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Category: Colour patches

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Grey background on AIF Colour Patches

The Second AIF wore colour patches on a grey background. This page explains why. 

With ageing the grey sometimes appears beige or light blue.

The subject of the grey background worn on colour patches of the 1939 to 1949 period is a contentious issue, and has been brought up during almost every conversation the author has had with individuals or unit associations regarding the details of the colour patch worn by their unit.

The colour patch was originally designed to provide unit, formation, and arm of service identity to units of the Australian Military Forces, and, as part of that system a battleship grey background was approved in 1939 as an integral part of the colour patches of units of the Second AIF to distinguish them from those worn by units of the PMF and CMF. 

Formations of the 2nd AIF eventually included the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Aust. Divisions, 1st Aust. Armoured Division, 1st Aust. Corps, and the Aust. Overseas Base Sub-Area. 

This distinction immediately identified the wearer as a volunteer for unrestricted overseas service, a fact highly prized by the members of this Force. Another equally prized distinction was the wearing of the copper oxidised title 'AUSTRALIA' on both epaulettes of the jacket and greatcoat.

Partial mobilization of the Home Forces did not commence until August 1941, although it should be noted that units of the Fixed Defences and many individuals of the Citizen Forces had been serving on voluntary full time duty since the outbreak of the Second World War. This process was accelerated with the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941, full scale mobilization being implemented. As part of the process AIF reinforcements were drafted to CMF units to bring them up to strength, while experienced personnel from AIF units returning from the Middle East were posted to CMF units to occupy key positions or to provide cadres for the formation of new units. 

It is necessary to record at this point, that from early 1942, the Active Citizen Military Forces provided the sole means of expansion of the Australian Military Forces, its units comprising a mixture of AIF volunteers, voluntary Militia, PMF personnel, and compulsorily enlisted Universal Trainees.

Initially, when a member of the AIF was transferred to a CMF unit, they were required to wear the colour patch of that CMF unit without a grey background.
(For example 2nd Division Routine Order No. 22 of 3.4.1942, para. 3, stated: "A.I.F. personnel transferred to Militia Units of 2 Div. will wear the colour patches of the unit to which they are attached, but they will retain 'Australia' shoulder titles." AA(Vic): MP 508/1, item 36/750/115.) 

This created an immediate uproar from those affected, and while disciplinary action was taken against recalcitrant soldiers who refused to relinquish the visible signs of their volunteer status, the general public, through the medium of returned servicemen's organizations, politicians, clergy, and soldiers' mothers, registered their disgust at the decision. (It should be noted that although the personnel involved in these protests were all volunteers for the AIF, in the majority of cases they were reinforcements who had never been posted to an AIF unit, nor served overseas.)

A partial compromise was reached in May 1942, when the following provision was made for AIF personnel posted to a unit of the CMF;

(a) AIF reinforcements who had not been allotted to an AIF unit, or had not proceeded overseas: to wear the colour patch of the CMF unit to which they were posted, superimposed on a battleship grey background of the same shape as the patch itself.

(b) Members and ex-members of AIF units who had served overseas, and reinforcements who had been allotted to AIF units, or had proceeded overseas: to wear the colour patch approved for their CMF unit, above which was to be worn a miniature colour patch of the last AIF unit in which they had served. 

GRO A.36/1942, 22.5.1942. According to a statement by the Minister for the Army on 18.5.1942, para. (b) above was also applicable to personnel already serving in 2nd AIF units which had not left Australia. (Ref. AA[Vic]: MP 508/1, item 36/750/101). A HQ WA L of C Area Routine Order Part I, No. 75/42, states that: " In addition to the colour patches authorised by GRO 36/1942, members of the AIF who are serving with CMF units will wear a Battle Grey background to the colour patching [sic] of the CMF unit." This was in response to GRO 168/1942 (see fn 255), however there is no evidence that GRO 168/1942 intended AIF personnel who were already entitled to wear a miniature colour patch signifying active service overseas to wear a grey background on the patch of the CMF unit with which they were now serving.

Having made this small concession, GHQ then removed another outward sign of AIF status by directing that that the metal title 'AUSTRALIA' was not to be worn within Australia and its territories. (GRO A.38/1942, 22.5.1942.) This order was revoked in July 1942.(GRO A.252/1942, 24.7.1942.)

A selection of colour patches recently offered for sale at Ebay Australia

In July 1942 approval was given for personnel of the CMF and PMF who were serving with CMF units to enlist in the AIF, although they continued to serve with their existing unit. Once accepted, these personnel were directed to wear the colour patch of their CMF unit superimposed on a battleship grey background of the same shape as the patch.255 

GRO A. 168/1942, sub-para. I (k), 10.7.1942. A Comd. Fixed Def. Fremantle Routine Order Part I dated 27.7.1942 directs that the patch, inclusive of the 3/16 inch grey background, would be of the same outside dimensions as the original patch. GRO 345/1942, para. 3, 28.8.1942, also directs that AIF colour patches and titles could be adopted by CMF and PMF personnel enlisting in the AT immediately upon the completion of AAF A.200 (Attestation Form).

