Category Archives: British Army

Visit to Somerset Military Museum

Living in Yorkshire the Somerset Military Museum in Taunton is not somewhere I get to go very often, however owing to the need to visit family last weekend I found myself with an hour to spare whilst in Taunton so decided to revisit the museum. The museum has had a major facelift since I last went and I was eager to see the refreshed displays.

I was not disappointed as the museum is one of those rare things- a newly refurbished display that understands that what visitors actually want to see is artefacts! Display cases radiate out from the centre (which has a wonderful captured mountain gun) and they cover the various regiments of Somerset, with a definite emphasis on the Somerset Light Infantry. The other county regiments are there, but the focus is very much the SLI, which is fine with me as it was my grandfather’s regiment!

The displays cover much of what you would expect- uniforms, weapons, medals etc. A few of the more interesting artefacts include a couple of wooden grave markers from WW1, some truly impressive mess silver and a wonderfully engraved trench art waterbottle from the Great War. The display cases are densely packed with objects, but it never feels overwhelming and there is space to tell the stories of those behind the artefacts.

Finally I cannot end without mentioning that at the moment the glorious Lady Elizabeth Butler painting “Remnants of an Army”,  depicting the Retreat from Kabul in 1842 is on loan to the museum. This is one of the great pieces of military art and would be worth a trip to see alone without even considering the rest of this fantastic museum.

The Somerset Military Museum is part of the Museum of Somerset in Taunton Castle and is free to enter.

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Cyprus Operational Support Unit DDPM CS95 Shirt

We have looked at quite a few different desert DPM shirts and jackets over the years on the blog, but last week I picked up a very nice example with a few unusual features that I thought I would share with you:imageThis started out as a standard CS95 shirt, but the original owner has had it tailored with the sleeves cut off, folded back over to the regulation width and sewn into position:imageThis modification eliminates the need to carefully roll up the sleeves every time the wearer goes in shirt sleeve order and presents a much smarter appearance as there is no longer three or four layers of cloth to try and arrange neatly.

The shirt has a tactical recognition flash for the Royal Logistics Corps:imageAnd for the Cyprus Operational Support Unit:imageAccording to the RAF’s website:

Today, RAF Akrotiri is the home of the Cyprus Operations Support Unit (COSU) which provides facilities for support to air, land and sea training and operations for British and allied forces by providing a secure airhead location usable by all but the very largest aircraft and with its own mole for replenishing ships. It has sufficient bulk aviation fuel stores, explosive storage and dispersed aircraft parking for high-tempo air operations. It can provide accommodation, transport and life support to exercising or operational troops as well as for those awaiting onward flights. 

Other features to note on the shirt are not unique to this example but I don’t think I have previously covered. The inside of the pockets gave tape loops for pens:imageSpare buttons are sewn into the inside of the shirt on a piece of tape:imageNext to this is a standard label with sizing, NSN number etc:imageThese badged shirts are out there at the moment for very reasonable prices and if you are interested I suggest you build up a collection now as they won’t be around for ever and experience suggests that they will only increase in collectability as time goes on.

Trousers, Inner

The cold weather uniform introduced in the early 1950s has been touched upon on the blog before. Basically the British Army introduced a whole new set of clothing based on the layer principle pioneered by the US Army during World War 2. The idea was that it was better to wear several thin layers of fabric rather than one thick one. A pocket of air becomes trapped between each layer acting as insulation. Previously we have looked at the pyjama drawers here, and tonight we are looking at the next layer, the inner trousers:imageThese are made of green wool, smooth on the outside and ‘fuzzy’ on the inside:imageA label in the waistband indicates they should not be worn next to the skin, but rather over the drawers, pyjamas:imageThe label gives the following instructions:

  1. For hygiene these trousers are to be worn only over Drawers Pyjama type or other washable undergarments.
  2. Dry clean if possible or wash carefully when instructed to do so.

A second label gives sizing and indicates that this pair were made in 1951.

The waist band of the inner trousers has a knitted, elasticated cuff:imageAnd loops are provided for the braces to pass through:imageThese allow the wearer to drop his trousers and undergarments all as one set to attend to the call of nature. A button fly is also provided:imageThese trousers were introduced as a response to the inadequate clothing in the British Army during the Korean War. Very little of this new clothing actually reached the troops during the conflict, but it was to see use in the following decades. Like these trousers, a lot of it is still out there in mint unissued condition.

WW1 Royal Engineer’s Shovel

Weighing in at 5lbs the Royal Engineer’s shovel is a robust and efficient digging tool for work in the trenches. Introduced long before World War One it was to have a very long service life, seeing service until well after World War Two. The early shovels have become quite hard to find now so I was very pleased to pick up this example last week for just £5:imageUnfortunately this example has suffered a bit over the years and the manufacturer’s details are now very hard to read, however the date of 1918 is still clearly visible:imageAt some point I will sand back the rust and repaint the head of this shovel and it’s possible more of the markings will become visible then. The head of the shovel is broad and gently curved to make it easy to scoop up soil and rubble when digging field works:imageA rib is pressed down the back and centre of the shovel to add some rigidity to it:imageA five inch wide handle is fitted to the top, just the right size for the palm of the hand when moving the blade of the shovel in a scooping motion:imageThis large shovel is one of a number of tools issued for trench construction, as illustrated in this 1905 diagram from the Manual of Military Engineering:imageField works dug by hand were laborious and lengthy jobs as described in this period instruction:

Sequence for Digging Tasks

(a) A trench 3ft. 6ins wide at the top, 2ft. at the bottom, and 3 ft. deep is opened (I in the diagram). All the spoil is thrown forward to make the parapet which even so will not be 5ft. thick.

