THE HOME GUARD IN PIRTON
I am investigating the Home Guard in Pirton because there is a good range of sources and it is a subject I find interesting. Pirton was in the ‘B’ company of the 2nd Hertfordshire County Battalion. I found that Pirton was like many other rural Home Guards and not like the more established, military minded units in the larger town TOM HOFTON
|Introduction. General information on the Home Guard, when it was formed, reasons
Uniform and equipment, what the first uniforms and equipment were like
Plans for invasion.
Relations with other organisations
Action in Pirton – for example, prisoners, air raids, aircraft crashes
How typical was Pirton of Home Guard nationally?
Reason for the Home Guard being disbanded. The follow up to the Home Guard
By May 1940, Hitler’s forces had conquered Norway, Denmark and France. With this came the evacuation of the British Forces from Dunkirk. It was believed that the invasion of Britain would soon take place.
On the night of May 14th, Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, made an appeal on the BBC Radio for what he called “a broomstick army” to be known as the Local Defence Volunteers. The broadcast was aimed at those men aged between 17 and 60 would could handle a rifle. They would form a non-uniformed force that would commit a minimum ten hours duty per week and look out for paratroopers.
The response was overwhelming. The first volunteers were besieging Police Stations within four minutes of Eden’s appeal, but only one in three of the 500,000 could be equipped with rifles. There were only enough Bren guns for one in 750 men. This showed the patriotic feelings of the British nation. Every citizen really believed that they were not going to be beaten.
For the first few months the Local Defence Volunteers had very few weapons – rusty shotguns, old revolvers, and ‘home-made’ bombs, known then as ‘Molotov Cocktails.’
In July 1940, the name was changed to the Home Guard at the suggestion of the Prime Minister, Mr. Winston Churchill – later generations called them “Dad’s Army”.
1940s A group of Pirton’s Army Cadets. L-R: Ron Walker, Alan Henley, Willy Froy, Derek Cook, Ken Cooper, Bob Kingsley. The cadets met in a former pigeon shed in the garden of Pirton Court and held drill practice in the school playground. Too young for the armed services, these cadets worked closely with the Home Guard. Young men were conscripted from the age of 20 at first, but later in the war at 18 years. Many went in the armed forces, but a few were directed to industries judged essential to the war effort.
By 1943 everyone had a uniform and a rifle. Most units also had a machine gun and live ammunition.
In the evenings, they would gather after work and train in drilling, weapon handling and anti-tank warfare.
They would familiarise themselves with the local area, and be responsible for anti-invasion precautions. They would remove any sign that might help the Germans, guard important points, and set up and man roadblocks.
|2.||UNIFORMS AND EQUIPMENT
When the Home Guard was formed, or Local Defence Volunteers, as they were then first called, each member had no uniform, but did have an arm band with the letter L.D.V. printed on it.
By 1942 most units had a proper uniform of:-
i) Cap and Badge
In the case of most units, including Pirton, the uniform came in over a period of half a year. In Pirton there were two female clerks responsible for uniforms and equipment and they would call in all the men every 6 months to account for what they had got or lost.
Each member of the Home Guard was supposed to commit 10 hours service per week. In answer to this requirement, the Pirton Home Guard would meet on two nights (Wednesday and Friday) and ne morning a week (Sunday). The Commanding Officer was the local Gamekeeper, Lieutenant Arthur Sopp. He oversaw 30 men along with 2 Sergeants, 3 Corporals, and 2 clerks. They would meet at the Pirton Court, the biggest house in the village in a big barn. Here they would drill, do keep fit exercises and rifle “proficiency.”
For the first few months they used broomsticks as rifles, thus the name “Broomstick Army”. Each Home Guard was given a book with all they needed to know in it (see Fig 1). It was written by Major John Langdon Davis and cost 2 shillings. The manual had chapters on Rifles, Lewis Gun, First Aid and plan for invasion. It also had a few advertisements in it, for example, Kiwi boot polish and Gillett razors.
About once a month the Pirton Home Guard would march to a disused chalk pit on the hills outside the village and fire their rifles. The Pirton Home Guard did not have any machine guns or markers. Every man was issued with his own rifle which he would take home every night. Every night two guards would have to patrol the village looking for fires, bombs and guarding anything important. They took it in turns patrolling once every two weeks. There were not any roadblocks in Pirton, but they had been taught how to make one out of everyday objects like chairs and beds.
The Home Guard very rarely went on training camps. The two they did have were at Hitchwood, Preston 7 miles away. Here tents were already set up but there were not always enough to go round. In their four year’s existence they only joined up with the surrounding units at a camp twice. One could often avoid going on the training camp by claiming to be attending a church parade. They very much kept themselves to themselves. Although they did have exercises regularly.
Quite often a Pirton Home Guard would go on a weekend course. There were quite a few courses specialising in separate activities.
1) BURWASH, SUSSEX : Field craft and roughing it
2) DEMBIES, Surrey : Talks and General Fieldwork
3) ONEDURY, Shropshire : Fieldwork & Night Exercises
4) DUNMOW, Essex :
|4.||PLANS AGAINST INVASION
After interviewing several former members, I concluded that the Home Guard in Pirton never had any real plans to repel an invasion. Mr. Taylor said:
“The enemy was only in the back of our minds; we expected the units before us to stop them.”
When I asked Mrs. Wilshire whether she thought that the Home Guard could stop a German invasion after they had beaten the Regular Army, she said:
“At that time we, and everyone, really felt that we could beat the Germans whatever happened.”
The signs around the village were never removed like in so many villages near the coast, probably because they never expected the invading forces to pass through Pirton. (Pirton is about 100 miles from the coast).
|5.||RELATIONS WITH OTHER ORGANISATIONS
The Pirton Home Guard never really met up with other organisations, simply because there were not any others in Pirton, only the local policeman. The only time that they did work alongside other organisations was when the bomb fell on the village.
|6.||ACTION IN PIRTON
Pirton being a small rural village, did not have much in the way of crashing planes and mass bomber raids, but it did have the odd bomb here and there. The most notable was when a V1 or ‘doodle bug’ dropped on the old Motte and Bailey in the centre of the village. It demolished a few cottages and damaged some others.
The Home Guard were called out along with the N.F.S., Rescue squads, W.V.S. and the C.D. A senior officer of the Home Guard was pleased with the work being carried out. This was one of the only times the Pirton Home Guard got involved with a direct part of the war.
|7.||HOW TYPICAL WAS PIRTON OF THE HOME GUARD NATIONALLY?
The Home Guard in Pirton was not as military minded as some units in the larger towns but was very typical of many small rural Home Guard units. They were not really fighting forces ready to stop cold a German invasion, I think that it was all very patriotic, a kind of morale boosting campaign to make them feel that they were part of the war effort and put their spare time to good use.
|8.||REASONS FOR BEING DISBANDED
Only up until the last few weeks of the war, did people begin to realise that the Germans were not going to invade. With this, the Pirton Home Guard stepped down on 3rd December 1944. The uniforms were collected in by the clerks and sent off to H.Q. in Hertford. This may have been the end of the Home Guard, but not of a reserve army. Today the Territorial Army have taken on the role of the Home Guard. The recruits still have day jobs, but at weekends they train with the regular army. The only thing that differs between then and now is that the T.A. are paid, whereas the Home Guard were not.
When I was interviewing my sources, I came across an excessively big problem. Both of my sources gave conflicting evidence, for example
Mr. Taylor said that the Home Guard did not fire their rifles, nor did they possess any live ammunition, but Mrs. Wilshire said they did have ammunition and shot the rifles regularly.
Mrs. Wilshire said the Home Guard was formed in 1940 in Pirton, but Mr. Taylor said it was not until 1943.
With this I went to the Hitchin Local Museum and looked up the above information in their records and reports. In both instances, Mrs. Wilshire was right.
This is the same with all histories, everybody is subjective instead of objective, this means everyone tells the facts through their own eyes and tells the story the way it affects them.
It is not possible to say what would have happened if there had been an invasion and the organisation had been really tested. It did succeed in its second objective in boosting morale.
Fig. 1 Taken from Hitchin Museum records ; Poet unknown
GRANDPA IN THE HOME GUARD
You’ve heard of the call of the Yukon
And all about knock em back Nell
Well this one’s about my Grandfather
So this will be lousy as well.
He was seated one day in the Ratcliffe
On the war he was airing his views
Darby said “Shut your row you old hagbag”
And lets hear the 9 o’clock news.
A hush fell upon the assembly
And everyone pricked up their ears
As a guy named Anthony Eden,
Called for Local Defence Volunteers.
As Grandad sat there and listened
The look on his face grew quite wild
You could tell he had made a decision
By the way he knocked back his mild.
Next day he got up very early
Grandma said “Whats the idea”,
For he sat there cleaning his musket
Which hadn’t been used since Crimea.
“There’s likely to be an invasion”
He answered with lofty disdain
And if I don’t do summat about it
Old England will be down the drain.”
Then when he’d called at the police station
A sergeant brought paper to sign
He did this on one condition
His section must be No 9.
And having achieved his ambition
A soldier again as it were
He turned up for parade in the evening
Complete with his musket and spurs.
Headquarters was outside the Ratcliffe
This just suited our old grandpa
And as soon as the sergeant dismissed ‘em
He fell out and in to the bar.
But weeks went by, nothing happened
I’m a fighting man Grandad would boast
I can’t stick this ‘ere any longer
So he got a transfer to the coast.
One day while patrolling the seashore
The sergeant came up at a run
Yelling “Look at them ships on the ocean”
Grandad promptly fired off his gun.
“Take down a report”, said the sergeant
“And mind that thou take it down right
Then phone it through to headquarters”
Grandpa said “Can’t it wait till tonight”
The message filled 21 pages
About strength and position of ships
Grandad looked a real ancient Briton
Through putting blue pencil to lips.
But jumping upon his tri-cycle
He sped down the road full of zeal
But wasted a few precious moments
By catching his beard in front wheel.
Mr Sam Taylor
AGE THEN: 36 (BORN 1906)
JOB IN H.G. : Storekeeper
YEAR JOINED: 1940
Mrs. Barbara Wilshire
AGE THEN: 25 (born 1917)
PROFESSION: School teacher
JOB IN HOME GUARD: Clerk
YEAR JOINED: 1943
“The Home Front – an anthology 1938-1945” by Norman Longmate.
“A Foot on Three Daisies – a story of Pirton’s History” by Joan Wayne
“Hitchin Express” – 24th September, 1944
|When was the Home Guard formed in Pirton?
When did you join and what job were you doing at the time?
How many joined?
Were there any age limits?
How did you join, were you in any military service before?
Could anyone get in?
What training did you receive?
Did anyone fail to get in?
Were you paid?
How many times a week did you meet? Where did you meet? What did you do?
What sort of uniform did you wear?
i) To start with?
ii) At the end of the war?
Do you think the Home Guard was effective? Would it have been effective if there had ever been an invasion?