History of the British Airborne Camouflage Denison Smock
by Eric H Larson
The very first paratrooper oversmocks issued to British psersonnel were modeled after the German airborne troops’ knochensack or “bone sack.” These were probably patterned after the Luftwaffe 1st pattern smock, which had a fall collar, two short, permanently tailored-in legs, and a front fastener of either buttons or a zipper. The British version, known unofficially as the 1940 Pattern Airborne Smock, was made of olive green cotton drill cloth and produced in very limited numbers for the initial phases of British airborne training.
The German-style smocks were replaced by the camouflaged "Denison Smock," developed by the British Army in late 1941. War-era nomenclature inside the smocks identifies them alternately as “Airborne Smock, Denison Camouflage,” “Smock, Denison (Airborne Troops)” or "Smock, Denison (Parachutist)." The Denison smock bears the name of a Major Denison (first name unknown), reputedly attached to a military camouflage unit under the command of stage designer Olive Messel. Denison was largely responsible for the smock’s design as well as the development of the camouflage pattern itself. The original camouflage airborne smock was made of medium weight windproof khaki-coloured cotton drill cloth, hand-painted with non-colourfast dyes in broad green and brown coloured stripes or “brushstrokes,” and issued to Allied airborne personnel until 1944 (when the smock pattern was changed). The camouflage pattern on these original Denisons was not roller-printed, but actually hand-painted using large, mop-like brushes, thus accounting for broad variation among smocks made during different periods in the war and shortly thereafter (owing to fluctuations in dye batches and individual methods of creating the pattern). Indeed, for this reason many collectors and historians will claim that "no two Denison smocks are alike" (referring to the camouflage design itself).
The Denison airborne smock was initially issued to members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a clandestine special warfare unit, but became standard issue to British Airborne Forces (including Glider Infantry and Glider Pilots). It also saw use with other units operating in the European Theater of Operation, including the Special Air Service (SAS), Army Commandos and the Royal Marines. Smocks were provided to Commonwealth airborne units such as the Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion, and to the airborne-trained European allied forces in exile (Dutch, Belgians, French, Polish, et al).
The first series of the 1st Pattern Denison smock had a yellowish-sand coloured base, with broad pea green and dark brown stripes, or "brushstrokes". With subsequent washings or exposure to weather, the base and overlying colours faded and blended considerably. The colours of the 1st pattern smock were thought to best suit the wearer to the North African and Italian theatres, the first areas of operation into which British airborne personnel were deployed during the war. This smock had a steel half zipper running from the collar down the front, four external pockets that secured with brass snaps (two on the chest and two below the waist), two map or document pockets inside the chest, knitted wool cuffs, short adjustment tabs at either side of the bottom of the smock, and shoulder straps that secured with plastic battle dress buttons. The inside of the collar was lined with brown woolen material, and a flap fastened beneath the crotch from the back to the front of the smock with brass Newey snaps, which kept it from riding up during a parachute descent. When not used, this tail would hang down behind the wearer's knees, and thus came to be called a “beavertail.” British paratroops, nicknamed “Red Devils” by the Germans, later earned the name “Devils with tails” from this feature. The smock was a very baggy garment, designed to be worn over the battledress and often hung down to just above the knees of wearers.
A second series of the 1st Pattern Denison smock was supposedly produced between late 1942 and 1943. The major contested feature of these smocks (and the later 2nd Pattern) is that the camouflage design was screenprinted rather than hand-painted. However, many collectors and historians strongly disagree with this claim, as there is little or no documentation to substantiate any pattern repeat in the wartime smocks. The claim, therefore, remains unsubstantiated. Most other features of the "second series" smock remained otherwise the same, although modifications to the smock, such as adding additional pockets or a full-length zipper, became more commonplace by this time with those that could afford them. Examples also exist of smocks from this era that have metal snaps to hold up the beavertail at the back, buttoning tabs at the cuffs (instead of knitted cuffs), and straightened sleeves (all technically features of the 2nd Pattern smock). If anything, then, we can categorize the "second series" 1st Pattern Denison smocks as “transitional” and highly varied in their production features.
- An example of a standard 1st Pattern Denison smock can be seen here
The 2nd Pattern Denison smock began to replace the earlier models in 1944. This version featured buttoning tabs at the cuffs, and brass snap fasteners to stow the beavertail flap inside the jacket when not needed. Other detail differences included a central seam running down the front, and tube shaped sleeves (the 1st Pattern had a one piece front and tapered sleeves). The half zip on this smock was brass instead of steel. The colours of the 2nd pattern smock also differed from those of the earlier smocks, with the base colour varying from a sand to a light yellowish-olive combination, and overlying brushstrokes of reddish brown and dark olive green. These colours were thought better suited to the North Western European theatre. Although not issued this way, it was common practice to sew knitted cuffs (usually cut off woolen hose tops) to the sleeve cuffs to inhibit billowing whilst deployed on airborne operations.
