- Contributed by
- Wymondham Learning Centre
- People in story:
- Horace Wilkinson
- Location of story:
- Sydenham, Battersea and Forest Hill London
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 April 2005
This story was submitted to the BBC People’s War site by Wymondham Learning Centre on behalf of the author who fully understand the site's terms and conditions.
In the summer of 1939, coming up to the age of 16, I had to choose between being evacuated with my school, Sydenham Central, or leaving school to start work.
After talking it over with my parents, I decided to stay with them in Sydenham and look for work. I had no clear idea what I wanted to do and one of the opportunities available was working in a local factory doing war work, at a £1 per week.
However, I opted for a five-year apprenticeship as motor fitter in the Southern Railway’s Road Motor Maintenance workshops at Battersea where the fleet of motor and horse drawn vehicles operated by the railway was overhauled. My wage was 10 shilling (50p) a week. I recall seeing in my first year the last, two-horse, heavy dray being built for brewery work.
As I worked for the railway I was in a Reserved Occupation and not called up for military service. I joined the Local Defence Volunteers which was soon renamed the Home Guard. The railway had its own section of the Home Guard and I was allocated to the platoon based at Forest Hill station, the next station up the line from Sydenham station where we lived. At Forest Hill there was, adjacent to the station, an electricity sub-station about the size of a large house through which electricity was fed into the railway’s electrified network.
The principal task for my platoon was to safeguard the sub-station thought to be a likely target if enemy paratroopers were dropped or if saboteurs became active. For this purpose our platoon of 20 men had one First World War Ross rifle and two clips of 5 rounds of ammunition. We did night patrol duty two men on duty at a time, one had to carry the rifle and 5 rounds, the second man to have the other 5 rounds. We were not told why.
After a time we progressed from armbands to full uniform with cap badges, Royal West Kent Regiment — still no rifles. Then came a surprise. A large coffin type box was awaiting us one training evening in the station waiting room. The rifles? Under the strict eye of our sergeant the heavy box was prized open and the packaging removed. No rifles but pikes — steel tubes with bayonets welded in one end. Not exactly the most sophisticated weapon for dealing with storm troopers with sub-machine guns — but definitely better than parading with broomsticks for rifle drill.
A second surprise was the order that every platoon must have a dispatch rider, anticipating a breakdown in normal communications if an invasion started. “Wilkinson — you have some knowledge of motors. You will be our Dispatch Rider”. My mother proudly sewed a Dispatch Rider badge on the arm of my uniform. I enquired from my sergeant about a motorcycle. He said, “Well, we have requisitioned one from the Army and it should arrive anytime now. Meantime, if the balloon goes up, just go out and take the first one you can find.” The war ended and still no motor bike had arrived, so in someone’s Awaiting Attention file, in a pigeon-hole in the War Office, there is a requisition marked ‘Home Guard, Forest Hill — motor cycle needed’.
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