British 1st Airborne Division: The Scottish Connection

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

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

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

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

220px-john_frost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urquhart & Mackenzie

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

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

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

Capt Ogilvie GPR

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

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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 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”.

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.  Volunteers of the Home Guard train on the Bren in the anti-aircraft configuration.  This Mark I still has the rear grip.

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.

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.

tigers

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.

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.

Biscuits

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.

Tea

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.

Chocolate

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.

Conclusion

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.

Please also see Tommy’s Tea: The Significance of the Brew Up

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

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

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

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

Thers is the Glory Map

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

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

Maj Freddie Gough in Theirs is the Glory_0

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

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

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

hqdefault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theirs is the Glory: UK DVD through Amazon

Best of British War Cinema: US/Canada DVD set

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

Theirs is the Glory UK DVD

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

Theirs is the Glory Book

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

Boots, Boots, Boots: A Living History Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

GrenGuards 1944

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

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

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

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

Fus Tom Payne Front

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Sten Machine Carbine: The Gun that Almost Never Was

This article was originally written for “The Front”, the newsletter of the California Historical Group, and is reprinted here by permission of the editors.

One of the most mass-produced and widely-used firearms of the Second World War was the British Sten Machine Carbine. Ironically, it was almost never created, and only came about in direct response to enemy action.

Towards the end of the First World War, new weapons and tactics were developed in an attempt to break the stalemate of the Western Front’s trench warfare. One of the new concepts was a “trench sweeper”, a light, compact gun capable of automatic fire; pistol-caliber ammunition was used to reduce the weight and bulk of the weapon.  While several nations experimented with such guns, the first to be successful was Germany, with the Maschinenpistole (MP) 18, chambered for the same ammunition as the 9mm Luger.  This weapon was issued to specially-trained Sturmtruppen (“assault troops”) who were intended to infiltrate into enemy trenches and cause as much havoc as possible.

Interest in this new class of weapon continued in the 1920’s and 30’s. In the United States, General John Thompson designed his famous .45 caliber weapon in 1921, with improvements made in 1928.  Unfortunately, the “Tommy Gun” was soon associated with the gangland violence of the American Prohibition era.

Arnhem 1944 2 Para with Mk V

Battle of Arnhem, September 1944.  British Paratroopers with a German prisoner; three of the men carry the Sten Mark V.

Thompson was the first to coin the term “submachine gun” to describe not only his weapon, but the entire class of pistol-caliber automatic firearms; this term is commonly used today. Many countries developed their own submachine guns, such as the Finnish Suomi, although the Europeans tended to continue calling them machine pistols.  The Germans made improvements on the MP 18, which became the MP 28.  The British used the term “machine carbine” for the new weapons – but the military establishment had no interest in them whatsoever.

The British conducted trials on the Thompson, Suomi, and many others. Detailed test results were carefully written and submitted to the War Office for evaluation.  However, these reports were dismissed over concerns for the short effective range – completely ignoring the fact these were specifically intended as short-range weapons.  The War Office wrote that proper soldiers should be equipped with proper rifles, and reiterated the expectation that a British soldier should be able to hit a target at 600 yards, while machine carbines were only effective to around 100 yards.  The War Office concluded that the British Army was not interested in “gangster guns”.

In September 1939, Germany shocked the world, not only with its invasion of Poland, but also with the Blitzkrieg tactics used in doing so.  Many German troops carried the MP 38, the first submachine gun with a folding stock.

The United Kingdom responded by declaring war on Germany and sending the British Expeditionary Force to reinforce their allies in France and Belgium. Shortly after arrival, the BEF submitted an urgent request for machine carbines; the War Office acquiesced and ordered 300,000 Thompsons from the United States.

It was hoped that the US, still neutral at this point, would be able to quickly supply the Thompsons. However, it was a slow and complex gun to produce, and expensive as well.  Additionally, the German Navy refused to recognize American neutrality and targeted supply ships bound for the UK; many of the desired Thompsons ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic.

In May, 1940, Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, once again using their Blitzkrieg tactics.  One of the most spectacular components of the Blitzkrieg was the use of airborne troops, particularly in the assault on the massive fortifications at Eben Emael in Belgium.

