Monthly Archives: January 2019

Inside this Island Fortress, WVS Book Review

Jon Mill’s series on Home Front Insignia was originally planned to run to at least eight volumes, sadly it seems only the first four titles ever made it to publication. Of these I have already reviewed a couple of them and just before Christmas I managed to track down the first book in the series covering the Women’s Voluntary Service. This service was set up just before World War II to provide voluntary support to the ARP services, but as the war progressed found its remit extending into any role the government or local authorities needed it to fulfil. This included running canteens, organising rest centres and co-ordinating salvage drives. There are a number of excellent titles covering the work the WVS set out to do and this book is looking specifically at the insignia and ephemera of the service.skm_c30819011707540As such it is packed with both colour photographs of surviving items and black and white period shots of the badges and uniforms being worn. The WVS did not supply uniform to its members; they had to purchase it for themselves, but a small number of retailers were designated official suppliers and those who could afford uniform had something that matched their colleagues. Printed cloth brassards and badges were far more prevalent and worn with volunteers own civilian clothing. Mill’s covers a great many of these, both official and locally produced variations.skm_c30819011707550As with all Mill’s books the text is succinct, but highly readable and covers many of the items a collector is likely to encounter in detail. Jon Mill’s seems to have cornered the market in these sort of specialist publications on home front insignia, this however is not a bad thing as he is both hugely knowledgeable and a very readable author. This latter point is in some ways as important as the knowledge he is imparting. Many otherwise excellent reference books are let down by the author being unable to communicate his information in a clear way that is pleasurable to read- these books then become a chore to read. Happily with a Mill’s book you know that this will not be the case and even what could be a dry subject such as badge variations remains readable and accessible to the layman.

Unlike some of the other titles in this series, Mill’s covers the WVS in other countries as well. The organisation was copied in Canada and perhaps most significantly in India and he covers this organisation and its insignia in some detail which is a nice addition.skm_c30819011707551Copies of the book are available through the author, please email via the address on the ‘About’ page and I will be happy to put you in contact with him.. If you have an interest in the uniformed women’s services or the home front then this title is highly recommended.

SA80 Bayonet

When introduced the SA80 bayonet was quite a departure for the British Army. The new SA80 rifle was very different from anything that had been issued before, being shorter and lighter than was typical at the time. The bayonet which went with it was cast as a single piece and was designed to fit over the muzzle, the rifle firing through the grip.imageThe bayonets were produced using the lost wax casting process and were produced as a single casting of six bayonets that were then separated and machined to the final design.

The bayonet was being seen by some armies at the time as obsolete, however the British had used the bayonet with the SLR in the Falklands just a few years before to some effect and felt there was still a place for it in the modern army. The SA80 pamphlet sets out the doctrine for the use of a bayonet in modern warfare:

When closing with the enemy at close quarters there may well be the occasion for hand to hand combat. The bayonet is issued specifically for this pur­pose. In most cases bayonets will be fixed in a final assault position just prior to fight­ing through an objective. Situations arise when it is not possible to shoot at the enemy. These could be, running out of ammunition, a stoppage during an assault, or the close proximity of a fellow soldier making a shot too dangerous. In these circumstances the use of the bayonet may be the only alternative. It can also have a demoralizing effect on the enemy.

The official description of the SA80 bayonet is:

The bayonet is shaped to produce good penetration when thrust, point first, into the body and is de­signed to part the ribs without embedding into the bone. It has a cutting edge which should be kept sharp; the curved part of the back of the bayonet must not be sharp­ened as this will reduce its rib parting ability. The recesses along the blade are blood channels to reduce any suction effect and enable a clean withdrawal from the body. The ribbed portion of the blade is for rope cutting. imageThere is a slot at the forward end for use with the scabbard. imageThe handle is shaped so that the bayonet can be used as a fighting knife; at the rear of the handle is the release catch which holds it onto the muzzle of the rifle.imageThe handle is heavily ribbed to allow for grip when it is used as a fighting knife and the catch ensures that the cutouts in the handle will line up with the corresponding gas slots in the muzzle of the rifle:imageThe quillion of the bayonet has a larger depth behind where the thumb would rest for a right-handed soldier using it as a fighting knife:imageUsing the bayonet with such a short rifle brings its own challenges, the following positions are illustrated by the pamphlet as the best ways to use the bayonet:capturecapture1capture2capture3

