When the Japanese attacked Singapore, the British Army was unprepared for an enemy who knew how to fight in jungle terrain and troops were still very much equipped with the same uniforms and accoutrements as had been used throughout the interwar period.
This uniform had evolved from designs used for service on the North West Frontier of India, being made of khaki coloured cotton. Khaki, the Hindustani word for dust, was a light sandy shade and whilst it camouflaged men in the arid north of India, was highly visible against the verdant jungles of Malaya.
The design of the uniforms themselves were also of questionable utility. Shorts were commonly used, although ‘Bombay bloomers’ were also a common sight. Bombay bloomers were a pair of trousers that were designed to allow the legs to be rolled up or down to change them quickly into shorts and back again. These trousers were baggy and unpopular and many men had them cut down into normal shorts. Whether wearing shorts or ‘Bombay Bloomers’, the men’s legs were vulnerable to insect bites and being lacerated by vegetation.
By the start of the war, shirts were commonly of aertex material, this was a loose weave cotton that had small holes throughout and so was far cooler to wear in the tropics than standard cotton drill; again the colour was a light shade of khaki.
Headgear was typically a sun helmet, either a pith ‘polo’ type or a Wolseley type. These bulky items of headgear were universal in the tropics during the interwar period and were designed to shade the head from the heat of the sun. They were light and reasonably comfortable, but not very practical in jungle settings, where their fragility and size made them awkward.
Helmets were often substituted to offer the men some protection and the distinctive rimmed Mk II helmet used, this was essentially the same helmet as used in World War One, but with an updated liner.
Boots were standard black leather ammunition boots, as had been used across the Empire for over a century. These boots were studded with hobnails and whilst effective in temperate climates, were prone to rotting in the hot and humid jungles of Southeast Asia. The stitching that held the boots together rapidly disintegrated and the boots literally fell off the wearer’s feet after a few weeks.
This was to be an ongoing problem throughout the war and resupply of fresh boots was to become a logistical problem during the fight against the Japanese. Boots were worn with either long socks, or more commonly short socks and hose tops.
Hose tops were a sleeve of sock material that was worn over the short sock and effectively increased its height up the leg. Socks tended to wear out at the toes and heels, so the hose top allowed less material to be wasted as it was only the lower part that was being thrown away when the sock wore through.
One area where the men were equipped with up to date items was in the field of webbing accoutrements. The British Army had introduced the new 1937 pattern webbing equipment set a few years earlier and by 1941 this was in widespread use. This web equipment was made of pre-shrunk woven cotton webbing and had two large basic pouches that were designed to allow the men to carry Bren magazines to support a sections light machine gun.
A typical load for a man was a pair of filled Bren magazines in one pouch and grenades and a cotton bandolier of rifle ammunition in the other. The set also included a bayonet frog for the sword bayonet that was still being used with the Short magazine Lee Enfield rifle, a water bottle and its carrier and a small haversack that was worn high on the back.
This haversack contained everything a soldier carried in the field; mess tins, spare clothing, wash kit, groundsheet etc. It was never large enough, but had a greater carrying capacity than its predecessors and troops soon learnt how to pack it for maximum efficiency.
The water bottle was a kidney shaped enamelled metal bottle which could carry two pints of water. It was stoppered by a cork on a piece of string and the design could trace its origins back to the late Victorian era. It was perhaps the weakest part of the design as the enamel was easily chipped and the bottle was such as tight fit in many men’s webbing that another soldier had to assist in removing and replacing it at water stops. It would not be until 1944 that the British Army replaced this design with a far superior aluminium design based off the US M1910 pattern.
Abundant (initial) shortcomings
The design of the uniform and equipment used by the British Army in the Far East at the start of the campaign with Japan was not bad and in the context of the period was perfectly adequate to troops expecting to serve in hot climates, but with no experience of the realities of jungle warfare.
These shortcomings were, however, to become abundantly clear with the Japanese assault on Singapore and lessons were quickly learnt. The fall of Singapore and Malaya cannot be laid at the door of the soldiers’ uniforms – far greater factors were in play – but their design does highlight the lack of any sort of conception of what fighting this enemy would be like.
Within a short period of time simple expediencies such as dying uniforms green would take place and within three years a whole new set of uniform and equipment was designed specifically for jungle warfare.
Edward Hallett is a regular contributor to the Armourer magazine. He also writes the ‘Tales from the Supply Depot’ militaria blog which has developed into the largest online site of its kind devoted to collecting and researching British and Empire military artefacts. His book, British Empire Uniforms 1919 to 1939, co-authored with Michael Skriletz, was published on 15 July 2019 by Amberley Publishing.