The possibility of the British Army adopting some form of body armour for the personal protection of certain categories of troops, namely those exposed to high risk, had been under consideration by the Medical Research Council as early as October 1940. It was felt that a lightweight ‘suit’ of armour of not more than 4 lb was required for general use by infantry, air crews, etc. and a heavier ‘suit’ of up to 10 lb for use by certain static troops such as anti-aircraft and naval gun crews.
In February 1941, on the recommendation of the Body Protection Committee of the Medical Research Council, and in preparation for its general use, trials were begun on a set of body armour. This set or ‘suit’ of armour consisted of three specially shaped, 1 mm manganese steel plates which together weighed 2 3/4 lb. The first plate, worn over the front of the chest to protect the heart, the great blood vessel and lung roots, measured 9 inches wide by 8 inches deep; the second plate 14 inches wide by 4 inches deep, was worn horizontally over the lower part of the back below the shoulder blades in order to protect the base of the lungs, the liver, and by way of the stem like portion projecting upwards for 5 inches, part of the spinal column; and the third plate, 8 inches wide by 6 inches deep, hung from the lower edge of the first and covered the central and upper parts of the wearer’s belly. All the plates were slightly rounded to fit the curve of the body, and they were attached to each other by a system of interconnected webbing straps and metal buckles.
In order to overcome the problem of sweat building up between the inner surface of the steel plates and the wearer’s body, the original production model had a spongy rubber beading affixed round the edge of each plate, the idea being that this beading held the plates away from direct contact with the wearer’s body. However, a shortage of rubber forced subsequent plates to be produced with felt pads, the plates and pads being completely encased in canvas. The total weight of the armour suit, which also included the canvas covering, the straps and buckles, was 3 1/2 lb.
The size of the body armour was governed by the limitations placed on its design by its required weight. These factors, combined with the findings that the armour was likely to create worse wounds when high-penetration missiles, (1) on passing through the armour were caused to be retained inside the wearer’s body instead of passing clean through an unprotected body, led to the suit being designed in the way it was. It only covered those regions of the body where practically all wounds would have proved fatal, and it was therefore considered worthwhile to stop at least low-penetration missiles,
Five thousand sets of this armour were manufactured and put out for evaluation trials with units of the Home Forces and troops in the Middle East; almost unanimously it was recommended that it should be adopted. It was considered to be reasonable comfortable to wear, with no appreciable effect on the wearer’s energy nor restrictions on his mobility, and the weight of the armour did not impair efficiency except on very long route marches. The chief objection was, however, that the clothing worn under the armour became very wet and sweaty, thus causing discomfort.
In April 1942 approval was given for the introduction of body armour into the British Army. Two months later production of the canvas covered pattern with felt pads, a substitute for and improvement on the original rubber edged pattern, was put in hand, once final confirmation trials, which were then being staged at the various infantry schools, had been concluded. It was found that, in the case of leading troops in close contact, complete freedom of movement when crawling or surmounting obstacles and rapid movement made in gaining cover were to some extent impaired, although these disadvantages were considered to be outweighed by the advantages gained in personal protection.
Towards the end of 1942 it was realised that the production of body armour would have been competing with the metal required for the manufacture of steel helmets, and this resulted in priority being given to the latter. The estimate for the number of sets of body armour required by the forward troops of the British Army was given as 2 1/2 million. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and Combined Operations also had their requirements, and pending finalization of demands by all services an order for 500,000 sets were placed in hand by the War Office in September 1943 with the Ministry of Supply.
Early in 1944, as a result of growing indifference on the part of military theatres and army commanders together with the very small demands placed by them for these suits of armour, the initial order for half a million sets was reduced to 300,000 sets, of which some 79,000 only were issued, 65,000 to the RAF and 15,000 to the Army in all theatres, the majority going to the 21st Army Group where the major portion was allocated to the Airborne Division. (2) The Army in Italy had no requirements except for some 300 sets for Royal Engineers personnel on special duties. The remaining stocks were held in War Office depots and were never issued.
The 3 1/2 lb suit of armour introduced during the war was never used in action. The trials showed it to be less efficient than had been expected, and although it could have been produced in large quantities in the last year of the war there was no demand for it.
(1) High-penetration projectiles were such items as rifle and machine gun bullets; low-penetration missiles were fine metal fragments from exploding bombs, shells and grenades.
(2) A complete set of 3 1/2 lb body armour can be seen on display at the Museum of Airborne Forces, Aldershot, England.