The story of the SA80 rifle is not a happy one. Whilst the current version of the weapon, the A2, is a perfectly serviceable weapon, its predecessor the A1 version was beset with problems and never gained the trust of those who were forced to defend their lives with it. Despite, or perhaps because of, its troubled history the story of the weapon’s design and adoption is a fascinating one that is told in Steve Raw’s excellent book “The Last Enfield, SA80 The Reluctant Rifle”. This book, published by Collectors Grade Publications, covers the history of the rifle from the earliest proof of concept rifles, through prototypes, troop trials guns and finally the production rifles. The author was an armourer himself for many years and clearly had access to many people involved in the design of the weapon- some interesting components that should have been thrown in the bin were rescued and help tell the tale of the numerous changes made to the rifle.The author is commendably thorough in telling all the ins and outs of the story, and pulls no punches in highlighting the bureaucratic and political interference that caused the project to come in over budget, late and with so many problems to the weapons system that even at its official unveiling the bipod of the light support weapon was held together with electrical tape!The book is profusely illustrated throughout with black and white photographs of not just the weapons themselves, but troops using them on trials, publicity material from the factory and illustrations from the various manuals produced to accompany the weapon. The author also briefly covers the accessories provided with the weapon, and the updates needed to these to replace defective components and poorly designed features that broke with alarming regularity. Perhaps what is the most interesting, if disturbing, part of the book is the story of how officials repeatedly redefined the parameters of tests for the rifle when it repeatedly failed to meet them! The problems with the weapon system were officially denied for over fifteen years, with numerous modifications failing to fix them. The Germans of H&K managed to identify and solve most of them in a few months!This book was published back in 2003 so does not cover the developments with the rifle over the last fourteen years and indeed the author quotes official documents predicting a new weapons system would replace the SA80 by 2015- it didn’t and hasn’t yet! Despite being published so long ago, the book is readily available and can be obtained for £40 here. For anyone with an interest in the modern British armed forces it is an essential, if sobering, addition to the bookshelf.
As a collector of military ephemera I was very pleased to learn that a book had been published on collecting war publications, and indeed had been out for a couple of years. I am not quite sure how I had missed this particular book, but I quickly ordered myself a copy of Arthur Ward’s book “A Guide to War Publications of the First and Second World Wars”. The book soon arrived and I settled down for a much anticipated read.The book is published by Pen and Sword on high quality glossy paper and is profusely illustrated. The book is divided up into chapters covering The Home Front, Entertainment, Children, Civilian Militias and Military Manuals. These are bookended by chapters putting the materials into context and how to care for them. The text is well written and flows well making the book pleasurable to read and I found the opening and closing chapters very interesting. The author starts by looking at the state of propaganda in both the UK and Germany during the Great War, with an interesting discussion of the artistic merits of German posters of the time. Unfortunately although many of these posters are described, very few are illustrated and I felt that for something relying so heavily on visual media the actual posters would have helped get across the thrust of the argument.I found the thematic chapters highly frustrating. I recognise that context is very important, but I felt the emphasis was too heavily weighted towards context and there was not enough about the publications themselves. There are many books about life on the home front: what I wanted from this book was a look at the printed materials used on the home front: how heavily were they censored, how were supplies of paper maintained, did people respond positively or cynically to the materials they were presented with? Unfortunately nearly all of each chapter was devoted to context and very little to substance which was disappointing.
The book ends with some very useful information on preserving the documents and I learnt a lot from this. A set of useful appendices are included including one on Penguin books in wartime. Again I feel the author missed a trick here as there was clearly much more of a story to tell here and perhaps this should have been a full chapter of the book itself rather than tucked away as an appendix.Overall there is a lot to recommend this book, it is lavishly produced and there is much to learn from it, however I came away from it feeling rather unsatisfied and that is something of a pity for what should have been an important addition to the study of the period.
Copies of the book are available from Amazon here.
In these days of budget cut backs and squeezed spending in the heritage sector, it is always nice to go to a good military museum. If that museum is free to walk around, has a fantastic temporary exhibition and is on your doorstep then all the better! I am very fortunate that a few miles from where I live is Bankfield Museum in Halifax, home of the Duke of Wellington’s Regimental Museum and currently hosting an award winning temporary exhibition on the Great War.
