Tewkesbury's Home Guard (part 1: 1940-1941)
1940 - The Formative Year of the Force
"since the war began, the government has received countless enquiries from all over the Kingdom from men of all ages, who are for one reason or another not at present engaged in military service and who wish to do something for the defence of the country. Now is your opportunity. We want large numbers of men in Great Britain, who are British subjects, between the ages of 17 and 65, to come forward now and offer their services ... The name of the new force … will be the Local Defence Volunteers. This name ... describes its duties in three words. It must be understood that this is, so to speak, a spare-time job, so there will be no need for any volunteer to abandon his present occupation ... In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give in your name to your local police station and then, as and when we want you, we will let you know ..."
The response to Anthony Eden’s appeal had also shaken the Germans, whose reaction was immediate and threatening:
"The British Government is committing the worst crime of all. Evidently it permits open preparation for the formation of murder bands. The preparations which are being made all over England to arm the civilian population for guerrilla warfare are contrary to the rules of international law. German official quarters warn the misled British public and remind them of the fate of the Polish ... gangs of murderers. Civilians who take up arms against German soldiers are, under international law, no better than murderers, whether they be priests or bank clerks. British people you will do well to heed our warning."
On 25 May 1940, the Register’s ‘Military Correspondent’ reported on the threats to Britain from enemy parachutists and described their methods of operation including: organising a Fifth Column; creating panic and confusion and spreading false news; harassing lines of communication; damaging power stations, wireless and telephone exchanges and storage dumps; and signalling to aircraft. Defence involved patrolling and mopping up the enemy with the utmost speed of movement. Amongst many other things (and clearly based on the continental experiences, particularly in Holland) the correspondent referred to the enemy wearing clothing other than uniform and seizing civilian cars for transport! Constant vigilance was, therefore, needed and he warned the LDV that enemy parachutists, described as 'young desperadoes' in parties of 10 to 50, needed to be quickly captured or exterminated! In the same paper, this message was backed by the Sub-Controller of Air Raid Precautions, Alderman R.A. Gaze, emphasising the risk that they may land and make use of vehicles and recommending that all practical steps were to be taken to prevent this. Advice was given on disabling vehicles not in use by, for example, removal of the distributor cap.
Reflecting the general anxiety in Britain at this time, the King called for a national day of prayer on Sunday, 26 May. The local newspaper reported that there was a large congregation at the Abbey for this event.
The War Office, wishing to gain some sort of control of the LDV, which at this stage was largely a collection of locally controlled ‘private armies’, issued the first of its instructions to the new force during May. Entitled Local Defence Volunteers Training Instruction No.1, it dealt in some detail with the establishment of roadblocks and the defence of villages. This printed instruction, which would be distributed down to local organisers, was the first of 68 issued by the War Office over the life of the LDV/Home Guard, as it sought to coordinate the operations and, consequently, the training needs of the force. LDV Training Instruction No.2 quickly followed and dealt in some detail with the role and status of the LDV. To represent the new force at government level and at Army Council meetings, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall was appointed the first Inspector General of the LDV on his return from France, where he had been Chief of Staff to Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. Other IGs would follow.
Based on the then recent experiences of German operations in Norway and later in Holland and Belgium, the critical time for an enemy parachute attack was reckoned to be before dawn or after dusk. Consequently LDV patrols would be conducted throughout the night, on a two hours ‘on’ and four hours ‘off’ basis. No orders or details of the responsibilities of the Tewkesbury LDV have so far been found but, again based on my research of units elsewhere, it can be assumed that any high land or building, such as the Abbey tower, would be used for observation purposes; local lanes and alleyways would be regularly patrolled, identity check points established at each road entrance and exit to the town, while vulnerable points to be guarded would include the rail and road bridges over the rivers around Tewkesbury, the railway station, the Mythe Waterworks and Healings Mill. Tewkesburian readers could probably add others.
Protecting the production of flour at Healings Mill would have been vitally important, especially since imports of foodstuffs were limited by the German ‘U-boat’ campaign against our merchant shipping. Harry Workman was one of the first to join the LDV at the Mill, where there were enough men to form a large section that could be counted in tens. This would become a platoon in the fullness of time.
