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15 October 2014
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Son of a Home Guard Company Commandericon for Recommended story

by RobMBrown

Contributed by 
RobMBrown
People in story: 
George Leonard BROWN
Location of story: 
Bradford
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2356841
Contributed on: 
27 February 2004

My father, Geo L Brown, served in WW1 as one of Kitchener's Army, being demobbed in 1919 with the rank of Captain. He lost both of his brothers, one in France (remembered on the Sledmere Memorial), the other at Gallipoli.

Aged 47 in 1939, he was an ideal candidate for the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers) and, subsequently, the Home Guard.

My own recollections of WW2 revolve around the later, Home Guard, period as I was then old enough to observe many of the (safer) activities in which the HG were involved.

Dad finished up as Company Commander, 'A' (Thornton) Company, 3rd West Riding Home Guard. Although officially based in Thornton (a village to the west of Bradford), many members were drawn from my own village, Clayton, a few miles to the south-east of Thornton. The area they covered extended from a westerly ridge, which leads from Bradford to Queensbury via Clayton Heights, in a clockwise direction to the northern slopes behind Thornton, heading down towards the Aire valley. I'm not sure whether Shipley was included in their area, but we certainly had strong connections, and Alan Jefferies, of motor-cycle fame, was a despatch rider. He even showed Dad how to remove some of the coiled up wire in his car's air cleaner and thus improve the mpg!

They had practice firing ranges in local quarries (now filled in) but often used the full-sized ranges at Oxenhope and on Hallas Moor. We sometimes visited these ranges when there was no military activity and searched for (and found) spent bullets, the distorted base plugs and sprung levers from Mills bombs (36 grenades) and other exciting souvenirs. My younger brother and I were allowed to operate the target mechanisms and quickly learned the scoring - "bulls", "inners", "outers" and "magpies".

Dad believed that the intelligent training of his offspring would make them safer when dangerous munitions were found, and so we quickly learned the difference between live, fired and dummy ammunition and were well drilled in range discipline and "never pointing a gun at anyone", even if it was only a toy cap pistol.

I fired my first rounds of .22" in the quarry range and observed the use of phosphorus grenades, "tommy guns" (Thompson sub-machine guns) and .45" revolvers there too.

All of these experiences, for a boy who only reached the age of ten at the war's end, stood me in good stead for National Service in the 1950s.

For parades and long marches we had the "Kilties' Band" - bagpipes and drums of the Hazley Mansfield Pipe Band. This superb band often accompanied the company on their long trek to Oxenhope (if buses were not available) and did yeoman service for all parades. The writer must agree that a band makes hard marches seem much easier, and the servicemen (all men in 'A' company) certainly marched the better for it. If marching in Clayton, the parade often assembled in the private yard of C E Seed and Son Ltd (maltsters - now long gone) right in front of our front door! The march then proceeded along Town End to the roundabout at the bottom centre of Clayton, and thence wherever duty demanded.

Particularly remembered are the days when, after a session on the ranges with rifles or Vickers machine guns, any damaged rounds had to be disposed of safely. Dad brought these rounds home, carefully extracted the bullet with a pair of pliers, removed the gunpowder or cordite and then fired off the percussion cap by holding the empty case in an engineer's vice and striking a 6" nail with a heavy hammer. The noise deafened anyone in the "workshop" and certainly disturbed our neighbours. A bonus was the odd "tracer" round, which could be set off (under parental control) and the gift of the gunpowder or cordite, from which we made very successful rockets.

The company seemed to be full of larger-than-life characters. Dad had succeeded Norbert Durrant as CO (they had swapped 2i/c and CO), and Nobby later became Lord Mayor of Bradford. Despatch rider (Norton 16H) Sgt Harold Whitehead (of Julius Whitehead & Sons, makers of pottery sanitary ware) was an experienced amateur cine film maker and member of the Bradford Cine Circle. Towards the end of the war, when things were getting better, it was decided to make a film of the exploits of the Home Guard company and Harold and a colleague produced and directed it, with my father paying for the (colour) film stock. Most of the film is "genuine", though there are a number of reconstructions included. I vividly remember the shooting of the "Mr Durrant calls on Mr Brown to see if he'll join the LDV" scene as my brother and I were lurking just out of shot and intrigued by the parts these well known characters were playing. Brother and I actually appear in it - depending upon who was giving the commentary (it was of course silent), we were described either correctly or as "vandals about to ruin the small arms range"! I have video copies of the film, though the original, bequeathed to me by Mr Whitehead, was in a container other than the one which his solicitors presented to me. It now appears that, somehow, the original has been lodged with the Yorkshire Film Archive.

The adjutant, Donald Smith, attempted to teach me how to play the piano (without success, I'm afraid) and many other members of the Home Guard became family friends.

