Anyone who has watched a documentary on the Royal Navy during the Second World War will be familiar with the use of voice pipes to communicate with different parts of a ship. These simple communications systems were just metal tubes that you spoke into and the sound vibrated around them to be picked up at the other end. They were simple and reasonably effective, but by the end of the Second World War they were being quickly displaced by internal ship’s telephones. One of these early designs was the Admiralty Mk XV telephone:This heavy duty telephone was used in the latter parts of the Second World War and through into the post war period. It’s designation is marked on a small brass plate fastened to the front:It is what is known as a sound phone so needed no external source of power to ring or to speak through. The operator turned the handle:Which in turn powered a small generator that caused the corresponding telephone to ring indicating someone wished to speak. Simultaneously a light began to flash so if the telephone was in a noisy environment, such as an engine room, it was still clear that there was an incoming call. On the front of the box unit is a reinforced glass disk:Behind this sits a bulb:The telephone has a large Bakelite handset, with a microphone and speaker unit built in:This hooks into a cradle on the side of the telephone:The hooks for holding the hand set are sprung to clamp the handset firmly in even the roughest weather. The user has to pull both down and out simultaneously to remove the handset:The top cover of the telephone is secured with a series of captive screws. Undoing these allows the cover to be removed and for us to see the internal parts of the device:The only indication of a date for this telephone can be found here, where an internal component is dated June 1944:The telephone would have been securely mounted on a bulkhead, and on the rear are three brackets to allow it to be bolted on: weighing in at over 15 lbs, secure fittings would have been a necessity:Once attached to the bulkhead, the wiring for the telephone to connect it to the rest of the ship’s communications system entered through the base of the telephone and several holes are cast into the body to allow wires to pass into the interior of the device:Maintaining these telephones came under the remit of the ship’s electrical department and this comes from a period manual advising how to maintain and set up the Mk XV telephone aboard a ship:I have no way of knowing what ship, if any, this telephone is from, nor whether it was made during the war or immediately afterwards form wartime components. It is incredibly heavy, but is a very interesting and fun piece of militaria and is now mounted on the wall as a great display piece. I just need to find a second and wire them up now…
In the early 1970s the RAF reviewed its uniforms and started updating what were essentially the same designs they had been using since the Second World War. Modern fibres were brought in for the No2 dress uniform and brass buttons were replaced with staybrite examples to reduce the amount of maintenance an airman needed to do to keep it looking smart. Whilst this was fine for the dress uniform, the woollen RAF battledress used as an everyday work uniform also needed replacing and In 1974 a new uniform cut along much more modern lines was introduced:Developed a couple of years earlier, this is officially the 72 pattern jacket. This uniform, more than perhaps any other, reflects the period it was designed and is very much a 1970s design. It acquired a number of nicknames, the Thunderbird jacket being perhaps the politest! One user describes it as ‘awful and shapeless’. The jacket has a central zip up the front to secure it:And two angled pockets, also with metal zips:The waist is drawn in and adjusted by two buckles and sliders:The sizing of this jacket is the old pre-metric type so this example dates from the mid-1970s:The jacket did see something of a surge of popularity in the 1980s:
It was about this time that the V neck wooly started to appear, which again I didn’t think much of, and this may have tempted me to start wearing the Thunderbird jacket, if I had stayed in any longer. The Thunderbird jacket was a horrible looking thing and I avoided wearing it unless ordered to. Later on as a Cpl, I would sometimes wear it if I was on some duty or other outside of my normal work area. I think there were a lot of people who didn’t like the Thunderbird jacket, but strangely after the Falklands war it started to become popular with a certain faction who had never worn it before. Of course it couldn’t possibly be anything to do with the fact that you had medal ribbons on your No2 jacket!
Another airman recalls one still in use in the 1990s:
The Thunderbird jacket, now that was a great thing. The first time I saw one was in the 90s, an ancient MACR came into our (Army) hangar wearing his. We all disappeared behind our Rovers killing ourselves laughing. He looked utterly ridiculous. He had MASSIVE badges of rank on it, on both arms. He’d also been in since Trenchard, and had a double row of medal ribbons up. It looked like he’d just rolled out of the 1960s. His jacket probably had. Nice old bloke, but it was definitely time for him to hang his jacket up and retire.
Not every image I come across is of the highest quality, and tonight’s is a rather poor but interesting shot of a harbour:Happily for us the original photographer was kind enough to label this so we know that this is a shot of Dockyard Creek on Malta. In the back ground ships can be seen at their moorings:And the buildings of the harbour can be seen on the shore:The dockyards in Malta are in Valetta, the island’s capital and were first founded by the Knights of Malta to service their galleys. When the British took over the running of Malta in the nineteenth century they started a dockyard for the Royal Navy to help maintain their Mediterranean fleet. They centred this around the existing buildings in Dockyard Creek and massively expanded what was there so that by the mid nineteenth century the dockyard boasted storehouses, a ropery, a small steam factory, victualling facilities, houses for the officers of the Yard, and most notably a dry dock which at the time was the first provided for the Royal Navy outside Great Britain.
