World War II Allied Forces

Military Uniforms

Military weapons, tactics, and uniforms a tend to develop rapidly during periods of conflict and to remain fairly stable during times of peace. This was certainly true of the period between the two world wars.

When World War II began in Europe in 1939, the uniforms and equipment worn and carried by the soldiers were, in many cases, not much different from those their fathers had worn in 1918.

This 1 940s' British infantryman (right) wears special snow clothing—a piece of early camouflage. The suit is padded and double-breasted for protection against the cold. The British paratrooper (left) wears a red beret.

Once again, a major war led to great improvements in the design of military uniforms. The mass slaughter of World War I had caused such outcries among the public that care of the men became a major concern for military planners. Uniforms were designed that offered greater protection from the elements and better blending into the background. The two biggest changes that took place during this time were the evolution of uniform variations for specialist troops and the development of camouflage.


The Tommy's uniform had seen several changes since 1918, although the men were still recognizable as British soldiers. Uniforms were still in khaki, but the tunic was different. Whereas before it had been a thigh-length jacket with four pouch pockets, it was now waist-length, in a style called a blouson, with two chest pockets. The sleeves were now button-fastened at the wrist, like a shirt, making them far warmer and more waterproof. This style of tunic gave the wearer much more freedom of action and was generally well liked by the troops.

In action, virtually all soldiers of any rank wore the blouson tunic, even including field marshals, such as Montgomery. All junior officers wore it— which, combined with small rank badges, made the task of picking out officers much more difficult for snipers.

Puttees, the bindings covering the legs, had disappeared, much to the troops' relief, because they took a long time to put on properly. They were replaced by gaiters, a simple piece of canvas that wrapped around the bottom of the trousers at the ankle, fastened easily and quickly by two buckles.

The leather jerkin continued to be popular, and the helmet was also virtually the same. Other things were different. For other ranks, peaked caps were largely replaced by berets, either black or khaki. For the most part, officers still wore the peaked cap, but it was not uncommon for them to wear a beret in combat. Leather for belts and straps had been completely replaced by a woven fabric


The greatest change in military uniforms in this period was in the use of camouflage. This was a logical extension of the dull coloring of uniforms, but had not been widely used up to this point. Some German storm troopers in World War I had painted their steel helmets in a broken combination of greens, yellows, and browns—an idea that had originally been used on ships, tanks, and aircraft to counter the growing efficiency of aerial surveillance.

The first use of camouflaged cloth was in 1929, when the Italian army introduced its use for tents. One year later, the Germans used the idea for a dual-purpose item that was both a poncho and a section of a tent. In this way, the first piece of camouflaged uniform was born.

The Germans continued to develop camouflaged uniforms, but, as with any good idea, it was soon copied. By the end of the war, most countries' forces were at least partially dressed in camouflage items.

called webbing. Today, this term applies to any system of belts, straps, and pouches, regardless of the material.

The new uniform proved to be far more practical and comfortable than its predecessor, and so was quite popular with the troops. However, it was much less popular with retired generals and colonels, many of whom complained that it was scruffy and unmilitary.

Snow and Tropical Kits

World War II was a wide-ranging conflict, thus, there were extremes of temperature and conditions, and uniforms reflected this in their coloring. The winter of 1939-1940, for instance, was a snowy one on the Belgian front, where most British forces were stationed. They were issued white

World War British Desert

Special Forces

In the desert, British tank officers took to wearing suede shoes, corduroy trousers, and short-sleeved cardigans (thus giving birth to the first "tank top"). Tank troops were often dressed in oil-stained overalls, giving rise to the complaint that they looked more like mechanics than soldiers—but, in fact, that is exactly what they were. British commando units were trained to fight in all conditions, and their uniforms reflected this. For mountain or Arctic warfare, thick, padded, waterproof overalls were developed. The "cap comforter" was another commando development: a woolen cap that could be worn under the helmet, and also be pulled down to form a balaclava helmet. Other commando kit included rubber-soled boots, for silence, and the famous commando knife.

