All three of the armed services have their own dedicated police forces. These police units all have distinctive insignia and uniform variations to make it easy to identify them. Whilst the army use red cap covers, the RAF police have white topped caps, and it is an example of this we are looking at tonight:This cap is worn by NCOs and is of the same design as a standard RAF parade cap, but with a white vinyl top rather than it being made in blue-grey fabric. The white top gives rise to the RAF Police’s nickname of ‘snowdrops’. The white cap was first introduced at the very end of World War Two, originally as a separate cap cover, becoming an integral vinyl top only later. This cap was produced in the early 2000s, and has a label stuck into the underside of the top with the size, 54cm, an NSN number and the identification of the cap type:The front of the cap has a pair of eyelets to allow a staybrite RAF cap badge to be attached:Note the black woven band around the cap, and the blue-grey fabric you can just see above it. This is far more obvious on the rear of the cap:The chinstrap is made of vinyl, secured with two black plastic buttons sewn on either side of the cap:A stiff peak is fitted, shiny black on the top and green on the underside:Note also the faux-leather sweatband sewn to the interior of the cap. These caps are worn both formally on parades:And whilst on duty:Officially the cap is only to be worn by NCOs below the rank of Warrant Officer, WOs wearing a standard blue-grey cap. Unofficially however it seems that some senior NCOs, taking advantage of the latitude their high rank entails, are now continuing to wear the white topped cap to make it clear that they are members of the RAF Police, the cap badge being substituted for the correct design for their rank.
Although I do not smoke, I do occasionally pick up bits of militaria with a smoking connection, the ubiquity of this habit for much of the twentieth century ensures there are many interesting military related items of tobaccanalia out there. Tonight’s object is a heavy carved ashtray:This is made from a piece of grey marble, nicely finished and polished smooth:What interests us however is the inscription around the edges that indicates it was made as a souvenir for the Royal Engineers during their campaigns in Northern Africa in 1942 and 1943:In the centre is a carved formation badge for the First Army:This badge consists of a shield, with a crusader cross on it and a sword superimposed upon it, this formation was assembled for the allied landings in Operation Torch.
Ronald Sargeant was an engineer in North Africa, with the Eighth rather than the First Army, but his experiences give a good indication of the sort of work the Royal Engineers were involved in during the campaigns here:
On October 23 Montgomery mounted an attack against the German line at Alamein. He had received reinforcements from Britain of tanks, guns, etc and the guns (900) were massed on the front and for the start of the battle fired a barrage the like of which had never been seen before. Our job in the battle was to remove mines in the German minefields to make gaps for the infantry and tanks to pass through safely.
The Germans had roughly 20-30 different types of mines, which we had to learn how to defuse. The most famous was the Tellex mine, which was for use against tanks and when it was laid could be booby trapped. Another was the anti-personnel mine which when trodden on jumped up about 3 feet in the air and exploded. All that showed above ground were three small antennae, which were very difficult to see but both types were picked up on the mine detection which was very much like a vacuum cleaner.
The Battle of Alemein in 1942 was the turning point of the war in the desert and the German and Italians were pushed back past Tripoli. We had a victory parade in Tripoli marching down the main street behind bands of bagpipes, but after that it was on to Tunis (capital of Tunisia). Before that the 1st Army and Americans landed in Algeria so the Germans were pinched between two armies, 8th in the east and 1st in the west and it wasn’t long before the Germans and Italians surrendered and the war in North Africa was over.
