- Contributed by
- BBC Cumbria Volunteer Story Gatherers
- People in story:
- Geoff Cain, Major Syke, Captain Carr, Captain Hindes, Sergeant Jack, Sergeant Nicolson, Sergeant Beddall, Jim Silvie, John Warwick, Walter Jones
- Location of story:
- Barrow, Walney
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 September 2005
picture 1 referred to in the text
submitted by Dr Mike Taylor, WW2 volunteer story gatherer on behalf of, and with the permission of Geoff Cain
The day war broke out, as dear old Rob Wilton used to say, I was working at Vickers-Armstrong’s Shipbuilding and Engineering Works at Barrow as an apprentice in the Electrical Drawing Office.
Most of the work force were exempt from military service as we were classed as a reserved occupation in an essential industry. I used to feel not exactly guilty but that I was not doing what a lot of other fellows I knew were called upon to do. I used to ease my conscience by accepting, as the war rumbled on, that it was a civilian as much as a military conflict. Indeed I believe there were more civilian casualties than military casualties.
Later in the war a number of my workmates were actually offered commissions in the newly formed technical regiment, The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (The REME) but the Admiralty overruled the appointments and said they must stay and produce guns and warships. In the overall picture I suppose this made sense. Most of us who were left behind joined the Fire Watching Service, joined the Home Guard or became Air Raid Wardens or took on other voluntary essential war work.
The Home Guard or, as it was first known, the Local Defence Volunteers, was formed shortly after an appeal by Anthony Eden, who was the Secretary of State for War, on 14 May 1940. I joined in July 1940. Our company was ‘E’ Company of the V’ Lancs (Barrow) Battalion Home Guard. Our main purpose was the defence of the Works. In fact we were originally styled Works Defence Volunteers. My old Works Pass was stamped WDV.
Our Headquarters was at No 12 Cavendish Park This was one of the sandstone villas originally built for the Vickers directors and senior managers. Our Commanding Officer was Major Skye who appears on photo no 1 with Captain Carr, Captain Hindes and the other officers of ‘E’ Company. All the men in the Company. some of whom are shown on photo no 2, were employed at the Works.
We had three permanent instructor sergeants, all veterans of the Great War, who were seconded from their jobs in the Works. There was Sergeant Jack Louden, who was also Quartermaster, Sergeant Nicolson and Sergeant Beddall. We also had a Sergeant-Major who always looked very authoritarian, very strict.
It took a long time for us to be supplied with uniforms and, more importantly, with weapons. For many months all I had to parade in was a leather belt. Even when the first denim battle dresses started to come in, I did not get one because the Quartermaster did not have one small enough for me. However, in the fullness of time we were issued with full battledress, great coats, boots, steel helmets etc. I still have my great coat.
They used to tell the tale of one of the lads who was a bit shy, a bit timid, being kitted out. The Quartermaster-Sergeant gave him a battle dress tunic and told him to try it on. “Does it fit lad?”“Yes thank you Sergeant.” Then he was given a pair of battle dress trousers to try on. “do they fit lad?” Yes Sergeant.” Then it was a pair of boots and once again, “Do they fit?”“Yes Sergeant.”“Do they all fit?”“Oh yes, thank you Sergeant.”“My God lad, you must be deformed!”
We were eventually issued with rifles and bayonets. The rifles were .303 Winchesters, Springfields and Remingtons, all of World Ward I vintage. We were given lectures on Weapons Use and Maintenance, Battle Drill, Street Fighting, Aircraft recognition and Target Identification etc.
The Target Identification lectures were illustrated by panoramic pictures of typical country scenes with woods and fields, roads and lanes, farms and houses etc. I remember one of our instructors telling us quite seriously that there were only three kinds of trees in the British Army - the Bushy Top Tree, the Fir Tree and the Popular Tree. (We assumed he meant the Poplar Tree.)
We were drilled in the road outside HQ. We practiced .303 rifle shooting at the rifle range on Walney and .22 shooting at the indoor range below the East Shop. Later we had the basic Sten gun which fired single shot or automatic. There was never much ammunition for use on the rifle ranges at first, but towards the end of the war there was so much that on our last firing exercise us NCOs were given two full magazines of Sten gun cartridges and told to go off on our own and shoot them off. We lined up in front of the targets, fired a few single shots, walked forward, fired a burst of automatic, walked forward, and then there was a blast of automatic fire from behind. One of the Lance-Corporals was still at the firing line and he had just started shooting! He could have mown us all down.