The dockyard remained in used for over a hundred years, its toughest test coming during the Second World War when the island was virtually under siege. William Andrews was in the Royal Navy and describes being in the dockyard under enemy fire:
I had just arrived from Gibraltar on board HMS Dido a cruiser, I was to join HMS Aurora light cruiser which was unfortunately lying in dry dock No:5 in Malta harbour with damage to her bows. After a few preliminaries I finally went on board Aurora. I soon became part of the crew. Apparently she had run into a mine field after a patrol beyond the Maltese boundaries. HMS Neptune cruiser was sunk, HMS Penelope had been damaged although she managed to make it to the USA for repairs and Destroyer Kandahar was beached. Aurora made it back to Malta but worse was to happen as the enemy were determined to finish her.
The bombing was incessant. Our captain Bill Agneur ordered that all personnel not concerned with the defence of the ship to proceed ashore to air raid shelters within the dock yard area. There was heavy destruction around us, we were trapped in the dry dock with only our guns for defence. Other anti-aircraft batteries were within the area and gave us good support.
One day during a heavy raid, the dock gate received a direct hit and within minutes we were floating as the harbour waters rushed into the dock. Finally the damaged gates were dragged away and we got out into the harbour.
Today the area has been gentrified and is used to moor luxury yachts, a far cry from its time in the Second World War.
We looked at one wartime card game, Old Maid, last week. There were obviously many different card games produced during the war for children to play with and whilst some were new games others were just updates of old games with a wartime twist. Tonight we have a set of cards that sadly do not have a box or a rule card to identify which game they are for:There are a total of forty eight cards, of twelve designs with four of each design. Digging around online I have seen indications that this was for the game of Snap and was originally produced by Woolworths. This would certainly seem plausible as if it is played with a standard pack of cards Snap normally involves players trying to match ‘2s’ or ‘5s’ etc. where there are four of each in a pack, equating to the four cards in each design here. The cards themselves have a distinctly wartime feel, with bold cartoon designs for each card:
The artwork is very much of its time and these games would have helped alleviate boredom amongst children sheltering from air raids. Here we see children playing cards in a shelter:This was not the only game used to pass the time. Betty McDonald recalls:
Shelters where built in the streets where residents could go when the air raid sirens went off. When this happened, which was often, my job was to pick up a small attach case which contained all of our personal papers and details, insurance policies, certificates and identity cards, money etc and go to the shelter with mum and dad.
The shelter was made of brick, with solid steel door. Inside, on one wall, was a square hole so you could get to the next section without going outside. My dad built me what must have been the first bunk bed made of wood -no steps, really, just like a large wooden table. Mum used to take a blanket which we would both lay on. I cannot remember sleeping, too much going on inside and out.
We used to play games such as guess which film star, using the initials only. One night I had our neighbours guessing for ages, no-one could guess the name of OMR. When finally they gave in I said proudly Old Mother Riley!
Since the First World War the British Army has relied on scientists and research to help them counter enemy threats and develop new weapons and techniques for use against the foe. Although civilian scientists have been essential in this, the Army has also maintained its own selection of military personnel trained to conduct scientific research and facilities such as Porton Down are still essential to the country’s defence. Items of specialist military laboratory clothing are unusual, being made in small quantities and of little interest to the average collector. Being a lover of the weird and obscure however I was pleased to be able to pick up this laboratory cap recently:The cap is made of an olive drab nylon and is of a very simple design, being basically a cylinder with a circular crown:The cap has a straight side all around. A white tape edges the brim and a small piece of elastic in the rear provides a bit of size adjustment and ensures the cap does not come off:A standard label is sewn inside, with an NSN number indicating it is British military issue:Back in 2016 the BBC ran an article from a scientist who was invited to visit Porton Down and see what was happening there as it celebrated 100 years:
Porton Down – also known as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory – is where much of our top-secret military research is concentrated. It has a budget of £500m a year and employs more than 3,000 scientists. It is the most controversial, most misunderstood and, some say, most-feared scientific institution in Britain. Though many will have heard of Porton Down, few will have much idea about what goes on inside.
So I was delighted when I was invited to go behind the fence, make a documentary about the research that goes on there.
