Monthly Archives: October 2017

National Services Act Medical Grade Card

The 1939 National Service Act allowed the armed forces to call upon millions of men and women across the UK to serve in the armed forces, whether they wanted to or not. As part of the act, powers were given to the forces to review the health of these potential recruits to see what medical category they fell into and then to accept or reject the accordingly for service. The guidance to potential conscriptees read:

Men liable under the Act to be called up for service and required to submit themselves for medical examination will be summoned to attend for such examination by means of written notices served on them individually. There are about 150 medical boards situated in convenient centres throughout Great Britain and men will be allowed reasonable expenses and allowances for their attendance, including compensation for loss of remunerative time. At least two clear days’ notice will be given in all cases. Men will be informed of the medical category in which they are placed. Immediately after the medical examination men will be interviewed individually in order that their allocation to service units may be made to best advantage.

Tonight we have a grading card from one of those National Service medicals:imageThis card is for an ‘I McHugh’ of Chadderton near Oldham, the man’s identity number is written across the top and he has signed his name at the bottom. He had to travel to Manchester for his examination, on the 24th November 1943. He was found to be in category one health- note how the number is written out in words as well as Roman numerals so that it cannot be altered later to medically downgrade a man.

There were four medical categories agreed at this stage- I, II and III were suitable for varying degrees of military service; IV was rejected and the man was too unfit or unwell to be suitable.

The back of the card provides some descriptive details of the man and some instructions on what is needed next:imageInterestingly this is part of a larger set of documents to the same man, and despite his fitness category he never went into the military. Instead he was drafted as a ‘Bevin boy’ and sent off to serve in a coal mine. He was not too impressed by this and much of the rest of the archive relates to various court summons when he failed to comply with this!

Staff Sergeant’s Rank Slides

We have looked at a number of rank slides in the past, but those have usually been naval rather than Army examples. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a nice pair of rank slides for a staff sergeant in both DPM and desert DPM:imageThe insignia here consists of a queen’s crown over a set of sergeant’s stripes and this design for of rank insignia has been in use with the British Army since the Victorian era.

In the British Army, staff sergeant (SSgt or formerly S/Sgt) ranks above sergeant and below warrant officer class 2. The rank is given a NATO code of OR-7.

Staff sergeants can also hold other appointments, such as company quartermaster sergeant, and are usually known by that appointment if held. The equivalent rank in infantry regiments is colour sergeant, and holders are known by that title no matter what their appointment. In the Household Cavalry the equivalent rank is staff corporal.

British staff sergeants are never referred to or addressed as “Sergeant”, which would be reducing their rank, but are referred to and addressed as “Staff Sergeant” or “Staff” (“Staff Jones”, for instance) or by their appointment or its abbreviation. Quartermaster sergeants are often addressed as “Q”. In most cavalry regiments, staff sergeants are addressed as “Sergeant Major”, which is assumed to derive from the original rank of troop sergeant major.

This pair of rank slides are made from an embroidered piece of fabric, folded round and sewn with a seam down the back:imageThe slides would either be worn as a pair on each shoulder or centrally on the chest depending on the order of dress.

Pre-WW1 Officer and Motorcycle Photograph

This week’s photograph is unusual in having a date attached to it; this rather fine photograph of an officer and his motorcycle dates to June 18th 1914 just before the outbreak of war:SKM_C45817083008150 - CopyThe officer is stood at the top of an embankment:SKM_C45817083008150 - Copy - CopyNote the white band on his arm indicating he is probably taking part in a military exercise. At the foot of the bank is his motorcycle and sidecar:SKM_C45817083008150 - Copy - Copy (2)Motorbikes were very popular with young men before the war. Although still expensive, they were far more affordable to a man of reasonable means than contemporary automobiles. When war was declared the military took advantage of this pool of trained motorcyclists and encouraged them to enlist as dispatch riders, the bikes being far quicker than going on foot or by horse and much more manoeuvrable than a car.

One motorcyclist recalled how he enlisted:

Early in the morning I started for London to join them, but on the way up I read the paragraph in which the War Office appealed for motorcyclists. So I went straight to Scotland Yard. There I was taken to a large room full of benches crammed with all sorts and conditions of men. The old fellow on my right was a sign writer. On my left was a racing motorcyclist… The racing motorcyclist and I were passed one after another, and, receiving warrants we travelled down to Fulham. Our names, addresses, and qualifications were written down. To my overwhelming joy I was marked as “very suitable”. I went to Great Portland Street to buy a motorcycle, and returned home.

He was destined to spend the war as a dispatch rider, and despite the dangers was probably luckier than if he had been in the infantry.

Visit to Somerset Military Museum

Living in Yorkshire the Somerset Military Museum in Taunton is not somewhere I get to go very often, however owing to the need to visit family last weekend I found myself with an hour to spare whilst in Taunton so decided to revisit the museum. The museum has had a major facelift since I last went and I was eager to see the refreshed displays.

I was not disappointed as the museum is one of those rare things- a newly refurbished display that understands that what visitors actually want to see is artefacts! Display cases radiate out from the centre (which has a wonderful captured mountain gun) and they cover the various regiments of Somerset, with a definite emphasis on the Somerset Light Infantry. The other county regiments are there, but the focus is very much the SLI, which is fine with me as it was my grandfather’s regiment!

The displays cover much of what you would expect- uniforms, weapons, medals etc. A few of the more interesting artefacts include a couple of wooden grave markers from WW1, some truly impressive mess silver and a wonderfully engraved trench art waterbottle from the Great War. The display cases are densely packed with objects, but it never feels overwhelming and there is space to tell the stories of those behind the artefacts.

