Talk to a soldier or veteran about their field rations and you’re probably going to hear a lot of complaints. Part of that is because soldiers just complain a lot (that’s no criticism – you would too, if you had their life) but most of it’s totally justified; field rations just aren’t that good. They’re nutritious and packed with energy, but they’re never going to win any awards for taste.
There are degrees of bad, though. A modern MRE is much tastier than the C Ration, issued from 1938 to the early 1980s. There’s also a lot more variety. There are currently 24 different MRE entrees; by the time of Vietnam the C Ration came in a selection of 12 infamous delicacies like ham and lima beans, but in World War Two they only offered a choice of three disgusting meat products.
That was still way ahead of what other Allied forces got in WWII – British and Commonwealth troops often lived for weeks on a monotonous diet of canned corned beef and hardtack biscuits. Meanwhile German rations had more variety than British or American ones, but by the Normandy campaign in 1944 there wasn’t enough of anything to keep the troops well fed.
So both the armies that fought in the hedgerows and towns of Normandy through summer 1944 had serious problems with their field rations – US and British troops didn’t have enough variety in their food, while the Germans just didn’t have enough food. Faced with these problems, enterprising soldiers supplemented their diets with anything they could find that would give them the energy and nutrition they needed to keep fighting.
Of course, that wasn’t easy. Buying food, or scrounging it from farms, weren’t really options for most soldiers. Stores were closed or empty, many civilians had fled, and the fighting in Normandy began before the year’s crops were ready to harvest.
Although troops were issued French currency to buy food with there just wasn’t much available. Some lucky soldiers managed to buy eggs, milk and even meat from farms, but in general the local population wanted to hang on to whatever food they had – they didn’t know if they would need it themselves.
All this meant the hungry troops had to adapt, be imaginative and use whatever was available. Here are some of the survival foods that sustained soldiers through the battles after D-Day.
Stinging nettles are a common weed that grows just about everywhere in Europe. Soldiers hate it, because nettle rash is just another inevitable discomfort of life in the field – but they also used it as a food source. The truth is that although it’s a weed, the nettle is also a very nutritious plant. It contains lots of Vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium, and it has a very high protein content of around 25% dry weight – more than most vegetables.
Nettles can be boiled or steamed, then served as a green vegetable – they taste quite like spinach – but soldiers caught up in the vicious Normandy battles didn’t have time to make elaborate meals.
They just wanted greens to break the monotony of their rations, and some extra bulk and energy to keep their bellies full. That meant simple dishes like nettle soup. They would collect the leaves from nettles, chop them or pound them to pulp, then boil them in a mess tin or steel helmet.
Related: How to Cook Spring Nettles
For the German army, soup was a regular part of their diet. The main meal of the day, which for the Germans was lunch, would usually be a tin full of stew or thick soup. In good times the soup contained a good amount of meat and was dense enough to stand a spoon up in, but by the Normandy campaign food shortages had made it a much thinner fare.
To get as much energy and nutrition into soldiers as possible, German cooks scavenged relentlessly. Late in the war the basic meal was soup made from boiled bones, often from a dead carthorse.
Bone broth is nutritious, but it’s not exactly filling, so cooks and soldiers bulked it out with anything they could find. Greens (including nettles), wheat or barley, even crushed stale bread would be added to the soup to make a more satisfying meal.
Bully Beef Rissoles
When British troops had access to a field kitchen they ate hot meals made from 14-man ration packs; the rest of the time, their diet was monotonous in the extreme. They got tinned corned beef and hardtack biscuits, and that was pretty much it.
The beef contained plenty protein and the hardtack was a solid slab of carbohydrates, so it was effective enough at keeping soldiers going for a few days, but it was nauseatingly dull. Dull food isn’t just boring; soldiers will get so fed up of it they’ll eat as little as possible, and that affects their fitness.
To make the rations more edible, soldiers got creative. They would crush and soak the biscuits, mash in the beef and add any vegetables they could find – chopped onions were popular, but chopped field greens would do as well. The mixture was formed into patties the size of a large burger, then fried in fat saved from the beef.
Related: How To Preserve Beef in Glass Jars
Proper porridge is made from oats and eaten by Scotsmen, but the basic idea has been used throughout history – crushed or shopped grains, cooked in milk or water. Soldiers on all sides ate it during the Normandy campaign, because it was an easy way to supplement their rations.
Sometimes, especially later in the campaign, soldiers would find a field of ripe wheat or barley that could be plundered for grain. Other times they resorted to collecting grass seeds.
