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”.

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Boiled Sweets and Airborne Rations

As a living historian, I enjoy private events where I can immerse myself in a World War II environment and attempt to live and train as a soldier of that conflict.  However, I also feel the need to be an educator, to share what I have learned with others.  Not only is this need to teach history part of the driving force behind my blog, it is also why I participate in educational displays at air shows and other public venues.

At public events, I have found that people are often drawn to my rations displays, and I spend much of my time describing the various items.  I own a number of original tins, including examples of the different boiled sweets tins from the Composite Rations (tins labeled “Boiled Sweets”, “Boiled Sweets, Salt & Matches”, and “Chocolate and Boiled Sweets”).  It may come as a surprise to my friends in the UK that the term “boiled sweets” is unknown here in the US, and I often have to explain that it is simply the British name for hard candy.  Americans, especially children, often find the term “boiled sweets” unappealing, so I like to offer a fruit disc or mint and describe how hard candy is produced*.

Boiled Sweets Tin_NEW

Boiled sweets tin from the Composite Ration.  Author’s collection.

The cellophane-wrapped mints and fruit discs are good for public displays, as they are readily available in the US, making them easy for children to recognize and inexpensive for me to hand out.  As a reenactor and amateur historian, however, this is not good enough.  I want to learn as much as I can about the conditions and experiences of the wartime soldier, and if possible, replicate them for myself.  I have studied a number of books on British rations, including a few original training pamphlets.

In some respects, British soldiers were better off than civilians on the Home Front; for one thing, they were generally better fed.  The distribution of food for civilians was strictly controlled, and there were frequent shortages; sugar was particularly scarce and was considered a luxury item.  However, the government determined that it was essential that servicemembers have access to sugary foods.  Soldiers expended a great deal of energy marching, digging and fighting, and Army rations needed to be high in calories.  Boiled sweets were an important part of the 24-Hour Ration and the Composite Ration, both to provide energy and bolster morale.  The boiled sweets were not intended to be part of a meal; instead, soldiers were instructed to keep a few in a pocket so they could be eaten whenever a little extra energy was needed.  Additionally, it was not always convenient to get a drink of water under combat conditions; sucking a boiled sweet could help overcome the feeling of thirst.

Unfortunately, I have found very little detail regarding the boiled sweets; for years, I have been trying to learn more about the specific flavors or varieties that were issued.  I finally found some detail in a description of an Airborne-specific ration from a 1942 manual, as reprinted in a book I recently acquired.

Air Publication 2453, November 1942
Volume I, Section 2, Chapter 3
Personal Paratroop Equipment

Ration S.T.6.

This ration is intended to cover a period up to forty-eight hours and comprises the following items:–
One 12 oz. tin of corned beef, with key.
One 2 oz. tin of dripping spread.
Two tins of processed cheese.
One tin of tea and dried milk.
One box of matches.
One tin containing service biscuits, sweet biscuits, chocolate, acid drops, and barley sugar.

The ration S.T.6. is issued to paratroops at their operational base where the separate articles should be packed tightly in the smaller mess tin, using broken biscuits to prevent any possibility of rattle which might reveal to the enemy the whereabouts of a paratroop.  The method of packing is illustrated in fig. 3.  The larger mess tin is used as a lid when packing is complete.

(Reprinted in RAF Airborne Forces Manual:  The Official Air Publications for RAF Paratroop Aircraft and Gliders, 1942-1946)

 

The referenced illustration is one that I have seen many times.  Scans of “Figure 3:  Contents of Paratroop Haversack” have been available on the internet for years, without noting the original source; I am pleased to have solved that mystery.

paratrooper haversack

Illustration from Air Publication 2453, Volume I, Section 2, Chapter 3, originally published November, 1942.  Ration S.T.6. is stored inside the mess tin.

I have not seen any other descriptions or references to the S.T.6. Ration; it seems to have been a formalized version of the haversack ration, and I suspect it was superseded by the later 24-Hour Ration issued to all assault troops, not just paratroopers.  However, it was the last line of the itemized list above that stood out to me.  Acid drops and barley sugar are specific types of boiled sweets, and so far, this is the only source I have found with that kind of detail.  It certainly does not mean that all Army-issued boiled sweets were acid drops or barley sugars, but it does seem reasonable that these were included in other types of rations.  I will keep researching in hopes of learning more.

