British & Commonwealth uniform

This page shows how to create the basic British or Commonwealth Infantryman look, which can be used as the basic building-block for many other looks.


A Tommy wearing the 1937 Battledress

A WW2 Tommy in 1937 Pattern uniform. Note the field dressing in his right trouser pocket.

 

Rear image of the 1937 webbing

A rear view of the 1937 Pattern webbing showing the small pack, water bottle and entrenching tool. The pig-sticker bayonet could be attached to this tool to be used for probing for mines.

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Footwear

The standard article of British footwear throughout the war was the Boot, Ammunition, or 'Ammo Boot'.

These were leather boots with pebbled uppers and hobnails fixed in the sole. They were durable and relatively comfortable.

To ensure that the trousers did not snare on the boots, short canvas gaiters were worn above the ankle, tying the bottom of the trouser round the top of the boot for a smarter appearance.

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About Blanco

Most veterans of World War II will have fond (or otherwise!) memories of hours spent 'blanco-ing' their webbing.

Blanco was a substance designed to increase the life of web canvas as well as making it smarter and more presentable.

It came in either a block or powder form, and was applied to the webbing using a brush. The powdered blanco could be applied to webbing that had been wettened, while the block would be loosened with a wet brush.

Once fully applied and dried onto the webbing, it turned the canvas from its beige khaki colour into a light green colour known as 'No.3 Khaki Green'.

Blanco-ed webbing was a requirement on barracks, but naturally when in combat it would often be difficult to maintain the quality of the blancoing.

British re-enactors generally keep their webbing blanco-ed irrespective of impression.

Blanco made during the war contained carcinogenic materials and so today's re-enactors use blanco that comes in a liquid form. This can be applied with a brush but can be just as messy as the process was during the Second World War.

Different colours are available, depending on if an 'Africa', European or RAF look is required.

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Insignia

Initially, brass regimental titles were worn on the epaulettes of the jacket as in the Great War, but as the war progressed regimental, brigade and divisional insignia produced on cloth was typically worn on both shoulders.

The regimental title, usually white text superimposed on a red background, was worn just below the epaulaette. Below that was a square piece of cloth with the divisional insignia. Below that was typically worn the arm of service badge.

In the case of infantry this was a single red stripe on a khaki background. AOS stripes could sometimes be used to denote a particular brigade within a division – for example in the 3rd Division the 185th Brigade was represented by three AOS stripes worn horizontally, one above the other.

However, in practice many soldiers discarded their insignia when in combat to make themselves less conspicuous and prevent identification of their units should they be captured.

Re-enactors tend to keep the insignia to identify the units they are portraying. Be careful when buying reproduction insignia as it can often rip off the uniform if it is of poor quality.


The uniform of the generic British 'Tommy' changed little throughout WW2, being based on the 1937 pattern wool-serge uniform and 1937 pattern webbing.

This uniform formed the basis of most of the Commonwealth forces and the Royal Air Force.

This page aims to help you create the generic look of a WW2 British or Commonweatlh soldier. Further research will be required for individual units.

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1937 Pattern Battledress

First introduced in 1938, the 1937 Pattern Battledress was made of a heavy wool serge and formed both the combat and dress uniform.

The uniform consisted of a two-pocket jacket with concealed brass buttons. Underneath this a collarless shirt was worn. The pockets on the jacket were pleated.

The trousers had a large pocket for holding a map and a smaller pocket for carrying the shell dressing. They were held in place by braces fixed from buttons on the waist and concealed under the jacket.

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1940 Pattern Battledress

The 1940 Pattern Battledress, produced from 1941, replaced the more 'elegant' 1937 pattern battledress in order to lower the cost of production within the war economy.

Still made of wool serge, this was a far more utilitarian piece of clothing that differed most obviously from the earlier pattern in having no pleats on the jacket pockets, and unconcealed plastic buttons instead of brass ones.

Throughout the war, a wide variation of 1937 and 1940 pattern battledress was worn in combat, as scale of issue varied wildly.

For the invasion of Normandy, it was common for the assault divisions (3rd and 50th Northumbrian) to be equipped with 1940 battledress, while the follow-up divisions (such as the 53rd Welsh) wore the 1937 battledress.

However, this is not a hard and fast rule, so be sure to do as much research as possible when picking a British unit to re-enact.

British battledress tends to be quite expensive, so shop around for the best deal and make sure you are buying a quality reproduction.

You should expect to pay around £250-£300 for a good set of battledress.

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1937 Pattern Webbing

During the inter-war period, the British Army decided that it required a new type of web gear for the ever-evolving requirements of its increasingly mechanised army.

Work began on finding a new set of webbing from 1932, but it was not until 1936 that the No.3 Web Equipment set, produced by the Mills Equipment Company, was adopted as the standard for all British troops.

This new '1937 pattern' webbing remained the standard, with a few modifications, for almost the entire duration of the war.

The webbing consisted of a waist belt affixed by brass clips, onto which could be clipped two large pouches which had a tab-clip mechanism.

These could accommodate either two magazines each of Bren gun ammunition or a varying amount of other ordnance.

Shoulder straps ran from clips at the top rear of the pouches over the shoulder to link up with clips at the rear of the waist belt. The bottom of these straps could then be used to attach the entrenching tool carrier and the water bottle.

The soldier carried his bayonet in a scabbard and “frog” that looped through the waist belt.

Finally, the soldier carried his possessions in either a small or large pack (the small pack was commonest by 1944) on his back that clipped to the webbing shoulder straps.

The entrenching tool split in two to be carried, with the spade head going inside the cloth carrier and the shaft going through loops on the outside. The bottom of the shaft had a fixing to allow attachment of the No.4 MkI 'pig sticker' bayonet, so that it could be used to probe for mines.

Private Burt Dawe of the 53rd Welch Division said of the entrenching tool; "It was only this slapping against your bum that kept you awake sometimes when you were marching".

The water bottle consisted of a metal bottle in a cloth skin that was carried either in a skeletal or full canvas carrier.

Early in the war, the soldier carried the No.1 Mk I sword bayonet which attached to the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifle.

This slipped into a scabbard that was carried on the waist belt by a “frog” – a piece of canvas which held the scabbard in place, allowing the soldier easy access to the bayonet.

The frog differed slightly with the smaller scabbard required for the much shorter No.4 MkI “pig sticker” bayonet which was used on the Lee-Enfield No.4 rifles.

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Headgear

When going into battle, the British Tommy wore his 'Battle Bowler' to protect his head from shrapnel and enemy gunfire.

From 1940, the Army equipped its soldiers with the MKII 'Tommy' helmet, which was essentially the same as the flat helmet worn during the First World War.

Within the shell of the helmet was fitted a leather and canvas liner that typically fitted a specific circumference size, although it could be adjusted. An adjustable canvas chipstrap was fitted to the helmet via two metal clasps.

It could be worn around the chin or strapped over the front of the helmet. The MKII helmet became the standard protective headwear for all British and Commonwealth troops for much of the war.

However, it lacked the same degree of protection as its American and German counterparts, leaving the back of the head and the neck exposed to shrapnel injuries.

From 1944, beginning with the assaulting forces on D-Day, the MKIII 'Turtle' helmet came into service.

This had a more elongated shape than the MKII and provided greater protection to the back of the head and neck, although the internals remained the same.

Again, however, issue of the MKIII helmet varied widely, so it was not uncommon to see a mixture of MKII and MKIII worn by all units from Normandy onwards.

Both the MKII and MKIII helmets were painted an olive green colour with sanding to diffuse reflected light. They could be fitted with a brown helmet net that wrapped around the edges of the helmet, through which could be tied strips of hessian camouflage or pieces of foliage. Typically, however, most helmets were worn with the net alone.

When not in combat, the British soldier had two items of headwear.

At the outset of war the standard item of parade headdress was the FS (Field Service) cap, a peaked sidecap that was made of the same wool serge as the battldress. This was supposed to be worn with the front above the right eye, and had the regimental insignia on the right side of the cap.

The FS cap was replaced by the GS (General Service) cap, or beret, in the majority of units from 1943. This was again made from wool serge and had the regimental badge worn on the front of the beret.

Variations in non-combat head dress were extensive, and depended on the scale of issue or the type of unit. For example; elite units like the Parachute Regiment or the Royal Tank Regiment retained their coloured berets in place of the GS beret, while other infantry units maintained a mix of FS and GS caps.