MEMORIES and INFORMATION - 32nd Battn. - 3
MEMORIES OF "D" COMPANY
(PELSALL)

This is a page within the www.staffshomeguard.co.uk website. To see full contents, go to SITE MAP.

Memories of life in "D" Company, 32nd (Aldridge) Battalion South Staffordshire Home Guard, in Pelsall, 1942 - 1944

By Reg. Neville

 

The following wonderful memoir was written especially for staffshomeguard.co.uk by the late Mr. Reg. Neville. Mr. Neville, originally from Pelsall and later living in Cornwall, was a member of "D" Company from 1942 until stand-down at the end of 1944.

The memoir makes reference to many individual people and places associated with "D" Coy. Whilst it deals specifically with events involving that Company, the experiences related - sometimes humorous, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes moving - probably reflect those of countless Home Guard members in units up and down the country.

The following reads as a continuous narrative. It contains, however, several anecdotes which can also be read separately and which for convenience of reference have been given specific titles. They are:

A SADNESS FROM THOSE TIMES
THE WOTS-ITS-NAME BOMB
DANGER - HIGH EXPLOSIVES!!!
LOSS
THE P.S.I.
SIGNALLING
WAR WEAPONS WEEK

**************************************************************************

 

MEMORIES OF LIFE IN "D" COMPANY

Perhaps my earliest memory of “D” Company of the Home Guard and one of the first people with whom I came into contact on joining up was Sergeant Painter (right). I already knew him as a family friend and that he was a first war veteran. He took me and another new recruit on one side and told us that we had just joined the best company in the 32nd Batt. South Staffs HG, which was the best battalion in the 5th South Staffs which was the best regiment in the British Army and don't ever forget it or (ominously) let ‘anybody tell you different'. I believed him at the time and still do to this day, more than sixty years since.

I have always regretted that for me that memorable moment came some time after the earliest, desperate days of the organisation described elsewhere on this website. When the organisation was being founded with such urgency, I was an apprentice in a reserved occupation whereby I was working at the time of Dunkirk a 70-hour week - 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for five days and then half-days on Saturday and Sunday - which through sheer exhaustion fell to 60 hours by late summer and continued at that level for more than another twelve months. All this, together with regular fire-watching duties, ruled out any possibility of early service in the Home Guard with its obligations of regular attendance. At around the time of a reduction in working hours to a mere 54 hours, perhaps in early 1942, there came the invitation(!) to join the Home Guard. I cannot recall exactly when this was but it was the beginning of a period of which I have clear memories of specific events and particular individuals, such that I have found pleasure in recalling and committing them to record and I hope that the reader will be similarly entertained.

In addition to the specific events about which I write below and which have remained firmly in my mind for over 60 years there are many random memories which of themselves are not particularly noteworthy of my time in the Home Guard but are indicative of the involvement and level of activity of life in the organisation as a whole. They are trivial and yet they perhaps contribute to a fuller understanding of Home Guard experiences which again, in the total frame of far greater events at that time, shrink to a very tiny part of the total war effort.

Any similarity of the wartime Home Guard to "Dad's Army" as recorded in my notes is due to the human tendency to always remember the better moments from our dim and distant past. The reality was far different. That we presented ourselves every Sunday morning at 10.00 hrs (military-speak) for training including rifle drill: present, order, slope, shoulder, ground, fix bayonets....rifle inspection. We were taught how to march, how to salute, how to put on and take off a gas mask, how to test for gas, how to use the Sten gun. We were trained in priming and throwing the 36 Mills bomb which had as primer a fuze filled we were told with fulminate of mercury, a name frightening enough, only to be told that it was likely to explode if inserted into the grenade carelessly.......and how to throw these from the relative safety of a sandbagged trench....... how to use the Sticky bomb, a weapon like a 5" glass bulb covered with a sticky net which adhered to a tank or other target. It could be likened to a squat oversized toffee apple and when loosed from the hand the safety clip fell off and the user had about ten seconds to retire from the scene. It seems the regular army was reluctant to use this bomb, but it remained with the Home Guard. The instruction was to walk up to the target and plant the bomb firmly so that it adhered to the metal of the target. We were assured that it was so designed that the full force of the explosion went through the fractured part of the bulb and blew a hole in the metal. Which it did! As we found out in practice. We were told that on no account were we to turn and run after release of the handle, we had ample time to walk to a safe distance...... which contrary to instruction, we reached in times which would have done justice to Seb. Coe, this to the accompaniment of the discarded handle whistling past our necks.

