- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Harold Richardson
- Location of story:
- Home Guard in Derby
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 November 2003
In 1940 I was 18, and my pal, Arthur, 17. Only those who experienced those heady days, after the fall of France, can appreciate the fervour of patriotism that gripped the country and caused Arthur and myself among a million others, young and not so young to sign up for the Home Guard, or what was then called the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV).
What follows are two extracts from my diary of the time. The conversations, apart from the scraps appearing in the original, had to be reinvented, but remain true to the events that were written down soon afterwards.
...I was handed an awkwardly long rifle, so was Arthur, and this I later found out was an American Springfield 300. It was heavier than I thought and it had a sticky feel to it due to the remnants of grease that had protected it since the end of the last war.
We stood in line with an odd mixture of men. Some young, like us, but mostly they were older. Some were fat, some thin, some short, some had caps, some had bowlers and there was a trilby or two, but what we all seemed to wear was an air of determination as we paraded in the forecourt of the old Derby School in King Street.
Our uniforms amounted to no more than khaki armbands with the letters ‘LDV’, and just having this seemed to make us straighten our backs more.
After getting into some sort of order and eager to give a good account of ourselves we waited to be instructed on how to fight German parachutists. To begin with, we were put through the complications of arms drill by ‘old sweats’ who showed much restraint of language each time rifles evaded stiff fingers and clattered to the ground.
One of the ways to stop a tank, we were told, was to place an up-turned dinner plate on the road. The tank driver, mistaking this for an anti-tank mine would probably bring his tank to a halt. The rest was easy: wait for the tank hatch to open then lob in a grenade. It sounded all right and the younger ones especially seemed to be taking it in but I had a little nagging doubt myself. If this neat trick has already been tried out in France then it couldn’t have worked all that well.
After nearly two hours of this training we had to hand in our rifles but kept the armbands. We were told to report for guard duty next Friday night.
...After a fortifying drink or two and ready to take on the whole Nazi army, Arthur and me set off around 9.30 tonight to report for our first, night guard duty. Searching for our headquarters, a deserted farmhouse, we had just crossed a boggy Darley field when all at once a voice came from out of the darkness. “Stop!” it said. “Halt! I mean. Halt! Who goes there?”
“Us,” said Arthur.
There was a bit of a pause. “You can’t say that,” went on the voice, sort of indignant. “You gotta say it. You gotta say friend or foe.”
“Friend or foe,” obliged Arthur.
After a longer pause I could just make out this shadowy figure approaching and holding what looked like a broom handle with a bayonet tied to it. “You gotta be one thing or t’other,” it complained, getting nearer. “I mean, I’m supposed to make you say it.” By then the sharp end of the bayonet was waving close to our faces. “You gotta say it.”
“We’re LDV;” I answered before Arthur could further complicate our arrival.
At the broomstick end of the weapon, the shadow took on a tin-hatted, white disc of a face wearing glasses. “How do I know you’re not just saying that? For all I know you could be foe.”
“We ain’t got bloody parachutes on. We got armbands on, see!” said Arthur with beery aggression. “Ain’t you got no torch?”
The bayonet lowered itself. “We’re still waiting for new batteries, like. Hold on though, I’ve got some matches here. I’d better make sure, hadn’t I?”
After some scraping a flaring match broke through the black-out while this fearless guard scrutinised our armbands. We could then see he was a long-faced youth with two prominent teeth. “Yeah, that’s right, you got armbands on,” he conceded. “Bit late, ain’t you?”
“We’ll be a bloody sight later afore you’ve done,” Arthur told him.
“I gotta do it, an’t I? You never know who’s about these days. That’s why I’m guarding this gate.”
“What you supposed to do with a bloody spear? Don’t we have no guns?”
“Only one and the guard on patrol has that. I just look after the gate, see? Do you want me to take you to the sergeant?”
“Go on then,” said Arthur, getting back some of his good humour. “You keep in front, you and that bloody pig-sticker. We’ll feel safer that way. That right, Perce?”
I was about to agree when the youth said: “Hey! Don’t let the sergeant hear you talk like that. He says we gotta make do with what we’ve got. Anyway, we’ve got real bullets for the gun, only we don’t put them in till we get a full red alert.”
He led us through a doorway and pushed aside a blanket nailed to the frame to hold back the feeble light within. The room, the farmhouse kitchen, was mostly in shadow and thick with cigarette smoke. An oil lamp’s yellow light was cast over a blanket-covered table, littered with tin mugs and stained playing cards. A candle stuck in its own grease on a high mantelshelf did no more than light a half-circle of the beamed and white-washed ceiling.
A half-dozen or so civilian-clothed men, wearing armbands and steel helmets and with civilian gasmasks at the ready, stood near to dull-glowing coke in the huge fireplace. Looking up from the table and both in denim uniforms with campaign ribbons from another war, an elderly sergeant and an elderly corporal watched our entrance with some interest.
“They was outside,” explained the youth, swinging round and pointing us out with his spear.
We had to step back. “Hey up!” said a ruffled Arthur; “I’ll show you where to put that bloody thing in a minute!”
“That’s enough of that,” said the sergeant.
Arthur looked fed up. “Well, he ain’t safe to be let out. Nearly got us outside he did.”
The sergeant said to our escort, “All right, Moss, back to your post.” Then he turned to Arthur and me. “Now then,” and he held a sheet of paper closer to the lamp. “Yes, here we are, the last two. Made a good start the pair of you, half an hour late.”
Arthur was still looking fed up. “It was him. Wouldn’t let us in.”
“Well, you’re here now so let’s get down to it. Now, my name’s Sergeant Watts and this here is Corporal Childs. The night’s orders have been read out and the patrol rostra has been drawn. I’ll go through it again just for you two.”
Those not guarding the gate with the pike, as the sergeant called it, would be on a two-hour patrol with the rifle, unloaded but with fixed bayonet. The patrolling guard would be on the look-out for parachutists. In fact, anybody abroad at all must be regarded as spies and brought back to the guardroom for questioning. But what wasn’t made quite clear to me was why these squelchy fields would attract spies in the first place.
Arthur and I had been placed on the patrol rostra, my stint being from two till four, with Arthur relieving me. Those waiting turn for guard or patrol used an upstairs room to get what sleep they could on straw palliasses. Up there, I lay cold with no hope of dropping off and wishing myself back in my shabby room.
I must have dozed and became convinced I had overlain and in no time at all was feeling my way down the dark stairway.
The sergeant greeted my return to the guardroom with unspoken wonder, then handed me a mug of cocoa he had made for himself. I thanked him then noticed the alarm clock on the table was claiming the time to be 1.30.
At 1.50 the sergeant broke off his reminiscences of the last war and said: “Time to get ready, lad.” He rose to his feet and reached for one of the army greatcoats our platoon shared. “Better get into this,” he said. “You’ll likely be glad of it.”
It was heavy and too long for me but it brought warmth to my shivering frame. The returning patrol handed over to me his Ross rifle. It was long, unwieldy and unbalanced with its fixed bayonet. Desperately keeping my legs away from entanglement in its webbing sling, I pushed aside the door blanket, lifted the latch and took my first steps into waning moonlight and active involvement in the war.
I had never realised, until I had paced the perimeter of the first field, how many living things were abroad in those mysterious hours.
Startled movements and swishing in hedges as I approached set the back of my neck tingling that I might come across fifth columnists awaiting with shaded lights ready to guide plane loads of parachutists and invaders. I had the rifle unslung, rattling its bolt every now and then and thrusting its bayonet into eerie wraiths of mist plotting to encircle me.
The haunting clank of a distant train brought to mind more memories of childhood night-fear...
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