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Bristol Home Guard 1940-41

by Jack Yeatman

Contributed by 
Jack Yeatman
People in story: 
Alan John Yeatman
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10 May 2005

Home Guard - Bristol - 1940-1941

The famous “Dad’s Army” series is marvellous, almost all the incidents in it happened in one way or another, and the characters are amazingly true to life, but I’m afraid it has also done a great dis-service. Being primarily a comedy, it has led present generations to believe that the Home Guard was funny, rather ridiculous, and in no way a serious part of the war effort - old men and boys playing at soldiers, without ever doing anything. I think most of the “Dad’s Army” characters probably existed, and the events took place - but not all in one Unit ! - and the harm it has done is to make the Home Guard seem only funny, when on many occasions it was a very serious business indeed.

My unit - “G” Section, No.11 Platoon, 11th.Gloucester Battalion (I wore my father’s old Great War “Egypt” back-badge) - was very seriously involved in the planned defence of Bristol in the event of invasion. Our‘front’ originally lay along the lower Avon and Severn, where Avonmouth Docks and a large oil-storage depot lay. It was much too long for our manpower, and was consequently pulled back to the line of the little River Trym, which, running through deep gullies in several places, would constitute a natural obstacle even to tanks. What that also meant though, was that the homes of a large number of our men now lay outside the defensive perimeter - in what would in fact be the battle-zone. If/when the church bells rang, those men would have to leave their families and report to HQ - and in no circumstances could their families come with them. It is not generally realized now, but, having seen the chaos caused in France by refugees clogging the roads, strict orders were issued that this must not happen here. The civilian population must “stay put” whatever happened - and one of the most important tasks Home Guard would be to see that these orders were obeyed. Not exactly a pleasant prospect, and I was VERY glad that we were never required to perform that particular duty.

With Avonmouth on one side and Filton, with the huge Bristol Aeroplane Company factory, on the other, the area was an important one, and also a prime target for nightly bombing over the next eighteen months. Our air raid shelter was largely unused though. On any evening, my father would be away at his ARP duties in a Light Rescue Squad, my mother at her YMCA canteen in Westbury village, and I wherever my Home Guard unit sent me - guarding bridges, electricity installations - or unexploded bombs ! Each morning we came home wondering if the house was still there and the others alive. It was not a comedy.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom either. No.11 platoon contained a wonderful selection of characters. My first job, in 1937, had been as a very junior clerk, in the offices of the Metal Agencies Company, and the ‘presence’ who loomed over all the staff was the formidable managing Director, W.Scantlebury - Volunteer Scantlebury was a cheerful old boy who could wangle all sorts of useful building materials for our HQ etc. even in 1941 - and by that time I was a Lance Corporal !
That HQ was on the playing-fields of Bristol University and St.Brendan’s College where, as a schoolboy, I had spent many miserable hours trying to avoid getting knocked down in 30-a-side Rugby, or wasting Summer afternoons in the far outfield keeping as far away from hard cricket balls as possible. Now I was actually enjoying myself there.

We gradually acquired weapons - old American Army rifles, .300 calibre, which therefore wouldn’t take British .303 ammunition, and so cartridges were worth their weight in gold. On one occasion at guard-mounting, one of our number didn’t press down the top cartridge to “Charge Magazines” and so on “Ease Springs” sent a bullet up through the ceiling - and through the table in the room above, where wives and girl-friends were making sandwiches, then out through the roof. His real crime though was wasting a priceless .300 cartridge.
(After that, we mounted guard upstairs!)
Those of us youngsters waiting call-up into the Services were put into a special squad under the tuition of a young officer of Lovat’s Scouts, recovering from Dunkirk wounds. He got us doing some quite hair-raising things in training, including using live “sticky bombs”. These were glass globes, like fishing-net floats, containing a couple of pounds of a syrup-like explosive. They had a butter-muslin covering, smeared with a bright orange new adhesive ( later to be known as “Evo-Stick”), and then a bakelite case in two halves. You held one by the handle, pulled out Pin No.1, whereupon the case sprang apart and fell off, then Pin No.2, and hurled it at the tank, to which it stuck. The glass broke, the gooey explosive spread, and the fuse, fired when you let go of the handle, detonated it 5 seconds later. It was, in fact, a very effective anti-tank weapon, especially in street-fighting conditions, but my most vivid memory is of one of my mates swinging his bomb back over his shoulder to get a good throw - and touching his back.