Tins - Edited

Rations display at an air show, with the items in the mess tin based on the accompanying illustration.  The boiled sweets, tea, and emergency ration tins are all originals; the corned beef and luncheon meat tins are modern that have been made to look as they would have during WWII.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

I recently visited my local import shops in hopes of obtaining barley sugars and acid drops; I found numerous chocolates and toffees, and even a few boiled sweets, but not the specific ones I wanted.  Fortunately, I found an internet-based vendor of traditional British confectionery that carries these items, and ships internationally.  My order recently arrived; while I plan to carry a pocket full of acid drops and barley sugars at my next living history event, I had to try a few first.  The acid drops are spherical and have a tart citrus flavor; they are similar to American lemon drops, but less sweet.  The barley sugars are elongated tablets with a mellow, sweet taste; they remind me of butterscotch, but more subtle.  I am looking forward to carrying these sweets in the field, and sharing with my friends.

Boiled Sweets in Tin

Barley sugars (left) and acid drops (right)

For more information on British rations, please see my earlier article on the subject by clicking here.

*Boiled sweets, or hard candy, are made by dissolving sugar and flavoring agents into water to make a syrup.  This flavored syrup is then boiled until nearly all the water evaporates, making the mixture extremely thick and sticky.  This substance is then molded or otherwise shaped, then allowed to cool and harden.

Film Review: The Way Ahead

While I generally enjoy films about World War II, I have a particular fondness for motion pictures made about the war while it was still being fought.  Not only are they entertaining, but as an amateur historian, I find them valuable tools in gaining an insight into the mindset of the time.

Perhaps my favorite wartime motion picture is “The Way Ahead”.  This is a propaganda film first released in 1944, and tells the story of typical new recruits coming together to form an infantry platoon.

Way Ahead Poster

David Niven portrays Lt. Jim Perry, the young officer assigned as Platoon Leader.  Perry had served in the Territorial Army (Britain’s volunteer reserve) before the war.  He is very keen on all things military; a more recent generation would call him “Army Barmy”.  His Platoon Sergeant is Sgt. Ned Fletcher, played by William Hartnell; he was a pre-war professional soldier.

Wm Hartnell Way Ahead

Sgt. Fletcher (William Hartnell) on the parade ground.

In contrast to the officer and sergeant are seven private soldiers, who had been called up from civilian life and sent to the Army.  They represent very different backgrounds and personalities.  The men resent being conscripted; some have families, others feel their civilian jobs were too important to have been taken from them.  They complain about their situation whenever they are out of earshot of their officer and sergeant.  Based on an early incident, they feel Sgt. Fletcher is unduly harsh to them.

There is tension within the group of conscripts, as well.  Pte. Beck, a former travel agent, is very enthusiastic and optimistic, which puts him at odds with the others.  Pte. Stainer has a boyish fondness for automobiles, and generally seems less mature than the others; he frequently makes threats and boasts, but does nothing.  Pte. Lloyd is reserved but somewhat sour; he gets angry with Stainer and decides to take action himself.  He complains to Lt. Perry about Sgt. Fletcher’s supposed unfair treatment.  Perry is baffled by the situation; he does not understand the men’s resentment.

Way Ahead Spud Bashing

Pte. Ted Brewer (Stanley Holloway) complains while his comrades peel potatoes.

Eventually, the men are allowed out of camp on a weekend.  They encounter some civilians and learn of their efforts to support members of the armed forces.  They meet a pilot of the RAF, who is on medical leave after having been shot down.  They also find themselves in a social situation with Lt. Perry; things start off quite awkwardly, but they finally start getting to know one another.  This is the film’s turning point; nothing is said outwardly, but the men’s attitudes change.  They realize they have been selfish and foolish; they finally become proficient soldiers and learn to work together, and they develop respect for their superiors.

Finally, the platoon completes its training, and is sent overseas to see action in North Africa.  After successfully defending against a German attack, the finale shows the men fixing bayonets and taking the fight to the enemy, with rousing music playing.

