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Reminiscences of a Hampshire Home Guard - Part 2icon for Recommended story

by Dora_Piper

Contributed by 
Dora_Piper
People in story: 
Leonard Thomas Piper
Location of story: 
Denmead area, Hampshire
Article ID: 
A2504530
Contributed on: 
08 April 2004

(continuing the account written by Leonard Piper)

Throughout the summer of 1940 we were very busy as some of us younger members were detailed to dig strong points at road junctions and other places where the layout provided a situation for enemy transport to be delayed or destroyed. It is still possible to find traces of the handiwork of the Home Guard on the landscape and on buildings in such locations, e.g. holes in walls for attachments of cables and chains. Our instructions also included the more difficult art of improvisation, of making do with material lying around and where this fails using psychology to persuade enemy tank commanders, for instance, that the narrow defile through which he must pass was mined or booby trapped in some way. With our meagre resources we were completely useless against moving armour, but if we could halt it briefly we had a chance with home-made bombs or Molotov cocktails; there was also the chance that a turret might be opened giving us a slight opportunity of dropping a grenade into the tank. Of course, if the tank commander was foolish enough to pop his head up — Bingo!
In the villages use was made of any existing walls or buildings, loopholes for firing or passing heavy chains and cables through to form barriers strong enough to slow down or stop soft skinned vehicles. The chains and cables could also be made into psychological barriers to tanks by attaching an imitation bomb to them, an impression which could be augmented by running a length of cable from it to a position out of sight of a tank commander. These positions could be made even more authentic by breaking up the surface immediately in front of the obstacle and burying an old soup plate, or similar object. For occasions where time did not permit the passing of cables and chains we had concrete cylinders the size of a 45 gallon oil or tar barrel ready to roll into a roadway or other gap. These generally had a large metal loop cemented into one end through which a cable could be passed to link several together. Again, suspicious looking parcels could be attached to strengthen the illusion. Even today, anyone using their eyes can spot the sites of LDV village defence positions simply by studying the walls of buildings at road junctions etc. In some cases the actual holes are still there, in others new mortar is the giveaway and sometimes an actual pillbox still remains to tell the story.
The summer days of 1940 were busy times for the rural LDV as many of them were farm workers who, like me, in addition to a sixty plus hours working week were putting in up to an extra twenty hours patrolling, drilling and range firing with all the weapons on issue to the Company. I have to say that we were very fortunate in that we had good supplies of .300 ammo available, unlike many other units. We also had adequate supplies of .303 for the Lewis machine gun and some .45 (or .507)for the Thompson sub-machine gun. My memory insists that we practised with the Sten around this time, but I cannot be sure. I am sure that we had a Sten by the winter because I remember someone failing to clear his weapon correctly and thereby perforating the ceiling of one of our local pubs. (Dad’s Army?)
In addition to static and “flying” patrols Home Guard units provided road blocks as and when the military or police considered them necessary. Rumour has it that local Home Guard officers sometimes laid them on without a request from higher authority, but I cannot substantiate this. Some accidents did arise from the road blocks and the blame was always laid at the door of the Home Guard, but from my own experience I know that many of the incidents occurred because the occupants of these vehicles were invariably senior military or naval personnel who considered it beneath their dignity to halt for Home Guard. One of this type regularly used the road on which we set out road blocks, but we solved this problem by meeting his regular driver in the pub when he was off duty and explaining to him very forcibly that a .300 round was just as lethal to a Marine driver as it was to his Captain sitting in the rear seat. We had no more bother from him or any others using that route, but unfortunately naval officers using the adjacent A3 refused to take heed and I think there were accidents, including one fatal.
When I married in March 1941 I needed a cottage and therefore had to move away from the Denmead area, which sadly meant leaving the Special Group in which I had been enrolled in the summer of 1940, an account of which I have written separately. The training for this group ensured that I had little time to spare but it made my service seem so worthwhile and although I remained a keen member of the Home Guard until the Stand Down in 1944 I never again felt such urgency.
My new unit had a slightly different role, most duties being of a more static nature, i.e. no road blocks or mobiles, but inlying piquets at night and exercises, either within the company or involving adjoining units. Many of these activities were built around the theme of “fifth column” activities. This may all seem laughable now but at that time even visiting Generals supported the belief that this was the most likely form of attack. These exercises could be hilarious at times, but could also end in injury. One of my abiding memories is the picture I still see in my mind of our young O.C. marching up to the senior officer at the end of an exercise and sloping arms with his Lewis gun! Being a young farmer, used to throwing 18 stone wheat sacks about, he made it look easy and almost guardsman-like!
At the end of the year I had to move again to find better accommodation and I settled on the downs of West Sussex, again in a rural area, but where the O.C. had a totally different idea of how the Home Guard should train and operate. By chance his nickname was ‘Monty’ and his attitude was similar to that of the other ‘Monty’ — there was only one way to do a job and that was the right way, i.e. the way that would help us to stay alive and ensure that we were capable of doing a soldierly job. Being an ex-C.S.M. of, I think, the Royal Sussex Regiment, he insisted on a very high standard of the aspects of soldiering that produced good soldiers in wartime. He also developed the “old boy” network to such perfection that the Canadian Army supplied us with transport whenever we needed it and somehow made contact with a Canadian Special Unit called, I think, the Carlton and Yorks Regiment, who not only taught us unarmed combat to quite a high standard, but found some derelict houses locally where over several evenings they taught, very effectively, street and house clearing. The training was so effective that fifty four years on I still find myself putting some parts of it into practice on entering any strange premises.
