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RAF 1932 PATTERN ‘MAE WEST’ LIFE JACKET, 1940 - BATTLE OF FRANCE / BRITAIN

In honour of ‘Battle of Britain’ day - September 15, 1940 - I would like to share a pickup of mine from earlier this year. As a collector, the Battle of Britain has always held a special place in my heart, and one of the most synonymous items of flying kit of this period was the life preserver the fighter pilots and aircrew wore during the Battle, commonly known as the ‘1932 Pattern Mae West’.


 

THE CONTEXT


One of the main fears for the RAF fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain was to end up ‘down in the drink’ - alone and adrift in the unforgiving English Channel. In the event of being shot down, or having to alight over the Channel, an airman had to rely solely on his life preserver to keep him alive and afloat until rescue was possible. Dinghies had not yet been developed, and the RAF was still using a life jacket developed at the beginning of the 1930s; technically referred to as 'Waistcoat, Life-Saving, Inflatable Stole Type - Temperate Pattern' (22c/55), but almost universally referred to as the 1932 Pattern ’Mae West’ - named after the famously well-endowed American actress of the time.


Below: photos courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London, showing various aircrew sporting the 32 Pattern. Note the popular practice of 'doping' the Mae West with yellow aircraft paint to provide better visibility when lost at sea.


By all measures the 32 Pattern Mae West was an outdated item by the time of the Battle. Unlike the life preservers the Luftwaffe pilots wore, it was dyed a drab green and thus camouflaged perfectly with the grimy Channel water. The blow-up stole was manually operated from an inflation hose housed on the left-breast, in contrast to the gas-operated technology the Luftwaffe had already pioneered for aircrew incapable of such action when incapacitated. These limitations aside, the 32 Pattern is an evocative item of aircrew equipment today, and a true Holy Grail for any collector of RAF flying clothing & equipment.


Below: photos showing the practice of doping the Mae West (Left), along with existing examples of doped 32 Patterns that have survived the test of time. The RAF pilots quickly learned how to improve their chances of survival.

Photos (left & middle) courtesy of Mick Prodger Luftwaffe vs RAF: Flying Equipment of the Air War 1939-45, (Schiffer, 1998) & Graham Potts, The Aircrew Collection; (right) courtesy of Steve Milnthorpe.


 

TECHNICAL DETAILS


The 1932 Pattern Mae West was comprised of several parts - the waistcoat or container, the inflatable stole (bladder) and the kapok pads. The 'Waistcoat, Life-Saving, Inflatable Stole Type - Temperate Pattern' (22c/55) is more commonly known today as the 1932 Pattern due to the date of introduction.

 

The waistcoat was manufactured from a linen fabric, dyed pale green-drab and rubberised internally on the section that contained the bladder. A zip fastener at the back of the neck section allowed access for the internal components.


The rubber bladder was manufactured from best quality red (but also found in grey, orange, salmon pink or brick red) sheet rubber of .03” thickness and had two ‘lungs’ with a connecting portion at the neck. The stole was fitted with an oral inflation tube, with a screw topped valve at the end, enabling the user to add air as required. [Middle photo courtesy of David Farnsworth, The Historic Flying Clothing Company].


In addition to the stole, a set of three rubberised cotton pads – filled with kapok and joined by linen fabric tape – could be inserted into the waistcoat to provide a minimum buoyancy in the event of a failure of the bladder, or should the wearer be unable to inflate it.  [Below photos courtesy of David Farnsworth, The Historic Flying Clothing Company].


The waistcoat was fitted with 3 hand-sewn bone buttons to the front and a long narrow pocket into which the inflation tube could be placed when not in use. A buckled strap at the chest and waist served to improve the fit further.


Instructions for use were stencilled onto the Mae West on the front lobes and at the back of the neck. Two distinctly different fonts were used for the main lettering. The example I have uses a Serif style font (two variations of this exist, as shown left & middle), and a Sans-Serif style font was also used. [Middle and right photos courtesy of David Farnsworth, The Historic Flying Clothing Company].


Other variations include two types of buckled strap, one being in a simple cotton webbing tape, the other in double-backed linen (a stiffer version of the main waistcoat material) with eyelets fitted for the pronged buckle.  All of these would appear to be of no more significance than a manufacturing difference, and do not represent a mythical ‘1940‘ pattern. [Right-hand photo courtesy of David Farnsworth, The Historic Flying Clothing Company].


Some more detailed photos showing the label and nomenclature on my 1940-dated Mae West:


Words and analysis courtesy of David Farnsworth, September 2010.


In September 2010 David Farnsworth published a fifteen-page supplement in the September issue of The Armourer magazine, coinciding with the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The supplement was titled ‘Their Finest Hour - A Collector's Guide to the Battle of Britain’. The article was beautifully written and accompanied by some fantastic photos of David’s impressive collection. A decade later and that article is now very hard to come by; a hidden gem for any collector lucky enough to have subscribed to The Armourer magazine back in 2010.


Thank you to David for giving me the green-light to include his work in this article, allowing it to once again see the light of day. David's fantastic website: https://www.historicflyingclothing.com/

 

PUBLICATION HISTORY


I was lucky enough to purchase my 1932 Pattern Mae West from a close friend of mine, who kindly gave me first refusal. You may recognise the life jacket as it was previously part of Mick Prodger’s esteemed collection, featuring heavily in his ‘Luftwaffe vs RAF’ series. It was later published in Mark Hillier’s excellent publication: ‘The Battle of Britain Fighter Pilot’s Kitbag’. I feel humbled to be the current custodian of this item.


RAF 1932 Pattern Mae West
RAF 1932 Pattern Mae West
 

BONUS: SKULL CAP!


Many thanks to Steve Milnthorpe for sending these photos to me and allowing me to share them here. What you can see here is a rare skull cap, dated 1938. The skull cap was a companion issue item that partnered the 1932 Pattern Mae West, and preceded the yellow iteration that was issued with the 1941 Pattern Mae West. You can clearly see how it was hand-doped yellow to provide further visibility if 'down in the drink'. Not many of these are known to have survived, and this is the first I have ever seen.



 

REFERENCES


Special thanks to David Farnsworth, Mick Prodger, Steve Milnthorpe, Neil Seaton and Richard Briers for their knowledge, input and patience.


See also:

Mick Prodger, Luftwaffe vs RAF: Flying Clothing of the Air War 1939-45, (Schiffer, 1997)

Mick Prodger, Luftwaffe vs RAF: Flying Equipment of the Air War 1939-45, (Schiffer, 1998)

David Farnsworth, Their Finest Hour - A Collector's Guide to the Battle of Britain, (Armourer, 2010)

Mark Hillier, The RAF Battle of Britain Fighter Pilot's Kitbag, (Frontline Books, 2018)

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