This Gurkha corporal (1941) wears British tropical dress, with Gurkha badges, a slouch hat, and a kukri—a vicious, curved, combat knife. The buttons on the legs of his shorts allow the length to be adjusted.

snowproof overalls and helmet covers, so they could blend into the background.

After the fall of France in June 1940, the main action moved to North Africa. Troops there mostly wore a tropical kit of shirts and shorts—often with long socks—in a sandy color. The same outfits were worn by British troops stationed in such places as Singapore and Hong Kong. In the desert battlefields, uniform rules were relaxed, with soldiers on both sides wearing nothing but shorts, and at times, it was confusing to know who was who.

British paratroopers, a new form of specialist soldier formed in 1940, also wore camouflaged clothing. They wore trousers and a long overall top called a smock, both camouflaged. Their helmets were close fitting and brimless to make jumping easier and less hazardous. Their deep-red berets inspired their nicknames: Red Berets or Red Devils.

Women in Uniform

During World War II, Britain had half a million women in uniform. These included the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). British women played a much more active role in warfare than those of other countries. Many worked in traditional roles, such as nursing, or worked as clerical staff, wireless operators, and so on, but others operated searchlights and even manned antiaircraft guns. Their uniforms reflected these roles, from the walking-out dress of the clerical staff, through mechanics' overalls, to full battle dress for antiaircraft crews.

Service dress consisted of a long, tailored, four-pocket tunic similar to those of male officers, worn open-necked over a shirt and tie, with a calf-length skirt, all in khaki. Worn with this was a side cap or, more commonly, a special peaked cap, a double-breasted greatcoat, and thick khaki stockings made of a material called lisle. If a woman was lucky enough to get one that fitted properly, the uniform could look stylish and feminine.

ATS motorcycle dispatch riders wore breeches and puttees, while for mechanics, a one-piece green denim overall was produced. Antiaircraft crews wore battle dress consisting of a blouson jacket similar to the one wore by the men—although of better-quality fabric—along with slacks, ankle boots, and short leather gaiters.

In cold weather, all ATS uniforms might be worn with the ever-popular leather jerkin. Antiaircraft work was often cold work, so ATS gun crews were issued with a special "wool pile" overcoat, a sort of fake fur garment popularly known as the "teddy bear coat." With this, they wore the standard steel helmet.

ATS personnel served in all the main theaters of war, so there were tropical versions of ATS uniform: a lightweight, sand-colored skirt, shirt, tunic, and service cap, or a jungle-green version with a slouch hat.

Another group of army women, the army nurses, wore nurses' uniforms on the wards, but for walking-out dress, they wore uniforms similar to the ATS, including battle dress and tropical versions.

Commonwealth Troops

With the British forces came hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth troops from India, Africa, Canada, Australia, the West Indies, and dozens of other countries throughout the world. They were nearly all dressed in British uniform, the main differences being the hats they wore (for example, Sikh turbans and Australian slouch hats) and sometimes their weapons (such as Gurkha kukris). One very British ethnic uniform was the kilt and tam-o'-shanter worn by Scottish regiments; in World War I, the Germans at first treated them as a joke, but soon learned better, dubbing them the "ladies from hell."


In 1935, France had introduced a khaki uniform to replace the traditional blue, although many units retained a blue cap, or kepi. However, the basic uniform still resembled that of 1918, with a long, waisted, single-breasted tunic, riding-type breeches or baggy pantaloons, puttees, and leather webbing. With this was worn the familiar French poilu helmet, which was used by several other countries, including Switzerland and Spain. Officers' uniforms were of a similar style to the men's, although they were usually of far superior cut and material. I he other main difference was the use of brown riding boots or long leather gaiters instead of puttees.

Gaiters World War

French specialist forces included armored troops, who were issued with a three-quarter-length brown leather coat, loose gabardine trousers, and a blue beret. French tank troops were issued with a special helmet designed for protection and comfort in the hot, cramped interior of a tank.

