possible in a small, weather-resistant and easy-to-carry package.  Like modern chocolate bars, it was pre-segmented; that is, there were grooves molded into the slab to make it easier to break into smaller pieces.

Once the contents were consumed, soldiers often kept the tin as a convenient way to carry tobacco or other small items; for example, the Imperial War Museum’s collection includes an emergency ration tin that still contained a packet of Japanese cigarettes when the Museum acquired it.  This is the likely reason why many of the tins have survived, and are now a popular collector’s item.  Not surprisingly, tins still containing the actual ration chocolate are very rare, and therefore highly prized.  Many surviving tins have also lost their gold-colored waterproofing lacquer.


Underside of the lid from an original tin.  Note that the red rubber weatherproofing gasket has partially survived.  Author’s collection.

Reenacting Tips

The emergency ration was typically issued to all troops at the beginning of an operation.  It is therefore an item that should be carried by any reenactor who wants to get the details correct.  While one can still find originals, they can be somewhat expensive; fortunately, reproductions are readily available.  I do not typically like to either endorse or criticize specific products or vendors on this website; however, I am going to make an exception in this case.  The emergency ration tin available from What Price Glory is an outstanding product; I have two originals, and the reproduction compares very favorably.  It is also quite inexpensive, so there really is no reason for reenactors not to have one.  The reproduction tin comes empty, ready to be filled with whatever one wishes to put inside.

At most living history events, I use my emergency ration tin as a miniature first aid and survival kit, containing bandages, allergy and pain medicines, a small compass, and folding scissors.  I normally also keep a few boiled sweets or cough drops inside.

If one wishes to use the emergency ration tin for its original purpose, a number of options are available.  I have an online friend in the UK who makes chocolate slabs specifically designed to fit the emergency ration tin and replicate the appearance of the original item; he sells them on eBay and Etsy (search for “Pegasus WW2 Displays”).  Other options, less authentic but perhaps more practical, would be to repackage a normal chocolate bar or energy bar; some trimming and reconfiguring is typically required.  The original ration chocolate was wrapped in waxed or greaseproof paper, although some may have used cellophane.  To repackage a normal energy or chocolate bar, use clear cling wrap or waxed paper.  I like to use unbleached waxed paper, which has a more vintage look than normal waxed paper; I purchased mine at a health food specialty store.

For the following photos, I used two different products, a Promax Chocolate Peanut Crunch protein bar and a Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar.


The Promax bar was long and narrow; however, the thickness was just right for the tin.  I cut the bar in half and then cut a groove in the top of each half to try to replicate the appearance of the original ration (admittedly, the grooves did not really add anything).  I then placed one half next to the other and wrapped them in a small piece of unbleached waxed paper.

Protein Bar

For the chocolate, my plan was to carefully cut the bar in half, but it came out of the wrapper already broken in two.  I then stacked one half on top of the other and wrapped in more waxed paper.  Note that the Cadbury chocolates sold in the US are actually made domestically by Hershey’s under a licensing arrangement; they are not the same size as the British-made products.

Choco Prep

The original emergency ration was a very dense slab of chocolate.  However, I chose a Cadbury Fruit & Nut to put in my reproduction tin because I wanted the extra protein from the almonds.

I found it easier to wrap the Cadbury bar than the Promax bar, which resulted in a more satisfactory appearance.

Wrapped Choco

The completed process:  two stacked halves of a Cadbury chocolate bar wrapped in unbleached waxed paper.  It is not completely accurate, but reasonably close.


What Price Glory reproduction emergency ration tin:

Pegasus WW2 Displays on Etsy:


Operational Feeding:  The Use of Field Rations (1942)
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Bouchery, Jean
The British Soldier: From D-Day to V-E Day
Volume 1:  Uniforms, Insignia, Equipment
Histoire & Collections

Forty, George
British Army Handbook, 1939 – 1945
Sutton Publishing, 1998

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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


The Pattern 1937 Web Equipment (1939)
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Barthorp, Michael
The British Army on Campaign, 1882 – 1902
Osprey Publishing, 1988

Brayley, Martin J.
British Web Equipment of the Two World Wars
Europa Militaria:  The Crowood Press Ltd., 2005

Chappell, Mike
British Infantry Equipments 1908 – 80
Osprey Publishing, 1980

Farwell, Byron
Mr. Kipling’s Army
W. W. Norton & Company, 1981

Holmes, Richard
Redcoat:  The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
W. W. Norton & Company, 2001

Sims, James
Arnhem Spearhead
First published by Imperial War Museum, 1978, Republished by Arrow Books, Ltd., 1989

Swift, Stanley, and Luscher, Evelyn A.
Oh, What a Lovely War! A Soldier’s Memoir
Hellgate Press, 1999

Thorne, Tony
Brasso, Blanco & Bull
Constable & Robinson, Ltd., 1998

Blanco and Bull:  The Webbing and Boot Cleaning Website


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.


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.


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.

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.”


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.


The Pattern 1937 Web Equipment (1939)
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Brayley, Martin J.
British Web Equipment of the Two World Wars
Europa Militaria:  The Crowood Press Ltd., 2005

Chappell, Mike
British Infantry Equipments 1908 – 80
Osprey Publishing, 1980

Blanco and Bull:  The Webbing and Boot Cleaning Website


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 Lieutenant-Colonel and given command of 2nd Parachute Battalion.


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 Lieutenant-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”.


By Air to Battle:  The Official Account of the British First and Sixth Airborne Divisions
His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1945

Harclerode, Peter
Para! Fifty Years of the Parachute Regiment
Arms & Armour Press, A Cassell Imprint, 1992
Reprinted by Brockhampton Press, Hodder Headline PLC Group, 1999

Peatling, Robert
Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941- 1945
Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 1994

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”.


