Walking and working in deep snow brings many challenges. A major one is that it is easy to sink into the snow if it is not compacted and this them makes walking extremely tiring as you have to trudge your way through. It is far better to be able to walk across the top without sinking in and lightweight snow shoes have been used for centuries inn areas of heavy snowfall to make it easier to move about. The idea is to strap something large, but light, onto your feet that then distributes your weight resulting in a lower ground pressure and stops you from sinking in. For several decades the British Army have been using this design of snowshoe for Arctic warfare:The shoes are made of a lightweight tubular plastic frame, with criss-crossing heavy duty vinyl plastic straps, here in orange:These are riveted to each other to make a web that helps hold the wearer up:On the base of each snow shoe are a pair of angled aluminium strips with teeth to help grip the snow:A heavy duty orange strap with a metal buckle is fitted to pass over the toe of the user’s boot:Other straps are made of white nylon and surround the boot to help hold the snow shoe on securely (the last thing you want is for it to slip off in the middle of the snow!):These straps have metal buckles that allow them to be easily tightened:Note the long gripping tabs to make it easier to adjust the boot straps when wearing heavy gloves. These snow shoes have been used for decades, and are still listed in the British Army stores catalogues:As can be seen, the ones in the catalogue are made entirely in white, but both orange and white versions seem to be in use alongside each other, as seen in this image of them being worn by the Royal Marines:Note that they are being used with ski-poles to help aid balance- snow shoes are very effective but they do make you a little clumsy!
With the temperature dropping in the UK, now seems a good time to take a look at another piece of British Army extreme cold weather gear. The extremities of the body are the most vulnerable to extremely cold temperatures and it is essential the fingers are suitably protected. Mittens are one of the best ways of keeping warm as each finger helps to heat the others next to it, gloves insulate one finger from the other and it is much harder to keep them all warm this way. Unfortunate mittens are very clumsy and manual dexterity is virtually non-existent with them; not very helpful to the soldier who needs to fire a weapon. To solve this dilemma the British Army issued the Arctic Mitten MK III:This is made in DPM fabric and has a heavy duty padded hand and thumb section:They are fitted with an artificial fur liner:Elastic at the wrist helps keep the heat in:Small ‘bumps’ to aid grip are fitted to the palms to help the wearer hold the pistol grip of his rifle:Where these mitten are special though is that they have a separate opening for the trigger finger:This part of the mitten is not padded with fur at all and leaves the finger free to pull the trigger of a rifle easily. Most of the time all the fingers can be kept inside the mitten for warmth, but when the need arises it is the work of seconds to move the index finger into this special finger section to fire the weapon.
As ever a label is sewn inside the mittens with stores details:This label is quite far into the body of the mitten, so it was not easy to get a photograph for you! This mark of glove has now been superseded by a more advanced design, but they are certainly warm and I can imagine they would be very much appreciated in extremely low temperatures. The gloves themselves are not actually waterproof, cold water would rapidly remove their effectiveness so they would be worn with the waterproof outer we looked at here.
A long time ago on the blog I looked at a pair of cold weather mittens here. That pair were quite long, with the body of the glove coming half way up the forearm. Tonight we have a second pair of snow gloves, but these are much shorter, just covering the hand itself:These gloves are made form a closely woven but lightweight cotton, as such they would afford no warmth to the wearer. They would have been worn over a pair of woollen gloves or mittens, the woollen layer offering warmth and the cotton outer glove providing camouflage and some degree of waterproofing. The layer of air trapped between the inner and outer glove would also add to the insulation and help keep the wearer’s hands warm.
The wrists of the gloves are secured with a piece of elastic:Each glove is /|\ marked and dated 1942:They are marked as having been manufactured by J B & Co Ltd- unfortunately I have been unable to link this with a specific manufacturer.
I am not sure how widespread the use of these mittens actually was- photographs of troops wearing cold weather kit are unusual in the first place and all those I have seen just show men wearing just the woollen gloves and mittens, without the white outer mitten. Certainly this pair are in mint condition and don’t seem to have ever been issued.