The BEF was forced to evacuate back to England from the port of Dunkirk, and a number of French soldiers managed to escape with them. Over time, refugees from across occupied Europe made their way to Britain.  In addition to having to prepare for a possible enemy invasion, the British Government determined to arm and equip the foreign armies in exile.  They also decided to encourage and support any resistance organizations that developed on the enemy-controlled European continent.  Unfortunately, Britain’s heavy industry was already operating at maximum capacity.

The War Office finally realized the need for Britain to produce its own version of the machine carbine. Fortunately, some enemy weapons had been captured, and these were carefully studied by the staff at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.  The first British-made machine carbine was the Lanchester, which was just a copy of the German MP 28.  About 80,000 of these were built and issued to the Royal Navy for the defense of port facilities.

The Lanchester was an effective weapon, but like the Thompson, based on old technology and slow to manufacture. The designers at RSAF Enfield were determined to create a new weapon, one that was easier to produce.  They studied captured examples of the MP 38 and quickly found that much of the weapon was made from stamped sheet metal, with only certain components made from machined steel.  This was the inspiration they needed, and they designed the Sten Mark I.  “Sten” was a contraction for Shepherd and Turpin, the primary designers, and Enfield, the Royal Small Arms Factory.  The bolt and barrel were machined, but the bulk of the weapon was made from stampings and pressings, spot-welded in place.  It operated on a simple blowback principle, had a fixed firing pin, and like the Lanchester, the magazine was copied from the MP 28.

The first Sten, the Mark I, began production in January 1941 and was approved for issue to British troops in March. However, that same month, RSAF Enfield received a request from the newly-created Airborne Forces to modify the Sten for their use.  Prime Minister Churchill had called for the creation of the British Airborne, inspired by the enemy’s actions at Eben Emael.  The Sten’s design was revised to accommodate the Airborne, but also to make manufacture even simpler; this was the Sten Mark II.  As the Mark II was introduced so soon after the Mark I, few Mark I’s were issued to the troops.

Early Para with Mk II

British paratrooper, 1942.  Notice the Sten Mark II, with the stock removed, carried under the parachute harness.

The Mark II had a detachable barrel and stock, and the magazine housing could rotate 90 degrees which acted as a dust cover for the ejection port. Early paratroopers jumped with a disassembled Mark II strapped to their chest under the parachute harness.  In the early days of parachuting, rifles had to be dropped in containers; being able to jump with a gun on the person was invaluable.  These design aspects also made the Mark II easier to air drop into occupied Europe, and be concealed by the Resistance units.  As it was chambered in 9mm, it fired the same ammunition as the German MP 38 and the later MP 40, and the magazines were interchangeable, making it easy to use captured enemy supplies.

The Mark II was the most numerous of all the Sten variants, with over 2.5 million made. Most of the components were contracted out to hundreds of vendors, with final assembly performed at the Royal Ordinance Factories at Maltby and Fazakerley.  Traditional gunmakers, such as Birmingham Small Arms and Webley & Scott, made the barrels and bolts.  But the other components, made of simple tubes and stampings, were made across the UK in workshops and garages, as opposed to large factories, allowing light industry to provide valuable help to the war effort.

The Mark III, first issued in 1943, was the simplest of all the Stens. It had even fewer parts and took even less production time than the others, but it also suffered from quality issues.  It therefore never replaced the Mark II.  The Mark III had a fixed barrel and an even more rudimentary front sight than the Mark II.

Tommies and Prisoners Normandy

British troops in Normandy, July 1944, with German prisoners.  The two men at the right carry the Mark III version of the Sten carbine.  Photo courtesy the Imperial War Museum.

By 1944, the potential for Germany to invade Britain was well and truly over, and the Allies were preparing their own invasion of the European mainland. Production efficiency could be relaxed in favor of build quality, and the Mark V Sten was created.  This had a wooden stock, as well as a wooden pistol grip and fore grip, very much like the Thompson.  The foresight assembly was taken from the Number 4 rifle; it also used the same bayonet lugs as the Number 4, allowing the spike bayonet to be fitted.  The entire production run of Mark V’s was issued to the Airborne Forces.  Like the earlier Stens, the stock could be removed, making it easier to jump with the weapon.

