With the possible exception of the AK47, most firearms do not function well when they are covered in dirt and grit. Unfortunately the internal parts of a gun need to be oiled for them to function properly, and this oil in turn attracts dust and seizes up the action. This problem becomes more acute in arid conditions such as the North West Frontier or the deserts of Northern Africa. Whilst there is no substitute for regular cleaning of weapons by soldiers, physical covers over the working parts of a weapon can help reduce the level of dirt significantly and therefore breech covers were produced for the Lee Enfield rifles. Most of these covers were produced in the UK or Canada and use press studs to secure them, as described in this list of changes from 1915:
“The Breech cover is fully described in LoC 17368, 24 June 1915.
“the Cover is made of Double texture waterproof drill, and is fitted with 3 press studs on the left side of the rifle. Two eyelets are fitted in the cover for a lace which is knotted on the inside to retain it in position:
The cover is attached to rifle by means of the lace as follows-
Rifles Short MLE– To the guard sling swivel, or through the swivel screw hole in the lugs on the trigger guard.”
Tonight however we have an Indian produced example that uses a staples and a cloth strip to secure it:My thanks go to Andrew Dearlove for helping me add this one to the collection. As can be seen the cover fits tightly over the bolt and action of the rifle, the opposite side to the fastener has a double thickness area around the bolt handle to prevent this area from wearing too quickly:The cover is wrapped around the action, the staples are pushed through holes in the breech cover on the opposite side, and the whole assembly secured with the long cotton tab:This allows the cover to be easily removed by quickly pulling on the tab and this allows the assembly to fall away. A pair of leather ties are fitted:These secure to a ring in front of the magazine on the rifle to prevent loss of the cover:The cover is made of the same rough cotton drill as Indian made gas mask bags, inside are a couple of stamps: one has a date of 1943 and a number ‘2’:The second stamp is a faint purple marking with the letters ‘F.S.A’:Quite what this stands for is unknown now. We end with a nice illustration of a breech cover being used in the trenches of World War One to keep mud out of the action of a ‘jock’s’ SMLE:
Tonight we have a small envelope with an interesting story. From the Great War onwards soldiers were given one free ‘Privilege’ envelope a week. This allowed them to send private correspondence home without being censored. The system worked on trust, and a random selection would be checked to ensure nothing sensitive was being sent out- soldiers losing the right to the envelopes if they divulged sensitive information. As only one envelope was allowed a week, soldiers tended to put multiple letters inside, with the recipient forwarding them on to others. The system continued into the Second World War, with a buff envelope with green lettering marked on it. This envelope however is rather different from the norm:The ‘privilege’ part of the envelope has been obliterated with a large black stamp:This suggests that the stock of normal envelopes for mail that would be censored had run out and these were over marked to remove the privilege status. The recipient’s name and address is filled out on the right hand side of the envelope, here to a Private F W Brown:These envelopes remained in use into the 1950s as recalled by one ex-serviceman:
This was all we were allowed to use for about three months in 1956 prior to and during the Suez invasion. Most of the men that I served with still have them as we thought that no letter was better than these things. Mind you some of this could have been our fault as all letters prior to this had to be put into the company office unsealed to be censored. Now on standing orders when this instruction came out it informed us that what we wrote would remain confidential as long it is had no military references in them, and would never be commented on by the officers censoring the mail. Well we had to put all this to the test so we spoke about our platoon officer w#nking himself silly and one of the others being so daft he could not find his back side with both hands. Well as quick as shot they were down in the lines bawling out the men who had written these letters, only to find that complaints were put in against them for breaching Company Orders. So they refused to censor the letters and we got was the Field Post Cards for months on end. Ain’t life fun in the Army
A couple of weeks back I came across a large calibre round on Huddersfield Market that I did not immediately recognise. As it was only £3 I bought it speculatively and took it home with me. Comparing it with my Boys AT round (middle) and a .50 cal drill round (lower) it was clearly slightly ‘chunkier’:Some help from other collectors has now helped me to identify the round as being a 15mm Besa round:The 15mm Besa machine gun was an enlarged version of the Czechoslovakian ZB53 machine gun and was introduced to replace the obsolescent .5 Vickers machine gun. The 15mm Besa was a long and heavy gun, weighing over 125lbs and being more than 6 feet long:It was therefore used mostly to arm wheeled armoured scout cars, such as the Humber:The round has a 1160 grain bullet fired from a 15x104mm cartridge:I believe that this is a ball round, and it has a boattailed shape, the round being filled with a lead/antimony mixture. The rounds were fired from 25 round metal belts, that reduced the rate of fire. However the machine gun was normally fired in single shots which were far more accurate than automatic fire. The round has a rimless case, with markings on the base, sadly I cannot read any markings in this case:This round was very short lived, being introduced in October 1939 as the “Cartridge S.A. Ball 15mm Mk 1z” and being declared obsolete in August 1941. The round was used primarily for training. The 15mm Besa itself would not last much longer, being declared obsolete in 1949, over 3,200 machine guns having been produced by that point. I have never come across one of these rounds before, I really like these large calibre rounds so it’s a great addition to my small but growing selection of ordnance.
A few years back we looked at plastic cap badges, made during the Second World War as an economy measure. However these were not the only badges remade in plastic; metal was a strategic resource and if a badge could be moulded out of plastic then it saved brass or steel for more important duties. As well as military cap badges many civilian and Civil Defence badges were produced in plastic as well as badges for various youth organisations such as the cadets. It is a lapel badge for the Air Cadet Corps we are looking at tonight:This badge was worn on the lapel of a suit when the owner was out of uniform, allowing a discrete way of showing his role within the service and allowing other members of the cadet force to easily identify him as a member. It might seem strange today, but in the Second World War normal attire for teenagers was the same as for adults; shirt tie and jacket. As such they all had a lapel with a suitable button hole to attach the badge to. The rear of the badge has a straight post and a round top to it to allow it to fasten securely through a lapel:Small lettering on the back of the badge indicates it was made by Stanley’s of Walsall:This firm were a large manufacturer of badges and produced massive quantities for the armed forces. The badge itself is not made from Bakelite, but rather a form of cellulose. A larger circular cap badge was also produced in plastic for the Air Training Corps.
John Phillip Haseldine was a member of the ATC and recalls some of its activity:
From early 1940 I was going to the A.T.C. every evening and at weekends. We were shown how to recognise aircraft from all angles by black silhouettes – plus we did the normal square-bashing, of course. We used to be taught how to set a course allowing for wind speed and variation etc. and I was pretty good at all this sort of thing. Of course, nights in the winter especially were pitch dark and I remember two occasions in the black out. The first happened as I was riding my bicycle home when suddenly I flew through the air. For some reason a manhole cover in the road had been left off and my front wheel had gone into it. Luckily, being young, I was not badly hurt but my bicycle was a complete wreck. We used to have very bad smogs caused by all the coal fires, virtually the only kind of heating in houses. Added to the black out these smogs made it impossible to see even a yard ahead of you. On this one evening a group of us were going to A.T.C. training at a different venue than our usual place. We got completely lost, when a man bumped into us with his bicycle and said he lived in the road where we were going. He said if one of us held onto his bicycle and the rest joined in a line behind, he would walk there with us. We did this for a little way but then came to a dead stop as he had walked off the street into an air raid shelter. After this we groped about most of the evening and to this day I cannot remember whether we arrived.
Early in 1944 I went with other of the A.T.C. to a test centre in London. I cannot recall where it was but we were given medicals and things I remember we had to do was to blow into a tube that raised mercury to a certain level and hold it there for one minute; also a Japanese book which had numbers in it made up of all different colours. We were asked what numbers we saw when the pages were turned over. Then we were interviewed separately and asked questions, most of which I thought were crazy, by three R.A.F. officers. The only one I can remember was how a combustion engine works, which I knew.
I would have been coming up to 18 at this time. Some months later we were taken in R.A.F. trucks to airfields; we were not told where. I remember one we were taken to. There was a very large building with a ballroom-type floor, at one end of which was a dais with a seat and an aircraft joystick, in front of which was a flat board which you could lie on, with a bomber’s teat by the side. A map of Germany was projected on the whole of the floor which moved as if you were flying over it, both pilot and bomb-aimer were about 20’ above. Whoever was pilot was given a target on the map and as the map moved and you approached the target to get into the right position the bomb-aimer would give directions left or right of it until he thought you were in the right position. Then he would press the bomb teat and release the bombs. This was not as easy as it seems as you had to allow a time lag for bombs to drop. A bright spotlight would then show where your bombs had landed and the map would stop.
I am slowly building up a small collection of Home Front pin badges, tonight we have an example of one of the more common badges, a Rest Centre Service badge:The Rest Centre Service offered support to people’s and families bombed out of their homes, giving them shelter and helping them get their lives sorted after the trauma of enemy action. This little badge is stamped and then enamelled in white and blue with the letters ‘R’, ‘C’ and ‘S’ intertwined in the centre. The back has a simple pin fastening rather than a lapel button, reflecting the fact that many involved in this work were women where a pin was more appropriate for securing it to a dress:The Rest Centre Service did much valuable work, as described by William Reeks of Bethnal Green:
In the summer of 1940 I was an 18 year old working as a clerk for the London County Council in Bethnal Green, East London, and the only prospect I could see was waiting for my age group to be called up for military service. Our office was on stand-by for manning Rest Centres at a nearby school, which was equipped to receive bombed-out refugees if air raids on London started. Until the ” Blitz” in the autumn that meant sleeping in camp beds in the office on a rota basis, playing cards and deciding who was to be the cook.
Eventually on 20th October I was called to Rest Centre duty as bombed-out East Enders started arriving: for two months I worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off at Globe Road School in Stepney (empty as all the pupils had been evacuated to the country), tending to the needs of bombed-out families who trudged to the school with what they could salvage from their destroyed houses. The school, and many others had been stocked many months before with tea in chests, sugar in sacks, tinned food, blankets, mattresses etc. I remember the cheerfulness of the Cockneys, who quickly settled in and were soon even singing. Every morning we phoned J. Lyons caterers with the numbers of people and at lunchtime the desired number of hot meals arrived in an insulated van. The organisation and forethought was impressive and helped to alleviate the suffering of the refugees.
I mostly travelled the eight miles to and from my home by bicycle – with the disruption of public transport it was more reliable, though the rubble and broken glass everywhere meant frequent punctures. They were exciting times for young people, and I do not remember any down-heartedness or defeatism.
In December I enlisted in the Home Guard and left the Rest Centre Service to others, and resumed work in the office which enabled me to perform my Home Guard duties in the evenings and weekends.
In this Cecil Beaton photograph a young mother and her children wait in a rest centre in London after losing their home: