War Stories

The All Time Top Ten Military Gourmet Delights Ever !

Remember, compo and smilies or even bacon burgers ? Here's the best selection of military cooking....
Eric Phipps's favourite....
It is conceivable that some readers may think that the terms ‘Catering’ and ‘Cadet’ are not necessarily natural bed fellows. How wrong can you be ! The catering experiences of the average Cadet Force member were varied, unusual, exciting and frequently challenging. So in an attempt to satisfy the modern hunger for ‘Top Ten’ and ‘Best Of’ compilations of everything from guitarists (No.1 Hank Marvin of course) to goalscorers (Jimmy Greaves..who else ?) I present herewith the Top Ten Best Military Meals in the World Ever !

However first of all I must explain to the uninitiated that it is necessary to understand the one term really synonymous with forces catering – Compo ! This is short for Composite rations which is what the army feeds people on whilst on active service or in my case whilst bunking off cross country running in the armoury. When I first joined the CCF in 1967 these rations were provided in a ’10 Man Ration Pack’ which was a heavy cardboard box about the size of a wine case. It was filled with about two dozen plain cans of various sizes with each one bearing a stamp saying what it was. This pack was supposed to meet the corporeal needs of ten men for one day or one man for ten days – or in our case 6 cadets for twenty minutes. Apart from a tin of boiled sweets, a supply of very stiff and shiny toilet paper – sufficient for one man for one hour if the menu was fully consumed, several bars of ‘Tiffin’ chocolate, a solid fuel cooker and a tin opener there was a tin of 50 Players (withdrawn after about 1969 or more likely filched by the senior cadets).

These the boxes contained a healthy, balanced and nutritious diet, all tinned, preserved and frequently wrapped in lard laced with DDT. They were supposed to meet the full calorific requirements of an active soldier in the field which I suppose they did, just about, providing one also ate the toilet paper, the solid fuel blocks and the box.

Anyway, enough about the background, here then in reverse order are the Top Ten Greatest Most Fantastic Meals Eaten In the Field of Human Conflict EVER !

Number 10: Any Compo Ration Tin Containing Meat (or which appeared to contain meat)

I particularly recall Irish Stew, Beef and Potatoes, Corned Beef, Chicken Curry and Steak and Kidney pudding. I learned early on that it was best not to throw the tins away too soon because it was much more difficult to identify the contents once they were in a mess tin than if one just left them to be admired in the can, they often tasted better that way as well. The Steak & Kidney pudding in particular would eventually slip from the can looking like a compacted drain blockage – which, of course, was what it was destined to become. The Chicken Curry was a violent yellow, it was in fact the only dish which was not a fairly bland khaki colour and I include the vegetables.

Number 9: Compo Tinned Salmon

I never saw the much sought after Compo Tinned Salmon main course myself. It was said to be available as a tropical menu and substantial stocks were apparently built up by the 14th Army in 1945 and were further bolstered in readiness for the Suez campaign in 1956. I’ll bet that as you read this, somewhere in the wilds of Afghanistan or Iraq, some poor squaddie is hunkered down dreaming of home and loved ones trying to identify the strange fibrous khaki lump in his mess tin just as his grandfather did on the banks of the Irrawaddy.

Number 8: Oatmeal Blocks

Another Compo favourite was the oatmeal block. These were round and the size of about two digestive biscuits. They were sweet and crunchy and were rumoured to make fantastic porridge but mine never lasted long enough to find out. They were just about the only genuinely pleasant thing in the box although they were a bit dense and because they were nice there’s not much more to say about them.

Number 7: Bacon Burgers

Another tinned favourite. Here’s the recipe, take various pre-cooked and cooled bits of pig, mix with lard, roughly form them into a round patty (McDonalds has the franchise now I believe), coat liberally with white glutinous grease, add three table spoonfuls of grease to an empty tin can, ram the prepared patties into the tin with an industrial strength steam hammer then seal the tin firmly to keep in all the goodness and prevent a major industrial spillage later. Now leave in a cold, damp, rat infested stores depot for forty years, open and enjoy ! The person who enjoyed these the most was Eric Phipps and he insisted that all Compo could be eaten raw quite safely. Once in the back of a four tonner on Dartmoor I challenged him to eat a whole can cold. He did, with relish. I was sure he’d be sick, but I was instead and I was never able to eat them again, well actually I never ate them at all but I certainly wouldn’t after Eric’s gourmet display.

Number 6: Royal Artillery Cornish Pasties

Now this is a bit of a cheat because I didn’t actually eat this with the CCF but it is representative of the odd bit of proper Regular Army Catering which we would occasionally enjoy (it was much better on the whole than people might expect). I was escorting a group of Scouts whom I had taken for a visit to the RA depot at Larkhill. We were out on the training area waiting for a demonstration of the firing of an Abbott Self Propelled Gun. Now when the army is on a training area in peacetime considerable efforts are made to feed the squaddies properly (well they were in the Artillery anyway) and they seem to cater in units of 50 so if you have ten soldiers you get 50 of whatever the catering branch want to send. In this case 50 cornish pasties were supplied for 6 soldiers and the MG (or Master Gunnery Instructor). The Scouts had their own sandwiches but of course when the MG asked them if they would like a pastie he was nearly killed in the rush, he told me later it was more frightening than facing the Republican Guard. The whole lot were consumed in five minutes flat and I only just managed to get one. They were gorgeous, flaky pastry, lovely crunchy vegetables and recognisable bits of meat I’ve never tasted better. They obviously had another purpose as well. Later in the day the Gun firing was cancelled because something ‘had got stuck up the pipe’ this I believe was a technical RA term. It must have been a Cornish pasty, as I discovered the following morning.