Manual of Military Law (1929)
Reprinted December, 1939
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

The King’s Regulations for the Army and the Royal Army Reserve (1940)
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Cullen, Simon
Soldier Talk:  A Squaddie’s Handbook
Leo Cooper / Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 1995

The Bren Light Machine Gun: Legendary Reliability

One of the most important and iconic weapons of World War II was the British Bren light machine gun.  The Bren’s distinctive top-mounted curved magazine made it easy to recognize by friend and foe alike.  Troops throughout the British Empire praised the Bren for its reliability.

burma 1945 - 2

A Bren gun position in Burma, 1945.  All photos in this article are from the Imperial War Museum.

During World War I, machine guns were used as defensive weapons, and were outstanding in that role; combined with barbed wire, they made it extremely difficult for the opposing force to advance.  Both sides used very similar machine guns as well as similar tactics, and a stalemate ensued.  Machine guns were belt-fed, mounted on heavy tripods, and fitted with a water-filled jacket to keep the barrel cool; with sufficient water and ammunition, a machine gun could fire almost indefinitely.  Because of their weight and bulk, they were not easily moved and therefore kept in emplaced positions.

The light machine gun appeared towards the end of the war in an effort to break the stalemate by giving more firepower to the advancing infantry.  These new weapons were air-cooled, portable, and typically magazine-fed.  Arguably the best light machine gun of the time was the Lewis gun; however, it was mechanically complex, required more advanced training than a rifle, and was somewhat unreliable.  However, it was vastly superior to the French Chauchat, which had a dreadful reputation for jamming; the American Browning Automatic Rifle (or “B.A.R.”), while more reliable, came out too late in the war to see much service.

In the 1930’s, the British Army’s Small Arms Committee began the search for a new light machine gun to replace the Lewis gun.  They tested a number of weapons, including the Danish Madsen and the French FM 24/29, which had replaced the despised Chauchat.  The American B.A.R. performed well in the trials and was an early favorite.  However, it had a significant flaw:  it had a fixed barrel, while the others had a detachable barrel.  After extensive firing, the gun needed to cool; continued firing would cause permanent damage.  The other light machine guns could have a spare barrel fitted, and then continue firing as before.  As the trials continued, a new favorite emerged:  the Czech Zb 26, made by the Brno arms factory.   The Czechs made updates to the design based on feedback during the trials; what started as the Zb 26 eventually became the Zb 30 and then the Zb 33.  The Brno designers called the final iteration the ZGB, which was adopted by the British government.

Late in the trials, the ZGB was given an endurance test.  The plan was to fire 150,000 rounds and see how many stoppages would ensue.  After about 146,000 rounds, the test was cut short because the gun was still firing as flawlessly as when it started, and the testers felt firing the last allocated rounds would simply be a waste of time and ammunition.

The original Zb series fired 7.92mm ammunition, the same round developed for the Mauser rifle.  Late in the trials, the ZGB design was converted to fire British .303 ammunition, and the plans were converted from metric to Imperial measurements.  A licensing agreement was signed allowing for the weapon to be built in Great Britain at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.  The gun was given a new name:  “Bren”, taken from “Brno” and “Enfield”.

The gun was officially adopted in 1935 and the first Bren was completed in 1937.  When the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) was sent to France and Belgium in 1939, enough Brens were available to equip most units.  However, the gun was still new, and evidence suggests that not all units had been effectively trained in its use.  Additionally, when the B.E.F. was first sent to the continent, most of the men were still wearing their old service dress uniforms with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment, which gave no method of carrying Bren magazines.  Fortunately, most troops were re-equipped with the 1937 pattern webbing and battledress before the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in May of 1940; the new equipment had been designed around the Bren, with pouches large enough for the magazines.

After the Dunkirk evacuation, the Army conducted an inventory and found there were only about 2,300 Brens available.  While most soldiers returned from France with their rifles, many of the Brens had been abandoned or intentionally destroyed, along with heavier weapons, vehicles, and supply dumps.  If the weapon had not been so new, and the men more thoroughly trained in its use, it may not have been left behind in such numbers.

Near Tobruk 1941

Dug-in British troops near Tobruk, Libya, in 1941.  They were lucky to have a Bren; at this point, many troops were using the less-reliable Lewis gun.

As the war in North Africa intensified, there were insufficient Brens for the need, and stocks of old Lewis guns were brought out of storage.  Britain also ordered a number of B.A.R.’s from the United States; but by the time they arrived, Bren production had increased and most of the B.A.R.’s went to the Home Guard.  By late 1942, most units in the desert had been supplied with Brens.  Since the Bren was more reliable under desert conditions than most other machine guns, this gave the British an advantage.

Upon adoption, the Bren had been intended as a multiple-use weapon in order to replace both the Lewis light machine gun and the Vickers water-cooled gun.  A tripod was produced so that the Bren could be used in the sustained-fire role.  By adding an extra leg, the tripod could be reconfigured to use the Bren as an anti-aircraft (A.A.) weapon; if anything happened to the tripod extension, an S.M.L.E. rifle could be substituted.  A special A.A. sight could be clipped on the barrel, and an A.A. drum magazine was developed that could hold 100 rounds.

HomeGuard Bren 1941

England, 1941.  This photograph shows the Bren L.M.G. with its tripod in the anti-aircraft configuration.  This Mark I still has the rear grip.  Also note the steel box of magazines.

The Bren was also mounted on vehicles.  A brass-catching device, essentially a heavy canvas bag with steel mount, could be inserted into the ejection port.  Every vehicle with a Bren was supposed to be issued with the brass-catcher, but this did not always happen; crews of Dingo armored cars in particular were subject to having hot brass dumped on them.