Noncommissioned officers and men of the Belgian army wore uniforms that were heavily influenced by the French, although their soldiers wore long leather gaiters instead of puttees. Their officers' uniforms, however, were based on the British pattern, with peaked cap, Sam Browne belt, long leather boots, riding breeches, and a long, four-pocket tunic worn open-necked over shirt and tie.

Czechoslovakia fell to the Germans in March 1939, but before that—and in some cases after—there had been a flood of Czechs into the west, usually to France. After the war broke out in September of that year, France formed a Czech division from the refugees. This was the first of These U.S. soldiers are wearing the classic many such units, as countries Ml 941 that came into popular use during fell to the invading Germans and World War II.

World War Uniform

those who could sought refuge with their allies. The uniform of the Czech division was typical in that it was almost entirely that of the host nation, in this case France, with Czech insignia.

The same happened to the French themselves. French, Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Czech, and other soldiers made their way to Britain, where "free'1 forces, such as the Free French, were set up. As expected, their new uniforms were sometimes—but not always—those of the British, with their own badges to denote their unit and rank. Whenever possible, the Free French continued to wear poilu helmets and their officers wore kepis, but there are many cases of Free French units wearing British or U.S. helmets.


For most countries, there was little development of military uniforms during peacetime. This was particularly true of the U.S. When it entered the war in December 1941, many of its soldiers were equipped with uniforms, kit, and weapons that were not just similar to those worn by their fathers in 1917, but were actually the same.

This U.S. Marine from 1943 is in a standard Marine herringbone twill uniform. The sword and the water bottle at his front are, in fact, Japanese issue; his own water bottle can be seen on the right.

New Uniforms

In 1917, the classic Ml941 helmet was introduced. This replaced the previous 1917-issue wide-brimmed helmet, based on the British pattern. However, for at least two years after Pearl Harbor, it was common to see American troops wearing the early model. One unusual feature of American helmets was the custom of painting the wearer's rank on the front of the helmet, making the sniper's job that much easier. The Germans and French had unit insignia on their helmets, but in most armies, the only markings on combat helmets would be red crosses signifying medical orderlies, hopefully to spare them from the sniper's attention. Another piece of U.S. headgear that had survived from earlier uniforms was the broad-brimmed campaign hat, popular with cavalry regiments and especially noncommissioned officers.

Another change made in the early 1940s was the replacement of leather webbing with woven material, the belts of which had eyelets around them for attaching ammunition pouches, holsters, and other such things. The old laced anklets were replaced by elasticized versions, making life easier for the troops. Eventually, these, too, were replaced by high-laced boots originally designed for airborne units.

America's Army and Marine Corps uniforms came in two basic colors: khaki and olive drab. Khaki was meant for tropical wear and olive for other use, although it was common to see combinations of both. After their poor start, great changes were made. From 1943 on, the U.S. Army was issued with uniforms far superior to its allies and made with new materials, lightweight yet waterproof. One example was the field jacket, the 1941 model being made of light tan, windproof cotton with a wool flannel lining in a design based on the civilian windbreaker jacket. At first, this proved popular with the troops; with its zipper front, it was both comfortable and practical. But two major drawbacks soon became evident. First, it did not keep its wearer warm in field use and, second, it quickly wore out.

Its 1943 successor was longer and featured a drawstring waist and a hood and collar that could be buttoned at the neck for extra protection from the cold. Another feature was four large pockets for carrying small items, including ammunition and food. It was sometimes worn under a special combat vest that had built-in ammunition pockets. There were also matching trousers that could be worn over the normal wool trousers in cold weather. This established a new trend in uniform design: several thin layers instead of one thick item—a more efficient way of keeping in the heat. This idea more than proved itself during the bitter weather of the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944. One offshoot of that winter was the makeshift snow camouflage, in which troops made ponchos and helmet covers from white bed sheets and pillowcases.

