Keeping the Troops in the Field. Part 1: Rations

Robert HallArticles, Australian ArmyLeave a Comment

Bob Hall and Andrew Ross

In any campaign, rations form a significant component of the dismounted soldier’s load. However, in counterinsurgency campaigns in a jungle environment, rations and water can become a very large component of the soldier’s load. Jungle and vehicles don’t mix so the infantry will be expected to carry on their backs all they require – rations, water, ammunition – to keep them in the field. The enemy will seek to exploit the problems of resupply we face by establishing bases in the most remote, difficult to access parts of the AO. Helicopters or free dropping supplies from fixed wing aircraft may also be limited due to a variety of factors including the need to maintain security and the risk of ground fire.

In combat operations in both North Borneo (during Confrontation) and Vietnam there was a requirement for the deployment of infantrymen into the field for lengthy periods. In Vietnam, 1ATF patrols were initially of about 4 to 6 days duration, but the rapidly increased as the Task Force established dominance of the area surrounding the Nui Dat base. As operations penetrated deeper into the remote parts of the Australian AO, operations of 28 days or more, became common (see Annex B: Length of Operations – 1ATF).[1]

To sustain troops in the field over periods of this length required the periodic resupply of rations (and other items). However, re-supply whether by helicopter, APC or other vehicle, tended to compromise the security of the deployed troops. This resulted in pressure to limit resupply missions as much as possible. These twin pressures – to remain in the field yet with strictly limited resupply – led to soldiers being required to carry heavy loads of rations. It was common for soldiers to be issued with 6 or even 7 days rations with the expectation that these would be ‘stretched’ to cover an 8 or 9 day gap between resupplies.

Rations available

Private Brian Haseldine, a mortarman of 2RAR/NZ (ANZAC) breaks out some C rations after a resupply from Task Force Headquarters to company headquarters of Support Company. The three small cardboard boxes each contain one meal.

Several types of combat rations were available to 1ATF during the course of the war. The main combat ration types in use were as follows:

  • Australian Combat Ration (One Man). This ration weighed 1.362 kg. It provided 5 varieties, each supplying the soldier with tinned and dry meals covering a 24 hour period.
  • US Army ‘C’ rations. Weight of three meals was 2.724 kg, twice that of the equivalent Australian Combat Ration (One Man). The meals came in 12 varieties.
  • Australian Combat Ration (One Man) Light Weight. This ration weighed about 0.7 kg and came in three varieties. It provided freeze dried meals in foil packages that could be used to prepare the meal, thus doing away with the necessity of using a mess tin or mug.[2]

Also part of the soldier’s field rationing kit was the hexamine stove and packet of hexamine tablets. The stove weighed 0.14 kg and the packet of tablets weighed 0.227 kg.

Operational requirement for rations

The standard ration pack issued to infantrymen in Vietnam was the Australian Combat Ration (One Man). It consisted of three meals sealed in a plastic bag together with items such as a can opener/spoon, matches, toilet paper, etc. The contents of the ration were intended to provide a reasonably substantial breakfast which included a tinned meat meal intended to be heated using the hexamine stove. A light lunch of dry biscuits and spreads (margarine, vegemite, cheese, jam) was provided with the intention that this could be stowed in the pocket, and thus obviate the opening of the field pack for the midday meal, and would not require heating, though heating was required anyway if the soldier wanted a cup of tea or coffee with his midday meal. Most did. The evening meal was more substantial reflecting the greater opportunities for food preparation when the patrol had stopped for the night.

Over the course of an operation lasting perhaps 28 to 30 days, the limited range of meal varieties quickly palled. Commanders often solved this problem by substituting a percentage of US ‘C’ rations for the equivalent number of days of Australian Combat Rations (One Man). The percentage mix of Australian to US rations varied throughout the course of the war as soldiers’ tastes changed and the need for greater variety became imperative with longer operations. Mostly the balance was 50-50, but some units pressed for a shift to 70 per cent US ‘C’ rations to 30 percent Australian Combat Rations (One Man). US ‘C’ rations came in 12 varieties.

The balance of US ‘C’ rations to Australian Combat Rations (One Man) was significant because the US ‘C’ rations weighed almost twice the weight of an Australian ration. Unlike the Australian ration, US ‘C’ rations provided a single meal in a cardboard box. Three boxes, each about the size of the Australian Combat Ration (One Man), made up the day’s ration.

By mid-1969 infantry units were ordering the new Australian Combat Ration (One Man) Lightweight, in larger numbers. It tended to be issued on the basis of one Lightweight ration to every two or three ‘heavyweight’ or ‘normal’ rations. In infantry battalions it was never used as the sole ration on issue. Its range of varieties was too restricted and, although it could be eaten dry if absolutely necessary, it needed water to make a palatable meal.

SAS patrols also used these standard rations but supplemented them occasionally with lightweight British and US Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) rations specifically designed for SAS patrol use.

Culling of rations

Soldiers did not carry the complete ration on operations. Although the Australian Combat Ration (One Man) – both ‘heavyweight’ and lightweight – and presumably the US ‘C’ ration, were designed to deliver a balanced diet to the soldier, infantrymen always culled their rations, rejecting many items in an effort to reduce their ration load. However, the culling of rations took time, particularly at resupplies in the field, and produced large quantities of ‘rubbish’ such as rejected ration pack components, wrappings, etc., that might be useful to the enemy if left in the field. Therefore, companies often ‘institutionalised’ the practice, having their Company Quartermaster Sergeant back at Nui Dat open the packs and remove many items from them, before loading the remainder into sandbags for delivery to the troops by resupply helicopter. In some rifle companies, this was done with a rather heavy hand and troops often complained about the result. In D Company 8RAR for example, the company commander not only severely culled the rations but also decreed, at one point, that hexamine tablets would not be issued, so hot meals and tea and coffee were ‘off the menu’.[3] This move reduced the load carried by soldiers but resulted in a morale problem until hexamine tablets were once again issued.

According to Dr C.F.A. Younger of the Army’s Food Science Establishment (AFSE), ‘the theoretical daily caloric intake required by an infantryman weighing 70 kg and aged between 18 and 35 [was] 3,300.’[4] The Australian Combat Ration (One Man) delivered between 3,142 and 3,843 calories depending on the variety of ration pack and therefore comfortably met the caloric requirement if totally consumed. But when soldiers (or their company quartermaster staff) culled their ration packs and threw out many items, they effectively reduced the caloric value contained within the ration.

Younger wrote that:

Investigations conducted into the quantity of food actually carried by Australian servicemen whilst engaged in operational patrols in Borneo [during Confrontation] revealed that of 64 rations analyzed, 72 per cent provided less than 2,500 calories and 40 per cent provided 2,000 calories or less. During the trial of the combat ration (one man) light weight, in South Vietnam, the caloric value of the ration actually consumed, after allowing for rejected and unconsumed food, was 1,980 calories daily.[5]

Clearly, calories actually consumed were substantially less than calories required. If caloric intake falls below expenditure the soldier moves into caloric deficit and body weight loss occurs. However, according to Younger, this may not be a problem unless physical performance is impaired and provided soldiers are subsequently given an opportunity to recover their condition.

‘The level at which physical performance begins to fall off is of profound importance’ wrote Younger, ‘as this dictates the caloric deficit which can be safely sustained.’[6] Experiments were conducted to identify the levels of caloric deficit that might be used without ill effect for limited periods. One such experiment involved 30 men on a ration providing 1,500 calories per day for 10 days. Physiological measurements of the physical performance of the subjects showed that their performance had actually improved over the course of the experiment. But experimental conditions were quite different from sustained combat operations. Younger thought that the subject’s improved physical performance may have been due to them being slightly overweight at the beginning of the experiment or to the higher levels of activity during the trial.  Younger wrote that ‘the most significant finding was that there was no deterioration over the ten-day period with an actual intake of 1,400 calories per man daily.’[7] However, it would seem dangerous to apply these experimental results to combat operations in which soldiers were already stripped of any excess weight through a period of rigorous pre-deployment training.