And of course the exercises. Exercises at Barr Beacon, overnight weekend exercises, memories of our company cooks who left a lot to be desired in ways only to be imagined. Who knows, they might be survivors with computers and so I must be careful about mentioning them by name and shall therefore confine my comments to personal memories of greasy tin plates and cleaning of same in a bath of cold greasy water, breakfast of undercooked sausages, dinners of equally doubtful stew. All this in the peace and solitude of Barr Beacon sleeping in cold Nissen huts on straw palliasses.

An exercise one frosty night, taking place over what today is called Pelsall North Common, but which we knew as the Nest Common, was designed to teach us how to advance to attack an enemy target using ground cover which meant crawling fully equipped over scrubland. It fell to me to advance into a frozen swamp and sink to elbows, knees and belly and resist the temptation to yell out and reveal oneself to the enemy. That this sort of event did happen in the Home Guard does admittedly border on the Walmington-on-Sea experience but it did occur and was a normal part of field exercises. The good part was that we were able to go home, bath, change and eat a wartime ration, relishing the knowledge that others of our company were on guard duty in our stead.

It was another exercise which caused me to remind myself, as did so many other things at the time, of the sadness of those years. The incident made me uncomfortable at the time and has done so ever since, whenever I think of it.

A SADNESS FROM THOSE TIMES

There was a weekend exercise to take place at Barr Beacon. The Company notice stated that dress was full battle order. This comprised of the usual dress, plus steel helmet, gas mask, haversack containing gas cape and personal items, grenade pouches, greatcoat and rifle and bayonet. This was about as warlike as it was possible for us to get.

It was Saturday afternoon and cigarettes were never easy to get during wartime. I thought I would try my luck at a general shop not far from Company HQ. I went into the shop dressed and equipped as described and asked the lady behind the counter if she had any cigarettes upon which she put her hand under the counter and produced a packet. I cannot remember if it was ten or twenty cigarettes, for which I paid. As I was leaving I heard the lady say something and after this lapse of time I cannot remember her exact words. She could have said "Good luck, son" or it could have been something more prayerful. I sensed that she spoke with feeling.

Suddenly it came to me that with my attire and equipment and since the greatcoat worn by Home Guard was identical with regular army issue and without the Home Guard flash, she, perhaps with memories of soldiers going off in the Great War as if it were yesterday, imagined that I was off for front line duty somewhere. "Good luck, son" or something like it....... What was I to do? What was I to say? If I said I'm only in the Home Guard and I'm going to Barr Beacon for the weekend, how would she have felt? Would it have made her feel foolish, imagining what a laugh it would be when he told his mates? Maybe they would be coming in to try it on. How could I spare her any embarrassment at her natural mistake? I just nodded as I left the shop with a muttered thank you. It seemed the best and only thing to do. I kept it all to myself, I wished it had never happened, never turned out like that, all for a packet of fags.

I've remembered it ever since, always with unease.

***************

My earlier mention of bombs brings to mind an evening which has always been associated in my mind with the “The Wots-its-name Bomb”.

THE WOTS-ITS-NAME BOMB

One of the first lectures I attended, it was more of a talk really, because there were only the three of us with I think Corporal Joe Gill (left) - he later was promoted to a first lieutenant - and.....the bomb. For the last sixty years I have mentally named this frightening chunk of metal the wots-its-name bomb, but the wonders of the Internet now allow me to give it its correct name: the No.68. It was almost certainly the Mk II version.

