Category Archives: British Army

Bull’s Head Can Opener

Tonight’s object is not actually military, however there is evidence to suggest it was used quite extensively by troops in a number of wars so I hope you will find it as interesting as I do.

The development of canning in the early 1820s was to revolutionise the delivery of rations to troops in the fields. Cans kept meat fresh and edible for long periods and although heavy they were relatively easy to transport. The only problem with early canned foods was opening the tins themselves! Instructions on the labels invited the consumer to use a hammer and chisel, for soldiers bayonets were also likely implements to open the tinned goods! Tinned goods did not start becoming common on the civilian market until the 1860s and by this point can openers had been developed. The most common design for the next sixty years was made of cast iron in the shape of a bull:imageThese were often painted red and the front of the opener includes a spike and a blade along with a stylised bull’s head:imageThe back of the can opener had a bull’s tail:imageThis example is a civilian opener, but GR marked examples have been seen. Although soldiers carried a tin opener on their jack knives, this larger can opener would have been much easier to use, especially on some of the large 7lb tins of bully beef that were supplied to feet larger groups of men. Archaeological evidence has found examples of these bull head can openers on American Civil War battlefields, Boer War battlefields and on the Western Front indicating they were indeed used. Here an example was found in South Africa:

I found the head and half the handle of one in Mooi River(South Africa) whilst leveling sites for house construction. The site was camp to a division of the red coats during the Anglo Boer war 1899. The site was riddled with rifle cartridges, cavalry buckles, ink wells etc.

Tinned goods really came into their own on the Western Front in World War One and corned beef, commonly known as ‘Bully Beef’ became synonymous with the British Tommy. Strict guidelines were issued to manufacturers to detail what should go into a tin:

The carcasses of cattle in prime condition not under two or over four years of age… Each 12oz. tin to contain not more than ½ oz., and each 24oz. tin not more than 1oz., of clear jelly made from soup stock and soup bones.

As well as corned beef, men were issued tins of ‘Machonochie’s stew’, a somewhat dubious meat and vegetable stew tinned and sent out to the front. This was designed to be eaten hot and contained a large amount of animal fat, unfortunately there was seldom time to heat the tins so they had to be eaten cold and this turned them into a greasy solid mass that was not popular. Tins could also go off if not correctly canned, the best way to detect this was to puncture them with a bayonet- if the tin hissed then it was best to leave it well alone!

A private serving in the Middle East recalls:

One of the features of the night marches was the frightful stink. The Maconochie’s stew ration gave the troops flatulence of a particularly offensive nature. So we marched along on air released by hundreds of men breaking wind.

There is still debate as to how widespread the use of the bulls head tin opener was by World War One, however if not widespread there is certainly indication that some carried and used them and this example will be joining my other personal kit in my 08 pattern haversack._74383704_q1580_iwm_soldiers_eating


Osprey Mk II Collars

This week we are looking at the collars that can be attached to an Osprey Mk II set of body armour. The osprey Mk II was designed to be scalable, meaning that soldiers who needed extra protection, but were less mobile than normal infantry, could add extra pieces of soft armour to the basic vest. This applied to troops such as gunners on vehicles where they were not moving about, but were more vulnerable to enemy fire. In this case extra collars and arm brassards were issued:Osprey_body_armour_basrahTwo types of collars were issued, a full depth example, and a half depth version:imageEach of these collars divides into two halves, with Velcro at the centre:imageThis allows a ballistic filler to be fitted inside, a small flap opening at the wider end to allow it to be fitted:imageI don’t have the filler, so I have used cut up yoga-mats to fill out my collar and give it some stiffness. I can’t speak for the actual filler, but in this case it was a real pain to pit the yoga-mat filler as it was hard to get it to the end of the cover and I had to resort to a long wooden spoon to get it to sit correctly! Each half of the collar is separately labelled:imageThe collar fits to the vest with both Velcro and lift the dot studs:imageA loop is also fitted to the rear that loops around the carry handle on the back of the neck of the vest:imageOnce fitted the collar fits securely to the vest:imageA Velcro tab is included to secure the front of the collar around the wearer’s neck:imageThe neck armour was never popular amongst British troops, but it was noted by one army surgeon that the lack of uptake of the armour led to British troops having three times as many neck wounds as their American counterparts whilst on active service in Afghanistan. It has been suggested that their unpopularity was due to the uncomfortableness of wearing them, the difficulty of aiming a rifle when wearing a collar and that they interfered with other equipment soldiers had to wear. As few as 4% of officers who had served in front line operations had worn the collars, despite them being available.

