Category Archives: Royal Navy

Royal Navy Tropical Shorts

During the Second World War British naval ratings in tropical regions normally wore a uniform of white shorts, white cotton flannel, black socks and black ankle boots:

Tonight we are looking at an example of a rating’s white cotton shorts:The white shorts worn by ratings, senior rates and officers were all very similar and there are a number of patterns based on where and when they were manufactured, with ‘bazaar’ made examples also thrown into the mix. I suspect that from the RN’s point of view, as long as they were white and looked roughly in line with the proper pattern they weren’t too worried about minor detail differences! It is normally the waistband where differences can be found, many using a pair of brass friction buckles to secure them. This example however uses two white plastic buttons:White buttons are also used to secure the fly:Button down belt loops are provided around the waist to hold an RN money belt:The belt worn with this uniform was usually white as the blue example rubbed dye off onto the shorts. Slash pockets are provided on each hip:This example has a small label sewn into the inside of the waist band indicating it was made by Harrods in 1943 and is a 34” waist:Shorts had long been in use with the British military and no-one thought too much about them. It was therefore a shock to British sensibilities when complaints were received in Florida of all places. GS Guinn in his book “British Naval Aviation in World War II: The US Navy and Anglo American Relations” explains:

In Florida, the Royal Navy’s standard tropical white shorts were frowned upon as being offensive to local tastes and so, unless cadets were in their formal whites, they spent most of their time in khaki trousers and long sleeved khaki shirts. British trainees were unable to understand the nature of the offence to which shorts could give rise. They expected Americans to behave and think like British citizens and were surprised when they did not.

Interwar Postcard of a Sailor and Marines enjoying a Beer

This week’s postcard takes us back to the period between the wars and depicts a sailor and marines relaxing ashore in tropical climes, most likely somewhere in the Mediterranean:The rating is wearing the tropical white uniform, with pith helmet and two long service and good conduct stripes on his sleeve:His companions appear to be Royal Marines, presumably from the same ship. They wear KD service dress uniforms with large white pith helmets, bearing a metal badge to the front:On at least one of the helmets you can just make out the brass ball worn on the top:In front of this group sits a small table, laden down with bottles of beer:The interwar period was the era of the Royal Navy cruises, flying the flag. These hugely popular cruises involved taking the fleet around either the Mediterranean, or once famously around the world, and calling it at various overseas ports to show off the might of the Royal Navy and hopefully score a few trade deals as well. For the crews of these ships there were ample opportunities to ‘run ashore’ with relaxation frequently consisting of imbibing the local beer. The Empire cruise was renowned for this, with sailors remarking of Port Swettenham “here the men can obtain beer and refreshments also cigarettes, free of charge”. Whilst for one sailor, Frederick Bushell he wrote of Australia “I think most of the ship’s company are feeling the effects of the late nights and “bonza” times we’ve been having

Royal Navy Money Belt

In 1924 the Royal navy introduced a blue webbing belt for its ratings. The belt was 2 ¼“ wide and came in two sizes, 40” or 46” long:

As can be seen from the picture above a small pocket was fitted on the right hand side, secured with two press studs:This was frequently used to carry small change, and indeed inside this example I found four screwed up notes from the Far East:These are three Hong Kong notes for small amounts and a Japanese Occupation note. Quite why these were left in the belt is a bit of a mystery, but suggest the original owner saw service in the Orient. The belt was adjustable with a toothless metal buckle:And fastened with a leather tab:And metal waist buckle:The leather tab was deleted in January 1935 and replaced with a webbing tab instead, presumably to save materials, cost or manufacture time. A metal hook was also fitted to the belt to allow a jack knife to be hung from it:Again this was one of the features deleted in January 1935, although many ratings continued to use the hook and indeed retro-fitted newer pattern belts with their own spring clips to match the earlier design. The belt had originally only been issued to Royal Naval ratings, but its use was extended to the Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in August 1930. An example of the post 1935 pattern belt can be found here.

Lanchester Sub Machine Gun

You are a big hairy matelot boarding a ship, you want a weapon you can stab the enemy with, club him with and if you are really desperate shoot him with…you want a Lanchester!

At the start of World War 2 Britain was the only major power with neither a sub machine gun in its inventory, nor a weapon in development. It soon became clear that one was desperately needed and the easiest option seemed to be to reverse engineer an existing design and put that into manufacture. The British had two examples of German MP28s they had acquired from Ethiopia of all places and they used these as a basis for an almost exact copy that was to become known as the Lanchester. Initially the gun was to be produced for the RAF for airfield defence and for the Royal Navy for boarding parties. In the end the gun was not adopted by the RAF as Stens were coming into service and it was almost exclusively used by the Royal Navy, 79,790 being produced.