The Duke of Wellington’s museum has been here for many years, but has been refreshed and updated many times. It covers the history of the Regiment from its earliest days until it was absorbed into the Yorkshire Regiment in recent years. Display cases show uniforms, weapons, equipment and items related to Regimental history with a small number of tableaux to add to the mix. This is really well done with loads of information and lots to look at (Imperial War Museum take note- we want to actually look at objects not play with a touch screen!). Among the highlights are the Duke of Wellington’s boots (yes the original wellington boot) and a reconstructed WW1 dugout. From the Second World War onwards, you can pick up a little speaker and hear veterans stories from those who served with the regiment at the various battles.
The top floor is playing host to a wonderful exhibition on World War One, sadly this is only a temporary exhibit and will only be available to view until 2018. There is a good selection of objects, the M08 machine gun and pre-war Duke of Wellington’s uniforms being amongst my favourites, and a lot of information on how the war affected people in the local area. There is a research room and some fun dressing up clothes for the younger visitors, but the emphasis is very much on the objects and stories from the local area. Some of the uniforms in the main display case are reproduction, unavoidable with originals being over 100 years old now, but this doesn’t detract from the power of the display and the repro items are clearly flagged up to avoid confusion.
I cannot recommend these exhibitions too highly, with the current squeeze on culture these sort of initiatives need all the support they can get so please go along and enjoy the museum if you possibly can- the more we use these facilities the less likely they are to be closed down. As an aside if you are also a fan of the Old West, there is a second temporary exhibition on this open until about April.
For more information about visiting please look here.
It is always nice to be able to add another book to the reference shelf and Military Mode publishing can normally be relied upon to produce something rather special. The latest addition to the bookcase is Daniel Fisher and Oliver Lock’s book British Airborne Headdress. This is a lavishly produced book covering the berets, helmets and other sundry headgear worn by the Parachute Regiment and other airborne units such as Glider troops and units attached to airborne divisions. The book starts with a detailed look at the famous red beret and there is a nice run down of its history and plenty of photos of different examples from the last seventy years. These are mainly taken from the collections of the Airborne Museum and museums in Normandy and Arnhem so there is a focus on wartime examples, but post war examples are also illustrated, albeit in far smaller numbers. Of particular interest are a number of relic beret fragments dug up in archaeological digs at Arnhem which show how the berets were modified by troops at the time.
The second main area of the book is on specialist helmets used by airborne forces. Many examples are shown, all beautifully illustrated and covering many subtle variations:Again the focus is on the Second World War, where much of the early development was undertaken- the basic design then remaining unchanged until the late 1970s. The book does cover later developments, and there are some interesting examples of helmets modified by Paras for service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The book ends with a brief look at other headdress worn by airborne troops- pith helmets, FS caps, jungle hats and cold weather gear. Again the thing one is struck by is how much effort is put into modifying these to give them a unique ‘airborne’ identity.This book is a tour-de-force by the authors and the subject is unlikely to be covered in such detail again. It must be remembered however that this is a very specialist book, more so I would argue than the Denison book we looked at earlier in the year. I must confess I am not a huge expert on airborne troops and their equipment and some of the subtleties described were rather lost on me. Nevertheless it is an excellent addition to the pantheon of British militaria books and if airborne kit is your thing I heartily recommend it. For the more lay reader I would suggest thumbing through a copy and deciding if it really appeals before splashing out your cash; like all Military Mode books it is not cheap, however as ever for the quality of production and content I feel it is money well spent.
Copies of the book can be bought here.
A few weeks back I reviewed Jon Mill’s book on the MTC, as mentioned then this was one volume in a mini-series covering various lesser known Home Front organisations. Definitely amongst the more obscure is the subject of another of the volumes covering the various training corps for girls set up during the war:At the start of the Second World War there was a general feeling that with the displacement of the young from their homes through evacuation and the loss of parental figures as fathers went off to fight and mothers had important war work to do, something needed to be done to direct the energies of the young. Whilst male pre-military training schemes were already in existence (cadet units etc), provision for girls was limited with the Girl Guides being the closest thing available. This book covers a number of different training schemes, set up independently and the various legal wrangles that went on between them and the government for official recognition and some degree of central support. The impression one gets is of small enterprises run by enthusiastic women with miniscule resources. As ever the book combines rare archive photographs with even rarer photographs of surviving insignia and uniforms:Although only a slim volume, the story related is an interesting one and I believe one that has not been written about before. As with many of these volumes the subject matter is very obscure- indeed this is far more peripheral than even the MTC story. With that in mind I cannot see many people going out of their way to pick up a copy of this book unless they have a specific interest in it, however if you do come across a copy on your travels at a good price pick it up as it is an interesting little read.
