The Denison smock was a coverall jacket issued to Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents, the Parachute Regiment, the Glider Pilot Regiment, Air Landing Regiments, Air Observation Post Squadrons, Commando units, and other Commonwealth airborne units, to wear over their Battle Dress uniform during the Second World War. The garment was also issued as standard to the scout and sniper platoons of line infantry battalions.
The smock replaced an expedient first issue khaki-drill paratroop jump-jacket that had been directly copied in 1940 from the German parachutist’s Knochensack ("bone sack"). This first "smock" was designed to be stepped into and pulled up over the body like a set of overalls which had had the legs removed from mid-thigh. The new Denison smock was put on and removed by pulling over the head: the collar zipped open as far as the chest, making it a true smock style. The zip was covered by a cloth flap, which had no buttons or other method to fasten it down. Introduced in 1942, the "Airborne Smock Denison Camouflage" bore a camouflage pattern designed by a Major Denison, a member of a camouflage unit under the command of eminent stage designer Oliver Messel. An alternative name was the "Smock Denison Airborne Troops".
The Denison was a popular garment among officers who could acquire them—Company Sergeant Major CC Martin, DCM, MM of The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada mentioned in his memoir Battle Diary that senior officers and sergeant majors of his battalion wore the Denison universally.
The smock was made from loose-fitting, yellowish-sand coloured, heavyweight twill material, allegedly hand-painted with broad, mop like brushes using non-colourfast dyes in broad pea green and dark brown stripes, or "brush-strokes". With use the base colour faded to a sandy buff, and the overlaid shades gained a blended appearance. The colours of the 1st pattern smock were thought to best suit the wearer to the North African and Italian theatres. It had a half length zip fastener made of steel, knitted woollen cuffs, four external pockets that secured with brass snaps (two on the chest and two below the waist), two internal pockets on the chest, and epaulettes that secured with plastic battle dress buttons. The inside of the collar was lined with soft khaki flannel (or in senior officer's smocks, Angora wool). A “beaver tail” fastened beneath the crotch from the back to the front of the smock - which kept it from riding up during a parachute descent. When not used, the tail would hang down behind the wearer's knees, hence the nickname "men with tails", given by the Arabs in North Africa in 1942. The smock was styled as a very loose garment, since it would be worn over Battle Dress, but it could be adjusted to some extent with tightening tabs on both sides of the lower part of the smock.
The smock was most commonly associated with British and Commonwealth airborne units, and the Special Air Service Regiment, after D-Day, but its initial use was by members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), parachuted or landed into enemy territory between 1941 and 1944. In the early smocks the colours were meant to be impermanent and wash out, leaving the garment looking like a typical French artisan or labourer’s "Chemise, and thus, hopefully, aiding the wearer's Escape and Evasion chances. As the newly formed Airborne Forces expanded, so the need for smocks grew, meaning that they were by now screen printed for easier production.
For use by Airborne troops, the Denison was worn over the battledress and under the webbing, with a sleeveless green denim oversmock being worn over the ensemble to prevent rigging lines snagging in the webbing and causing a 'chute malfunction. This sleeveless smock had a long external zip (often removed and used to make the half-zip Denisons full zip), a monkey tail that press studded to the outside front of the oversmock and two elasticated open pockets on the lower front which were to hold grenades for use whilst in the air or immediately upon landing. After a successful parachute landing fall, the oversmock was discarded.
The 1st Pattern smock design was replaced in 1944 by a second pattern which had buttoning tabs at the cuffs and brass snap fasteners to stow the tail flap on the back of the jacket when not needed. Other detail differences included reduced length and tube shaped rather than tapered sleeves. In order to make it more wind-proof, the tops of woollen socks were often sewn to the cuffs. The half-length zip fastener on this smock was made of brass. The colours of the 2nd pattern also differed from those of the earlier smocks, the base colour varying from a light to a medium olive combination, with overlying brushstrokes of reddish brown and dark olive green. These colours were thought better suited to the North Western European theatre.
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