Category Archives: Rations

Folding Hexamine Cooker

For many decades the standard way for a soldier to heat his rations in the field or boil some water for a brew was to use the folding hexamine cooker. Hexamine was a solid fuel that burnt easily and generated enough heat from a small block to boil a mess tin’s worth of water. The stove that is was used with was a small brass folding design and it is one of these we are looking at tonight. The stove comes wrapped in a grease proof type paper to protect it whilst in storage:imageThe front of the paper is printed with details of the contents:imageWhilst the rear shows how to use the stove:imageOnce unwrapped the stove is a small brass box:imageThe ends fold down to lift the main burner plate off the ground, and provide points for the mess tin to rest on above the flames, the box of hexamine is visible stored inside:imageWith the box removed it can be seen that the burner has holes in its base to encourage airflow to allow the hexamine tablets to burn:imageThe hexamine itself is provided in a small waxed cardboard box (that can be used to help light the blocks). The top of the box warns to use the fuel in a well ventilated area:imageThis is wise advice as hexamine is made from various noxious chemicals including formaldehyde which you do not want to breathe in!

The rear of the box gives more detailed instructions on using the cooker:imageThe manufacturer of the hexamine has marked their name on the edge of the box:imageHere troops can be seen boiling water using a hexamine cooker:imageAs ever ARRSE has a wonderfully irreverent take on hexamine:

Top stuff. Don’t be fooled. Buggering around with gucci petrol stoves is simply not worth it unless you are some kind of mountain warrior.

Hexy is a slang abbreviation for Hexamine, a kind of solid fuel which allegedly (according to the powers that be) burns cleanly and leaves no residue or ash.

Hexamine, given enough encouragement, will burn, releasing copious amounts of noxious fumes, its true there is no ash or residue left on the ground, this is because the residue has migrated to your mess tin, which is now coated in thick immovable black goo.


Seaman’s Ration Book

Merchant seamen on short trips around Britain’s coastline of a few days would not usually be catered for from their ship’s stores. Instead they were expected to pick up rations ashore and bring them back on board for the cook on board to prepare. A special ration book was therefore issued to sailors that could be authorised by the captain or master of a ship for a week at a time. For the cover we can see that this example was issued to a sailor called ‘Styles’ in Sunderland in 1943:imageThe inside of the cover has instructions to the sailor on how to use the book:imageThe original owner of this book clearly used it a number of times as coupons have been cut out of several pages:imageThere are still many weeks where the book has not been countersigned or coupons removed:imageAlthough clearly not necessary in this case, a form is provided for the sailor to request a new ration book if he were to finish this one:image

imageThe back page gives instructions to the ship’s master about what he needs to do in order to complete the book:imageNote also the printer’s coding at the bottom of the page that indicates this book was one of a run of 115,000 copies produced in June 1943.

Much of Britain’s internal trade was done by sea, with coasters making short trips up and down the coastline with bulky cargos. Fishermen were also expected to make short journeys of a few days around the coast and this ration book was designed to allow them to be fed simply without any recourse to the more complex victualing procedures required for trans-Atlantic crossings or other longer journeys.


Wartime Orlox Suet packet

Back when this blog first started I wrote a regular series of posts called Tuesday Finds, showcasing anything I had found that week. These were very brief posts with usually only a single photograph of the object and very little background information. I have decided to revisit some of the objects featured in those early posts and give them a post of their own with more photographs and a more in depth write up. These items will be dotted around during the coming months and we start tonight with a wartime Orlox Suet packet:imageThis packet is unused, but was designed to hold suet to make puddings with. It is made of recycled cardboard, with simple red ink printing, described on the box as a ‘wartime jacket’:imagePaper like other materials was in short supply during the world war and as well as salvaging and recycling as much as possible, manufacturers were encouraged to reuse material and cut down in other areas such as the inks, hence the very simplistic nature of this box compared to the eye catching designs of the 1920s and 30s. The box itself is made from die cut cardboard that can be folded up and secured with tabs on either end:imageApart from the product details on three sides, the only other information is the recipe as to how to use this item:imageSuet puddings were a popular part of British diet at this period, being both cheap and very filling. Suet is processed beef fat and when mixed with flour and water can be made into a pastry, dumplings or a thick stodgy pudding such as spotted dick.

Fats such as suet were rationed during wartime, with each adult allowed typically 5oz a week. Suet puddings however were an excellent way to make this go as far as possible and a meat pudding could be made packed with root vegetables to pad out the meat that would feed the whole family, if it was cooked with a hay box type cooker it would also be economical with fuel.

Methylated Spirit Stove

Tonight’s object, as far as I am aware, is not strictly military in origin. It was however used by a friend of mine extensively during his time in the army and was apparently a popular choice of privately purchased equipment for many squaddies in the 1980s so is entirely appropriate to appear on the blog.

