Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1938, the British Government finally introduced a replacement steel helmet for the venerable WW1 steel helmet. Although visually similar to its predecessor, the new MkII helmet was a new design:The shell was a single pressing from a sheet of steel, with a non magnetic rim attached around the edge (this being the main difference from the MkI):As can be seen this early helmet is painted in a satin finish bronze green paint; this was later replaced with a matt finish to reduce reflection off the helmet shell. The inside of the shell has a maker’s mark for F&L and a date of January 1939:The initials ‘F&L’ stand for Fisher & Ludlow Ltd of Birmingham who produced helmet shells from 1939 to 1942. The company specialised in pressed steel car body parts, so the transition to helmet manufacture would have been a logical one:A single brass nut and bolt passes through the crown of the shell:This secures a fibre liner with a rubber crown pad into the helmet:The crown pad here is a ‘cross’ shaped example. This was introduced to replace an earlier oval pad that was more complicated to produce and only used on the very first production run of the new MkII helmet. Removing the liner shows a set of rubber buffers around the liner that hold the two apart and provide a degree of shock absorbsion when worn:These helped reduce the risk of concussive injuries from shockwaves that could have caused a severe shock to the helmet that would have been transmitted to the wearer’s skull. The liner is also marked with a size, maker’s initials and date:In this case the liner is a 7 ¼” and is marked BMB1 for Briggs Motor Bodies Ltd of Dagenham who made liners throughout the war. The chin strap on this helmet is a Chinstrap, Helmet, Mk1. The helmet had a non magnetic spring at each end, covered in cloth:Whilst a metal buckle in the centre allowed adjustment to get the best fit for the wearer:These helmets remained in use throughout the Second World War- the later MkIII never fully replaced them. The classic ‘soup bowl’ shape of the Britsh helmet has become synonymous with the Tommy in both world wars and rightly has achieved iconic status.
Battledress blouses and trousers were designed in a bewilderingly large range of sizes for men of different builds. Each uniform then had a size number stamped onto the label sewn into the garment:or printed on the inside:to allow something that almost fitted to be chosen in stores when they were issued. Sometimes, but not always, the size number was also printed on its own on the lining of garments- Indian uniforms often have this. Many collectors and re-enactors struggle when it comes to the sizing of these uniforms as they do not follow an obviously logical progression. Often it is a case of finding the two or three sizes that work for you by a process of trial and error. Hopefully the table of sizes included in this post will help collectors and re-enactors find the size they need when searching auction listings or clothes rails at fairs, this list applies for ‘Battledress blouses and trousers, Service dress jackets, trousers and pantaloons and trousers, gymnasium’ (Please click on the picture for a larger, readable version):
This list comes from a period stores catalogue, but I have transcribed it for clarity. Sadly this list only covers men’s uniforms; women’s uniform had its own sizing system to take into account the different shape of male and female bodies. If anyone has a list of female sizes please let me know and I will add it to the post for reference.
When the British Army introduced the 1937 pattern webbing equipment, they took the opportunity to replace the old D-Shaped mess tin set that had been in use for over a hundred years with something more suitable for modern warfare. They adopted a rectangular two piece aluminium mess tin set- aluminium being lighter and more hygienic than the tinned steel used up to this point and a better heat conductor allowing food to be heated quicker. Sadly the outbreak of war put huge strains on the nation’s raw materials reserves and aluminium was of more use in making aircraft than mess tins. Because of this a new mild steel rectangular mess tin set was developed:The two tins are made of mild steel, with a tinned coating to prevent rust, one is slightly smaller than the other, allowing them to be stored one inside the other:This then allows them to be stored in the relevant pocket of a 37 pattern haversack. Each tin has a folding wire handle:These are secured to the main body of the mess tin with a hinge fastened by four rivets:This has the markings of the combined ‘MB’ for the Metal Box company and a date of 1941 on the top tin and 1942 on the lower. The long sides of each mess tin have a deep rib formed down them:This would appear to be for strength to prevent the tin from flexing. In use water could be placed in the smaller tin and the larger placed on top as a lid allowing the water to boil quicker than in an open tin. The picture below shows Sergeant Chase of the South Alberta Regiment cleaning his mess tin whilst sat on his Staghound armoured car:The steel mess tin was replaced by a new aluminium type in 1944 as part of the jungle system introduced that year, the steel tins being declared obsolete in 1955. Over the years the tin coating on many of these tins has deteriorated and it is not recommended they be used for eating any more- I use an aluminium set in my equipment for re-enacting for safety. The steel mess tins are easily available, with What Price Glory having examples available for under £10. These are covered in a thick storage grease that has now hardened to a brown gunk; I have a second set of these tins in this condition and their restoration will be the topic of a future post.