The Mark IV and Mark VI never left the prototype phase. However, about 4.5 million Stens of all marks were made.  While most were built in the UK, the Mark II was also built in Canada and New Zealand.  The Sten was issued to British troops and men from across the Commonwealth, as well as the many resistance groups.  Despite popular myth, the British never provided the Sten’s design to the Resistance; however, some of the more enterprising of the partisans were able to reverse engineer the simple design and manufacture components, and sometimes even complete guns.

The Sten’s crude appearance led British troops to call it the “Plumber’s Nightmare”, the “Woolworth Gun” and the “Stench Gun”. However, despite its crudeness, it was effective and easy to learn – so long as care was taken.  It was also lighter and more compact than a rifle, making it ideal for specialist troops such as signalers.

Primary consideration in the Sten’s design was for ease of manufacture; use of the weapon was secondary, and there were issues. The selector switch only had two positions, one for single shots and one for automatic fire; there was not a safety setting or any other safety switch.  Instead, there was a notch for the charging handle intended to keep the bolt from going into battery.  Dropping the weapon or otherwise giving it a strong jolt often allowed the bolt to move enough for the charging handle to leave the safety slot, which often resulted in an accidental discharge or “slam fire”.  The magazine lips were prone to damage, which caused feeding problems; this was exacerbated by holding the side-mounted magazine while firing.  It was intended that the gun be held by the barrel shroud, but care had to be taken not to let the small finger slip into the ejection port and get injured by the movement of the bolt*.  Many Mark III’s had a small tab welded next to the ejection port to prevent this issue.

Partisan with Mk II Paris 1944

The liberation of Paris, August 1944.  A French partisan with a Sten Mk II.

If the Sten was handled carefully, it was an effective weapon at short ranges. British units would often exchange a number of rifles for Stens when close combat was likely, such as in towns or the hedgerow country of Normandy.  While the side-mounted magazine was simply copied from the MP 28, it allowed one to use the Sten in deeper cover than similar weapons with a bottom-mounted magazine.

In many respects, the Sten was the perfect gun for its time. The simplest version, the Mark III, could be manufactured in only six “man hours”, and fifteen could be produced for the cost of one Thompson.  Most of the components were made by small shops, allowing heavy industry to concentrate on other weapons and materiel.  The Sten’s light weight and simplicity made it ideal for supplying to the Partisans.  The fact that 4.5 million were made, and that they were used all over the world, is especially remarkable considering the British military establishment never wanted such a weapon in the first place.

*The author has a deactivated Sten Mark II for public displays. Once, at an air show, a Canadian veteran saw the author’s Sten and proudly showed off his still-mangled little finger.

Sten Display

Author’s deactivated Sten Mk II on display at an air show.   The grenades are also inert.

The Lee-Enfield Rifles in the 20th Century

The Lee-Enfield family of rifles first appeared at the end of the Victorian era, and served the British Forces well into the Cold War. This was a remarkable service length, and these were remarkable firearms.

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Lee-Enfield Rifles.  From top to bottom:  No. 1 Mk III* (Ishapore, India, 1945); No. 1 Mk III* (Lithgow, Australia, 1945); No. 4 Mk I* (Long Branch, Canada, 1943); No. 4 Mk II (Royal Ordnance Factory Fazakerley, England, 1949).  All photos in this article are by the author.

The first rifle to use James Paris Lee’s bolt design was termed the Lee-Metford; it replaced the single-shot Martini-Henry and was the first British service rifle to hold multiple rounds. It was also the first weapon chambered in .303 ammunition, which was first developed using black powder.  The Lee-Metford had an eight-shot magazine, and was soon replaced by the Lee-Enfield Mark I, with a 10-round magazine.  However, the change in name was to indicate a new method of rifling developed at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.  Thus, the Lee-Enfield was born.

With the adoption of smokeless powder (cordite in this case), it was found that a shorter barrel length would still produce the range and accuracy needed. The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (S.M.L.E.) was adopted in 1902.  The term “Short” referred to the overall length of the rifle compared to its predecessors; weapons of a similar length had previously been considered carbines and issued to cavalry.  Improvements were made on the design, including the addition of a charger bridge to aid in loading, resulting in the S.M.L.E. Mark III, adopted in 1907.  This was the rifle that the British Tommy took to Flanders in 1914.  Soldiers often pronounced S.M.L.E. as “Smelly”.