Unfortunately, the Bren was not particularly successful as a multi-purpose gun.  Its slow rate of fire and magazine feed were not terribly effective for either the sustained fire role or as an anti-aircraft weapon.  The magazine feed was fine in open-topped vehicles, but very awkward in the cramped confines of a tank.  Eventually, the belt-fed Besa machine gun was adopted for use on tanks, and the old water-cooled Vickers gun was brought back into use for sustained fire in fixed positions.  The Bren was also replaced by dedicated anti-aircraft guns, including the 20mm Polsten and Oerlikon guns and the 40mm Bofors gun.

As an infantry weapon, however, the Bren was outstanding.  One Bren gun was issued to every eight-man section; its simple design made it easy to use.  While each section had a dedicated Bren gunner who was authorized to wear a specialist’s badge (either “LMG” or “BG”), all troops were trained on its use so they could take over in time of need.  The magazine feed meant that the ammunition was easily distributed throughout the section.  The Bren fired the same .303 round as the Lee-Enfield rifles; during lulls in the fighting, the riflemen would reload empty magazines from their bandoliers.

The Bren was extremely robust.  Its reliability was one of the main reasons it had been adopted, and the troops were very fond of it for that reason.  This reliability was helped by the sliding dust-covers over both the magazine well and the ejection port, designed to keep dirt and debris out of the mechanism.  Additionally, the gas system was adjustable; as cordite residue built up in the gun, a larger aperture in the gas regulator could be selected which would allow more gas to cycle through and work the action.

The Bren was also very accurate; in fact it was almost too accurate, and experienced gunners preferred using worn barrels to give a wider cone of suppressing fire.  The top-mounted magazine required that the sights be offset by about a half-inch; this was not enough to have an appreciable impact on accuracy, especially at longer ranges.    The Bren used an aperture rear sight and post front sight.  Mounted on the tripod, the Bren’s effective range was around 2000 yards; on just the integral bipod, it was effective to over 600 yards.

The standard magazine had been intended to hold 30 rounds; however, this tended to over-compress the spring and cause feeding issues, so standard practice was to load 28 rounds.  The magazine’s distinctive curved shape was required to accommodate rimmed .303 ammunition.  Care had to be taken when loading the magazines to avoid overlapping the rims; most stoppages were caused by poorly-filled magazines, not by any mechanical issues with the gun itself.  During trials, it was noted that the top-mounted magazine was faster and easier to change than guns with bottom-mounted magazines, particularly the B.A.R.  Additionally, the B.A.R.’s magazine only held 20 rounds, as a larger capacity would impede the use of low cover.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Bren was the ability to change its barrel quickly; no tools were needed for this process.  The magazine had to be removed and the magazine well’s dust cover closed.  Raising the barrel nut unlocked the barrel, which was then lifted away by the carry handle; the spare was then installed and the barrel nut pressed back down.  The barrel was changed after every 10 magazines during automatic fire, and a well-trained crew could do it in eight seconds.  The barrel’s muzzle spread out in a conical shape as a rudimentary flash hider; the cone allowed expanding gas to dissipate more quickly than a straight muzzle.

CleaningBren Normany1944

Normandy, 1944.  A Bren gunner has removed the barrel for cleaning.

The theoretical rate of fire was around 500 rounds per minute, but of course with magazine changes, the actual rate of fire was much lower, around 120 rounds per minute.  Bren gunners were trained to fire 4-5 round bursts in suppressing fire or in engaging an exposed enemy.  In the defense, gunners were taught to fire single rounds at suspected targets, not only to conserve ammunition, but also to try to disguise the nature of the gun and avoid becoming the enemy’s primary target.

The Germans used belt-fed air-cooled machine guns, namely the MG-34 and its successor, the MG-42.  These guns, particularly the MG-42, were noted for their high rate of fire.  They were extremely effective psychological weapons; troops confronted by these guns were terrified by the sound and easily suppressed.  But this rate of fire came at a cost.  The Germans went through a staggering amount of ammunition, all of which had to be carried by the infantrymen.  It generally took longer to reload a belt-fed gun than one that was magazine-fed.  The German guns also overheated much faster, and it was not as easy to change out their barrels; a thick felt pad was used to protect the soldiers’ hands while handling the hot barrel.  The Germans encountered times when the spare barrel needed to be changed before the original had sufficiently cooled.

The Bren could be operated by a single soldier, but was more effective when crewed by a gunner and an assistant (The Bren Number 1 and Bren Number 2).  The Number 1 carried the gun, three magazines (one in the gun, two in webbing pouches), and the spare parts wallet.  The Number 2 carried six magazines, two in his regular webbing equipment, and four in supplemental pouches.  He also carried the spare barrel in its dedicated webbing holdall.  Typically, both magazine changes and barrel changes were done by the Number 2.

All infantry tactics revolved around the Bren gun, as it was the section’s primary fire-producer.  Defensively, the Bren was put at the section’s flank in order to engage the attacking enemy with defilade fire.  While the rest of the section dug straight 2-man slit trenches, the Bren was placed at the apex of an angled trench, which gave better access for the Number 2 to change magazines and barrels.

In the attack, the section would break into two groups:  the Bren group consisted of the assistant section leader, the Bren Number 1 and Number 2; the section leader and the riflemen were the assault group.  The groups would then engage in fire-and-movement, one group providing covering fire while the other group advanced.  The goal was to get the Bren into a good position to engage the enemy and either destroy them or suppress them so the assault group could take the position.

The Bren was also an integral part of anti-tank tactics.  While the .303 round would not penetrate a tank’s armor, it could force the tank commander and any other crew to stay inside the turret, reducing their visibility and effectiveness.  Bren gunners were also taught to fire at a tank’s viewing ports and prisms; if this was not possible, they were to engage any supporting infantry.  All of these tactics made it easier for an anti-tank team to move up on the vehicle’s flank with a Boyes anti-tank rifle or a PIAT (projector, infantry, anti-tank).