Finally I cannot end without mentioning that at the moment the glorious Lady Elizabeth Butler painting “Remnants of an Army”,  depicting the Retreat from Kabul in 1842 is on loan to the museum. This is one of the great pieces of military art and would be worth a trip to see alone without even considering the rest of this fantastic museum.

The Somerset Military Museum is part of the Museum of Somerset in Taunton Castle and is free to enter.

Cyprus Operational Support Unit DDPM CS95 Shirt

We have looked at quite a few different desert DPM shirts and jackets over the years on the blog, but last week I picked up a very nice example with a few unusual features that I thought I would share with you:imageThis started out as a standard CS95 shirt, but the original owner has had it tailored with the sleeves cut off, folded back over to the regulation width and sewn into position:imageThis modification eliminates the need to carefully roll up the sleeves every time the wearer goes in shirt sleeve order and presents a much smarter appearance as there is no longer three or four layers of cloth to try and arrange neatly.

The shirt has a tactical recognition flash for the Royal Logistics Corps:imageAnd for the Cyprus Operational Support Unit:imageAccording to the RAF’s website:

Today, RAF Akrotiri is the home of the Cyprus Operations Support Unit (COSU) which provides facilities for support to air, land and sea training and operations for British and allied forces by providing a secure airhead location usable by all but the very largest aircraft and with its own mole for replenishing ships. It has sufficient bulk aviation fuel stores, explosive storage and dispersed aircraft parking for high-tempo air operations. It can provide accommodation, transport and life support to exercising or operational troops as well as for those awaiting onward flights. 

Other features to note on the shirt are not unique to this example but I don’t think I have previously covered. The inside of the pockets gave tape loops for pens:imageSpare buttons are sewn into the inside of the shirt on a piece of tape:imageNext to this is a standard label with sizing, NSN number etc:imageThese badged shirts are out there at the moment for very reasonable prices and if you are interested I suggest you build up a collection now as they won’t be around for ever and experience suggests that they will only increase in collectability as time goes on.

Royal West African Frontier Force Button

Tonight’s object is a tiny horn button with a palm tree and the initials RWAFF on the front:imageA simple brass loop is attached to the back:

imageThis button is actually from the Royal West African Frontier Force. The RWAFF was formed in 1897 with men from Nigeria, Gambia, Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast. The force fought with distinction in World War One, mostly in German East Africa.

In 1939, the RWAFF was transferred from Colonial Office to War Office control. Under the leadership of General George Giffard (GOC West Africa), the RWAFF served as a cadre for the formation of 81st (West Africa) Division and 82nd (West Africa) Division. Both divisions saw service during the Second World War, serving in Italian Somaliland, Abyssinia, and Burma. In 1947, the RWAFF reverted to Colonial Office control. After the war, the RWAFF comprised the Nigeria Regiment (five battalions, stationed at Ibadan, Abeokuta, Enugu, and two in Kaduna, with a field battery of artillery and a field company of engineers), the Gold Coast Regiment, and the Sierra Leone Regiment (including a company in Gambia). When Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria in 1956, she gave the Nigeria Regiment the title “Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment”.


Sadly the contribution of Africans was largely overlooked for many years and it is only now, seventy years after the end of the war that their stories are starting to come to light, as reported in a BBC news piece:

Nigerians made up more than half of the total force of 90,000 West African soldiers deployed to South East Asia after 1943 as part of the British Army’s 81st and 82nd (West Africa) Divisions. 

Although the Burma campaign ended 64 years ago, many remain bitter that their contribution was never adequately recognised.

They were central to the push to clear Japanese forces out of the jungle and mountain ranges of Burma, from where they threatened British India.

This was achieved through a gruelling campaign of jungle marches, battles and ambushes, in which supplies were delivered entirely by air.

Usman Katsina remembers it well. 

“Everything that was meant to be used – your food, your clothes, everything – was given to you and you were required to carry it, on your head and back. Some even died from exhaustion, from travelling long distances, with a heavy load,” he says. 

Some of those who earned the coveted Burma Star had already fought against Mussolini’s forces in East Africa. 

West Africans also joined special Chindit units under the command of General Orde Wingate. 

The Chindits fought deep inside Japanese-held territory to disrupt lines of communication. 

Their enemy was an extremely dangerous opponent. Japanese soldiers were trained well in the art of jungle warfare, where the first rule was concealment. 

It was a skill the Nigerian troops had to learn too. 

“The Japanese in the jungle were just like snakes – they hid before you could see them, it was very hard,” recalls 97-year-old Hassan Sokoto.image

Trousers, Inner

The cold weather uniform introduced in the early 1950s has been touched upon on the blog before. Basically the British Army introduced a whole new set of clothing based on the layer principle pioneered by the US Army during World War 2. The idea was that it was better to wear several thin layers of fabric rather than one thick one. A pocket of air becomes trapped between each layer acting as insulation. Previously we have looked at the pyjama drawers here, and tonight we are looking at the next layer, the inner trousers:imageThese are made of green wool, smooth on the outside and ‘fuzzy’ on the inside:imageA label in the waistband indicates they should not be worn next to the skin, but rather over the drawers, pyjamas:imageThe label gives the following instructions:

  1. For hygiene these trousers are to be worn only over Drawers Pyjama type or other washable undergarments.
  2. Dry clean if possible or wash carefully when instructed to do so.

A second label gives sizing and indicates that this pair were made in 1951.

The waist band of the inner trousers has a knitted, elasticated cuff:imageAnd loops are provided for the braces to pass through:imageThese allow the wearer to drop his trousers and undergarments all as one set to attend to the call of nature. A button fly is also provided:imageThese trousers were introduced as a response to the inadequate clothing in the British Army during the Korean War. Very little of this new clothing actually reached the troops during the conflict, but it was to see use in the following decades. Like these trousers, a lot of it is still out there in mint unissued condition.