Sunday, September 23, 2012

British 1st Airborne Division Vehicle Markings at Operation 'Market Garden' - 1944


One of the most inconsistent, confusing, and as a result controversial, subjects of the British Army in World War II, are the tactical markings used on armored fighting vehicles as well as all other forms of transport. Historians, Authors, Military Vehicle Restorers, and Scale Model Enthusiasts alike, have and continue to enquire on various forums and web sites as to the nuances and specific details of the markings.

A most contentious subset are what are called Arm of Service (AoS) numbers and colored squares found on the fenders and rear of the majority of tanks and other vehicles. Even though prescribed military regulations were promulgated on the subject, exceptions abound. No place is this more true than in the AoS markings found on the vehicles of the British 1st Airborne Division during Operation 'Market Garden', the Battle of Arnhem. The subject has been further exacerbated by erroneous research incorporated in “definitive” references.

As can be appreciated from the researcher's perspective, any contemporary photograph of vehicles taken during the course of the battle, and misidentified, can immediately lead to confusion over mis-location of a unit in a given physical position at a certain time in the battle. It should also be realized that not all of the involved vehicles carried definitive markings, or because of incurred battle damage, had them obliterated, further compounding correct identification.

Consisting of a white number (normally 2 or 3 digits) superimposed on a 'square' of either a solid or set of colors, the AoS number identified the vehicle unit’s parent organization, the colors connoting branch, i.e., Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Royal Army Service Corps, etc. The numbers would identify the unit, most frequently to the battalion level, i.e., 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, 7th Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers (Airlanding), etc. Army Regulations stipulated the nominal size of the "squares' to be  8.5” wide and 9.5” high. Regulations further directed that the marking be on the front right hand side and left rear. The division's formation sign would be placed on the front left hand side and right rear. In the case of the 1st Airborne Division this was a light blue 'Pegasus' (normally facing right) on a maroon square, of the same dimensions. The following are examples:

Unit AoS of the 1st
 Airborne Recce
 Squadron

Formation Sign of the
1st Airborne Division

This photograph is of one of the armed jeeps of the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron which evaded the ambush at Wolfheze, and made it as far as the eastern part of Oosterbeek. In addition to '41' on the bumper, note absence of any windscreen (windshield), the single .303 cal.Vickers 'K' gun mounting, and finally the barely discernible 'Pegasus' formation sign on the left side of the bumper.


The next photograph shows an example of the markings correctly painted on the bumper of a restored jeep. In this case indicating 181st Field Ambulance (Airlanding) attached to the 1st Airlanding Brigade.


The following are examples of two supposedly accurate references showing the AoS markings arrayed in the Order of Battle of the 1st Airborne Division at the time of  the Battle of Arnhem. The first chart is a conscientious effort which conforms to the convention cited in British Army regulations, however it contains several errors (26 out of 42 numbers) based on information which will be developed below. The second chart is seemingly an equally earnest effort, but also contains errors. Primarily the errors are focused on some of the principal fighting elements of the division, including the battalions of the 4th Parachute Brigade and the 1st Airlanding Brigade, so the importance of having the correct data can be immediately appreciated. 



There is however, one recognized and significant reference book, who’s authors discovered original source documentation on the subject, which has been corroborated by contemporary photographs at the scene of the battle in both Arnhem and Oosterbeek. What is even more significant was that this information was only discovered in 1994, on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, the Battle of Normandy. The book is: British Military Markings 1939-1945 ('A Comprehensive Guide to the Formation Signs, Arm-of-Service Badges and Colours, Unit Serials, Tactical Signs, and Other Markings displayed on British Military Vehicles in World War` 2'), Hodges, P. and Taylor, M. D., Cannon Publications (Almark revised), 1994, ISBN 10: 1899695001/ISBN 13: 978189965003. It is important to remember that it is the revised edition (1994), not the original (1971), that contains corrections in an extensive revision and update. The book is out of print and most sought after, realizing prices of upwards of $200.00 USD for the hardback edition.


 With full acknowledgement to the book and its authors, the following are limited excerpts describing  the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the information, and the data itself.