- An example of the 2nd Pattern Denison Smock can be seen here
Several officer’s models of the Denison smock have been documented after 1942. The General Officer smock was manufactured with a full-length zipper, had slanted chest pockets at a much more severe angle than the standard smock, and sported faun-colored angora wool knitted collar lining and cuffs at the wrist. Due to the small number of officers of this rank, these may have been custom tailored for the individual in England. Many officers, however, are also pictured during the war wearing standard-style smocks with professionally tailored full-length zippers and angora wool collars or knitted cuffs. It is believed these were also custom tailored back in Britain, although some historians claim the smocks were in fact manufactured this way specifically for officers.
A special variation of the Denison smock for snipers has also been documented, although it saw very limited issue. It would appear these were simply standard issue smocks that were modified at the unit level. These smocks had a “poacher’s pocket” (measuring approximately 10" by 10") sewn to the rear of the smock in which specialized equipment, maps & documents, spare ammunition or extra food & water could be carried.
Although not thoroughly documented, it is rumoured that a Royal Marines version of the Denison smock was produced (probably modified at unit level) that had buttons and loops instead of the zipper fastener at the front.
The brush-painting method employed upon the early Denison smocks spawned the “brushstroke” pattern that later influenced so many other camouflage designs (including those of post-war Belgium, Indonesia, Malaysia, Algeria, Iraq, et al).
Following the Second World War, the number of airborne units in the British Army were reduced to a Division (6th Airborne Division), but the Denison smock continued to be issued to the airborne paratrooper. The postwar smocks (1946-1950s production) for all intents and purposes are identical to the 1944 series of smocks produced during the war, although the knitted woolen cuffs were now a standard feature. All Denison smocks are marked with a cloth tag inside the garment, stamped in black ink with manufacturer’s information, broad arrow mark, and date, although wartime models are often difficult to tell apart from postwar smocks as the tags were quick to fade after washing.
- An example of a postwar smock can be seen here
A newer type of Denison smock was created in the late 1950s. Officially designated the “Denison Smock, 1959 Pattern,” it may have been introduced as early as 1956 or thereabouts. This smock was not only modified in design from the original to incorporate thick knitted cuffs and a full-length front zipper, it also saw a more consistent application of the “brushstroke” camouflage pattern. The 1959 Denison smock has a distinctively different look to it than the earlier Denisons, with a generally lighter and more prominent background colour, and incorporating only two additional colours (usually brown and green) to create the basic brushstroke pattern. The original Denisons were darker and often appeared to incorporate more than two colours due to the blending and mixing of dyes that occurred during the application process. Despite the improvements in manufacturing and application technique, early 1959 pattern smocks still show much variation in colour and hue. Those produced in the 1960s are much more consistent in coloration and design. Photographs of the 1959 pattern Denison smock show its exclusive use by members of the Parachute Regiment in theatres such as the Suez Crisis, and in Ulster (Northern Ireland) during the 1970s.
- An early 1959 pattern Denison smock can be seen here
By the late 1960s the British Army had fully adopted DPM pattern camouflage for all combat troops, but British Airborne Forces (reduced again by this time to the British Parachute Regiment and its affiliated support units) were very reluctant to give up their beloved Denison paratrooper smocks. It is for this reason that you see members of the Regiment serving in Northern Ireland during the 1970s still clad in their ’59 pattern smocks, when other British forces are wearing DPM.
- A late 1959 pattern Denison smock can be seen here
The Paras were finally obliged to give up their beloved Denison smock in the late 1970s, when the first DPM parachutist smock was issued (circa 1977 or 1978). These smocks resemble the ’59 pattern Denison in most respects, but are made of lighter weight cloth (the same cotton modal fabric as the 68 and 84 pattern GS clothing). They became standard issue to all members of the Regiment by 1980 or 1981. Interestingly enough, during this transitional period, many members of the Parachute Regiment (as well as SAS Regiment) preferred to wear 1960 pattern olive green lightweight trousers with their DPM smock, vice the DPM camouflage GS trousers that were then available.
The Denison smock has not been produced since the 1960s and is no longer worn by members of the British Armed Forces. The DPM parachutist smock, however, is still standard issue to members of the Parachute Regiment, and is also worn by other Army personnel as well (as a private purchase item).
- Facts and information for this article have been collected from a variety of academic and public sources (including the author's own observations) but any errors or omissions are my own. I welcome additional contributions or corrections to this article from authoritative sources that are willing to provide documentation to substantiate any such additions. Please direct comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org