- Contributed by
- People in story:
- David Garth Pepperell; 'Tiger' Lewin; Peter Parker; Ken Brice; Lt Col. McBennett;
- Location of story:
- Filton aircraft works, Bristol
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 October 2005
David in the Home Guard (1943)
I was working at the time as a junior architectural draftsman, in the Works Engineer’s Department, Filton aircraft works, Bristol Aeroplane Company. We were located in an office which had originally been the works canteen, and there were about twenty draftsmen under the management of ‘Tiger’ Lewin. I was already serving as a messenger in one of the Air Raid Precaution, Wardens’ post in Blenheim Road, Bristol, just a few yards from my home in Belvedere Road. Having registered for the armed forces, I was informed that I was in a reserved occupation. (i.e. in an aircraft factory), and would not be called up. Soon after the LDV (Local Defence Volunteer) force was formed, I joined them as well as the ARP service, but was later told I must choose between one or other of the services. I decided to resign from the ARP and remain in the Home Guard, as it had by that time been named by Winston Churchill.
My first memories were of being drilled by a sergeant somewhere behind the main canteen at Filton. While I believe the sergeant was in uniform the rest of us were in civvies and were issued with kaki armbands with the words ‘Home Guard’ on them. At that time we had no rifles, but used broomsticks to do drill. Two fellow draftsmen from my office joined about the same time. They were Peter Parker, who had been in the OTC at school, and seemed to be familiar with much of the drill, and Ken Brice. It was not long before they were awarded Corporal’s stripes. Within a few months I also was made a Lance Corporal, with one stripe. We were members of 13th Battalion Bristol H.G., all of whom were employees of BAC and we were supposed to defend the works.
Soon we were issued with rifles and bayonets for drill, and given Battle dress uniform, comprising jacket, trousers, belt, cap, boots and anklets, great coats, and of course tin hats. We also had army issue gas masks and ammunition pouches with webbing straps which went over the shoulders like braces. We used to compete to get a bright shine on our boots and all brass fittings. One of the approved ways to shine boots was to spit on them before rubbing in the polish with a damp rag, then rubbing hard with a soft cloth or pad it seemed to work! In order to keep the Brasso off uniforms when cleaning buttons, we used a plastic guard with a hole in it through which the button was passed, then a slot just wide enough for the stem of the button to slide along. I seem to remember spending hours working at it. Some later issues of uniform were impregnated with a chemical which had a smell of Chlorine, which we were told was to be resistant to gas, should this be ever used. At some time there was an issue of rubberized canvas waterproof capes, which were also designed to be used as groundsheets.
We trained two or three times a week after work, and did a night guard duty about once a week. At first, guard duty comprised patrolling the nearby railway lines from Filton to Stoke Gifford, this was done in a section of about six men under an NCO. We were issued ten rounds of ammo each, not a lot if we had met a party of Jerries! We slept, when off patrol, in the Old Vicarage, halfway down Filton Hill. There were wooden bunks, and we had two gray army blankets, one of which was often used as a pillow. I found these to be very rough and prickly so, after a while. I used a towel to cover the ‘pillow’. The lights were kept on all night, and there were always a few card games going, so it was often a fitfull sleep. Meals were taken in the canteen and it seemed strange to he eating there at 11pm and again at 7.30am.
We had several huts for lectures and training, and stores in various locations around the works, and our training continued both at work and occasionally on the ranges at Pilning facing the Bristol Channel. Here we fired some live ammunition under the guidance of regular NCOs. We were introduced to machine guns and automatic weapons as well as rifles on the ranges. When we were on target duty we had to go to the butts (behind earth banks where we could raise and lower the targets, and indicate how the shots were going). We were bussed down to Pilning on Sunday mornings and home again about one o’clock.
Besides regular drill, we had lectures, training films, and courses on poison gas precautions, camouflage, tactics and weapon training, including hand grenades and bayonets. Some men always kept their rifles with them, day and night. One night in the main assembly shop, a private was showing his mate how the rifle worked, and put a bullet up the spout and fired it. The shot went out through the metal roof of the building, which had to be patched as it let out light in the blackout. There was quite a fuss about this, as it created a potentially dangerous situation. There were of course strict safety rules for the firing of live ammunition which should only be used on a proper in firing range.