Another trial was conducted under simulated operational conditions in Malaysia using rations providing 1,500 calories per man per day. The trial covered two 10-day periods on the low calorie rations separated by a 7-day recovery period.

Younger wrote that:

An interesting point which emerged was that the relationship between body weight loss and performance score during the second period was almost statistically significant, in that the greater the body weight loss the poorer the performance score. This indicates that the caloric intake in relation to the work load and recovery period could not have been reduced much further without performance falling off.

This means that, in terms of calories, 1,500 represents the smallest ration which can at present by envisaged for use for periods of up to ten days. [8]

The weight saving in using a ration of this level of caloric value was ‘at least eight ounces [0.23 kg] per 24 hours period compared with the Australian Combat Ration (One Man) Lightweight, the lightest combat ration currently being produced (24 ounces [or 0.68 kg])’.[9]

However, by 1968 infantry reconnaissance in force operations in Vietnam were usually of at least 28 days duration with the troops being resupplied in the field. Some were longer. Nor was there an opportunity for a 7-day recovery period between operations. The tempo of operations often resulted in any ‘recovery period’ being between 3 and 5 days, and often in that period platoons were required to do their share of local 24-hour security patrols around the Task Force base perimeter. Furthermore, this pattern was maintained for a year.

Younger was aware of these considerations. He had conducted field trials of lightweight rations in Vietnam where he noted that infantry patrols were often of 28 days duration or more. He wrote:

After this length of time, it is likely that some effect of vitamin deficiency would be apparent. Discussion with the medical officers in the area did not reveal any gross evidence of clinical effects of inadequacy. The most notable were two cases of Haemorrhagic manifestations, one of which required blood transfusion, which did apparently respond to administration of ascorbic acid.

There is little doubt that because of the need to reduce the soldiers’ combat load, the rations actually taken on patrol are nutritionally inadequate in many respects, particularly with regard to caloric value, and vitamins of the B group and ascorbic acid.[10]

Younger’s focus appears to have been upon weight loss and physical performance of troops consuming low calorie diets. We wonder about possible psychological or emotional effects such as the maintenance of high levels of concentration, morale, decisiveness, aggression, complacency, response time, etc. The possible effects of low caloric intake on these issues is not mentioned in any of the literature we were able to locate for this study but the subject may be addressed in various Army Food Science Establishment (AFSE) reports. The most relevant reports cited by Younger appear to be:

  • Younger, C.F.A., Analysis of rations taken by Australian soldiers on patrol in Borneo, AFSE report, July 1966.
  • Young, D.R., Performance in relationship to food energy intake: Activities reports, QMF & CIAF, 1961, 13, 146-151.
  • Younger, C.F.A., Trial to determine the effect of a diet providing 1500 calories daily, on a soldier’s physical performance, AFSE, report 3/67.

Field trial of the Australian Combat Ration (One Man) Lightweight

To meet a demand for a lighter ration, AFSE developed a freeze dried ration delivering 2,800 calories in 3 varieties and weighing 0.7 kg to 0.74 kg (excluding the 0.28 kg of water necessary to reconstitute the freeze dried food). The food was packaged in foil containers that could also be used to heat the meals on the issue hexamine stove. In May 1967 the AFSE sought a trial of the ration by a suitable unit in Vietnam. The trial instruction noted that meals could be prepared without mess tins or cutlery.[11] Although this may have been seen as a saving to the soldier’s load, most infantrymen never carried mess tins and cutlery – apart from their steel mug and a spoon – on operations anyway.

The unit selected to trial the new ration was 1 SAS Squadron. The SAS trials officer reported:

Loads carried varied due to the duration of the patrol. The average weight was approximately thirty five to forty five pounds [15.88 to 20.41 kg].

