The Hootchie – Part 1 – An Adventure Through Time – ADDENDUM

Back in the olden days, at the very dawn of this little blog, I wrote a post covering the evolution of the Australian Army hootchie, the humble “shelter, individual”. In that poorly-written little piece I indicated that the hootchie as issued to Australian forces from the late 1950s onward was the first time Aussie and British Commonwealth military planners had even considered the fact that soldiers might need something a bit bigger than a 7 foot by 3 foot groundsheet to bivouac under in bad weather.

If ever called out on it, I’ll vehemently deny that my incomplete research on the topic led me to being wrong, so rather than call it “new information” let’s all pretend that space constraints on the original post meant I had to leave some important stuff out. Yep, that’ll work.

So what did I miss out? A few things…

From the time of the Battle of Waterloo circa 1815, the British army had adopted the French idea of the tente d’abri (literally “shelter tent” in English). It was a 2-man shelter made from two sheets of linen canvas with a plethora of buttons and buttonholes along the edges so it could be connected to others. Usually two of these tentes d’abri were used, forming a small “A” tent.

Shelter-Tents

US Civil War era tente d’abri style shelter. Usually called a “dog tent” by the troops because it looked like a dog kennel.

The idea is familiar to this day as it had also been adopted by the United States military in the decade before the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861. The troops there called it a “dog tent” but it was officially known as a shelter half. In the US, the shelter halves were issued right through until after the Vietnam war. These later shelter halves are roughly trapezoidal in shape and when pitched as a two man tent, have both ends closed in. I have a set of two halves dated 1982. It makes a nice, snug and warm windproof and waterproof little pup tent which is great in cold weather.

In British military publications from the 1870s, the shelter was still officially known as the “Tente d’abri” or simply as the “d’abri”. Some time in the mid 1880s, the designation changed to “MkI Shelter”. and it was used throughout the Boer War and into the First World War, also by colonial and later Federal Australian troops.

The dimensions of the Mk I Shelter sheets were approximately 183cm long x 153 cm wide. When two were fastened together, the resulting tent was 183cm long x 214cm wide x 107cm high.

In Australian service, these were used extensively by Australian Light Horse troops during the First World War. They were rolled with a blanket and carried as a swag roll strapped to the rear of the saddle and used as swag-style bedding when bivouacking. They were also used in the camp environment as pitched two-man shelter tents just like the American shelter half “pup tents” of the Civil War.

B-52640.jpeg.

Mk I Shelter in use by Australian Light Horse troops at a camp in Palestine in 1917. B52640 SLSA.

There was a variant of the MkI shelter which saw the two halves sewn together into a large, hootchie-style tarp, but it seems to have been an interim measure between the Mk I and the Mk II which is described below.

The MkII was more tent-like in design, but could still be used as a tarp if required. It was essentially a MkI sewn up variant with one closed in end. The end of this shelter was made from two triangular sections of canvas which closed using a dutch lacing (grommet and cord loop) closure.

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An Australian Light Horse Camp in Palestine in 1918. A combination of single MkII shelters (oriented north/south) and  pair of larger shelters each made from two MkII shelters fastened end to end (oriented east west)

The MkII Shelter became the basic troop accommodation for British and Empire personnel in the field. Later, it was modified with an extension on the rear and a front closed by a pair of canvas flaps. This last model was known as a “Bivy” tent and soldiered on in British Army service until the 1990s. During WWII there was a lighter weight tropical version which was completely mosquito netted, not a bad modification, although it seems to have been used in Europe more than any other theatre of that conflict.

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This painting depicts a pair of MkII shelters in use in an Australian AIF camp in France circa 1917. AWM ART03331

I guess it’d be prudent to discuss the various improvised shelters which were made by troops bivouacking. These were usually two or more groundsheets laced together, or even a pair of wool service blankets fastened together with blanket pins. Surprisingly, these blanket shelters did an amazing job at keeping the rain off, but the flip side was that the soldier had to carry a wet blanket around which weighed a ton and took an age to dry out.

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Illustration from the 1914 British Army field service regulations showing an improvised bivouac shelter made from a pair of wool service blankets pinned together.

