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The Home Guard at Birley East Colliery

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
actiondesksheffield
People in story: 
Eric Tranter, T. Hardwick, Wilf Walker, Denis Mellors, Sam Haywood, Ken Morley, Homes, Johnny Warrington, Cyril Thorpe, W. Garner, Bill Levesley, F. Fidler, E. Brown, W. Levesley, Herbert Briggs, Len Keeton, Bill Hazard, Alec McQueen, Sid Lewis, Walter Little, Fred Jennings. Bill Tiler, and Harry Wheeler
Location of story: 
Birley East Collieryin the Shirebrook Valley between Woodhouse and Hackenthorpe near Sheffield
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4082988
Contributed on: 
17 May 2005

The 63rd West Riding Home Guard unit which was based at Birley East Colliery from June 1940 to October 1943. This photograph was taken at their last parade at the Wesley Chapel in the Summer of 1944

Introduction
The articles on the Home Guard and the Bevin Boys plus its follow up chapter The Overseas Volunteers are from ‘Winding Up’ a history of Birley East Colliery, by Alan Rowles.

The pit was situated in the Shirebrook Valley between Woodhouse and Hackenthorpe. Opened in 1888, it ceased coal production in October 1943. From then until 1948, it became a coal mining training centre for ‘Bevin Boys’ and Overseas Volunteers.

Tragedy at Beighton is an article written by Alan Rowles about the hushed up railway disaster which occurred at Beighton in February 1942. The article was written for the Forward magazine of the Great Central Railway Society in Spring 2004. The photographs are at the courtesy of the Sheffield Star, M. A. King and Alan Rowles.

Chapter 1 - The Home Guard
During the early months of the Second World War, life at Birley East went on very much as before, until that is, the colliery was designated as the base for a unit of the Home Guard. Until that moment in time, the war had also made little impact nationally, indeed the period was depicted in the tabloid press as the "phoney war".

Despite the fact that Germany had already invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland, and that a state of war had existed throughout the winter, the possibility of an all out conflict, still seemed rather remote. After all the French army was, we were reliably informed, the equivalent of anything that the opposition had to offer, and backed by the British Expeditionary Force consisting of well over 400,000 men, the situation seemed under control.

In April 1940 Neville Chamberlain told the Conservative Party:
"After seven months of war, I feel ten times as confident of victory as I did at the beginning." Unfortunately the Germans had not read the script, and just days later in a surprise attack they invaded Holland and Belgium. The 'Blitzkrieg' was unstoppable. By May 10th, both countries were in enemy hands and German armour had penetrated deep into France. On the same day Winston Churchill became Prune Minister in the wake of Neville Chamberlain's resignation.

As German columns drove swiftly through Sedan, bypassing Flanders, outflanking the much vaunted Maginot Line and cutting off the British Expeditionary Force in the country behind Dunkirk, the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden made an impassioned speech to the British people. His radio appeal was simple and to the point. Britain now stood alone facing a German-occupied Europe, and for the sake of King and country, it was essential that all able-bodied men joined the Local Defence Volunteers.

Response was enthusiastic, and in the first twenty-four hours, the appeal raised over a quarter of a million troops. On May 14th, the L.D.V. officially became the Home Guard, and the volunteers continued to pour in. Indeed by the time France capitulated on June 17th, nearly two million men had joined the part-time unpaid, volunteer force.

Throughout the country, Home Guard units were deployed at strategically important points, and for this reason Birley East Colliery, with its workforce of around 800 men, was designated as a base. The unit was formed in June 1940 and despite the fact that training and guard duties had to be carried out in the men's own time, often after an arduous day's work, there was no shortage of volunteers.

The farmer surveyor's office alongside the bottom of full weighbridge was adopted as the unit's headquarters, and it was from here that Albert Crafts, who commanded the detachment operated. Albert was formerly an officer in the regular army, as was his second in command Fred Jennings. Bill Tiler from Normanton Springs, an ex R.S.M. took charge of drilling along with Bill Hazard, and Harry Wheeler, with his office experience, was given the responsibility of organising the clerical side.

Initially the vast majority of Home Guard units were poorly armed and badly organised. Indeed, had the Germans invaded immediately after France capitulated on June 17th 1940, they would probably have only encountered limited resistance. As it was, by 1941, the part timers had welded together to produce a force to be reckoned with, capable of strong opposition for at least a short period of time. For some weeks after formation the Birley detachment hardly had a uniform to its name, and was the proud possessor of a couple of rifles and little or no ammunition, but such was the threat of invasion, that within a relatively short period of time, they were fully fitted out and well armed with quite modern equipment.

