Leyland councillor Derek Forrest tells the story of Lancashire’s real ‘Dad’s Army’, focusing on the contribution of men from Chorley and Leyland who volunteered to help repel Hitler
We shall all soon be delighted with the return of the Walmington-on-Sea platoon of the Home Guard with all the old favourites reincarnated by a very distinguished cast in the film adaptation of Dad’s Army.
Once again we shall roar with laughter at catch phrases such as, “we are doomed”, “they don’t like it up them”, and “stupid boy”.
But while we join in the comedy, we must not forget that Mannering & Co are a modern recreation of eventually 1.6 million of our grandfathers who, in May 1940, answered Anthony Eden’s plea for ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ to do exactly what their title said they did.
Lancashire men were not slow in coming forward and very soon – for example in Central Lancashire, 6,100 men were sharing their issue of 19 service rifles augmented by an array sporting guns, locally manufactured pikes and even a cotton operative with a picking stick topped with a spike.
Indeed, so many volunteered that very soon they split into the 12th and 13th Battalions headquartered at Chorley and Croston respectively, of what had now become at Churchill’s insistence ‘The Home Guard’.
Ackhurst Brow in Chorley soon boasted a bus body, Coppull Slag tip, an old car and Leyland Gas Works, a crow’s nest each with its intrepid band of watchers doing their six-hour stints, fortified by sandwiches and tea brought from home.
Uniforms at first were no more than armbands but July saw the arrival of denims; August ammo boots and greatcoats.
Unfortunately caps were in short supply so the uniform was often topped with a flat cap or a bowler!
What were they watching for?
The belief at the time was that the German invasion would be preceded by a force of saboteurs dropped from the air sometimes dressed as nuns to take out vital points such as the Leyland Rubber Works and the Euxton Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF).
In the event, the only Germans falling from the sky were downed Luftwaffe aircrew and there is no record of the 12th ever catching any of these.
Not for want of trying.
One former regular NCO reasoned that the Germans were using the main line to navigate by and arranged his squad in a long line on the station to shoot upwards and give a Heinkel crew a bad shock.
Sadly the Luftwaffe did not oblige.
Happily, 1940 saw no invasion and by June 1941, Hitler’s attention was to Russia with the start of Barbarossa, but this did not remove the threat of invasion.
If Russia had fallen as planned, 1942 would have seen the weight of the Wehrmacht thrown against Britain to eliminate the America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier.
Here is where I very much part company from the BBC’s version because the Home Guard the Germans would have encountered in 1942 was very different from that portrayed on television.
Undoubtedly there were the odd Omdurman veterans among the Guard, but 40 per cent of them were World War One veterans, and therefore probably in their forties with battle experience.
The bottom age was 17 theoretically, so many of the others were young men awaiting call up.
The average age was 30.
No wonder there are photographs of them leaping from rafter to rafter in street fighting exercises!
The officers likewise tended to be self-chosen from the thousands of gentleman and ‘temporary’ gentleman required by the gigantic army of 1918.
This was particularly the case in Lancashire which lacked the legions of retired senior army officers found in the Home Counties.
Capt Mainwaring admitting he had never fired his pistol would have been very unlikely in fact.
Most First World War officers had gone through special training with their personally owned Webleys, and would have been dead shots at close range.
When you combine that with the fact until late 1942 all were unpaid volunteers, you can see that the quality of recruit was arguably better in fact than those who went into the Regular Army.
This is not all, as you have to consider the quality of the training these recruits were given.
Trainers from the beginning were not constrained by peacetime army practices and were able to concentrate on the tactics required for defending built-up areas, calling on veterans of the Spanish Civil War for the latest techniques and improvisations.
Numerous training manuals were produced concentrating on basic skills but avoiding bull.
The Red Diamond proficiency badge was hard earned and worn with pride by all ranks.
Residents at Earnshaw Bridge in Leyland were treated to exercises with real tanks and the battle inoculation at Ollerton Fold was so realistic with live ammunition and explosives that it left a regular officer permanently disabled.
The 19 rifles had blossomed into Battalions where every man had rifle and bayonet with sufficient ammunition, but also supported by machine guns and even artillery in the form of mortars and grenade projectors.
By 1943 communication was by wireless.
Like the Home Guard nationally, specialist platoons had been created. HQ company in Chorley was the first mobile company nationally built around the 27 motor cyclists of the Chorley Motor Cycle Club.
Leyland Motors, having been bombed, formed their own bomb disposal platoon who possessed full instructions on de-fusing all types of Nazi bombs and who practised in land off Canberra Road in Leyland. Members took over from the Royal Artillery, the light anti aircraft guns defending the ROF.
These efforts were mirrored across the country and as his confidence in the Home Guard increased, Churchill felt able to free regular forces to fight abroad, confident that Britain could still be defended.
Indeed had Hitler been able to turn west in 1942 or ’43, he would have been faced not just with a navy and air force as in 1940, but with upwards of two million men trained and armed and willing to die for their homes and families.
This would not have been a Volksturm (which truly deserved the title Dad’s or even Grandad’s Army) but a force every bit as good as their comrades in the regular army and indeed fit to take their place in the line.
The last parade was in December 1944 in drenching rain, when nationally the Guard was stood down.
And undoubtedly there was a sense of anticlimax in that the event for which they had trained for had not occurred.
However, we who can now can take a more measured view of history can see that the defeat of Hitler was not inevitable; that good does not always win and that very easily a time could have come when they would have had to stand up and fight for what they believed in.
It is in that light we should remember them even while we laugh at the antics of Mainwaring, Wilson & Co.