The gun is the complete opposite of the Sten gun, it is beautifully made with a wooden stock, brass magazine housing and extensive machining:A number of familiar elements were added to the German design, the butt stock is modelled on that of the Lee Enfield rifle:And includes a brass butt plate:A boss and bayonet lug are fitted:This allows a SMLE sword bayonet to be fitted:

Original Lanchesters were select fire, this example is a Mk1* meaning it can only fire in full automatic. A straight cocking lever is fitted on the right side of the receiver:Note the large brass magazine housing. This is the location of the weapon’s markings:From this we can see that this example was made in 1943 by Greener. The two facing /|\ marks indicate it was sold out of service and the Arabic script just visible on the curved part suggest it saw service in Egypt post war. The Lanchester uses large 50 round magazines firing 9mm ammunition. These magazines are identical to Sten magazines, just longer:Originally these guns were fitted with tangent sights, but by the time my gun was produced these had been simplified to a flip sight with a ‘U’ shaped notch:The front sight is a simple post inside a pair of protective wings:The gun’s safety is a locking cut at the back of the receiver that the cocking handle can be hooked into:To strip the gun down a large disassembly knob is provided at the back of the receiver:Turning this allows the main receiver to be pivoted out of the wooden handguard:This then allows the rear knob to be unscrewed and the internal parts of the gun removed:This Lanchester is of course deactivated so the main breach block has had a large part machined away. The Lanchester remained in service with the Royal Navy into the 1970s and can be seen in many period photographs. Here we see it being carried by a member of the Royal Canadian Navy during wartime:And here it is being carried on parade by an Australian sailor:Opinion on the Lanchester is divided, as explained by the ‘WWII after WWII’ blog:

Both sides agree on two things: the Lanchester was rugged and well-built, but, it had a dangerous flaw in that a cocked gun would discharge if the butt was jarred or dropped.

Sailors who liked the Lanchester said that it was reliable, and (in the early semi-auto Mk.I version) surprisingly accurate with single shots. In full auto, it’s balance kept the muzzle on target even when firing a full burst. The weight made felt recoil almost nothing, and cleaning and care was very easy.

Those who disliked it said that in addition to the danger of dropping a live weapon, the extractor could fail during full-auto fire (a field modification was later developed for the Mk.I* to address that issue). There were many complaints that the gun pulled to the right side when firing in full auto. The magazine was frustrating to load and the quick-loading tool became almost a must. After repeated use, the magazine’s lips would spread apart preventing insertion (Sten magazines had the same problem). During it’s post-WWII years, spare Lanchester parts (especially replacement firing pins) became scarce but this was more to do with the Lanchester’s strange background and short production run than any issue with the design.

Royal Navy Seaman’s Jersey

As part of their everyday uniform in winter, British sailors were issued a woollen seaman’s jersey to be worn under their serge jumpers. This garment was made of dark blue wool, tightly knitted in a Guernsey style:This jersey was worn with No’s 1, 2, 3 and 4 dress by all Class II Seaman and was used from the start of cold weather until the beginning of April. The jersey is in a traditional style and similar garments had been in use since the Great War. The jersey has slightly tighter cuffs to help keep the wearer warm:The same reduction knitting is used around the waist to draw it in:Cotton reinforcing patches are sewn into the edges of the collar to help prevent it splitting and unravelling at an obvious weak point:This clearly was not entirely successful as there is extensive darning on one shoulder:These jerseys are often seen in period photographs being worn instead of the white cotton flannel:It was not supposed to be worn on its own, but in the relaxed attitude of smaller ships during the war it was often used in just this manner, as seen being modelled by a few sailors here:These jerseys remained in use until the late 1960s or early 1970s. One wearer recalls:

I remember wearing the blue wool Sea Jersey during the months of October to March while in training, and I also wore them when I was on duty in blues with red badges (with silk but no collar/lanyard) during the winter months prior to being rated SR – can’t say I missed them – I considered them similar to scotchbrite pads!!. I also recall wearing the sea jersey when travelling from one place to another in uniform, when classified as ‘duty’ but with the collar & silk worn but no lanyard.