 

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A look at some WWI Compasses

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Through my recent eBay adventures, my vintage compass collection has increased dramatically. Some of my favourite new acquisitions are a pair of 1918-vintage US Corps of Engineers military marching compasses both made by Cruchon & Emons in Switzerland. These are the types of compasses that Horace Kephart might have used.

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The Hootchie – Part 1 – An Adventure Through Time

A current issue Australian hootchie shelter. Image from www.raymears.com. Uncle Ray loves the Aussie hootchie.

A current issue Australian hootchie shelter. Image from http://www.raymears.com. Uncle Ray loves the Aussie hootchie.

 

UPDATE: I’ve posted an addendum to this article which details some hootchie-esque military shelters from the pre-WWII era.

“Hootchie” or “hutchie” is the slang term for the Australian Army’s Shelter, Individual – NSN 8465-66-013-5032.

The hootchie is a sheet of 70D nylon or PU-coated cotton with various press snaps and webbing tape loops attached around the outside which allow it to be used in a variety of configurations such as –

  • Tarp tent
  • Hammock tarp
  • Improvised hammock (heavyweight ones only)
  • Swag (bedroll cover)
  • Sleeping bag (best used with a wool blanket or nylon poncho liner)
  • Groundsheet
  • Fighting position cover
  • Waterproofing sheet for bundling up equipment during water crossings
  • Trailer or open-top vehicle cover (when stationary)
  • Solar still sheet (so says the Australian army’s survival pam)

And that’s just the ones I’ve tried or heard about. If you have alternate uses for the hootchie or its NATO/ANZUS cousins, post ’em in the comments.

The hootchie concept is widely used by military forces around the world as well as by outdoor enthusiasts such as bushcrafters and recreational hikers.  Here’s some military users –

United States – Poncho and Field Tarp

The new USMC field tarps are flooding the surplus gear markets. It's a pity I don't use camouflaged equipment or I'd grab one to test it out.

The new USMC field tarps are flooding the surplus gear markets. It’s a pity I don’t use camouflaged equipment or I’d grab one to test it out.

In the US, service personnel, outdoor enthusiasts and bushcraft practitioners have been using the venerable rain poncho in place of the hootchie for decades. These do an admirable job, but are just that little bit too small to be an effective tarp tent or hammock tarp. Recognising this, the US Marine Corps has recently introduced the “Field Tarp” it has a digital woodland camouflage print on one side, and is coated with “coyote” tan polyurethane. By all accounts it works well, but is a little heavy.

Poncho Shelter ideas from a US military manual. These work great if you're a midget (no offence to any of our smaller-statured readers). But if you're tall like me, a hootchie format works much better. For more uses for the military poncho (and therefore the hootchie) see http://www.hardscrabblefarm.com/vn/poncho.html

Poncho Shelter ideas from a US military manual. These work great if you’re a midget (no offence to any of our smaller-statured readers). But if you’re tall like me, a hootchie format works much better. For more uses for the military poncho (and therefore the hootchie) see http://www.hardscrabblefarm.com/vn/poncho.html

New Zealand – Kiwi Hootchie

Like the Aussies, our Kiwi brethren have long been advocates of the simple utility of the hootchie format for their shelter sheets. The Kiwi hootchie is camouflaged and is bigger than a standard Aussie one.

The United Kingdom – Basha

A British military-issue desert DMP basha. Smaller and more shoddily made than an Aussie hootchie, but appear to do the job.

A British military-issue desert DPM basha. A little smaller and more shoddily made than an Aussie hootchie, but they appear to do the job. Image from http://www.zombiehunters.org – user Kommander

The British call a hootchie a “Basha”. In British service, the idea was copied off Australian and Kiwi troops operating in Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation in the early 1960s. Back in the early to mid 1960s British bashas were identical to Australian hootchies of the same era – solid green in colour. Later they were made in British jungle camouflage, which is a sort of yellow-tinged camouflage pattern. And for desert operations they were made and issued in British desert camouflage.

Cropped image of a current-issue British MTP basha showing the pattern.

Cropped image of a current-issue British MTP basha showing the pattern. As you can see, the pattern doesn’t work too well in hot/wet and cold/wet environments unless you set it up in the middle of the track. This will cause problems for the British, US, Australian and others who use Multicam-based clothing and equipment patterns if called upon to fight outside the arid zones.