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.303 training ammunition.  Note the lack of primer.  The red-painted indentations make it easy to identify these as inert training rounds by both sight and feel.  These examples are Canadian-marked and dated from the 1920’s.

Prior to the Great War, infantry were expected to withstand cavalry charges with their bayonets. With the adoption of the shorter rifle, it was felt necessary to make up for the reduced reach by extending the length of the bayonet.  The S.M.L.E. Mark III was issued with the 1907 pattern bladed bayonet, sometimes called a “sword bayonet” because of its size.

The S.M.L.E. Mark III also included long-range volley sights and a magazine cut-off. The cut-off was a sliding cover over the magazine; the intent was that the soldier would load and fire individual rounds, saving the ammunition in the magazine for when rapid fire was needed.  In 1916, the cut-off and volley sights were determined superfluous, and these items were deleted from the Mark III* (the asterisk is typically pronounced as “star”).

The S.M.L.E. Mark III and Mark III* were outstanding rifles. The Lee bolt design was faster and smoother to operate than any of its rivals, giving the British soldier a faster rate of fire than his enemies (or his Allies).  The Enfield also had twice the magazine capacity of the other rifles of the period, and its shorter size made it easier to maneuver in the close confines of trench warfare.

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Loading the No. 1 Mk III* with training ammunition.  Note the use of the charger bridge to assist in loading.

British troops were trained in the “mad minute”, to fire and reload as quickly as possible in a 60-second period. The minimum requirement was 15 rounds, with all hitting the target at 300 yards.  Well-trained soldiers could fire 20 – 30 rounds, with the documented record being 36 aimed shots in a minute.  When German troops first encountered the British at the outbreak of the Great War, they believed they were up against machine guns, not infantrymen with rifles.

The S.M.L.E. was slightly less accurate than the enemy Mauser, but it was accurate enough for the battlefield. The British soldier was expected to hit a man-sized target at 600 yards.

After the horrors of the Great War, Britain was reluctant to invest in new weaponry. Several improvements and prototypes were developed in the 1920’s and 30’s, but were not adopted.  However, the naming system was revised in 1926, and the S.M.L.E. was renamed the Number 1 Rifle, with both Mark III and Mark III*’s in service (official abbreviations were No. 1 Mk III and No. 1 Mk III*).  Finally, in 1939, the Number 4 rifle was approved for production.

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No. 1 Mk III* (top) and No. 4 Mk I* (bottom).  The top rifle is the older design; ironically, in this pair it is of newer manufacture – India never produced the No. 4.

The No. 1 rifle had been largely hand-made. The No. 4 Mk I was designed to incorporate new manufacturing methods to make mass-production easier.  It also included a number of improvements.  The bolt was reduced in weight, making it even faster to operate than its predecessor.  The charger bridge was made as part of the receiver, rather than a separate piece, making it stronger.  The sights were also improved.  The No. 1 used a blade front sight and “V-notch” backsight, adjustable for range; it was good for precision shooting, but difficult for rapidly-moving targets.  The No. 4 was given a ring-type backsight which gave much faster target acquisition.  The backsight was of the “flip” type configuration, meaning it could be rotated from a short-range combat sight to a more precise long-range sight; the earlier versions were adjustable.  The new rifle was the same length as its predecessor, and their weights were similar.  Visually, the biggest difference was the short length of exposed barrel on the No. 4, as opposed to the No. 1’s nosecap mounted flush to the muzzle.

The Great War had seen the demise of traditional horse cavalry. Studies of the use of the bayonet between the wars indicated that the long “sword bayonet” was no longer needed.  In an effort to reduce the use of steel and to maximize manufacturing efficiency, the No. 4 Mk I was issued with a simple spike bayonet.  The troops often referred to the new bayonet as a “pig-sticker”.

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Bayonets.  The No. 1 Mk III* fitted with the 1907 pattern “sword bayonet” and the No. 4 Mk I* fitted with the “pig sticker” spike bayonet.

Although officially adopted in time for the outbreak of World War II, the No. 4 Mk I did not see immediate service. It took time for the new rifle to enter production, and the first examples did not reach the troops until 1942.  The British Expeditionary Force that reinforced France and Belgium in 1939 carried the same rifle as their fathers had before them.