While some wartime films were made for escapist entertainment, many were made for propaganda purposes, including “The Way Ahead”.  While it would seem that the film was intended to teach conscripts what they could expect, by the time it was released in 1944, most young men in Britain were already in uniform.  “The Way Ahead” was really intended to bolster civilian morale, to say that the darkest days of the war were over and that final victory was around the corner.  It was intended to instill civilian confidence in the Army, its leadership and structure, and its fighting ability.  In 1944, everyone knew that the Allies were preparing to invade continental Europe; only the specifics were kept secret.  The final scenes highlight the successful Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algiers (Operation Torch) to remind the civilian populace of its success, and to prepare them for the upcoming invasion of Europe.  The film closes with the titles, “The Beginning”, likely a reference to Churchill’s speech about the great victory at El Alamein being “the end of the beginning”.

I enjoy the film as a piece of cinematic storytelling; the characters are interesting, and I like watching them learning to become soldiers and overcoming their differences.

As an amateur historian, I appreciate the film for how it depicts training and life in the barracks.  The men grumble that they are issued blankets, but not sheets.  They are seen cleaning rifles, polishing boots, and peeling potatoes.  There are repeated scenes of the men going through an assault course:  climbing walls, swinging on ropes, all while small arms are fired over their heads.  The men clumsily stumble through the first time, but each attempt shows significant improvement.

The men are in a fictional regiment:  The Duke of Glendon’s Light Infantry.  My favorite sequence is one in which the privates return to barracks after a field exercise; the men had intentionally gotten themselves disqualified so they could leave the exercise early.  Lt. Perry, normally calm and reserved, is visibly upset.  He explains the history of their regiment and its battle honours in an attempt to instill them with pride in their unit, to motivate them to act honorably and to take their training seriously.  It is as good an introduction to the Regimental System as any I can think of.

Way Ahead Bayonets

Lt. Perry (David Niven) and Pte. Beck (Leslie Dwyer) prepare to advance on the enemy during the film’s dramatic finale.

There is another set of characters, a pair of Chelsea Pensioners; they are former soldiers who live at the Chelsea Hospital, The British Army’s retirement home.  Their role in the film is similar to that of a Greek chorus; while they do not influence the plot, they comment on the progress of the war and compare it to their service.  They, too, had served in the same fictional regiment as Perry and his platoon, and are keen to see their descendants carry on the glories of their unit.

The film was released in the United States, under the title “The Immortal Battalion”; not surprisingly, I find the British version more emotionally satisfying.  The Chelsea Pensioners were edited out of the American version, causing it to lose some of the charm and humor of the original; it also loses some of its sense of continuity and stability, of the ability to ride out the storm.  The American title is also troubling to me; after all, it is the regiment that is important, not the battalion.  For many years, “The Immortal Battalion” was the only version available in the United States; fortunately, though, there is now a company producing NTSC Region 1 format DVD’s of “The Way Ahead” for the US market.

“The Way Ahead” was written by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov, and directed by Carol Reed.  It starred David Niven, William Hartnell, Peter Ustinov, Stanley Holloway*, James Donald, Leslie Dwyer, Jimmy Hanley, and John Laurie.

Way Ahead Group Shot

“The Way Ahead”:  the men prepare for their first action in North Africa.

*George MacDonald Fraser once wrote that all wartime British films featured Stanley Holloway, or at least that was how it seemed.

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.

2nd Parachute Battalion: The “Mepacrine Chasers”

In June, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a memorandum to the War Office calling for the creation of an airborne unit. Churchill had been impressed by Germany’s use of parachute and glider troops during their invasion of France and the Low Countries, and felt Britain should have a similar capability.

It took time for the Airborne Forces to become fully developed. No. 2 Commando, consisting of 500 men, was given parachute training in the summer of 1940.  Airborne Forces were then expanded, and in September, 1941, 1st Parachute Brigade was created.  No. 2 Commando was renamed 1st Parachute Battalion, and 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions were established.  The new Battalions recruited soldiers from all across the British Army.  In those early days, the only Airborne-specific insignia was the parachute brevet (or “jump wings”); the famous maroon beret had not yet been adopted, and the new paratroopers continued to wear the insignia and headdress of their previous units.

2nd Parachute Battalion’s first Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Edwin Flavell, gave each of his officers a bright yellow lanyard to wear on the left shoulder, to distinguish them from officers of the other two battalions.  The “other ranks” (enlisted personnel) decided they wanted to wear the yellow lanyard, as well.  However, they had to make their own, which required a certain amount of improvisation and ingenuity.

The lanyards were made by cutting a length of rigging line, made of white silk or nylon, from a parachute after a training jump. This cord was braided or tied into a lanyard; those unskilled in making it themselves begged help from friends.

