The Home Guard
Copyright Extract from The History of Newmarket, Volume II, Chapter 41, (2000) Easom S. (editor), Newmarket Local History Society.
On 14th May 1940, the Government broadcast a message asking for volunteers for the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers). On 23rd August 1940, Winston Churchill changed the name of the LDV to the Home Guard. Wits had dubbed them the “look, duck and vanish brigade”. The organisation took on more credibility once its name was changed and uniforms were issued.
The 2nd Cambridgeshire and Suffolk Battalion of the Home Guard was formed on 15th May 1940 when Major W N Phillips, Chairman of the British Legion in Cambridgeshire, arrived at Mr. W J Taylor’s house to say that he had received instructions to form a number of Home Guard Groups.
Mr. Taylor was left to find some subordinate commanders and, having roughly divided Cambridgeshire into 3, chose Captain T. T. Taylor, Mr. R. Thompson and Colonel Foster as Sub-Group Commanders. They, in turn, were asked to draw up lists of village commanders.
The next step was to get clerical assistance and Miss Gower, employed by Mr. Taylor in his solicitor’s office, became the chief clerk.
One evening, when she was working late, Miss Gower heard someone banging on the door of the office. She found a driver there who was wanting to deliver a lorry load of Molotov Cocktails (a type of explosive/incendiary, made of petrol, tar oil and paraffin in a glass bottle which, after the fuse in the neck of the bottle had been lit, was hurled at the enemy after the fashion of a hand grenade).
The driver wanted her help to unload them from the lorry as soon as possible! Miss Gower sent him to the Commanding Officer’s (CO) private house, where the Molotov Cocktails joined the rest of the amateur arsenal.
Rifles, ammunition and equipment had begun to arrive in varying quantities. The CO’s garage became the Quartermaster’s Stores and his chauffeur, Mr. Robinson, acted as Quartermaster with Mrs Taylor assisting. Every time anything was checked, it always seemed to be short, but nobody minded! The most important thing was to get arms and equipment to the Home Guard companies in the shortest possible time.
A Mr. Hamshaw subsequently became Quartermaster until November 1943. In August 1940 a house, ‘The Chestnuts’, was occupied as Headquarters offices by the Quartermaster, Miss Gower, and other staff. These offices were taken over in August 1942 and Headquarters then moved.
In May 1940 no-one seemed to know what spending rights the Local Defence Volunteers possessed; therefore, they scrounged much of their equipment. The first uniforms issued were denim overalls, but these were replaced by Battle Dress in autumn 1940. Arms and equipment came with the uniforms until almost everyone had rifles (this did not seem the case for other battalions nearby).
The Battalion was about 1,000 strong by now but was split as Colonel Foster formed the 3rd Battalion and took over 2 of the 3 companies – together with their rifles.
The remaining battalion took over another area where the men were badly armed. The Suffolk companies who joined were also very poorly equipped. There were, in all, five major changes in the battalion area and only A Company, under Major Taylor, formed part of the original battalion. The area covered by this last battalion was altered 3 times.
The powers-that-be said such an arrangement would not work as Suffolk men would not wear another county’s badge. They were proven wrong. National spirit outweighed local pride and the battalion area eventually stretched from far north of Brandon in Suffolk to Brinkley in Cambridgeshire and covered an area of 400 square miles.
Higher Command would have liked to split the battalion again but faced the difficulty of finding HQ staff and specialist officers. Of the 7 companies into which the battalion was divided, 3 of these were in Suffolk.
For quite some time, no organised training was carried out, except by the initiative of the village commanders. These were all ex-servicemen from all branches of the Armed Forces, so training was varied and rather primitive. Arms drill was the basis of most training and some villages practised patrolling. The real threat of invasion meant that it was necessary to practise to become efficient marksmen – as far as possible without being allowed any ammunition!
Cheveley Local Defence Volunteers, lacking appropriate equipment, used to block the road running through the village every night with an enormous tree trunk. The tree trunk was very heavy, and it took considerable effort to put it into place.
One evening there were not enough men to haul the trunk into place. However, the LDV who were there were determined to fulfil the task. They meant for the tree trunk to go across the road, and they had nearly got it into place when one of them slipped up.
The tree trunk then fell on top of all of them and was too heavy for any of them to move or extricate themselves. At last, someone came along and went for help from the ARP wardens. As the two organisations co-operated well at Cheveley, the LDV were soon free, and the tree trunk was soon in its rightful position.
In July 1940, the chief worries of the LDV were spies and lights in the night. Reports came in that red, yellow, green and other lights were being seen. These were possibly RAF lights but, due to the lack of liaison, it was decided it was necessary to investigate to be certain.
It was decided to mount an all-night search on the Devil’s Dyke between Camois Hall in Woodditton and Stetchworth. At this point, the Dyke measured 22 feet high from level ground, more from the bottom of the ditch.
