Monthly Archives: October 2014

Billhook

Many household and agricultural implements were also used by the military, these items were stamped with the WD /|\ mark just the same as more warlike items. Today’s item is one of these, a billhook. Billhooks are one of the most ancient hand tools used by man dating back at least as far as the bronze age, the design would be as recognisable to a Roman Legionary as it would to a British Tommy.

The billhook is a tool designed to cut small woody plants such as shrubs and branches. The billhook is sharpened only on the inner face and is used by pulling the tool towards the user. Billhooks have long found military use, either for clearing fields of fire or for cutting brushwood to make fascines and gabions for machine gun emplacements.

This tool is 16 inches long, with a curved 10 inch iron blade and wooden handle:

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It has the war department arrow, manufacturers name and a date stamp of 1943 on the blade:

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This particular style of billhook is based on the ‘Pontypool’ pattern of billhook and this pattern was first used in the Great War, presumably because it was more robust for the sort of ill treatment that soldiers would give it. was issued with the 25 pounder field gun as an item of equipment in the limber to help clear suitable firing grounds. As far as can be ascertained these were never issued with scabbards- they were not meant to be carried by individual troops but were issued on an as needed basis.

Snow Suit Trousers

Following the Normandy landings, the US Army in most respects had far superior equipment and uniforms to their British and Commonwealth allies. However the harsh winter of 1944 and the German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge highlighted one area where the British had a clear advantage over their American cousins. Whilst US soldiers were forced to improvise snow camouflage from liberated bed sheets, the British Army had a plentiful supply of white over-trousers and jackets. The white colour blended in with the snow blanketing continental Europe and the looseness of the cut helped break up the outline of the soldier. These baggy white cotton uniforms were simple garments designed to be worn over the soldier’s existing battledress, and seem to have had widespread distribution.

The earliest dates for these suits seem to be 1941-42, suggesting that they might have been introduced based on experience in the Norway Campaign. Regardless of the motivation behind their introduction, the snow over-suits were to prove invaluable once winter struck in 1944 and troops in the front line found themselves highly visible in the snow when wearing the dark brown battledress uniform.

kapelschelandwwinterToday we are looking at the trousers from such a set of snow clothing. This pair are made of simple cotton cloth, cut very baggy with a patch pocket on the left leg:

2F6B0ABB-5D5D-4E44-8953-A935E58922F2The waist is secured by a simple cotton tape drawstring:

98E2F861-112D-45C6-B8DF-6A4DED82C3E5Whilst the pocket is fastened with a brown ‘vegetable ivory’ (i.e. plastic) button:

000A74B7-F73D-48BA-9428-09226F1ECBEBUnfortunately the trousers are undated, but the label sewn to the seat reveals they were made by the CWS, The Co-Operative Wholesale Society:

A3DB987E-0BC9-4095-B6B7-3BA9C24BED16The large size range given on the label, from 5 foot 6 inches to 6 foot 8 inches, shows that the trousers were designed to be very loose and were never designed to have had a tight fit.

Unfortunately these trousers have a lot of storage dirt on them and I am still working out how to clean them without losing the details on the label. My current thought is to carefully unstitch the label, clean the trousers, and then reattach it in the original place. However given the unlikelihood I will be wearing these for re-enacting anytime soon I am in no rush to do anything that might potentially damage them. I also have a lead on a jacket to finish the set, but that will have to wait until more funds are forthcoming!

 

Date Codes on WW2 British Uniforms

British Army uniforms of the First and Second World war were normally manufactured with a label inside giving details of size, manufacturer and date. These labels are invaluable to collectors in confirming when a particular item of clothing dates from and are always the first thing I look at when buying a new uniform for my collection. Unfortunately these labels are often missing or washed out and then at first glance it becomes impossible to date an item of clothing. This is an example of a faded label from a service dress jacket:

2C04FD37-0B3E-46B6-9357-1292DCA74B6CLuckily for us though, the British Army also stamped clothing with letter codes that represent specific years, again this is from the service dress jacket:

57C49459-224E-4150-B6C8-1E4DD8496547 For many years these codes were something of a mystery to many of us, but thanks to the sterling work of a few members of the Warrelics Forum we now have access to a list of what the codes mean allowing collectors to date items in their collections. I hope the original poster ‘Anon’ wont mind me republishing the codes from the thirties to the fifties here for other collectors to take advantage of, hopefully they will be as useful to you as they have been to me!

t=1937 & 1956 *
s=1938 & 1957
r= 1939 & 1948
q=1940
p=1941
o=1942
n=1943
m=1944 & 1953
z=1945
l=1945, 1946 & 1953
e,p=1947 *
r=1948
a=1949
b,a=1950 *
b=1951
c=1952
l=1953
m=1954
d,o,t=1955 *
t=1956 & 1937
s=1957
f=1958
x=1959 *

As can be seen some of the letters were repeated and the pattern jumps around a bit, but a combination of the letter codes and a basic knowledge of the rough periods of manufacture for certain items lets us date things pretty easily. From this set of codes we can tell that the service dress jacket shown above with a code of N dates from 1943.

Prisoner of War Letter

Today’s item is a letter from a larger collection of documents relating to an ATS officer involved with the administration of Casualties in the early part of the war. I will post further documents and transcripts at a future date, but this item stands out as being a touchingly personal one. Casualties are an unfortunate but inevitable part of war and it seems that the British had a pretty efficient system of informing loved ones of the fate of their loved ones, whether killed wounded or captured.

As can be imagined it must have been far harder to live with the unknown, unsure if your loved one was alive or dead, than having a definite answer, however terrible. This letter comes from the mother of a soldier who had received confirmation that her son, Lance Bombardier Victor Clayton, was a prisoner of war:

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The letter reads:

Oct 25th 1940
Mj A I Cowie (?)
Dear Sir
Many Thanks for your letter giving me information on my son L/Bdr Victor Kenneth Clayton (1508796) Prisoner of War no 13360. It is a great comfort to know Victor is alive and well. I do sincerely hope the war will soon end and all our loved ones safe home again.
Thanking you for all you are doing for our loved ones.
May God bless you all and keep you safe from harm.
Yours Gratefully
Mrs Gillian Sarah Clayton

This simple letter is a window into the realities of the Second World War and how it affected loved ones far from the front. You can sense the relief Mrs Clayton must have felt at hearing her son was alive, and imagine the upset of her knowing she would not see her son again until the end of the war.

Once again as a collector I am struck by how little documents are valued. This letter was part of a much larger and historically significant set of paperwork, that was sold to me for a few pounds. I am very humbled to have been able to take custodianship of them for the time being, but one wonders how many more important and emotive items of ephemera have been destroyed by families and institutions who do not recognise their true value.

Tuesday Finds

Only a few bits today, but nice ones none the less…

Urdu Textbooks

Urdu was the Lingua Franca of British India, with so many races making up the country with so many dialects Urdu allowed a simple language for the military and civil administration to use when communicating with the indigenous population. So vital was an understanding of the language that all civil servants and Indian Army officers had to learn it and pass an examination or face being returned to the UK and unemployment.

To meet this demand for Urdu, specialist textbooks were produced (replacing the native mistresses that filled the position of language tutor in the late eighteenth century!) and a nationwide standard examination introduced. The first of the textbooks is dated 1941 and is a buff hardback book published in Delhi:

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Rather than a book on language, this textbook covers the cultural differences between the different Indian Races in the form of conversations between a British Officer and an Indian Sepoy:

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The contents pages highlights the different races covered from The Pathans to The Dogras and from the Ghurkhas to the Rajputs:

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The second book is dated 1937 and has a red hardback cover. It has a cover title in Urdu and English:

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Inside the book is entirely in Urdu:

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As I don’t read Urdu, I checked with a work colleague and the book is identical in content with the buff book. Presumably the idea was to read the two together so you picked up the Urdu at the same time you learnt about the tribes. I am told that the standard of Urdu is very high and this implies that the officer learning Urdu would have had to do it with a tutor rather than self taught. It also shows the high standards the Indian administration expected of its recruits.

