- Contributed by
- Barbara Kernahan
- People in story:
- Alec Sean Kernahan, Home Guard Bomb Instructor Sergeant
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 November 2005
The three of us, my mother, father and I, were sitting on the downs above Bude listening to a portable radio. My aunt was singing “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” on the Peek Frean’s programme on Radio Luxembourg. “That’s right, Mrs Peek” was to become a family quip! My father switched straight over to the BBC news and we heard that the Germans had invaded Poland and that war was imminent. My father had felt for some time that war was inevitable. We came straight home to Bournemouth. That was the last holiday until after the war.
Immediately on our return my father went round to the police station and volunteered as a Special Constable, then went into our garage and made a truncheon. I still have it — a baton of oak weighted with lead shot at one end.
My father hated the thought of war but had always realised the threat of Hitler. In the First World War his older brothers had all enlisted. At the age of 17 he felt he should do so too. He left home and was sent by train to Dover. He said he changed his mind and hid under a seat on the return journey! Of course, he was discovered and sent to the training camp near Dover — all in tents. He had remarkable co-ordination and soon became a crack shot.
After only a few weeks he was sent off to France where he went through every major battle. He was a sergeant by the time he was 18. He survived the dreadful conditions of the trenches, not even suffering from “trench foot” which many developed through living in mud. He was a survivor in spirit too and his sense of humour never failed him. His policy was to volunteer for everything — including the job of sniper.
One story he told was of being marooned in no man’s land. He spent the night hiding up a chimney in a ruined cottage occupied by some Germans — hoping they wouldn’t light a fire. They retreated again the next day.
He was wounded three times. Once he was knocked on the head while being dug out of a shellhole. The tin hat sent him by his Sunday school teacher saved him but he lost his memory for some time. Back in the trenches a gas attack resulted in one of his lungs putrefying. He was operated on two years later and the fluid was drained. However, he had to live for the rest of his life with shrapnel that lodged too near his spinal chord to be removed.
The World War II Special Constables were soon to be LDVs (Local Defence Volunteers) with poor-quality canvas uniforms and no weapons. From somewhere my father acquired an American revolver and a box of ammunition. The LDVs became the Home Guard and my father was appointed Bomb Instructor Sergeant for the area. He worked closely with the Army, as well as making small-arms ammunition at a garage during the day.
Never short on initiative, he managed to get the first Sten gun in the area. He sat behind it training it down the drive all morning. He later got a Lewis gun which was a small cannon with solid wheels, as far as I can remember. When turned on its side it afforded some protection for the team firing it.
Just before the second war my father had decided that if he gave up smoking we could just afford a small car. I was 10 at the time and in the headmistress’s class at the small Robert Louis Stevenson Primary School in Westbourne. I was despatched to school one afternoon to ask: “Please, Miss Phillips, may my father have first refusal on your car?” I can remember her now, looking down at me over the top of her spectacles from her high desk and saying, rather surprised: “Yes, very well.” And so for £60 we became the proud owners of a one-year-old blue and black Morris Eight, the smartest car in the family. A few months later Churchill put up the road tax from £10 to £25. My father never forgave him!
At the beginning of the war my father made a stout trailer for the car, to carry weaponry to various training sites in Dorset. I used to go with him in decent weather and do my homework.
In September 1939 I had just started my second year at Parkstone Grammar School. I well remember standing at Ashley Cross with my gasmask in a rexine-covered box, wondering why things felt “different” even though the bombing and machine-gunning was yet to start.
One of my father’s main concerns on Home Guard training exercises was to persuade the men — mostly farm workers — to move quickly and especially to fall flat on the word of command. He was not disparaging, he just knew their reactions had to be quicker. He was absolutely right. Weekend exercises were often with the Army and with live ammunition. One Sunday an Army sergeant held a grenade with the pin out for too long. If my father’s platoon hadn’t responded to his “Down!” command there would have been casualties. His own jacket was torn up the back by the shrapnel. There was a court martial for the sergeant which my father reluctantly had to attend.
He kept his country friends all through the war, and afterwards, and the occasional rabbit made a wonderful contribution to my school sandwiches. His humour was always kindly, but he had many amusing stories to tell. He used to laugh till he cried at “Dad’s Army” — he could well have augmented the series with one of his own.
During trips out with him we used to divert to off-road places like Badbury Rings to teach me to drive. When I was tall enough there was the occasional journey when I drove home. We lived in an “abandonment area” leas than a mile from Bournemouth Bay. In the event of an invasion my father would have had to stay. My mother could have driven, of course, but he thought I should be able to do so as well. He had buried five gallons of petrol in the garden and the instruction was to tank up the car and drive north as fast and as far as possible.
Our road was in a well-wooded area with few houses and large gardens. There were just three men left — a club-footed gardener, an actor who was a conscientious objector and my father. They spent most nights in a slit-trench in a wooded triangle between two roads, fire-watching and listening to the actor reciting Shakespeare. Two old ladies who lived in our road had a stock of bags of flour to throw at the Germans should they arrive.
Bournemouth Bay was definitely on the likely list for invasion. Indeed, one night my father was out in the bay on a recce with a group of men when they came close to some Germans in another dinghy. Both boats fled from each other!
The bay had scaffolding in the water. Barbed wire and pillboxes were everywhere. My father had the task of mining the western chines — and after the war he managed to recover every single mine he had laid. One of the houses in Lindsay Road was given to him to store his armaments.
He was always optimistic about the outcome of the war. On his travels he saw the preparations for D-Day. Some four years earlier, I can remember him getting my mother and me out of bed to stand on the cliffs and watch the little boats setting out for Dunkirk. Now he puzzled over the purpose of the building blocks that were to be part of the mulberry harbours for the Normandy landings. Our hopes for the invasion were soon to be realised. The petrol ration stretched one Sunday to a drive into the New Forest. We could hardly believe our eyes at the sight of all the tanks, lorries and equipment hidden in the trees near our home. We were thrilled to see, on cinema newsreels after the invasion, pictures of the Free French tanks that had been parked so close to us driving into France, all with names we recognised painted on their sides.
D-Day was a jubilant day. I was in the lower sixth by then. We ran round the school all day delivering news of the bulletins from the staffroom radio to the staff. I remember thinking it was the first time I had seen some of them smiling and happy.
The delight of the street lights coming on again is a sight I shall always remember. Bournemouth Council had saved enough little candles to have their usual display in the Lower Gardens. I cycled down and was allowed to help put the candles in the little coloured glass jars and hang them on the display racks. Little things like this — and no blackout — were simple joys that meant more to me than the bigger outpourings.
My father was in both the First and Second World War victory parades. He had put his heart and soul into the war effort.
I think the regular Army must have appreciated his skill. It was perhaps an odd way to express it though, when years later they phoned him up to ask him if he would like to blow up a mine that had been washed up into Poole Harbour. He thoroughly enjoyed himself on a sunny Sunday morning in 1969 sitting on the sea wall on Brownsea Island, and blowing up that mine. He was 70 years old.
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