Three LDV men, the CO, young Moore of Dullingham and Mr. Bailey, joined 2 Regular Army officers who were stationed in the neighbourhood. The plan was to lie out on the Dyke to catch any spies who might be putting up lights. They were armed with all sorts of weapons, including ropes to lay across the path to trip would-be spies, but no rifles. The tactics were to lie silently and still until 4 a.m.
Mr. Bailey was not a slight man. He weighed between 22 and 23 stones and had a chest measurement of 57 inches. About 2 a.m. he tried to move slightly as he was cramped and managed to slip and roll down the Dyke into the ditch. Following orders, he signalled that he was alright and remained there until 4 a.m.! No-one came along the Dyke.
The battalion was paraded for the first time in September 1940. About 800 men were lined up behind Egerton House, Newmarket. The LDV from Newmarket were there, but at this time they were only attached to the battalion. They were commanded by another battalion commander in Suffolk, from whom they were entirely detached – all due to geographical position on county boundaries! It was not until 1942 that the situation was remedied
By the time of the next parade on 1st March 1942, there were 1000 officers and men in the battalion and the parade took place on the Severalls. Training improved throughout the spring and summer of 1941. The commander of C Company organised a bomb-throwing competition, which was quickly copied by other companies and ended in a battalion competition. The final was staged at Newmarket and Quy platoon won.
Lt Co. Francis organised a combined Civil and Military exercise in autumn 1941 near Fen Ditton and Horningsea. This may have been the first of its kind in the country and schemes followed elsewhere afterwards.
The battalion took place in an exercise involving the villages of Soham, Isleham, Kennet, Chippenham, Fordham, Snailwell and Wicken. They did very well in the exercise and captured most of the pretend ‘enemy’ and almost all of their transport. There was just a little bit of trouble at Isleham when the men of the village forgot that it was not a real battle!
Another big exercise took place in December 1941. HQ staff had been trained after the last exercise. Many of them were WVS, employed to take telephone messages. This was the forerunner of the ladies’ signals section, which became so efficient that in 1943 it was quite capable of competing with the ATS personnel. There was also an intelligence section, who worked out the order of battle on the maps and kept ‘I logs’. Mrs Taylor played Minister of the Interior and slept 32 people in the house and gave breakfast to 46 Home Guard in the morning.
During the exercise, a Regular Army officer riding a motorcycle was stopped by a HG corporal near Newmarket station. The officer was indignant, but the corporal insisted, ‘I am sorry sir, but you are riding a motorcycle with enemy markings; you must come to Company HQ’. Some 24 hours afterwards, the same officer returned along the same road after convincing HQ that he had nothing to do with the exercise. The same corporal stopped him again. The officer hissed in reply to the corporal’s query, ‘Now don’t start that —romance all over again; I’ve already lost 24 hours of my leave!’
A first-rate battle HQ existed at the Jockey Club by the time of the next exercise. The ladies’ signal section had a switchboard and 3 lines. There was a battle room, liaison and DR rooms, intelligence and rest rooms, relief rooms and visitors’ rooms. Mr. Birkenshaw was responsible for the intelligence section. The battalion was able to call on Lieutenant J L Jarvis, who had had experience of using messenger pigeons in the First World War. He was the battalion’s pigeon’s officer. The battalion also had medical services.
Training films were shown at the Doric Cinema on Sundays in the winter of 1941-42. Training also improved with the arrival in July of an Adjutant, Captain R J Pizzey of the Cambridgeshire Regiment.
Summer camps were held at Moulton Paddocks in 1942 and at Balsham in 1943. The WVS and the boys of the Army Cadet Force came to assist and provide food. Newmarket was considered particularly good at liaising with the Civil Defence. The co-operation of village policemen was also praised as ‘outstanding’
Several of us may recognise their grandfather, or perhaps great grandfather. (TP -Mine is in the centre,
Captain ‘Sid Welch” Mr Ede who managed Marlow’s in St Mary’s Square is on his right and the RSM on his left is Arthur Clarke). About a dozen of them old sweats from WW1 by their medal ribbon. Actually, my grandfather was young enough to enlist in WW2, but he had lied about his age to get in the Army in 1909 and the Army records had him as too old and would not take him !..We would love to have more names
Extracted from: The History of Newmarket, Volume II © Newmarket Local History Society.
We have already looked at the incendiary devices known as Molotov Cocktails. They could be risky to use as the corks which held the fuses sometimes leaked. There was a danger of spillage and setting uniforms on fire as the thrower brought his arm back.
On one occasion, a platoon commander had just thrown one of these devices and was explaining to his men that they were foolproof and that there was nothing to be afraid of. A private stepped forward from the ranks, halted 3 paces from the commander and saluted smartly, ‘Yes Private?’ said the commander. The private replied, ‘Excuse me, Sir, your breeches’ arse in on fire!’
