Tonight I have one of those objects which seems really obvious at the outset, but has generated a lot of debate amongst collectors over the years. For a long time it was assumed that these blue underpants were for issue to female troops:However the consensus now seems to be that these underpants were actually for men and were issued to those recovering from injuries in hospital. Dressings and physical incapacity made it difficult to get underwear easily on and off some patients. These underpants are fastened at one side by cotton tapes that can be undone to make it easier to get them on or off:The top tapes act as a drawstring around the waist, whilst the lower tapes help hold the pants secure. The Second World War saw great advances in medicine when it came to saving damaged limbs, and arms and legs that would have been previously amputated were now being saved, as reported in the Picture Post:
War is pointing the way. In the old days a surgeon lopped off a limb with a compound fracture, and then the patient made the best of it. One surgeon a hundred years ago is supposed to have cut off no fewer than 200 limbs in a single day; that is more than a modern surgeon amputates in the whole of his life, and today the Consultant in Orthopaedic Surgery to the Royal Air Force, Dr R Watson Jones of Liverpool, has reported that “in a series of Royal Air Force hospitals there was one amputation per 1,000 severe limb injuries, including infected wounds and compound fractures.” The wounded soldier, therefore, is easy in his mind on one score – the odds are heavy against him having to lose a limb. Further in war we cannot afford the wasteful practices of peace when a patient was treated for a fracture, discharged without any clear idea of his disability and how to treat it, and went to the courts to get compensation under the impression that his accident had made him a permanent cripple. The country needs sound men, not cripples.
With the greater number of soldiers with seriously injured legs recovering in hospital, specialist underwear would have been increasingly important. The dark blue colour is typical of hospital clothing- hospital blues and dark blue dressing gowns were also standard army issue. A simple white label is sewn onto the front of the underpants indicating they have a 34” waist and were made in 1943:As is sometimes the case, I am struggling to find anything further on these- I can find no period sources or materials to indicate when they were introduced or declared obsolete, who was actually issued them or how they were received by patients or medical staff.
I must make a confession about tonight’s object. I was sold this toggle rope as an original, but I am not convinced- several others have looked at it and opinions are divided. Regardless of whether this is a modern copy or not, the toggle rope is an interesting object and worthy of further discussion.
Toggle ropes are pieces of rope, issued one per soldier, about six feet long:A loop is provided on one end:And a wooden toggle on the other:This allows the ropes to be joined together by linking the toggle of one rope through the loop of the next:Extremely long ropes can then be quickly put together by combining each man’s ropes:This simple tool could be invaluable and why it came to river crossings ropes were linked together and a strong swimmer took the end across to the far shore. Here it was secured and those who were weaker swimmers, or indeed non swimmers, could drag themselves across the river. Quite complex structures such as rope bridges could be assembled from these ropes: Denis Roby trained as a Commando and recalls using toggle ropes in training:
The ‘death slide’ was a rope again, but this time sloping down at an alarming angle. A toggle rope, which was about 4 foot in length, a wooden handle one end and a loop at the other, it was used as a climbing aid among other good uses. Joined with others it could be used for scaling cliffs, but on this occasion we passed it over the single rope, one hand passed through the loop and the other on the handle then slid down the rope at an alarming speed, stopping by bracing your feet against the tree at the end, or fall in the river.
The toggle rope was also used to build a bridge over the river, very difficult to use because it swung to and fro with a mind of its own. This caused a lot of laughter, but two chaps slipped and fell through the ropes into the river and were swept away and later found quite some distance away. After that a grapple net was suspended as a safety measure.
Ropes were carried in a number of ways- they could be wrapped around the waist or the shoulders:Alternatively they could be coiled up and tucked into a piece of webbing:My apologies for the atrocious rope coiling here (you wouldn’t think I was a sailor by how bad I am with rope!).
