The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 8 No 6 - December 1991

The story of 'THE BLOWER' in Italian POW Camps

by DD Brown

Through the ages aphorisms have been expressed by wise men seeking to guide or enlighten we erring humans. The circumstances or environments which gave rise to these maxims are often obscure, but of one thing I am certain: the sage who gave the world the saying 'Necessity is the mother of invention' must once have been a prisoner of war. Had he been an inhabitant of any of the POW camps in Italy during the Second World War (1939-1945), he would have seen his utterance substantiated a thousand-fold.

There, human ingenuity rose to its highest levels; and there, in particular, the 'tin-bashers' came into their own, fashioning the most ingenious articles out of the very limited material available, and with the very limited range of 'tools' to hand. The material mostly comprised tin cans (obviously after they had been thoroughly emptied by their ravenous owners) - these cans being derived from the harbingers of hope and bearers of life-giving sustenance, the Red Cross parcels.

However, of all these products of art, skill and ingenuity, there is one item which stands supreme in the opinion of the vast majority of allied POWs who spent time in an Italian camp; an item the mention of which will jog their memories and ignite a reminiscent sparkle in their eyes; an item the origin of which, as in the case of the wheel, is lost to mankind. It would be lamentable should all trace of this product of some unknown genius also be lost to posterity.

I therefore present with due reverence the story of 'The Blower'.

Napoleon only had it partly right when he said that an army marches on its stomach; we in the Eighth Army in North Africa in the early days marched on tea. At every halt, however brief, however arduous the circumstances, out would come the cut-off petrol tins half-filled with sand, in would go the petrol, and in short order a thousand twinkling fires would signify that a brew was on the go.

It follows that being suddenly transported to the bleak and desolate environment of an Italian POW camp, where the only item in adequate supply was the ubiquitous louse, we were equally suddenly deprived of that life-sustaining brew, the 'cuppa char' ('cup of tea' to those unacquainted with British jargon).

Tea leaves in due course became available through the good offices of the Red Cross, but this was akin to having silver plate without the banquet because we lacked the means to boil water - even fire-wood was at a premium in that benighted land. For those POWs fortunate enough to have bunks to sleep in, it became a matter of fine judgement, of precision in fact, to calculate just how many of the wooden slats could be removed from the base without the occupant falling through on to the bed (and its occupant) underneath him. This supply kept the brews going for a while, but caused many an altercation due to bad judgement.

POW ingenuity found other means too; it was rumoured that in one enterprising camp the sentry was lured away from his beat with the offer of a slab of English chocolate. On his return to his post he found that his wooden sentry box was missing. All these, however, were but temporary expedients, and some positive, long-term solution became a matter of urgency.

Up to this stage all efforts had been concentrated on garnering the wood; no thought had been given to the possibility of using that precious commodity more economically. So economically, in fact, as to render the limited supply almost adequate. Somewhere, somehow, in one of the camps inspiration must have struck. Our unknown, unsung hero gathered his implements and his supply of empty cans and got down to work - and the 'blower' was born.

In our present-day world, light-years removed from that of an Italian POW camp, it is difficult to envisage just how this invention transformed the life of the average prisoner. Particularly in the depth of winter a steaming hot cup of tea, or a hot meal, however frugal, sustained the morale if not the life of many a person. The blower gave us the means to brew that cup of tea and to heat up that frugal meal. And, like all great inventions, it was simple.

The components comprised two Klim tins (what possibilities those wonderful Klim tins offered the 'tin bashers'!), a Rowntree's cocoa tin, a Moconochie's meat-loaf tin, a Cross and Blackwell's pilchard tin, a wooden plank, some bits and pieces and some string. The finished product can be seen in the accompanying illustration.

The object of the exercise was to produce a contrivance which could bring a tin of water to the boil with a minimum consumption of wood. The principle was to force a blast of air through the kindling thus concentrating the flame and impinging it against the bottom and sides of the container, much as a blacksmith's forge works.

Its success was phenomenal; in a matter of seconds a Klim tin of water would come to the boil with the use of a few shavings of wood. Not only that, but after completing its task the remaining embers could be poured into another blower to repeat the process. Thus it was not uncommon to see a queue of two or three persons, blowers at the ready, standing by at a brew to take over the embers. In these circumstances one would hear one person ask ghoulishly of the other, 'May I have your ashes when you are done?'

First diagram

In the arrangement shown, a fan blade of flattened tin mounted within an open-ended Klim tin was rotated by means of a string belt, the belt being coupled to the Klim tin handle. Due to the high ratio between the radius covered by the operating handle and that of the spindle, the fan could be made to rotate at a phenomenal speed. The rotation of the fan blade forced a draught through the 'ducting' and up through the holes in the bottom of the pilchard tin. The bottom of this tin was covered with clay to prevent dissipation of the heat downwards. Early models made use of a primitive bellows of cloth, with the operator using his finger as a valve. With time, various modifications and improvements were effected until the ultimate was arrived at in the form illustrated.

Very soon blowers made their appearance in POW camps throughout Italy, there to help flagging spirits to survive and, above all, to maintain the tradition:


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