Army Service Corps Cigarette Case

Today when we think of the Great War we tend to think almost exclusively of the fighting on the Western Front. This was certainly the main focus of fighting, but troops were deployed across the globe and tonight we have a delightful souvenir from those troops stationed in the Middle East. This cigarette case is exactly what you look for as a collector- it’s attractive, named, dated and even has the location engraved into it!imageThe case is made of brass that has been silver plated and in the bottom right hand corner there is an engraving of the cap badge of the Army Service Corps:imageThe lettering indicates that this case was owned by M/348444 George Armstrong of 1019 Company who were based in Mesopotamia and Persia and there is even a date of 1918. As a collector it doesn’t get much better than this! Sadly I have so far drawn a blank on the man himself, although I have discovered that 1019 Company were a mechanised transport company that was based in Basra in what is today Iraq in 1918, they were issued with Ford vans.

The case itself is quite small and is gently curved on the rear to fit snugly into a pocket, following the curves of the owner’s body so it is comfortable to use:imageInside a pair of elastic straps are fitted to hold the cigarettes in, surprisingly they are still supple and a little stretchy even after a century:imageThis is a delightful little object and hopefully the research will come together to help me tell George Armstrong’s story.

Auscam Trousers

The latest piece of clothing to help with my Auscam obsession is a pair of trousers in the distinctive camouflage pattern. In my experience it is nearly always easier to find jackets than trousers. Army surplus trousers are regularly worn in civilian life in a way jackets are not and trousers are far more susceptible to ripping or wearing through the fabric than jackets. This adds up to a situation where it can be hard to find more unusual trousers for a collection. It was therefore very pleasing to pick this pair up, even if they are a little more worn than I would have liked to match my jacket:imageThe trousers are made of poly-cotton, with the distinctive DPCU pattern printed on it, a little faded but still clear and serviceable. The trousers sport a large pocket on each thigh, secured with concealed buttons:imageA third pocket is sewn over the right buttock:imageNote also the belt loops, each of which fastens with a button on the bottom of the loop. Waist adjustment is by a pair of buttoning tabs on each hip:imageThe flies are secured with a zip and a button tab:imageThe bottom of each trouser leg is elasticated, drawing the leg in tight around the ankle where the trousers meet the wearer’s boots:imageThe Australian Army’s dress regulations indicate that the trousers are to be worn bloused over the boots:imageSadly the interior label is badly degraded from repeated washing so it is not possible to exactly date these trousers, but I suspect they date to the early 1990s. With the matching jacket and the 88 pattern webbing in my collection I have almost completed a full, if basic, set of Australian combat uniform and equipment from the end of the twentieth century, boots and hat are the last two major components now…

Postcard of Dalhousie Barracks, Calcutta

This week we return to India again for our weekly postcard, which this week is a fine study of Dalhousie Barracks in Calcutta:skm_c30819010312060I believe this postcard dates from around the time of the First World War and the building still stands today as part of the Indian Army’s Fort William. This description comes from a book called ‘Fort William Calcutta’s Crowning Glory’ by M.L. Augustine:

As soon as one enters the Fort through the East Gate, a massive structure of a four storeyed building captures one’s attention. Constructed during the period of Lord Dalhousie (Between 1848-56), this triangular building is named after him. It is the only building of its type in India that can accommodate an entire infantry battalion with its stores, arms, ammunition, and officers. A thousand bodies live, eat, sleep and train themselves for war on its premises. On the ground floor there is a temple. Ironically, next to the temple are the Quarter Guard, the armoury of weapons and the prisoners’ cells. It is said that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was once incarcerated in this building before he fled to Japan, though there is no documentary evidence to support this in any manner.