Training, particularly in the early years, was taken extremely seriously, and despite the problems created by shift work, the volunteers met regularly for the likes of drill practice and lectures. The old surveyor's office was a regular meeting place, but the venue varied with the room above the Cross Daggers, one of a number up in the village which were pressed into service. Lectures were generally given by regular, or ex army officers who spoke and gave demonstrations on a wide range of topics aimed at producing a more effective and well disciplined fighting unit.

Once the unit had been adequately supplied with arms and ammunition, firearms practice was organised on a regular basis. Training took place in the first field on the left, alongside Stone Lane and from here, rifles were fired in relative safety at targets positioned in front of the spoil tip. The site proved ideal, and as a result, a local railway Home Guard unit also made use of the facilities from time to time. Led by Mr. Footit, who lived in the first house on Junction Lane, the detachment consisted mainly of men employed in and around the L.N.E.R. goods siding at Woodhouse Junction. The Birley volunteers in turn also made visits to the firing range at Totley, and on at least one occasion, spent a weekend based at the Dore Moor Inn.

Guard duties were implemented on a fortnightly rotation and each squad usually consisted of one officer and two or three men. Harry Wheeler was responsible for preparing the duty rota, which on completion, was pinned on the notice board in the unit's headquarters. Each evening a squad, usually in the charge of a corporal would patrol the colliery and its railway network as well as a limited section of the surrounding area. An eye was also kept on the tip, just in case the old problem of spontaneous combustion manifested itself and thus acted as a beacon for enemy aircraft.

At night the colliery, as well as the village, had to come to terms with the problem of the blackout, and people floundered about in the unaccustomed darkness, with only the momentary flash of a torch to provide illumination. Everywhere there was evidence of invasion. Signposts were removed and the Handsworth and Woodhouse Co-operative shop at the top of Chapel Street even had its commemorative plaque hidden from view to confuse the Germans if and when they came. In reality, only motorists and their likes were confused by such actions, and the man in the street was more at risk from the blackout than he was from air-raids. Between September and November 1939, deaths in Britain from raids were nil whilst three thousand people died as a direct result of air raid precautions. Yet in Woodhouse, as elsewhere, the discipline held everyone in its grip.

To help prepare the Home Guard detachment for the 'real thing', the powers that be organised manoeuvres. Harry Wheeler remembers one such occasion when they were called upon to defend the colliery against a mock attack by a unit based at nearby Beighton. Led by Alec Kiddle from Brookhouse, the offensive group had a simple brief - to capture East Pit and immobilise its defenders. The exercise was taken seriously, and despite inconvenience to the general public, the Birley lads set up road blocks and even erected concrete barriers across the railway bridge on Cliff Wheel. Throughout the day's activity, the emphasis was on realism, and referees assessed the progress of each side as they battled to gain supremacy. When a halt was finally called to the proceedings the end result was rather inconclusive, but the exercise was deemed in retrospect to have been of value to both units.

Remembrance day saw the detachment join forces with, amongst others, local units of W.V.S., British Legion, A.R.P., and Scouts to march through the village, prior to participating in the annual service at the war memorial. Reputedly one of the best bands of its type in the Sheffield area, the Woodhouse Scout Band was given pride of place at the head of the procession as it wound its way from Normanton Springs, along Sheffield Road- and down into the village.

The village queen also played her part in the war-time Armistice day parades. Riding on a horse-drawn carriage, Barbara Rowbottom certainly looked the part as she was transported from her home village of Normanton Springs down into Woodhouse. Birley East held tragic memories for Barbara. It was there just a few short years earlier that her father had lost his life in an underground accident.

When the colliery ceased production in October 1943 the Home Guard unit was transferred up into the village, its new base being the scout hut at the rear of Wesley Chapel. Here, drill practice took place out on the tennis courts and grassed area, as well as indoors. By now the threat of invasion had receded and with it the necessary enthusiasm of men to give up their free time in order to help in staving off such a threat. It was therefore not too surprising that absenteeism increased the closer our armed forces came to the inevitable victory.

By the winter of 1944, the writing was on the wall for the Home Guard, not just locally, but nationally. The war had reached its final phase and despite a determined counterattack in the Ardennes, it was beyond the realms of possibility for the German army to stage a full scale recovery. As a result the Government came to the conclusion that our home defence force no longer served any real purpose, and so, on December 4th, after a short but eventful life, the Home Guard was disbanded.

The names of the people on the photograph above:
Eric Tranter, T. Hardwick, Wilf Walker, Denis Mellors, Sam Haywood, Ken Morley, Homes, Johnny Warrington, Cyril Thorpe, W. Garner, Bill Levesley, F. Fidler, E. Brown, W. Levesley, Herbert Briggs, Len Keeton, Bill Hazard, Alec McQueen, Sid Lewis and Walter Little.

Pr-BR

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