Category Archives: equipment

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.

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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.

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.

AFS Canvas Bucket

Previously we have looked at an example of a canvas bucket that was part of an officer’s traveling camp kit. These are of course not the only examples of canvas buckets in service during the Second World War and tonight we are looking at another example, with some different constructional details to the previous example. This bucket is made from a pale green canvas again:imageUnlike the other bucket though, the handle for this bucket is made from a thick piece of cotton webbing, rather than a piece of rope:imageNote how the handle has been doubled up and stitched for strength over the centre part. Inside the bucket is a faintly stamped marking, indicating that it was made in 1939 by Speedings Ltd of Sunderland:imageThis factory was founded in Sunderland in 1827 and is still in business today, making it one of the oldest companies in Sunderland. They have produced sails, canvas products and flags and today make protective equipment for the emergency services.

To return to the bucket, there is another marking on the inside that is very faint and I have struggled to pick up on the camera, that is a GR and crown mark. Searching around I am fairly confident in saying that this design of canvas bucket was issued to the Auxiliary Fire Service in the early years of the war. I have seen other identical buckets with black stencilled markings on the outside that indicate they were used by the AFS and this seems a likely user of my example. Canvas buckets were very useful for carrying on small AFS fire tenders; large numbers could be carried without taking up much space and bucket chains could be set up using volunteers passing them between each other to help put out small fires.

The utility of bucket chains can be seen in this story from Michael Campbell of Leeds:

One night I was awoken by my parents. We had been bombed and two incendiaries had gone through the roof. Father was in the loft with a stirrup pump and a bucket chain had been formed with people passing buckets of water up the stairs. Water was being poured into the stirrup pump bucket too fast and was missing it, then father put his foot into the bucket —“ Pour it down my b—- leg”, he said. As mother carried me past the hatch, down the stairs and by the bucket chain into the garden to the Anderson Shelter, I could see flames in the loft.

I doubt the buckets here were canvas ones, more likely anything the household could get hold of, but the fire was put out and it shows how useful this simple operation could be.

Anti-Gas Over Mittens

There was a wide variety of anti-gas equipment produced during World War II, including oiled suits and gloves to protect the wearer from vessicant gases such as Lewisite. The problem with these oiled fabrics was that they were quite fragile and whilst this wasn’t too much of a problem for trousers and jackets, gloves could be expected to receive much rougher treatment as they were used to pick up things and manipulate equipment. To help protect these gloves, and consequently their wearer, special cotton over mittens were produced that could be worn over the top to provide an additional layer of physical protection. Tonight we have one such pair to look at:imageThese are incredibly simple and cheap mittens and I suspect they were designed to be used once and then thrown away once contaminated. The mittens have separate thumbs and forefingers and the tips of the fingers are exposed, presumably to give a bit more manual dexterity at the ends of the digits with just one layer of fabric rather than two:imageThe wrist has a simple tape and stamped metal buckle:imageThis is used to tighten the mittens to hold them secure:imageThis particular pair are stamped in the inside with a date of 1944 and a /|\ mark:imageAs well as British manufacturers I have also seen Canadian examples so they were certainly produced there as well and Air ministry marked examples. Concrete evidence of their use is limited, although there is a reference to cotton over mittens in the 1939 Manual of Protection against Gas and Air Raids and this excellent photograph shows a man decontaminating food cans whilst wearing them: imageI do not believe these were general issue items, but only handed out to those who needed them for a specific role such as decontamination teams. If anyone can provide more information or further photographic evidence please get in contact

Stainless Steel Jack Knife with Spike

The stainless steel jungle jack knife is a fairly easy item to pick up, and we have looked at an example previously here. A few weeks back however I came across a variant that I had not found before, an example with a ‘spike’ on the back:imageThe spike sits across the back of the knife, and in this example has suffered quite badly from corrosion over the years:imageThe use of the spike is often recorded as being for the removal of stones from horses’ hooves. Whilst I am sure it would do this job, in the jungles of East Asia in the 1950s, this would seem to be a rather superfluous tool! As a sailor I was always taught that it was for splitting the strands of rope to allow them to be spliced correctly and this seems a much more probable explanation!

The rest of this jack knife is entirely conventional with a single blade and a can opener being included:imageA large loop is fitted for a lanyard to be secured to:imageThis example was made by JH Thompson in 1956:imageThese examples seem marginally rarer than the two piece clasp knife, but a quick search of the web suggests they are still out there and were being manufactured as late SAS the 1990s. I suspect there is no logic behind which version troops were given, but it is a nice variant to add to my little collection of jack knives.

Map Reading Torch

As regular readers know, I enjoy a good bargain. Last week’s find was a rather interesting magnifying torch for reading maps for just £2:imageYou might have spotted the family resemblance between this torch and the angle headed torch we looked at here. This torch is made of the same green plastic as the more common variety. The most obvious feature of the torch is that the head is perpendicular to the main body, the bulb inside the head and a magnifying lens fixed to one side:imageThis allows the user to illuminate a small section of a map and magnify it to view the detail. The head has a small disc with a British ’99’ NSN number embossed on it, the only confirmation on the torch that it is indeed British:imageThe torch is controlled with a rotary switch on the base, an internal resistor controls the amount of power running to the bulb, acting as a dimmer switch:imageThe torch uses 2 ‘D’ cell batteries giving it a power of 3 volts, enough to illuminate the bulb for up to 20 hours. A belt loop is fitted allowing it to be attached to equipment, but it does seem rather an odd way to position it as the torch hangs with its head facing downwards:imageUnscrewing the two ends allows the torch to be broken down into its main components:imageBy all accounts this torch was not overly popular for infantrymen, being bulky and only having a white light that ruined the users night vision. It was however appreciated more by those in vehicles and was used a fair bit by crews trying to find their way in the dark! Whilst harder to find than the angled variety, collectors should be able to find an example fairly easily if they want to add an example to their collection.