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The Year Britain Bought Up All The Tea In The World

 

No one example captures how deeply tea drinking was embedded in the fabric of British everyday life than the decision of the government in 1942 to buy up every available pound of tea from every country in the world except Japan.

Britain faced defeat by the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. Its troops had been forced to make a complete withdrawal from Europe, leaving it open to an expected and narrowly avoided invasion. The “impregnable” fortress of Singapore had fallen, essentially ending Britain’s colonial dominance of Asia. Britain was close to broke, as its reserves were drained to keep imports flowing in as Atlantic convoys were hunted and often destroyed by U-boats. The US had not yet mobilized its massive manufacturing capabilities, post Pearl Harbor.

And Britain was buying tea!

In huge amounts. One estimate is that the largest government purchases in 1942 were, in order of weight, bullets, tea, artillery shells, bombs and explosives.

The German High Command fully understood the importance of disrupting the tea chain. One of the primary targets for the sustained bombing of London in 1941, known as the Blitz, was Mincing Lane, “The Street of Tea.” This had been the center for the disgraceful opium trade that pumped masses of the drug into China to obtain the silver that was the only currency the Chinese government would accept for purchase of tea: feeding an addiction to fund an addiction.

Mincing Lane did not store tea but was the repository for just about all the records of 30 million tonnes of stocks, trades and finances destroyed by the bombing. That is when the government moved into action. Almost all foods and clothing items were rationed; this lasted until 1952, seven years after the war had ended. The weekly allowance was two ounces of butter and cheese, eight of sugar, four of bacon. And two ounces of tea, enough to make three cups a day, a far less stringent ration than cheese, for instance.

Weekly wartime ration

Britain, 1942. Tray containing the weekly adult ration: butter, lard, eggs, bacon, cheese, sugar and tea.

BRITAIN’S SECRET WEAPON

One historian summarized tea as Britain’s secret weapon in the War. It was certainly one of its most visible symbols of national unity. Like such patriotic images, there were many strands of sentimentality and myth in the stories of how tea was a social binding force in the days of the London Blitz where, night after night, fires blazed from bombed buildings, women and children huddled in the underground railway tunnels and the air raid sirens were a daily threnody. The cheery Cockney and famous stiff upper lip were by no means as evident as folk memory and films suggest.

That said, tea was powerful symbolically and practically. Churchill is reputed to have called tea more important than ammunition. He ordered that all sailors on ships have unlimited tea.

Its perceived value in boosting morale not just in Britain is illustrated by the Royal Air Force dropping 75,000 tea bombs in a single night over the occupied Netherlands. Each contained one ounce bags of tea from the Dutch East Indies and was marked “The Netherlands will rise again. Chins up.” Every one of the 20 million Red Cross packages sent to prisoners of war contained a quarter pound package of Twinings.

Tea helped restore at least a semblance of calm and normality in turbulence and danger. Its essence is that it is warm and comforting. It also provided an egalitarian sharing space in a society of rigid class distinctions. In the air raids, local Air Raid Wardens and Auxiliaries, mostly women, served tea to anyone, forming huddles, bringing strangers together, and providing a center for medical help.

British soldiers with their tea.

Italy, 1943. The Salvation Army van brings tea and cake for British soldiers.

A Teakettle in a Tank

Tea was a key factor in weaponry, too. In WW I, the “Tommies” were known to fire off their machine guns in a nonstop stream of bullets to get the barrels hot enough to immerse in water to get that hot enough for tea. The Germans noticed this, of course, just as they did the easy target made by tank crews leaving the safety of their vehicles for a brew-up. (Typically, they made an improvised “Benghazi burner” from empty fuel cans.)

The solution was to incorporate a BV (Boiling Vessel) inside the turret. Yes, that is indeed a Teakettle in a Tank. It has been a required feature in all UK (and Indian) army AFVs (Armored Fighting Vehicles) for the past seventy years. The latest is designated as “FV706656.” It is still standard practice for a junior member of a vehicle crew to be unofficially appointed “BV Commander” with the duty to make hot drinks for the crew.

The decision to upgrade the Challenger in 2014 maintained the BV requirement. This is one of the most successful tanks in military history, the best protected and with lowest battle losses. It served in combat in the Balkan, Iraq and Afghanistan – with the BV in daily use.

This all sounds like the spirit of Monty Python and British fuddy-duddy, but it made strategic sense. Tea was a social necessity, especially for the working class. And it was important to the war effort. The Army at rest was groups of soldiers around a metal tea bucket of, typically, six gallons. That applied to all ranks in all units.

“Gunfire”

Tea played a critical role in the British Army, with many historians attributing at least part of its success in the almost never-ending military campaigns, many of them small colonial policing actions. One of the keys that distinguished it from every other European fighting force was that its embedding or tea in its routines greatly reduced the reliance on alcohol to calm troops as they prepared for battle, relax them at its end and keep them sober and alert while they sat around waiting. One of the slang terms soldiers used for their morning tea was “Gunfire.”

