Rex Needle: Dad’s Army was no laughing matter in wartime Bourne

Homeguard. Rex Needle EMN-140812-161947001
Homeguard. Rex Needle EMN-140812-161947001

Seventy years ago this month, the Home Guard was stood down from its role of defending these islands against invasion during the Second World War.

This part time organisation, also known as Dad’s Army because most of the volunteers were too old for regular military service, has won a place of affection in our national life through the television comedy series made 40 years ago yet delights us still. We may laugh at the antics of Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson and Lance Corporal Jones but behind the humour of this organisation was a serious 
purpose.

War was declared on 3rd September 1939 and on May 14th the following year, the government broadcast a message asking for recruits to join the Local Defence Volunteers or LDV. On 23rd August 1940, Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, changed the name to the Home Guard and it became the main protection for Britain until the war ended in 1945.

The Home Guard was formed because there was a real risk of invasion by the enemy. Most able-bodied men were already in the forces and those left were either too young, too old, unfit or in reserved occupations, those jobs vital to the war effort. But those who did volunteer were expected to fight an invasion of crack German troops with nothing more than a collection of old shotguns, pieces of gas pipe, broom handles and sticks with knives tied to the end instead of bayonets.

The government anticipated that 150,000 men would join nationwide but within the first month, 750,000 had volunteered. By the end of June 1940, the total had exceeded one million and this number did not fall until they were stood down in December 1944 although the Home Guard was not actually disbanded until 31st December 1945.

The objective of the Home Guard was to delay an invasion force long enough for the regular army to form a front line from which the enemy could be repelled. The force relied on makeshift kit and equipment at the outset but were eventually issued with proper uniforms and conventional weapons.

The Bourne company was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Horace Stanton, a local solicitor, and the total strength was 339 men who were armed with 220 rifles, 20 machine guns and one Browning heavy machine gun and its responsibilities included guarding a number of public utilities such as electricity sub-stations, the railway stations at Bourne and Twenty, Braceborough reservoir and the waterworks at Wilsthorpe, the crossroads at Witham and Northorpe and other strategic points on main roads around their sector.

Although Colonel Stanton had served with distinction during the First World War, most of the officers and NCOs had no military training and there was a great deal of confusion during the early days as they began to set up their administration and organise regular supplies, particularly petrol which was rationed because of the war. The source for Bourne was the Jubilee garage in Abbey Road but most of what they had went to the regular troops who were stationed in the vicinity and so the Home Guard usually went without. New equipment slowly filtered through and soon the unit was issued with rifles and live ammunition.

By 1942, an acceptable standard of efficiency had been established and the unit began issuing its first Routine Orders on January 14th giving details of future training and other rules and regulations concerning weapons, clothing and equipment. The battalion had by this time established its headquarters at No 11 North Street [the offices of Col Stanton’s law firm, Andrews, Stanton & Ringrose] with the Vestry Hall in North Street as the Drill Hall.

One of their jobs at this time was to advise the Bourne Invasion Committee which was formed at a meeting at Wake House on 18th March 1941. These discussions were always held in secret but included contingency plans for the parish of Bourne, the marshalling of resources, medical aid, communications, the distribution of food, the welfare of the civilian population and liaison with the military 
authorities.

The committee’s deliberations were wide ranging, studying every aspect of their actions if they were invaded and often their imagination exceeded the practicality of the situation. At one meeting, the committee decided that in the event of an invasion, women and children would be evacuated to Bourne Wood but the scheme was dropped as being unworkable.

In May 1942, Colonel Stanton had written his first Bourne Invasion Committee Report, a secret but impressive document detailing the location and vulnerability of the town in the event of an invasion and the contingency plans that had been drawn up for the protection of its 5,300 citizens which was then the official population 
figure.

This document makes grim reading today and the laughter of Dad’s Army soon fades for it talks of war at the front line in the peaceful countryside of England. The sombre tone of the entire document is summed up in the final paragraphs that reflect the seriousness of the situation and an indication that war might eventually be brought to our own doorstep: “All burials to take place in the cemetery but in the event of urgent necessity, it was decided that the west end of the Abbey Lawn adjacent to the vicarage garden should be used as an emergency burial ground.”

These crisis arrangements were never needed. Colonel Stanton issued his last order on 22nd December 1944 when the tide of the war had turned in the Allies’ favour and the Home Guard was being stood down. A total of 1,600 men from the town and district had passed through the ranks of the Bourne battalion and three men died while serving.

One of his last tasks was the handing in of arms and equipment and a list drawn up shows the progress the Home Guard had made since those early days in 1940 when it was equipped with makeshift weapons and the formidable armoury that had been amassed since then. It included 878 rifles, 400 Sten guns, 56 Bren guns and 54 Lewis machine guns, eight anti-tank rifles, 700,000 rounds of small arms ammunition and 100 hand grenades. Not one of them had been fired in 
combat.