Photograph

This little photograph, in a period frame, is of a lieutenant in the Royal Army Pay Corps. It looks to be taken in the latter stages of WW2 and the photographer’s details indicate it was taken in Barnsley. Beyond that I have no further details on who he was or where he was stationed:

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Commando Rucksack

I will be honest, I am not sure about this one. The Commando Rucksack was introduced in the early part of the Second World War to give troops a large and comfortable bag to use on operations. It was originally produced in tan (I already have one of these) and later in green. The problem for collectors is that the basic design of bag was used for a very long time, there are numerous variations and it was copied by foreign armies and civilian manufacturers post war. Bearing all that in mind the best way to date these rucksacks is by the acceptance stamps inside them…however these are often damaged, faded or missing. I bought this example for £3 this morning. It is damaged and rather dirty but seems to be mainly complete:

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In this case I am confident in saying the bag is post war- it has green vinyl waterproofing inside it:

6E4F487C-79B7-49BE-89F2-CE9A23048195

And the zips are marked ‘Made in France’:

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Beyond that I cannot say if it is British, Civilian or made for an overseas army. The heavy duty leather work suggests a military role, as does the addition of padding in the form of an old army towel and socks to the pressure points on the frame:

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My plan at the moment is to clean up the bag and see if any more markings appear, and to post photographs online on the forums to see if anyone else can make a positive identification. For the price I paid I felt it worth a punt and I think it would benefit further investigation.

Wire Cutters

The introduction of barbed wire in the mid nineteenth century changed the shape of modern warfare, it became possible to very rapidly construct barriers that anywhere on the battlefield that could slow down and stop an enemy attack. By the First World War the design of barbed wire emplacements had become a deadly and sophisticated science, with defence in depth and perpendicular to the advance of the enemy to force him into cleared kill zones beaten by heavy machine guns.

Obviously then a means of cutting wire was needed and a variety of devices were tried with varying degrees of success. Artillery was fairly useless as it tended to tangle wire further without cutting it and early attempts included devices that allowed wire to be cut by firing a bullet through it. Whilst tanks were very effective as they crushed the wire, they were noisy and slow and unsuitable for night attacks. Therefore the most commonly used method of cutting barbed wire was the hand held wire cutters. The British Army developed several types of cutters, in varying sizes, but the longest lived were a set of folding cutters that could be stowed in a webbing pouch on the belt:

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These cutters were to remain in use for the rest of the century, and this set date from 1941:

783D17FF-D273-4B7C-B319-63C00972C327 They are made of steel, with handles that fold out to give the necessary leverage to cut wire:

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They fit snuggly in a webbing pouch:

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This pouch is post war dated, but otherwise identical to that carried throughout WW2:

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On the rear a loop allows them to be attached to the 37 pattern webbing and a brass loop allows the cutters to be secured with a string lanyard so that they wont be lost in the dark if dropped:

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Wire cutters were generally issued at the rate of one per section, being carried by the junior NCO. Pioneers might carry them in higher numbers, and extras were issued is a particular operation was expected to need them. The sturdiness and simplicity of the cutters explains their longevity- they were incredibly effective and there was never a need to replace them with something newer.

British Army Insect Repellent

A lucky second chance offer on eBay has left me the proud owner of four WW2 era British Army insect repellent tins. The problems from malaria were well known to the British Army during World War Two, as was the part played by mosquitoes in its spread. To counter this, extensive issues were made of mosquito proof clothing and insect repellent. These metal tins are three inch long cylinders with instructions printed on the body:

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On the outside a yellow label says: INSECT REPELLENT, Unscrew Cap at Sprinkler. Shake on to hand and apply to all areas of exposed skin. AVOID MOUTH, EYES AND FOREHEAD JUST ABOVE EYEBROWS. Reapply at intervals of two hours. KEEP CAPS TIGHTLY SCREWED.

At either end is a screwed on cap, identifying the sprinkling end and the refilling end:

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Taking off the caps reveals a hole at the sprinkler end, and the insect repellent at the other:

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These tins are not in the best condition, but they are quite rare now and I got four tins for the going price for one on the collector’s sites. I will use a couple in my 44 pattern webbing set and Indian 37 pattern set, and display the two in best condition.