Bayonet practice was carried out on straw dummies. We were encouraged to shout and scream as we bayoneted the dummies. Sergeant Louden told us, as young men in World War I, they also practiced on straw dummies and then on dead mules and then on dead Germans to prepare them for the gruesome realities to come.
We did Mills bomb practice at the old Sand hills under the instructions of a regular Army Sergeant. We were in a bunker and the drill was pull out the safety pin, stand up, throw, count three and then duck quick. And for Gawd’s sake, don’t drop the grenade in the bunker!
At the same time we were shown the sticky phosphorus bombs. These were like monstrous toffee apples with a glass coating. The idea was to creep up to a tank and smash the head of the bomb onto the side of the tank where it was supposed to stick and in a few minutes burn a hole in the side of the tank. What the tank would be doing whilst we were carrying out this manoeuvre no-one told us!
One of my mates got some phosphorus on his battle dress trousers which set them on fire and he had to whip them off quick. He finished the parade in his long- Johns.
There were plenty of field exercises. On one we had to crawl across two fields on our stomachs to keep out of sight of the “enemy”. Before we started our Sergeant called for a volunteer to carry our new and only Browning automatic rifle. I quickly volunteered before any of the other lads (shades of Private Pike) and then I wished I hadn’t. It was a great heavy thing and when we reached our objective I found to my horror that there was a gaping hole in the breech. I thought I had lost a vital part of our precious Browning and imagined all sort of punishment, possibly a court-martial. I was very relieved to discover that the gun had merely cocked itself through being dragged along the ground.
Another exercise took place on Walney Golf Course. This time the ‘enemy” were dug in in the middle of the golf course and our platoon had to try and out-flank them without being seen. This meant crouching down and inching along behind a low wall along Sandy Gap road. We might have succeeded except for several inquisitive small boys who joined in walking upright beside us not only giving our position away but also chattering to us, ‘Got any spare bullets mister?” Got any old medals mister?” and we hoarsely whispering to them, “Shoo, go away you little so-and-so’s” or words to that effect.
We also had weekend camps at Rampside and one memorable camp at Hilpsford Point at the south end of Walney Island where we were entertained by a unit of regular soldiers to an ENSA concert.
There were a few invasion scares when we had to stand-to until the alarm was over. There was a lovely story about a corporal during one of these alarms who took his squad to their allocated position where he gave each of his men five rounds of ammunition and told them When the Germans come round that corner, fire your five rounds and then run like Hell. I’m going now, me feet are bad!”
Home Guard Parades were held at HQ once or twice a week after work and once or twice a month at weekends when we did field training and took part in exercises. On a rota basis a small squad mounted an all night guard every night at HQ. In time we became an efficient, disciplined force, albeit we were only amateur volunteers.
In those early years of the war, the German army was in France and poised to invade Britain. The main deterrent to a seaborne invasion was the Royal Navy who held the English Channel, and the main deterrent to an airborne invasion was the Royal Air Force Fighter Command. The Army was regrouping and rearming after the miracle of Dunkirk and it was the Home Guard’s role to provide a third deterrent and to give the Army some much needed breathing space.
We were stood down at the end of 1944 after four and a half years. The last
entries in my diary were on Friday 1 December: “E’ Company Farewell Dinner and Concert in the Works Main Canteen” and Sunday 3 December: “Home Guard Final Parade”.
The whole battalion turned out for the Final “Victory” Parade. ‘E’ Company was a large company and, if I remember correctly, another company was formed later in the war by men from ‘E’ Company. This was the smaller ‘F’ Company.
‘E’ and ‘F’ Companies were at the rear of the long procession and there was only one military band leading. The band music took so long reaching us that it was impossible to keep in step with the leading companies and we were continually changing step which did not exactly please our Sergeant-Major!
At the end of our service we were all given a Certificate of Appreciation signed by the King. I, along with other members of the Home Guard who were chosen to represent our respective units, received a Certificate of Merit from Lieutenant Colonel Chislett, the Battalion Commanding Officer. That was quite a proud moment.
We did not see any real action, unless you count the air raids, and whether we would have proved a serious threat to an invasion force is probably debatable, but say what you will, the spirit of defiance was definitely there in the Home Guard.
I also joined the Works Fire Watching Service. This involved some weekend and some all-night periods mainly just on the lookout for incendiary bombs but also on other duties, one of which was keeping the coal stocks at Buccleuch dock Extension wet.
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