Whether or not it should have been a live bomb for this sort of thing I don't know but we were assured at the time that it was very live. Furthermore we were told it was very sensitive to rough handling. There it was, lying quietly on the table. The Corporal began to explain that the bomb was for use in the EY rifle in the same manner as the Mills bomb with which we were a little more familiar. The bomb itself was similar in shape to a wine glass and about 2 inches in diameter, consisting of the main body which was the explosive part, the base and the stem. It should be mentioned here that the table was one of about a dozen folding card tables, part of the furniture of the Scout Hut which was now “D” Company (Pelsall) headquarters. Under the table were four pairs of newly issued army boots, any one of which was capable of collapsing the legs of the table with consequences not to be considered.

It was explained that the sensitive part of the bomb lay in the stem where there was a plunger which if it was propelled forward and upward would strike the percussion cap and BANG! This plunger was prevented from moving by a thin piece of wire which was threaded through the stem and the plunger via a tiny hole. To check if the bomb was safe all that had to be done was twist the piece of wire on one side and see if it turned on the other. If it did not??? The corporal did not tell us about that. Why all of this was of especial interest to me was that for some reason I had been given the EY rifle and the object which scared me stiff lay there on the table before me. I say this because the other two being lectured sat there with an air of boredom; maybe they were made of sterner stuff than me, or knowing they would never have to use it they couldn’t have cared less. The part where I showed most attention was where we were told that the bomb had to be put in the firing cup of the EY upright, that is, the way a wine glass should stand. In that way, when the bomb was fired at the target the plunger in the stem would fall back and would only move forward to make contact with the detonator when the bomb struck the target. It seems that in some Home Guard company, we were not told where, the bomb had been put in the cup head down with obvious disastrous results on firing. I had watched the bomb closely throughout this lecture, wondering exactly what to do should it commence to roll in any direction. Nobody else seemed to share my apprehension and it was with some relief that I watched the corporal take up the bomb and carefully replace it in its carrying case. I was even more relieved when I was made signaller and the EY was given to someone else. I hope they'd listened to the lecture.

. ***************

I remember another occasion when the typically relaxed attitude of the time to high explosives was uncomfortably evident.

DANGER - HIGH EXPLOSIVES!!!

In one idle moment whilst on duty with “D” company, I was instructed by CQMS Ernie Woodhouse (below) to go to his mother’s house which was a cottage in the row opposite the church. With three others we were to collect I think it was four spigot mortar rounds. These looked like small bombs, about two feet long and about as big in the body as large marrows. We were to take one each, the four of us and bring them back to Coy. HQ and then on to the ammunition magazine. The magazine was brick-built and in a field somewhere between what is now the Clockmill Estate and Fishley. (I should think this vital piece of information must have been declassified by now!)

That the magazine was soundly built, secure and isolated contrasts with the place where we picked the rounds up. This was on the boiler, cold at the time, a feature of most houses at that time, in what was a sort of outhouse called the brewhouse or today the scullery where they had been left, probably by some army delivery unit.

They were lying there unguarded and LIVE in this quiet and typically English village. Had there been any unfortunate occurrence before we took charge of these deadly pieces the explosion would have demolished not only the houses, but possibly part of the church opposite as well. If only the vicar had known!

***************

Amidst all the humorous stories which emerged from the Home Guard experience, many of them worthy of “Dad’s Army” and one or two of which from my own experience I relate in these notes, there were of course moments of real personal sadness.

LOSS

He joined the Home Guard right at the beginning. I first saw him in uniform when he turned up at “D” Company which I had just joined. A keen motor cyclist, he was attached to Battalion HQ as a despatch rider and was either a corporal or a sergeant. We had been close schoolmates and after leaving school John, or Johnny Cooper to give him his full name, was like me in a reserved occupation. He had been hauled back from the Regular Army by the nature of his work, but somehow, unlike me, managed to fit in Home Guard duty. With face blackened and wearing an army motorcyclist helmet and sitting astride his bike, John had entered into the HG with relish. Unhappily it was not to continue, for a motor cycle accident on his way to work one morning resulted in his death. He and I were very close at school and for some time afterwards, until our work separated us, someone with whom it would have been a great joy to have served. It was for me an early acquaintance with the death of someone close who always showed the greatest enthusiasm for anything he engaged in. I missed him greatly. And I remember him still.