A few weeks ago we looked at the daylight signalling lamp battery box and tonight we have the opportunity to look at the daylight signalling lamp itself. Like the battery box the daylight signalling lamp is stored in a solid metal box:Note the same reinforcing strips pressed into the side of the box. The same webbing is attached to the top lids as we saw in the battery box. Unlike the battery box though, this box has two lids, each secured with a sprung catch. Loops are provided on each side of the box to attach a shoulder strap for carrying and a waist strap to steady the box when the user is running:The daylight signalling lamp can be set up in a number of ways. A metal ground spike is included in the box and this can be pushed into the ground to allow the lamp to be used over a parapet. Alternatively the spike can be fitted into the box itself and this used as a base unit:For longer distance signalling the wooden tripod can be used instead and altogether this makes a very impressive set up:You may recognise that the tripod is the same one used with the heliograph. The signalling light itself is controlled by a Morse key on the underside of one of the lids:Note also the instructions warning the user not to waste the battery. This was particularly important because the lamp used eight 1.5 V batteries which were carried in the separate battery compartment. The same side of the box has storage for the ground spike with three holes, one for each of the sections. A top lid covers these pieces and a spring helps hold it down:The ground spike is made of galvanised steel and has three sections that screw together to make up the full length of the pole, alternatively one or two sections may be used if the operator wishes to place the lamp nearer the ground:The second compartment holds the batteries and the spare parts. Again this has a sprung lid and on the underside of this there are further instructions to the operator:The eight 1.5V batteries are carried in the bottom of this compartment and a wooden spacer sits on top:The spare parts tin is carried above the batteries. This tin is made of metal with lettering on the top explaining its contents:The underside of the spare parts tin lid has a picture and instructions on how to fit a replacement bulb into the signalling lamp:Sadly I am missing the spare bulb however I do have the smaller little parts tin that fits inside the larger spare parts tin:The lamp itself is made of heavy duty metal, with a permanently attached power lead to connect it to the rest of the equipment:Two different sized threads are fitted to the bottom of the lamp, the inner smaller one allows the ground spike to be screwed on; the larger, outer thread the tripod:A small sighting tube is attached to the top of the lamp body that allows you to line up the lamp with the receiving signal man’s position:A large reflector is provided behind the bulb to increase the intensity of the lamp, in daylight it has a range of about three miles, at night this extends to nearer twelve miles:Amongst the accessories for the signalling lamp are three different celluloid coloured lenses that fit over the main light body to provide different coloured signalling lights:These signalling lamps were in use from the Great War, through to the end of World War Two. It was the coming of reliable VHF radios that finally spelled the end for much of the visual signalling devices used in the British Army. My set is missing a few of the accessories, but has all the essential bits and I am very pleased with the complete set up.
There were many variations of the humble Morse code key in use by the British during the Second World War; some sources identify up to a hundred different variations. Tonight though we are looking at just one of these, a little Bakelite example:These little keys were used by signallers to tap out messages in Morse code and were normally wired up to a wireless set, which then sent out the dots and dashes as a wireless signal. Alternatively the key could be wired to a signal lamp, more on that in a few days! Examples could be made of brass, Bakelite, silver alloy or sometimes a combination of materials. This example is made of very robust brown Bakelite. It consists of a base and a spring loaded rocker arm with a large Bakelite knob at one end:The base of the key has a stores code marked on it:In this case it is marked ZA16929, and according to the Imperial War Museum’s online database this indicates the key was used with the Wireless Set Number 19. A second marking at the end of the key reads ‘Key WT 8 Amp No2 MK III’:The key works by completing or breaking a circuit every time the knob is pressed down. Normally the connectors nearest the knob are broken and the ones furthest away are connected, pressing down on the knob reverses that position:This gives a great deal of flexibility allowing the key to be used regardless of how a wireless transmitter is wired- just attach the wires from the transmitter to the relevant connectors on the key.
Rod Balkham describes how he learnt Morse:
Over a period of what must have been several months I was turned into an OWL B3 – that is, Operator Wireless and Line (B3 being rated higher than B2, I seem to recall). This transmogrification was achieved mainly by the challenge of competition, plus – in my case in particular – my instinctive reaction to the sensitive understanding of the corporal who was our teacher. Unlike many another army corporal, he commanded respect in a firm but kindly manner, and he knew his job. As with the Bren gun, I became proficient with the Morse key without having to try very hard. To help us learn the Morse Code, the corporal offered us a few mnemonics, based on the rhythm of the dots and dashes. One was ‘Here comes the Bride’ – you can think of the bride as the Queen, he told us – thus arriving at dah dah dit dah for the letter ‘Q’. Another one, which I have good cause never to forget, was ‘Did-it ‘urt cher?’: Dit dit dah dit for the letter ‘F’, followed, inevitably, by ‘Like ‘ell it did’ for ‘L’.
During both world wars the British army used battery powered daylight signalling lamps to send messages over short distances:The official manual explained its use:
The lamp can be read, under average conditions in daylight, at a distance of two miles with the naked eye and three to four miles with the telescope; at night, six miles with the naked eye and nearly twice that distance with the telescope. The beam of light from the lamp is visible for 40 yds. on either side of a station one mile distant, and proportionately farther at longer ranges.
These lamps used dry cell batteries and needed eight of them at a time. Eight were carried in the lamp’s box for immediate use and an additional sixteen were carried in their own metal box and it is one of those carrying boxes we are looking at tonight:The box is made from pressed metal with a hinged lid covered in cotton webbing, reinforced at each corner:A sprung catch secures the lid:Four little feet are pressed into the base of the tin:The sixteen batteries were carried inside in four rows of four and a fibre board insert on the underside of the lid helped protect the terminals of the batteries from damage:The box has a webbing carrying strap, secured to the sides of the box with nuts and bolts:Each of the batteries put out 1 1/2 volts, with the outer case made of waxed card and with a pair of brass terminals on the top. Battery technology at the time was still pretty primitive, hence why so many small batteries were needed, connected together in series to provide the power for the lamp. Users were warned to only turn on the lamp when needed to signal to help conserve batteries, but spares were still essential and due to their fragility a strong metal case such as this one was helpful in protecting them from damage. For an excellent set of photographs of the complete daylight signalling lamp, plus complete accessories including a full example of the spare battery case please look here.