One summer evening whilst on guard duty in one of the huts overlooking the airfield with Sergeant Peter Parker in charge, we shared the accommodation with some members of 13th battalion. One of their corporals was cleaning a Vickers M/c gun, and when he had re-assembled it, he thought he ought to test it. So he pointed it down at the empty airfield and let off a few rounds to make sure that it worked OK. Within a matter of about 5 minutes a jeep arrived in a tearing hurry and one of the regular army sergeants from the Airfield defence force came storming into the hut to know who the blazes had been loosing off ammo at the airfield. Apparently the CO., Lt Col. McBennett, the fiery Black Watch Officer in charge of the airfield was furious. He and the corporal concerned went off together and I never saw them again!
One weekend, there was an exercise when units of the regular army were supposed to act as the enemy, and try to break into the works. I was stationed, with others, at what was known as the observation tower. This was a tall concrete structure with an observation platform at the top. We spent a whole day in the warm sunshine looking out for the ‘enemy’, but I never saw them. I know that by the time we were sent off home, my arms and elbows were aching through resting them on the parapet for long periods, while holding binoculars. It must have been on this, or perhaps, another occasion when we had started the exercise on a Friday evening, and gone on right through to Sunday mid-day, that I really felt exhausted. On my way home I climbed to the top deck of the bus and sat down and before the conductor had come for my fare, I was fast asleep, and had dropped my money on the floor. When I arrived home, my mother had a lovely roast dinner waiting for me, but all I wanted then was to fall into bed. This I did, and eventually had my meal at about 8 p.m. and then went back to bed again shortly after.
On another occasion we were the ‘enemy’, and had to find our way into another battalion’s defences. About one hundred of our battalion were taken by buses a few miles from the works, about nine o’clock at night to some area that I did know at all, and divided into small parties. I later learned that it was a part of Downend, which some of my fellow Home Guard knew well. As a corporal, I was given a squad of five or six men and told to patrol a certain area, and report if there was any sign of activity by the other side. We crept quietly along a number of the roads and eventually returned to the command post, and I was able to report that I had seen nothing. However the defenders had spotted us and I found that my squad was one man short. The defending Home Guard had taken the last man in the patrol, and were now obviously questioning the prisoner. I believe, that in fact, he was well treated, and after some time was allowed to go home, with the proviso that he did not rejoin us. There were umpires on each side to see fair play, and assess the success or otherwise of the defence of the area. I was not court marshalled or anything over losing the man, in fact I think the officers thought it was rather funny, but I felt rather humiliated. About midnight we were given a meal of bread and hot soup from large Thermos flasks, which the quartermasters had brought from the canteen. It was good and much appreciated. The exercise did, of course, provide several lessons for us and for the defenders. One of the defending officers was a good friend of mine from the Royal West of England Academy School of Architecture, Lt Robertson. He had joined the Home Guard at the outset, and was very keen. He later became a paratroop officer, and was killed at Arnhem.
There was usually plenty of humour mixed with the serious work. We enjoyed each other’s company and soon became a very close knit body of potential fighting men. One Lance Corporal, a fellow called 'Dumper', often kept us amused on guard duties with dubious stories. He was a good card player, and often played well into the night if any one would join him, and they usually did. The favourite game was pontoon, and on one occasion when he had trumped someone’s ace, the injured party exclaimed, “I hope you bloody well get toothache!” Immediately 'Dumper' retorted as he took out his top set of false teeth, “Oi Can’t!” This, of course, set the whole hut full of fellows into peals of laughter.
Before we were really organised with sleeping arrangements when on guard, some of us slept on metal stretchers on the floor of the office. As I said previously, this building was originally the works canteen, and soon after settling in the dark, we heard scrabbling noises on the floor around us. On switching on a torch, we found the place was infested with huge cockroaches. We finished the night with the stretchers on the tops of the desks.
Not all the NCO’s were popular, particularly those who tried to be too officious. One, Sergeant Smith, had been a soldier in the first world war, and had medals to prove it. He was taking a platoon for drill one day, marching them up and down a road several times, performing several drill formations, shouting commands, ‘left turn, right turn, left wheel, right wheel, about turn’ etc. He would let us go some way, and then with his best parade voice, call us back just before we got out of earshot. This drill went on for about half an hour, and most of us felt that that was long enough without a break. So when we were marching towards him and he gave such a great shout that his false teeth flew out of his mouth, and landed on the road in front of the nearest men, we kept on marching! Meanwhile, he was unable to give a loud order to halt, but was scrabbling in front of the marching column, trying desperately to pick up the teeth, and get out of the way.
Submitted by Marcus D. Pepperell (David's son). My father typed these memories himself a few years before he passed on, and left them with me for safe-keeping. I have copied these verbatim. Originally written as one text, I have split into three chapters for this site.
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