***************

Whilst much of our training was provided from within the Battalion, there was from time to time a contribution from outside by the real experts, men who had been in the Army for a long time and “knew the ropes” in more ways than perhaps we realised at the time.

THE P.S.I.

The smart motorcycle in army camouflage parked outside Company HQ betokened only one thing. The presence with us of a P.S.I. Our sergeant called us to order, assembled us and called us to attention as the C.O. came out accompanied by a regular army sergeant as smart and presentable as the motorcycle he had arrived on. We were informed that the sergeant would take over for drill instruction, which without further ado he did. He obviously enjoyed his job, whipping this bunch of willing but wanting part-time soldiers into something like an army. He had us to attention, at ease, attention until we did it more or less all together and then better. We marched, sloped and ordered arms, marched and countermarched until the sergeant was satisfied that we had learned how to obey orders and, as the whole exercise was designed to do, experienced what discipline really meant and that there was a need for stiffening, a need to become aware that although part-time we were under the auspices and training of a bigger and more efficient war machine.

P.S.I.s, "Permanent Staff Instructors", were as the drill implies a means of imparting stiffening and discipline to Home Guard units. The impression we gathered was that P.S.I.s, in our case sergeants but sometimes W.O.s were regular soldiers who for health reasons were no longer fit for front line duties but eminently suitable for training the Home Guard. On the parade ground they were to be feared and respected, but otherwise were likeable, clubbable chaps.

One other place where we encountered them was on the rifle range. Once again we were drilled, and taught the various firing positions to adopt, what the signals from the target end meant, inners, outers magpies, bulls, and the like. Before commencement of firing we were told that we would be judged on our skill as riflemen and concise records during the exercise were kept and the results to be carried on the HQ notice board later. This was the official side of things. Along with this, the P.S.I. invited us to take part in what he called the "pool bull". It seems that somewhere in the bullseye of one of the targets there was a secret spot and whoever succeeded in hitting this would win the pool which would be made up from what we paid for the bullets which the sergeant had mysteriously managed to procure - nudge, nudge, wink, wink. We readily took part and as we fired off our rounds we asked the sergeant, who had binoculars, how well we had done, only to be told that he would let us know at the end of the contest. The end of the contest came and we enquired who had won, only to be told that he could not be sure and would have to look more closely at the targets and would let us know later. We should have known better for although the official results of our prowess as riflemen was duly posted, who actually won the "pool bull" contest somehow became "lost ?", between the infrequent visits of the P.S.I.

My last memory of our two P.S.I.s was after we had been "stood down" and “D” Company held a celebration dinner at the Railway Hotel in the village, where they were our invited guests. They enjoyed with us a convivial evening and we parted with handshakes all round. But we never did find out about the "pool bull" thing.

***************

My move to signalling duties which I mentioned above reminds me of another of my earliest contacts in “D” Company. This was with Corporal Callow, who gets a mention in "Home Guarding". He was only with “D” Company for a short time and transferred to HQ as the notes in “Home Guarding” indicate. It was at about the time of this move that I found myself designated a signaller and made L/Cpl. Somehow I feel that Callow was behind this as I had a high regard for him and perhaps it was mutual. And so a few words on my signalling career with “D” Company.

SIGNALLING

I found signalling very much to my taste and working with signallers from the Rushall company soon reached a high standard in Morse sending and receiving, something which to this day I have managed to remember, if not maintain. Some details of the basic procedures and working practices also still linger in my memory. For example, a signaller going on duty should always carry a pencil, sharpened at both ends, advice which would no doubt have stood Tony Hancock in good stead in the sketch, "The Radio Ham". It was a piece of sound advice appearing in the army instruction booklets issued to Home Guard signallers and my instructors would no doubt be pleased that I remember it still.

