Category Archives: WW2

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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Royal West African Frontier Force Button

Tonight’s object is a tiny horn button with a palm tree and the initials RWAFF on the front:imageA simple brass loop is attached to the back:

imageThis button is actually from the Royal West African Frontier Force. The RWAFF was formed in 1897 with men from Nigeria, Gambia, Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast. The force fought with distinction in World War One, mostly in German East Africa.

In 1939, the RWAFF was transferred from Colonial Office to War Office control. Under the leadership of General George Giffard (GOC West Africa), the RWAFF served as a cadre for the formation of 81st (West Africa) Division and 82nd (West Africa) Division. Both divisions saw service during the Second World War, serving in Italian Somaliland, Abyssinia, and Burma. In 1947, the RWAFF reverted to Colonial Office control. After the war, the RWAFF comprised the Nigeria Regiment (five battalions, stationed at Ibadan, Abeokuta, Enugu, and two in Kaduna, with a field battery of artillery and a field company of engineers), the Gold Coast Regiment, and the Sierra Leone Regiment (including a company in Gambia). When Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria in 1956, she gave the Nigeria Regiment the title “Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment”.

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Sadly the contribution of Africans was largely overlooked for many years and it is only now, seventy years after the end of the war that their stories are starting to come to light, as reported in a BBC news piece:

Nigerians made up more than half of the total force of 90,000 West African soldiers deployed to South East Asia after 1943 as part of the British Army’s 81st and 82nd (West Africa) Divisions. 

Although the Burma campaign ended 64 years ago, many remain bitter that their contribution was never adequately recognised.

They were central to the push to clear Japanese forces out of the jungle and mountain ranges of Burma, from where they threatened British India.

This was achieved through a gruelling campaign of jungle marches, battles and ambushes, in which supplies were delivered entirely by air.

Usman Katsina remembers it well. 

“Everything that was meant to be used – your food, your clothes, everything – was given to you and you were required to carry it, on your head and back. Some even died from exhaustion, from travelling long distances, with a heavy load,” he says. 

Some of those who earned the coveted Burma Star had already fought against Mussolini’s forces in East Africa. 

West Africans also joined special Chindit units under the command of General Orde Wingate. 

The Chindits fought deep inside Japanese-held territory to disrupt lines of communication. 

Their enemy was an extremely dangerous opponent. Japanese soldiers were trained well in the art of jungle warfare, where the first rule was concealment. 

It was a skill the Nigerian troops had to learn too. 

“The Japanese in the jungle were just like snakes – they hid before you could see them, it was very hard,” recalls 97-year-old Hassan Sokoto.image

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.

Short Cold Weather Mittens

A long time ago on the blog I looked at a pair of cold weather mittens here. That pair were quite long, with the body of the glove coming half way up the forearm. Tonight we have a second pair of snow gloves, but these are much shorter, just covering the hand itself:imageThese gloves are made form a closely woven but lightweight cotton, as such they would afford no warmth to the wearer. They would have been worn over a pair of woollen gloves or mittens, the woollen layer offering warmth and the cotton outer glove providing camouflage and some degree of waterproofing. The layer of air trapped between the inner and outer glove would also add to the insulation and help keep the wearer’s hands warm.

The wrists of the gloves are secured with a piece of elastic:imageEach glove is /|\ marked and dated 1942:imageThey are marked as having been manufactured by J B & Co Ltd- unfortunately I have been unable to link this with a specific manufacturer.

I am not sure how widespread the use of these mittens actually was- photographs of troops wearing cold weather kit are unusual in the first place and all those I have seen just show men wearing just the woollen gloves and mittens, without the white outer mitten. Certainly this pair are in mint condition and don’t seem to have ever been issued.

Civil Defence Armband

In 1941 the various aspects of Britain’s air raid precautions, rescue and civil support services dealing with the aftermath of air raids were brought together into a single entity known as ‘Civil Defence’. This umbrella organisation introduced new unified insignia including a simple arm band that could be worn over civilian clothes by those without an official uniform:imageThis arm band is made of blue cotton with the organisation’s logo printed in yellow:imageAmong those who were issued the arm bands were messenger boys such as Roy Jamieson:

In those days we had no equipment other than our Civil Defence armbands. There were two steel helmets at the Report Centre which we had to share. A messenger was not allowed to go out unless he was wearing a “tin hat”; consequently if a message had to be taken out the Messenger had to wait until another Messenger came in before he could go out to deliver the message.

In this view of the King and Queen talking to Civil Defence personnel, you can see one of these armbands being worn by the warden immediately behind the queen:SKM_C45817100408340

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