Priority of issue for the No. 4 Mk I was for troops on Home Service, initially defending Britain against possible invasion, but then transitioning to the return to occupied Europe. When 21st Army Group arrived in Normandy, they were using the No. 4 rifle exclusively. In contrast, when 8th Army was in North Africa, they continued to soldier on with the old No. 1 rifle, and only received some No. 4’s as replacements late in the war as they fought in Italy.  Similarly, 14th Army in Burma largely fought with the No. 1, with the No. 4 arriving late in the war, but never replacing the older rifle.  Shorter versions of the blade bayonet were made in India for the No. 1 rifle, intended for use in the jungle.

During WWII, the No. 4 Mk I* was authorized with a revised bolt release. A number of minor modifications were also adopted during the course of the war, but not considered significant to renumber the rifle or create a new Mark.  These included simplified sights, barrel bands, and other components, all of which were intended to ease production.

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No. 4 Mk I* with the Mk III backsight configured for long-range firing

After the War, the No. 4 Mk II was adopted; this was essentially the same rifle, but with a different method of attaching the trigger. Additionally, a number of wartime rifles were retrofitted with the new trigger, and were labeled the Number 4 Mark I/II.  Many of these retrofits were also refurbished and provided the original Mark I backsight, the most precise of the different versions.  The wartime spike bayonet was replaced with a proper blade.

The Number 5 rifle was adopted very late in WWII; it was intended for use in the Far East and was often called the “jungle carbine”, although this name was never officially used. The No. 5 was essentially a shortened version of the No. 4, using the same bolt and sights, and fitted with a rubber recoil pad and an anti-flash cone at the muzzle.  Because it fired standard .303 ammunition, recoil was ferocious despite the rubber pad; it also suffered accuracy problems.  The No. 5 only saw limited production and very few saw front-line service.

The Lee-Enfield continued service after WWII, including the Korean conflict. Many overseas garrisons still had their old stocks of No. 1, Mk III’s, but most troops carried No. 4’s, either the Mk I or Mk II.  Both the No. 1 and the No. 4 had been manufactured by Commonwealth nations as well as Britain; in fact, India and Australia never did adopt the No. 4, preferring the older design.

A number of .22 caliber Lee-Enfield variants were adopted for training purposes.   There were also sniper adaptations of both the No. 1 and No. 4.  After the adoption of the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle in 1954 in 7.62 NATO, the L42A1 sniper rifle was adopted; this was a No. 4 modified to take 7.62 ammunition.  The L42A1 was used as recently as the Falklands conflict and was finally replaced in 1990.

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WWII production blank training .303

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Two of the above blanks, showing the 1943 dates on the headstamps.

As a living historian, I am often asked which Lee-Enfield is correct for WWII. As seen in the above history, it depends on the theater and stage of the war.  I am also frequently asked which rifle is “better”, and there is no easy answer.  Both are typically well-made, although the No. 1 will often have better fit and finish.  I have used the No. 1 Mk III* and the No. 4 Mk I and Mk II extensively.  I have fired live ammunition at the range, and blanks at reenactments.  The No. 4’s lighter bolt can allow for a slightly faster rate of fire; on the other hand, short blanks can sometimes misfeed, and the No. 1’s heavier bolt reduces this problem, as does using full-length blanks.  As I’m getting older, the sights on the No. 1 are getting harder for me to use; but I have no problem whatsoever with the sights on the No. 4.  These are also reliable firearms; I bought my first Lee-Enfield over 20 years ago, and have only had to perform one minor repair.

I love my Lee-Enfields, and my only regret is not shooting them as frequently as I would like.

Tommy’s Tea: The Significance of the Brew Up

One must never underestimate the importance of tea to the British soldier. It’s true now; it was even more significant in WWII.

Tea was absolutely vital to the soldiers’ morale. Naturally, it contains caffeine and can provide a boost of energy; but there are many who find it calming, as well.  Tea is a part of British culture, even more so in the 1940’s than today.  To the soldier, it was more than just a beverage; it was a reminder of home, family, and happier times.

In barracks and camps, large urns of tea were housed in the cookhouses and dining halls. When soldiers were off duty, they could buy a cup at the NAAFI canteen found on every base (NAAFI was the Navy, Army, Air Force Institute).  There were also mobile canteens which followed the men on training exercises; most of these were operated by the NAAFI, but others were from the YMCA, Salvation Army, and other civilian organizations.