In August 1942 LHQ directed that where 75% of the posted strength of a CMF unit, or (from February 1943) 65% of its authorised War Establishment, whichever was the greater, had volunteered for the AIF, that unit would be reclassified as an AIF unit.(GROA.344/1942,28.8.1942; GROA.170/1943, 26.2.1943; GROA.838/1943,31.12.1943.)  In October 1942 it was directed that such units would use the affix (A.I.F.) in their unit designation, (GRO G.482/1942, 23. 10. 1942.) and in December 1943 such distinction was restricted to units serving, or which could be reasonably expected to serve, outside the mainland of Australia. As a result of these decisions, LHQ directed in October 1942 that all personnel of the AIF who were serving with a CMF unit would wear a grey background to the colour patch of that CMF unit. (GRO A.491/1942, 23.10.1942.)

There is considerable misconception in regard to wearing of a grey background by personnel of units of the CMF which were reclassified as AIF, the general view being summed up by comment in the Army Colour Patch Register that when a CMF unit converted to AIF status, it added a battleship grey background to the original unit colour patch. (ACPR, Section I to Part 2, para. 112.)

This is incorrect, and it should be clearly understood that at least 65% of personnel on a unit's War Establishment, or 75% of its posted strength, were already wearing a grey background on their colour patches prior to its reclassification as an A.I.F. unit. Many units reclassified as (A.I.F.) still had members of the PMF and CMF on strength who could not, or would not, for a variety of reasons, transfer to the AIF. GRO 491/1942 stated that personnel of the CMF would not wear a grey background on their colour patches, nor the title 'AUSTRALIA', even though the unit with which they were serving was classified as an AIF unit.

Thus it can be seen, that from mid 1942 the original object of the grey background, that of identifying units of a particular Force raised for overseas service, had changed to that of identifying individuals serving with any unit of the AMF who had volunteered for unrestricted overseas service. It therefore became general policy from mid 1942 to approve and promulgate new colour patch designs without grey backgrounds, each approval specifying that AIF personnel would wear that patch superimposed on a grey background which would appear as a 3/16 inch wide border on all sides of the colour patch.

Orders placed with a manufacturer for supply requested that a percentage of each design be produced with grey backgrounds. (For example Order No. 3271 for the 20th Aust. Field Ambulance, 800 pairs with grey backgrounds, 200 pairs without, and Order No. 2597, Aust. Special Wireless Group, 1,500 with, 1,000 without. (AA[Vic.]: CRS B1540, item 36/702, entries for 8.11.42 and 1.7.42 respectively.)

The reader should therefore be aware that, although not shown in the colour plates or text, any colour patch in use on 22.5.1942, or approved subsequent to that date, may be seen with a grey background as a result of the principles promulgated by GRO's 36/1942, 168/1942, 345/1942, 491/1942 and 60/1945. By the same token, some colour patches approved for 2nd AIF formations, notably 1st Aust. Armoured Division, will be seen with the grey background removed or trimmed back flush with the patch itself. This is the result of the transfer of some CMF units to AIF formations from 1942 onwards.

This policy obviously created some confusion when implemented, i.e. AIF personnel of the 1st/45th Aust. Infantry Battalion wore an identical colour patch to that approved for the 2/1st Aust. Infantry Battalion, and the difficulty in identification which resulted in many similar cases is one of the reasons put to the Minister for the Army by General Blarney in early 1945 for a simplification of the colour patch scheme. Second AIF units themselves were critical of the use of the grey background by personnel of CMF units, for example the twice yearly publication of the 2/14th Aust. Field Regiment Association, The Drum, after remarking that the vertical break in their colour patch had a secondary aim in differentiating between members of the regiment and AIF personnel of units of the 3rd Aust. Division artillery, states, "Although this may sound like unnecessary small-mindedness [sic] now - 50 
years ago it was a matter of some consequence to differentiate one's unit from militia.
(Extracts from recent issues of the publication contained in a reply dated 31.5.1995 by the Association Secretary, Mr. Bill Smallcombe, in response to a query by the author regarding the history of the unit colour patch.)

A distinction similar to that used by the 2/14th Field Regiment may have in fact provided the
solution to the problem, however it does not appear to have been addressed.

  • Finally, as the policy for wearing a grey background is, I believe, fully set out in the preceding paragraphs, I make no apology for not depicting the grey background on colour patches in use from 1942 onwards where the unit was subsequently reclassified as (AIF).

The material on this section of the site is drawn from "Distinguishing Colour Patches of the Australian Military Forces 1915-1951" by Keith Glyde. ISBN 0-6460-36640-8  


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