The Bren had an attached bipod, which could be folded up when mounted on a vehicle or tripod, or to allow the gunner to get into deeper cover.  It also had a sling; the gun could be carried with the sling over the shoulder taking most of the weight, and the left hand steadying the gun.  This way, the gun could be fired from the hip while on the move.  The carry handle could be rotated into the “assault position”, although it was more common to hold the gun under the folded-up bipod when firing from the hip.

The first Bren gun, the Mark I, had a wooden rear grip, very much like the carry handle, but mounted under the buttstock.  Bren gunners were trained to grasp the pistol grip with the right hand and the rear grip with the left; no allowance was made for firing the gun left-handed.  While there was little recoil because of the mass of the gun, it still needed to be stabilized during firing.  However, it was soon found that the rear grip did not provide enough stability and troops were instead taught to grasp the wrist of the stock, that is, the narrowest part.  This method provided the stability needed.  The rear grip was then eliminated in future versions of the Bren, and even removed from existing guns.

The Mark I had a dovetail slot cut into the receiver, or body, to accept an optical sight, intended for use when firing from the tripod in fixed positions.  However, very few of the optical sights were issued; in fact, many of the sights were mounted on rifles and issued to snipers.  The Mark I* receiver eliminated the dovetail.

The Mark I had an elevating wheel for its backsight, adjustable bipod legs, and the charging handle could be folded flat against the receiver after the gun had been cocked.  The Mark II had a simpler leaf-type backsight, non-adjusting bipod legs, and a simpler, non-folding charging handle; it also had a simpler carry handle.  These modifications were intended to increase manufacturing production, and it was estimated that the Mk II was nearly 25% more efficient to build than the Mk I.  Towards the end of the war, the Mark III and Mark IV were approved for production; these Brens had shorter barrels than the earlier designs, and were intended for use by the Airborne forces, or in the jungle.  However, the Marks III and IV came out too late to see much wartime service.

burma 1945

Troops on the march in Burma, 1945.  Note the Bren gunner with the weapon resting on his shoulder.

Originally, Bren gunners were trained to carry the gun by the carry handle.  However, “light machine gun” was a comparative term; it was only light compared to water-cooled machine guns.  The Bren Mark I weighed 23 pounds unloaded, well over double the Lee-Enfield rifle, and the Bren Mark II weighed slightly more.  Each full magazine weighed just short of three pounds.  When not in direct contact with the enemy, Bren gunners tended to march with the gun balanced on the shoulder, with a hand on the barrel to steady the gun.

The Bren was used throughout the British Empire.  Not only was it made at R.S.A.F. Enfield in England, it was also made by the John Inglis Company in Canada and the Lithgow arms factory in Australia.  The Indian Army began the war with the similar-appearing Vickers-Berthier; however, the gun was not sufficiently robust, and India adopted the Bren in 1942 and built them at the Ishapore factory.

RM Falklands

Royal Marines occupy a barn during the Falklands campaign, 1982.  The L4 L.M.G., in 7.62mm, faces the camera.

The Bren continued service after World War II; its reliability was again needed from the bitter cold of Korea to the jungles of Malaya.  When Britain adopted the NATO-standard 7.62mm cartridge in the late 1950’s, the Bren gun was converted to the new round and redesignated as the L4 L.M.G.  While new barrels and magazines were made, existing guns were rechambered to 7.62mm.  The new magazines were straight, not curved, and the muzzle cone was replaced with a “birdcage”-style flash hider.  If needed, the L4 was able to use the same magazine as the L1A1 self-loading rifle.  The L4 served nearly to the end of the 20th Century; its last use was in the 1991 Gulf War.


Small Arms Training, Volume I, Pamphlet No. 4:  Light Machine Gun (1939)
Reprinted with Amendments, 1942
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Infantry Training – Volume I:  Infantry Platoon Weapons
Pamphlet No. 6:  Light Machine Gun and Section Handling (1955)
Her Majesty’s Stationary Office

Barlow, J. A., Lt. Colonel
Johnson, R. E. W., Major
Small Arms Manual
Wyman & Sons, Ltd., for John Murray, 1942

Grant, Neil
The Bren Gun
Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2013

Skennerton, Ian
.303-in. Bren Light Machine Gun
Ian Skennerton Publishing, 1994

Weeks, John
World War II Small Arms
Chartwell Books, Inc.

Gulf War

The last use of the classic British L.M.G.  This young soldier mans his L4 in the Persian Gulf in 1990, during the build-up to the liberation of Kuwait.

The Regimental System in the British Army

Much of why I enjoy writing about the British Army is because it has such a colorful history, and is steeped in tradition.  One of the most fascinating and distinguishing characteristics of the British Army is the Regimental System.  Some consider this system obsolete, and it has certainly faced challenges in recent years.  Nevertheless it is the primary source of the Army’s esprit de corps, ceremonial color, and connection to the past.

Great Britain is a much more regionalist country than the United States.  The United Kingdom contains within its borders an astonishing variety of accents, cultures, and traditions.  Historically, the infantry regiments were based geographically.  English regiments were based on the traditional counties, while Scottish regiments were based on the ancient clans, again with designated recruiting areas.  Soldiers in the same regiment were all from the same part of the country, with common backgrounds and experiences.  This has typically made it easy for soldiers within the same regiment to bond with each other.

Carlisle 2

Victorian memorial window to the Border Regiment at Carlisle Cathedral.  Before amalgamation, the Border Regiment was the traditional infantry unit of Cumberland (now Cumbria).  Photo by the author’s spouse.

