World War 2 - Willow Baskets

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From previous wars, and from a few basic designs, the military had always been supplied with hampers and panniers for medical and surgical supplies, lighting, and other specialist equipment. They would have held all the equipment and drugs needed to treat the wounded in the field. In addition, two or more baskets could be opened to create an operating table in the field. There was always a dilemma (which remains in any battle zone). Do we try and treat the injury, or we try and get the injured to a safe place?

 

The basic designs had not changed since the first World War. The earliest medical pannier in Coates Basket Museum, pictured here, although over painted with a ‘1963’ date, is of the 1905 pattern. This model still has the rings attached that would have been used to strap a pair of baskets over the back of a mule, donkey or horse. It could even have been used in the Boer War.

The Flying Nightingales

 

These were the air ambulance nurses who flew on RAF Dakotas to evacuate wounded soldiers. They were banned from using their parachutes, as their orders were to stay with the plane to treat any survivors of a crash. They played a vital role in keeping thousands of soldiers alive long enough to receive life-saving operations, and were the first British women to be sent into war zones by the Government. It is estimated that 100,000 wounded soldiers were brought back to Britain from France by the ‘Flying Nightingales’.

    The two examples of Air Ambulance Pannier No 2 in the Coates Museum collection were made by G W Scott & Sons of London. They have an overall size of 40 cm x 40 cm x 40cm, close randed in willow, with a kubu edge to the 10 stick lid. Inside is a removable 9 compartment partition, with leather straps in each corner. We originally thought that the compartments would have held important medical liquids, including blood. However, it seems they held flasks of tea. The role of the ambulance crew was to provide comfort on the way back to medical services in England.

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The Airborne Pannier

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The Airborne Pannier was by far the most important basket developed in World War 2. It was used to drop supplies by parachute, and each basket could hold up to 500 lbs, which made it suitable for use with the Mk1 parachute. Most were dispatched from the side door of a Dakota, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, often in pairs that separated when dropped. Coates Basket Museum has two examples. An original, in good condition, and this replica with an authentic Mk4 Harness assembly.

It is estimated that about two million were produced in various parts of the UK, with pressure on basketmakers to fill this need rather than making domestic baskets. It also put a strain on supplies of withies, as many willow beds had been grubbed out during the preceding years. In Stoke St Gregory, Somerset, the firms of Gadsby (who had relocated from Stratford, East London after their factory had suffered bomb damage) and Musgrave, sent their contributions to London via Athelney station.

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Tom Patten's Lorry Loaded with Panniers for Athelney Station

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It has been suggested that the airborne basket came about from experiments by 250 Divisional Airborne Light Composite Coy RASC. The commanding officer, Major M St. John Packe considered the possibilities of the ubiquitous wicker laundry hamper, used by hotels throughout the land, and that led to the development of the Wicker Airborne Pannier. On 8 February 1943, a demonstration of their achievements took place before a distinguished audience, including His Majesty the King.

In any case, what emerged was essentially a very large wicker basket. There were two halves, the top being slightly larger than the bottom so it could fit over it. The two halves were not attached. There were no hasps or hinges. After filling the bottom basket, the two halves were lashed together with webbing straps. This gave the advantage that the size of the load did not have to be precise. The pannier could be expanded as needed, up to height of 30”. The top half had four rope handles at the corners. The wicker pannier had a maximum loaded weight of 500 lbs, greater than that of any of the earlier bomb case type containers.

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Original Airborne Pannier in Coates Basket Museum

NOTE: Dorothy Wright, in her book, The Complete Book of Basketry, suggests that the pannier was based on the 'Pilgrim Basket' - the ancestor of the expanding suitcase - a light travelling basket made of cane and palm in South East Asia: "During the planning of Overlord (the invasion of France in 1944) a young army officer, Major Sparrow, thought of a similar container to drop by parachute to armies in the field. Major Sparrow found a Salisbury basket maker, William Shelley, and together they designed and made the basket in Willow."

Two panniers were often bundled together. This was referred to as the “daisy chain” method, and allowed for twice the number of panniers to be dispatched in the limited drop time. One pannier was stacked on top of the other, and held together by four ties made of 100 lb silk cord, two either side of the pair of panniers, through the straps. The parachutes were attached to the straps on the end of each pannier, with the 5ft 6in static line of the bottom pannier attached to the webbing strap at the parachute end of the top pannier. The 15ft 6in static line of the top parachute was attached to a snap hook on the aircraft roof. They were pushed out of the side door of the Dakota and fell as one until to the top parachute opened. This caused a jerk which broke the ties between the panniers. As the bottom pannier fell away its static line broke free from the top pannier and continued falling separately.