Look closely at this picture of a British Spitfire in World War II. Those aren’t bombs under its wing. They’re beer barrels.
If you talk with a veteran long enough about their service, the subject of alcohol almost always comes up. Getting it, drinking it, or surviving its absence are near universal fixations in the military, especially in wartime. Last year at our Veterans Breakfast Club events, Dan Gimiliano spoke gleefully of his artillery battery finding casks of wine in France (and being unable to complete a fire mission because of it), while Tom Jones told us how he made “boiler room booze” aboard the USS Rankin in the Pacific.
American servicemen in World War II, like Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, had to work hard to find booze, because, unlike Germany, the United States didn’t issue liquor with military rations. Prohibition was still a fresh memory, and the US service branches fought constantly with temperance reformers who wished to ban all alcohol from military bases. The British, by contrast, kept their soldiers and sailors well supplied with the stuff.
In the weeks after D-Day, supply lines to Normandy were clogged with all sorts of necessities: food, ammunition, clothing, and replacement troops. British and American troops confiscated all the wine, cider, and Calvados (apple or pear brandy) they could, but British soldiers especially pined for their traditional pub ales.
Enterprising Royal Air Force pilots stepped in to deliver British ale to ground crews in France. Two British breweries donated the beer, and airmen used the Spitfire’s two spare 45-gallon fuel tanks to carry it across the Channel. The metal tanks were rinsed out, and the beer was poured in. The British press publicized the ingenuity, calling the fuel-to-beer changeover Modification XXX.
There were two problems with this modification. First, the unmistakable aroma of fuel lingered in the suds of the initial tanks. After a few refills, the fuel smell dissipated, replaced by the metallic taste of the tank interior.
Enterprising crews fixed the problem by adjusting the underwing pylons to carry the beer barrels themselves. Cooled at altitude, the beer now arrived fresh and ready-to-drink without fuel tank residue.
British customs officials called a halt to these Spitfire beer runs in the fall of 1944. Turns out, the breweries that had donated beer to overseas troops owed an export tax. By then, however, supply lines had strengthened, and British soldiers increasingly received their beer through more regular channels.
Even the Americans eventually loosened the tap. As the war expanded, US breweries began shipping more canned beer to troops overseas, in part on the strength their argument that brewer’s yeast provided a great source of vitamin B for fighting men. That the alcohol cancelled out the benefits of B-complex vitamins was cheerfully ignored.