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:


In March 2015 an e-mail was received from Richard Bryson:
I recently came across a story written by my father concerning the blowers used in the Italian POW camps.
My Dad JL Bryson was with the 2nd AA regiment at Tobruk in June 1942.

Exiles & Embers

by JL Bryson

No doubt symphonies have been composed which will ensure the BLOWER everlasting fame, and a corner in the annuls of history. Time will show.

During the grim months of the famine in Italy, we were all pondering with some concern on the blower problem. The problem was simple, complete absence of stoves, and a lamentable shortage of wood, and food.

A few stones and tins on which one precariously perched your pot, sufficed for the unimaginative. A more ambitious effort usually consisted of two or more tins battered together roughly into the form of a funnel.

I have seen many a strong man break into uncontrollable tears, whilst making supreme efforts to stoke these primitive machines. Difficult it was to believe that was the embryo of our modern stream lined blower.

Man, unfortunately, having the ability to reason soon evolved more complicated system of bellows, valves, pipes and clay fire-places.

The ingenious contraptions that were to be seen puffing effectively, or hissing hopelessly on the brewing area passed belief. From our double “Healthy Life” cylinder to baggy editions manufactured from the legs of underpants. A fatalist alone could handle the latter with imperturbability.

Often, meandering my way through the groups, squatting like so many aborigines before their totem-poles, was I suddenly stunned by the deafening blast of an explosion.

Upon recovering my equanimity and hearing I usually catch snatches of a highly technical discussion: “Return valve ------ Carbon monoxide, ----- Back-lash”.

The “corpus delecti” would be the object of an inquest for hours.

Time passed, as it usually does, and in due course, blowers were replaced by cylinder, placed at unusual angles, some-what similar to a rotary plane engine.

Lank-haired, bulging-browed individuals now turned their great minds to points of piston, compression and angles. Bed boards being at a premium by now “embers” were substituted for wood.

At night, a scene worthy to be considered for Dante’s “INFERNO”, wildly gesticulating figures, leaping in the glare of many fires; showers of sparks ascending to the stars, a babble of voices and the weird incantations of; “Embers --- Embers”.

Just as I thought in my ignorance that the blower had reached its evolutionary peak, mysterious rumours began to run around camp, “New principle --- revolutionary!” I waited for the birth of the new comer with bated-breath.

The nights followed the days and the days the nights, until came the day. Meandering my sorrowful [way] to the ablution tables to dip a sock or two in the water, I espied a group with its eyes fixed somewhere at its collective feet.
“Two-ups”, I mused, for such gatherings were common-place. But no, no cries of; “Ten in the guts”, or other gambling language reached my ears.

More alertly I gazed at the throng, so silent --- almost still. Once before I had seen that look. In Patagonia --- a group of natives seeing their first aeroplane --- stunned.

Light dawned, and with my heart beating suffocatingly in my throat, I broke through the ranks of worshippers, and gazed at last on its glittering glory.

As I stood there, I knew that here was the blowers peak of constructional evolution --- never would such beauty and utility be transcended.

Such is the saga of the “BLOWER”, a few nails, a few tins, a piece of wood, but incorporating all the hopes and fears of the Prisoner of War.

An emblem of man triumphant over adversity.

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