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Rations - Second World War

Emergency rations were to be carried in the soldier's haversack, and eaten "only on the order of an officer."  It usually consisted of a can of "bully" (corned) beef and some biscuits.

Compo Rations

While efforts were made to keep Canadian troops supplied with fresh rations while in the field (each company, battery or squadron had its own cookhouse), in the field, and especially when in contact with the enemy, this was not always possible.  The Composite Ration Pack, or Compo Ration, was designed to feed troops in the field.  One box was able to provide fourteen men with breakfast, lunch (called "dinner"), tea and supper for one day.  It could also obviously be divided in other ways, such as feeding seven men for two days.  Compo boxes came with different menus; a sample menu cited by George Blackburn in the book "Guns of Normandy" outlined the following:

Breakfast Tea *
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  Sausage (1 hr.) ** 2 tins
  Biscuit * 1 tin
  Margarine * 1 tin
Dinner Haricot Oxtail (1/2 hr.)** 12 tins
  Vegetables (3/4 hr.)** 2 tins
  Pudding (1/hr.)** 3 tins (2 large, 1 small)
Tea Tea - (see above)
  Biscuit - (see above)
  Margarine - (see above)
  Sardines 8 tins
Supper Cheese 1 tin
  Biscuit - (see above)
Extras Cigarettes 2 tins (1 round, 1 flat - 7 cigarettes per man)
2 tins (1 tall, 1 flat)

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  Salt Packed in flat sweet tin
  Matches Packed in flat sweet tin
  Chocolate 1 tin (1 slab per man)
  Latrine paper
  Soap 1 tablet

Items marked * were provided for more than one meal.  Items marked ** had the following notation: "May be eaten hot or cold.  To heat, place unopened tins in boiling water for the minimum period as indicated.  Sausage and pudding cut into 1/2 inch slices, may be fried (using margarine) if preferred.)

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Private B. McGeough of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, using a Compo ration box for a table. 
Fresh rations such as the leg of pork shown here were used to supplement the Compo wherever possible.

PAC 132884

The Compo Ration
(in the words of two officers who experienced them first hand)

From "The Guns of Normandy" by George Blackburn

Since everything is already cooked, the tins have only to be heated up.  And though only a few (units)...have equipped themselves with little petrol Primus stoves...the sand-box stove comes into common use.  This consists of a tin box (the bottom half of a hardtack tin) loaded with sand and saturated with petrol.   The fumes rising from the sand are set alight, under the other half of the hardtack tin half-filled with water in which the unopened ration tins are set to heat.    While very smoky and grossly energy-inefficient, sand-box stoves can't be blown out by wind, and their flickering flames are capable of staying alive through all but the heaviest rain.

A great deal of time is spent reading directions and experimenting with methods of heating the contents of cans of "M & V" (meat and vegetable stew), "Steak and Kidney Pudding" (a can lined with thick dough and filled with a solidified concoction posing as chopped beef and kidney), "Sultana Pudding" (resembling a dried-out fruit cake that can be sliced and eaten cold with slices of canned cheddar), and "Treacle Pudding" (a caramel-coated creation that is especially pleasant when warmed up).

...In each box there are two tins of "Boiled Sweets" (hard candies that contain no sugar), small slabs of very hard and remarkably tasteless chocolate (one per man per day), and two tins of cigarettes, one flat and one round, allowing seven cigarettes per man per day.

But, unquestionably, the feature of Compo rations destined to be remembered beyond all others is Compo tea: tea made from tea leaves already mixed with powdered milk and powdered sugar.  Directions say to "sprinkle powder on heated water and bring to the boil, stirring well, three heaped teaspoons to one pint of water."

Every possible variation in the preparation of this tea (was) tried, always (ended) up the same way.  While still too hot to drink, it is a good-looking cup of strong tea.  Even when it becomes just cool enough to be sipped gingerly, it is still a good-tasting cup of tea, if you like your tea strong and sweet.   But let it cool enough to be quaffed and enjoyed, and your lips will be coated with a sticky scum that forms across the surface, which if left undisturbed will become a leathery membrane that can be wound around your finger and flipped away...

From "And No Birds Sang" by Farley Mowat

Designed by some chairborne genius in England, the compo pack consisted of a wooden crate containing everything fourteen men were supposed to require for twenty-four hours; hardtack biscuits in lieu of bread; canned yellow wax, misleadingly labelled margarine; tins of M&V (unidentifiable scraps of fat and gristle mushed up with equally unidentifiable vegetables); canned processed cheese which tasted like, and may well have been, casein glue; powdered tea, milk and sugar, all ready mixed; turnip jam (laughingly labelled strawberry or raspberry); eight (count them) tiny hard candies for each man; seven India-made Victory cigarettes which, it was rumoured, were manufactured from the dung of sacred cattle; six squares of toilet paper per man (the surplus, if any, could be used to roll one's own cigarettes - if one had any tobacco); and one further item which caused more trouble than anything else - a twelve-ounce can of treacle pudding that was an irresistible object of desire to every one of us...Its appeal lay in the fact that it was soaked in molasses, and we were starving for sweetstuffs.

Dividing the contents of two compo packs into scrupulously equal portions for the thirty-three bodies in a full-strength platoon was no task for ordinary men.  Because my non-commissioned officers were fully aware of this, it was impossible to pawn the distribution off on Sergeant Bates or even on a committee consisting of my three section corporals.  Their sense of self-preservation was too keen.  As Bates frankly told me: "No bloody way you can please all those sons a bitches, and you short one of them on his treacle pudding and he'll likely shoot you in the back!"...In any event, dividing up the rations was the job I detested above all others. 

One of the problems with Compo rations was that subunits were almost never composed of seven or fourteen men.  In the infantry, rifle sections were ten men, with the platoon in total having between thirty-two and thirty-six men (when at full strength).  In the artillery, observation post vehicle crews were four men, which meant that the same crew might eat the same food from a Compo box for three and a half days.  George Blackburn also noted that while there were different Compo box meals for variety (at least nine different varieties), which were shuffled in the rear area to provide that variety to the front line troops, it was still very possible to get the same type of meal box two or more times in a row, which would give an OP crew the same rations for seven straight days.

Fresh Rations

When units were in the line, hot food could also be brought forward to them during lulls in the fighting by use of the "Dixie."  A special web carrier enabled the dixie, which was an insulated food container, to be carried on a soldier's back.  Usually the Company Quartermaster Sergeant or designated soldier would bring the food as far forward as possible by vehicle, as the cookhouses were located well away from the firing line.

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The Dixie, with its web carrier.
Dixie and web carrier in black and white photos courtesy of Gary Crocker.


From "The Seaforth Highlanders 1919-1965" by Reginald Roy:

Meals at the front, it should be noted, were remarkably good under normal circumstances.  Cooked a mile or so to the rear, they were brought up piping hot in universal carriers (tracked armoured vehicles) by the company quartermaster sergeants (C.Q.M.S.) and served out on a platoon basis.  The battalion cooks were good, and although there were many times when conditions limited meals to cheese or bully-beef sandwiches with the inevitable tea, generally the cooks could bring up a roast beef or mutton dinner with all the trimmings including a dessert.  With the carrier the mail and the daily issue of "The Maple Leaf" were brought up as well as the rum ration.  It was a time to get battalion news, too, from the carrier driver, the C.Q.M.S., or one of the cooks.  The arrival of a batch of mail, word of a sackfull of cigarettes from the Women's Auxiliary, news of former wounded Seaforths returning to the unit, the latest rumour about a move - the gossip was endless.

From "The Guns of Normandy" by George Blackburn

...Compo meals have been in some ways superior to many past meals developed by the cooks from fresh rations.  A notable exception was breakfast...pre-cooked bacon.  Cold, it plopped out of the can in a sickly white, cylindrical blob.  Heated, it turned into liquid grease, which when poured off left a pitiful residue of red strings representing the lean meat that had streaked the fused rashers. 1999-present