Canada in the Second World War

Arms & Weapons

An Infantryman’s Basic Kit

Private Thomas Hawkins, Royal Canadian Regiment, digging slit trench near Motta, Italy, 3 October 1943.

Private Thomas Hawkins, Royal Canadian Regiment, digging slit trench near Motta, Italy, 3 October 1943.
Photo by J.H. Smith. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada. PA-116844.

British and Canadian soldiers were outfitted with countless items of equipment or “kit” in addition to the standard battle dress of khaki wool serge. Probably the most recognizable was the distinctive steel helmet, similar in shape to that worn during the Great War. Most soldiers wore the Mark II helmet, more circular in design and with a flatter brim than its predecessor of the earlier war. Troops designated for the D-Day assault, however, were issued the Mark III helmet, which offered 38% more protection because its flared shape covered more of the head. Helmets were camouflaged in action with mesh netting used to secure field dressings as well as pieces of burlap or foliage, which served to disguise their distinctive outline.

One of the most important items for the infantryman’s survival was undoubtedly his entrenching tool. Modified only slightly from the tool used in the Great War, the general-issue entrenching tool consisted of a detachable metal mattock or head and its wooden handle or helve and was designed to be attached at the back of the 1937 pattern web equipment (see below). Unsuited to efficient digging due to its small size, the tool was spurned by many soldiers in favour of full-size shovels and picks.

Our number-one priority was making a hole. In our training days, we all had the small trenching tool most people have seen in photographs or films. It was useless. Within hours after D-Day, every second man had a regular round-bladed shovel; one in every section had a pickaxe. Two men could make a decent place for themselves in about an hour.
— Charlie Martin, Battle Diary, 1994

Troops of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles near Ifs, France, 25 July 1944.

Troops of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles near Ifs, France, 25 July 1944.
Photo by Ken Bell. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-116528.

The infantryman carried his entrenching tools, ammunition, water bottle, mess tin, toiletries, ground sheet, gas cape (essentially a waterproof poncho supposed to protect against blistering agents), box respirator (gas mask), compass, and other items in pouches or packs attached to his web equipment. Essentially an interconnected harness system of belts and braces worn across the shoulders and fastened at the waist, the 1937 pattern equipment was waterproofed and dyed to a khaki colour. Seemingly contrary to the idea that an infantryman should go into battle as lightly burdened as possible so as to maximize his mobility, all of these items served to weigh him down even more than his predecessor of the Great War. While allowing him to carry all of this paraphernalia of dubious value, the web equipment was uncomfortable and awkward when fully loaded with attachments.

More than one historian has pointed out the tactical hazards of overloading soldiers, who take fright more easily when tired, and tire more quickly when frightened. An extreme example is found in citing the 105 fatal casualties suffered by one company of American infantry at Omaha Beach on D-Day: all but one died in the water, where even otherwise non-fatal wounds doomed men unable to shed the equipment which dragged them under or prevented them from moving above the incoming tide.