The ration had no physical effect on the troops except that due to the lightness of their equipment they had the ability to move quickly when speed was essential and did not tire quickly in heavy going. Morale wise the ration assisted the troops in that when they stopped for a meal it could be prepared quickly, quietly and was quite palatable although some troops found the ration monotonous due to lack of variation.[12]

Lack of acceptance by infantry battalions

The SAS trials report suggested that infantry battalions would also be interested in the lightweight, freeze dried ration. But when asked, the infantry battalions stated that they could not see a use for it.[13] The lack of interest from the infantry battalions created a problem. The production of the lightweight ration could not be justified financially if it was to be consumed only by the relatively small SAS Squadron. Only regular consumption by the much larger infantry battalions would result in the large orders that would bring down the unit price of the ration making its production financially viable.

Further attempts to stimulate some infantry battalion interest in the ration also failed. When in late August 1967, infantry battalions sought various ways of reducing the weight of rations, they were again offered the lightweight ration as a solution. Again they refused. 1ATF signaled HQ AFV that ‘the major user units 2RAR and 7RAR still have no requirement for this ration. 1ATF is not prepared to accept this ration.’[14]

It was not until August 1969 that the infantry battalions in Vietnam accepted the lightweight ration and began ordering it in large numbers. 5RAR and 9RAR ordered 1500 of the lightweight packs per month while 6RAR/NZ ordered 1800 per month.[15] The battalions used the packs to supplement rather than replace the existing Combat Ration (One Man) and the US ‘C’ ration. Once in regular use the infantry battalions rapidly changed their opinion of the lightweight rations. The CO of 5RAR, LTCOL Colin Khan, wrote that

This ration is generally acceptable to most soldiers.

The main use has been on Recce in Force and Ambush and Recce type operations where the appearance of resupply helicopters is not wanted.[16]

It had taken two years for the infantry battalions to identify the benefits of the new ration. However, from this point on, the consumption of the new ration grew steadily. The Deputy Assistant Director of Supply and Transport (DADST) monitored ration ordering by the Task Force. By mid-1970 he noted that the three infantry battalions in the Task Force consumed 8000 of the new Combat Rations (One Man) Lightweight per month compared with 9000 of the normal Combat Rations (One Man). But consumption of the lightweight rations was pegged at 8000 per month. He felt that if the Task Force could order what it wanted, the lightweight ration consumption would go up to 10,000 per month and the normal rations would fall to 7000.[17]

Ration accounting and its possible effect on ration weight

Whereas the US ‘C’ ration was a single meal in a box (three boxes were issued per day), the Australian Combat Ration (One Man), both lightweight and ‘normal’, were ’24 hour’ packs designed to feed a soldier for a day.

In some circumstances, for example at Fire Support Bases, soldiers received an evening hot box meal cooked fresh in the kitchens at Nui Dat and delivered by helicopter to the Fire Support Base. If the soldiers had been issued with US ‘C’ rations they could be expected to carry over one of their ‘C’ ration meals to the next day, and no ‘over-supply’ of rations would occur. However, if the soldiers were issued with Australian Combat Rations (One Man), a meal could not be carried over, since the ration was not designed to permit this. This resulted in soldiers delivered one hot box meal in three developing a substantial ‘over-drawal’ of rations. This became a matter of surprising concern to supply officers who saw their rationing accounts begin to blow out. To solve what was essentially a simple administrative problem (which could be dealt with simply by writing off the rations over-supplied), pressure was applied to have the Australian ration pack redesigned to three packs each containing a single meal.[18]

However, it was shown that the redesign of the ration into three separate meals would result in an increase of 0.23 kg in the weight of three meals over the then current 24 hour ration pack weight of 1.14 kg. The additional 0.23 kg represented a 20 per cent increase in weight. The cost of the ration would rise from 126 cents per ration for the then current pack, to a new cost of 141 cents. The additional 15 cents represented a cost increase of 12 per cent.[19] Presumably there would also be an increase in the amount of discarded material arising out of the single meal packs because each would need to contain some core items such as a can opener, matches, plastic spoon, toilet paper, etc.

