Category Archives: Reviews

Badges on Battledress Book review

It is said that every author has a ‘Magnus opus’ in them; that one masterpiece that eclipses all their other work and stands as the crowning achievement of their career. Badges on Battledress is that book for Jon Mills, an author we have reviewed several times before on the blog.imageBadges on Battledress is a two volume book covering the cloth insignia worn on Battledress uniforms from the start of World War II until the uniform was dropped on the 1960s. These badges were both officially sanctioned and privately purchased and were worn on the sleeves by numerous different units of both British and Empire forces. Between the two volumes this topic stretches to fill over 1200 pages and these books are likely to remain the definitive work on the subject for decades to come. Over 6000 images fill the volumes, a mixture of modern photographs of the badges themselves and period photographs showing troops wearing some of them. The quality of the images is excellent throughout as you would expect from a book of this sort.imageAccompanying the images is a well written text that provides background on the units wearing the badges, if possible details of when and where badges were introduced as well as a wider information on the official machinations surrounding military insignia, the manufacturers of the badges and other anecdotes as they apply to military insignia. This makes for an enjoyable read, with individual badges signposted in the text by the use of numbers that point the reader directly to the specific badge. If there is any shortcoming with the book it is this as sometimes a number refers to an example hundreds of pages away from the text or indeed in the other volume. I am unsure if there is actually any way round this, and when doing specific research it is not a problem, however if you are just browsing the text it can be a little distracting. There are also occasionally slight problems with the numb reign itself where the text is a digit or two out from the images referenced- again this is very forgive able given the size and scope of the book and it is easy to work around as it is pretty obvious the text is referring to the next badge along.imageThe book also covers the post war period, with insignia worn by the army, WAC and TA throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This is the first work to cover this subject since Cole’s short book published over sixty years ago. The books do not cover the Home Guard (which Mills has already covered in his book on the Home Guard) or the cadet forces, but the books are already massively long without these units so this is an entirely sensible choice and perhaps we will be lucky enough to get an accompanying volume on cadet insignia in a few years time.imageIt is fair to say that these volumes will be the definitive text on this subject for many years to come. They are not cheap, costing £150 plus postage for the two volumes, but their size and scope make them exceptional value for money and if you are a badge collector, researcher of just find the subject of military heraldry interesting I would urge you to pick up a copy. I suspect that these will not be reprinted and once the original print run has sold out I would suspect the secondary prices will climb to ridiculous levels so buy while you can. Copies can be purchased direct from the author by emailing

Identity Cards Book Review

Over the last few years I have reviewed three of the four books published in the series ‘Within the Island Fortress’ by Jon Mills. Recently I have acquired the missing volume in the set and so tonight I am looking at Volume 2 “Identity Cards, Permits and Passes”.SKM_C30819032807520The British government issued a myriad of different identity documents to British civilians, military personnel and civil defence workers. Further documents were provided for those from allied countries and exiled military personnel. Many of these documents have survived to the present day and this book provides a comprehensive guide to them. The book covers both the common and mundane as well as the more obscure pieces that are highly unlikely to come into a collector’s hands. As well as covering the documents themselves, the author explains much of the internal administrative process of recording the details of an entire nation and simple information such as what the letter codes on civilian identity cards mean is covered- something highly interesting and not to be found in many other publications.SKM_C30819032807531Unlike the other books in this series, this volume is mainly illustrated with copies of the identity documents themselves. These are reproduced in clear colour images and are all easily readable, this is part of the strength of the volume as it allows the reader to closely examine documents that are usually at best a blurry part of a larger photograph. Many of these documents were very short lived and it is remarkable how many examples have been brought together to illustrate this book. Many have the word ‘sample’ stamped across them, so I suspect they came from official archives and might be the only examples of these documents known to exist today.SKM_C30819032807532It is fair to say that identity cards and permits are a niche collecting area, however even if you are not a collector of these documents I do not hesitate to recommend this volume. For those with an interest in the home front this books provides a unique insight into a crucial but often overlooked aspect of the government’s increasing encroachment into people’s lives during the war and for the living historian this book is invaluable in ensuring you have the correct paperwork for your impression. SKM_C30819032807530Copies of the book are still available directly from the author and it is well worth picking up one for your reference library.

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.

Flanders Field Museum Visit

The names of ‘Wipers’, Armentieres, Poperinge and many more of the small towns and villages of Flanders are indelibly inked on the minds of anyone with an interest in the British Army in World War One. Flanders was a portion of Belgium that was to see almost constant fighting from 1914 to 1918. The small and historic market town of Ypres was in the centre of this, and 1918 saw it almost flattened. In the 1920s it was extensively rebuilt, to the same design as before the war and even the magnificent mediaeval cloth hall was reconstructed. Today this impressive building in the centre of Ypres is home to the Flanders Fields museum, newly opened and looking to place the battles of the region in a wider context.