The tea itself was not quite gourmet. It was very strong, all from Assam, Ceylon and Africa. China and Japan were not sourcing options; by the end of the war, China’s exports that once comprised almost all the global market were close to zero. Japan had been the leading supplier to the US but obviously was no longer a preferred supplier.

Army tea came as part of the soldier’s composite rations kit. Compo tea was in a tin, with milk and sugar pre-added. The food components of compo are best summarized as somewhat strange, with no further comment. The tea was basic and bulk shipped. There were constant rumors that bromide had been added to it, to reduce young males’ erotic interests; that gives a sense of what it tasted like. Soldiers reported that when hot it was welcome and pleasant but the surface took on the appearance of an unskimmed pool when it was lukewarm.

Napoleon famously said that an army marches on its stomach. His own military needed to transport loads of heavy wine. They also had to forage for food, a euphemism for looting. Tea had the advantage of being light and portable. It contained important nutritional minerals. Sweetened by sugar, it was heartening and provided an energy boost. Caffeine combined both a pick me up and calm me down effect.

One of the central reasons for the explosive growth in tea consumption in the UK in the 1700s was that water was such a danger that it had to be avoided. Figures show a strong correlation among the general population between tea and reduction in dysentery and bacterial infections. It also reduced infant mortality, since the antiseptic properties of tea were passed on to breast milk.  

War in Assam: the Kohima turning point

There was a hidden price for the morale-boosting benefits of tea in World War II. It was mostly paid, somewhat ironically, by the workers of the tea gardens in Assam and ordinary Indians. Production in Assam and Ceylon was boosted to meet the needs of Britain, with heavy reliance on US merchant ships. India’s political organizations were split on the issue of supporting the military effort, with nationalist strongly opposed. However, the population of Assam was pulled into the conflict once Rangoon, the capital of Burma, surrendered to the Japanese. (Now Yangon, Myanmar). Throughout 1942, it was expected that Japanese troops would invade Northern India via the only two narrow passes through the Himalayas. Tea workers were conscripted to carve a supply path. Thousands died.

The Indian Army of 2.5 million was the largest volunteer force in history. Assam was also the base for the most dangerous air route in the world: the Hump that transported US supplies to China’s army fighting the Japanese. It was also central to the large Burma war theater and the site of the Battle of Kohima, which marked a crucial turning point.

The complex and protected Kohima-Imphal campaign led to the annihilation of the Japanese forces and reconquest of Burma; half its hundred thousand troops were casualties and it lost every single tank and artillery gun. The nature of the terrain is indicated by the deaths of 17,000 mules and ponies.

One regrettable aspect of writing on the history of “English tea in India is that it very much tends to showcase the English and overlook the Indian.                

”The simple act of being able to share a mug of tea”

Tea branding and marketing has always played up the peaceful side of its history and social context: medicine and health, spirituality and contemplation, and refinement and snobbery. These are real but a whole book or two can be written about its martial dynamics.

Tea and war have always gone together. The origins of its trade routes and its becoming a de facto currency for a thousand years comes from the urgent needs of the Chinese army to obtain horses from the tribes of Nepal and Tibet. In turn, they sought out tea for its immense value as a beverage that could help nourish them in their harsh climate, rather like Bolivian Indians chewing coca to suppress hunger pangs and give them extra energy in the high mountains.

A quote from an article in the UK Daily Tea in 2014 captures this dual nature of tea. It’s from a soldier reminiscing about his service in the early 2000s: “When you’re wet, cold and miserable, and feel that you need to curl up and die from tiredness,… you may be covered in mud, stinking from not being able to shower for days or weeks, cold and tired, but a brew seems to take all that away. The jokes will start and morale gets better. The simple act of being able to share a mug of tea with your mates, who look and feel just as bad as you do, is awesome.”

1942 was a pivotal year in history. Britain survived. Tea helped.

 

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

8 Comments

  1. India’s contribution to the War efforts have often been ignored and much like the snows of yesteryear, have vanished from public imagination and mention. It is nice to know that we contributed to the cause of the war, not just in men and material, but also in morale. The British as usual were never generous in their gratitude for the support of the colonies, rewarding us with criticism ‘for breeding like rabbits’ when the famine of Bengal struck in 1943.

    I only hope that one day the world in general and the British in particular will wake up to the enormous human cost they and their wars have levied upon our worlds.

    • Peter GW Keen
      Peter keen says

      I am in total agreement with you. I had never heard of Kohima — it was not part of the British narrative about WW2. The Imperial War Museum does list since 2013 as the greatest battle of the war, and historians compare it with Stalingrad and Thermopylae. The inexperienced Bengali battalions took very high casualties in brutal conditions and their defense and counter offensives were selfless and heroic. Kohima/Umphal was the pivot that blunted the Japanese Threats for good. The Kohima memorial has two lines verse calling on passers by to remember that ‘for your tomorrow, we gave our today.’

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  6. John Burns says

    The Americans sneeringly always said the British stopped in the middle of a battle and drank tea. I mentioned this to my many uncles who served in WW2. They laughed, one saying “if only”.

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