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15 October 2014
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Memories of the Second World War in Plymouth Chapter 3

by Ian Hollins

Contributed by 
Ian Hollins
People in story: 
Desmond John Taylor
Location of story: 
Plymouth and Devonport
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 September 2005

This story has been written onto the BBC People's War site by CSV Storygatherer Ian Hollins on behalf of Desmond Taylor. The story has been added to the site with his permission. And Desmond Taylor fully understands the terms and conditions of the site.

Continued from Chapter 2 - Story A5920760

In 1942 I remember seeing ten bombers high over Plymouth in a surprise daylight raid; they dropped some bombs before the sirens sounded. I saw them attacked and dispersed by three Spitfires but not one was shot down, a big disappointment to me! The spitfires came from an emergency airfield, which had just been built at Yelverton on the western edge of Dartmoor, the remnants of which can still be seen and form a popular parking spot. It was a terrible dereliction of duty by the pre-war governments to leave Plymouth, a very large and ultra-important base for all three fighting services, without any airborne fighter defence at the start of the war. The RAF only had Sunderland Flying Boats for Atlantic patrols; these were based at Mount Batten in the Cattewater and made a magnificent sight as they charged at high speed for over a mile across Plymouth Sound to take-off

Also in 1942, after passing the competitive entrance examination which continued even in wartime, I started work as an electrical apprentice in the Dockyard along with about 300 other boys covering all trades. This was a reserved occupation so that I was not liable for call-up when I registered for military service at the age of 18. The only way into the fighting services was to volunteer for Air-crew which I was very keen to do. Had I done so I would probably have got in as I had my Oxford matriculation certificate and was fit and healthy. However my father, who had volunteered for the army and had a bad time in the 1914-18 war persuaded me not to, otherwise I might not be writing this!
I was therefore directed to join the Dockyard, 17ili Battalion, of the Devon Home Guard commanded by Lt. Colonel B. Cooper so I did after all swear allegiance to the King and wear a uniform. At this later stage in the war the Home Guard was relatively well armed, I had a Lee-Enfield rifle and bayonet of First World War vintage and 10 rounds of .303 ammunition which was kept at home so as to be ready for immediate action in the event of a surprise attack by the Germans. At one time I had a "Lanchester" sub-machine gun, the naval version which was distinguished by heavy brass mountings, what else, to receive the magazine. There is a famous photograph of Churchill with one of these guns under his arm pointing towards the camera; it was to be his personal weapon in the event of an invasion.

My battalion had regular active duties in addition to training and drills, unlike most other Home Guard units which operated on a "call-out" basis in the event of an invasion. Every day it had to provide a "picquet", an armed platoon to provide front line defence in the event of an attack on the Dockyard by parachutists or saboteurs. This required each platoon to spend one night every two weeks on picquet duty in the Dockyard followed immediately by work the next day still with rifle at hand. There was no relief for loss of sleep; breakfast was provided by the Dockyard Canteen. When "Overlord", the invasion of Normandy started on 6th June 1944, the picquet was doubled to two platoons because of the increased risk of attack on Devonport, a principal base for the invasion especially for American troops and landing craft. This meant spending a night on picquet duty every week. I remember cycling up to Staddon Heights in the evening of June 6th to see the great armada of vessels stretching to the horizon. When the success of the invasion was beyond doubt the picquets were stood down and in December 1944 the Home Guard was disbanded. My souvenirs are my service gas mask and a certificate from H. M. King George VI commending my service of one year and 16 days! To my great regret I have no personal or family photographs of the war years as it was impossible for ordinary people to get film.

In the weeks before D-Day there was a drive to get servicemen and civilians alike to donate blood in order to have ample stocks available for the expected large number of casualties. I was just over the lower age limit of 18 then so I gave blood and continued to do so regularly until I reached the upper age limit of seventy. I was awarded the Gold Badge of the Blood Transfusion Authority for 50 years of service.

On the evening of VE Day, 8th May 1945, I went to Plymouth Hoe, large crowds had gathered there and in the central city streets. There was joy of course but tempered by the surrounding ruins of the city and the remembrance of those killed in the blitz or on active service from a city whose life was dominated by the three fighting services. There was thankfulness for victory but a greater sense of relief that the war was over for most of us although many had relatives still fighting the Japanese.

I do not recall any great celebrations on VJ Day, it was all too far away and people were exhausted after six years, less two weeks, of unremitting war. I remember the announcements of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan but at that time I had not the slightest idea that I would spend most of my career managing Nuclear Reactors at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell which I joined some years after it was started on 1st January 1946.

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