Many soldiers had problems with the standard issue hexamine cooking stoves. They were sometime difficult to light in windy conditions, were slow to heat up water and left a thick and sticky black residue on the bottom of mess tins. Many turned to alternatives and this little methylated spirit stove was a popular choice:imageIt takes the form of a pressed brass can, with a removable lid and multiple holes to encourage airflow in to the central burner. The lid is stamped with safety instructions:imageOnce the lid is removed, the burner itself can be seen inside the stove:imageThis is filled with methylated spirit and has a series of air holes around the rim to aid combustion, it is removable to allow it to be cleaned or refilled:imageOnce the cooking has been completed, a small metal lid can be dropped onto the top of the burner to extinguish the flames:imageThese stoves must be extinguished this way as blowing the flame out just results in the fuel and flames spraying back at the user. The rounded portion of the cover is used both the grasp it with to drop it onto the burner, and also to hold it on securely in transit so the methylated spirit can’t escape. The top of the handle fits into the dimple pressed into the stove’s lid and the fit is tight enough to prevent spillage.

The design of this stove is very simple and seems to be based off of the 1925 Trangia pattern which in turn was based off of a design patented in 1904 in New York by J Heinrichs. This very simple stove is incredibly light, but can quickly produce enough flame to warm up a mess tin of water:imageIt is this speed, the lightness of the design and the lack of smoke when burning methylated spirit that made this design so popular amongst troops. These little stoves also work well in low temperatures in a way designs that rely on pressurised gas do not. It was also suitable to be carried on board aircraft when deploying overseas, again something that cannot be done with pressurised cylinders of gas. The stove works by:

The unpressurized open-top design of the double wall acts as a gas generator, transferring heat from the flame to the fuel. This effect enhances combustion, producing more heat than other passive designs. The inner wall also creates a convenient preheat chamber for starting the stove. Once the fuel has warmed up, its vapor will travel up the hollow wall, pass through the perforations, and form a ring of flame. This improves air/fuel mixing and therefore combustion. Vapor also rises from the center of the stove and burns when passing through the ring of flame as long as a pot is over the stove.

Today more sophisticated portable stoves such as jet boils are available that are even more efficient and light, however for a period in the 70s and 80s this was a popular choice for many soldiers.

Current Issue Halal Ration Pack

Over the years this blog has covered a wide variety of ration packs, from the 1980s examples with individual tins, through the early 1990s and the first boil in a bag meals through to the early 2000s and those used on the early operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sustained operations revealed a number of problems with the ration packs in service, with only ten meals to choose form people were quickly getting fed up of the same food as ration packs were used continuously for six months. Other items were also problematic, chocolate melting in the heat of Afghanistan. An officer from the Royal Navy was tasked with coming up with a new selection of ration packs and he explained:

Before Iraq and Afghanistan my predecessors were making meals for people who were going on exercise for two weeks. I have customers who eat these for prolonged periods and can get menu fatigue. Ten alternatives were not enough to sustain interest for six months. We were very determined to make changes. The pack did not reflect the fact that soldiers coming from Generation Y are used to global food. I wanted them to be able to pick up their rations and find something they would order on a Friday night from a takeaway. We said, tell us what your Mum is sending over or what you are taking on exercise. We can’t promise to include it but we can promise to try.

The new range that was developed consisted of 38 different menus, 20 normal ration packs and 18 to cover vegetarian, halal, Sikh and Hindu tastes. Tonight we have an example of a halal ration pack to look at. These were produced in large quantities as they could be issued to members of the Afghan National Army serving alongside the British in Helmand.

As ever, the rations come packed in a small cardboard carton:imageThese are packaged in larger boxes of ten. One end of the box has a large union flag emblazoned on it to show that this is a British ration pack, and a white circular sticker indicates the ration pack contents. In this case it is ‘H10’ which is one of the halal menu options:imageSome basic nutritional information is printed on the opposite end of the box:imageAnd some general information about the menus and feedback is marked on the side:imageThe lid, as well as indicating the rations are owned by the MOD, gives advice on the safe burning of waste in theatre:imageThe base contains the familiar range card design that dates back at least as far as the 1980s:imageThe contents of the box include a selection of boil in the bag meals, drinks, nuts, biscuits, toilet paper and a small bottle of hot sauce:imageThe sundries are included in a large ziplock clear plastic bag:imageThese include non-alcoholic hand wipes (the alcohol can cause skin to crack in hot conditions), a range of tea, coffee, creamer and sugar, chewing gum and matches:imageThe disposable spoon is an idea taken form the Americans and promotes hygiene as the spoon can be thrown away at the end of the day rather than festering bacteria in a soldiers pocket. Items that made mess tins dirty like powdered soups were also discarded, the developers explaining:

They want to eat something that doesn’t get their mess tins dirty. It is a duty of care. If they go down with food poisoning it could compromise the mission and put people’s lives in danger

The full list of contents for this box is included on a feedback sheet that is included with each meal:imageThis particular menu seems very tomato and bean heavy! It is also interesting that for a Halal ration pack, this is essentially vegetarian. The form allows the user to be entered for a prize draw:imageThese forms were seen as very helpful by the manufacturer:

Each ration box includes a feedback form and these, together with visits to troops in theatre, debriefs of detachments as they return to the UK and individual letters provide the Defence Food Services team with constant user impressions. To date, the feedback has been extremely positive and constructive allowing constant fine tuning – such as a reduction in the number of fish dishes provided and an increase the number of snacking items and drink flavourings that are included.

No 2 Petrol Cooker Dixie

The British Army No2 Cooker was a pressurised petrol fuelled portable stove for cooking rations in the field. It was a small square cooker with a single burner and although opinions differed on the stove itself (some loved it for its speed of heating up rations whilst others argued it was a bomb waiting to go off), all agreed that the accompanying stainless steel cooking pan was excellent. The dixie came in two parts, a large lower cooking pot and a frying pan that doubled as a lid:imageThe lower pan was square in shape and about six inches deep making it ideal to throw a stew in, or to place cans in boiling water to heat them through:imageA wire handle is fitted that can be lifted up to allow the pan to be carried safely:imageNote the metal loops on the outside. These are designed to allow a leather strap to be passed around the two parts of the pan set to hold them together when not in use. The lid is far shallower and has two wire wrap around handles:imageThese can be pulled out and allow the lid to be used as a small frying pan:imageThis lid is /|\ marked and dated 1983:imageThese cookers and the associated pan were common issue items in small armoured vehicles such as the Ferret armoured car and a tasty hot meal could be quickly prepared for the crew in the single pot, or a fried breakfast made on the lid.

One glowing review comes from a civilian who used the pans for camping:

A great pan set! Had mine 7 years now, first used with my No.2 Mk2.
Be aware that because its pressed stainless, occasionally with high-heat use it may warp/twist slightly, tilting the pan. Not an issue when you are used to it and not all pans do it! It returns to normal when it cools down.
The pan-handles are usually tinned/coated mild steel so a scrub and a wipe of light oil when/if they get a little rusty.
The pot is a great, useful size for boiling water, making soup and general cooking. It doesn’t warp, its thick enough not to cause heat spots and the handle/bail is of a cute design so that its easily held in the horizontal position (stops handle getting red-hot from flames).

The design dates back to before the Second World War and can be seen here in a page from a wartime manual on the No2 Petrol Cooker:59dcb4553c59c_cookerNo2_jpg_443416cd479a8a348e54cabe8d0fb05b

Dried Milk Tin

Milk rationing was introduced in Great Britain in November 1941 when fresh bottled milk went on the ration for the first time. Each person was allowed three pints of fresh milk a week and in December 1941 tins of skimmed milk powder began to be imported from the United States:imageThese were in addition to the usual milk ration and each person was allowed one tin every four weeks. The tins cost 9d and one ration coupon and the powder made up an additional four pints. The tins were made of metal and had a paper label wrapped around them. The label was printed in red and blue and featured stars and stripes and the country of origin printed proudly on the front:imageThese packs of milk powder were specially produced in the United States for the Ministry of Food and this is marked on the side of the tin, along with a warning that the contents were not suitable for babies:imageAlternative milk powder containing whole full fat milk was also produced, especially for babies who needed the fat content to grow. The back of the label is unfortunately quite badly damaged, but gave instructions to the housewife about how to mix up the powder to make the milk:imageThe tins of milk powder were shipped form the US to Great Britain and shopkeepers in cardboard cartons, each holding 72x8oz cans:household-milk-cartonMilk powder was used for a variety of things during the war, as recalled by Anne Butcher:

Over-riding all these trifling discomforts was the non-stop foraging by the housewife to provide some variety in her family’s meals. I cannot recall ever being literally hungry, but the country had been reliant upon imports, which were now impossible because of the sea blockade. Everything was scrupulously rationed and we ate some strange things to supplement our diet.

Tea tablets were used to make the tea look stronger; babies’ dried milk or ‘National’ milk was added if it could be obtained; and saccharine was used as a sweetener. Some even resorted to using honey or jam. What a concoction – but we drank it. Bread was heavy and a dull grey colour, but it, too, was rationed – so we ate it.

Sweets were devised from a mixture of dried milk and peppermint essence with a little sugar or icing sugar if available.