Having tried my collar attached to my Osprey, I can confirm it was bulky and the weight with the proper fillers would be quite high so it is perhaps unsurprising they were not more widely adopted, despite their potential to save lives.

Royal Irish Regiment Helmet Cover

The Royal Irish Regiment was formed in 1992 by the merger of the Royal Irish Rangers and the Ulster Defence Regiment. The regiment originally had nine battalions but following various mergers and the draw-down of forces in Northern Ireland as part of the peace process and today just two battalions remain. The regiment has seen service in both Iraq as part of Operation Telic and in Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick. Tonight’s object comes from one of those operational tours and is a desert DPM helmet cover with a tactical recognition flash for the regiment:imageThe TRF takes the form of a green shamrock on a black square and is machine sewn to one side of the helmet cover:imageIt was common in the regiment to sew the badge onto the side of the helmet cover, here we see an example of this type of cover with the TRF from 2008 in Afghanistan:183934There is an interesting story relating to this from 2010 as related by a member of the regiment, Corporal Tommy Creighton:

I saw a round hit the ground in front of me. My reaction was to lower my head, tilting it forward, and then I felt the thud against my helmet as the round struck me. When we got back to the patrol base, the lads were all saying how lucky I was. The round had struck me right on my ‘shamrock’ regimental badge, which I guess is kind of symbolic!

My helmet cover belonged to a Ranger called ‘Booysen’, and he has written his name in black marker on one of the elastic straps on the front of the helmet:imageThis helmet cover is a large/outsize version and this is indicated on the internal label:imageThis is just as well as the Mk 6 helmet I have is massive and anything smaller would have struggled to go over the dome!

Here we see a Ranger holding the later Mk 7 helmet, although the helmet and cover are different, the tradition remains and the TRF can be clearly seen sewn onto the side:ARMY'S Mk7 HELMET SAVES LIFE, AFTER LIFE, AFTER LIFEI have seen a number of units who wore TRF patches sewn to the sides of their helmet covers, but the Royal Irish Regiment seem to have embraced the use of this insignia to a far greater extent than most other units. It certainly makes for a most attractive helmet cover and as it is the first badged example I have been able to add to my collection, I am very pleased to have got hold of it.

Highland Light Infantry Pipers Postcard

This week’s postcard is another of those delightful ‘oilette’ postcards that were so popular during the first two decades of the twentieth century. This example depicts the pipers of the Highland Light Infantry:SKMBT_C36416070110020_0001 - CopyThey are wearing the full home service dress worn before the outbreak of World War One with scarlet tunics, kilts and glengarries:SKMBT_C36416070110020_0001 - Copy - CopyBehind the pipers can be seen the drum section and the rest of the regiment marching along:SKMBT_C36416070110020_0001 - Copy - Copy (2)Pipers were not only used for parades, they also had an important role raising morale on the battlefield and offering aid to their wounded comrades. One piper from the highland light infantry, Kenneth McLeman was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Gallipoli for tending to the wounded under fire after his pipes were shattered by enemy fire. Another piper, Daniel Laidlaw, from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers won the VC at Loos in 1915. He describes his own actions as follows:

On Saturday morning we got orders to raid the German trenches. At 6.30 the bugles sounded the advance and I got over the parapet with Lieutenant Young. I at once got the pipes going and the laddies gave a cheer as they started off for the enemy’s lines. As soon as they showed themselves over the trench top they began to fall fast, but they never wavered, but dashed straight on as I played the old air they all knew ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’. I ran forward with them piping for all I knew, and just as we were getting near the German lines I was wounded by shrapnel in the left ankle and leg. I was too excited to feel the pain just then, but scrambled along as best I could. I changed my tune to ‘The Standard on the Braes o’Mar’, a grand tune for charging on. I kept on piping and piping and hobbling after the laddies until I could go no farther, and then seeing that the boys had won the position I began to get back as best I could to our own trenches.