Here we see a sapper clearing mines in Tunisia in 1943:
A brassard is a piece of cloth that goes over the shoulder and in military terms it is usually used to display rank and unit insignia. This allows more delicate embroidered badges to be separate from items of clothing that would frequently get dirty and need constant laundering, such as overalls. The brassard can be removed before washing and swapped from overall to overall. Tonight we have a fairly modern brassard for a sergeant:Note how dirty this brassard is, I removed it from a set of overalls and the oil is probably left over from the original owner’s work. Three white sergeants stripes are fitted to the front:Interestingly this was originally a corporal’s brassard that has been modified by adding an extra stripe. The original two stripes are sewn on, as seen on the reverse:The extra stripe though has been glued onto the fabric, indicating that the original owner was promoted and just made the alteration with glue! This seems a fairly hap hazard arrangement, but it looks neat enough from the front and it is only on close in section that you can see how the change was made. A slot is cut in the top of the brassard for a shoulder strap to pass through:This prevents the brassard from slipping down the shoulder. Velcro is fitted to allow the main body of the brassard to be secured around the arm- loops on the front:And hooks on the rear:When wrapped around the arm, these mate up to hold it securely:Combined with the top fastening this helps hold the brassard nice and secure, whilst still allowing flexibility and easy removal for washing. These sort of objects are very hard to date, but I would guess that this was produced in the 1970s or 1980s. One old soldier recalls regimental variations in brassards:
Household Div use to have brassards for No2 dress shirt (made from No2 dress shirt material) shirts hairy and woolly pulley(made out of denim/lightweights material) and startched to fcuk so they could stand up. Remember, Guards RSMs have a fcuk off big tate and lyle on the forearm on brassards, not cuff too.
In 1916 the Daily Mail started releasing a series of postcards for sale to the general public depicting scenes of the front, having paid £2500 to war charities for permission to produce the images. Eventually 22 series of 8 card sets were produced, with accompanying albums to store the cards in. The newspaper touted described the first run of cards as:
The first selection of pictures numbers 40, and these represent all phases of the new warfare. They are up to date, for they depict scenes in the great Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1. They will form a precious record of the gallantry and devotion of our soldiers in the great advance.
As might be expected, these cards are still very common and the images they show are far more exciting and historic than many postcards of the period and so they are a great place to start collecting Great War cards. I have a small number of these cards and will bring you them on an occasional basis going forwards. Tonight we start with an image entitled ‘The Worcesters Going into Action’:The photograph is clearly posed, but interesting nonetheless. The men are waving their helmets in the air:And one at least seems to be carrying a massive wooden mallet:Each man is carrying his full equipment including 08 webbing, PH hood respirator case and SMLE rifle:The combination of helmet and PH Hood bag indiates the image dates from 1916 and suggests it is from one of the earlier runs of cards. The Daily mail’s series of postcards was unbelievably popular and their main tabloid rival, the Daily mirror, got in on the act by producing a series of their own based around the Canadian Army.
In the military there are certain items of kit that are handed out like sweeties, whether you want them or not. One case in point is the anti-static t-shirt. This is a self-wicking t-shirt made from synthetic fabric that is designed to help draw sweat away from the body and keep the wearer either warm in the winter or cool in the summer. Opinions on these t-shirts are mixed to say the least- some love them others hate them, but one thing is certain there are a lot of them about! A quick count up in my collection revealed I had eight of these, some still in their issue bags. I don’t recall ever setting out to buy one, but I still seem to have a pile!
The T-Shirt is available in brown, black or olive green fabric:It comes in a plastic bag from stores:With a stores label stuck to the outside of the packet:The t-shirt is of a fairly regular design, but a close up of the fabric is useful:The t-shirt has a series of hollow filaments inside that draw moisture (i.e. sweat) away from the body and to the outside where it can evaporate off. This fabric is widely used for gym wear and is supposed to be more comfortable for the wearer than traditional cotton. It does have its downsides though as these filaments can build up deposits of sweat and gunk over time and this can be difficult to remove by washing, leading to a sweaty body odour smell emanating from the garment.