Set in more than 7,000 acres of English countryside, Porton Down was created 100 years ago in response to the German gas attacks of World War One. The first of these attacks against British troops involved the use of chlorine. Thousands of soldiers, who had no idea what they were facing, suffered severe chemical burns or died in agony. Chlorine was soon joined by mustard gas and phosgene
Lord Kitchener, Britain’s secretary of state for war, demanded an immediate response. This led to the setting up of Porton Down. Scientists based there swiftly developed gas masks and began testing ways to launch similar gas attacks against the Germans…
We were the first television crew to be allowed into one of Porton Down’s most secure laboratories, where I watched a chemist carefully make up a bath of VX. The reason chemical agents such as VX and mustard gas are still manufactured on site is to test that equipment issued to troops is proof against attack. And that is because these chemical agents are still being used, particularly in the Middle East.
In March 1988 at least 5,000 Kurds, men, women and children died at Halahbja after being attacked by Saddam Hussein’s forces with sarin and mustard gas. More recently there is evidence (collected by Porton Down scientists) that sarin was used against civilians in Syria.
Porton Down’s mission is, these days, purely defensive. They are there to develop better ways to protect British troops and civilians against attack. Some of what they are doing feels distinctly sci-fi.
They are, for example, working with Birmingham University on a device that can detect tiny fluctuations in gravity. The hope is that this will, in the future, enable them to see through walls and deep underground.
Other research likely to have a more immediate impact is the use of “synthetic biology” to create body armour which would be more lightweight, flexible but which would still stop bullets. The idea behind synthetic biology is that by studying how animals create protective shells we will be able to grow ceramic body armour from first principles.
One of the most chilling bits of research I saw, however, was their work studying potential biological threats. There is, for example, concern that a terrorist group might decide to attack us using a “dirty bomb” containing something like the ebola virus, which has a mortality rate of up to 90%.
An experiment I watched in a Category IV laboratory (the highest level of security) suggests that ebola does indeed have the potential to be used as a weapon, although fortunately there are currently significant technical and practical barriers to its use.
I am also cheered by the thought that looking forwards and successfully responding to new threats is what the scientists of Porton Down have been doing for the last 100 years.
I always enjoy finding military marked tools, especially if they are something more unusual than the ubiquitous spanners and are lurking in a £1 box. The latest one to fall into this category are a traditional pair of carpenter’s pincers:These are marked with the /|\ mark on one of the handles, but are sadly undated:Dating this sort of item is hard, as they have been using virtually the same design since the Roman period, however at a guess I would say it comes from between 1900 and the end of the Second World War. At one end of the tool are the jaws of the pincers themselves, curved to allow the easy extraction of a nail by rocking the tool:The movement bends the nail and gently eases it out. At the opposite end is a different style of nail puller, much like that on the back of a claw hammer and a shaped ball:I am struggling to find out what this ball is for, it has been suggested that it is for spalling out small diameter pipes or is merely to help balance out the weight of the two arms of the pincers. Either way it is a traditional feature of English pincers and can be seen in use for hundreds of years. This extract form a 1950s trade manual suggests that different countries had different styles of pincers and this shape is the one used in England:Although designed as a carpenters tool, I have seen some references to pincers being used by armourers in the repair of weapons so it is also possible that this tool was used there, either way it is a delightful and well made little item and is another WD tool for my growing collection.
The army has always deployed to hot areas, in the past the risk of sun burn was just accepted as one of those things and men had to get on with it. Today however there is more emphasis on prevention and the army issues its own sun cream to troops deploying to hot areas to protect them from sun burn and any related problems that arise from this such as skin cancer. Military issue sun cream is chemically the same as civilian sun cream, however it is deliberately non-perfumed. On operations surprise might be lost by an enemy smelling a different odour, such as a soldier’s sun cream, so it is sensible to avoid that risk by issuing unscented versions. The sun cream used by the army is called ‘Delph’ and comes in a green squeezy tube with black wording on it:The front of the tube indicates that this has an SPF rating of 30, is water resistant and acts a moisturiser:Standard manufacturer’s details and instructions are printed on the rear, along with an NSN number indicating it is British Army issue:The colour of the sun cream tubes must have changed at some point as one former soldier remembers:
Left the Army in 2009 – sun block was issued by the QMs before deployment. It is in nice civvie looking tube and no longer army dark green with merely an NSN on it. Same with mossie repellent – the dark green tubes with NSNs on seemed to put soldiers off using the sun block and mossie repellent! On my last overseas trip to a rather hot place I applied factor 50 all day every day and returned home looking even whiter and paler than I usually do whilst everyone else was well tanned.
The issue sun cream seems to have worked very well, one Army reservist Private Connor Nicholls explains how he got his nickname ‘Casper’:
It was Herrick 10 in 2009. The old issue sun cream from the army turns you really white. It’s so thick, and because I’m ginger I had to lather it on. The sun doesn’t agree with me! One guy said ‘you’re so white you look like Casper’ and that was it! It just stuck!