When planning the invasion of France, the RAF was conscious that they needed to equip their radar, signals and beach defence teams with suitable equipment that would allow them to be self-sufficient and self-reliant for up to ten days before re-stocking.
Traditional RAF uniforms that airmen wore were deemed unsuitable for this task, and a new battle tunic was designed and developed. This tunic came about after the RAF personnel had undergone combined operations training and had viewed the battle tunics which Commandos wore; it was this basic design that was adopted by the RAF for the invasion.
By all accounts, it was a very smart and practical battledress, but to prove their individuality the RAF chose their dark blue serge colour for this kit.
One of the best photographs to illustrate the design and composition can be seen in the Men and their Experiences Section in Norman Best’s index. The photograph is titled Norman Best Photo: Preparing for D-Day.
This photo shows two of the seconded members of 21 BDS: Norman Best, seated, second from the left, drinking half a pint of beer, and Ned Hitchcock, sitting on the floor cross-legged. They are wearing their officer’s battle tunics; the WAAF officers altered the tunics to make their officers’ insignias removable, as they were advised the Germans would shoot the officers first.
All members of the unit had their tunics sprayed with a chemical deemed to reduce the effect of any gas attacks the Germans may use. And accounts indicate that it was this, together with the fact that most RAF personnel had to swim ashore, that caused a major additional difficulty for the RAF men!
Apparently, the mixture of salt water and the chemical used to reduce the effects of gas attacks caused the RAF blue to become more of a blue-grey – and this colour was far too similar to the German military battledress. The result was, at a distance, the men were indistinguishable from their German foes!
From the reports penned by Corporal Heathcote and others, it seems they were subjected to “friendly fire” from the Americans, and two of the RAF team were actually arrested by Americans, and held as prisoners of war for two hours until sense prevailed.
The serious consequence of using the treated RAF battledress was quickly appreciated by both Americans and RAF team, and within a day or so the Americans had equipped the RAF with sufficient of their own uniforms to make it much more obvious that the RAF team were on the Allied side, and prevented any further tragic confusion.
This point is well illustrated in a photograph which appears in Men and their Experiences, Norman Best Index, Norman Best Photo: The Warriors Return. It shows Ned Hitchcock and Norman Best returning to their Home 60 Group Headquarters with their unique amalgam of British and US service gear.
There is also a very interesting confirmation of this story recalled by the son of Arthur Greenleaf.