Soldiers’ opinions on the T-Shirt vary, some really like it:
I quite like the new issue t shirts, they keep you incredibly warm when worn as a base layer under a regular cotton t shirt and then with layers on top of that; I was quite happy in -11’C a few weeks ago with just the two old and new issued t shirts, a norgie and a combat jacket. Although the stench retention is a very real issue.. not that I have ever taken hygiene in the field seriously at all
Others are less keen:
I thought those issued desert wicking T shirt were utter garbage. The ones with the tiny little holes in them, colour of dodgy-curry sh1t the morning after. Seemed to retain underarm smell more than other ones too. Maybe it’s because I’m a smelly fcuker though, who knows?
As with most modern British Army uniform, these t-shirts are made in China, and instead of having a maker’s name on the label, they just have a contract number:I have worn these t-shirts myself in hot climates and I must confess that personally I did not warm to them particularly, I found that the type of fabric used rubs and chafes and after a full day wearing them you have quite sore nipples!
For the average collector who does not have a huge budget, items with a direct link to famous military leaders do not come up very often. Normally these are the reserve of collectors with deep pockets, however occasionally items do appear with a direct link to a famous historical personage. Sometimes this is a little tangential, like this bag used by one of TE Lawrence’s officers, other times it is a more direct connection. Tonight we have an original letter sent by Field Marshal Haig:I added this letter to my collection completely by chance. I bought a regimental history of one of the battalions of the Duke of Wellington Regiment during the Great War for a few pounds on the market, in itself a very good find:It was only when I examined the book closely that I found the above letter pasted into the inside cover. The letter reads:
Dear Colonel Howat
In reply to your letter of 6th inst: very much regret to say that my time is so fully taken up trying to help our ex-servicemen, that I am unable to write a foreword to your book.
With hearty wishes for the success of the History of the 1/4th Battalion Duke of Wellingtons Regt.
The letter is then signed ‘Haig. FM.’:I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this letter, having compared it to other known letters from Haig the hand writing is consistent, and the letterhead for the note paper is for Fairfield House, St Peters-In-Thanet:This was the address of Haig in 1920 and with the content of the letter relating directly to the book it all appears correct.
Field Marshall Douglas Haig was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France from Late 1915 until the end of the First World War. Following the end of the Great War Haig devoted himself to service charities, pushing for the amalgamation of charities and stopping a plan for a separate charity for officers, his efforts saw the foundation of the British Legion in June 1921. His Haig Fund and Haig Homes Charity continue to perform sterling work today.
It would be fair to say that following his death Haig has become a controversial figure. During his lifetime and at his funeral he was lauded as a great military commander, however during the 1960s this opinion was changed to portray him as a cold and unfeeling leader, unable to adapt to the new forms of war. This portrayal was most famously seen in the 1960s film ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ when he was played by Sir John Mills- the film saying as much about 1960s attitudes as about the Great War. Modern historiography is kinder to the Field Marshal, but the popular myth of him as a butcher remains in many quarters.Regardless of Haig’s reputation, this letter is a wonderful find and something I feel very privileged to have in my collection; a real and tangible links to one of the most important men of the First World War.
The British Army has long had an order of dress known as ‘barrack’ dress. This is a uniform that is smarter than combat uniform, but more comfortable and less formal than a dress uniform. For many years this consisted of a fawn short sleeved shirt with green lightweight trousers, often worn with a regimental stable belt and a peaked blues cap, however regimental distinctions can arise (such as this regiment’s choice of trousers!):The shirt however remains consistent and is a fawn coloured poly cotton shirt of a conventional design:This comes in a wide range of sizes, as indicated in the stores catalogue:Buttoned patch pockets are fitted to each breast, with curved bottom corners:Button down straps are fitted to each shoulder for officers to display their rank insignia:In this case however the original owner of this shirt was an NCO, so his insignia is sewn onto the sleeve:This is the distinctive rank insignia of a Staff Sergeant in the Royal Engineers. As is typical, a label is sewn into the back of the shirt with sizing, NSN number and a space for the soldier to write his name and number:The sizing includes a collar size, here 45cm and in this case we can see that the shirt was originally worn by a soldier named ‘Pascoe’.