I was happy to give up the EY rifle and take up the signalling flag or flags. At that time both Morse and Semaphore signalling were being used by the regular army as well as the Home Guard. Morse was "transmitted" with the signaller standing with one flag, one flag only, held vertically just above the head. To start sending, the flag was waved, or wagged, a few degrees either side of the vertical to commence and then dipped to 45 degrees either to the left or to the right to send a dot or a dash. It was a slow and unsatisfactory method but, given that the signaller knew his Morse Code, useable. Semaphore involved the use of two flags and can best be seen today by signallers in the Royal Navy. I found it easy to learn the sending positions for the flags, but reading what was a reversal of those positions was more of a problem. With the co-operation of enthusiastic signallers from the Rushall Company signalling by lamp became a regular exercise and send/receive rates improved, followed by the use of buzzers where rates of 12 to 14 words per minute were being achieved, approaching the speeds of those of the regular army so long as regularly practised. Standard army message forms were used which were similar to a telegram form, (if anyone can remember those). They were used for plain language and cipher, where cipher was the term for the groups of five characters to be entered in the spaces. In the regular army there were the Royal Corps of Signals and the Regimental Signals. These could be likened to the Brigade of Guards, the elite, and the regular infantry regiments. As far as is recalled Home Guard signalling was modelled on the latter, regimental signals.

It is said that the best teacher is one step ahead of the scholar. This was certainly my experience since our signals corporal ceased to attend parades, for reasons unknown, and I with the authority of my one stripe had to lecture the two privates who had been detailed as signallers. I received, without comment, from the CO numerous and regular army instruction booklets which laid down systems procedures which were to be adhered to. I found the experience of learning and conveying the knowledge to others to be exhilarating and one which has been of value many times during my life.

One of the problems at the time was the phonetic language. Most old soldiers had a smattering of the old system used up until the beginning of WW2 where a, b, c, d, were “ac, beer, charlie, don.......” With the coming into the war of the United States, their nomenclature was adopted where “ac, beer, charlie, don...” became “able, baker, charlie, dog.......” and so on, and though for newcomers such as myself it was easy to assimilate the new form, the terms - ac.r (“ack-r”) for message received and understood and “O, ink, ink, pip” for a priority message or “O, ink, ink, uncle” for a different degree of priority as set out on message forms were hard to shake out of the language. The principal on-duty involvement of signallers was to be on telephone watch during the night; however usually the most important and vital call received most mornings was the wake-up alarm call from the GPO. For the keen signaller equipped with standard message forms divided into sections where five ciphers could be inserted, either cipher (code) or plain language, he could send messages to other companies who had a signaller on duty. Tempting as it is, I refrain from naming the companies who were less willing or able to use what was a valuable exercise, which when carried out in the presence of others on duty was always an occasion for laughter on hearing the unaccustomed phonetic language, to which they were ever ready to provide their own unrepeatable versions.

The highlight of my signalling experience was when we first used radio. It was R/T now not W/T and we were warned not to divulge anything which might be helpful to the enemy, or to use any bad language as there was constant listening from a post somewhere distant and not disclosed. Since the sets we were issued with had a range of about 1000 yards, I reckon the listening post must have been somewhere in Heath End at a distance of half a mile and the enemy possibly somewhere in Shelfield, 2 miles away

But otherwise I make little mention of the use of Radio or RT as a means of communication in this battalion since the availability of such equipment was limited to demonstrations and the occasions when it came down from "on high" and after limited acquaintance was withdrawn, probably for similar demonstration to other battalions in the zone. This did not mean that strict training in correct procedure for RT working in groups and higher networks was neglected and all in all the standards that were achieved were, as far as can be ascertained or remembered, all that could be expected of us.

***************

WAR WEAPONS WEEK (probably 1943)

There were, as so often during the war, special fund raising efforts, the most well known being the Spitifire Fund whereby local authorities, factories etc. set out to raise £5,000 to purchase one. The other event which took place over a week was mostly undertaken by local authorities and set out to raise, not by subscriptions but by War Savings, much larger amounts, usually £50,000 or £100,000.

Such an event took place some time during, I think, 1943 for the whole of the Aldridge U.D.C. The part played by Pelsall residents had as its highlight a demonstration of weapons in use by the armed forces. These were primarily military items and the display was laid out on tables on the centre common at the village centre end. They consisted of the more usual guns such as the Lewis, the Vickers and the Browning together with later ones like the PIAT anti tank gun, the Bren and the Sten, some of which we had in “D” Company and some we did not. In addition there were Mills bombs (unprimed) and various other dummy bombs and other pieces of equipment which the general public would not normally come into contact with.