(b) The second stage (II in the diagram) is widened to 6ft. 6ins. at the top and 5ft. at the bottom and the parapet completed before any earth is used for the parados. It should never be deepened until it has been widened.

(c) Finally the passageway shown as III I the diagram is dug, the earth going on the parados.

(d) As soon as possible the fire step, and the rest of the trench should be reverted, and a drainage channel dug.SKM_C45817101108030Much of this digging would have been done with shovels such as this one and it was very nice to find one dated to WW1 for such a cheap price- it will sit very nicely with my WW2 dated example.

British Army Sleeping Bag

The 58 pattern sleeping bag had many flaws- the feather down filling moved about and clumped up after being used for a while, degrading its thermal properties. It was also bulky and not particularly war. By the last decade of the twentieth century new materials had been developed and sleeping bag technology in the civilian market had advanced considerably. It therefore made sense for the British Army to introduce new and improved sleeping bags for its troops and it is one of these we are looking at tonight:imageThe sleeping bag is made of a waterproof outer shell, with a layer of wadding and then a comfortable inner layer. The sleeping bag is in the ‘mummy’ style with a large hood that can be drawn around the sleeper’s head:imageInside the sleeping bag a pair of mesh pockets are sewn to allow the user to store anything he might need during the night:imageThe label sewn into the base of the bag dates it to 1999 and shows it was made by Seyntex:20992703_10154824323078045_2372006847703631014_nSeyntex is actually a Belgian company and illustrates the growing move away from placing contracts for equipment with purely British firms. The sleeping bag is carried in a thin nylon compression sack:imageThe straps and buckles allow it to be pulled tight to expel excess air and reduce the size of the bag. These sleeping bags are sometimes nicknames ‘bouncing bombs’ by squaddies. The compression sack itself predates the sleeping bag by a few years; the label indicating it was made in 1992:imageThe standard sleeping bag will work in temperatures as low as -20 degrees and with a bivvy bag as low as -25. Lightweight jungle sleeping bags are also issued which are smaller but not as war. One user recalls:

Just got back from spending 3 nights on Hankley Common (that’s the extent of our annual sqn ftx) and with overnight temps down to about -3 I wouldn’t have been without the bouncing bomb and bivvi bag as well as a roll mat/inflatable sleeping mat. With the doss bag and bivvi bag stuffed in the bottom of my bergan I still had room in the top for all my warm kit, deflated sleeping mat, water proofs and an empty patrol sack.

One guy on this ex went on last year’s equivalent with a jungle bag hoping to save space, with the temps and weather conditions the same he spent the first night sleeping in all his warm kit and had a bouncing bomb bought out to him on day 2. This year he went straight for the bouncing bomb and just made everything else fit around it.

Trench Railway Postcard

This week’s postcard is a delightful colour painting of a trench railway from World War One:SKM_C45817100313480The conditions on the ground in France during World War One could be pretty horrendous, with heavy mud and poor roads making it difficult to bring up shells and supplies very quickly. Most rail heads were situated several miles from the front and what was needed was a way of transporting goods right up to the front quickly, safely and reliably. The answer was miniature light railways running on rails of just a two foot gauge. These railways were provided in pre-made track panels of approximately 16 feet and unskilled labour could quickly lay them on roads and smooth surfaces to form a railway network. Their lightweight and modular construction made them easy to repair and replace if hit by enemy shell fire.

These railways used a variety of motive power, but the most common were small petrol driven tractors:SKM_C45817100313480 - CopyBritain pioneered the use of petrol powered, 4-wheel synchromesh mechanical drive locomotives for daylight use within visual range of the front. In 1916 the War Office required “Petrol Trench Tractors” of 600-mm gauge that were capable of drawing 10 to 15 tons at 5 mi (8.0 km) per hour. Early tractors weighed 2 tons. Behind them they hauled a variety of rolling stock including bogie wagons and little side tipping hopper cars such as the ones seen here:SKM_C45817100313480 - Copy (3)Although stylised, it can be seen that these hoppers, when not needed for supplies, were also frequently used as a form of transport for the men to save exhausting them too much going into or out of the trench:SKM_C45817100313480 - Copy (2)The value of these trench railways was recognised at all levels and on 24th July 1916 Winston Churchill wrote:

The foundation of a good trench line is a system of light railways far more extensive and elaborate than anything we have at the present time. It is only by means of light railways that all the enormous varieties and quantities of trench stores necessary for the making of a solid line and keeping them in repair can be conveyed to the Front, such as pumping machinery, steel dugouts, revetting material; and all variety of trench stores can only be brought in sufficient quantities to the front by a very elaborate and extensive network of railways and light railways.

Unusually the back of the card in this case is as interesting as the front:SKM_C45817100313481This reveals that the postcard was one of a series produced by A M Davis and Company of London to raise money for National War Savings. There were twelve cards in the set, of which this is the fourth, and they are all emblazoned with slogans encouraging people to buy War Bonds.

Leather Document Wallet

Tonight’s object is another of those rather oddball items I am struggling to identify correctly. This leather document wallet certainly looks right to be British and military but I can find no information whatsoever about it or its origins:imageIt is made of a soft brown leather, with two metal Newey studs to hold down the lid:imageEach stud is marked as being British made, suggesting that the wallet was manufactured in the UK. Opening the studs reveals a large, flat central pouch:imageThe wallet is stencilled with “Instruction Sheets and Diagrams” on the front:imageMy best guess is that this wallet was for carrying important paperwork in a vehicle or with an artillery piece, but I will be honest I have drawn a complete blank with the research. It definitely ‘feels’ British and military and I would guess it dates to the Second World War. If you do recognise it, please get in touch.