It was during the start of Op TELIC in 2003 that British soldiers were first labelled ‘Borrowers’.
Deployed to Iraq, a country whose climate and terrain require specialist equipment to overcome, personnel arrived in theatre before the supply chain could crank into gear, leaving them attired in a mixture of green and desert camouflage.
Concerned over the quality and appearance of other items of clothing, including all-important footwear, the troops began to look enviously at their international colleagues and it was not long before they were earning their cruel nickname by trading bits of kit.
But fast forward to today and the boots are most definitely on the other foot. Seven years of front line experience have helped the Armed Forces learn valuable lessons about what soldiers do - and do not - need on operations, and it is now other countries casting jealous glances at Britain.
Such a turnaround has only been possible thanks to Defence Equipment and Support’s Defence Clothing and Personal Combat Equipment Teams.
The joint military and civilian set-up is on a non-stop mission to update and refine the clothing and gear that soldiers are given ahead of deployments. The fruit of their labour - the Black Bag - speaks for itself.
The giant holdall, which is issued to all theatre-bound troops, contains a wardrobe’s-worth of clothing, covering everything from underpants to combat shirts, as well as useful everyday items including a multi-tool and a head torch.
And such is the quality of the kit, Defence Clothing Team Chief of Staff, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Tresidder, hopes it will put an end to soldiers parting with their own cash to kit themselves out for ops:
The Black Bag came into being in 2003 when it was identified that troops going to Iraq needed additional items added to their standard kit,” he explained.
It has continued to evolve and is now very comprehensive. Of course soldiers will always want to personalise their kit and might think there is something better out there, but my advice is that before you spend your very hard-earned money, have a look at what you actually get in the bag because you have much better things to spend your cash on.
Soldiers simply shouldn’t need to buy their own kit and the day they feel that they don’t need to buy anything else is the day we will have achieved what we set out to do. I think we are 98 per cent there.
The contents of the Black Bag are worth a staggering £3,000. By comparison, new recruits receive £800 of kit when they join the Army.
Starting with essentials such as anti-microbial underwear and socks, the holdall’s innards contain complete sets of shorts, trousers, t-shirts and combat shirts as well as camouflage gear in the new multi-terrain pattern design.
The latest generation of Osprey body armour and combat helmet are also included, while the footwear options provide a perfect example of just how far the Army’s clothing has come.
Instead of the unpopular boots from Op TELIC 1, soldiers now get to choose their preference of winter and summer boots from market-leading manufacturers Lowa and Meindl. Smaller footwear made specifically for women’s feet has been included and there are even sandals for use around camp.
And although the Defence Clothing and Personal Combat Equipment Teams are the ones who source the new gear, everything that finds its way into the bag only does so after being given the go-ahead by the soldiers who will be using it in battle.
Lt Col Tresidder explained that his team deploys to theatre every four to six months to talk to troops at forward operating bases about what kit works, what does not, and what they would like to see added.
Further feedback from post-operational reports is also taken on board by those responsible for filling the Black Bag:
You can guarantee a soldier will give you the benefit of their wisdom and we always do our best to listen,” Lt Col Tresidder added. “It is them that have to fight with the kit and thankfully soldiers are very rarely shy in telling you what they think.
We find that the views are almost always positive, but I don’t think that’s surprising when you consider where we have come from since 2003 - it’s phenomenal.
Everything in that Black Bag has been trialled and approved by the Infantry Trials and Development Unit which is staffed by personnel just back from operations. They give us their opinion on whether kit is good and fit for purpose.
All of this comes at a cost but there isn’t a budget - if something is needed then the money is there.
The greatest compliment I have received was from a hardened corporal who described the bag as ‘a big warm hug from the Army’.
The constantly-refreshed kit list for the Black Bag is devised with as much attention to form as function.
Many of the items - Lowa boots, Karrimor SF day sacks, Silva head torches and Blackhawk knee pads, for example - are designed and made by the commercial industry’s leading lights and have been included because they are the very best examples currently on offer. Other gear, such as the Gerber multi-tool, is so advanced that it is not yet available commercially in this country.
It may not quite be haute couture, but the Black Bag’s contents represent the best of their type and Lt Col Tresidder hopes that will further reinforce the message that soldiers do not need to buy their own personal kit:
I’m personally really pleased that we are giving guys top-of-the-range equipment, things like Lowa boots - you just don’t get any better than that,” he said.
The teams seek constant feedback from the front line to see what people need and what is working. That brought about the change in knee pads and the extra pouches for the body armour.
We’re very conscious that soldiers need to look professional - they are there presenting an image to themselves, to the people they are working with and to the enemies they are up against.
When you see a soldier on the front line in the new camouflage, the boots and the other kit, they definitely do look the part.
British soldiers can now stand tall knowing that their kit is just as good as, and in most cases better than, their international counterparts.
Their skills and bravery may speak for themselves, but personnel can be assured that they now have the wardrobe to match.
_This article is taken from the August 2010 edition of SOLDIER - Magazine of the British Army. The full contents of the Black Bag are explained in further detail in the magazine (see Related Links). _