Naval Parade, HMS St Vincent Postcard

This week’s postcard has a naval flavour and shows a parade at HMS St Vincent in Gosport in World War Two:Forton Barracks was the home of the Portsmouth Division Royal Marine Light Infantry from 29th March 1848 until 1st August 1923. The Barracks was converted to a new entry boys training establishment in 1924 and was commissioned as HMS St. Vincent, a Naval training establishment, 1st June 1927.

When World War Two started the Boys training task relocated to The Isle of Man and the site was taken over by the Fleet Air Arm to provide new entry and pre-flight training of RNVR Air branch officer cadet ratings. During this period Officer Cadets were dressed as ratings, but had a plain white band around their caps to indicate their cadet status:Note also that these cadets are wearing the high naval anklets (see here), belt and bayonet frog typical of ratings on parade at this period. They are presenting arms with SMLE rifles with fixed bayonets. In front of the body of men is an officer, who looks to be a lieutenant, with sword in hand:A Wren’s drum group stands behind:In the background can be seen one of the buildings of HMS St Vincent, complete with the crystal glass veranda in front of the wardroom- this was moved to HMS Collingwood’s wardroom following the closure of the base:Tony Inman was one of those who went to HMS St Vincent in the war as part of his Fleet Air Arm Training. He remembers:

This was a stone frigate – that is a naval barracks. It was one of the places that in peacetime had been used for training boy seamen and there were traces of this still about: for example the washing area where the lavatories were didn’t have doors on so it would not be possible for naughty sailors to get up to rude things with these boys. Embarrassing at first, but when you are young and amongst a lot of people you get to accept this sort of thing and after a while we thought no more of it…

On Saturday morning we had block cleaning. The blocks were three stories high, the top two were dormitories and the ground floor was the mess where you lived when you were not in the dorm, had meals and sat around and talked. The meals were prepared in a central galley and that part of the duty watch designated as mess cooks would go off to the galley and stagger back with these great big ‘fannies’ as we called them – containers – and you would cluster round with your plates and they would dish it out to you. Anyway Wilmot was going to explain what block cleaning was so he leaned back and said: “On Saturday mornings you will see that you are block cleaning. I will explain this”. Then he shouted with great delight: “Naval airmen, if left to themselves, would live in filth and squalor! So this is what we do so you don’t live in filth and squalor”. Block cleaning seemed to consist of going up to the top floor and pouring water onto the floor, then with stiff brooms brushing it all out of the dormitories so that the water cascaded down the concrete steps to the first floor where it was repeated, water all over the floor then all swept out with these stiff brooms – mobs of you pushing and shoving and sweeping the water out so that it all cascaded down the steps again. That was block cleaning.

Royal Navy Blue Jean Collar

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to pick up a full set of uniform to a Royal Navy Rating from the Second World War. We will be taking a closer look at the individual components of this grouping over the coming weeks, and tonight we start with one of the most iconic pieces of uniform worn by sailors, the traditional sailor’s blue jean collar.The collar dates back to at least the 1830s, but there were no definitive patterns until 1856 when it was greed that there would be two rows of white stripes on the blue jean collar, however consultation with the Commanders in Chief of Devonport and Portsmouth and their officers resulted in the agreed pattern having three rows of white stripping. These were applied as separate hand sewn pieces of white piping until 1941 when a new composite printed tape was introduced allowing them all to be attached as a single piece by machine rather than hand sewn:The underside of the collar is lined with a white and blue striped shirting fabric:It is here the owner stamped his name to identify the collar as his:To wear the collar it was placed over the flannel before the wearer put on his jumper and secured with the various tapes and loops:The following description of how to wear the collar comes from Martin Brayley’s excellent book on Royal Naval uniforms of the Second World War:

The rear of the collar lay on the shoulders, while a central section draped down the spine. Two extension pieces ran to the front over the shoulder, through a half twist at the front with two tapes that were then passed through loops on the spinal section before being fastened with a bow at the front. The two extension pieces were connected a the front by a small strip of fabric. To improve the appearance of the collar front this strip was normally cut allowing the front sections of the collar to ‘cut away’ inside the jumper and much higher than would otherwise be possible.

This particular collar retains its manufacturer’s label that helps date it to 1941:Later examples of the collar buttoned to the top of the sailor’s trousers and did away with the complicated tapes, today Velcro is used to secure them into the No1 dress uniform and small buttons help hold it down so it is not caught by the wind and flicked up, as seen here:We will return in detail to more World War Two rating’s uniform pieces in the coming weeks and months.