Despite wearing anything that was comfortable in forward areas, the RAF did have an official tropical uniform for its pilots that was designed to mirror their blue grey service dress worn back in England. Like other British military uniforms of the period it was made of khaki drill cotton cloth and when clean and starched could look exceptionally smart; equally it could take on a distinctly dishevelled appearance in the hands of veteran officers. As officers bought their own uniforms, there are a large number of variations on the tropical jacket, but all are broadly similar and this example, although post war, is typical:As can be seen the tunic is made of a khaki cotton, with four brass King’s crown RAF buttons down the front:There are four patch pockets, the upper pair having pleats and a scalloped top:There is a waistbelt, secured with a standard removable brass buckle:The sleeves also have a distinctive cuff:Inside the jacket are a pair of removable shoulder pads (I will leave you to add your own jokes about RAF officers’ vanity!):The shoulder boards are stiffened and secured by a split pin. This example has the single lace of a Pilot Officer:There is a tailor’s label inside the jacket:From this it can be seen the jacket was made by Herbert Chappell Ltd of London for a Pilot officer AJ Rose and the date of 10th February 1953. The London Gazette records an A.J. Rose being promoted from Pilot Officer to Flying Officer on 8th January 1955 and lists his number as being 3514140. Whilst I cannot confirm this is the same man, it seems likely considering the time frame and the nature of the promotion. By 1958 this olfficer was listed as being in the Royal Air Force Reserve of Officers list. It is interesting to observe how this uniform was still being made with King’s crown buttons after the asscension of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne, clearly it took time for the new insignia to be produced and disseminated to all the tailors who needed them.
When the 1944 pattern Jungle Webbing and associated equipment was introduced the pre-existing rubberised poncho was retained; changing colour from tan to dark green. The poncho had been introduced in World War One as the Sheets, Ground, MkVII, the illustration below was published at the time of its introduction:My example is from nearly half a century later, but in form is virtually identical:The fabric is a heavy cotton canvas, prepared with a rubberised finish to make it waterproof (with resultant rubbery smell). The cape has a row of plastic buttons down one edge:These are reinforced on the rear to prevent the material being torn:Note the holes along the edge, these allow two ponchos to be tied together to make a crude shelter. At the ‘neck’ is a cotton tape to allow the poncho to be hung up to dry:The collar has a button and strip of fabric for fastening:These allow the collar to be drawn high enough to protect the back of the neck from rain:This cape has a manufacturer’s mark indicating it was made in 1954 by Strauss and Sons:The 1944 pattern haversack, introduced alongside the green poncho, had a pair of straps at its base that allowed a rolled poncho to be carried safely and still be easily accessible to put on in case of a sudden monsoon rain storm. These capes were practical, but heavy and hot. They were dropped by the British Army in the 60s and 70s in favour of nylon ponchos, but remained in use as ground sheets for shooting ranges and the like where soldiers needed to lie on wet ground. I bought a couple of these six or seven years ago when dealers couldn’t seem to give them away (mine cost £5 each). Since then they seem to have shot up in price and are now fetching £25 or more each.
Today marks a year since I started this blog. In that time I feel I have covered a large selection of British and Empire militaria and I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing these posts. A quick calculation suggests that the blog now stands at around 94,000 words in total and we have had nearly 15,000 hits since the first post. I have no plans to stop writing anytime soon, so hopefully you will continue reading this, I will continue buying and writing about militaria…and no doubt my wife will continue complaining about all the old ‘junk’ I’ve bought!
A couple of nights ago we looked at an item from the Royal Navy’s 1901 pattern equipment set, tonight we turn to its successor the 1919 pattern web equipment. The rucksack, which we will look at tonight, is a complicated piece of webbing with multiple straps and fasteners to allow it to be used to carry a blanket, mess tin and plenty of equipment. This reflects the Navy’s need to deploy semi independent men into the field at some distance from their ship. They could be on their own without resupply for a few days and consequently needed to carry as much of what they would need as possible. Turning to the ‘1926 Royal Naval Handbook of Field Training’ we come upon an official description of the 1919 pattern rucksack:
Rucksack– This is a large rectangular bag, having sides with weather flaps.Five narrow straps are provided around the rucksack, two on each side:and one on the top, to enable the blanket and waterproof sheet to be carried in the form of a roll outside the rucksack:all the small items of the kit being carried in the bag. A 1- inch strap is attached to the outside of the lid for securing mess-tin in cover:but this article may be carried inside the rucksack if there is sufficient room.