While it is common for officers to change units, it is rare for British enlisted soldiers to transfer regiments.  In the days of muskets and sabers, soldiers enlisted for life.  Therefore, once a man became a soldier, he served with the same men until killed or invalided out of the Army.  The same group of soldiers lived, worked, fought, and died side-by-side for decades.

The Royal Navy has always been popular with the British populace, but this was not true for the Army.  Historically, officers came from the aristocracy, but the enlisted men (the “other ranks”) came from the dregs of society.  Recruiting sergeants enticed the desperate poor with stories of excitement and plunder; magistrates would often offer Army service as an alternative to prison.  The Duke of Wellington believed that strict discipline was essential to prevent the common soldiery from descending into a lawless mob.  British society therefore distrusted and disliked soldiers, at least until the 20th Century and its massive conscript efforts during the World Wars.  Soldiers therefore learned to turn to each other for friendship and comfort.  One cannot really understand Kipling’s “Tommy” without this background.

These factors combined to make a soldier’s regiment very like his family.  Brigades and divisions are fighting formations, but it is the regiment which gives a soldier his pride.

The regiments were originally numbered, in order of their founding.  Most regiments took on an unofficial name, normally for the county where they were based, but sometimes for another distinguishing characteristic.  During the middle of the 18th Century, many regiments were known for their commanding officer.  For example, both the 3rd and 19th Regiments were commanded by colonels named Howard; to distinguish between them, the 3rd became known as The Buff Howards, and the 19th were the Green Howards, taken from the facing colors on their jackets.  In the late Victorian period, the numbers were abandoned and the names were formalized; the Green Howards kept their name, and the 3rd became the Royal East Kent Regiment (“The Buffs”).  The 42nd was always known as The Black Watch, possibly for the dark colors of its tartan, but other theories exist as well.

Buffs Drums

Regimental drums of the Royal East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) on display at the Canterbury City Museum.  Photo by the author.

The traditional regiments commemorated their great victories, and each celebrated its own unique Regimental Anniversary, based either on its founding or its most famous battle.  Battle Honours* were granted to the regiments involved in the campaign, and were emblazoned on each regiment’s Colours*, or flags, as well as on the bandsmen’s drums.  The Colours were carried into battle; when they inevitably became too damaged for continued use, they would be retired to a church or cathedral close to the regimental headquarters, and the Monarch would issue new Colours.  New recruits were taught the importance of their regiment’s history and past glories, and were instilled with a sense of duty to carry on its honor and traditions.

Wiltshire Colors Salisbury

Retired Colours of the Wiltshire Regiment that have been laid up at Salisbury Cathedral.  The oldest are merely scraps that have been preserved and attached to a mesh background.  Photo by the author.

Each regiment had its own unique items of dress, many of which changed very little over the centuries.  Perhaps the most obvious symbol is each regiment’s distinctive cap badge, but there were other unique items, as well.  The Gloucestershire Regiment wore a secondary badge on the back of their headgear in memory of when their forebears fought back-to-back at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

Border Badge

The cap badge of the Border Regiment.

In the early days, most regiments only contained one battalion, and the terms could be used almost interchangeably.  As the Army evolved and the British Empire expanded, it became common for each regiment to have two battalions; one would serve overseas, while the other remained in Britain to recruit and train.  This system was formalized during the Victorian period.  During the massive conscription efforts of the two World Wars, most regiments grew as large as ten or more battalions.  With much of the Empire lost during the 1940’s and 50’s, there was much less need for the overseas garrisons that had once been the Army’s primary function.  Britain’s military focus turned to its commitment to NATO, and the country’s economic situation after the World Wars required spending cutbacks.  The government significantly reduced the size of the Army, and as a direct result, began consolidating many of the traditional regiments.

Today, the Army is at its smallest size, with the fewest regiments in its history.  The five regiments of Foot Guards remain and still perform their famous ceremonial duties and official function as the Monarch’s bodyguard.  Despite the common misconception, they are battle-ready soldiers who rotate their duties; when not in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats, they wear modern camouflage and equipment, and are often amongst the first units chosen for combat overseas.

Gren Guard London

A young Guardsman of the Grenadier Guards.  Most tourists mistakenly think of the Guards as “toy soldiers” who only perform ceremonial functions, yet the Grenadiers have recently seen combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

Today’s regiments do their best to maintain the traditions of their forbears.  The Royal Regiment of Scotland has four regular battalions, two battalions of reservists, and one company dedicated to ceremonial duties.  The regular battalions retained the names of some of the earlier regiments that were amalgamated into the new formation, including the Black Watch and the Royal Highland Fusiliers.  The Highlanders, the new unit’s 4th Battalion, represents the Seaforths, Gordons, and Camerons.  Another example is The Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, named in honor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.  The regiment represents the entire southeast of England; their cap badge incorporates a dragon to represent The Buffs, a heraldic rose to represent The Hampshire Regiment, and ostrich plumes in honor of the Princess.


Cap badge of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment

New regiments were created during World War II, such as the Parachute Regiment and the Special Air Service.  While they have not had the centuries of tradition to fall back on, they were quick to adopt their own traditions and “tribal” items.  A very famous example is the maroon beret of the Airborne Forces.  Most modern regiments have several types of headgear, depending on the level of dress:  a khaki beret for the field, a peaked cap for Number 2 Dress (similar to the old service dress), and a type of headgear for full dress dating to Victorian or even Regency times, such as a fur busby or a polished-steel helmet.  By contrast, the men of the Parachute Regiment only wear their distinctive maroon berets.  Even though historians often think of the Parachute Regiment as a newer unit, because of all the consolidations, it is now the oldest unamalgamated regiment in the British Army.