His citation adds more information to Piper Laidlaw’s modest account:

For most conspicuous bravery prior to an assault on German trenches near Loos and Hill 70 on 25 September 1915. During the worst of the bombardment, Piper Laidlaw, seeing that his company was badly shaken from the effects of gas, with absolute coolness and disregard of danger, mounted the parapet, marched up and down and played company out of the trench. The effect of his splendid example was immediate and the company dashed out to the assault. Piper Laidlaw continued playing his pipes until he was wounded.” London Gazette, 18 November 1915 , Loos, France, 25 September 1915, No. 15851 Piper Daniel Laidlaw, 7th Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

3 Commando Brigade DDPM Windproof Smock

Tonight we are looking at a desert windproof smock from 3 Commando Brigade, but first a confession. When I bought this smock it had all the TRF insignia and glint tape still attached to the sleeves, however the shoulder titles had been removed at some point. The ‘Army Commando’ titles then were added by me, however they are a legitimate shoulder titles to wear with this flash as we shall see and unlike the more typical ‘Royal Marine Commando’ titles, I actually had a pair of these in stock! I am wary about badging up uniforms to units they were never originally from, however in this case I have less of an issue with it due to the original TRF patch and stitch marks as I feel this is more a restoration than a new creation.

The smock itself is a standard DDPM windproof smock, like the example we looked at here:imageAttached to the sleeve is a 3 Commando Brigade tactical recognition patch, introduced in 2002, in the form of a black Fairburn Sykes commando dagger on a green background:imageAlso attached is the reflective glint tape and the reinstated Army Commando titles. Although 3 Commando Brigade was a Royal Marine unit the army also had units serving alongside the marines and these were entitled to wear the TRF even if not commando qualified as it was a formation rather than a qualification patch. The following order description was given in 2011:


24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers (24 CDO REGT RE) Formed in 2008, the British Army’s 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers form a key part of 3 Commando Brigade. Their main role is to provide combat engineering support to the brigade. This includes the construction or destruction of fortifications, bridges and roads, the laying and clearing of mines and neutralizing IEDs. The Sappers of 24 CDO REGT RE go through full commando training, including the All Arms Commando Course, and can be drawn on to perform the traditional infantry role.

Also there is 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery The batteries of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, provide artillery support to 3 Commando Brigade in the form of 105mm howitzers, mortars and Naval gunfire. All members of 29 Commando are volunteers from other Royal Artillery regiments and are Commando trained.

Both support 3 CDO BDE and are titled ARMY COMMANDO’S.

With this in mind I felt quite justified using these titles on the smock. The same titles appear on the opposite sleeve, again following the stitching marks of the original insignia, and a Union flag appears along with the same glint tape as the other sleeve:imageWhen I acquired the smock it came with a single corporal’s rank slide on the front:imageThe name on the label has been crossed out, but can be seen faintly inked to the inside of the smock below and reads “Morrish”:imageI am a great fan of badged smocks and there is a huge variety of units out there to find, and the prices are often very reasonable like this example which only cost me £10. I can see these becoming more desirable as the years go on so they are an excellent area of collecting at the moment and could well prove a good investment, especially for rarer or more desirable units.