On another occasion, an agitated volunteer reported that he had accidentally put a round of ammunition through someone’s electric stove. He had shot straight through the oven door. The bullet had wrecked the inside of the oven and carried on out of the back. The police were given the rather doubtful explanation that the man’s rifle had a very long firing pin and, when the bolt was pushed forward to extract the round, the cap was struck and fired.
Another volunteer shot a bullet through a man’s bedroom, and it exited through the roof. The man was in bed at the time, and he said to his wife, ‘Get up Missus, the — are here at last.’
Various roadblocks were set up overnight initially and the old soldiers who manned them ‘dug in’ comfortably in borrowed sheds which they put temporary beds in. In the case of one particular squad, the comradeship they obtained in this way was so important to them that they almost mutinied when they were told that the all-night duties were to be discontinued.
An HQ officers’ conference was held in December 1943. One speaker was heard to say, ‘I condole with the Officer Commanding 7th Cambs (Mobile) Battalion, whose battalion is so mobile that for weeks at a time he loses control of it altogether’.
‘Any news of the invasion Sir?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, I suppose it will be coming along in due course’ and everyone thought it was, and appeared to be utterly unafraid, although we were raising an army as ill-equipped as that of Monmouth at Sedgmoor, to face the most highly trained and mechanised troops in the world. Home-made Molotov Cocktails to stop tanks and a few outmoded Ross rifles to face the latest machine guns and mortars.
“A” Company was the first to receive any weapons at all, and those were issued the very night of 14th May. Just 2 or 3 rifles to a village and a handful of cartridges. We raised a little more, for we managed to scrounge a modest quota of rounds from the Regular Forces back from Dunkirk. Some of us were even offered rifles too.
We were to block roads when the Boche landed. Anything would do. Old wagons, rollers, binders, anything. Stop the roads, trap him in defiles if you could find any, in one of the flattest countries in Europe! Get at the parachutists before they have time to form up, with a few old rifles and the village poachers shot guns. Splendid, everyone was thrilled. It was a magnificent bluff and it succeeded. No Boche would believe that we were so unprepared. How could we be? We had armed the country for defence in depth. What chance had the invader when everything was guarded by the men who had beaten him in the last war? Every village had its OP and the dangerous hours from dusk to dawn saw each village manning it and sending out its patrols to look for parachutists, subversive characters and fifth columnists.
Francis ‘Son’ Cates – the last survivor of the Wood Ditton Home Guard.
The Wood Ditton and Saxon Street Home Guard 8th Platoon – early nineteen forties.
Back:- Fred “Tubby” Brown – Bill Stubbings – Charlie “Nicky” Crick – Francis “Sonny” Cates – Joe Woollard – Jack Dean – Jim Starling – Harry Scrivener – Charlie Carpenter – Charlie Levitt
Middle:-Albert Williams – Ted Rose – Eddie Nicholls – Tim Norden – Charlie Bridge – Jack Claydon – Artie Woollard – Frank Carr -Harry Byford – Ted “Chinnie” Brown
Front:-Perce Wright – Bill Cook (Saxon St)- George Brigs – Bert Wright – Charlie Carter – Capt Lionel Long – Bill Webb- Les Brown – Lewis Reynolds (senr) – John Coe – Cyril Swann
In September 1944, the year before World War II ended, the Home Guard stood down. The danger of German invasion of our shores had passed. However, in May 1940, quite a different situation existed. Following the evacuation of our troops from Dunkirk it seemed highly likely that invasion by German forces would come at any time.
As a desperate measure to help our inadequate army, all able-bodied working men were recruited as Local Defence Volunteers, later to be renamed the Home Guard.
Francis Cates, popularly known in the village as ‘Son’ was one of the first to join. Today in 2006 he is the only surviving member of the thirty or so men who made up the Wood Ditton and Saxon Street 8th Platoon Home Guard during the first three years of its formation.
He and his wife Vera now live in Hatfield in a comfortable bungalow, not far from the shops. Despite their age both can recall with remarkable clarity the critical times of the early nineteen-forties. These notes are taken from some of Sonny’s recounted memories.
He was born in 1911 in Wood Ditton and destined, like most of the young men of the time, to work on the land. This suited him fine as he loved the outdoor life and working with animals. As a young boy he attended Wood Ditton School during the Great War, “the war to end all wars”, which brought heavy loss of life and injuries among the village men.
When World War II came his job classified him as having a reserve occupation as he was then an experienced Stockman for farmer Stanley Hensby, work considered essential for food production.
The formation of the Home Guard gave him a chance to help defend his country, joining with other men of the village under the leadership of local farmer Lionel Long, who was appointed as their Platoon Captain.
