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MEMORIES AND INFORMATION - STAFFORDSHIRE HOME GUARD

 34th STAFFORDSHIRE (BILSTON) BATTN.
and
Major HORACE JUDGE GEORGE
 

Associated pages in this section of the website:
Maj. H.G. George (this page) - 1943 Battn. Parade/Review - 1944 Battn. Display - Other Battn. Info.

Bilston was defended by the 34th Staffordshire (Bilston) Battalion of the Home Guard. This Battalion was commanded by Lt.-Col. J. Pitkeathley, M.C., (late Leicestershire Regiment) and in early 1941 his second-in-command was Lt.-Col. E.E. Marsh. At that time, when Home Guard commissioned ranks were first listed, the name of a Lt. H. J. George appears: in due course Lt. George was promoted, probably from the role of Platoon Commander, to the rank of Major with responsibilty for an entire Company and also the duty of acting as second-in-command to the Battalion C.O.

Horace Judge George (1899-1974) signed up for the Home Guard on Wednesday, 15th May, 1940 when he was just forty. (It would have been difficult for him to have joined any earlier: the creation of the force was only announced the previous evening during the famous broadcast by the Minister of Defence, Anthony Eden!) But as a result of his prompt action, his span of service will always be a remarkable "15th May 1940 - 31st December 1944".

He is seen (right) in the earliest days of his service, bearing the LDV brassard which was rapidly replaced by one bearing the title "HOME GUARD" following Churchill's demand for the change of name.

Horace George had previous military experience, as can be seen from the ribbon he is wearing in the above image. Having volunteered to join the Army when he was 17 he was eventually called up in 1917 and was sent to France in April, 1918 as a Private in the Durham Light Infantry. He was therefore involved in the Spring 1918 Offensive of the German Army in its final desperate attempt to end the war before the full effect of numerous, fresh troops from across the Atlantic started to be felt. On May 19th of that year he was struck by shell fragments whilst on guard at a pithead in Lievin, near Lens, as a result of which his right leg had to be amputated above the knee. He returned to England, after having spent just 50 days in France, for treatment, recuperation and the fitting of an artificial right leg. His injury (and resulting repatriation) may well have saved his life; but it also affected it for the rest of his days.

When war broke out in September 1939, Horace George was married and had two sons, Ben and David. At that time he was living in Windsor Avenue, Penn and worked within the family coal merchant and haulage and canal carrier business, George & Matthews (1924) Ltd.  of Van Dyke Wharf in Bilston Road, Wolverhampton. He would continue to work there until his retirement in 1964.

After his prompt signing up in May 1940 he was part of a unit which rapidly evolved into the 34th Staffs (Bilston) Battalion. Like many others in a position of authority, his previous military experience ensured that he was given immediate responsibility. An early role was as a Platoon Commander. The following photograph may well be an image of that Platoon. Lieutenant George sits amidst his comrades, NCOs (many of them bearing a Great War ribbon) and the other ranks who made up the remainder of the Platoon privates (or, more probably, "Volunteers" as they were known in the early days of the Home Guard).

Click on image to view higher definition version
Click on image to view higher definition version

A very similar group image survives, probably taken at the same time and in the same place. This is of another group of men, probably another platoon and this one commanded by J. Pitkeathley, later to become Battalion C.O.

Click on image to view higher definition version
Click on image to view higher definition version

Weeks of hard work ran into months, and the months ran into years - intensive training, exercises, parades, guard duty, observation. As the service settled down to regular routines, after the first months of desperate activity, the minimum amount of time which any Home Guard had to devote to the service was 48 hours per month; and many, especially those in positions of responsibility, found themselves giving much more. All at the same time as holding down demanding day jobs in difficult times. Conscripts started to appear, to serve alongside the original volunteers.

Seventy-five years later we have to rely on fragments of information to give an idea of the scope of this activity. Here is a minor example: a Proficiency Certificate issued in 1943 to a private in the Battalion and confirming the level of proficiency which he had achieved in various activities, all gained only after hour after hour of training provided by unit specialists and practice by the individual.

 

This piece of paper tells us, not only that Pte. H. Wilson of "D" Company (responsible for the John Thompson works) had given almost two years of excellent service, attested to by his Company Commander, Major W.H. Smith, but that he was now proficient in a number of skills essential  to the effectiveness and survival of a typical infantryman. It also tells us a little about other Battalion members and their role. In late August 1943, Pte. Wilson was tested for General Knowledge by Lt. W. S. Peach; for Rifle by C.S.M. Powell; for 36 Mills Grenade by Major H. J. George; for Blacker Bombard/Spigot Mortar by Sgt. Harper; for Battlecraft and Bomb Disposal by an unknown officer or NCO; and for Map Reading by Sgt. A.L. Ball. All this countersigned and approved by the Battalion Commander, Lt.-Col. J. Pitkeathley and his deputy and President or Member of the Examining Board, Major H. J. George.