DPM Second Pattern PLCE Rifle Grenade Pouch

Today we are used to the idea of an underslung grenade launcher for the SA80, this has been used very successfully in conflicts for the past fifteen years. Before this was introduced though, the SA80 was issued with a rifle grenade that fitted over the muzzle of the rifle and was fired by a cartridge from the breach of the gun itself:imageTo accompany this grenade, a special pouch was created as part of the PLCE webbing systems. Originally in olive green, this carrier was later produced in DPM:imageThe original design was a full pouch, this DPM version though is just a skeleton pouch. Two white plastic cups in the base of the carrier hold the noses of the grenades:imageTwo little lids are provided, one for each grenade:imageStraps underneath the lid help hold the tails of the rifle grenades secure:imageThe pouches are designed to be used in a number of ways and so the back of them is very ‘busy’:imageA flap is provided on the back for a belt to pass through so the pouch can be worn on the belt:imageUnder the flap are a pair of ‘T’ bar fasteners that lock into the belt of the PLCE system:imagePrimarily however it was expected that a pair of pouches would be zipped to a bergan in place of one of the standard side pouches. In order to do this a heavy duty zip is fitted round the outside rear of the pouch:imageFastex clips are also fitted to allow a shoulder strap to be fitted or to attach the pouches to the day sack yoke:imageThis particular pouch dates back to 1997:imageThe muzzle launched rifle grenade was only a short lived concept, the much smaller and more effective underslung launcher replacing it and rendering these pouches obsolete. As such they are readily available on the surplus market and a cheap addition to the collection.

Osprey Mk II Body Armour Cover

Last week we looked at the Mk IV Osprey cover from 2010. Tonight we go back a few years and look at its predecessor, the Mk II which was developed at the end of 2006 and issued to troops on operations in early 2007. The original Osprey body armour had been the subject of close interest from the government’s Defence Clothing Integrated Project Team and they had identified a number of flaws with the design including PALS strips pulling undone, poppers which opened too easily and a general feeling that the first pattern had been poorly made. The Mk II updated not only the vest, but also the shoulder brassards and collars (which we will look at another week). Originally these covers would have contained a ballistic filler and hard plates, however these are virtually impossible to get hold of on the civilian market at the moment.

The vest is split into two parts, a front and a back:imageThese are fastened at the shoulder with an arrangement of Velcro and press studs:imageTo improve the reliability of the vest in service all press studs were now made one-directional rather than multidirectional as in the earlier design. This meant that the only came undone if pressure was exerted in the right direction and this massively increased their reliability in the field. Note also the folded down fasteners to attach the collar to the armour.

One immediate difference readers will note when compared to the later design, is that the armour for the vest sits proud in a separate pocket, rather than being integral to the vest like the Mk IV:imageThe large pocket unzips and allows a large hardened SAPI plate to be fitted covering the whole of the thorax. A smaller pocket is also included so the plate from the old ECBA can be fitted over the heart if a lighter, but less well protected, set up is preferred:imageThe same arrangement is fitted to the rear:imageNote also the black male Fastex buckles top and bottom for the attachment of a Camelbak water bladder and two fastenings are fitted along the bottom edge to allow a respirator haversack to be attached. Both sides of the vest are fitted with PALS loops to allow pouches to be attached as required:imageA handle is fitted to the top of the rear to allow an injured soldier to be dragged clear by his comrades if needed:imageOne of the changes made to the Mk II vest was to fit a waist cummerbund belt to improve the fit and comfort of the vest. These straps pass around the body of the wearer and secure with Velcro at the front:imageAnother change made was the addition of a short strap to the shoulder:imageThis is designed to be passed through the rear sling loop of an SA80 and supports the weapon from the shoulder in lieu of a standard sling.

A single rank strap is fitted to the front to allow a rank slide to be fitted if required:imageBoth sides of the vest have a label giving sizing and care instructions:imageThere were a total of eight different sizes of Osprey Armour produced: 170/100, 170/112, 180/104, 180/116, 190/108, 190/120, 200/116 and 200/124.

Osprey armour was very effective, but it was bulky and heavy, which coupled with high temperatures and heavy loads in theatre led to rapid fatigue amongst troops wearing it- the Afghan National Army working alongside British troops dubbed them ‘tortoises’ for their appearance and speed!800px-Sniper_During_Op_Oqab_Tsuka_in_Afghanistan_MOD_45149829For those whose life has been saved by the armour though, the weight is a small price to pay. Lance Sergeant Collins was shot at in 2008:

When I was shot I thought the worst, especially because it from only about 200 metres away and I think it was a 7.62mm round – that’s a high calibre bullet to be hit by. I was examined on the spot expecting to be told bad news but there was nothing there. The body armour had stopped the bullet and saved my life.

He came away with just some bruising- only a few years before this would have been fatal.

We will continue our study of osprey Body Armour next week when we start looking at some of the accessories used with the various marks of armour.