*While I normally write with American spellings, these terms seem more appropriate in British English.


Brander, Michael
The Scottish Highlanders and their Regiments
First published 1971, reprinted by Barnes & Noble, 1996

Chandler, David, editor
Beckett, Ian, associate editor
The Oxford History of the British Army
Oxford University Press, 1996

Hallows, Ian S.
Regiments and Corps of the British Army
Arms and Armour Press, 1991, reprinted by Cassell, 1994

The website of the British Army

Bully and Biscuits: British Rations

Since starting my blog, one of my most popular articles has been the entry on tea.  However, I have had it pointed out that I described tea being issued with various forms of rations, without explaining what those terms meant.  This article will hopefully provide background for the tea article, as well as useful information on its own.

Whenever possible, British troops were fed hot, fresh food.  In Army camps and garrisons, meals were prepared in cookhouses.  Depending on the camp, meals could be consumed in large dining halls or tents, but they were also often taken back to the barracks, where each section room had its own table and benches.  On operations, field kitchens were established as soon as it was deemed safe to do so; hot, fresh meals were considered essential both for nutrition and morale.  However, troops at the front line, or on the move, had to rely on various forms of preserved foods.  These rations were simple and monotonous at the outbreak of World War II, but became increasingly varied and sophisticated as the war progressed.

The rations issued to British soldiers in the early part of World War II were nearly identical to those issued during World War I.  The mainstays were “bully beef”, “M & V”, biscuits, and tea, sometimes supplemented with chocolate.

Bully Beef

Bully beef was tinned corned beef with a small amount of gelatin.  Officially named “preserved meat”, the more common term of “bully beef” was derived from the French boef bouilli (boiled beef).  It is one of the oldest forms of canned food, and has been issued to British troops since the Anglo-Boer War.   Most bully beef was (and still is) made in South America; during both World Wars, Fray Bentos brand from Uruguay was the most common.

Fray Bentos Tin 1944 IWM

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

M & V

During World War I, the Maconochie Brothers company developed a tinned meat and vegetable stew, known by the troops as “M & V”.  It could be eaten cold, but was much more palatable when hot.  Upon introduction, it provided a welcome break from bully beef, but eventually became just as ubiquitous and monotonous.


Service biscuits were unsalted, hard, and dry, and were descended from the ships’ biscuits and hard tack that military forces had used for centuries.  Kept in a sealed tin, they lasted for a very long time.  They had little flavor, and were often called “tooth dullers”; many soldiers had to soak their biscuits in water or tea in order to chew them.


The British generally prefer their tea with milk and sugar, but this was impractical under field conditions.  However, tins of sweetened condensed milk were issued for use in tea.  The tea itself was simply black and loose-leaf; while cookhouses and field kitchens put the tea leaves in muslin sacks for brewing in large quantities, troops on the front line had to improvise ways of straining out the leaves.


As the war progressed, various forms of chocolate were often issued.  Chocolate rations were not very sweet, and rarely made with milk, both because of shortages and to reduce the possibility of melting.  Chocolate was high in calories, and was often fortified with vitamins; while not as enjoyable as pre-war civilian chocolate, it was lightweight, compact, and did not require any preparation.

The above items were the staples at the outbreak of war; while later rations became more sophisticated, they were still often based on the above.

Haversack Ration

The haversack ration was typically issued for field exercises in England, and consisted of a simple sandwich of meat or cheese with thickly-cut bread with butter or margarine; sometimes a meat pie or pasty would be given instead.  This was often accompanied by a slice of fruitcake or an apple.  Sometimes the haversack ration was used as an embarkation ration; for example, while assault troops were served a hot meal from the galley of a troopship, airborne soldiers would typically be given pasties or sandwiches to eat in the air.

The term “haversack ration” could also be applied to the simplest form of field ration, a tin of bully beef and a packet of biscuits.

24-Hour Ration

The 24-Hour Ration was also called the Landing or Assault Ration.  It consisted of a cardboard box that could fit inside the larger half of a mess tin; the box was treated with wax to make it resistant to both weather and gas attack.  The contents were intended to provide enough calories for a day in a compact package, including what was called a “meat block”, a compressed piece of dehydrated meat; unlike modern jerky, the meat block was intended to be broken up into hot water before consuming.  A similar item was the “oatmeal block”, which was also supposed to be broken up and boiled in water; it was very dense, and eating it on its own tended to cause stomach upset.  Packets of dehydrated tea, including sugar and powdered milk, were included.  The 24-Hour Ration also came with a small packet of biscuits, chocolate, boiled sweets*, salt, and a few sheets of latrine paper.

Two of the 24-Hour Ration packs were typically issued at the beginning of an operation, along with a small, folding solid-fuel stove known universally as a “Tommy Cooker”.  After the first forty-eight hours of the operation, it was hoped that standard ration supply would be possible, based on the Composite Ration.

Composite Ration (“Compo”)

The Composite Ration, universally known as “compo”, was intended as the primary method of provisioning troops in the field until a beachhead was secure enough to set up field kitchens.  Compo came in a wooden crate and was supposed to be enough food for 14 men for a 24-hour period.  The Composite Ration was specifically intended to provide much greater variety to the troops’ diet than had been previously possible.  There were several different versions, labeled Type A through Type G (with biscuits) and Types 1, 2 and 3 (without biscuits).  Types A through G were more common.  When field kitchens were set up, their first priority was baking fresh bread, the rest of the food coming from Compo Types 1 through 3.

Type F came with 12 tins of “preserved meat” (the inevitable bully beef).  The other types came with 10 to 14 tins of “meatstuff”, which could be any of the following:  steak and kidney pudding; steak and kidney; Irish stew; stewed steak; haricot and oxtail; meat and vegetables; or pork and vegetables.

