Part II of our series, “Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking in Dry Heat.”
This was the predicament that Britain faced with its load-carrying gear and mishandled farcically. And here we will begin our story of South Africa’s contrasting success in developing its really ingenious gear. Because South Africa made it look so easy, we can only appreciate their achievement by comparing it to the contemporaneous British effort, which advanced as quickly and decisively as an elderly person working at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles while also having a stroke.
Britain in the Seventies was less a land of hope and glory than one of stagflation and dinginess, and its standard of living had fallen to the second-lowest in Europe.
The British government was slashing its military in size and kind. They scaled down their commitments and forces, closed bases, withdrew garrisons, and shrank the order of battle. The Navy was even made to auction off its two remaining aircraft carriers.
And to the forces that survived the cuts, the government also gave less of everything: less materiel, less training time, and less new equipment.
And quite apart from the bad budgetary climate, the Army was suspected and feared by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, who sincerely thought it might be plotting to depose him in a military coup. He was not in a mood to strengthen their hand any further.
In this atmosphere of desperation, like a drought in which gaunt, delirious animals gather round the shrinking water hole, you did not have to look far for quixotic absurdities of governance and management. The Army badly needed to replace its huge main battle rifle with a smaller, modern gun, but it was condemned to wait for a slow-growing monstrosity designed by engineers who (and this is true) had never even fired a rifle before, much less engineered one from scratch. After a decade, what they finally got was the L85A1, widely deemed “perhaps worst modern military rifle” and “a scandal of plastic and metal.”
But for us, dear reader, what’s relevant is that the Brits needed better load-carrying gear, but they weren’t getting it. During this period, they probably cared less about rucksacks than almost anything else on their very long list of problems. Certainly nobody in the Ministry of Defence was having urgent meetings about backpacks.
So some British soldiers were still stuck with gear from the 1930s. Even Britain’s “newest” gear, adopted in 1958, still hadn’t changed much from World War II. Made of heavy, uncomfortable canvas, it gave soldiers two inconveniently-shaped “kidney pouches” and a 3’ shovel running between them down their backs, and perched atop this awkward Tin Man suit was a small haversack that looks like the ones in mawkish Norman Rockwell paintings of Boy Scouts.
If ever there was a thankless task, this was it. It fell to the “Stores and Clothing Research & Development Establishment” (SCRDE) to consult all the many, many, many stakeholders around Britain’s disintegrating planet-wide empire and get them all to agree on one set of equipment.
Many Masters, Many Disasters: The Problem With Committees
Committees suck. It’s possible for two people to compromise and balance two competing interests. Three is a lot harder. And at four or more, you start getting “solutions” that are nothing of the sort. Everyone sacrifices and dislikes the end product.
And when bosses try to devise something “universal” for all use-cases, it is easy to fail at all of them. The famous US example is the M14 rifle, which tried to do the work of a submachine gun, a rifle, and a light machine gun (!) and ended up sucking at all of them.
(The Communist Bloc did much better with the Kalashnikov, where the undisputed masters of “satis-ficing” and economizing combined the roles of rifle and submachine gun only. And very successfully.)
And as anyone knows who has served on a large enough committee, institutions can be very dumb, even ones comprising only exceptional people, when they are thrust into absurd circumstances. And certainly, if you were made responsible for the suffering British military’s rucksacks and load-carrying gear in this period, you were definitely dropped into the soup.
The poor British designers were pulled in a half-dozen directions by different constituencies. The lightly equipped foot patrols in Northern Ireland needed something different than the heavy, mechanized infantry defending Germany. Then there were the jungle fighters in the Far Eastern Land Forces, who wanted smaller packs that could fit through brush and foliage lining a narrow trail in the bush. And the Arctic fighters wanted much bigger packs for all their bulky cold weather gear. But the parachutists wanted packs short enough to jump with, which militated against the long, tall design favored by the Arctic guys.
And that was just the infantry! There were all the other branches like armor, artillery, and signals. They would have to use this “general service” stuff too, and they didn’t want all the attention going to the infantry, since they had needs of their own. For instance, the one thing that pretty much all the infantry guys agreed on was that they loved framed packs. Finally, some consensus! But then the tankers weighed in: they hated frames. They wanted a pack they could cram into a Challenger tank’s few empty nooks.
Starting in the Middle
Worse still, the designers at SCRDE weren’t told quite what they were designing for. They needed to allow for future developments in body armor, but no one could predict what those would be. Same for “NBC” equipment, protection against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. How were they supposed to design equipment to hold other equipment that was still TBD and also not get in the way of the hypothetical future body armor that also didn’t exist yet?
