This Side of the Pond – April 5

By Sarah Pridgeon

There’s a myth about the British armed forces that I’ve always found amusing. According to this legend, intelligence agents are not given a cyanide pill to carry while sneaking through hostile parts of the world.

Instead, they are given equipment to soothe them through any peril. Every spy is issued…a teabag.

This makes me laugh because I’m positive it has to be true – there is nothing more important to an Englishman than the availability of a proper cup of tea, whatever the situation. Tea is to English folk as a decent steak is to a Wyomingite, you might say.

You already know how a shocking waste of tea factored into our war with your good selves, so I’m sure it won’t surprise you that tea has long been a driving force for our fighting men and women.

I read a heartwarming tale from a veteran who spoke of the golden rule of moving through enemy territory. If one was to stop in a single location for longer than 15 minutes, he said, it was time to make a brew with your mess tin and hexi burner – one never knew how long the wait would be for next one.

In 1942, in the thick of World War II, the Nazis worked out that the one thing they could do to destroy British morale once and for all was to deprive us of our tea. They sent the Luftwaffe to Mincing Lane, “The Street of Tea”, where the opium trade was centered (more on that later).

Winston Churchill knew the importance of tea to his men – he had already ordered, for example, that every sailor on every ship have unlimited access to the good stuff. I’ve heard said that the armed forces were happy to indulge the men’s love for a brew because even the ritual of making it calmed the nerves as effectively as a flask of whiskey – except the men could still fight after downing a mug.

Red Cross packages for prisoners of war – all 20 million of them – contained packages of Twinings. The Royal Air Force showed Britain’s support for our brothers and sisters in the occupied Netherlands by dropping 75,000 “tea bombs” of bags of tea marked, “The Netherlands will rise again. Chins up.”

The government’s response to the dastardly attack on Mincing Lane and the liquid that runs through our veins? We bought every available pound of tea from every country in the world except Japan.

We’ve even fought two wars over tea – three, if you count the tragedy in the harbor of Boston (I’ve always supported the colonies’ desire for independence, but I am still a bit salty about the loss of all that brewing material).

The other two were against China, and had to do with the odious opium trade. We wanted China’s tea, but they didn’t want much of anything we had, though they did open a limited trade with Britain.

Unfortunately, the only thing they would accept in return was silver. In what can only be described as an overcomplicated arrangement, the British traded opium for silver in India, exchanged this for tea with Chinese traders and then the Chinese traders swapped this for opium from India and thus brought the opium grown in British-colonized India into China. Eventually, the emperor got fed up and seized a large amount of the drug.

The Brits responded by sending war ships to escort the merchants, the Chinese sent warships to meet those warships and the inevitable ensued. It seems we had the better boats, so we forced our tea-hoarding opponents into signing a treaty that literally translates to “the Unfair Treaty”.

Not long after, we started a second war in an attempt to open all of China to trade, with France at our side. We managed to destroy the Summer Palaces and the poor emperor was forced to flee.

Tea, as you can see, is of paramount importance, even in the most critical of situations. Few tales illustrate this better than the situation in France in 1944, six days after the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy.

The 22nd Armored Brigade had been ordered by General Montgomery to break through the German line and race to Caen. They moved four miles without seeing the enemy and stopped for a spot of morning tea (and some maintenance).

To make that tea meant exiting the tanks, which turned out to be a terrible idea. Just over the way, completely unnoticed, a German Tiger tank was watching.

Later, the tank commander explained he had to assume he had been seen and engage, which he did, destroying the only tank in the group that had a gun big enough to threaten it. Three other Tigers provided reinforcements and the Brits scrambled into their tanks; one of them reversed into a side street in the perfect position to engage the first Tiger, only to discover they hadn’t waited long enough for the gunner to climb aboard.

In just 15 minutes, we lost 14 tanks. It was a sobering demonstration of the dangers of tea that was later compounded by a survey showing that 37 percent of all the casualties after March 1945 had involved crew members outside their vehicles. The British Army was forced to respond.

It did so not by banning tea, but by inventing a boiler vessel to sit inside a tank. The cuboid kettle was powered by the tank’s electrical system and will quickly and effectively boil the water inside.

Nowadays, every main fighting vehicle in the British Army comes equipped with one of these boilers, ensuring that a cup of tea is available on any battlefield on the planet. And the moral of this tale is an important one: it’s a bad idea to cast a covetous eye towards my teabags. I might not look like a formidable foe, but honor dictates that I fight you for them.