They are currently being made and issued in the British Multi-Terrain Pattern (MTP) camouflage, a variant of American Multicam. Although never as widely used by the Brits as it is by the Aussies, the Basha/hootchie remains a well-loved piece of equipment for both tropical and arid climates, particularly since the British Ministry of Defence’s procurement people seem to have specified a much higher standard of materials and construction for the new MTP equipment.

Australia – Hootchie

The original and best, the Australian hootchie evolved from experience gained over decades of previous wars and other military operations.

SOurce - http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=157548

A British specification for the Commonwealth-issue WWI-era MKVII ground sheet/rain cape. Source – http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=157548

During the First and Second World Wars, Australian (and other British Commonwealth) troops were issued with a rubberised canvas ground sheet / rain cape. It was far from suitable as an individual shelter in the trenches, although a couple could be laced together to provide a shelter for two men, or as a cover for a fighting position. As a ground sheet and as a rain cape, it did sterling work despite it’s heavy weight.  It was state of the art for its time.

Along with the rain cape format, WWI and II era Australian and Commonwealth troops were issued with a ground sheet, which was essentially the rain cape without the triangular section and the collar accoutrements. Like the rain cape, an individual ground sheet was too small to be of much practical use unless used as a dry surface to bed down on or if laced together with another ground sheet as a cover for a sleeping or fighting position.

An Australian 1945-vintage groundsheet. Image from a now-defunct eBay listing.

An Australian 1945-vintage groundsheet. Image from a now-defunct eBay listing.

During WWII Australian forces fighting the Japanese in the Islands had an urgent requirement for a decent individual shelter. The rubberised canvas groundsheets and rain capes continued to be used (now issued separately), but these were less than effective in the tropics.

Groundsheet shelter from a WWII Australian jungle warfare manual. Great sun shade, but what if it rains?

Groundsheet shelter from a WWII Australian jungle warfare manual. Great sun shade, but what if it rains?

A better solution had to be found, and quickly.

Shelter Halves. From the AWM collection.

Shelter Halves. From the AWM collection.

To improve the troops’ individual shelter systems, large stocks of American shelter halves began to be issued. Similar in form to an Australian ground sheet, a shelter half was made from lighter water-repellent sateen cotton cloth and was fitted with press studs to connect to another “half” to make a two-man pup-tent. The shelter half was constructed in such a way that it resulted in a tent with a closed-in end. This is great for helping to keep rain and snow out of your bedding while you lay there freezing through a European winter, but  it reduced visibility and blocked ventilation in the jungle to unacceptable levels. As a consequence, US shelter halves were mainly used by Australians as fighting pit covers and as groundsheets. Ultimately the Australian troops were no better off than if they had retained their Australian-issue groundsheets.

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII - AWM collection

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII. This digger is an old hand, having kept his hammock slung low to reduce its visual signature and to better protect against errant gunfire or grenade fragments – AWM collection

A decent shelter was seen not as a luxury in these tropical malaria-infested areas, but as essential. Both the United States and Australia went to extraordinary lengths to try and prevent tropical diseases such as malaria and scrub typhus among the troops. As a result of this effort, the American Jungle Hammock was born.

An Australian-issued jungle hammock used by NX16053 Warrant Officer I Raymond Turrell in New Guinea during WWII - AWM collection

An Australian-issued US jungle hammock used by NX16053 Warrant Officer I Raymond Turrell in New Guinea during WWII – AWM collection

The jungle hammock was a revolutionary individual shelter system. It consisted of a canvas hammock protected by mosquito netting and topped by a waterproof canopy. It rolled into a bundle just a little bigger than a woolen army blanket but it was still portable and provided a waterproof, insectproof shelter for an individual soldier. In practice it was not a great idea to be using a jungle hammock in the front lines with the ever-present threat of an enemy artillery barrage or infiltration parties, but in larger camps back from the lines the jungle hammock was much appreciated. Keep a look out for a separate post on the WWII jungle hammock.