All compo crates came with tins of the same instant tea as the 24-Hour Ration.  They also came with chocolate, boiled sweets, salt, margarine, soap, latrine paper, and cigarettes.  The variable items included:  sausages, bacon, “luncheon meat” (presumably something similar to American “Spam”), baked beans, sardines, fruit, vegetables, condensed soup, salmon, jam, cheese, and sweet puddings.

Compo was first issued to British 1st Army in North Africa, and became the standard as the war progressed.

Compo Crate Stack

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

Mess Tin Ration

This was not a specific item, but more of an improvised version of a haversack ration or 24-Hour Ration.  Several of the smaller tins typically found in a Compo crate would be distributed individually and kept in the mess tin inside the small pack.

Emergency Ration

The emergency ration was an item of last resort and was only to be consumed when no other food was available.  It consisted of a small, sealed tin containing an extremely dense slab of vitamin-enriched chocolate.  The tin was embossed with a warning that it was only to be used on orders from an officer.

I have read a personal account in which the author described eating an “emergency ration” on the Normandy beaches that included a meat block and oatmeal block; I have not found any confirmation of this version, and I suspect he was actually describing the 24-Hour Ration.  There were also tins of Horlicks malted milk tablets used by troops as a high-calorie emergency food.

Ration Tins

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

Other Rations

Many of the ration items developed for Northern Europe were found unsuitable for use in India and Burma.  The Pacific 24-Hour Ration contained small tins of meat, cheese, and jam; while the tins added weight, they provided greater weatherproofing to the contents than was possible with the standard 24-Hour Ration.  There were also times when British troops in Burma were issued the American “K Ration”.  Specific rations also had to be developed for Indian troops, with their various religious-based dietary restrictions.

There were other ration packs designed for specific troops or circumstances, including the Mountain (Arctic) Pack, and three different sizes of A.F.V. (armored fighting vehicle) Ration Pack, available in 2-man, 3-man, and 5-man versions.


The intent was for tinned rations and other preserved foods to be used as minimally as possible, but they were often the mainstay.  In North Africa, the extreme temperatures made it difficult to store fresh food; additionally, much of the desert war was fluid, involving long drives and little opportunity for field kitchens to be established.  In Europe, the field kitchens were supposed to be set up just a few days after D-Day, but because of the enemy’s frequent counter-attacks, it took weeks for the beachheads to be secure enough.  Long usage of tinned rations required either lime juice or vitamin C tablets to be issued to counter scurvy.

Rations were typically heated at the section level, using portable petrol stoves.  While the ration items were supposed to be palatable on their own, the designers fully expected troops to experiment with ways of combining the different items and providing their own seasoning.

My thanks to my online friends who provided clarification on the 24-Hour Ration and Pacific 24-Hour Ration packs.

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

Additional Information

For additional information and reenacting tips on rations, please see these articles:

Tommy’s Tea: The Significance of the Brew Up

Boiled Sweets and Airborne Rations

“By Order of an Officer”: The Emergency Ration Tin

Reenacting Tip: The British 24-Hour Ration


War (No. 60):  Thought For Food
Army Bureau of Current Affairs
December 25, 1943

Bouchery, Jean
The British Soldier: From D-Day to V-E Day
Volume 1:  Uniforms, Insignia, Equipment
Histoire & Collections

Clayton, Anthony
Battlefield Rations: The Food Given to the British Soldier for Marching and Fighting 1900 – 2011
Helion & Company, Ltd., 2013

Forty, George
British Army Handbook, 1939 – 1945
Sutton Publishing, 1998

Robertshaw, Andrew
Frontline Cookbook: Battlefield Recipes from the Second World War
The History Press, 2012

The Rifle Section: Backbone of the British Infantry

The rifle section, often simply called the section, is the backbone of the British infantry.  It is the smallest unit that can operate independently.  Traditionally, the section was made up of eight men.  During World War II, the section was increased to ten men; however, eight would still go out operationally, with the other two remaining behind as a reserve.  Six was considered the operational minimum.

Traditionally, there were three sections in a platoon; while a platoon operated together during an assault, most patrols were carried out at the section level.  The term “squad” was used more generically; any group of three or more soldiers could comprise a squad, and it was normally formed ad hoc.

Rifle Section 1944

A typical infantry section in Normandy, 1944.  The section’s Bren gun is not visible in this photo; the man next to the tree is likely the Bren gunner.  The man at bottom right appears to be wearing a dispatch rider’s helmet, and is probably from company headquarters.

A corporal was typically designated as the section leader, with a lance corporal as assistant section leader; the remainder of the section was made up of private soldiers.

The section did everything together.  They slept in the same barrack-room, and were responsible for keeping it clean; they ate their meals together; most importantly, they trained together.  Officers and NCO’s often turned training activities into competitions between the three different sections within a platoon.  Occasionally, the entire section would be punished for the misdeeds of one man.  All these activities were designed to foster teamwork and cooperation within the section; by the time the section went into combat, it was second-nature for its members to work together and depend on each other.

The section formed strong bonds and saw itself like a family.  There may have been individuals who did not necessarily like each other, but they still trusted and depended on each other.  The downside of this approach is that the inevitable casualties took an enormous emotional toll.  If a section took enough casualties, it was sometimes better to break up the section and use its men as replacements, rather than trying to fill the voids.  It was also difficult for replacement troops to fit into an established section.

In combat, the section leader carried a machine carbine, either a Thompson or Sten, depending on theater and time period.  The section leader also typically carried a set of wire cutters, and the assistant section leader would carry a machete.