As can be summarized from the above table the following represents the most accurate information available to date of AoS numbers and colors for the listed units:

156th Parachute Battalion - '67' on Green Square (Not '60')
10th Parachute Battalion   - '68' on Green Square (Not '61')
11th Parachute Battalion   - '69' on Green Square (Not '62')

1st Battalion The Border Regiment (Airlanding) - '113' on Brown Square (Not '69')
2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment (Airlanding) - '110' on Brown Square (Not '67')
7th Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers (Airlanding) - '111' on Brown Square (Not '68')

4th Parachute Brigade Headquarters - '94' on Green Square (Not '87')
1st Airlanding Brigade Headquarters - '109' on Brown Square (Not '94')
21st Independent Parachute Company - '73' on Black Square* (Not '50')
1st Anti-Tank Battery RA (Airlanding) - '46' on Red/Blue Horizontal Square (Not '47')
2nd Anti-Tank Battery RA (Airlanding) - '46' on Red/Blue Horizontal Square (Not '47")
1st Light Regiment RA (Airlanding) - '42' on Red/Blue Horizontal Square (Not '46')
1st Airborne Divisional Signals - '52' on White/Blue Horizontal Square (Not '40')
181st Field Ambulance (Airlanding) - '117' on Black Square (Not '77')
1st Airborne Divisional Workshops (REME) - '88' on Red/Yellow/Blue Square (Not '40')
1st Light Aid Detachment (REME) (Airlanding) Attached to 1st Para Bde - '81' on Red/Yellow/Blue Square
6th Light Aid Detachment (REME) (Airlanding) Attached to 4th Para Bde - '77' on Red/Yellow/Blue Square
 (Unk) Light Aid Detachment (REME) (Airlanding) Attached to 1st Airlanding Bde - '109' on Red/Yellow/Blue Square
13th Light Aid Detachment (REME) (Airlanding) - '117' on Red/Yellow/Blue Square
253rd Composite Company (RASC) - '72' on Red/Green Diagonal Square (Not '73')
1st Airborne Divisional Field Park (RAOC) - '89' on Blue/Red/Blue Vertical Square (Not '92')
16th Parachute Field Ambulance - '75' on Black Square
133rd Parachute Field Ambulance - '77' on Black Square (Not '76')
1st Parachute Squadron RE - '50' on Blue Square (Not '49')
4th Parachute Squadron RE - '51' on Blue Square (Not '50')
261st Field Park Company RE - '48' on Blue Square (Not '52')
9th Field Company RE - '49' on Blue Square (Not '51')

The numbers and colors for the headquarters and battalions of the 1st Parachute Brigade are correct and consistent in all three of the charts:

!st Parachute Brigade Headquarters - '81' on Red Square
1st Parachute Battalion - '55' on Red Square
2nd Parachute Battalion - '56' on Red Square
3rd Parachute Battalion - '57' on Red Square


Addendum:
In their book,'BRITISH AIRBORNE JEEPS 1942-1945: MODIFICATIONS AND MARKINGS', R. Van Meel and M. Baan cite that the following additional markings were used on the jeeps of the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron at Arnhem. Each jeep had on its front-mounted spare tire a troop identification marking; diamond for Headquarters Troop, triangle for A Troop, circle for C Troop, and  square for D Troop. In the center of these markings is a number. Probably a vehicle loading number within the squadron, e.g. 15 inside square (D Troop), 18 inside circle ( C Troop), 21 inside triangle (A Troop). Supposedly both the geometric shapes and numbers were painted in white. These markings can be photographically corroborated by two images in the book, 'REMEMBER ARNHEM' by John Fairley. They also cite the use of Bridge Classification Discs with the number '6'. Again one of the images in Fairley's book confirms this, but the number is barely discernible.


1 comment:

M. Dorosh said...

As someone who has worked with primary documents in the national archives, I have to point out that just because an order was produced outlining a desired method, it does not mean that method was adhered to in the field, or for that matter, not superceded a month, a week, or even a day later by another document that somehow did not make it into the archival record. While interesting, the book cited (I own a copy) would do well to back up the claims re: Airborne arm of service markings and colours with either anecdotal evidence (veteran's reminisces that confirm the numbers) or even better, photographic proof that the serial numbers cited were actually used.

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