For those stood still or resting in extreme cold weather a great danger is the risk of frostbite and heat loss through their feet. To counter this those in static positions, like guards, are issued with special thermal over boots to help protect their feet from the extreme cold. For several decades the British Army has been issuing quilted green over boots designed to be slipped on over more conventional footwear and it is a pair of these we are looking at tonight:As can be seen, these are very big! The pair is a large, marked as such with an ‘L’ on the side of each boot:The boots use a series of metal loops and green tapes to secure them to the foot over the wearer’s normal boots. Tightening these straps provides much more shape and structure to the boot:A further draw string is provided at the top of each boot:The soles of the boots have a thermal padded layer on the inside and a simple rubber tread on the bottom:Each boot is stamped twice with NSN number, description and date of manufacture; here 1990:There seems to have been a massive investment in arctic kit in the late 1980s and early 1990s if the dates of manufacture are anything to go by. Despite this shortages of specialist kit could arise, as recalled by Julien Beirne:
What a farce! We queued up for ages for the equipment but as we were last in the queue (1,2 and 3 troops were called forward first) we got the remnants. The theory of winter kit is that one has many layers. All of that theory goes out of the window when we are only issued with parts of the kit. Pinko only got the outer parts of the gloves. No inner gloves, it is the inners that kept the heat on the hand. The parka’s were great, thick and warm and in two layers instead of the old one layer. Some had a waterproof outer part of the parka others had a warm inner liner. Some even had both. (mainly stores personnel). Outside the stores we all got together and compared what we had. I swapped my overboots for a pair of gloves inner. I exchanged a thermal vest that was too small for Spunky’s hat and I managed to get a parka liner for two pairs of thermal socks. The last two were swaps I would later regret.
Over the years we have looked at a number of pieces of the quilted extreme cold weather uniform, but up until now I have not had an example of the trousers in my collection to show you. Happily I have now rectified that omission and tonight the blog is considering these:The trousers are made from a green quilted nylon, with a simple Velcro and tie fastener at the fly and waist:A zip runs up each side of the pair of trousers, from the ankle to the waist, with a small Velcro tab at the bottom of each trouser leg to secure it:One early user of the trousers explains its function:
They were worn under whatever you want. With the zips inside the legs you can drop your trousers, zip the Mao trousers up, pull your trousers up and you have nicely warm legs underneath whatever you are wearing without having to remove your boots, be it lightweights (de rigour in command Troop whatever the season), combats or overalls as worn by crewmen.
I was first issued a set I suspect in January 1978 for my first ever winter CPX in Command Troop, to be returned post-exercise. We were told they were experimental. Everyone in our recce regt got a full set a year or two later. Excellent piece of kit: only the hands, head and feet turned blue in the cold instead of spreading and turning the body numb all the way to the torso in the West German winter.
A loop is sewn to the back of the trousers below the waist to allow them to be hung up to dry if they got wet:A standard green sizing and care label is sewn into the back of them:I seem to be slowly acquiring a fairly comprehensive selection of cold weather gear and it’s a fascinating, if overlooked area of collecting.
Looking like something out of a horror movie, British troops operating in Arctic conditions are issued with white cloth face coverings to protect themselves from frostbite in the sub-zero temperatures:Tonight we are looking at one of these facemasks in detail:The facemask is made of white fabric, with two holes for eyes, slots being provided above to allow the straps of a pair of goggles to be fitted through the mask:The mouth piece of the face mask has a removable cover, secured with Velcro and a single button:Each face mask comes with two spare covers, allowing them to be replaced for the purposes of hygiene as this is obviously the area of the mask that will collect most germs:The face mask creates a layer of warm air between the wearer’s face and the frigid temperatures that protects the soldier form frostbite. A Royal Marine Daniel Murphy of Bradford explains their effectiveness:
‘When I first saw the face masks I thought “what’s this?” but they obviously work. I actually had to pull mine off because I was getting too hot.’
The face mask has a small label sewn into it with details of its NSN number and manufacture:Note also that the fabric has been treated to make it flame resistant. This particular mask dates from 1993 and was supplied in a ziplock bag:This again has a stores label on it with details of the contents and date:As in the case of the wristlets we looked at earlier this month, the MoD’s ‘Black Book of Kit’ includes an entry on the facemask, indicating it was introduced prior to 1991:For the collector of British Army Arctic equipment, these facemasks are easily available online and are frequently not more than £3 or £4 for a brand new set.
Over the last few years I have slowly been building up a little selection of modern Arctic kit, with items such as crampons, survival guides and over-gloves. Many of these items are pretty inexpensive and today we have a set of woollen wristlets that cost me just £1:These are made of white knitted wool and fit over the wrist to keep it warm, a hole being provided for the thumb to fit through:Note the cloth binding to protect the edges from catching and unravelling. A simple cloth label is sewn into each wristlet, with a crude /|\ mark on it:These wristlets have been in service for many years, and the page in the MoD’s Black Book of Kit gives a date into service of before 1991:One serviceman who was issued them reports: Wristlets are pretty good if you can get some. Keeps the blood flowing to your fingers warm.
Knitted woollen wristlets have been worn by British soldiers since at least the time of the Great War, with knitting patterns published for people at home to make them for the troops, this illustration comes from a period knitting pattern and the design is broadly similar to the arctic wristlet we have above: