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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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.

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.

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 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