Edward Lane of the Forthampton LDV recalls taking his turn at guard duty at the Mythe waterworks, another vitally important facility for public health. His duty would involve being away from the farm for a number of nights in the week; added to this would be training sessions. He recalled the tiredness that he felt at the time, sometimes nodding off while doing the milking. This weariness was not unusual amongst the LDV who were working long hours on the land in the rural areas, or working 12 hour shifts in the munitions factories in urban areas and then doing their defence and training duties.
The Tewkesbury Ham would have been quickly recognised as a potential landing ground for enemy parachutists, followed by air landed troops, wishing to capture the road bridges over the Rivers Severn and Avon and, besides the grid pattern of trenches that were dug to damage enemy aircraft attempting to land, there would have been various defence positions around the Ham to be manned. Harry Workman remembers participating in manoeuvres on the Ham, no doubt to practise manning these positions.
At a meeting of LDV leaders on 5 June 1940, General Ironside, General Officer Commanding Home Forces, explained the role of the new force, but he was painfully aware of the shortage of weapons available to the LDV and extolled the virtues of the ‘Molotov Cocktail’. This was a bottle filled with resin petrol or tar that, if thrown on top of a tank, would ignite: “if you throw half a dozen more on it, you will have them cooked. It is quite an effective thing”. He said that about 80,000 rifles had been issued, with more coming, and asked the LDV not to underestimate the shotgun: “I have now coming out over a million rounds of solid ammunition, which is something that will kill a leopard at 200 yards ... In a city, I do not want a high velocity rifle being let off; that is not the place for it. In dusk, in the evening and in the woods, a shotgun is about as useful a weapon as you can possibly want”. He also promised uniforms very soon.
Later in June, Sir Edward Griggs, Under Secretary of State for War responsible for LDV affairs, also made a broadcast dealing with the role of the LDV and making an appeal for 12-bore shotguns to be loaned to ‘the country’ by handing them in to the local police station, pointing out that the King had already handed over several of his possessions. Griggs emphasised that shotguns had been used to great effect in the last war and proved in close quarter fighting elsewhere. The ‘Pistols’, ‘Nyms’ and ‘Bardolphs’ of the district would already have, and be proficient with, shotguns.
July 1940 saw the arrival of the first consignment of rifles from America to add to the miscellany of weapons, many of them donated by private individuals, that had thus far found their way to the LDV ... It also saw a change in name for the force. Winston Churchill had for some time considered that ‘Home Guard’ was preferable and, after some sharp correspondence with Anthony Eden who was keen to keep the title ‘Local Defence Volunteers’, had declared that “I am going to have the name ‘Home Guard’ adopted”. The decision was announced on 23 July. On the same day, the War Office sanctioned the designation of battalion, company commanders and platoon commanders and so an establishment more akin to the regular army would be created. Gloucestershire formed nineteen battalions of Home Guard, nine of which were located in the Bristol area. The battalion which concerns us became the ‘1st Gloucestershire (Cheltenham) Battalion Home Guard’, with its headquarters [HQ] at Cheltenham College. ‘A Company’, commanded initially by Lieutenant Colonel A.W. Malet, which then had its HQ at Bishops Cleeve, was responsible for the whole of the rural area north of Cheltenham, including Tewkesbury.
There were many in the Home Guard who thought that foot drill was unnecessary and wasting time that could be better spent learning field craft and how to shoot straight. Significantly, this included a number of ex-Spanish Civil War veterans, who had already learnt the German methods of waging war and the means of dealing with them. Consequently, July saw the establishment of an unofficial training school for Home Guards by some of these veterans, including Spanish miners who were experts in the use of explosives! This was at Osterley Park, on the western outskirts of London, where Home Guards were taught in a few days the rudiments of ‘ungentlemanly warfare’. The War Office, worried by the possible subversive influence of these ‘communist hooligans’, soon took over the school but, seeing the value of it, emulated it with others established elsewhere in the country. Nevertheless, until it was closed down, the Osterley school received representatives of most Home Guards units and even some regulars, who came away from the school full of ideas and optimism about tackling tanks, booby trapping, field craft and camouflage, which they were then able to pass on to their fellow volunteers. Some of the Spanish Civil War veterans were later to publish a number of books on these subjects, while their leader, Tom Winteringham, wrote a number of articles in the Picture Post on the use of this new ‘people’s army’ and his methods of defence. New Ways of War followed, published by Penguin. What with the War Office instructions, which incorporated many of the ideas propounded by the Civil War veterans and readily available books and magazines, Home Guards were not short of advice on how to tackle the enemy!