It was reported that when it was built, Dalhousie Barracks allocated 2000 cubic feet per man inside its building, equivalent to 111 square feet per soldier- at the time this was highlighted as being particularly generous compared to the overcrowded barracks used up to this point. It was also noted that as built ablution rooms and urinals were situated at the ends of the building on each floor for the use of the men, something that was again novel and new in military architecture.

The building has no doubt been refurbished many times over the century, but it remains in daily use by the Indian Army and is still a large and impressive building:capture

Watercolour of POW Camp

Just as British POWs were held in camps in occupied Europe, German and Italian prisoners were held in prison camps across the United Kingdom. These camps varied form converted mills in Oldham to proper facilities with wooden huts, fences and guard towers. Tonight we have a delightful amateur watercolour of a POW camp painted, I believe, by Lt Davies of the E Yorkshire Regiment. According to his grandson he was both an amateur artist and involved with the interrogation of prisoners at some point in the war and it seems likely that he painted this piece at that time:imageThe image shows the building and entrance to the camp, rather than the prisoner’s accommodation itself. In the foreground a sentry stands in a box by a raising barrier:imageA series of camouflaged buildings stand to the right:imageA large flag flies over these with what appears to be a red dragon on it, suggesting the camp might be in Wales:imageThe number on the flag appears to be 198, which would indicate this was Camp 198, known as island Farm which was near Bridgend in South Wales. A man pushes a handcart up the main entry road, his uniform looking distinctly Germanic:imageIn the distance a large wire fence and gate, along with a raised guard tower shows where the camp itself lies:imageThe journey from capture to a POW could be traumatic for the individual soldier. Kurt Bock was captured in Holland in 1944 and describes what happened when he reached England:

…hours later, a train took us elsewhere. It was not just an ordinary train; we sat on upholstered seats. There was no screaming and spitting at us like in Holland.

Hampden Park (a large Football ground in Scotland ): long rows of tables. Interrogation:

your name, your rank, your company, your papers. Delousing station. Shower & bath… 

Next day: Nottingham. A huge camp consisting only of tents. Of course, this caused a great disappointment. Here we received cigarettes, a bag and a white handkerchief, which made a great impression on me. But I already had one valuable extra possession: a second blanket… 

The next camp was Crewe Hall, Cheshire (Camp 191). My first days there I felt only relief at the narrow escape out of hell. And this hell was still going on on the other side of the Channel. My family did not know I was safe and I did not know if my parents were alive. I had already learnt of the death of my younger brother Martin…I had nothing but my uniform. Consequently when I caught my first cold I did not have my handkerchief. through the wire a soldier from my company passed me a small red handkerchief…Our daily diet was tea with milk and sugar twice daily poured into an empty corned beef tin-if you had one!

Mk 7 Helmet

In June 2009 the British Army introduced a new combat helmet as an urgent operational requirement. This was the Mk 7 and it replaced the older Mk 6 and Mk 6A design, the shape of the helmet being updated in light of combat experience. Users of the older patterns of helmet had found it difficult to take up a prone position as the helmet dug into their body armour, tipped forward over their eyes and prevented them from firing easily. A new helmet was developed that had the same ballistic properties as the Mk 6A, but with a revised shape that allowed it to be used with body armour. The Mk 7 was a pound lighter than its predecessor and was produced in tan rather than green or black:imageThe helmet has an upgraded liner that features a mesh top section and padded panels around the head:imageThe chin strap was also upgraded with a three point suspicion system. The chin straps start at the back of the helmet:imageThey then run forward to two adjusting straps, one on either side:imageA leather chin cup is provided to hold the helmet in place:imageThis is fastened by passing the end strap through a metal loop and folding the tab back on itself. Two press studs secure it and prevent it coming undone:imageSome troops upgraded their helmets by replacing the press studs with a quick release buckle. Other changes made by troops included adding a loop to the rear of the helmet straps to allow it to be secured to body armour with a carabineer.

