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*.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.