Towards the end of the war in the Pacific Australia began issuing its troops a lighter weight version of the groundsheet manufactured from polyurethane-coated cotton – the same material which formed the canopy of the US jungle hammock. Although issued too late to be truly revolutionary during WWII, the PU cotton material remained in the Australian Army’s institutional memory and became the basis for the first pattern “Shelter, Individual” – the hootchie.

Along with the jungle hammock, American ponchos began to be issued in quantity to Australian troops in the pacific. Made from a rubberised cotton, these were a turtle-neck format without a hood, but were lighter than the rain cape and larger than the groundsheet.

Australian soldiers' camp during the Malayan Emergency in 1956. Poncho shelters are in abundance. AWM collection.

Australian soldiers’ camp during the Malayan Emergency in 1956. Poncho shelters are in abundance. AWM collection.

During the Malayan Emergency of the 1950s, Australian troops were issued with hooded ponchos. Unlike the WWII US pattern ponchos which always had a hole in the dead centre of the poncho sheet, the Australian-issue hooded ponchos made an effective shelter – especially when two where clipped together. The problem of course is that the rubberised canvas ponchos were far too heavy for jungle use.

Malaya 1960. An Australian Long Range patrol on counter terror ops on the peninsula has been forced to rely upon gaudy commercial plastic shower curtains as shelters for their A-frame jungle beds. An unsatisfactory situation.

Malaya 1960. An Australian Long Range patrol on counter terror ops on the peninsula forced to rely upon ultra-lightweight but flimsy and gaudy floral commercial PVC plastic shower curtains as shelters for their A-frame jungle beds. An unsatisfactory situation. AWM collection.

The weight issue was critical for troops undertaking long range patrols in the jungle which could last for weeks. Some expedients such as the shower curtain idea used above were workable, but a lightweight and hardwearing shelter sheet was urgently required.In the early 1960s Australian units in Borneo hunting Indonesian infiltrators from Kalimantan were issued with the first pattern hootchies.

A lightweight hootchie. AWM collection

A lightweight hootchie. AWM collection

The hootchie was a sheet of PU coated cotton measuring approximately 2.7m x 1.9m (approx 8ft 10inches x 6ft 2inches) with press studs and loops sewn at intervals around the outside edge as well as various eyelets and grommets. A line of loops was sewn down the centre of the sheet to allow more options when pitching as a shelter. Although still a little heavy, the hootchie was a vast improvement over its predecessors, and was almost bombproof. Its one failing was its weight – still over a kilogram.

The hootchie became a standard piece of Australian equipment which was included in a new recruit’s initial clothing and gear issue. With Australia’s entry into the Vietnam war, a second pattern lightweight hootchie was issued. Made from nylon, but retaining the  hardware and loops, the lightweight hootchie weighed a mere 680 grams, still heavy, but suitable for tropical use.

A pair of hootchies used as a gun pit cover in Vietnam. AWM collection.

A pair of hootchies used as a gun pit cover in Vietnam. AWM collection.

In practice in Vietnam, the hootchie was rarely used as a slung tarp shelter. When wet it shone in moonlight and in the pre-dawn glow. Tying it to trees left “sign” and for exhausted troops on patrol it was simply a hassle to pitch the hootchie. It was often used in conjunction with a woolen “horse blanket” or a poncho liner as an open-sided sleeping bag or it was simply laid upon as a ground sheet with the soldier sleeping under a poncho. In more permanent positions such as patrol bases or fire support bases, the hootchie was widely used as a sun and rain shelter and as a cover for fighting pits.

After the Vietnam War the hootchie soldiered on and continues to form part of the equipment of the Australian soldier to this day. Modern hootchies are made of Australian camouflage (Auscam) nylon with khaki loops, but aside from this the size and pattern are identical to the green Vietnam hootchies.

British Outdoorsman and Campfire Cooking legend Ray Mears often uses a current Australian issue hootchie as part of his kit.

British Outdoorsman and Campfire Cooking legend Ray Mears often uses a current Australian issue hootchie as part of his kit.

That’s the evolution of the hootchie in a nutshell.

Next post in this series will look at types of shelters which can be pitched using a hootchie as well as an overview of a very decent commercial equivalent to the military issue hootchie – in environmentally-friendly green rather than “tactical” camouflage.