On top of this they found time and equipment to take us on live field firing exercises of company strength, with officers firing Bren and Tommy guns to ensure that we did not get too complacent. Although I later served in a top County Infantry Regiment and later still in a Regular Corps for several years I never received better instruction. Sadly, at the age I then was, I failed to realise just what they were contributing both in a military and in a human way, and I am not even certain that we said “thanks”. It is too late now, because most of those to whom we should have proffered our thanks are now beyond our reach. Perhaps we shall meet again on the other side.
To return to the more mundane, but still interesting, training we went on short courses to become familiar with all the latest weapons — mortars, grenades of all sorts and even, I seem to recall, a bash at the P.I.A.T. This latter, like the unlamented Boyes anti-tank rifle, did not meet with the approval of everyone and although better than nothing needed a suicidal inclination on the part of the operator to achieve much success.
Another indication of how advanced our O.C. was in his training schedules is the fact that we devised our own Live Field Firing Range, which we ran entirely without assistance from either the Home Guard or the Regular Army. From some source, now forgotten, we obtained some home-made grenades of the size and shape of the 36 grenade which was activated by rubbing the “fuse” on a friction material similar to that on the side of a box of Swan Vestas; this fuse was of about seven seconds delay and exploded with the violence of a good Christmas cracker! We used other grenades, many issued only to the Home Guard, which were really Heath Robinson and not too reliable in action. By this time we had been issued with the E.Y. rifle, which was essentially a normal rifle specially strengthened around the breech and small of the butt to take the thrust of a special ballistic cartridge. At the muzzle end a cup discharger was fitted to take a 36 grenade or others of a similar dimension. To fire this weapon the butt of the rifle was grounded, preferably in a soft surface, with the base plate of the magazine facing the firer. There were no extra sights fitted, the point of aim was selected by aligning the muzzle of the rifle on the target areas and the E.Y. was fired by flicking the trigger; the recoil from the special cartridge injured the finder if fired in the normal way, i.e. finger through the trigger guard. With practice I found that I could place a grenade into quite a small target area.
Towards the end of summer 1943 we were involved in an “invasion” exercise, the enemy being our old friends from the Canadian Army. The plan was for a flight of Lockheed Hudson to pass over an adjacent forest at a prescribed height and upon the firing of a signal from the lead aircraft a Canadian company lying in the forest would move off towards our platoon area on the edge of the village. Unfortunately the Canadians had been involved in exercises like this before and were thoroughly cheesed oft. Instead of waiting for the signal they moved off early and after indulging in a spot of deer hunting with live ammo, arrived on the scene before we got into a good defensive position. I was no. 2 on the B.A.R. but was unable to take up my rightful position akingside the no. 1, only just managing to find a reasonable covered firing position where I could observe him. As I did so I was surprised to see that he was cowering and ducking his head. Knowing him to be a very steady man this gave me some concern, but after the “action” was over he showed me some new notches in the brickwork of the wall where he had taken up his firing position. I think an enquiry was carried out later but a culprit was never identified. (This did not surprise us at all as we knew from past experience, when carrying out security duties for a Canadian R.A.S.C. unit, that it had proved impossible to find either a dirty rifle or any discrepancy in ammo issues.)
After the umpires had decided our casualties and our fitness to carry on, I was sent with a patrol to recce the position of the main body of the “enemy”. Due, I think, to the fact that we were all country men and very well trained by “Monty” we were soon able to locate them but as they had spent months on similar exercises during their time in the U.K. and were thoroughly sick of it all, their talk was of personal matters and of little use to the O.C. However, they had not entirely lost interest as the next patrol found to their cost, being captured and roughed up! This also happened to a member who volunteered to go out on a bicycle dressed in civilian clothes.
This exercise showed up the value of good training in receiving and passing messages and signals by verbal means. Everyone knows the old gag “Going to a dance, send three and fourpence”, but “Monty” proved on several occasions that this can happen by sitting a section on forms so close that their shoulders touched, then instructing the first man to whisper a short sentence to his immediate neighbour and so on to the end of the line. We did this for several minutes before we learned to concentrate our minds sufficiently to pass a correct message. Try it! The same applied to issuing orders for an attach or similar action. The C.O. insisted on strict compliance with the formula laid down in the Battle Drill for the Regulars, with the result that throughout the weekend exercise, and regardless of loss of leadership (as decreed by the Umpires), there was little or no chaos in the formation or execution of orders. Further proof of the value of good training was the fact that at the debriefing it became obvious that although several members of our Platoon realised that live ammo was being used their experience, either with the Canadian instruction we had received or with our own little Battle School, had reduced any inclination to panic. This was noted by both the Umpires and the senior officer of the “enemy” force.