I was lucky enough to visit Flanders and Ypres last week and had the opportunity to visit the museum. The building it is housed in is truly magnificent and captures the grandeur of the original, indeed one has to look at original photographs of the devastation to see just what work the Belgian architects have done as you would believe it had stood untouched since the fourteenth century. On entering the museum you are presented with a white rubber wristband bearing a red poppy. With a sense of foreboding it is clear that this museum is ‘interactive’. On starting your museum tour you are invited to programme your wristband by entering you name, age and gender so that the displays can be tailored to you.

Visually the museum is very modern and impressive but on entering the main exhibition space you are struck by how much space is wasted. There is so much empty space or space given over to interactive displays and very little in the way of real objects and artefacts. Those artefacts that are displayed are often, frustratingly, poorly captioned so it is not clear what you are looking at or its significance. I quickly grew frustrated with the interactive displays and having to tap your wrist over a panel to see a small fragment of text on a screen quickly lost its appeal.

I therefore focused on those objects that were on display, some elements were excellent, the items recovered from the mud at Yorkshire Trench and a large artillery piece being fascinating. Perhaps the highlight of the museum for me though was a set of four twenty foot high display cases that showed, laid out, the uniform, equipment and weapons of a French, British, German and US infantryman. This was a very innovative display and really got home the similarities and differences between the kit of each nation.

Despite these exhibits, the general feeling on leaving was one of slight frustration. The building was magnificent and there were some fascinating exhibits, but they were poorly captioned and the over emphasis on interactive technology detracted from what should have been a truly moving experience. Like many with an interest in military history I find the modern fashion for computer screens over tangible objects in museums a retrograde step; yes there is a need to engage the young and those with a casual interest, but this should be done in such a way as to supplement and showcase the original artefacts, not instead of them.

Book Review- Great Britain- The Tommy Gun Story

Until the widespread introduction of the Sten gun into British service, the Thompson was the prominent sub machine gun used in the British Empire, with nearly half a million being supplied to the British government form the US. The story of this British procurement is often wrapped up in rumour and anecdote rather than fact- for instance according to popular legend most of the guns ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after the ships carrying them were sunk by U-Boats. Up until now most histories of the Thompson machine gun have concentrated on the development and manufacture of the weapon and its extensive US service. British sales have often been relegated to a few paragraphs.Capture‘Great Britain- The Tommy Gun Story’ by Brian Davis Jnr seeks to address this gap by looking at the specific purchases of guns by the British, both under the Cash and Carry scheme and under Lend Lease. Davis has gone back to the original documents and telegrams sent by the Ministry of Supply in Great Britain and he looks at each order in turn, how many guns were purchased, what spares and magazines were supplied with them and how the MoS tabulated them. From all this it seems that we finally have an accurate figure for the number of weapons acquired, rather than the guesses put forward by previous authors. Equally important is his analysis of the ships transporting the weapons and how many of these were actually sunk. By looking at the figures he comes to the conclusion that only around 4% of the weapons sent across the Atlantic actually failed to complete the journey due to enemy action. I must confess this figure was far lower than I had already assumed and shows the importance of actually looking at the original documents rather than relying on anecdote!Capture1This book is very much a history of procurement, rather than the service use of the Thompson by the British and as such does not have any information on the British combat use of the weapon. As mentioned it does not cover the development history of the weapon either, however other books have already covered this topic and this is a niche publication that sets out to look at how Thompsons were procured, how many were purchased and how these orders were fulfilled. As such this book may not appeal to every reader, however for those with a specialist interest in British small arms of the Second World War this is an invaluable volume and helps clear up several myths once and for all. One area of particular praise is the number of original documents that are reproduced in the book, either as transcripts or as copies of the originals. Primary source based history is always to be commended and it is clear the authors spent many hours going through archives to find this information.Capture2The book is a print on demand paperback title from Amazon and as such normally takes a few days for delivery. This is the first print on demand book I have purchased and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the printing and binding and this sort of esoteric title is ideally suited for this medium as it allows it to be available on a continuous basis despite the presumably limited sales it would generate. The book can be found here.

