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Nets that Serviced the War Effort

 01 Nov 2018  Blog

The contribution that nets and ropes made to the Allied troops during the first and second world wars is something that is sometimes overlooked, but without the efforts of net-manufacturers, many important military products wouldn't have been available.

Among the military items made from nets and ropes were anti-torpedo nets, helmet nets, pull-through cords for tents and hammocks and reinforced nets to camouflage U-boats. Fishing nets also remained of vital importance, since the war led to food shortages and rationing, but fish weren't rationed.

Read on to find out more about the importance of nets and ropes in times of conflict...


Anti-torpedo nets

Anti-torpedo nets (also known as torpedo nets) were a common ship defence against torpedoes from the 1890s until World War II. They were invented as a result of the launch of the first Whitehead torpedo, designed by the Austro-Hungarian Navy in 1873, followed by the subsequent development of torpedo boats.

The British needed to find new ways of protecting their ships. The British Admiralty Torpedo Committee came up with some ideas in 1876, including hanging nets of galvanised iron around each battleship, attached to horizontal booms projecting 40ft from the hull of the boat.

After successful experiments with the anti-torpedo nets in 1877, the first operational ship to have the nets fitted was HMS Thunderer. The torpedo nets protected the vessels when they were moored, or stationary in the water. Booms were fixed to the vessel at one end by a metal pin that allowed them to be moved and secured against the ship when it was moving.

The nets were manufactured by the Millwall-based Wire Tramway Co, run by William Bullivant, who made steel and wire rope. Torpedo nets were subsequently described as Bullivant-type in the early 20th century.

Torpedo nets were widely-used not only by the British, but also by other nations, until they were superseded by the torpedo belts and anti-torpedo bulge during World War II.


Helmet nets

Widespread during the Second World War, helmet nets were largely worn by American troops in the US Army Corps of Engineers, whose speciality was camouflage. They were also worn by British and Commonwealth troops.

Soldiers devised the helmets themselves, putting net across the exterior surface to stop the shine, as this could have given away their presence outdoors when on manoeuvres. They would insert cloth or leaves under the net, so that when the weather was wet, the shine wasn't visible.

In America, the “camouflage factories” began producing a large number of nets. They were staffed by the Army Engineers, with the sole purpose of producing camouflage materials for the military, cutting up large camouflage nets into tens of thousands of smaller pieces.

British factories were also commissioned to supply the nets, but because of the huge demand in the US, they were able to produce only around 40% of what was needed. They fell three to six months behind the US Army's procurement schedule and thus more nets were manufactured in the States instead.

The troops traditionally used shrimp nets to mask their helmets and there were a number of different styles, such as the 0.5-inch Normandy-style helmet net, the 0.25-inch British-style and the style worn by the 3rd Infantry Division, which was a tightly-woven net.

Nets were also useful for storing miscellaneous items, such as cigarettes, bandages and small first aid kits. Various sizes of net were used by the Army, as there wasn't a standard design. The nets' squares usually ranged from 0.5 inches to 0.75 inches.

In 1943, the Army finally introduced a standardised helmet with a net as part of the uniform issue. The M1943 uniform included trousers, jacket, boots and helmet, with a net secured with an elastic band. The net's squares were much smaller and were only 0.25 inches in a tight weave.


Camouflage nets

Giant nets were used to camouflage everything from U-boats to supply dumps - a practice that began during the First World War.

Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, a French painter, led the French Army's camouflage unit and invented the observation tree - a steel structure camouflaged with bark and a painted net placed over the top. This was the first such observation post in the Army, introduced in 1916.

De Scévola went on to invent painted canvas netting to disguise machine gun positions. The invention was taken up to hide larger gun positions and other equipment from 1917 onwards. During World War I, the military used an estimated seven million square yards of camouflage netting.

The First World War saw the launch of aerial warfare and it became even more important to camouflage the Army's position, its vehicles and the aircraft from being spotted by enemy pilots.

French women were employed to sew netting to disguise equipment and to make camouflage apparel for the soldiers of the British and American armies.

The practice of camouflage continued throughout the Second World War. In the same way as they had volunteered during World War I, women sewed millions of yards of camouflage netting, organised into formal groups for the work in Britain, Australia, the United States and New Zealand.


Fishing nets

As well as the shrimping nets being used to make the net for soldiers' helmets, fishing nets were also in demand for their original purpose, for use by the trawlers. Fish and chips became a staple diet for many people due to fish not being rationed.

Professor John Walton's book, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, revealed the British government safeguarded supplies of fish and potatoes during both wars, because they kept people on the home front "well fed and in good heart". It was a nutritional meal when many other foodstuffs were rationed and in short supply.


Tent and hammock cords

The market town of Bridport in Dorset was largely responsible for the massive amount of cords required for the Armed Forces' tents and hammocks during World War I. More than half of the town's male population had enlisted by 1916, so the women of Bridport were called upon to continue the traditional manufacturing of nets and cords.

The production of net, rope and twine had stretched back for hundreds of years, with the Navy being a regular customer. During the first world war, the production focused solely on military products.

At its peak, production during the 1914 to 1918 war saw 50,000 hay nets, lines for tents and hammocks, hemp lanyards and rifles' pull-through cords leaving Bridport each week.

The importance of nets and cords to aid the war effort for both world wars can't be over-emphasised. The manufacture of the products for military use was considered so crucial that women who worked in the factories making nets and ropes were exempt from joining the Land Army.


Remembrance Sunday

As Remembrance Sunday approaches, people across the nation are preparing to commemorate the brave men and women who lost their lives in times of conflict.

This year's services will be particularly poignant because it is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I - although Remembrance Day pays tribute to people of all nationalities who have made the ultimate sacrifice in any war. There will be a two-minute silence at 11 am for quiet reflection.

Henry Cowls joins the nation in recognising the brave sacrifices made by our ancestors, so that future generations could continue to live in freedom.

We will remember them.

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