“Sergeant !” A somewhat plaintive voice -2 lbs of high explosive glued immovably to his collar, and very white knuckles gripping the now ‘live’ handle. It proved the efficacy of the adhesive - we had to cut away the back of his tunic.

Fusing Mills grenades was also a nervous business. We sat, well spaced-out, on the grass of the playing-field, each with a case of Mills bombs, and the sergeant brought round the tins in which the detonators were packed in cotton-wool. We gingerly extracted them and inserted them into the grenades, having very carefully checked them for the minutest particle of grit - fulminate of mercury is NOT to be trifled with ! None of us lost fingers or hands, but there were well-authenticated horror-stories from other units.

By far the worst duty was guarding unexploded bombs. There were a lot of these during 1940/41, some ‘duds’, some time-fused, and there was no way of knowing which was which. Actually, this duty was an anti-looting patrol - we had 5 rounds, with 1 “up the spout”, and orders to shoot if anyone challenged didn’t stop. All the houses around a UXB had to be evacuated immediately, many had windows blown in, and so it would have been a thieves paradise - everyone wasn’t quite as caring and supportive as the “blitz legend” now portrays. The evacuation meant that you were entirely on your own - you and the bomb - no Wardens stopping by for a chat, or friendly householders bringing you out a cup of tea. Only the sound of running water from fractured pipes, and the green pin-points of rats’ eyes when the searchlights swung overhead. The police did the job till midnight, then we took over in two 3-hour shifts. A long time on a cold night, often during an air raid - I watched Bristol burn on Good Friday 1941 while on this duty - and with distinctly unpleasant company sticking up in the garden of No.7 !
Another important point was that, unlike the soldiers who had their regular off-duty periods, we, and the ARP services, had our day-time jobs to do as well. From 9 to 5 I was a clerk in the Bristol Corporation Electricity Dept, from 6 to 6 I was a part-time soldier. Once, a lady on a crowded ‘bus gave up her seat to me ! 7 in the morning, coming home after a rough night in the city, my uniform covered with rubble-dust, I was dozing off whilst strap-hanging. As contemporary photographs show, I still looked like a gangly schoolboy, with round glasses. Poor young lad !

We gradually acquired yet more weapons, and I eventually found myself carrying round a 13 lb. 1st.War aircraft Lewis gun instead of a 9 lb rifle. This version didn’t have the air-cooling tube of the ‘ground action’ model, but it did have a muzzle-break which considerably reduced recoil, and also the ‘double bank’ magazines containing 97 rounds instead of 50. It greatly increased the Section’s fire-power - but for about 3 minutes in action, since we had only 4 magazines. We also had a frightening array of home-made weaponry, the most effective being the Northover Projector. This, made from a length of iron drain-pipe with a Meccano strip for sighting, was spring-operated, and would ‘project’ a Mills bomb - or a 1-pint milk-bottle full of petrol with a phosphorous igniter - for a considerable distance and with surprising accuracy. We tried it, and other weapons, ‘for real’ among a row of burned-out houses, as part of street-fighting exercises, and were very favourably impressed. Later, some Home Guard units operated anti-aircraft rockets - which struck fear into all who lived beneath their flight
path Once again though, these weapons were no joke. We were under no illusions as to what would happen to us if the invasion did take place, but the invasion forces wouldn’t have had the rapid and easy dash across country which they’d enjoyed in Belgium and Northern France. We wouldn’t have been able to stop them, but their progress would have been slow and their casualties high, and there were also comprehensive plans for continuing activity in their rear, or during any occupation. The Home Guard was a very real part of “the defence of the realm”.
The threat of invasion gradually diminished and disappeared, but the air raids continued on an almost nightly basis for 18 months. The Avonmouth-Filton area was defended by a “box-barrage” system under which every available gun fired away continuously, creating a wall of bursting shells across the sky. Very daunting for the Luftwaffe no doubt, but ‘what goes up must come down’, and throughout a raid we lived under a continuous rain of shell-splinters and nose-caps. My mother’s YMCA canteen had an iron staircase outside, and on occasions the clanging could be heard above the voice of Vera Lynn on the radio within. It was an odd thing, but when you ran from cover to cover, you instinctively ducked your head, even though you knew it was pointless since the splinters were coming straight down from above.
In Bristol, the air raids reached their climax in the devastating attack on Good Friday 1941 which destroyed much of the city. A modern misapprehension, fed by very selective recording and repetition, films etc. is that the “blitz” hit only London. Tell that to any of my generation in Plymouth, Liverpool, Southampton etc. - but then stand back ! We had our first air-raid on Bristol in June 1940 - a stick of bombs down the next road to ours, so that my father’s first “call-out” was to within a few yards of his house.

