Saturday 08 August 2020

Pulverbatch Home Guard

On 14th May, 1940, the Government broadcast a message asking for volunteers for the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers). On 23rd August, 1940, Winston Churchill changed the name of the LDV to the Home Guard.

The Home Guard was formed when there was a real risk of invasion. Most men who could fight were already in the forces, those that were left were either too young, too old, or in reserved occupations (those jobs vital to the war effort). The men who volunteered to join the Home Guard at this time were expected to fight an invasion of crack German troops with nothing more than a collection of old shotguns and pieces of gas pipe with bayonets welded on the end.

In this very rural area many men, particularly farmers, were classed as being in reserved occupations, i.e. they would not be called up. Pulverbatch, therefore, was able to produce quite an active Home Guard platoon.

The platoon started life as a group of locals commanded by Sir Reginald Holcroft with the HQ at Wrentnall House (and later by Major Hugh Morgan of Churton Lodge), with nothing more to distinguish them than LDV armbands and their own shot guns (as the unit consisted mainly of farmers they were able to produce more arms than the average platoon would).

Sir Reginald Holcroft had been commissioned in the Army on 11th January 1919. He served in an Indian Regiment for two years before going to Oxford University. After studying at Oxford, he re-enlisted in the army and served with the Shropshire Yeomanry until their conversion to mechanised artillery in 1939. His second in command of the Pulverbatch Home Guard was one of his employees, Charlie Sargent who was, amusingly, given the rank of Sergeant! Charlie was a World War One veteran who had fought with the Devonshire Regiment during the battle of the Somme and had been gassed later in the war.

In July 1941, Sir Reginald Holcroft joined the RAF and acted as ground crew serving in North Africa. Although he had served as a Major in the army, it did not entitle him to the equivalent rank in the RAF, although he did eventually rise to the rank of Flying Officer (the equivalent of a Lieutenant). It did however earn him the nickname of ‘Major’ as his letters were always addressed as such! When Sir Reginald joined the RAF, the position of commanding officer of the Pulverbatch platoon was handed over to Major Hugh Morgan of Churton Lodge.

Major Hugh Penrith Morgan had joined the Shropshire Royal Horse Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant on 1st December 1911. He served during the First World War with the 1/1st (Shropshire) Battery, Royal Horse Artillery attached to the 293 Brigade. During the Second World War he re-enlisted in the army but did not remain in for long due to poor health.

The platoon produced a rota of duties for its men to carry out, with several observation posts and sites to patrol for ‘suspicious activities’ and the group also had to practice drill every Sunday morning. Sites of the Home Guard’s activities included:

1) The platoon’s main dug-out was in the southern corner of the wood on Broom Hill; a small depression marks the spot to this day. The position was dug out of a natural hole, with a piece of corrugated iron placed across to form a roof and give some protection (mainly against the weather, not the enemy!). The men had excellent views to the south and east and often had to sit in pairs through the days and nights, regardless of the weather.

View from Broomhill lookout

Geoff Davies was a member of the platoon and recalled one incident whilst on duty in the dug-out one night. Each of the men on duty became aware of an ever-increasing weight on them, but merely thought it was the other falling asleep against them. Both men then realised that it was in fact the roof sinking onto them and when they peered out they found a sheep fast asleep on the roof!

2) By the White Horse was a small hut called “The Postman’s hut”, which the Home Guard used as a sentry post. Tom Morris recalled that two men would sit in it and every so often would walk up to the Knapp and look around.

3) In the garden of the cottage on Wrentnall corner were two slit trenches, dug to guard the north-eastern approaches to Pulverbatch and Wrentnall. Both trenches were dug so that the occupants had to look through the bottom of the hedges and the one trench faced along the main road, towards the New House Lane, whilst the other faced down the lane to the Black Lion Farm.

4) At the end of Summer House Lane, Longden is a small brick summer house, which overlooks the main road through Longden to Pulverbatch. The Home Guard used this sometimes to monitor the traffic driving past, to see if anything ‘suspicious’ was travelling in the Pulverbatch direction.

5) The Knapp is a Norman motte and bailey castle at the top of Castle Pulverbatch. However, during the last war two gun emplacements were dug at the base of the motte, facing to the south. These were used by the Home Guard and supposedly contained Bren machine guns. Both of them can still be seen, one near the seat and the other facing towards Cothercott. They are both situated in commanding positions, with excellent fields of fire over the valley.

6) On one occasion the platoon was ordered to monitor the Windmill, Lyth Hill, by observing from the Rock Hole, Lower Common. A light had been seen by Ruby Morris, flashing from a house at German bombers, and the Home Guard was notified. The men spent several days observing but never saw the light. However, it is believed that the occupant of the house was later arrested.

The Home Guard soon started to receive weapons such as Lee-Enfield rifles and perhaps a machine gun and sometimes they would travel to the Wrekin firing range in a truck. They also started to receive khaki battle dress and thick jackets as these became available. However, the Home Guard received no grenades or other such weapons, so they produced their own ‘Molotov Cocktails’. These were petrol bombs and practising with them was done in the relative safety of the Ballast Hole (a quarry) on the A49 near Stapleton.

The platoon was also often involved in exercises with other platoons in the surrounding countryside. Charlie Sargent’s son, Roy, who was then a young boy, often acted as the platoon’s “dispatch rider” (on his bicycle!). Roy would also often secretly follow the platoon on exercises. On one occasion the platoon was involved in a mock ‘battle’ on Earl’s Hill, near Pontesbury. Roy was there, hidden as usual, amongst the bracken. This time, as it turned out, he was able to spy on the ‘enemy’ movements and take ‘vital’ information back to the home side. This occurred on more than one occasion and often enabled the platoon to out-manoeuvre the ‘enemy’!

(© Tom Thorne, 2000)