The most ingenious part of the process was dying the lanyard. Troops sent to the tropics were ordered to take Mepacrine, also known as Atabrine, a bright yellow medicine intended to fight malaria.  Continued use of this drug was known to turn the skin and eyes yellow; therefore, it was seen by the troops as a logical dye.  Mepacrine pills were acquired, then ground up and dissolved in water to turn the white lanyards a deep yellow or golden color.

atabrine

US-issued Atabrine; the British called it Mepacrine.  It was a common anti-malaria drug in the 1940’s, but continued use turned the eyes and skin a yellow color.

Intentionally damaging a parachute and misusing medical supplies were both serious offenses. The officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion would normally have punished anyone guilty of these military crimes.  However, they turned a blind eye and even unofficially encouraged the behavior.  The yellow lanyards became prized possessions; the men were immensely proud of their Battalion, symbolized by the yellow lanyard.

Eventually, 1st Parachute Battalion adopted a dark green lanyard, and 3rd Parachute Battalion adopted red.  However, their creation did not seem to have the same creativity behind them.

By the time James Sims joined 2nd Parachute Battalion in 1943, it was a veteran unit, having recently returned to England after bitter fighting in North Africa and Sicily.  Airborne Forces had expanded to two Divisions, the 1st and the 6th, and the maroon beret had been adopted for all Airborne Forces, including glider troops.  The Parachute Regiment had been formed officially, with its own insignia and cap badge.  However, in 1st Parachute Brigade, the colored lanyards were still in use to distinguish the different Battalions.

As described in Sims’ book Arnhem Spearhead, the yellow (or golden) lanyard was still made the same way as in the early days of the Battalion. Sims was given his when he first joined the Mortar Platoon of S Company.

They laughed at my discomfiture but suddenly one of them said, ‘Here, put this on.’ He handed me a beautiful gold lanyard, obviously made out of parachute nylon rigging line, the removal of which was a court martial offence.  This gold lanyard was worn only by the 2nd Battalion and was produced as follows.

After a jump a para would cut off a rigging line and secrete it about his person. Back at camp he would persuade someone skilled in the art to plait it into a lanyard.  He would then dissolve a mepacrine tablet in a saucer of water in which he would place the lanyard, leaving it overnight.  In the morning he would have a beautiful gold lanyard.  No one could recall the genius who first devised this unauthorized use of medical supplies, which was based on the idea that if these tablets could turn a man yellow they would do the same for nylon.  Because of this practice the 2nd Battalion were known in the First Para Brigade as the Mepacrine Chasers.  The 1st Battalion had dark green lanyards and the 3rd red.  Everyone in our battalion had a ‘larny’ lanyard, as it was known, and it was very highly regarded.

I belong to a living history organization which portrays B Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, and it is humbling to read about the extraordinary men whose history we try to preserve.  I gave a copy of Arnhem Spearhead to a close friend as a Christmas present.  Being an avid sailor and generally good with knotting and braiding, he decided to make a number of lanyards for us.  He used nylon parachute cord, and experimented with different formulas and concentrations of “RIT” dye.  Previously, I had worn a machine-made yellow lanyard from a surplus store; replacing it with a hand-made lanyard given to me by my friend is much more meaningful, and much closer to what the original lanyards represented.

2 Para Lanyard

Hand-braided, hand-dyed yellow lanyard, made based on the description in James Sims’ Arnhem Spearhead.

Arnhem Spearhead is out of print, but copies are often available online. Lt. Col. Flavell’s issue of the yellow lanyard to the officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion was recalled by the Battalion’s first Adjutant, and later, most famous commander, John Frost, in the book Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941 – 1945, by Robert Peatling.

More information on Maj. Gen. John Frost and 2nd Parachute Battalion may be found in an earlier blog post, here.

Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941 – 1945 by Robert Peatling

 

 

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.

brew-up

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.

tea-tin

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.

anzio-brew-up

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

ENSA Radio: Epilogue

I transcribed a couple of jokes from one of the episodes of “Break for Music” on the ENSA:  Complete Concerts twin-CD (see previous entry).

