Yeovil at war

Life in the Home guard

The Home Guard recollections of the late Walter McGowan

 

These are the wartime Yeovil recollections of the late Walter McGowan and are reproduced here by permission of the Old Yeovilians Association Archive.

 

"May 1940.  France collapses and the British Army is trapped at Dunkirk. It is a miracle that hundreds of small boats plucked 300,000 men off the beaches under continuous German fire. Trains disgorged thousands of British, Polish, French, Belgian etc. onto the platforms at Yeovil Town Station. How this movement of men was organised so quickly was amazing. Never could be done today, too many permits would be required!

Now the confusion of defeat sinks in and the town is filled with many languages and bewildered troops wandering about. The radio announced that one million volunteers were needed to confront the expected immediate German invasion. It was a ploy to unsettle the enemy which it did as there was talk of a million armed men on the ready. How a scattered million men could have had much effect was not noted.

The Chief Draughtsman at Westland Aircraft wandered around asking us if we "wanted to have a go" as he put it. Thus the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ at Westland was formed. We were given an armband with ‘LDV’ on it. Later we were called the Home Guard. We had some parades to sort ourselves into Platoons and it was all rather pathetic. In actual fact, if the invasion came we would just be "cannon fodder".

We learnt later that it turned out that one whole German Army was to land at Lyme Regis and drive up to Bristol to cut off all the S.W. England. Yeovil would have been in the way. From the post war German archives, Hitler demurred some what at the thought of a violent Blitzkrieg through England, saying "After all they are so much like us". [Plus, of course, he had already invaded Russia and was fighting on two fronts.] The invasion was stalled by the gallant fight from the heroes of Fighter Command, culminating in the backing off of the German Air force on September 15th 1940.

Meanwhile at Westland we started to get some shotguns, old WW1 Enfield rifles and old .300 American rifles. Being .300 bore the English .303 ammo did not fit. We were given uniforms. Mine would fit a 250lb man about 6' 3", so we had to get them altered at our own expense. We also got boots but no socks, shirts or underwear. In those days socks were woollen and rationed so we were hard on such items.

 


Courtesy of the Old Yeovilians Association Archive

HQ Westland Company, 3rd (Yeovil) Battalion, Somerset Home Guard, circa 1943. The photograph includes four 'Old Yeovilians' - front row, 2nd left Dennis Barnes, 3rd left Walter McGowan, 5th left Glen Hobday, 6th left David Freeman.

We were now well organized Army-wise. If you look at the picture you will see many middle aged men who had been in WW1, so their knowledge was a great asset. We continued our training in case an invasion did take place, or just to destroy the factory. Our best weapon was knowledge of all the surrounding countryside, so an intelligence section was formed. It comprised of the four of us in the front row of the photograph and there were four more not in the picture. We were excused parades, digging trenches and stringing wire, as we went out into the surrounding countryside to make very detailed maps of ditches and assorted cover. An idea was thrust upon us to act as infiltrating scouts. This was to sneak out to find the enemy, its direction, how many and report back. In fact it would have been suicide.

However, as time went passed, we did become a very efficient HG company. We often were detailed to attack other local HG units which of course were made up of old men and very young recruits. We never lost but showed the others their weaknesses to be corrected. We were also detailed to defend our positions against attacks from regular Army units. We never lost to them either, though it was a good deal rougher as the regular army units could be nasty bunch.

Each one of our little HG group had a certain territory to sneak about in. My luck was to draw the part which housed the main army bedded down in some woods. On one occasion as I was creeping about in the dark, I spotted the vague outline of a sentry and he had heard me and started stalking me. I crept away but came up against a dead end, so I crawled into a hedge, he crept right past me within 6 feet. We were hot-shots at camouflage, and so I had a nice nights sleep and watched the regulars pour forth at first light towards Westland Aircraft. There were many exercises like this.

1943 saw the US army in Houndstone Camp and one Sunday it was decided to have everyone in the Westland HG go on a route march. We went past Houndstone and ‘Old Glory’ was flying from a high mast, many GIs were hanging around as we came abreast. Each platoon was called in turn to shoulder arms and give an ‘eyes right’ as a salute. A US army officer stood to attention to return the salute. As each platoon took its turn, it was a very impressive thing as we did it right with our hobnailed boots making a wonderful sound.

In some exercises we teamed up with the GIs. On one occasion I was leading a small group when we met up with a group of GIs, they were lost and did not know what to do. I said the enemy (regular British troops) had moved on so I told them to wait until noon then go back to camp. My only interaction with US troops!

On 6 June 1944 we had orders to turn up for work in full battle gear. To non-members of the HG it was bit disconcerting to see ammunition clips and hand grenades clattering into desk drawers and guns leaning against the wall particularly as our intelligence section now had light machineguns, called ‘Sten’ guns, which were light and easy to use and cheap to make.

We were told to have rations for 48 hours and be ready to guard convoys which had to move to Weymouth to a precise time table in case Parachutists might try to attack them it was our job to fight back. Our reaction was, Oh Great! We had no transport, no medics, and Mothers saying where can she get rations for 48 hours when rationing was already very tight. The emergency did not happen. There was a change of plans, we may have to go to France to guard prisoners if things got tough. We may also be a last ditch reserve outfit if things really got worse. It did not happen, thank goodness!

So we went on going to work each day carrying all the clobber. Now gas was not used, so I suggested to our little group that we leave the gas masks and gas capes at home.
Then the clattering of our boots was disturbing in the office, so let’s leave the boots at home, likewise the tin hats. If we had an emergency, we would have to dash home for the stuff, so we might as well leave the guns and ammo home as well. By now we were in pressed uniforms, shiny shoes and looking all ready as if we had to go to a wedding. This ‘undress’ fever spread to others in the Home Guard. Then a snap parade was called one afternoon and only one man out of a few hundred was in full battle gear.

The time had come to stand down the Home Guard. To celebrate we all had one wild evening in the canteen with lots of free beer and lots of singing.

In hindsight, the Westland Home Guard did become very efficient, and not at all like the TV show of "Dad's Army". Discipline was difficult as orders were more of a ‘request’ at times. Members of rank who were like as not in the workshops or other work places would not come down on the Technical Office crew who would be in a position to help them out when they got in a fix from some work snarl up.

We should remember the heroes of Fighter Command. For without their sacrifice and battles won, our little Home Guard unit would probably have been slaughtered and along with many thousands of others."

 

Memories of the late Walter McGowan
Courtesy of the Old Yeovilians Association Archive