I can't say that I have many original WWII militaria items, especially uniforms (I think I have but a M41 jacket, a pair of ankle boots, some front seamed M1 helmets, a Brit. Airborne Denison smock, a cotton officer's shirt, and a couple of M42 German helmet w/o liners), so this story sure isn't about my vast impressive (not) collection nor my knowldge (lack) of.
But I figure there has to be a good number of Board members who collect 1:1 militaria, in particularly uniforms. so I would like to share this story about a set of uniform that I bought sight un-seen that was not particularly expensive or noteworthy.
In fact -- when the dealer told me he had this item in stock, it was because I inquired about other items he had. He just mentioned that he had an interesting set of uniform that belonged to a Colonel who had served in the Irish Rangers and also with the SAS. When I asked whether the officer was identified -- the dealer said he had no idea. The private purchase every day uniform was custom tailored in Hong Kong, and were a British tropical pattern, and came about along with the mess dress that belonged to the same Officer.
Well, the price was right (under a hundred bucks), so I had him sent it to me.
When I received the uniform and examined it -- it appeared authentic alright. It had a short sleeve summer tunic with epaulets and full Colonel rank slip ons with SAS embroidered, a small Union Jack on one of the sleeves, and SAS wings that were detachable by snaps. There was another insignia -- that of a shield that had a fist holding lightning bolts with the letters 'AMF'. The trousers were just like dress slacks with the wide belt loops that were button down I think -- that were typical of British dress from the 60's and 70's. There were some fading from where a row of ribbons must have been.
Whoever this officer is or was -- this was his everyday dress uniform for the tropics like a posting to Hong Kong for instance. The other tell tale sign was the tailor's label that told of a Hong Kong location as well.
Those who are collectors may know best -- for authentic personal gear in any genre of militaria, having the identity of the soldier the item belonged to is important. And if that soldier was known in military history -- why that would make it a whole another ball of wax in terms of collector's value.
So, I figure that if this set of uniform had been authentic -- all it really needs is to be identified as to who these actually belonged to. Now, I figure there couldn't have been that many full Colonels of the SAS, although I profess to know not much more than most of you here about this elite unit with heritage that began in WWII. So, this should be relatively an easy task.
How wrong I was to make that assumption.
I tried to look up the service records of such an officer, figuring that service records may be public. Well, may be so. But the fact that the guy was in the SAS meant otherwise. The SAS jealously guards such information, so this was not an option.
I posted inquiries on SAS forums over the Internet, and had people who do research replied to me offering to assist but for a price. I wasn't shy from paying -- but such services came with no guarantees. So, I passed but to try do researching myself.
Then on a SAS web site -- I found the names of two former commanders of the 22nd SAS Regiment that best fit the background and time of service of the mystery officer. And only one of them had been with the Irish Rangers. While as the commanding officer of the 22 SAS, the officer was a Lt. Colonel. This was the first significant clue I found that gave a me a name.
A thought then came to me -- why not look up the tailor by the label that were sewn in the uniform. After all -- I was due to travel to Hong Kong shortly.
Then on one of my trips through Hong Kong, I took the time to walk around the area of Hong Kong where the label had told of. Just by asking a couple of local tailors -- not only were the original tailor of the uniform still in business but they were just meters from where I was standing.
With the tunic in hand, I walked into the shop very excited and told the entire story to the shop keeper. Unfortunately, the man was less than impressed, and would offer no assistance. But he did confirm that the label sewn on the shirt is that of the shop, but this would have been from a period begining in the 1960's until 1980's. After some prodding. the man claimed that if I could give him a name -- that he might look up records to confirm whether the mystery officer was a customer.
When I returned to the shop a couple of days later, only to find a different person, and had to re-tell the entire story over again, to which I then received the run-around yet again. The second man who claimed to be the son of the original tailor who had retired -- did confirm that there was a British officer by the name I gave who was one of their customers. But he couldn't say for sure that what I had in hand belonged to the same officer. Also, the tailor couldn't say whether he was a SAS officer or not.
So, by conducting some in-country research I had atleast confirmed the existence of an officer who had been in the Hong Kong area, and had placed orders for private purchase uniforms in Hong Kong.
Another thought came to research officers who had been assigned to the Hong Kong Garrison during their career and had also been in the SAS. The best candidate to ask such questions (without being suspected of being a spy or terrorist) was a friend of mine who runs a militaria shop in Hong Kong, who hapens to be an avid British militaria collector.
My friend was able to confirm that in the entire history of the British Garrison in Hong Kong -- there had been only 1 SAS officer who was a Colonel during the time he was in Hong Kong in the late 80's. However, the problem was that the man was tall and slender. By the judge the uniform set in hand -- the mysterious SAS officer in question was of medium height and stocky built.
Fast forward to current day -- it was by chance that I was looking up some information, when I came across an obituary. And in it I had found all of the missing pieces of information, which left no doubt that the man who had passed away was in fact the officer who fits the uniform.
His name was John W., who along with his subordinate Peter De La Billiere (the tall and slender SAS Colonel, who went on to commanded the British forces in Desert Storm), had commanded the 22 SAS in action in Borneo, Malaysia and Oman in the late 50's through the 70's.
By all counts -- Lt. General W. had a distinguish service record, received a number of awards and citations, and was Knighted in 1985. Watts was also credited with streamlining SAS organization allowing it to become one of the elite special force in the world. His appointment as a full colonel to the Ministry of Defense and NATO between '72 and '75 had him associated with the Atlantic Mobile Force, an armor force, which explains the shield with the fist and lightning as well as the entire uniform in my collection.
Thus after two years of research and just dumb luck -- I have the identity of the officer whom the set of uniform belongs to. While I'm happy that this set of uniform which came into my hands as an afterthought is certainly of great collector value for how the original owner had contributed to military history -- I am sadden to learn of his death. I would further conlcude that I would not have learned of all the details which I had seeking, if not for his passing.
Lt. General Sir W. was also said to have been a modest man, always down playing his status as a leader and an achiever in his field. This makes perfect sense that upon his retirement from the military that he personally allowed his uniforms to be released into the collector community.
May he rest in peace, and his deeds on earth not be forgotten.
General W. Obituary