These are a lot smaller than wheat grains, but if you can collect enough (and even in a campaign as brutal as Normandy, soldiers spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for something to happen) you can make a nutritious porridge out of them. Wherever possible soldiers would flavor the porridge with items from their rations – jelly, sugar, milk powder or even just salt.
Related: Pioneer Recipes That Survived The California Trail
Although Normandy was an agricultural region, few crops were ready to harvest when the hardest battles were fought. That didn’t mean there was nothing to harvest, though. Soldiers scavenged any edible plants they could find, from dandelion leaves to birch bark, and added them to improvised stews made from tinned ration meat. Often these stews were thickened with crushed hardtack or ration crackers.
Unlike the truly horrific battles on the Eastern Front, like Stalingrad or Leningrad, soldiers in the Normandy campaign were never really in danger of starving to death. Even the Germans managed to deliver enough rations to keep their men fighting.
Those rations could be pretty thin at times though, and soldiers did supplement them any way they could. The methods they used are just as useful for supplementing your own emergency food reserves in an emergency.
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Another world war 2 “survival food” echo chamber.
If you do survival food, include recipes.
If you do anything survival, include either instructions, diagrams or pictures..
Dear Sir…..ARE YOU KIDDING? Survival has no recipes. Just some food you find & throw in, what ever is found, to survive. I fear, if you need recipes ,,,you will not survive.
Youre not very creative. Recipes that those soldiers had, came from somewhere. Even a basic recipe outline can be created for any meal ever made unless you just blindly threw shit in. Don’t makes lists of old food people ate, not tell anyone how to make it then complain when people ask for how they made it.
Ever hear of thriving instead of just simply surviving? Do you want to know how to make good food from literal scratch? Or are you ok with feeding your family pine needles tea, hard tack and shitty hobo stew every night?
Plus, people making the food wrong can make it unappetizing, inedible or unsafe.
Some things need to be harvested correctly(cattails,rhubarb) to be edible and somethings need to be prepared properly, can be life or death situation
Read up on foraging. Learn something about cooking. If you expect to be spoon-fed “recipes”, you aren’t worth the powder to blow yourself to he||. Because, “1 cup nettle leaves…” If you really want to learn how to do something, actually do it.
In some circles stale bread is called croutons. Many people today crush crackers into their soup. I have done that myself since I was a small child, watching my father do it.
Stale bread, yes…moldy bread no…and I after all these years, have trouble avoiding moldy bread…😯
Viet nam wasn’t much different . A case of “C” rats had 12 meals. Some you just could not eat,,, like lima beans w/ ham. Yuck. I ate “Cs” for 4 months. Got schrapnel in Hue City. I went back to A/1/1. ate “Cs’ for 4 more months ,, got shot twice on Hill 881 Khe Sahn.
And what did all that accomplish?
Not starving to death. Hope you’re still getting your 3 hots.
Glad you recovered enough to write to us now.!!!🎆
Almighty God can write straight even with crooked lines, so all service done in His honor will receive reward. Does not matter that humans error, willingly or inadvertently – or that our good intentions are sometimes used against us.
The ONE who created our hearts does not abandon them.❤ He pulls victory out of defeat even though we often cannot.🏆
We rejoice that every Sunday is meant to celebrate Easter – and may you have delicious nourishing food both on earth and beyond+🌹
I guess it is all in how one was raised. Personally, my favorites were beans and franks and lima beans and ham. I grew up on those two dishes. They were also on the list of “poor people food” as were tomato sandwiches that I read on line a while back. The only problem was I didn’t realize we were officially “poor people.”
What I especially disliked in C-rats were sausage patties and gravy. What a euphemistic description that was! They were especially nasty when temps got down to the 30s and below. Even keeping them inside your clothing next to your underwear didn’t do much for them.
The most desired items were fruit cocktail, peaches, pears and pound cake. Some ate the cocoa hockey puck dry and washed it down with coffee but I couldn’t quite muster up enough spit to be able to handle that.
I have done extensive reading about WWII both the European and Pacific theaters. Even reading first person accounts, I have never read of our troops digging up dandelions or stripping the leaves from nettles. I have probably read over 100 texts dealing with WWII and have never seen a single mention of it. I wonder why that is?
The Marines on Guadalcanal had a significant problem with food shortages. The admiral who was in charge of the supply fleet lost his nerve when unloading and pulled out for Australia well before unloading any significant supplies. The Marines did forage for food. It was well that it was the beginning of our offensive campaign as the Japanese on Guadalcanal were well supplied and it was the Japanese food that the Marines were able to forage that kept them able to function.
The wife of a former Marines who served there said that in her opinion the lack of food during the Guadalcanal campaign made a lifetime impression on him. She said she would often find him looking in the cupboard and when she inquired what he was dong he would reply that he was just checking to see what food they had. She said that continued through the 30 plus years of their marriage.