Towards the end of the exercise the patrol in which I was operating was ordered to take up a position on the major road and form a road block. This job gave me a good deal of satisfaction as our orders were to stop all persons and check their identity. I have never heard the reason for this particular road block but the order must have come from outside of the Exercise hierarchy as we were issued with ball ammunition. For a long time everyone halted on request and behaved as we expected after about four years of war, but eventually I saw a car approaching at a considerable speed in the manner of someone who had no intention of stopping. There was no excuse for this as the whole squad were in full view on a straight stretch of road, so stepping into the road I ‘shoved one up the spout’ and levelled my rifle at the driver. The car at once screamed to a halt and the passenger left the vehicle, practically foaming at the mouth, threatening me with the C.I.C., Home Secretary, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, still refusing to give proof of his identity. However, as L.Cpl. Jones used to say “he did not like it up him” and the point of my eighteen inch bayonet persuaded him to comply. At this distance in time I cannot recall his name but I think he was left of centre politics and an author to boot. I still feel a glow whenever I think of that day.
Soon after this I returned to Hampshire. It was a wrench to leave that unit and “Monty” and even today I remember him with great affection and respect as easily one of the best instructors it was my privilege to serve with.
Returning to a Hampshire Home Guard was what today would be called a culture shock — no training in the skills of a soldier, except for range work, of which there was plenty. Duties were composed entirely on in-lying piquets etc. on public utilities and I was therefore glad when we were made responsible for the security of our immediate area in readiness for the Invasion. For the old hands this was akin to that of 1940 except, of course, that we were now well armed. One of our responsibilities was patrolling during the hours of darkness all bridges, tunnels and culverts, on the line of any road or rail link involved in the transport of men and materials. Not very glamorous and in the middle of a hard winter not comfortable either, especially off watch, as we had only a tent to rest in and no means of ‘brewing up’. As the Invasion drew nearer we became responsible for checking all people entering or leaving the restricted zone. This could be interesting especially when dealing with non-British troops who had broken camp. I must admit though that most of them came to our notice on their way back in to camp! It was on these patrols that it was brought home to us the fantastic scale of a logistics involved, beyond the understanding of those who never saw it.
After the Invasion it became obvious that we were going to be disbanded before the end of the war in Europe, instead of allowing us to see it through to the end. I will not go in to details, suffice to say that we all felt that we had been shabbily treated, a feeling which remains with me to this day. Some members did not get their Defence Medal or the Certificate of Service with the facsimile signature of the King thereon. I was one of those. I was issued with a certificate which showed only the short service in that Unit, which I returned with a request that my full service of four and a half years be entered. Although the C.O. of this unit had all of my documents they said that I would have to contact my previous units to obtain the necessary information. At this stage in my life I was liable to erupt at such times so I suggested where they should put their certificate. If they carried out my advice they also put the medal there.
With my wife’s encouragement I finally received the medal after much effort (and advice from the Commemoration Committee) just after the 1996 Celebrations. While involved with the department responsible for issuing medals I was astounded when given the facts regarding the total enrolment in the Force. It was explained to me (in mitigation, as it were) that the entire documentation exceeded FIVE MILLION NAMES. Think of that figure, then think of all those men in possession of arms and ammunition. Think further and realise that during the Invasion “season” those weapons were retained by the LDV ready to go into action at the drop of a hat. Add to this the fact that many Home Guard, certainly ALL rural members, retained their personal rifle or sub-machine gun with them until stand down. Then research the files to find how many murders were committed by these men, how many bank raids, how many political coups. Having done this I defy anyone to say that the word UNIQUE is in any way an exaggeration when used to describe the Local Defence Volunteers and Home Guard during its brief existence. Which other country in the world could even consider arming up to two and a half million of its civilian manpower at a time when most of its Army was spread around the world.
None of us, whatever our role during those years, ever thought of ourselves as heroes or any such twaddle, but I feel that when we ask to be remembered as ordinary people doing their best in a difficult situation we are not asking for too much. We were invited to join the party, the outcome of which at the time seemed to promise at best death, and for those of us involved in “extra mural” activities a spell in the hands of the SS or the Gestapo. If this sounds far fetched just remember what happened in the countries which were invaded.
Finally, to put one other record straight, most of us never, ever, received a single penny in expenses either for transport or rations. Some factory units equipped with a canteen did provide a meal for their own “troops” while they were on defensive duty, but the general majority had to provide for themselves from their own meagre rations.
In practise this often meant that their families suffered. These are not moans, simply a statement of fact.
I have never seriously made any criticism about the LDV/Home Guard itself, only the of the manner in which its existence was ended. As I have said so often, the time I spent in the LDV and the Stay Behind Unit was probably the most worth while in a life which has largely been spent in a Service of some sort, be it LDV, T.A., Regular Army, Special Constabulary or as a civilian member of a police force.
Boring? Not at all.

Entered by Petersfield Library

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