“Abuse of government property”: Protection from the sun in the Second World War

When the weather heats up, soldiers need to keep cool. During the Second World War, the British Army viewed sunburn as a "self-inflicted wound".

As temperatures rise during the summer, experts advise people to use high-factor sun creams as protection from the sun. Staying hydrated is also an important step to take. Between 1939 and 1945 many serving in the forces saw action in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. How did they deal with the heat and blistering sun?

Sunscreen existed as a product. Chemist Franz Greiter had invented an SPF2 lotion after receiving bad burns mountaineering. A company formed around the product named Piz Buin, taking its name from the mountain where Greiter received his injuries.

Towards the end of the Second World War, a pharmacist from Florida named Benjamin Green invented another product. As an airman, he saw the damage done to troops in the Pacific. He patented Red Vet Pet (Red Veterinary Petrolatum). This was a sticky, bright red gel-like petroleum jelly. His solution was never widely used and did not even exist for the first 5 years of the war. Sunburn and related injuries were a problem for both Allied and Axis forces.

To develop a protective tan, the parts of the body usually covered should be exposed for a period not exceeding half an hour a day. Provided there is no harmful reaction, this time may be increased ten minutes each day until a suitable tan has developed. Neglect of these precautions will entail disciplinary action.

North Africa

North Africa was one of the worst battlegrounds for sunburn. Neil Peter Gordon, an N.C.O. in the Royal Army Service Corps recalled burning in the African sun while cleaning a motorbike. It was January and he couldn’t feel the sun but the rays were still there.

Punishments varied depending on the unit and commanding officer. Stories from the U.S. Marines recall men docked 5 days’ pay for “abuse of government property”. The British Army regarded sunburn as a punishable “self-inflicted wound”.

Injury and Punishment

The British Army punished all reported cases of sunburn and many service personnel carried on in secret agony. They took salt tablets or drank pints of saltwater. They snuck into blackout tents for treatment with Calamine Lotion in some cases.

Robert Whitcomb Brown was a Canadian Seaman who served onboard H.M.S. Belfast off Normandy in 1944. He later went on the serve on H.M.C.S. Uganda in the Pacific. He remembered sleeping above decks in the fresh air to combat the extreme heat below. Once, he fell asleep on an upper winch deck and burned his back. To avoid punishment, he treated himself by wrapping tea towels around his injured back to drain the blisters. For many years after the war, he avoided the sun as much as possible.

In the British Army, men blistered on long marches wearing short sleeve shirts and Army-issue shorts. Parading in vests was not permitted in some units so the option was shirt or stripped to the waist. When it came to the heat of battle, men still had to wear full battledress and carry equipment with or without blisters and sores.

Private Henry Robert Bell served with 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry in India and Burma. He also spent time in Northern Ireland at 27th Infantry Training Centre. He remembers covering up in “Bombay Bloomers” and long sleeve shirts and, in the early years of the war, punishment for being outside without a hat.

The U.S. Army saw 36,000 soldiers hospitalised as a result of heat-related illnesses including sunstroke and exhaustion. A further 15,000 troops with sunburn added to the casualty lists. While not a big drain on manpower, it particularly affected units in North Africa and the Pacific. A man recovering from sunburn would miss an average of 5 days of battle.

Times and attitudes have changed drastically since the Second World War. Troops across the world now receive much better protection from the sun, helping them stay active in battle and live healthier lives.

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