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15 October 2014
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The Homeless Guard

by clerkCCarson

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
clerkCCarson
Location of story: 
Belfast
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4685060
Contributed on: 
03 August 2005

The Homeless Guard

In 1940 I was a clerk working for the Great Northern Railway in the Traffic Manager’s office (where the Europa Hotel now is).

A Local Defence Corps - later renamed the Home Guard - was formed from railway staff. Their task was to search railway lines for unexploded bombs but it was soon realised that this required specially trained personnel.

This regiment did not have any place for a barrack room so, in the evening when we had drill instruction from a regular army officer, we had to use the Directors’ Boardroom which had recently been redecorated and re-carpeted. There we were doing ‘right turn’ and ‘left turn’ on the new carpet but not able to ‘shoulder arms’ for fear of damaging the walls and furnishings and because we didn’t have any rifles!

On one occasion the engine shed near Adelaide Station was used for target practice. Inside there were lines to accommodate the locomotives with deep pits to allow for servicing and narrow walkways at the side. A very strict blackout was observed and there were no lights except hand-lights carried by drivers coming off duty. A target was set up at the closed end of the shed and except for a small light rigged up above the target, the shed was in complete darkness. Lying on sandbags, each member of the regiment took turns at firing at the target from half-way along the shed. Each member of the platoon was able to register a hit somewhere on the target - except for one man. The army instructor lay down on the sand bags beside Stanley Hill and gave him special tuition. Looking over Stanley’s shoulder, he told him that, to allow for deficiencies in the rifle, he should aim at the light and this would allow him to hit the target. Stanley duly aimed, fired and hit the light - leaving the shed in complete darkness! No one had a torch and as it was a moonless night, even with the main doors open there was complete darkness. With the real hazard of the deep inspection pits we had to crawl out of the shed!

Our C.O. was Davy Mc Master who had fought and been injured in the 1st World War. Having taught us the rudiments of drill in the Boardroom, Davy was keen that his squad would learn the finer points of army drill.

In May 1941 the Long Beach, which was part of the Goods Depot on Grosvenor Road, was used as an open-air drill hall. Here we were taught how to stand at attention and present arms and how, if a soldier wished to speak to his C.O., he must come to attention, take three paces forward, then say, “Permission to speak Sir”. Davy McMaster then proceeded to lecture at length about what he saw as the impending invasion and how he believed the Home Guard would be the ‘burnt offering and the bloody sacrifice’. When he had finished his oration he asked for any questions. One volunteer came attention, took three paces forward and said, “Permission to speak Sir.” “What is your question?” asked Davy. The man took a further three paces forward, handed his gun to Davy, said, “I resign” and walked off!

Sunday afternoon was a time for training when we were brought from Belfast to various places in the countryside. We were restricted to fields not having farm animals or being used for growing crops. The permission of the land owner had to be obtained but this was a rule more honoured in the breech than the observance.

One Sunday we were disappointed to find that the pre-planned exercise would not take place. The instructor had brought a load of rifles which had been stored for years in Thiepval Army Barracks in Lisburn. Pull-throughs (a cord with a rag on the end for cleaning the barrel of the rifle) were supplied. The usable rifles included Lee-Enfields, which were then in current use, and a number of carbines which had last seen service in the Boer War! One volunteer (Stanley) had no choice but to take a carbine and managed to get the pull-through stuck in the barrel. The C.O. (Davy) came to his rescue by taking hold of the barrel and instructing Stanley to pull the loose end and a tug-of-war ensued, ending with Stanley face down in the grass. Determined not to be beaten, Davy tied the loose end of the pull-through to a protruding branch of the hedge and was able to put one foot on a low bank for greater purchase. (Unknown to him Stanley had poked a branch into the barrel where it had snapped off and was not visible.) The C.O. was wearing his Sunday-best suit, as the black button-up uniform jackets carried no insignia, the C.O. would not wear it. He kept pulling on the carbine without any effect. No one else was allowed to try their hand and as Davy approached the stubborn old carbine again one could see the heavy breathing and sense the determination not to be beaten. One heave and the branch snapped sending Davy sliding on his back. Despite the protests of the Army instructor, that day’s exercise was ended immediately. We returned home with Davy voicing apprehension about the reception from his wife when she saw the state of his suit which bore ample evidence of cow-pats!

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