The black beret is the distinctive headgear worn by generations of Royal Tank Regiment servicemen.
As the first British servicemen to adopt this form of headdress, the beret became a symbol that helped define and set the tank men apart from other units.
The beret was adopted after the First World War, because like much of the uniform issued to tank men during the war, their head gear proved to be unsuitable for wearing in tanks.
Originally, tank crews were issued with protective leather helmets with chain-mail masks (far right). These were not, however, particularly comfortable and were thought to bear too close a resemblance to the German Pickelhaube – which had proved problematic for stranded tank crews returning to friendly lines!
Consequently they were discarded and crews wore either the Service Dress (SD) (near right)cap or the woollen Cap Comforter. The fundamental problem with wearing the SD cap inside a tank was that the peak prevented the wearer from getting close enough to the vision slits, so it was frequently worn backwards.
Enter The Beret
After the war, the solution to this sartorial conundrum was found by Major-General Sir Hugh Elles, who had also `invented` the regimental colours before the battle of Cambrai in 1917.
When the French 70th Chasseurs Alpins division were training with the British Tank Corps during the First World War, Elles considered their distinctive large berets (right) would also make practical headgear for his men.
This flexible headdress allowed troops to work in extremely cramped conditions whilst providing some protection to the head. Furthermore, Elles is said to have suggested that the beret is convenient for sleeping in. But he considered the Chasseurs Alpins style of beret to be too sloppy and the Basque beret too skimpy, so the British beret was based largely on the Scottish Tam ‘O Shanter.
Using the rationale that also dictated the future colour of Royal Tank Regiment’s overalls, the colour black was selected as it would not show dirt, grease or oil stains.
Having received Royal approval from King George V the black beret was officially adopted by the Royal Tank Corps in March 1924. It was seen as significant that this same headwear was worn by both officers and men alike, signifying that they were prepared to muck in alongside one another.
The adoption of the beret was not greeted with universal approval (right). Unique in the British Army, the now famous berets appeared somewhat strange at first, and were ridiculed as a result with unflattering comparisons to French Onion sellers being made (lower right).
Despite the initial mirth and ridicule, everyone eventually agreed that they were by far the most sensible form of headgear for wearing inside a tank. However, there did seem to be some disagreement as to how they should be worn.
Overall, the original black beret has remained fairly constant. It is certainly smaller and less floppy than it used to be, and there was a time between the 1960’s and 1980’s when a stiffener was inserted in to the badged side of the beret to make it stand up straighter.
In a short lived deviation from the black felt norm, an imitation black Astrakhan No1 Dress Beret was authorised in 1961 for wear by officers (left). A regimental hackle (3 coloured feathers) was inserted behind the badge.
However a few years after its inception, the Astrakhan had become a something of a joke having acquired a variety of unflattering nicknames (the hackle itself was described as an `irritating adornment`) and very few officers would wear it. Almost universally loathed, the parade beret was consigned to the dustbin of history after only 12 years.
The regiment still proudly wears the black beret today (right) and the beret itself is now almost universally worn amongst the armed services.
British tank men were therefore not only pioneers of armoured warfare – but also of British military millinery!
You can see the various shapes, sizes and styles of Royal Tank Corps / Royal Tank Regiment headgear in a new case on display in The Tank Museum.
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