- Contributed by
- Stan Wood
- People in story:
- Stanley Wood
- Location of story:
- Carlisle. The Home Guard
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 March 2004
NO MORE AIR RAIDS ! Was that the thought as I climbed into the back of the dilapidated old van with mother and younger brother on a miserable March morning in 1941? I don't remember. We were only too pleased to leave that best forgotten lorry park in Chiswick, with echoes of screaming bombs, reverberating explosions and fire illuminating skies and set off into the unknown.
As sixteen and seventeen year olds, brother and I had a new life to think about. The flying bombs and doodlebugs or, to be exact, the V1 and V2 would visit the London dwellers next, but our baptism of fire there was over.
We were due east of Rutland Water when the half-shaft of the neglected and worn-out van broke. As the wheel jammed itself into the chassis causing a great skid and a greater stink of burning rubber, our eurphoria at the prospect of happier times plummeted to the depths of despair.
Perhaps because, at that time, all the signposts had been removed or because the driver just took the wrong turning going through Stamford, it matters little, we had turned off the main north road and were stranded on a country lane in the middle of nowhere.
The driver and his surly mate set off to find a garage. With little money to spend we walked to a village and found the only small general store. A kind and sympathetic lady shopkeeper listened to our tale of woe and gave us some sandwiches.
It was noon on that first day out of London as we walked back to the van. Thankfully the weather was warm and sunny. The driver and his mate were hammering at the back wheel and they ignored us.
At the same time, on the following day, we returned from the village shop expecting the van to be repaired. It wasn't. The three of us slept in the back of the van for a second night. The screech of brakes woke us all up. The loud and foul language outside was disgusting. Our driver had switched off his engine and also the front and rear lights. When the heated abuse and incessant argument terminated we drifted off into an unsettled, but appreciated, sleep. Sometime during the next day the driver got the wheel fixed and we continued our wearisome journey northward. At days end we dozed away the darkening hours without further mishap.
It was a hazy dawn that awakened us. a white mist veiled a mountainous countryside we had never seen anything like it. The beauty of the spectacle was breathtaking to behold and has remained un-tarnished in my memory to this day. As the sun rose up between those massive hills, burning away the shadowy enveloping morning mist, a feeling of contentment and elation, bordering on jubilation, affected us all. I for one dismissed totally the harassment of the past few days and looked forward eagerly to our approaching destination.
Once across Shap Fell, the van trundled down into a built-up area that we all assumed to be Carlisle. We were wrong. After crossing the narrow bridge over the river Eamont, the A6 road squeezed its way between two old buildings and I thought the van was in danger of being wedged between them. This was our first introduction to Penrith. From here on a long, straight Roman road would take us through to Carlisle and journey's end.
Our new home was situated off the main A74 Carlisle to Gretna road and near a sprawling RAF Maintenance Unit. This covered a huge area consisting of seven large, well dispersed sites each comprising a number of large storage sheds. Here brother and I found employment as Store-lads, in a 40,000 square foot shed where aero enginge were received, stored and issued to various Units of the Royal Air Force.
The Fork Lift Truck hadn't been invented then. Electric and chain operated hand-cranes were used to move the various types of cased engines. It wasn't a pleasant job scrambling on the top of those stacked cases to fix the crane hooks into the four metal lifting rings. Especially near the exposed live-wires of the electric crane.
A whole motley collection of engines were handled including various marks of the famous Rolls Royce Merlin, the radials of the little Pegasus and the big Hercules Power Plant. Later the American Pratt and Whitney engines arrived. Those sheds were cold, so bloody cold. It was the time of the 'Elm Winds' when the North Westerlies blew in across the Solway Firth only to be hurled back over the land in an icy fury from the slopes of the indominatable Skiddaw. On a clear day the mountain looked so near you felt that you could stretch out your hand and touch it but, when the weather was dull it faded to nothing.
Within two or three months of our arrival brother and I were recruited into the Home Guard. The employees of the Maintenance Unit had formed a battalion with the insignia 'CUM 1' worn as a shoulder flash. The second battalion had its H.Q. in Carlisle and was designated 'CUM 2' The abbreviation CUM signified the county of Cumberland and we were all proud to wear the the cap badge of the Border Regiment.
Invasion was the current topic in the spring and early summer of 1941. We were issued with army battle-dress, boots, leather belt and gaiters, a forage cap, a greatcoat and a rifle. The money saved on clothes was much appreciated.