There was also a noncombat uniform that was not a dress uniform. The Germans called this a "walking-out uniform." For American troops, it took the form of a full-length olive-drab tunic of the four-pocket style worn over a khaki shirt and olive-drab tie, and trousers, usually in khaki, with anklets and boots. This was finished off with a side cap and belt. What made other Allied troops envious of this was the superior materials and cut; the British battle dress might have been practical, but it took a lot of work to make it look halfway stylish.

In 1944, a new jacket was introduced, similar in design to the British battle dress, but vastly superior in cut and material. Produced in dark olive-drab, it soon became known as the Ike jacket, named for General Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower. It was produced for either combat or walking-out wear, but most troops kept it purely for the latter.

Tank wear

The tank might have offered a great deal of protection for its crew, but inside it was cramped and could become extremely hot. This, and the rough ground over which a tank was expected to move, meant that getting a serious bang on the head was always a danger. Another great danger was "brewing up"—in other words, being hit by an antitank shell and catching fire. If this happened, the crew had only seconds to escape through narrow hatches—in which event loose buttons and equipment could be a real hazard, because they increase the danger of getting snagged; so tank uniforms were often lightweight and simple.

Classic Commando Hat Cap Comforter

An American (rear center) is teaching Chinese troops to use a machine gun. Note the lack of insignia on the Chinese uniforms and their use of puttees to protect their lower legs. The U.S. instructor is wearing a bush hat or slouch hat.

American tank crews were issued with belted, herringbone twill overalls in olive. Especially popular was the tank crew jacket. This was made of lightweight khaki, waist-length, and elasticized at the waist and sleeves, with two large slash pockets and a knitted collar. Another item of tank uniform was the special lightweight helmet, made from fiber instead of metal, light yet still strong. It had a series of holes drilled in the top to increase ventilation.

Tropical and Specialist Uniforms

For tropical wear, shirts, trousers, and ties were issued that were made from a khaki drill material called chino in the U.S. These were worn with a distinctive narrow webbing belt with a plain, gilt-finish belt plate.

For the war in the Pacific, the U.S. Marines were issued with a two-piece herringbone twill uniform and matching peaked forage cap, all in olive-drab. The jacket had a single breast pocket with the Marines' badge stenciled on it. There was a less-popular dungaree version. Marines' helmets were often fitted with a camouflaged cover in one of several patterns.

Other specialist troops included the airborne divisions. They had their own uniform, a two-piece, olive-green tunic and trousers. The trousers had reinforced knees to protect their joints on landing. Another weak point on landing was the paratrooper's ankles. It was found that tightly laced boots that covered the ankle gave the men extra protection, so they were issued with these instead of the normal anklets. U.S. airborne troops did not have a special helmet like their British and German counterparts—they used the standard Ml941 helmet with a special lining and chin strap.

Women in Uniform

American women could join the WAACs or nursing teams, including the American Red Cross. Apart from nursing, however, their duties were mainly administrative and clerical.

Soviet Woman

Russian women fought in the frontline, and they were excellent snipers. This Soviet woman sniper from 1 943 wears a one-piece camouflaged coverall, with baggy cap and hood to break up her silhouette.

As with all later U.S. uniforms, the women's walking-out uniform was extremely stylish and well-tailored in dark brown, olive-drab, or chino, consisting of a knee-length skirt and a long, two-pocket tunic over a shirt and tie, worn with a peaked or side cap. Nursing fatigues were a two-piece overall of loose shirt and trousers in khaki denim, worn with a dark baseball cap or bush hat.

Soviet troops wore a long, khaki, four-pocket tunic with a high collar. Both officers and other ranks wore breeches or trousers with long leather boots and webbing. These could be worn with a side cap, a fur-lined winter cap with large earflaps, or the Soviet-style helmet, similar to the American version. Officers wore a peaked cap, the dress version of which was broader than normal. Over all this could be worn the long, double-breasted greatcoat. Rank was indicated by epaulets worn on both the tunic and the greatcoat. (Soviet epaulets were larger than those of most other countries.)

The Soviet troops were particularly well equipped for the vicious conditions of the Russian winter, with snow smocks, fur hats, and felt boots.

Military Uniforms


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