Headwear is one of the defining items of military clothing. The colour signifies which part of the army a soldier belongs to, carries the Corps or Regimental badge and when dressed to fight, the headwear used tells its own story. These are one man's observations on his issued headwear - and a few stories, too!
The French beret was introduced in 1924 as the distinctive headdress of the Royal Tank Corps. Other armoured regiments followed, but the beret was not adopted by the army, as a whole, until 1943, although there were some exceptions. At first, the majority of the army was issued with the dark blue beret, but certain regiments and corps which had adopted a distinctively coloured beret before 1943 were allowed to keep that colour. Since then, more colours have been adopted by regiments and corps as a way to commemorate associations or just to be - regimental!
Dark blue berets were always like dinner plates. They never 'shrank' like other colours and needed major surgery to look anything like they should. Shrinking involved two basins of water, one very hot, one cold, one new beret and one determined soldier. Dipping from one basin into the other was supposed to shrink the woollen beret until it fit snuggly. The wet beret was then placed in the correct position on the head and allowed to dry. This could be accomplished by moulding it to the head, then carefully removing the beret to a hot radiator. The next morning, the badge was fitted and the beret worn as required. However, the fold over the right ear never stayed put, but often stuck out at a non-regulation angle. The only cure was to do the whole process again or to stitch it!
There was always plenty spare to hang over the right ear. The reason why the Brits wear the beret as they do is because the rifle, when held at the slope was on the left shoulder. The 'loose' part of the beret was gathered to the opposite side.
Berets are not easy to keep clean, any cigarette ash, fluff or dust being easily spotted. REME1 were always picked up on the cleanliness of their berets, but since they were only issued one, there was never time to clean them properly. In any case, they always fell off into the dirtiest and oiliest part of the vehicle being worked on. They were, however, quite waterproof.
In 1976, REME personnel serving with the two Scots Guards LAD REME2 were given the 'honour' of wearing the Guards khaki beret in place of the dark blue. This lasted about two weeks as the vehicle mechanics in particular were not too careful of the state of their hands when adjusting headdress. Note: khaki does show oil stains more easily than dark blue. The blue beret was quickly restored as 'working headdress'.
The only others of like size were the commando green ones earned by those completing commando selection. They didn't seem to mind though.
With all its faults, the beret is one of the most individual items of military clothing. As long as the cap badge is over the left eye, the beret pulled down on the right and it is in good condition, it appears that anything goes. It is possible to identify the owner simply from the appearance of the beret. Everyone tries to individualise his/her beret and hopes to get away without comment from a Senior NCO (Non Commissioned Officer). In that sense it is one of the escapes from uniformity.
Cap No1 Dress - 'Craphat'
In its present form, the Cap No1 Dress appeared after the first World War, when the old scarlet jacket gave way to dark blue. It has a cap band which may be coloured (red for all Royal regiments/corps) a crown which may have coloured piping or a regimental/corps colour and a patent leather peak and chinstrap. The chinstrap is usually secured above and across the peak and secured at each end by a small regimental/corps button. There have been no major rethinks, although the front of the cap received a stiffener in 1975 to make the cap above the peak almost vertical. This is where the regimental/corps badge would be. Some regiments/corps do not wear the Cap and wear local headdress or the beret in its place.
Not often worn, it is almost universally disliked. To keep it on in a wind, either the chinstrap is used (when ordered) or it is issued a size too small and wedged on. It is impractical and purely an item of display. Its nickname suits it perfectly.
A combat cap was issued in the 1958 pattern green, but it never made much impression. The DPM (Disruptive Pattern Material – camouflage) cap appeared about 1972 and was an issue item in the 1970s and 1980s. It had a useful peak and some side extensions lined with khaki wool that could be used for limited protection against the cold. It was the standard non-active field headdress but became less used after the introduction of the Helmet Combat. Not now issued although some regiments appear to issue them until coloured berets are earned.
These were quite comfortable and wearable. However, when washed too hot, the peak of some did its own thing and produced a rather lumpy thick overhang. The peak was made of a number of layers of cloth, all stitched together and these always shrank at their own rates, hence the catastrophe which was once a peak.
These were the preferred field headdress as no one liked the 'boingy' (see next). The Guards Division never wore them and this was reflected in the field dress standing orders of many other units. They were not considered very 'English' by many.
Helmet Steel 1944 Pattern - 'Boingy'
This was a steel helmet issued in 1944 as a replacement for the Pattern 1916 helmet. It protected the neck and head better. The only major changes over the years were in the liner, which went from the traditional leatherette and rubber to nylon and plastics
This was one of the least-liked items issued. It was never a personal issue, it always came from the G1098 store (local issue) and so was changed from unit to unit (or sometimes sub-unit to sub-unit). Why was it hated so much? Well, because it had an elastic chinstrap, which had to be used. At the top of the helmet was a DOT fastener, which was a pin about 3mm thick and 1cm long. This connected to a female fastener in the liner to keep the liner in the helmet. Around the fastener was a thick rubber or foam pad intended to keep the end of the pin away from the head, which it never did!
Any running caused the helmet to bounce up and down (boingy, boingy, etc) and pressed the pin into the head with each bounce. Much modified, it was passable as field headgear
I found a Dutch helmet strap (non-elastic) which worked well, with additional padding over the crown.
The camouflage was always hessian (burlap) and netting which was good for the first month, but tended to smell a bit afterwards. Mould and algae was not uncommon in the hessian.
After the 'boingy', this must have been heaven. Lighter, no bounce, and comfortable to wear, it was welcomed by all (although wearing the helmet all the time in the field wasn't so popular). This is one thing the army got right. The helmet does have some negative features, but it gives good protection with user comfort.
I found it cold as the only contact points are the top of the head, forehead and back of the head. (This was so that a telecomms headset could be worn.) Some form of warm headgear is still required.
Cap Comforter - 'Scarf'
This is, in fact, a scarf made from a 'tube' of knitted wool, sewn at both ends. By pushing one end through the tube to the other end a long cap is made. Rolling up the open end produces a 'cap'. The first of these multipurpose items appears to have been issued in 1900, although it may go much further back. The idea was to provide some warmth under the steel helmet of 1916 or perhaps even earlier, the tropical helmet when worn in the Himalayas. Wartime commandos used it in place of noisy helmets.
This is another good piece of kit that was tried, tested and used before it was ever issued by the army. The steel helmet is a frightfully cold item in the winter and the cap comforter went some way to making life bearable for those in the front line in winter. The cap comforter has been replaced by the warmer, which is a copy of the Wehrmacht torques. This is a woollen knitted tube not sewn at the ends. The warmer is pulled over the head to the neck and used like a balaclava or scarf.