Reminiscences of Home Guard service by Mr
Many TV viewers must think that the 'Dads Army' comedy series was just a parody on the real wartime Home Guard but my experiences led me to view it as fairly near the mark!
In 1941/42 I had a strange training before service in the Royal Navy from March 1943 to June 1946. Having joined the local Sea Cadet unit to give me background training for my Royal Navy service, I combined this with taking part in the Home Guard to 'defend us against the might of the invading German Army' !
So I suppose I was the 'Private Pike' of the Home Guard platoon comprised mainly of those, like me, working during the day at the depot of the local electricity supplier, First Garden City Ltd. As local Electricity Service Manager, Captain Bill Woodall made a perfect 'Captain Mainwaring' of the TV series but his deputy was a little more difficult to compare with 'Sergeant Wilson'. Joe Surkitt, the jointers labourer at the local depot became Lieutenant Surkitt, the commanding officer's deputy at the end of his working day.
It was real fun to see Joe giving orders to Sergeant 'Pinky' Day who at work was a skilled underground cable jointer with Joe as his labourer! But I am sure they both got their own back when 'boss' of the other either during the day or off duty hours when their roles reversed. Most of the rest of this platoon worked at the electricity depot in Stratton Street near the railway bridge (now part of High Street). So we worked and 'fought' together both day and off duty. We assembled in the old cottage which was originally the 'Bay Horse' Public House, which was used as a store for electricity meters and cable boxes, or in the yard out the back. The cottage is shown on photo 99 in Vol 2 of 'Old Biggleswade' (see footnote)
Yes, we started with all wooden rifles and no uniform but progressed to Home Guard battledress and First World War Lee Enfield rifles but dummy ammunition. What would have defended us if the balloon went up we never found out! Our other firepower was the Sten gun automatic, probably more lethal to those firing it than the enemy; I believe it was invented in Czechoslovakia. Also a 'spigot mortar', made mainly from a steel tube which projected missiles, which we first tried out at 'Hoppys Meadow', a pit in Dells Lane, later to become the car park for the Weatherly Oilgear factory and now is part of the 'Authors' new housing estate. We fired the mortar rounds from the pit bank on the Dells Lane side hopefully not to land on the London to Edinburgh railway line! It was fun intending to be deadly serious. I know that the pit next to the 'Spread Eagle' pub was used later a rifle range (see photos 67 & 68 in Vol 4 of 'Old Biggleswade' book and footnote)
The venues I remember for guard duties, which usually involved an overnight stay, included the Civil Defence headquarters in Stratton House in The Baulk, in the room which after the war the Urban Councillors, including myself, held their meetings. We also stood guard in the local Territorial Army offices in Shortmead Street, which is now Millenium House. In fact I remember sleeping during night duty in the room now used by the Royal Navy Association, where the History Society holds it's monthly meetings with me as tea boy. Times do not change much! (see photo 74 Vol 2 and photo 139 Vol 4 of 'Old Biggleswade' books and footnote)
Forays outside Biggleswade
We had a weekend tented camp on Reams farmland somewhere near Deepdale, Potton with a lot of other Home Guard platoons and on the Saturday evening most were off duty visiting the John o' Gaunt public house in Sutton. Why I did not go I cannot work out, perhaps I was considered too young or like a few others 'drew the short straw' and was left guarding the camp. When the lads returned from Sutton most were the worse for wear, having had quite a few drinks. One group were challenged by the duty guard at the camp gate with the usual cry of 'Halt and be recognised'. As most were incapable of a sensible reply, there was a risk of being shot but I think there were dummy bullets!
Most of our outings were fun but meant to be serious training. On a Sunday morning our platoon together with other local units were transported to invade Bedford, with their Home Guard platoons acting as defenders. Our platoon, when dropped off, started early that Sunday morning crossing peoples back gardens to prevent the defenders from seeing us advance up the road in front of the houses. It was a stroke of luck that one big garden contained a fruit orchard, and perhaps it was a coincidence that most of us were eating apples as we advanced! After all most invading armies were expected to gain booty from the territory being invaded. I cannot remember us ever meeting any defenders and got the impression we were both trying hard to avoid one another so we could get back to our wartime Sunday dinner.
Our commanding officer, Bill Woodall, sounded just like Captain Mainwaring of the TV series as he regularly said 'Let Hitler come, we are ready for him'. We used to mutter quietly something like 'his storm troopers would go through us like a dose of salts'. But I suppose we would have done our best. The interesting thing was Germany ended up with their own 'Dads Army', comprised like ours of men too old and boys too young for military service. I saw some of these on the beaches of Normandy after D Day as prisoners and have to confess I felt more than a bit sorry for them, involved in a war most people regretted.
Service in the Home Guard made me grow up more quickly and learn to work alongside other people.
I include references to photos above which illustrate the premises I refer to and these together with many, many more of local sites, people and events are contained in five volumes of 'Old Biggleswade', which can be purchased as a 'package' from Biggleswade History Society Secretary (www.biggleswadehistory.org.uk )
Page last updated: 23rd January 2014