The manufacturer’s labels for these helmets are particularly inaccessible, being fixed under the rear of the liner. They contain details of the NSN number, a code for the manufacturer and a date, here 2011:imageJust one firm made the Mk 7 helmet, NP Aerospace Ltd who traded as Morgan Advanced Materials. The Daily Mail reported on the introduction of the Mk7 helmet back in 2009:

New helmets designed to help British troops to target the enemy are being rushed out to Afghanistan this weekend.

The Ministry of Defence is issuing the lighter headgear following soldiers’ complaints that the current helmet is unsuitable for firefights with the Taliban.

Five thousand Mark 7 helmets, along with new Osprey Assault body armour, are being sent to Afghanistan for the troops of 11 Brigade who are starting a six-month operational tour.

The new British-made Mark 7 helmet is the first major change for 20 years – and looks more like an American helmet than the current pudding basin style. It is shaped to allow a soldier to lie flat and shoot straight, without the rear rim digging into his body armour and tipping the front rim over his eyes.

British soldiers are frequently having to fight the Taliban crawling along the ground for cover. Many have complained that when they have to fire  while lying down, they struggle to aim quickly at what may be only a fleeting target…

The MoD’s Urgent Operational Requirement order for new helmets was accelerated by the introduction of US-made Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights (ACOG) that sit higher on the soldiers’ SA80 rifles.

Lt Col Matthew Tresidder, chief of staff of the Defence Clothing and Textiles Agency, said 10,000 new helmets and body armour kits have been bought by the Ministry of Defence for £16million. The first 5,000 sets are going to infantry soldiers, engineers, drivers, medics, dog handlers and anyone who regularly goes ‘outside the wire’ of protected bases.

The remainder of the 9,000 servicemen in Afghanistan will continue to use the current protective kit.Royal Marine from 40 Cdo in Sangin, AfghanistanWhilst designed to make it easier for troops to shoot from a prone position, this was not to be the case in reality and just four years later the same newspaper reported that specialist troops, especially snipers, were having to remove the helmets in combat to make shots:

British Army snipers’ lives are being put at risk because they are forced to remove ill-fitting protective helmets before they shoot at the enemy.

Crack marksmen have complained that it is ‘near impossible’ to adopt a correct firing position when targeting Taliban fighters in Afghanistan because of unsuitable kit.

Problems have arisen on the frontline when the back of the standard-issue helmets rub against the top of the ballistic plates in the cutting-edge Osprey body armour

The friction means elite UK sharpshooters are struggling to get ‘beads on’ insurgents laying deadly IEDs or planning ambushes because they cannot properly line up the target in their rifle’s cross-hairs.

 To overcome the issue, some troops have taken the drastic step of removing their helmets before taking a shot – running the risk that they themselves could receive a fatal bullet to the head.

A senior officer has admitted that the ‘problem’ is affecting specialist soldiers in the warzone.

He confirmed a major review of helmets was now underway after safety fears were highlighted…

A serviceman has written anonymously to the magazine, which is published with MoD approval, flagging up concerns.

He said: ‘Snipers throughout the Army are struggling to adopt a correct fire position whilst wearing a Mark 6, 6A or 7 helmet – especially when combined with the Osprey.

‘Firing from low-profile positions such as the prone are near impossible.

‘Most service personnel go as far as to remove their helmets, especially when a more difficult shot is required, causing obvious safety concerns.

The Mk7 helmet is now being replaced with Virtus equipment and has slowly been trickling onto the collectors’ market for a few years now (despite many reservist units still using the older Mk 6 and Mk6A helmets). Its service life was brief and apparently much of the army’s stock was sent to the Ukraine when withdrawn from front line duties, proving to be a popular choice amongst troops fighting the Russians there.