It was acknowledged that the 24 hour pack would need to be retained in service whether or not a new ‘single meal’ pack was created. Faced with the increased weight and cost penalties of the proposed ‘single meal’ pack, plus the need to retain the 24 hour pack and the free availability of the US ‘C’ ration, the issue quietly disappeared. But it stands as a reminder that logistic and administrative pressures, unless watched closely, can lead to increasing the load on the soldier.

‘Stretching’ rations

In addition to culling rations by discarding items before issue to troops in the field, rations were also ‘stretched’. Stretching occurred when soldiers issued with, for example, six day’s rations, were told that their next resupply would occur on day seven or eight. Sometimes this occurred when they were already well in to the ration period and had already consumed several days rations. ‘Stretching’ usually occurred when the unit commanding officer or the company commander, aware of changes to the tactical situation, sought to avoid vehicles entering his AO lest they alert the enemy to the presence of his patrols. Helicopters or other vehicles delivering resupplies could be observed by the enemy or his agents, and the location of 1ATF patrols deduced. The enemy could then either avoid the area or, if that was not possible, adopt more cautious patrolling methods.

‘Stretching’ was often resented by the soldiers in the field who were unaware of the underpinning tactical situation that sometimes caused it. It tended to exacerbate the calorie deficit problems described above.

There were few opportunities for infantrymen to get additional rations except through the resupply process. However, sometimes extra rations became available as a result of contacts with the enemy or by finding enemy food caches. Enemy soldiers killed or captured during a contact sometimes carried tinned food such as cans of condensed milk or tinned fish, that could supplement issued rations. Another source of extra rations was 1ATF soldiers wounded in contact, sick, or returning to Nui Dat for other reasons. Recognising the plight of their mates on operations and knowing that they would soon be back at Nui Dat where they would receive fresh rations, they often bequeathed their remaining combat rations to their comrades before departure.

The daily meal

Private Peter Sharp, D Company, 5 RAR having a meal from his ration pack while on patrol during the battalion’s first tour of Vietnam.

Patrols generally stopped moving in the late afternoon and adopted a harbour or ambush position for the night. Preparing a meal had lower priority than preparing and securing the position. After siting machineguns and claymore mines, establishing a perimeter path, selecting individual ‘pits’ (or sleeping positions), preparing bedding, cleaning weapons, receiving briefings, etc., there was little time for meal preparation. Often, meals were prepared by placing an opened can of food on the hexamine stove to heat while other tasks were performed. But even a few minutes of savouring a hot meal and a cup of tea or coffee could do wonders for morale after a tense and tiring day’s patrolling. Evening meal time was one of the few brief moments each day when soldiers could relax a little and perhaps enjoy a quiet conversation while they waited for dusk and the transition to night routine.

Platoon or patrol commanders often had more to do than most at the end of each day. In addition to checking the preparations of others including the siting of machineguns and claymores, they had reports to submit to higher headquarters, radio conversations with their company commander about the next day’s operations, reconnaissance patrols to points beyond the perimeter, planning the next day’s navigation, encoding and sending the night location grid reference, briefings for their section commanders and, if possible, a quick walk around the perimeter to visit their soldiers. All this had to be done before nightfall when there was to be no unnecessary movement, no lights and no cooking. Preparing their meal (and often, their sleeping space) was the job of their batman. The role of the batman is often misconstrued as that of a servant. In fact, in many platoons the batman was the soldier ‘next in line’ for promotion to Lance Corporal. Bringing him into platoon headquarters gave him the chance to see how the platoon headquarters operated and gave the platoon commander and platoon sergeant the opportunity to get to know him and to assess his capabilities.

Smart batmen (and most were), when given the responsibility of preparing evening meals for the platoon commander, sometimes fed both themselves and the platoon commander with rations out of their own field packs first. This quickly reduced their own ration load while leaving the platoon commander to carry a heavier load.

