The British Army had started using Thermos style insulated containers for transporting hot rations to forward positions during World War Two. These cylinders had space for insulating material, usually cork, between the outer shell and the inner compartment holding the food. This insulation prevented the heat from food escaping and kept the contents hot for far longer than a standard metal container. Hot food is essential for troops in the field as it helps keep their body temperature up and is a far greater boost to morale than cold rations. Following the end of the Second World War the Army introduced a new thermos type container that was a similar diameter to its wartime counterpart, but taller allowing more rations to be carried in a single flask:The container is made of metal, painted green, with large white letters prominently stencilled around the bottom reminding troops ‘this container must not be placed on a stove or fire’:This is because, being a pressurised canister, if the flask is heated too much it would explode. Unlike earlier designs I believe the post war flasks used glass wool lagging rather than cork to insulate the contents. The lid of the canister is held on by three spring clips:The lid itself has three hooks for these clips to attach to and has a green outer ring made of metal and a black plastic inner disc:A moulded set of instructions explains that the central button needs to be depressed to release the vacuum inside the canister before the lid can be removed:The vacuum occurs because the soup, stew or tea placed inside the canister would be hot. Even with the insulation this will begin to cool and as it does the hot steam in the top portion of the flask would condense back into liquid. As this occurs there is less air pressure inside the flask and a vacuum seal is formed, much like what occurs in jam jars when hot jam cools. This vacuum would make it very hard to remove the lid, but by reintroducing air this seal is broken and the lid can be removed.
The underside of the lid has a large rubber gasket that helps keep the flask airtight:The interior of the flask is made of plated metal to allow it to be easily cleaned and kept hygienic:Removing the screws allows the interior to be removed in case any maintenance is required to the layer of lagging.
I am still trying to ascertain if there was any specific way of carrying this container in the field as it is heavy and awkward when it is empty so I can only imagine what it was like when full of a few gallons of food. There is no carrying handle on the top so, unless it was only transported by Land Rover, there does not seem to be an easy way to manoeuvre it across rough terrain.
When sailors were at action stations they were expected to remain at their posts for extended periods of time, snatching sleep when they could but ready to man their positions at a moment’s notice. This was known as being ‘closed up’ and could last for several days, especially if entering contested seas such as the Mediterranean where there was a constant threat of enemy attacks. Keeping men fed and watered in this situation was not easy and simple food such as stews or sandwiches was provided along with cold tea, lime juice or oatmeal water to prevent dehydration. It was found though that men tended to lose their appetite when in these situations and what was needed was concentrated nutrition that did not take much eating but provided energy to men for short periods of time. In spring of 1943 a supplementary ration known as a Naval Action ration was introduced, housed in a small 3 ¼”x1 ¾”x5/8” airtight tin:This tin was made of metal and had ‘NAVAL ACTION RATION’ printed on the lid in grey:The lid was hinged at the rear:Inside the tin contained six Horlick’s tablets, four barley sugar tablets and a pack of chewing gum. These were very tightly packed into the tin as can be seen here:Each tin was considered sufficient supplement for a single day, with ships carrying supplies for the whole crew for three full days. This was very much designed to sit alongside conventional rations rather than to replace them and helped keep men’s energy levels up. The tins themselves were made by the Metal box company and in tiny letters on the rear of the tin, above the hinge can be seen one of their factory codes 6MB:The rations were carried on battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, landing craft and any ships escorting convoys for long distances. These tins are easily found today, although normally with their contents long gone.
During the Second World War Britain tried to produce as much food at home as it possible could, but in a small island with lots of mouths to feed it would never be possible to be completely self-sustaining. This meant that some food had to continue to be imported and with shipping space needed for munitions and essential war materials anything that could reduce the bulk of food as well as extending its shelf life was used. One of the most notorious of these space saving methods was drying and canning eggs and it is a tin of wartime dried egg we are looking at tonight:This tin was originally gold, with black lettering, but the gold has largely flaked off now. As can be seen from the front, this egg was canned in the USA and the tin holds the equivalent of 12 eggs:An adult was allowed one tin of dried eggs every eight weeks under rationing, costing 1s9d per tin and cooks had to come up with inventive ways to use the product. Instructions on how to prepare the egg are printed on the can and government leaflets also advised how best to use the product:One tablespoon of powder, mixed with two tablespoons of water was equivalent to one egg. The product was clearly at risk of being tainted by strong odours and flavours, so instructions advised storing away from anything with a strong smell:The scale of dried egg production in the US during World War Two was staggering, between 1942 and 1946 the average yearly production of dried egg was 209 million pounds! Despite this the British housewife never warmed to the product and the government spent a lot of time persuading people to use dried eggs. The Ministry of Food was busy encouraging house wives to use the new product and advised:
This dried egg is pure fresh egg with no additions, and nothing but the moisture taken away. It is pure egg, spray dried.
Eggs are a highly concentrated form of food. They contain first class body-building material. They also help us to resist colds and other infection because of their high protective properties.
Eggs are easily digested, and for this reason are especially good for children and invalids.
Dried eggs are just as good as fresh eggs and should be used in the same way. They are very useful for main dishes.Powdered egg could lead to some unusual stories, such as this one related by Win Watson:
There was food rationing of course, but we always had enough to eat, though there were very unpleasant things like dried eggs and dried milk. When I was harvesting once, we girls were taking it in turns to cook and one day we were going to have bacon and dried egg made up into a sort of omelette. The bacon was cooked first, but when the dried egg was put into the pan it began to behave in the most extraordinary fashion. It began to foam, rose up and came over the sides of the pan. It turned out the girl who had been cook thee day before was tidy and had put the soap powder into an empty dried egg tin!
Powdered egg has a shelf life of between 5 and 10 years, so these are well past their sell by date and I for one have no intention of opening them to sample what they taste like after 75 years!
The metal two part ‘Dixie’ cooking pot was a very long lasting piece of equipment in the British army with examples serving from before the Great War until the 1990s. Although latterly made from aluminium, up until the 1950s dixies were made of tinned iron and it is a Second World War example we are looking at tonight:The name ‘dixie’ comes from the Hindi word ‘degchi’ meaning a small pot. This cooking pot is not actually that small, having a capacity of three gallons! The dixie consists of two parts, a large lower pan and a top lid that could be used as a frying pan or a serving platter:A pair of wire handles are provided on each side of the lid for carrying it when separate from the main pot:A heavy duty metal handle is also fitted to the main body to allow the dixie to be carried or hung over a fire:This secures to the dixie with two massive metal eyelets:This is all very heavy duty, but one must remember how heavy the pot would be when filled with stew! Like most of these dixies, the lid and main body are mismatched. The lid is dated 1940:Whilst the body is 1951:This is typical as multiple dixies would have been in use at any one time and troops washing them up would just have put a lid with a base, regardless of the dates on them! The lid of this dixie is a little unusual in having been painted and stencilled:Quite what the significance of this lettering is no longer remains clear. The food that could be cooked in these dixies was a little limited as it tended to be things cooked by boiling such as stews and curries. Having said that, in the field a hot and hearty meal would have been very welcome and the size of the dixie made it easy to feed large numbers of men quite quickly, a ladle being used to spoon the contents out into each man’s mess tin. Here men snatch a quick hot meal at Cruelly, 9th July 1944. Note the dixie sat on the stove heating the food and the lid of a second dixie being used as a serving tray:I am a little wary of using this dixie to prepare food in as it looks a little manky inside. It is possible to have them re-tinned so they are again food safe, but as I am unlikely to need to use it anytime soon that is a decision for another day…
Since I first wrote about the mid-nineties ration pack two years ago, I have added several more packs to my collection and I now have four different boxed ration packs, one is sealed and the other three are open with minor varieties in the printing on the box:These ration packs were first introduced in 1995 and these boxes come from that initial batch, with two different types of 24 hour ration available, the ’24 hour ration GP’ and the ’24 hour ration’. These boxes contain boil in the bag rations and unlike today where there are twenty different options to suit dietary requirements, choice was more limited with seven different packs available:The rear of this leaflet sets out how to cook these rations:These packs appear to have been muddled up a bit over the years, but I have laid out what appears to be the most complete set to illustrate the contents: As ever ARRSE gives some wonderful descriptions of the contents of these ration packs:
Fruit Dumplings in Butterscotch Sauce- Tastes the same way as burnt electrical insulation smells.
Biscuits Brown- Pack contained within the 24 Hour ration pack. Consists of 6 slices of compressed cardboard, occasionally supplied with dog shit in a can to spread over said cardboard.
Rather scarily, this institution of the soldiering ways is/has been phased out with the new Multi-Climate ORP’s, and they are fast becoming rocking horse shit. Those of us more aware of the value of the Biscuit Brown are now involved in an intense hoarding operation to ensure that in ten years’ time, we’ll still have a tasty biccy to bung ourselves up with, whilst those sprogs stare on in wonder and ask us what these magical looking things are.
Apart from the (Debatable) nutritional value that the Biscuit Brown holds, its primary value is of the bunger-upper. As soon as any soldier worth his salt hit the field for exercise, he’d scoff down at least three packs, thus ensuring his arse would be blocked solid for days to come. No need to lay a cable only to discover that you need to use it as the new harbour’s sentry position two days later.
The need to have a restoring drink in the field has led to many national idiosyncrasies in essential equipment provided to soldiers- the French and Italians had military issue coffee grinders, the US Army ensured its GIs could always have a Coca Cola and of course the British Army did its best to ensure there was always facilities for its soldiers to have a hot cup of tea. Out of the front line this was fairly easy with tea urns and NAAFI vans providing Tommy with a hot wet- in the front lines getting a hot cup of tea was more problematic and an instant tea was issued with milk and sugar already included in the mix so a soldier just had to add water. This was issued in the standard sized tin used for emergency rations, cigarettes etc:The lid of the tin has instructions on how to brew up the tea:TEA RATION 5oz
(Containing Tea, Sugar and Soluble Milk Powder)
Use dry spoon and sprinkle powder on the heated water and bring to the boil, stirring until the milk powder is completely dissolved. The contents of the tin are sufficient for 6 pints of tea. For small quantities, 1 oz (3 heaped teaspoonfuls) are to be added to each pint of water.
The tea contained in this tin was not, by all accounts, particularly good and the closest modern equivalent is something like QT. Despite this, a hot drink would have been very welcome and there are many stories of British troops stopping during a lull in the fighting to brew up. This tin has a maker’s stamp impressed in the base:As can be seen this tin is not in the best condition, however inside the tin is a small note saying it was found in a farm near Bernay on the Normandy battlefield. This makes it a bit special as it was actually a piece of equipment that went over to France and has not just sat unissued in stores. My thanks go to Andy Dixon for this item.