Our telephone became a vital link with the military (there were very few private phones around in those days). Mother became adept at taking messages, and used her household skills to assist. Of particular note is the de-greasing of a batch of elderly rifles (Canadian?) issued to the Home Guard quite early on. Masses of boiling water poured down barrels, lots of old rags used and finally the 4 x 2 on a pull-through.

Brother and I were allowed to test practice grenades. These consisted of a firework banger concealed in a very dry clay mix shell. Into the garden, light the fuse, throw, listen to the "bang" and see the fine dust of clay particles! As Sgt Whitehead used blasting powder and fuse at his family's works, the Home Guard were never short of innovative weaponry!

Dad had run a family cotton textile business in Bradford, but the outbreak of war caused the Ministry of Supply to requisition the mill in order to assemble bomb sights for aircraft. Who said women weavers were not versatile? Dad kept the basement engineering workshops going, and I was occasionally allowed to accompany him when he went off to Wakefield (Blackwood, Jeffreys, Diamond) to collect blank gear castings and return a previously machined batch. The mill itself was a wonderful playground on a Sunday, seeing all these highly technical parts set out ready for our weavers to assemble in the coming week.

Of the war itself, not a lot happened in Clayton. I saw the footbridge over the railway station with all its little windows blown out after a raid ("killed a pig" allegedly). Other than that, nothing, except spending nights in bunk beds in the vaulted cellar of our 17th century home, waiting for the "All Clear". The sound of the siren still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. The Home Guard were once called out after reports of parachute landings, but it turned out that a pilot ferrying an aircraft from Yeadon (now Leeds/Bradford Airport - then a major aircraft factory) had dropped his empty fish and chip papers out of the cockpit!

Right at the end, when much of the company's stock of weaponry was to be destroyed, Dad arranged a big demonstration to the public in Northcliffe Park, in Shipley. Arranging for the audience to be in a central square, he'd set up various demonstrations on three of the outside edges. One of these was of the use of flame throwers, and the consequences were a surprise - there were no accidents and all went off very well BUT the flame throwers had set the subsoil alight, and small fires smouldered and erupted for some weeks afterwards. The Home Guard were not popular with the Parks Dept!

Dad had hand-made special trophies for marksmen and bombers, to be presented to the respective champions - fortunately these occasions are recorded on film. He enjoyed the companionship of the company, and, having served as a National Service officer myself, I'm sure he treated the men more as colleagues than many other COs did. He certainly enjoyed it, kept fit, used it to educate his sons, kept up friendships, including much work with the British Legion (now "Royal") and gained the rank of Major. On the disbandment of the Home Guard, he immediately offered his services as a private in the Civil Defence organisations (though his offer was not taken up). He could then add the Defence Medal to his set of "Pip, Squeak and Wilfred" from WW1 and be justifiably proud of his efforts.

Outside the Home Guard, my most vivid memory is of a vast column of vehicles lining our widest road - The Avenue, Clayton - presumably in preparation for D-Day, and, of course, the colourful and noisy parades in the centre of Bradford, especially "Salute the Soldier".

One of our cousins lost his parents in a flying bomb attack in London. As he was a minor, Mum went down to London to identify the bodies and bring him up to live with us. He must have been about 16 or 17, and very quickly went off to a Merchant Navy Radio Officers' Training School in Otley (originally a GPO training school, I believe). He then went to sea, mainly in Dutch ships, and was torpedoed at least twice. We once found him asleep on our garden seat, having travelled home from a torpedoing via Liverpool and having all his remaining worldly goods stolen en route. On some occasions he was able to bring home small souvenirs from his travels, and I recall 10" 78-rpm records, like "Delacardo", brought from South America and a carved wooden envelope knife from Nigeria. We used to go to Filey for our holidays, and, on one occasion when his convoy passed by, he guessed we might be there so he signalled with an Aldis lamp. The coastguard were furious and he got a wigging from his captain but we hadn't seen his signal anyway. Filey was certainly very different from today - all the accesses to the beach, bar the main one, mined and covered in barbed wire entanglements. The fields were filled with large poles, "to deter gliders or parachutists", and I recall the sound of heavily laden bombers climbing out over the sea from their East Yorkshire bases and thundering low over the cliff edge.

Later, in the local Scouts (16th Bradford South), "Skip" had spent much of his RAF war service in Italy. Although he didn't talk about it much, he'd started a Scout troop out there, and eventually organised several visits for members of our group. The portable telephones used on Home Guard range days finished up as intercomms for the four Scout patrol rooms.

To a ten-year-old, the war was very distant. With just the flying bomb deaths and the torpedoings affecting us, it cannot be compared with WW1, when Dad lost his brothers and Mum her father, or with WW2 in London, Coventry, Bristol, etc. How lucky we were!

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