The rucksack is carried and attached to the rest of the equipment by means of shoulder-straps:broadened similar to the braces, adjustable through buckles at the top:and having hooks on the narrow ends to engage the “D’s” of the buckles on top of the brace attachments or cartridge carriers:Narrow “diagonal straps”, adjustable through buckles, run from those hooks to the bottom of the rucksack, the left diagonal being permanently fixed by a metal “D”:and the right being connected by means of a smaller metal “D” to a hook, which latter fitting is attached to the bottom of the bag:On the back of the rucksack near the bottom is a short strap having a key-hole fitting:which engages a stud placed in the centre of the bottom of the bag:This strap is passed around the belt, to prevent movement of the rucksack when running.
As can be seen my example has been in the wars, one of the two straps holding down the top flap is broken and the top blanket retaining strap is missing. I plan to restore these two as soon as I can find some webbing of the correct width. The rucksack is dated 1921 and was made by MECo:Note also the /|\ over an ‘N’ mark for the Royal Navy. The ‘Royal Navy Field Service Book 1932’ helpfully includes a kit list for the contents of the rucksack (pack):My thanks to Tony Boyle for providing me with this information. The picture below is interesting as it shows a member of the Royal Navy Coast Watch from about 1940. Note the 1919 pattern haversack, worn without a blanket roll. The straps are clearly visible:I now have four items of 1919 pattern webbing and I have made a good start on collecting this rare and hard to find set of equipment. As ever luck and spotting the diamond in the rough have played a big part in this. Like the 1901 water-bottle from the other night, I have had to accept items in less than perfect condition. However in both cases repairs should be fairly easy and inexpensive and it has allowed me to add a couple of very rare items to my collection.
Whilst in the field most soldiers eat ration packs or something equivalent. Out of the front line though it is more common to have food prepared, frequently at a unit level, by cooks and distributed to all the men through a mess or canteen system. The Indian Army in WW2 was no different and alongside the mess tins issued for combat use, enamelled plates were used in barracks and other camps permanent enough to warrant their use. This green enamelled dish is one such item, measuring approximately 12” across:The dish is rather deeper than a dinner plate, being more of a soup bowl shape. As the majority of Indian Army food was based around some sort of rice and curry then this shape was probably ideal for the troops dietary requirements. Curry was in some ways an ideal military food. It offered all the protein, carbohydrates and vitamins soldiers needed, but could be cooked in a single container in large quantities. The slow cooking time was also very helpful in tenderising the poorer cuts of meat often used, as were the spices which helped to disguise the flavour. Many Indian troops did not use eating utensils, preferring to use their hands and chapattis to scoop up the food. QAIMNS Matron Major Hughes served in the middle east alongside the Indian Army Medical Corps:
For several days we had to exist on Indian rations with only the tough flat cake called chapatti, these being freshly made each day by the Indian cooks.
Curry became popular in the British Army as well, no doubt influenced by its long stay in India and even today the British Army and the Royal Navy are widely famed for their excellent curries. These do not really resemble either a traditional Indian curry or a modern western takeaway curry, but are always filling, tasty and popular. Despite this a post independence report into Indian Army rations reported that the Indian Army rations of WW2 had a poor nutritional content and consequently some troops were malnourished. The Indian government had great difficulty throughout the war providing sufficient food to not only its troops but also the general population- leading to a widespread famine in 1943.
Turning the bowl over we can see that the green enamel extends to the back as well and there is a small makers mark:Looking closer the mark shows the bowl was made by the Bengal Enamel Company in 1944:The Bengal Enamel Works Ltd was incorporated as a company on 6th April 1921 and was to continue in existence until at least 2004. The company won large contracts with the Indian Army both before and after independence, making tin mugs, plates and water bottles. The Bengal Enamel Works seems to have been set up by a Debendranath Bhattacharya, financed by his father; sadly the factory now appears to have closed and the main building is looking decidedly dilapidated: