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Origins of the denison smock and development

July 2, 2013

Denison smock worn by Sergeant S W Scott, No. 3 Commando, 1944.

Named after its designer, Major Mervyn Dennison, the Denison smock was first introduced for  the use of airborne forces in 1941. It was designed to be worn over a soldier’s battle dress and under his jump smock.
No. 3 Commando, formed in July 1940 from volunteers who were mostly veterans of Dunkirk, took part in the 1941 raids on the Lofoten Islands and Vaagso in Norway, as well as Dieppe in 1942. In 1943 they fought in Sicily and Italy before returning to Britain to join 1st Commando Brigade, landing in Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Withdrawn after 83 days, the Brigade returned to Europe in January 1945, spearheading the crossing of the Rhine and the pursuit to the Elbe, after which they remained in occupational duties until disbandment in 1946.

Denison smock

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Sgt Harold Marshall wearing a Denison smock.
The Denison smock was a coverall jacket issued to Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents, the Parachute Regiment, the Glider Pilot Regiment, Air Landing Regiments, Air Observation Post Squadrons, and other Commonwealth airborne units, to wear over their Battle Dress uniform during the Second World War.
The smock was initially worn over the paratrooper’s webbing equipment, but under his parachute pack and harness, as its primary purpose was to prevent the wearer’s equipment from snagging while emplaned or during a jump. It was equally useful for camouflage and as a windproof garment that provided a method of carrying ammunition or equipment. Contemporary photographs show that airborne troops preferred to wear the smocks under their webbing once they had landed.

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The smock replaced an expedient first issue khaki-drill paratroop jump-jacket that had been directly copied in 1940 from the German parachutist’s Knochensack (“bone sack”). This first “smock” was designed to be stepped into and pulled up over the body like a set of overalls which had had the legs removed from mid-thigh. The new Denison smock was put on and removed by pulling over the head: the collar zipped open as far as the chest, making it a true smock style. The zipper was covered by a cloth flap, which had no buttons or other method to fasten it down. Introduced in 1942, the “Airborne Smock Denison Camouflage” bore a camouflage pattern designed by a Major Denison, a member of a camouflage unit under the command of eminent stage designer Oliver Messel.An alternative name was the “Smock Denison Airborne Troops”.
The Denison was a popular garment among officers who could acquire them—Company Sergeant Major CC Martin, DCM, MM of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada mentioned in his memoir Battle Diary that senior officers and sergeants major of his battalion wore the Denison universally.

1st Pattern

British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomerywearing a Denison smock
The smock was made from loose-fitting, yellowish-sand coloured, heavyweight twill material, allegedly hand-painted with broad, mop like brushes using non-colourfast dyes in broad pea green and dark brown stripes, or “brush-strokes”. With use the base colour faded to a sandy buff, and the overlaid shades gained a blended appearance. The colours of the 1st pattern smock were thought to best suit the wearer to the North African and Italian theatres. It had a half length zip fastener made of steel, knitted woollen cuffs, four external pockets that secured with brass snaps (two on the chest and two below the waist), two internal pockets on the chest, and epaulettes that secured with plastic battle dress buttons. The inside of the collar was lined with soft khaki flannel (or in senior officer’s smocks, Angora wool). A “beaver tail” fastened beneath the crotch from the back to the front of the smock – which kept it from riding up during a parachute descent. When not used, the tail would hang down behind the wearer’s knees, hence the nickname “men with tails”, given by the Arabs in North Africa in 1942. The smock was styled as a very loose garment, since it would be worn over Battle Dress, but it could be adjusted to some extent with tightening tabs on both sides of the lower part of the smock.
The smock was most commonly associated with British and Commonwealth airborne units, and the Special Air Service Regiment, after D-Day, but its initial use was by members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), parachuted or landed into enemy territory between 1941 and 1944. In the early smocks the colours were meant to be impermanent and wash out, leaving the garment looking like a typical French artisan or labourer’s chemise, and thus, hopefully, aiding the wearer’s Escape and Evasion chances. As the newly formed Airborne Forces expanded, so the need for smocks grew, meaning that they were by now screen printed for easier production.[1]
For use by Airborne troops, the Denison was worn over the battledress and under the webbing, with a sleeveless green denim oversmock being worn over the ensemble to prevent rigging lines snagging in the webbing and causing a ‘chute malfunction. This sleeveless smock had a long external zipper (often removed and used to make the half-zip Denisons full zip), a monkey tail that press studded to the outside front of the oversmock and two elasticated open pockets on the lower front which were to hold grenades for use whilst in the air or immediately upon landing. After a successful parachute landing fall, the oversmock was discarded.

2nd Pattern

5/6 June 1944. Pathfinder officers synchronising their watches in front of anArmstrong Whitworth Albemarle before flying into battle in Normandy. They all wear 2nd Pattern Denison smocks
The 1st Pattern smock design was replaced in 1944 by a second pattern which had buttoning tabs at the cuffs and brass snap fasteners to stow the tail flap on the back of the jacket when not needed. Other detail differences included reduced length and tube shaped rather than tapered sleeves. In order to make it more wind-proof, the tops of woollen socks were often sewn to the cuffs. The half-length zip fastener on this smock was made of brass. The colours of the 2nd pattern also differed from those of the earlier smocks, the base colour varying from a light to a medium olive combination, with overlying brushstrokes of reddish brown and dark olive green. These colours were thought better suited to the North Western European theatre.


Major-General Richard Gale, GOC 6th Airborne Division, addresses his men, 4–5 June 1944
The Airborne Assault: Major General Richard Nelson Gale OBE MC, the commander of 6th Airborne Division, talking to troops of 5th Parachute Brigade before they emplane in an Albemarle at Royal Air Force Harwell on the evening of 4 or 5 June
Denisons of either pattern issued to officers had woollen collar linings. By the time of the D-Day airdrops, some officers had had their jackets modified with a full length zip by their personal tailors, since this was not available on the issue item. Wartime photographs show that some other ranks had their smocks serviced the same way by the unit tailor. The zipper was most commonly removed from the 1942 Parachutist’s Oversmock, a longer, sleeveless, fully zipped jump-jacket, made of a grey-green denim material that was worn under the parachute harness, but over everything else (including the Denison). This Parachutist’s Oversmock also featured a tail flap and its sole intention was to prevent the paratroopers equipment from snagging while emplaned or during a jump. It was to be discarded on landing. The oversmock had capacious elasticated pockets on the skirt, intended as a safer way to carry grenades. These pockets were sometimes removed and added to the Denisons as well.
Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey (right) wearing a modified Denison Parachute Smock – 10 June 1944
A sniper’s variant of the Denison smock is known, in effect an issue smock with a specialized pocket (approximately 10″ x 10″) added to the left rear in which could be carried food & water, maps, ammunition, and other small equipment. Modifications were done at the unit level and known examples all vary from one sample to the next.
High-ranking officers (see photographs) could buy a privately made version of the Denison. Made from a lighter-weight gaberdine material, it had a full zip and a drawcord at the waist and a white wool liner to the collar. Frequently seen worn by General Montgomery and General ‘Boy’ Browning, OC Airborne Troops. The Royal Marines used a version which had the half zip replaced with buttons and loops for fastening the opening.
A waterproof Denison in waxed dark green material was also very rarely found during the War.

Windproof Smock

A garment with a similar appearance to the Denison, in lighter-weight denim, the 1942 Pattern Smock, Windproof, was also commonly issued to scouts and snipers in infantry battalions, from 1943, but most notably the SAS/SBS/SOE and Commando squads. It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the “SAS Windproof”. It was not designed much for parachuting, and lacked a crotch flap, having a drawstring hem instead. The most distinctive point of difference between ‘Windproofs’ and the Denison smock are that the former are hooded.
A matching set of over-trousers was produced to complement the smock. Both items were screen printed with colour-fast pigments in a bold Splinter pattern camouflage [4] similar to that of the ‘brushstroke’ pattern applied to the Denison. The pattern has a base colour of pink with overlying brushstrokes of plum, pale green and dark brown.[5] Windproof smocks and trousers were worn by French paratroopers in Indochina, and to a lesser extent in Algeria. The French referred to the pattern as “sausage skin”.
Variations of the ‘Windproof’ have been the basic Special Forces smock until the present, with several alternative colours seen over the years – white (or at least natural cotton) for LRDG’s desert use; olive green; black; and, in now very rare later issues of the Smock, Windproof, 1963 Pattern, the DPM introduced in the late 1960s. The current issue Smock, Windproof is in the latest variation of the DPM design.

SOE Jumpsuit

A camouflaged overall garment in a similar camouflage pattern along with a matching cloth helmet were issued to the SOE and allied agents parachuting into occupied Europe and were discarded shortly after descent. SOE jumpsuits were also issued in white for winter/actic environments.[6]

Post war

The Denison smock (or Smock, camouflage on later garments) remained on inventories in Commonwealth and other militaries after the Second World War, and was popular with troops in Korea. It remained standard combat dress for the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment until the mid-1970s (see below), and changed little from the wartime issue. A full length brass zip had become standard – with no cloth flap to cover it – and the ever-popular knitted cuffs (deleted on the 2nd Pattern smock, but often imitated by sewing woollen sock tops to the cuffs), were reintroduced. The base colour of the camouflage pattern was now a lighter khaki shade. The “Newey” press studs changed from brass/copper to nickel plated versions.

1959 Pattern

The 1959 Pattern Denison Smock.
The 1959 Pattern Denison Smock.
The Denison was significantly modified in the 1959 Pattern. This had a higher hem line, and was much less baggy. This was because wearing it over the personal carrying equipment (but under the parachute harness) while parachuting was no longer the practice. The ’59 Pattern retained the full length zipper and knitted wool cuffs, but the flannel lining of the collar was changed from khaki to light green. The most obvious difference to the eye, however, was the change in pattern and colours of the camouflage. The pattern became less random, more defined, with broad, vertical brush-strokes, and greater contrast between the base light khaki and the overprinted tones. The green was much darker than previous versions, and the brown was now chocolate, rather than brick. Where green and brown overlapped, they formed a fourth, darker, olive brown colour.


The British Army had officially adopted a DPM combat uniform for general use in 1972, and a Smock, combat, DPM was introduced as the general issue jacket of the range. Both the Royal Marines and theParachute Regiment, together with Air Despatchers of 47 Air Despatch Squadron (RCT) and the 395th Air Despatch Troop (RCT) (V), continued to wear the Denison smock, (typically with olive green Trousers, combat, 1960 pattern for field use or “lightweight” trousers in barracks and walking-out) until the late 1970s.
“Although a status symbol in the British Army, the Denison,” wrote ex-SAS officer, Barry Gregory, “was windproof but not waterproof and stank after use like a coal-miner’s sweat shirt. I used it in extremis as a pillow when sleeping out with sleeping-bag and poncho to keep my head above ground level.”
In the UK, the DPM Smock, Parachutist’s began to replace the Denison smock (beginning in 1977), to the chagrin of most of their owners, and all the Denisons had disappeared before the Falklands War of 1982. The new DPM replacement was not constructed of the Denison’s heavyweight twill, but was instead made from the same cotton material as the ’68-Pattern combat jacket. However, it was cut like the Denison smock, with smaller Newey press-stud (snap) fastened (but now bellowed) pockets, a full length zipper without buttons down the front, the traditional olive green knitted wool cuffs, and a ‘crotch flap’ on the outside of the back.
The Canadian Airborne Regiment was first issued an olive green replacement for the Denison in the 1950s, and in 1975 a Disruptive Pattern parachute smock entered service, remaining in the inventory until the regiment disbanded in 1995.


Belgian special forces units serving with the British during the Second World War included the Belgian Special Air Service. On their return to Belgium after the war, the unit (and its successors) continued to wear the Denison Smock, with the design following a separate evolutionary path there (M54 in Moon and Balls pattern, M56 in Belgian brushstroke pattern, and M58 in jigsaw pattern.
The French SAS wore the Denison while fighting with Free French Forces to liberate France, and continued to wear it immediately after the War whilst in Indochina, along with surplus British M42 Windproof smocks and overtrousers


The characteristic “brushstroke” camouflage pattern used on the Denison Smock has had a notable influence on the development of camouflage clothing worldwide. As well as being the design antecedent of its replacement, the four colour Disruptive Pattern, the Denison clearly inspired camouflage patterns used by Belgium, France, Rhodesia, Pakistan, and India.[3]
The most important development based on Denison pattern was the French Lizard pattern, in which the green and brown brush-strokes were more frequent, but much smaller, on a light greyish green base. Lizard evolved into two main styles: vertical, and horizontal (indicating the general direction of the brushstrokes). Other developments changed the shape of the brushstrokes, using intricate grass-like patterns in the Rhodesian pattern, or palm frond-like sprays in the Indian pattern. South African Denison Smocks (later replaced by the Slangvel) were plain sand coloured.
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Following Winston Churchill’s edict of 22 June 1940 that the British army should develop its own airborne capacity, a central organisation was set up, one member of which was Captain John Lander. It was he who handpicked members of the Pathfinder force and who negotiated its independent status. He foresaw early on, while the airborne forces were being conceived, that they would need a pathfinder capability in order to guide the aircraft to the right spot.
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The 21st was created to provide that capability. There job was to parachute into the target area and to set up both visual markers and the portable beacons, known as Eureka, to enable the main force to land both by parachute and by glider.
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The 21st comprised of 186 officers and men at its fullest complement and Lander could requisition any soldier he thought suitable for the 21st of any rank from any unit in the British army. This must have made him one of the most unpopular officers in the army. It also gave rise to the 21st “Airborne Mafia” reputation.
Of this 186 complement there were 26 Austrian, German, Polish and Czech anti-Nazi Refugees, who volunteered from the Pioneer Corps.
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They were very effective indeed as fighting soldiers and were particularly useful in battles such as Arnhem where they were fighting from house to house and could frequently hear the Germans speaking.

The Pathfinder Company also acted as an early warning if the selected drop zone was heavily defended, possibly diversion to an alternative drop zone. Once the main force was down the pathfinders were employed as a small reserve or reconnaissance force.

The 21st Independent Parachute Company served the 1st Airborne Division and formed in June 1942. It trained in North Africa and parachuted ahead of the main force against the Primosle Bridge in Sicily on 13/14 July 1943. The Company was sea-landed at Taranto Italy on 9th September and fought in the ground role, returning to the UK in December. One Independent Platoon was left behind in Italy with the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade.

Elements of the 1st Independent Platoon jumped behind enemy lines in Italy during Operation HASTY in June 1944, while the rest of the company remained on stand by for a series of cancelled operations in Normandy after D-Day.

On 17th September the Company jumped at Arnhem during Operation MARKET GARDEN marking the drop zones and landing zones for the first lift. One platoon marked the abortive landing site for the Polish gliders, who landed amid the battle under heavy fire. The Company was trapped within the Oosterbeek Perimeter whit the survivors of the 1st Airborne Division and experienced heavy casualties.

The 1st Independent Parachute Platoon become involved in the occupation and street fighting in Athens during the winter of 1944-45.

21st Independent Parachute Company accompanied the 1st Airborne Division liberation of Norway between May to October 1945. It subsequently joined the 6th Airborne Division in Palestine after the war, where it was disbanded in September 1946.

After the evacuation at Dunkirk Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany with an army ill prepared to defend the homeland, and far from able to contemplate offensive action on the continent. The Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged the formation of small highly trained units of soldiers who could raid the coastline of Europe and at least score some tiny successes while the army at large recovered, and thus appeared the Commandos. The raids met with mixed results, but the successes brought some welcome good news and helped keep spirits up at home. With the entry of the USA into the war in late 1941 American troops joined those from the Dominions in a build up in Britain, shifting the emphasis of the war from raiding to a full-scale invasion of France, and with it the Commandos changed from specialists in small operations to elite assault infantry spearheading large conventional offensives. 

Several companies have already made sets of Commandos, and all have focused on the early raiding days by the style of clothing, particularly the universal wearing of the ‘cap, comforter’. This set from Caesar is different in that the men wear a mixture of clothing, which is both more realistic and suggests a different stage in the history of the Commandos. Many wear the Denison smock, which was adopted from the airborne forces later in 1944, while a couple wear the leather jerkin. One man has a hooded anorak while the rest are in ordinary battledress. These makes for a very satisfying mix of clothing, and therefore much more realistic, but the Denison in particular points to a date after the Normandy landings. 

The late date is partly confirmed by the fact that several men wear berets. In the early days Commandos had worn insignia and clothing from their original unit, so berets would not have been unknown, but a green beret was officially adopted in late 1942, at which point many Commandos wore it with evident pride. A number of poses are wearing the familiar ‘cap, comforter’, while a couple are bareheaded. No one is wearing the steel helmet, yet this was frequently worn in action, even if sometimes reluctantly and only when the practical protection it provided outweighed other considerations. Naturally Commandos with steel helmets look little different from regular infantry, so perhaps Caesar have avoided them to keep these figures distinct. 

As with previous sets of Commandos we felt these men were too lightly equipped. Short raids did not require the bringing of rations, changes of clothes etc., but Commandos still had to carry ammunition, ropes, various specialist kit and any other weapons that they might wish to have, in particular knives such as the ‘Roman Sword’ or the Fairburn-Sykes knife. Some have quite small knives, and some have acquired pistols (including the Bren carrier, which is good), but the only man with any amount of kit is the walking figure in the top row. He is great, with a Bergen rucksack on his back as well as other items. As heavy and bulky items such rucksacks would have been laid aside during action, but it is good to see one included here. Most of the men have the standard ammunition pouches on their webbing, but these are very flat and not at all convincing. 

Apart from the Bren already mentioned the weapons include the popular Thompson submachine gun, the less popular but useful Sten and a couple of rifles. The last figure in the second row might perhaps be holding a De Lisle carbine, which was a silenced weapon perfect for picking off sentries without raising an alarm. However only a few dozen of these were ever made, and were extremely rare in Europe particularly. One particularly nice figure in the top row seems to be handling explosives, which was a feature of many raids as well as specialist functions in later engagements. 

The poses are for the most part fairly standard for World War II sets, with only the explosives man and the man with the knife having a real feel of Commando about them. However the Commandos were essentially just infantry, but highly trained and handpicked for their initiative, fitness and general excellence, so such poses are quite suitable. 

Sculpting is the usual high quality Caesar standard, with good detail and very natural folds in the clothing. The weapons and faces are nicely done, and the overall proportions are spot on. Some of the figures, particularly those kneeling, have benefited considerably from the usual Caesar multipart mould, which makes some great poses without the need for any putting together. Flash as always is non-existent. 

The one complaint that is heard about this set is it only contains 27 figures. Why this might be we cannot guess, but it does seem unnecessary when most Caesar sets contain 35 or more figures. Note also that Caesar have an inexplicable policy of varying the proportions of some poses in their sets, so our numbers above may not entirely reflect what is inside every box. However what you do get is pretty good, and while they are still missing ropes, knives and other smaller items they are about the best Commando set yet made. 

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History’s Greatest Sniper Rifles: The Lee Enfield No. 4 Mk. 1 (T)

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Sniper Sergeant Harold A. Marshall of the Canadian Calgary Highlanders’ Scout and Sniper Platoon is seen here with his No. 4 Mk. 1 (T) sniper rifle, Denison smock, Mills bomb, and Kukri.
While some wartime German, Soviet, and American World War II sniper rifles received accuracy-enhancing modifications, the majority were actually rather stock, often simply rack-grade rifles selected during their initial test-firing for conversion to sniper rifles. The conversion from infantry rifle to sniper rifle usually consisted of nothing more than mounting an optic.
The British method was rather different. After No. 4 Lee Enfield rifles were selected for their accuracy, they were shipped to the world-famous gunsmiths of Holland & Holland. There, they were carefully embedded to improve accuracy. In addition, they were carefully fitted with scope pads, a wooden cheek rest, a third sling swivel in front of the magazine, and a 3.5X scope in a one-piece mount. The end result was perhaps the best sniper rifle of World War II, the Lee Enfield No. 4 Mk.1 (T).
Why was the (T) a great rifle in its day? For a few important reasons. While the Lee Enfield action is often looked down upon for its rear locking lugs, it proved to be a tough and very reliable piece in actual combat. Not only that, but the combination of cock on closing, 60-degree bolt rotation, short bolt throw, and 10-round magazine provided a very high rate of fire. The ability to rapidly engage multiple targets was an advantage. Plus, unlike all of its competition, the (T) had a wooden cheek rest added to provide a proper cheek weld. While seemingly small, this was a very important addition to the design that made the rifle easier to shoot consistently.
Unlike its American counterparts “commercial off the shelf” solutions, the (T) was fitted with an honest to goodness military-grade scope that, unlike its German adversaries, featured proper windage adjustments in the optic. Although the (T)’s mounting system wasn’t as elaborate as some of the German systems, it was much better suited for hard military use.
The only drawbacks to the No. 4 (T) were its rimmed .303 cartridges and low-magnification optic. The cartridge was a holdover from the black powder days of the 19th century. Even so, its 174-grain Mk VII ball load exhibited acceptable exterior ballistics, excellent penetration in intermediate barriers, and very good terminal performance with an early yaw cycle. The 3.5X scope had a large exit pupil and a fairly wide field of view, but lacked magnification for target identification and engagement at longer distances.
Even so, the Lee Enfield No. 4 Mk. 1 (T) performed so well it remained standard issue long after Japan’s surrender. It was eventually re-chambered to 7.62x51mm NATO and rebuilt into what became known as the L42A1, which soldiered on in the British Army until finally put out to pasture in the 1980s. While the No. 4 (T) wouldn’t be my first choice for competition or hunting, I would certainly choose it over its peers for its intended purpose.

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