I suspect that I, like many others, was only aware of the role of the Mechanised Transport Corps in World War two from the character of Sam Stewart in the popular TV series Foyle’s War; therefore it was with great interest that I started reading Jon Mills book Within the Island Fortress No4 The Mechanised Transport Corps. This book is not a thick book, being just 32 pages long in a slim A4 sized paperback, published in 2008 as part of a small series of books dealing with more obscure parts of the Home Front.Whilst it is not a long book, the quality is excellent and the book is profusely illustrated with both period photographs and modern stills of original uniforms and insignia:The story laid out is actually quite a complex one with shifting roles for the corps and numerous spats with the War office over the MTC’s status and uniform which was felt to be too similar to that of an ATS officer. That Jon Mills makes this readable and more importantly understandable is to his great credit. There were several offshoots of the organisation and these are also covered, again with illustrations of their unique insignia. I am frankly astounded that the author has even found original examples of some of these badges and uniforms as the numbers issued sometimes barely reached double figures. Whilst not every photograph is captioned, the accompanying text made it easy to work out what was going on in those photographs without labels.
As well as their service in the UK, members of the MTC drove ambulances for the French before the German Invasion, and then for the Free French. They were then involved in driving ambulances for the South African Army and the Corps provided drivers for a wide range of civilian and ministry cars. They were only reluctantly acknowledged by the War office, but the Ministry of Supply and the Royal Ordnance Factories all took advantages of their services. Each of these allocations tended to produce another unique set of cloth sleeve insignia and these are covered comprehensively in the book:The author has a reputation for greatly expanding our knowledge of the civilian services during the Second World War and this book is a superb addition to the historiography of the period. I acknowledge that this is a niche subject, but like all Jon Mill’s books it is well written and worth picking up a copy if you can find one as you are guaranteed to learn something new. Sadly this book, and indeed the rest of the series, appears to have been out of print for a number of years but copies are available second hand and for the serious student of the Home Front are well worth acquiring.
There are a number of excellent reference books on British Army uniforms and insignia, indeed many are listed in the sources page of this site and recently a couple of useful books on Royal navy insignia have been published. By comparison the RAF has been rather neglected and thus far the only reference book specialising in RAF insignia is ‘RAF Uniforms and Badges’ by Malcolm Hobart. This is an older book, originally published in 2000 but republished in 2013 by Pen and Sword and I have only just purchased a copy of it. The book itself is a slim paperback, with just 144 pages and sets out to cover the RAF uniform from 1918 to the present day and the accompanying badges worn on it.
I will be honest from the start and say I had serious reservations about this book; it is flawed and incomplete at best. Personally I find any book on badges and uniforms really needs to be profusely illustrated to be effective- text cannot convey colour or design easily and especially when it comes to uniforms a picture really does say a thousand words. It is surprising then that there is not one picture of any item of uniform in the whole book, descriptions being given instead. The badges themselves are illustrated with nice clear photographs, but in a perfunctory manner with only about 40% of the badges described being illustrated. The picture captions do not always easily match up with the relevant text either and the dotting of illustrations lacks any unifying feature. A few full page spreads with insignia grouped together to show comparative sizes and designs might have been a better approach here.
I am not much of an expert of Royal Air Force Insignia, but it would appear that many of the different trade badges are missed from this book and when it was republished in 2013 no updates were made to the text so anything after the turn of the century is ignored. It was also obvious to me, even as a layman, that individual squadron badges, such as those worn on flight suits, are missing as well. This is perhaps a more logical omission as the sheer number would be hard to assess, but perhaps there should have been some mention of them.
Sadly then this is a book with many flaws, and I would only say purchase it in lieu of anything else. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the content, it never manages to deliver with gaps, lack of illustrations and poor layout detracting from what might have been a very useful volume. What is clear however is that a new book covering this interesting and complicated topic is desperately needed- something profusely illustrated if possible!