While tea breaks were commonly permitted on exercise, this was an impossible luxury in combat operations. Nevertheless, the troops became adept at quickly brewing tea at every possible opportunity.  Any time a halt was called, and if there were no bullets flying overhead, out would come the tea.

There is a sequence in the film “A Bridge Too Far” when Robert Redford accuses the Grenadier Guards of halting their advance in order to drink tea. I always thought that seemed a bit unfair, although that may have been how it appeared to the Americans.  I prefer the scene in which General Urquhart is upset at the challenges he is facing, so his batman hands him a cup of tea.  Urquhart complains, but drinks it anyway.

The Army issued portable petrol stoves in various sizes; the smallest had a single burner and was issued at the section level (8 men). However, the stoves were kept in the motor transport well behind the advancing infantry and were not available during a short halt.  Even if the “collective stove” was available, the early ones were unreliable and tended to clog with dirt and sand; this was a major issue in North Africa.  The troops were determined to have their tea, and therefore became masters of improvisation.

Some vehicle crews became adept at using a hot engine to boil water for tea. In North Africa, it was common to use a “Benghazi burner” or “Benghazi cooker”, which was simply a cut-down petrol or water tin, filled about halfway with sand.  The sand was then soaked in petrol and set alight, and could boil water in a very short amount of time.

Small folding stoves which used solid fuel tablets were developed; it was intended that every man should receive one, but priority of issue seems to have been for troops destined for Northern Europe.

Small batches of tea could be brewed in the standard mess tin. To heat it faster, the smaller side was used to make the tea, with the larger side on top as a lid.  For larger batches, an improvised kettle was often made from a ration tin.  Often, a rifle section or vehicle crew would designate one man to be in charge of making tea; sometimes, it was the most junior man, but often it was someone with a special knack for unpacking the supplies and getting the water on the boil in a hurry.

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Brewing up in a slit trench, Holland or Belgium, late 1944. The small stove is made from an artillery shell casing.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

While the tea bag had been invented prior to WWII, it was not common until after the war; most tea was loose leaf. Sugar was also issued, along with either powdered milk or sweetened condensed milk.  There was also an instant tea which consisted of dehydrated tea already mixed with sugar and powdered milk.  Tins of this mixture were included in the composite ration crates (known as “compo”).  These tins are popular with modern collectors; I have one in my collection.  Small packets of instant tea were also included in the 24 hour ration pack.

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Instant tea ration tin, from the composite ration crate.  Author’s collection.

A note on soldier’s slang: the act of building a fire or lighting a stove and making tea was known as “brewing up”.  The tea break itself then became known as a “brew up”, and the equipment needed was the “brew up kit”.  The folding solid-fuel stove was known as a “Tommy cooker”.  However, with the British soldiers’ ironic sense of humor, when a vehicle caught fire, it was also said to brew up; the Sherman tank had a nasty tendency to brew up easily when shot, so it too was called a Tommy cooker.  “Gurkha Tea” contained more condensed milk than tea.

One of the best descriptions of brewing up is found in George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here, about his experiences in Burma in 1945.

Brewing up is not merely a matter of infusing tea; making the fire comes into it, and when you have lit and maintained fires in the monsoon, you have nothing more to learn. That came later; at Meiktila it was a simple business of assembling bamboo slivers, igniting them (no small thing, with Indian “Lion” matches which invariably broke and sprayed the striker with flaming phosphorus), and bringing about a gallon of water to the boil in the section brew-tin.  This was a jealously-guarded article, about a foot cubed, made by cutting a compo ration tin in two and piercing the rim for a handle of signal wire.  The casting in of the tea leaves from the section box was the crucial thing, followed by the ceremonial dropping in of two broken matchsticks to attract stray leaves; remove the tin from the heat, invite the guests to scoop out the brew with their piallas [“mugs” in Urdu], and tea was served, each man adding sugar and condensed milk to taste.

What is interesting about Fraser’s description is that he does not reference instant tea or folding stoves; perhaps these items never made it to the “forgotten” 14th Army in Burma. However, the importance he placed on the brew up was universal throughout the British Army.

For more information on British rations, including tea, click here.

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Brewing up at Anzio.  Notice the use of repurposed tins, both as stove and kettle.  Imperial War Museum.