The whole array of weapons and the like was very impressive and we, the Home Guard were asked? requested? instructed? COMMANDED to take part with a display of some sort. We had of course the Spigot Mortar but this was deemed too dangerous a weapon to be used on this occasion and the only other piece we had which would make an impressive bang and possibly some worthwhile damage to say a Nazi tank was the Northover Projector, well described as a piece of drainpipe on sticks. Despite such derisory descriptions the Northover was useful and capable of inflicting effective damage on a small armoured vehicle or personnel. So it was decided to show off the Northover Projector which was set up at the same end of the common as the display and pointing down the length of the football pitch at a target which would appear at the right dramatic moment. It was about now that it was discovered that the rear sight on the weapon was missing and enquiries revealed that it had gone back to the armoury at HQ for repair some time before and had not been returned. This sight was a metal piece about 8" long at the rear end which had to be lined up with a short stub at the front. Urgent discussions among the officers came to the decision that the gun aimer should guess the height of the rear sight and trust to luck. The dummy rounds which were in use were very similar in size to a one pint pasteurised milk bottle and made of white rubber. The dummy round was loaded through the breech and the charge added behind it and then the percussion cap added last of all.

Whilst this took place the "enemy" trundled a plywood tank from behind the clump of trees around the flagpole and in the direction of the Railway Hotel, where it took up a position midway between the two and just over a full football pitch length away. Here it came to a halt looking menacing and with hostile intent. This was the moment to display the full force of what “D” Company would do in a real situation. The gunner took aim, making an intelligent guess as to where the rear sight should be. He pulled the trigger and the projectile left the barrel, flew down the football pitch at a height of about 2 feet, bounced in about the centre spot of the pitch, shot high into the air and continued down range where it came down spot on the turret of the tank which demolished the vehicle completely – all to the roar of rapturous applause from the audience who had watched open mouthed with admiration the skill and prowess of the village's very own Home Guard. The crowd dispersed fully satisfied with what they had seen and well disposed to invest yet again in War Savings.

Of course we ballistics experts spotted right away that had it been a proper round that was used it would have made a hole about as big as the centre circle where it first landed. As Captain Mainwaring might have said, "…..good thinking, I wondered who’d spot that first”. But all in all it was a successful contribution to a good cause and well worthy of inclusion in "Dad's Army" of later years.

***************

Parades were of course a regular occurrence and part of the routine of Home Guard life. But two particularly grand events do stick in my mind, the one being as I recall a zone affair. I think the zone was comprised of Walsall, Darlaston, Wednesbury and Aldridge battalions. There must have been over 5,000 men on that parade. I remember distinctly being on this, in which the 32nd assembled in Green Lane Walsall and the others beginning in Park Street, Stafford Street, and Wolverhampton Road before marching off to pass the Town Hall where the salute was taken, possibly by Col.Cartwright, C.O. of the 32nd Battalion. We then proceeded via Mellish Road to somewhere up the Aldridge Road where the parade terminated. I remember that we were headed by a Home Guard band and marched to the tune of the South Staffs Regimental March, "Come lassies and lads....."

The other was the occasion of our being stood down and I cannot remember where this took place, but imagine it was in or near Aldridge. Afterwards “D” Coy. marched back to Pelsall where the standing down proper took place under the command of Major W.G. Davies C.O. “D” Coy.

And perhaps with the image of this stand-down parade marching smartly past the rostrum, I should bring these reminiscences to a close. The training in the evenings and Sunday mornings, the parades, the exercises, the guard duty, the demonstrations, the sense of purpose and perhaps above all the camaraderie - all were the stuff of life in the Home Guard, in Pelsall and countless other places for the nearly two million men and women who served and shared the experience. In December 1944 it all dissolved overnight, our services were no longer required and we all started to get on with the rest of our lives. And now, more than sixty years on, just the memories remain……...

Reg. Neville........August 2005

© R. Neville 2005