An ex Argyll and Sutherland Highlander who fought in the First World War was our seargent. He gave instruction on how to load the American type rifle issued to the Home Guard with .300 ammunition. He also emphasised the preference for the British Lee Enfield rifle which fired a .303 callibre bullet. (A point I wholeheartedly concurred with after future experience.) Perhaps the most memorable incidents of that time were the parades through the city when we marched behind the Border Regiment's millitary band to the tune of 'Do You Ken John Peel'. Then the smart command 'Eyes Left' at the saluting base by carlisle Cross. In variance to most regiments, the 'Corps of Drums' always led the Border Regiment band whose garrison was Carlisle Castle.
Brough by sands once saw a section of the great wall Hadrian built from Bowness-on-Solway to his fort at Carlisle. We called it Brough Marsh (pronounced Bruff) and here, in the wilds and near that long-vanished Roman bastion, was a firing range.
One Sunday our batallion got the opportunity to practice its shooting skills. A first time for many. You can probably imagine the blob-stick signals from the targets in the butts. There were a few inners, a lot of outers and plenty of red flags for missing the targets at 200 yards. Most of the 'bulls' seen that day were the ones on the hoof grazing on the marsh. After the firing we boiled out our rifles from a bubbling cauldron of hot water. Later, in my army service, we just used a wire gauze attached to the pull-through.
In a forested clearing, just beyond a railway line, we all paraded to throw a live Number 36 Mills Hand Grenade. When my turn came to get into the slit trench, the instructor gave me a grenade and said "Put your finger in the ring and pull out the pin but don't let go of the lever. You can always put the pin back but once you release that lever you've got three seconds to throw the bloody thing or get blown to bits!" I threw the grenade. From a raised and shielded platform behind us the parade officer shouted "Watch where it lands." then "DOWN!" My grenade exploded as I ducked into the trench.
I think we had a couple of hours a week during working hours for Home Guard training. Some of it was taken by marching in our platoon along the country lanes. On one occasion we marched as far as Rockcliffe and did a bayonet charge in the fields beside the River Eden. This only disturbed a couple of Herons and a flock of birds crying "Peawit". a couple of long, curved-beaked Corncrakes just turned thier heads disdainfully and must have thought "What are them silly buggers doing?" Mostly the training was mundane rifle drill. All this was compensated by a weekly all-night guard duty on the site.
To my father, who saw action at Mons in 1914 and later on the Somme, I wanted to demonstrate my skill at rifle drill. I picked the wrong place. A smart shoulder arms in the kitchen resulted in a smashed electric light bulb and glass shade!
The Home Guard had a nisson-hut opposite the police post by the entrance gate to the site. Inside was a round combustion coke-stove in the centre of a concrete floor. There were four metal-framed, folding army beds and ,if memory serves me right, the bedding was straw-filled palliasses. Each had two coarse, rather smelly, army blankets.
Brother and I always managed to get the guard duty on the same night with the sergeant and another chap, both ex Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who saw active service during the latter years of the First World War. Straight from work we would meet in the hut for tea. Like breakfast and dinner for the next day, this usually consisted of sandwiches brought from home. A pot of tea was brewed on the stove and then the two old veterans would reminisce nostalgically of wartime stories past. Some were humourous, some gruesome and many were explained in graphic detail. (Such as what it felt like to be standing thigh-deep in a sloppy mud-filled trench with a kilt on!)
We did very little guarding but sleep didn't come too easily either. The next morning saw a walk across to the lavatory block for our cold-water ablutions. Thankfully i didn't need to shave in those days. Then it was time to clean up the hut and join the incoming employees for another work day.
An opportunity arose to become signalers. Both brother and I quickly learned the Morse Code and, after a few headaches, we passed out on the Morse key, the flag and the Aldis lamp. Gaining the priviledge of wearing the crossed flags of signalers on the sleeve of our battle-dress blouses. We had signalling exercises with the second battalion in Rickerby Park beside the River Eden. We were quite proficient by then, sending messages in morse code using a single flag. Later we started tuition on the wireless back pack. By now my Home Guard days were comong to an end. As I said in Part 1, I received the updated version of the King's Shilling, a postal order for four shillings, my calling up papers and a leaflet saying "YOU ARE ABOUT TO BECOME A SOLDIER."
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.