It is very likely that all these men appear somewhere in the various photographs on this page; but regrettably most so far remain largely unidentified.

(N.B.  Pte. Wilson is stated on the above certificate to be a member of "34th S.S. Battalion". This somewhat startling affiliation is of course not what it sounds like. South Staffordshire Home Guard Battalions adopted this abbreviation during the war: the Nazi S.S. organisation was of course known about but it was only later, when the detail and extent of its appalling crimes were eventually revealed, that those initials became inextricably associated with it, exclusively and probably for all time.  Until then, the Staffordshire Home Guard used them, in all innocence, as a useful abbreviation).

The role of Platoon Commander and of Company Commander were of course energetic ones, requiring a fully fit man to fulfil them. As we imagine and admire the intensity of all these men's efforts, mental and physical, over four-and-a-half long years, it is easy to forget that Horace George suffered from a severe disability as a result of his Great War service. But there is no evidence that the loss of a leg in any way impaired his performance. To the contrary, in fact - there is one memory of how a virtue was made out of necessity and led to recognition of his Platoon's initiative and effectiveness:

Once, his wife related, he came home with his uniform completely wet; he asked her to wash and dry it, ready for the next weekend. He explained that his Company had been on manoeuvres, competing with another Company in a race to cross the canal and capture a building. The long way would have been to go to the nearest lock to cross the canal, but he decided that his unit should swim the canal to get there first. "Come on, men!" he called as he jumped in. As one of his men said later, they weren't going to get a one-legged b****r beat them, so all but two who couldn't swim jumped in after him. Crossed the canal and captured the building to win the day. They were congratulated by the umpiring officer and felt quite triumphant until they returned home to face their wives, who were not at all pleased at the thought of washing their dirty, wet and heavy uniforms.

The Old Soldier's "tell 'em nothing" principle...

On another occasion, the Company was being inspected by an Army bigwig, who noticed that the major had been limping. "Hurt your leg, George?  was the question.. "Yes, sir" Horace replied and provided no further details. Nothing more was said....

In 1943...

One weekend in the summer of that year, the Bilston Home Guard had a weekend away "in camp" at The Bratch waterworks in Wombourne. One of the activities was firing live "full size" ammunition in a quarry at Lower Penn near Wombourne which had been adapted as a firing range. Horace's two sons, Ben and David, had been allowed to join the camp for the weekend and were excited at being allowed to participate in the shooting, and to experience for the first time just what a "kick" from a .303 rifle was like; they had only fired smaller stuff at School where they were both members of the Junior Training Corps. (The Home Guard also fired small bore weapons in training, as an unused target from those days confirms - right).

It was of course because of the boys' military training in the JTC that they were allowed to join the camp. Such training however had not fitted them for the job they were given at the camp selling cigarettes, which their father had somehow managed to acquire in large numbers, to their fellow campers.

Triumph over Adversity...

He was allowed petrol which was strictly rationed, to use his car for his Home Guard duties and to get to and from work. But it is remarkable that he was able to drive a car at all with only one functioning leg, which had to be used to operate the clutch, brake and accelerator. It all required a certain amount of ingenuity. For "hill starts" he used his hand to place the foot of his artificial leg on the accelerator to get up enough revs before letting in the clutch with his left. As soon as the car was moving, though, the right leg had to be moved back out of the way and the good leg permitted to take over all operations. No one really appreciated at the time just what a feat it was for him to drive as he did.

We are fortunate that the family archive of Horace George and his successors still include a quantity of images which provide further glimpses of the life of this Battalion - no doubt typical of many, many others but, in terms of individuals and locations, very specific to Bilston.

These images can be viewed on associated pages:

Parade and Review - Bilston Town Centre - 1943
Battalion Display - Hickman Park - 1944

.....and another page provides further information on this Battalion.....
34th Staffordshire (Bilston) Battalion

 

**********

In memory of

Major
Horace Judge George

and all his comrades
in
34th Staffordshire (Bilston)  Battalion,
Home Guard

Acknowledgement
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Ben and Pam George for much of this information about Ben's father and his comrades; and for their generous permission for its publication within this website.
Images Ben George 2017

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x147 - January 2017