One Bren light machine gun was issued per section.  While the Bren could be operated by one man, it was more effective when worked by a team.  The Bren Number 1 was the gunner.  He was assisted by the Bren Number 2, who carried the spare barrel and the bulk of the magazines; like most of the section, the Number 2 was armed with a Lee-Enfield rifle.  Since the Bren was magazine-fed rather than belt-fed, every member of the section was able to help carry ammunition.  Every man carried two magazines, except the Bren Number 2, who carried six:  two in his standard pouches, plus another four in a set of supplemental pouches.  The assistant section leader was responsible for choosing the best firing position for the Bren, and used the machete to clear brush when needed.  He would pick targets for the Bren and observe the effectiveness of its fire.  The Number 2 would change the gun’s magazines, and also change the barrel to avoid damage from overheating.

Section Patrol

A section advances through a village in Normandy, 1944.  The corporal, armed with a Sten carbine, leads his section.  The man directly behind him is the Bren Number 2, as evidenced by the supplemental pouches full of Bren magazines.

The training manual “Infantry Section Leading (1938)” described different formations that the section leader could choose depending on the terrain:  single file, file (a rather compressed double column), arrowhead, or extended line (line abreast).  While these formations gave the section leader good control over his men, they allowed little flexibility.  Wartime experience led to changes implemented in the later manual, “Infantry Training:  Fieldcraft, Battle Drill, Section and Platoon Tactics (1944)”.  While the single file and extended line were retained, the newer manual also included the loose file and irregular arrowhead, based on the earlier formations but applied less rigidly.  The 1944 manual also introduced “blobs” as a section formation, each blob containing two to four men.  Blobs were the easiest formation to adapt to broken ground, and were also the most difficult to spot by aerial observation.

The section would patrol as one unit, but would break into two groups upon encountering the enemy.  The Bren group consisted of the assistant section leader and the Bren Number 1 and Number 2, as described above.  The rest of the section, that is, the section leader and the riflemen, comprised the rifle group, sometimes called the assault group.  Even when broken into two groups, it was still the same section; the assistant section leader did not have independent command and was not authorized beyond fulfilling the instructions set down by the section leader.  The two groups operated in support and conjunction with each other, never on their own.  Breaking into groups made “fire and maneuver” tactics more effective; while one group was moving, the other group was on the ground, providing covering fire.  In this way, the two groups could move in alternating bounds.  The training manuals of the time used the description “keeping one foot on the ground” for this system of alternating movement and fire.  The goal was to get the Bren group into an advantageous position to provide effective fire, preferably from the enemy’s flank.  Once the enemy was suppressed, the rifle group would charge the enemy, firing from the hip on the move.  Whenever possible, the rifle group would throw a grenade or two once close enough, but the final assault was made with the bayonet.  When the rifle group was close enough to the enemy that the Bren could no longer safely provide supporting fire, the Bren group would reposition to either engage any enemy attempting to escape, or to prevent reinforcements from arriving.


The rifle section in the attack, showing typical “fire and maneuver” tactics.  Diagram copied from “Infantry Training:  Fieldcraft, Battle Drill, Section and Platoon Tactics (1944)”.  “FUP” is “forming up point”, and “SL” is “start line”.

Some wartime training manuals described different members of the section as having specialized roles, such as a marksman or a “bomber” (grenadier).  However, the more common manuals did not include these descriptions, and most infantry battalions preferred their soldiers to be generalists, trained on all of the sections’ weapons.  This provided greater flexibility and faster recovery from the inevitable casualties; for example, if the Bren gunner was wounded, another man would take over the gun.

There were occasional variations to the section structure as described above.  It was not uncommon for the section leader to become a casualty, and the assistant would become the acting section leader.  Should the assistant also become incapacitated, one of the “old sweats”, or experienced privates, would end up as acting section leader, typically on orders from the platoon sergeant, but sometimes on his own initiative.  In many of the Airborne units, the section leader was a sergeant instead of a corporal, as it was felt greater experience was needed in airborne operations.

1 Para Bn Arnhem

Troops from 1st Parachute Battalion fighting near Arnhem, September 1944.  The Bren LMG can be seen at left.  The corporal is armed with a rifle; he is most likely the assistant section leader, as the Airborne typically used sergeants as section leaders.

There were also times when some of the riflemen replaced their rifles with Sten carbines, when it was known that close combat was likely, such as operations in towns, or in the Normandy hedgerows.  Late in the war, some sections became equipped with two Brens, as LMG’s previously allocated for other purposes became available to the infantry.

After World War II, the British Army returned to an eight-man section, and retained the same basic section structure.  The Lee-Enfield rifles were replaced with the Self-Loading Rifle L1A1, and the Bren was modified from the old .303-inch chambering to 7.62 x 51mm NATO; but the basic rifle group and light machine gun group remained.  The Bren was eventually phased out and replaced with the belt-fed general purpose machine gun.  Today’s British soldiers are armed with a greater variety of weapons, primarily from the SA80 family; the section now breaks into four-man “fire teams”.  But the old concepts of working, training, living and fighting together as a section still remain.

For more information on some of the weapons referenced in this article, please see some of my earlier posts:

The Sten Machine Carbine: The Gun that Almost Never Was

The Lee-Enfield Rifles in the 20th Century


Infantry Training: Training and War (1937)
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Infantry Section Leading (1938)
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Infantry Training: Fieldcraft, Battle Drill, Section and Platoon Tactics (1944)
His Majesty’s Stationary Office

Bull, Stephen, and Chappell, Mike
Infantry Tactics of the Second World War
Osprey Publishing, 2008
Originally published in three volumes:
World War II Infantry Tactics: Squad and Platoon
World War II Infantry Tactics: Company and Battalion
World War II Infantry Anti-Tank Tactics

Fraser, George MacDonald
Quartered Safe Out Here
First published by Harvill, 1993, republished by Harper Collins, 2000