Michael Howard:  I must inflict a story on you about a private soldier who was walking in the blackout one night, and he wanted to light a cigarette, but he didn’t have a match.  Hearing someone passing in the dark, he called out in a polished Oxford accent, “Oi, oi, mate!  Give us a light?”  The fellow who was passing said, “Certainly”, and struck a match.  Then the private saw to his horror it was a red-tabbed General.  He sprang to attention and said, “I’m terribly sorry, sir, I didn’t know it was you, sir.”  The General said, “Well, that’s all right, I don’t mind.  But you ought to be more careful, you know.  I might have been a Second Lieutenant”.

Eric Speare: Michael, there’s a telegram for you.
Michael Howard: Oh, no, not those corny gags.
Eric Speare: You take this telegram!
Michael Howard: Oh, all right.  [Reads telegram.]
“The BBC like you.
The BBC want you.
The BBC can have you.
Signed, ENSA.”

ENSA Radio Broadcasts

A few years ago, I bought a CD called ENSA:  Complete Concerts.  When I listened to the CD for the first time, I was surprised that it contained recordings of radio broadcasts.  I was already familiar with ENSA, and I knew they had put on live stage shows for the troops.  But I was intrigued by these radio programs, as I had thought such things had solely been the purview of the BBC.  I then bought a book called Greasepaint and Cordite:  How ENSA Entertained the Troops During World War II, and found the answers I had been looking for.

ENSA was the Entertainments National Service Association.  ENSA was part of the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute), which was the organization responsible for the recreation, welfare and morale of the men and women of Britain’s armed forces.  ENSA was the brainchild of London theater producer Basil Dean.  With his experience and connections, Dean was able to recruit many of Britain’s top entertainers to put on shows for the troops.  Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, George Formby, and many others were involved.  However, with hundreds of thousands of servicemen (and women) serving all over the world, the demands on ENSA were enormous.  Many second- and third-rate entertainers were also recruited, leading the troops to say that ENSA stood for “Every Night, Something Awful”.

Most military installations built their own garrison theaters, either for traveling ENSA shows, or for their own “concert parties”, that is, troops volunteering to put on shows for their comrades.  Of course, the British Army, and I expect the other services as well, had varying degrees of volunteerism.

All this I had known for some time.  Again, the ENSA radio broadcasts were new to me.  Unfortunately, the liner notes for the CD were not very helpful.  However, as noted, further research shed some light.

ENSA created its own Broadcast and Recording Section.  Greasepaint and Cordite includes a photograph of ENSA’s mobile broadcasting station, built into a stylish and streamlined automobile.  Stephen Williams was appointed ENSA’s liaison with the BBC, and he was able to persuade them to allow ENSA to broadcast a weekly live program on the BBC’s frequency band.  This was “Break for Music”, a 30-minute variety show produced entirely by ENSA and frequently hosted by Williams.  The early episodes were broadcast from garrison theaters and were intended for the armed forces.  However, they became equally popular with civilian audiences, and later episodes were broadcast from war factories.

ENSA also made studio recordings and turned them into radio programs.  These were not typically broadcast in Britain; rather, the recordings were shipped to British-controlled cities that housed major headquarters, such as Cairo, then played on local radio.  Examples of these programs included “Top of the List” and “Journey into Melody”.

ENSA:  Complete Concerts contains two CDs.  The first has two episodes of “Break for Music” and one episode of “Top of the List”.  The second disc has one episode each of “Journey into Melody”, “Break for Music”, and “Top of the List”.  “Journey into Melody” has a few songs, but is primarily slow, rather sappy instrumentals; I often fast forward through the entire program.  However, I greatly enjoy the other shows, as they have a nice variety of dance tunes, ballads and some light comedy.  More importantly, I had been looking for WWII radio shows to play at living history events.  I have plenty of recordings of period music and even BBC news, but these ENSA radio shows were exactly what I had wanted.  I recently used iTunes to burn new CD’s with the programs in a different order.

One aspect I find oddly amusing is the influence of American popular culture on these British performances.  A Welsh girl sings “Paducah”, about small-town Kentucky, followed by an ensemble singing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”.  Hearing these British performers try to emulate American accents is unintentionally funny.

Of course, the title ENSA:  Complete Concerts is a bit misleading.  If all of the ENSA performances throughout the war had been recorded, and those recordings preserved, they would take up many, many CD’s.  Perhaps these are all that have survived, but if so, that would be a shame.

ENSA:  Complete Concerts and Greasepaint and Cordite are both available through Amazon.

ENSA: Complete Concerts

Greasepaint and Cordite