The war, however, was no longer ‘Phoney’. Although in August the air Battle of Britain was being fought mainly in the skies in the southeast, aircraft from the Luftwaffe were already making night bombing raids on the aircraft industries in the Midlands and North. This enemy activity would intensify during the coming winter, but, to crank up anxiety in Britain’s defence forces during that momentous summer, large numbers of empty parachutes were being dropped at night by the Luftwaffe on its way to and from bombing raids. This caused a number of emergency call-outs for Home Guards in the Midlands, who would spend their nights searching for the elusive enemy parachutists and agents. It is small wonder then that Harry Perry, of the Forthampton unit, spotted what he thought was a parachute in Bushley Park, while patrolling one moonlit night. He raised the alarm but, after an extensive search, the ‘parachute’ proved to be a sow and her litter lying in a group and looking very like the white patch of a collapsed parachute. This would be one of a number of such emergencies experienced by the Forthampton men, which would include the night the Luftwaffe dropped a bomb at The Moors, Corse Lawn!
Both Fred Remmer and Edward Lane related to me the story of the rifle competition at the Marl Hole, where Dick Smith, the local gamekeeper who was a good shot, rather fancied that he would win. He was leading the competition until Jack Williams, a farm labourer working for Edward Lane, fired. He had trained as a sniper with the Gloucestershire Regiment during the Great War and, when he took his turn, placed all five of his shots in the ‘bull’ thus winning, much to Dick Smith’s disappointment!
The Home Guards were not the only ones to become jittery during that summer. Military Intelligence had received information that enemy paratroopers were moving into France and invasion barges were seen to be concentrating in the ports nearest Britain’s southeast coastline. These developments and a change in bombing tactics by the Luftwaffe from raiding RAF airfields to an attack on London, seemed to add up to the likelihood of an invasion and the code word ‘CROMWELL’ was signalled to military units throughout Britain. This signal was to signify that an invasion was imminent. The effect was to see all leave stopped for the regulars, mobile counter-attack columns put on two hours’ notice and Home Guards manning their defence posts for 24 hours, before a signal was received to stand down. A lower level of alert was maintained for a week and, although the Germans didn’t come, it was later seen as good practice!
In the original published version of this article in Bulletin 20 the author referred throughout the piece to the OC of the Tewkesbury Home Guard as Arthur Berry. Further research shows this was an error perpetrated by the Tewkesbury Register of 12 & 19 October 1940 in an article entitled 'TEWKESBURY ON THE AIR' listing participants including “Arthur Berry [sic] (secretary of British Legion And Commander of Home Guard). The compere then introduced Mr ARTHUR Berry 'old soldier' ... although retired was still putting in service as Secretary to the British Legion and HG Platoon Commander. Mr Berry then broadcast a message to the forces: 'I am one of the old Gloucesters myself … etc ....' " .
The author is correct that Mr Berry was also licensee of No 33 but did not realise that it was not ARTHUR but ALBERT HENRY Berry. His obituary confirms this [Tewkesbury Register 07 Aug 1954 p1/4]: "Albert Henry Berry: Licensee of Shakespeare Inn for 15 years from 1938 ... 22 years’ service in the Army, Gloucestershire Regiment … for 19 years as an officers' mess steward, serving in France, Egypt, Singapore and India. WWII Lt. in Home Guard and Secretary of the British Legion. 1948-1951 elected to Town Council."
After retirement in 1953, he moved to Farnborough and died at Winchfield Hospital, Hampshire, near Aldershot aged 63.
[John Dixon, President and Editor in 2011 who missed this unintentional error.]