Son remembers those early days as mostly boring route marches around the village, for men most of whom had been walking to work and then walking the land all day.
What they needed most was training and equipment and they had very little of either, two elderly American Ross rifles saved from the Great War to share between the whole platoon, and very little ammunition. They had to improvise with weapons, a few had shotguns and Son was lent a small sporting rifle by his employer.
At least they were soon issued with uniforms, which made them look more like soldiers. Parades usually dismissed outside one of the two village pubs, The Granby or The Blackbirds. Thirsts brought on by route marching were slaked, that is if the pubs hadn’t sold out of beer, quite a common occurrence in those days of extreme shortages.
Attempts were made to subject the platoon to army discipline and Son remembers a retired regular army drill sergeant who he says, “was brought in to try to make guardsmen of us, but most of us were just ordinary old country boys, so the sergeant had a problem”. One small member of the platoon pushed in the chest and told to stand up straight promptly fell over backwards.
They were each to receive training in disassembling a live Mills bomb (hand grenade) and all met in the British Legion Hut at The Granby. Their platoon sergeant (John Coe who had served in the Territorial Army) decided that passing the grenade from hand to hand was too risky and he walked out, followed by the Corporal and the rest of the platoon, leaving Captain Long with no one to instruct.
Rumours of German spies, parachutists with unlikely disguises and ‘fifth-columnists’ abounded during the invasion scare of 1940/41, and undoubtedly a few spies were operating in the area. These were nervous times and the Home Guards were instructed to trust no one, so they set up roadblocks using a hay-turner farm implement.
Everyone was stopped and ordered to show their Identity Cards, even familiar village people. This led to an incident which could have ended in tragedy. A certain bomber pilot from Stradishall aerodrome had lodgings in the village and regularly travelled along the Kirtling Road. He became exasperated at repeatedly being stopped and eventually swore at the Home Guard and drove off before receiving permission.
The private carrying the rifle, who had a reputation for unpredictability, fired at the departing car. The bullet penetrated the rear of the car and exited through the windscreen. The incident was hushed up at the time but that particular platoon member was not trusted with a gun while on roadblock duty again.
Lack of training and unfamiliarity with weapons caused other problems. One evening a platoon member handling his rifle in the kitchen accidentally fired a round which went through the ceiling and narrowly missed his young daughter sleeping in the bedroom above.
Each day two members of the platoon were detailed to carry out night patrols around the fields, but they only had 10 rounds of ammunition between them, and they knew that if used there were no spare rounds available. Son recalls the scary experience of being out at night, with German planes droning overhead and not knowing who or what they might encounter.
Son also remembers the day when he came face to face with an unexploded bomb while working in ‘Clap Gate Meadow’, which lies between the Blackbirds and the Church. One of the Davis girls from ‘Whitegates’ who was driving a tractor drawing a seed drill had discovered the three feet long bomb, which the drill had partly pulled out of the ground.
She had lifted it onto the tractor and brought it to him. Son did not share her apparent unconcern and called out Mrs Hatley, the local schoolteacher and Chief Air Raid Warden. This lady obviously considered it was a matter requiring the correct approach and donned her A.R.P. Warden’s uniform before visiting the site, presumably on the basis that if she was to be blown up she had better be officially dressed. The Army eventually dealt with the bomb.
Son was not a man to shirk duty but one evening he particularly wanted to meet Vera his future wife, who he was courting, so he made up a story about a sick cow about to calve and his presence being essential on the farm. He obtained permission to miss parade, which was fine until he and Vera were met by the marching platoon as they rounded a corner in Kirtling Road. He was the butt of much catcalling and good-natured ribaldry, and it took some time to live that incident down.
Eventually enough rifles arrived for each member of the platoon to have one, but ammunition remained very scarce. During more than four years in the platoon Son fired only 10 rounds from a rifle and that was target practice in the local chalk pit. He also managed to throw one live Mills bomb.
A question often asked is how would the Home Guard have stood up to the German army had we been invaded. Son thinks that some of the ex-regular soldiers in the platoon would have made a brave stand, but others were simple country boys with no warlike instincts. He feels that the setting up of the Home Guard was mainly a propaganda exercise, but that at least they would have been a nuisance to the enemy. Their close knowledge of the local countryside would also have given them an advantage.
Son is a peaceful man who hates the idea of killing anything. He spent his final working years in industry after giving up his beloved farm work on principle when his employer decided to turn to factory farming. He admits however that if faced by an advancing enemy in the war he would have been forced to fire in self-defence.
And what does he think of the TV comedy ‘Dad’s Army’? “We did some funny things in our time”, says Son, “but not as funny as that”.
Footnote. This article was written in 2003, Son died on 20th December 2007 aged 96.