Implications for the soldier’s load

Commanders saw an operational need to keep resupplies in the field to a minimum. Resupply visits by helicopters, APCs or other vehicles tended to compromise security so commanders sought to reduce, as far as possible, the frequency of resupply visits. This led to soldiers carrying heavy loads of rations. In an effort to cut their loads to the minimum, soldiers ‘culled’ their rations, in the process reducing their intake of calories and some vitamins and ascorbic acid to very low levels. There is evidence of some cases of illness arising out of prolonged exposure to this ‘calorie deficit’. Operating for long periods in ‘calorie deficit’ may have had other negative effects on individual soldier performance. The problems of ‘culling’ rations tended to be exacerbated by commanders who also ‘stretched’ rations, delaying resupply.

In both Confrontation and the Vietnam war, where operations in the jungle meant searching for the enemy without vehicle support, infantry patrol operations often lasted more than a month and required dismounted troops to carry heavy ration loads of up to 8 or 9 days.


[1] AWM98, item R8970/1/3, HQ AFV, Operational Ration Packs General Lightweight Rations. Letter, S.C. Graham, Brig Comd 1ATF to HQ AFV dated 30 Jan 67. Graham noted that ‘troops of combat arms spend on the average twenty four days a month out of base on operations, consuming combat rations.’

[2] Note that the weights shown are approximate. The weights of individual rations varied slightly according to the particular variety of the meal.

[3] Robert A. Hall, Combat Battalion: The Eighth Battalion in Vietnam, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 2000, pp. 80-81. Hot meals and brews were an important element in maintaining morale and in any case, the practice of withholding hexamine caused many soldiers to resort to the use of chunks of C4 explosive to ‘brew up’. This was dangerous. C4 could burn to detonation.

[4] Dr C.F.A. Younger, ‘The Design of Light Weight Patrol Rations’, Australian Army Journal: A Periodical Review of Military Literature, no. 240, May 1969, p. 37.

[5] Dr C.F.A. Younger, ‘The Design of Light Weight Patrol Rations’, p.41.

[6] Dr C.F.A. Younger, ‘The Design of Light Weight Patrol Rations’, p.41.

[7] Dr C.F.A. Younger, ‘The Design of Light Weight Patrol Rations’, p.41. Emphasis added. Younger does not describe in the article the circumstances under which the trial was conducted.

[8] Dr C.F.A. Younger, ‘The Design of Light Weight Patrol Rations’, p.41.

[9] Dr C.F.A. Younger, ‘The Design of Light Weight Patrol Rations’, p.41.

[10] AWM98, item R8970/1/5, HQ AFV Operational Ration Packs General, Lightweight Ration Packs (Australian). Report, Nutritional Adequacy of Rations Used By Australian Troops in Vietnam, C.F.A. Younger, Capt, Project Officer, dated 3 April 67.

[11] AWM98, item R8970/1/5, HQ AFV Operational Ration Packs General, Lightweight Ration Packs (Australian). Trials Directive – AFSE 1/67, Aust Combat Ration (one man) Light Weight, Authority – AFSE Programme 1966/67, Project 12, dated 10 Feb 67.

[12] Ibid. Report, Aust Combat Ration (one man) Light Weight, User Trial, signed D.P. Burnett, Maj, OC 1SAS Sqn, Nui Dat, 14 May 67.

[13] Ibid. Note, DADST to DAQMG dated 27 July 1967.

[14] Ibid. Sig, 1ATF to Austforce Vietnam, 160758z Sep 67.

[15] Ibid. Sig, 1ATF to distribution list A, dated 140309z Aug 69.

[16] Ibid.  Report on Aust Combat Ration Lightweight 1 Man, C.N. Khan, LTCOL CO 5RAR, 21 Oct 69.

[17] Ibid. Minute, DADST to AQMG, 23 Jun 70.

[18] AWM98, item R8970/1/9, HQ AFV, Operational Ration Packs General, Combat Rations. RAASC Supplies Accounting – Rationing on Operations, V.C.Y. Smith, MAJ, DADST, to AHQ, dated 23 Aug 68.

[19] Ibid. Minute, AFV Proposal for Redesign of Aust Combat Ration (one man), LTCOL, ADST (Sups and POL), to DST, dated 6 May 69.

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