If You Have Ever Gone To Bed HUNGRY, With No Way To Acquire Food, You Would DEFINITELY UNDERSTAND!! It Makes A LAST IMPRESSION Within You!! Since My Grandfathers Time And Since World War II, Most Westeners Have Lived In PLENTY, With Groceries And Abundance!! That Is Why A Lot Of Westerners Refuse To Prep!! They Live In A DELUSIONAL REALITY Where They Take For Granted Our Society’s CURRENT Abundance!! As They Say, “Pride Comes Before The Fall”!!
I can only think that nettles are much more well-known in the UK than they are here in the States.
You know what? This is survival food, NO RECIPES! Are some of you kidding? One puts in what is found. Whatever the amount. I fear when people ask for things, as such, they will not survive! No thinking on their own.
Most accounts I’ve read of the fighting in the Pacific make it clear that during the active combat phase of an operation it was too dangerous to forage anything.Just finished a good Guadalcanal book by John B. George called Shots Fired In Anger. As combat wound down on the island an important objective on their patrols was to shoot wild pigs and cook them native style. George was an expert on infantry weapons and about half the book is devoted to close description of the small arms used by both sides in that fight. Pretty cool stuff.
Western Europe was a much richer place to fight a war, most foraging there involved livestock, orchards, and wine cellars. In The Good War Studs Terkel has interviews with a couple of G.I.s who were involved in the black market there, they claim there were thousands of American deserters looting liberated territory and operating huge smuggling rings out of Paris and other cities.
Being invaded, liberated, and occupied is the very definition of SHTF
I got that book and finished reading it a couple of days ago. We must not have read the same book. LtCol George talks about all of the men using Japanese water bottles which they all felt were superior to the U.S. canteen. They also all carried Japanese shovels which again were superior to the U.S. entrenching tool. He much preferred the Japanese pack to the U.S. pack and carried a Japanese pack that they had modified to suit his purposes. They got them while in combat by scavenging the battlefield.
In the very beginning of the book LtCol George complains bitterly about having to unload the ships. The Marines when they first arrived on Guadalcanal didn’t have to worry about unloading the ships. The Navy admiral in charge of the supply fleet got an overwhelming case of cold feet and pulled the supply fleet from Lunga Point almost fully loaded, leaving the Marines stranded on the beach with very limited supplies. They had to not only scrounge water bottles and shovels, they had to scrounge food which they did in order to hold out against the Japanese for the many months that they were the main U.S. force on that stinking island.
George’s analysis of the arms used in the Guadalcanal campaign by both sides was extremely interesting. He was in a good position to make a critical analysis especially of the small arms. I found his comments very informative and it changed some opinions I had viz a viz the difference in the arms of the two opposing forces.
Of course, our propaganda during the war was that all the equipment the Japanese fielded was junk and that the Japanese were inferior combatants with very poor eyesight, making them very poor marksmen compared to the superior marksmanship of the U.S. forces. LtCol George put the lie to that propaganda handily. He expressed great admiration for the Japanese foot soldier as a fighting man. It appears from his comments that the real problem was, as with our forces, at the field and general grade level, not the company level.
Thanks for the reference. I enjoyed reading it, especially his comments about the various small arms and company level crew served weapons. I guess we finally have grenade launchers better than the Japanese grenade launchers, although I don’t know what they have done in the intervening 75 years to improve their small arms and company level crew served weapons. Hope the next time we are involved in combat with the Japanese they are with us and not against us.
Bought & read this book 40 years ago – still have it – very fine book.
Not quite the same thing, but my brother years ago as a Boy Scout had one hell of a Troop Leader. After through training my twin went on a 50 mile, week long hike. He was allowed his knife, clothes on his back and matches. Here are some of the of the foods he dined on: Roasted Lizard and Minnows (caught with his handkerchief), Rasberry Leaves, Pine Needles. Upon returning home Daddy asked him what he had learned, he replied that edible doesn’t mean eatable… it means it will substain life. By the way the kid gained 5 lbs.
My dad had an evil streak. He would make my brother and I eat C-rations so we knew what he had to eat. I guess my brother liked them since he joined the Army. Me, I decided to stick with Spam. Still like it, after so many decades.
I like Spam too, CarmenO. I much prefer it to Vienna sausage. I wonder if the folks from Vienna know that we have that stuff named after their city? Having had Wienerschnitzel in Vienna I think they might be less than pleased to know that meat product was named after their city. I know that is not how the dish is spelled, but haven’t been able to find it in either the English nor the German dictionaries.
You spelled exactly right, LCC!