Number 5: Laurence Halstead Curry

Lawrence (late CO of the William Ellis School CCF)was always pretty self sufficient at camp providing he had a lorry to carry his enormous number of suitcases which went from the size one might give as a present to a three year old up to and including an ocean going sea trunk. Several of these were permanently loaded with catering requisites and he always had these close to hand in the CCF hut as well. Usually after the CCF had been dismissed on a Friday evening the seniors amongst us would get changed and hang about before going for a pint (of course we were nearly over 18). Lawrence would often accompany us and before doing so he would take out a Gaz cooker and a small frying pan and fry up some rice to which he would add boiling water, dried onions, dried peas, dried mushrooms, unidentified bits and pieces of dried something else and about half a sack of curry powder. I have some recollection of a few dollops of tabasco as well. He would eat this while we all looked on starving. His eyes would bulge and he would start to sweat but he always completed it with every sign of pure enjoyment. I’m sure he put all the curry stuff in it so we wouldn’t want any and he was right. I believe in later years this ceremony was transferred to the TV Studio although there is a legend that he once also produced the dish in the First Class compartment en route to Manston…..

Number 4 Mushroom Omelette a la Bill Morris

Bill Morris (who was to become the youngest Lt Col in the TA Royal Signals)was always a trencherman and probably still is ! His mushroom omelette became a favourite with everyone on a certain Arduous Training Camp on Dartmoor c.1971 or 2. Bill arrived fresh from the Manchester OTC well supplied with tins of mushrooms and a supply of eggs both of which he renewed as circumstances permitted. It says something for the standard of the catering on that camp (universal Compo) that we would all gather salivating while he cooked up a mushroom omelette in his tent most evenings. I’m sure they were very good, in fact we were all sure they were very good unfortunately none of us ever found out, we just had to take his word for it. Bill, when you read this drop me a line …we really must get out for a good omelette somewhere soon !

Number 3: ‘Smilies’

These were the army’s idea of combat bread. They looked like big dog biscuits although I could never get a dog to eat one. They were the size of a small postcard, rock hard, about a quarter of an inch think and covered in wax. They came packed in stiff waxed packets enclosed in a large tin about a foot cubed which was impossible to open without having a paramedic unit standing by. When you ate one and assuming you got past the broken tooth stage, then the chewing process revealed the true value of the smiley as an emergency mechanism to soak up flood water in the event of a catastrophe. It was rumoured that Smilies were indeed an unexpected offshoot of the Dambuster programme and that tins of them had successfully stemmed a failure of the sea wall defences in Holland. Now most people hated them and hated even more the evil smelling olive green ‘Cheese, Processed’ which was supposed to be eaten with them. I liked them for some perverse reason and consequently I never went hungry and became immune to all known types of stomach complaint.

Number 2 Oeufs a La RAF Manston

The catering at RAF Manston was usually pretty good. At most RAF Stations it was usually pretty good, unless contract caterers had taken over in which case it was pretty awful. We would arrive for an Air Experience Flying day on a Thursday night after a rushed train journey from Victoria. Invariably we would be too late for the normal Other Ranks Dinner, but never fear - a lowly erk on jankers would be left in residence in the Mess Hall to provide for us. This meal varied with the lethargy and fed upness of the staff. Sometimes the Mess Sergeant himself would be on duty in which case he was usually full of concern and would make sure the food was good and hot and the tea was fresh and not mixed with the coffee (I have suffered Teefee on numerous occasions in every type of military establishment from the Isle of Man to North West Germany and from the Highlands of Scotland to Gibraltar, it is universally dreadful). However on one famous occasion some morose and pimply youth was left to help us and he had come up with a fine idea…half cooked fried eggs ! He had a shallow oven tray in which, floating in a sea of slowly congealing fat, were a dozen fried eggs only barely solidified. If you wanted one he would deftly slide it from the tray to your plate with a huge fish slice and then from a pot full of boiling oil (into which he should have been dipped if you ask me) he would spoon about a quarter of a pint over the egg on your plate. This ensured that (a) the egg was cooked (at least he thought so), (b) the cold chips were also heated slightly, (c) That you never ate fried eggs ever again, and finally (d) that a propensity to Atherosclerosis in later life was clearly established.

Number 1 Prunes Benemy

This is it, the all time favourite. When he was in a lighter and mellow retrospective mood Colonel Benemy (after whom this illustrious site is named) would regale us with tales of his service in pre-War India (his knowledge of Pathan torture techniques was particularly colourful) or even the time when he shot a Russian soldier in Berlin (this was post-War but pre-Len Deighton). However one of his favourite stories was that whilst in India he had often partaken of the Curried Prune and that this was a very common dish in the Mess in those days. We never believed him. However, on the occasion of his final retirement from teaching and therefore the CCF, which I believe was in 1974, he attended the Annual CCF Camp at Crowborough Warren Camp near Tunbridge Wells. Lawrence Halstead (who was to succeed him as CO)decided that this was his last chance to find out the truth. Accordingly in light conversation Uncle Frank was inveigled into telling the anecdote again and sure enough he did extol the virtues of the aforesaid curry.

Lawrence Halstead was delighted and the following day cooked up a version using tinned prunes and curry sauce on his trusty Gaz stove. This was served to the Colonel with due pomp, I seem to recall a glass of cold white wine was also procured. We gathered round at a suitable distance to watch the rather cruel dismantling of a CCF legend. Needless to say he not only finished it but showed every sign of enjoying it, smacked his lips and asked for more. Lawrence was deflated and I must say I was quite pleased that the old boy had sailed through his final mission with flags flying and guns blazing. It may not have matched the Adolf Hitler Division for sheer ruthless power, but it sealed him in my memory ever after as a great soldier and character and long may it remain so.