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History & CommunityDerek Stevens 10/10

Derek Stevens 10/10

On December 3, 1944, stand down parades for the Home Guard were held throughout the country. Each member was given a certificate of service and was allowed to keep their uniform and boots. Operational since 1940 over one and a half million volunteers had served in the force, all either too old or too young to serve in the regular services. Answering a radio appeal given by Anthony Eden 400,000 men volunteered in the first two weeks. All they were issued with to confront the enemy was an armband. Noel Coward observed this fact by writing and singing a song entitled ‘Can you please oblige us with a bren gun?’ Ancient rifles of American and Canadian origin were later issued until supplies of modern equipment were eventually organised.


The Home Guard hand book contained some devilish instructions as to how to deal with enemy invaders as follows: ‘Home Guard cyclist trap – Stretch a strand of wire across the road about four feet high. If there are several cyclists let them all crash, then shoot or club them individually, starting with those who manage to pull up before crashing.’


Many early volunteers were active left wingers and veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and suspicions arose among the establishment as to whether efforts would be made by them to form a revolutionary people’s army. MI5 focussed themselves particularly on this possibility.


One British International Brigade veteran was of special interest to them, Tom Wittringham, who had acquired valuable specialist knowledge of guerilla methods of warfare during his time fighting for the Republican cause in Spain. He set up a training school in Osterly Park, west of London. During his time in Spain he had made friends with American writer Ernest Hemmingway who based one of his characters in his book For Whom the Bell Tolls on him. A Marxist and known as ‘The Red Revolutionary’ he was eventually eased out of his position as commander of training of irregular warfare by an increasingly concerned War Office.


Another International Brigade veteran was George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm. He served as a sergeant in the Home Guard but was very critical of the structure of the Home Guard, observing:-


‘The Home Guard swells to over one million in a few weeks and is deliberately organised in such a way that only people with private incomes can hold a position of command. It is the most anti fascist body existing in England at the moment, and at the same time is an astonishing phenomenon, a sort of people’s army officered by Blimps. The rank and file are predominantly working class with strong middle-class seasoning, but practically all the commands are held by wealthy elderly men whom are utterly incompetent.’ With his strict socialist leanings he also observed ‘That rifle hanging on the wall of the working class flat or labourer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there’.


According to information revealed in a book entitled Churchill’s Underground Army published in 2008, auxiliary Home Guard units of SOS type forces, obviously the result of efforts by Tom Witringham, were formed throughout the country. The furthest unit in the South West was set up by Devon farmer, Douglas Ingrams, of Membury near Axminster. Together with neighbouring farmers, Stanley Lawrence and Sydney Watkins of Dalwood, secret hides and dead letter boxes were made in the surrounding countryside to provide information of the whereabouts and activities of enemy forces, if they were to arrive, directly to local army headquarters.

Dead letter boxes were made of several strange things, birds nests in hollows of trees, spaces behind the hinges of five-bar gates, at the back of loose bricks of a wall and behind the ID plate on a telegraph pole. The messenger would know if a message was within if the plate had been turned upside down. A children’s sand pit was also useful. A tennis ball with a split cover through which a message could be inserted could be found among the toys, this could be dropped down an apparent rabbit hole, or a hole drilled in the stump of a tree where it would roll down a terracotta drain pipe into a receiving bowl in the secret hide beneath ground. The operator would encode the message and forward it by radio to army HQ.


The defensive stop line of pill boxes and tank obstructions, which was built across the countryside from Seaton to the Bristol Channel at Burnham-on-Sea, included the construction of such hidden wireless stations. To the east of the lower Axe valley there was a radio hideaway at Hawkchurch, whilst on the other side of the valley on Bewley Down a back-to-back two seater privy, situated at the end of the gardens of two semi-detached cottages, hid the entrance to the secret wireless station of farmer Douglas Ingrams.


The construction of this Auxillary Units Operation Base, as they were to be called, was kept so secret that even the Royal Engineer sappers who built it were ferried back and forth to the site in completely closed trucks so they had no idea of the exact location.


One of the privy closets was built on a steel framework and, triggered by the pulling down of a coat hook on the privy wall, could be lifted vertically from above revealing a narrow shaft with the lifting mechanism, counterweights and a vertical ladder leading downwards. At the bottom was another coat hook which was to be pulled down to replace the suspended bucket, – very carefully one would imagine. From here a short passage led to a concrete chamber with a saucer shaped dish in the floor in which a message carrying tennis ball might rest containing information of enemy troop movements. Part of the far wall of the chamber consisted of two railway sleepers which, being hinged at the top, could be lifted to give access to a smaller room, the very secret wireless room. The electricity was wired from the cottages and the wireless aerials were concealed in the top branches of an old scots pine in a nearby spinney.


Imagine the consequences of Jim Perry and David Croft, the creators of Dad’s Army, knowing of this and including something similar in the capers of Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, with the ever enthusiastic Corporal Jones saying ‘Captain Mainwaring, Captain Mainwaring, I wish to volunteer to pull down the coat hook’.

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