Worse still, they knew the Army was changing rifles in a few years, meaning different ammunition, magazines, tactics, and heaven-knows-what else. So the designers knew that whatever load-carrying gear they made now would soon be obsolescent.
So after years of temporizing, the developers decided to forget about anything ambitious. Instead they proposed a temporary measure. In the terms of the figure skating analogy, they proposed a cheap pair of temporary skates.
For web gear–the belts and suspenders that hold the most important items–they whipped up a batch of their same old 1950s gear, but in place of the old heavy duck canvas they substituted modern materials like nylon. In this way, the designers hoped they could help the squaddies through the next few years. The guys in the field would still be saddled with the weird kidney pouches and shrimpy knapsack, but at least it wouldn’t be made of smelly, waterlogged cotton. And sure enough, even though it was a consolation prize, in trials the squaddies in the field appreciated that at least it was lighter, more waterproof, and cooler than their sweaty canvas.
But the Ministry’s money people still said no. Try to guess the reason … It was just a temporary measure and didn’t improve much on the old design! So now, after ten years of research and development, there was still no tangible progress, nor even any decisive choices. Back to another ten years of smelly, wet canvas for Tommy and the squaddies.
The Rucksack War
Hilarity ensued over the issue of rucksacks in particular. The plucky designers bravely threw themselves at their task, which was essentially “design a rucksack to unknown specifications so that it costs virtually nothing and pleases everyone.”
Despite the farcical constraints, the designers gamely accomplished as much as human ingenuity could. They trialed a compromise “general service” or “GS” rucksack for the entire British Army, and they answer they got was, “Hey, good enough! It’s better than our skimpy 1950s Boy Scout haversack.” The designers must have been rightfully proud of themselves, because it was one of those rare moments in a big organization when you offer a one-size-fits-most solution that draws at least a resigned shrug from everyone.
Almost everyone, that is. Only the Royal Marines complained. A lot.
The Royal Marines were high-speed Arctic warfare studs, specialist troops with specialist needs. They did not like the one-size-fits-most “general service” ruck because it was too small. They had a mountain of bulky Arctic gear and they needed a huge, specialized rucksack to carry it. Arguably they were among the only soldiers who really relied every day on their rucksacks. However, they had to “lump it” and make do with what they were given, because Big Army needed to settle on just one general service rucksack.
But in the end, the Ministry decided not to issue the “general service” pack to everyone because it was too expensive, just the specialists. So now the high-speed Royal Marines got the very pack that they never liked and the “general service” got nothing!
In other words, the Royal Marines compromised in vain. It was like when you order a pizza and reluctantly settle for crappy vegetarian toppings so your friends can have some, but then they bail on you and now you’re still stuck with a pineapple and onion pizza.
For apparently the Ruck Gods were miffed at being slighted. In 1982 Britain found itself pitched almost overnight into … an Arctic war! And by incredible mischance, they lost most of their helicopters and had to hike in their materiel by rucksack.
The supply people were caught with their pants down. “Serious clothing deficiencies for soldiers were corrected only after the intervention of an officer’s father in the House of Lords,” writes Kenneth Privratsky. “Eventually, the [Ministry of Defence] scoured civilian shops to obtain bergens [rucksacks] for the soldiers, but supply still fell short…”
Media showed troops boarding ships with blue packs that were obviously not military, and the Ministry began to be asked embarrassing questions, like “What have you people been doing for twelve years?” and “Don’t we have more sophisticated war plans than just ‘send an intern to Target with a credit card?'”
The Ministry assured Parliament and the public that they had things well in hand, but that is a matter of interpretation. Even after that scandal, they still took another seven years more to begin issuing replacement for the old 1958 pattern webbing, with the troops receiving it in the 1990s, just in time for Operation Desert Storm.
What they eventually received–a system called “PLCE” (Personal Load-Carrying Equipment)–was and is superb stuff. But some of the troops who received it where teenagers conceived after their equipment was! And a whole “lost generation” of British troops before them were left to schlep around heavy wet canvas with shovels attached to their backs.
* * * *
South Africa started their own saga with almost the same equipment as Britain, but it ended up with stuff far better, partly through good luck, partly desperation, and partly by being the outsider who must make its own way and ends up with something unique and brilliant. We will continue our series there, with the reasons that where Britain flopped, South Africa shone.