My time in the Home Guard also stood me in good stead later. At HMS “Royal Arthur” (Butlin’s, Skegness, with ‘Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight’ still visible over the entrance !) where almost all Naval Ratings did their Basic Training, many new recruits found Rifle Drill, under the legendary and much-feared Petty Officer Miller particularly difficult. I was only a little lad in round glasses, and it might have been expected that’d I’d make a mess of it and incur his formidable wrath and scorn. The fact that I didn’t intrigued him, and he eventually called me aside - “You’ve done this before ‘avent you ?” “Yes Chief - Home Guard”. He nodded, and went back to making the others suffer.

The second occasion was aboard my ship, HMS “Pearl”, a 600-ton Asdic Trawler of the Royal Naval Patrol Service, in which I was “Sparks” - Ordinary Telegraphist. We were engaged in escorting the Coastal Convoys between Cowes Roads and the Welsh Ports, and any gale broke loose moored mines from the defensive minefields around the coasts. (There are a lot of these in seaside towns now, used as collecting-boxes for charities !)
They then floated up to the surface and moved around with the tide, constituting a serious danger to shipping - and, like some of our Allies, and the RAF on occasions, they did not distinguish between friend and foe. Atlantic gales thus made the stretch between Land’s End and Hartland Point particularly hazardous, and we frequently had to leave the convoy - or the swept channel - to sink one of the ******s by rifle-fire. They were hardly visible, particularly in a heavy swell, and, with the ship also rolling heavily, hitting them was far from easy. The job was usually left to hairy Seaman-Gunners, but when I diffidently requested to have a go, there was surprise - and increased prestige - when a bespectacled Communications Rating showed that he did know how to use a rifle !
And all those years later, avid “Dad’s Army” viewers might remember the shooting competition when the irascible Private Frazer, instead of “assuming the prone position” went down on one knee and, after waving the rifle up and down several times, fired with great accuracy. He explained that he’d had served in a minesweeping trawler in the Great War, and that was the way he’d learned to shoot !
Then, in April 1945, when the war in Europe was virtually over, and convoys no longer necessary, I was transferred to the Army. It was thought that the Japanese war would only be ended by invading Japan, and the Army was short of trained Wireless Operators. We did NOT celebrate V.E.Day !
Going from Navy - especially the wonderfully-informal Royal Naval Patrol Service - into the Army was something of a culture-shock. The odd way of saluting caught us out for some time, but, once again, past experience of ‘square-bashing’ and rifle-drill came in handy - especially after I was sent out to Italy and posted to a crack Regular Regiment - 1st. RHA - whose guard-mounting ceremony took nearly two hours, and was well up to Buckingham Palace standards !
The other legacy of my time in the Home Guard though, was only brought home to me recently, when watching the various 2nd.World War documentaries on TV. So many of the ‘old boys’ being interviewed about their Service experiences said something on the lines of “Well, we were young lads then, and we thought we were indestructible”. That didn’t ring true to me, remembering particularly how I’d felt as we approached the Normandy Beaches - I ’d been only too aware of my own 'destructibility' ! Then I realized that, in fact, I’d been in greater danger of getting killed, and on far more occasions, while in the Home Guard in heavily-bombed Bristol, than I was to be subsequently in the Navy !

No - “Dad’s Army” was a lot of fun - but it wasn’t all fun.

Vol. A.J.Yeatman
“G”Section, No.11 Platoon
11th.Gloucester Battalion
Home Guard
Bristol 1940-42

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