Till the Boys Come Home Book Review

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time you will have realised that I rather like World War One postcards, and they are a regular item on our Sunday night image slot. The number of postcards produced during World War One is quite staggering and they range from the very common to some really rare cards that were produced in tiny numbers. I am an incidental collector of these postcards, I pick them up if I come across them but I am not actively seeking them out. Despite this, reference books are always useful to have and so I was pleased to recently pick up a copy of ‘Til the Boys Come Home, The First World War through its Picture Postcards’ by Tonie and Valmai Holt.51BQbVDQx6LThis book was first published back in 1977, but a revised edition was released in 2014 by Pen and Sword and it is this copy I have. The book is surprisingly weighty for its size and this is due to the high quality paper used in its printing, this being a necessity in a book with over 700 reproductions of postcards in full colour inside. The quality of reproduction is superb and the selection of images excellent with many rare and unusual cards included from all the belligerent nations of World War One. These images are accompanied by captions for each one and a traditional body text that approaches the Great War thematically. The authors look at topics such as the machines of war, humour, women and the home front and that great love of the era, sentiment. Splitting the book thematically makes a great deal of sense and one of the things that struck me was the similarities and differences between the various nations approach to topics. This is perhaps most apparent in humour with the British publishing self-deprecating humorous cards reflecting on the conditions in the front such as the illustrations by Bruce Bairnsfather and the adaptation of many seaside comic characters to the wartime situation (the large and overbearing wife, the hen pecked husband etc.). By contrast German humorous cards seemed to have a love of toilet humour, bare bottoms and chamber pots!imageFor me however the main problem I had with this book is the dated nature of much of the supporting text. Originally written in the 1970s the book perpetuates the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ and ‘Mud, blood and Poppycock’ portrayal of World War One. The historiography of the conflict has moved on since then and historians have been increasingly challenging this view of the war with research showing that actually junior officers led their men well and suffered disproportionate casualties as a result whilst Generals were far more innovative and open to new ideas (even if the execution of them was limited) than had been previously believed. If the book was a direct reprint of the original I could accept this far more readily, but the authors make a point of saying that the book has been revised and updated for the Twenty First century and I found some of the supporting text quite jarring.imageThis criticism aside, the book is a wonderful coffee table book that is packed full of illustrations and background information and I have no hesitation in recommending it to collectors of wartime postcards or just those who are interested in how the war was portrayed through one of the most popular mediums of its day. I have certainly learnt a lot from this book and it is currently available from Naval and Military Press for just £4.99, instead of the cover price of £24.99 here.image

Book Review- Webley and Scott Automatic Pistols

Personally I find the early development of automatic hand guns fascinating, with many different and experimental weapons developed. Some would see great success like the Mauser C96, others were finicky and prone to breakages and dropped into obscurity. Britain was slow off the mark to create an indigenous automatic handgun and it would be the first decade of the twentieth century that finally saw the Webley and Scott company produce commercially viable guns. Before this the company had experimented in a unique concept, the automatic revolver in the form of the iconic Webley-Fosbery, which today has a cult following far in excess of its actual utility as a weapon. The automatics the company did develop had some unique features and were produced in quite large numbers, culminating in a contract to produce a large bore handgun for the Royal Navy just before World War one. It is the story of these weapons that Gordon Bruce’s book Webley and Scott Automatic Pistols covers.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThe book starts with a fascinating biography of William Whiting, the creative mind behind the company’s automatic revolvers and pistols, it was very much due to his combination of charisma, vision, technical competence and sheer bloody-mindedness that kept the company in the market for automatic pistols. It then continues by taking a detailed look at the Webley Fosbery and then the various iterations of the Webley automatics in a variety of calibres for both the civilian and military-police markets. The book covers in great detail all the various manufacturing variations and mechanical changes to the guns over their lifetime, as well as including a number of official reports from various testing the different models underwent in the quest for a large scale contract. If this was just text it would soon become overwhelming for the reader. Happily the book is profusely illustrated with photographs of existing guns, showing their internal workings and how their designs were modified over time. These photographs are accompanied with close ups of markings, diagrams of the internal workings taken from patent applications and pictures of the weapons stripped down to their component parts. As is typical for these books all the illustrations are in black and white, however they are clear and easy to follow and help demonstrate the more technical aspects of the text well.imageimageimageThis book was first published in 1992 and I would argue that it was and will remain the definitive tome on the subject of Webley automatics for many decades to come. There is a huge amount of detail in this book and happily the author’s writing style is engaging enough that it avoids becoming too overwhelming. For a book first published a quarter of a century ago, it is still available new from Amazon for under £40. This seems an absolute steal to me, especially when compared to the prices Collector’s Grade books of the same vintage go for. If you are interested in this subject at all, I heartily recommend you pick up a copy. Sadly I suspect I will never get to own either a Webley Fosbery or a Webley Automatic as they are now scarce and expensive weapons, but their story is fascinating and they remain one of a very few indigenous British automatic handgun designs.