STAFFORDSHIRE HOME GUARD WEBSITE - MEMORIES and INFORMATION: 32nd Battn. (4)
32nd BATTALION WEAPONRY:
A SMALL BOY'S VIEW


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A child's view of some of the weapons used by 32nd (Aldridge) Battalion, 1940 - 1944.

 

It was a summer's evening. The war might be raging all around the globe; but here in this house in Streetly we were protected by the might of the 32nd Staffordshire (Aldridge) Battalion and, at that moment, all was quiet. I had finished playing and was now enthroned in the smallest room of the house, my short trousers at my ankles and my feet still several years away from reaching the floor. The latest issue of "Comic Cuts" lay on my knees and I was totally engrossed and at peace with the world.

It was not only the loudness of the nearby bang which shocked me but also the fact that it was utterly unexpected. Its impact on me was so great that I fell sideways off the seat and found myself on the lino floor, firmly wedged between wall and pedestal. Adjusting my attire only sufficiently to enable me to run, I rushed out of the lavatory and across the landing, past the familiar group of anti-incendiary sand and water buckets and into my parents' bedroom at the back of the house. There the window was wide open. Sitting on the windowsill and gripping the frame with his left hand to steady himself, my father was leaning out as far as he could, his right arm outstretched as he again took aim with his revolver at some hidden target. As I approached the window I saw that the intended victim, a surprisingly nonchalant rabbit, was still munching away on our neighbour's lawn. I was waved away to a safe distance and told to cover my ears. My father's second shot was no more successful and at that point he abandoned the hunt and pulled himself back into the room. The target meanwhile twitched his nose and ambled off into an overgrown border. We would be having corned beef again tomorrow night, and not one of those tasty rabbit stews.

It is hard in the 21st century to envisage the exposure to weaponry and other things that went "bang" which almost everyone sixty-five years ago took as a matter of course. Now, of course, swingeing laws have concentrated gun ownership in the UK almost completely into the hands of a tiny but dangerous minority who have more incentive to flout the law than to obey it. But then, and especially if one lived in a Home Guard household as I did, lethal weaponry was as much part of one's daily life as the radio set in the living room or the dresser in the kitchen. As my father eased himself off the windowsill on that summer's evening, no armed police response unit with blaring sirens was on its way to surround the house nor any complaining neighbour hammering on the door. He took the remaining bullets out of the chamber, cursed the rabbit in restrained language suitable for my ears, smiled complicitly in my direction and put the revolver, no doubt a Webley of some sort, back into its drawer.

I already knew where that revolver lived when it was not in its holster at my father's waist. It nestled in the top drawer of a chest-of-drawers amongst his vests, pants and starched collars, and was accompanied by several small cartons of ammunition. Perhaps fortunately I was not a particularly adventurous or boastful child or I might have been tempted, when the opportunity arose, to extract it from the drawer and show it off to my young playmates. That thought is frightening. But even then I knew the basic rule of handling a weapon: that one never, never pointed it at anyone even if one was absolutely certain that it was not loaded. I remember the lesson well. I think it was my elder brother who felt that my brandishing of his Home Guard rifle was in danger of transgressing that golden rule. I was about six at the time.

I only recall seeing the revolver fired on one other occasion. On a wintry Sunday morning my father took me to a field behind Cutler's Garage in Streetly. There he met up with some of his comrades and a large sheet of thin steel or perhaps aluminium. I imagine the metal was to be used for some defensive purpose, possibly the protection of a vehicle. The sheet was propped up against a bush and all of us except for my father retired to a safe distance. I was told to cover my ears; my father raised his Webley, took aim at the middle of the sheet and pulled the trigger. The target this time was of course a little more difficult to miss. We then gathered around it and balefully examined the damage. The experiment was deemed a success as the sheet, whilst severely dented, had not been penetrated. It was then carried off towards the garage and we all went our separate ways. Thirty years later the script of "Dad's Army" would have concluded this little episode with Warden Hodges tearing across the field in our direction, puce-faced under his ARP helmet, shaking his fist and shouting "Ruddy 'ooligans!!"

There were of course plenty of other items within my horizons which were also designed to detonate in one way or another. I have a dim memory of a line of recently prepared Molotov cocktails (left) in our back garden but such basic devices were eventually superseded by more sophisticated methods of defending the realm. Particularly familiar to me in our home, perhaps because they became mementos at the end of Home Guard activities, were at least three types of grenade. The most familiar was the Mills bomb in various forms, all shaped like a pineapple and usually the No. 36 (on the extreme right in this group).  I was taught at quite an early age how to throw that correctly: the bomb in one's throwing hand held out straight behind one, the free arm held out equally straight in front, and then the throwing in a sort of cartwheeling motion. There was the sticky bomb, a smallish black or brown globe with a straight handle emerging from it. This, I was assured, was designed to break on impact, exude a sticky substance and thereby adhere to its target before exploding. It all sounded a little unlikely and haphazard to me, as it did no doubt to those who were trained on it. And then there was a smaller cylindrical device, rather like a miniature thermos flask, in black metal or plastic (below). I have only recently managed to give these last two their correct names, the No. 74 ST Grenade and, most probably, the No. 77 Smoke Grenade respectively. But it was always the Mills bomb that seemed to me to be the real weapon in this trio, a feeling reinforced for me when I heard my father recounting the incident, mentioned somewhere in "Home Guarding", when a live grenade, the pin removed and ready to be thrown, was accidentally dropped in a 32nd Battalion training trench. (This incident is mentioned elsewhere in this website). All three of these devices ended up as ornaments on the plate shelf in our hall after the war and remained there for several years, no doubt promoting many memories for my father and sideways glances from visitors. I have every confidence that his assurance - that they were blanks and merely training tools - was wholly valid.

I was a little less confident about such assumptions on one occasion when I was taken to Little Aston Hall Stables where "B" Coy. had its H.Q. I believe we were going to collect something. My father opened the door of a cupboard and before he could catch it, out from the top shelf rolled a fearsome looking piece of weaponry. With hindsight it was most probably a No. 68 Anti-Tank Grenade of the type which caused consternation in another 32nd Battalion memoir in this website entitled "The Wots-Its-Name Bomb". This thing thudded onto the cobbled floor, bounced, rolled a few feet and came to rest. My father picked it up, stuffed it back into the cupboard and closed the door on it. Nothing was said. I felt it must be another blank round. He no doubt knew that for certain. Didn't he?

It was however the rifle which was always most in evidence and remains clearest in my memory. I am certain that my father's personal weapon was a .303 Lee Enfield, rather than the American .300 with which the Battalion was also equipped and which were painted with a distinctive red band to ensure that the right ammunition was used. In the intervals between button and boot polishing I became expert in its maintenance, wielding oily rags and various pull-throughs like a veteran of the Western Front. I was also proud of my ability to hold and aim the weapon correctly whilst prone on my front - elbows and legs well apart, the rifle firm and steady, eye looking down the barrel and lining up the rear and front sights. An old Birmingham friend of my father's, another Great War survivor and Home Guard enthusiast, was mightily impressed - or so he kindly told me - when I decided unprompted to use his personal weapon in order to demonstrate my skill on his lounge carpet in King's Norton.

I was of course never allowed to fire the rifle. I imagine the only reason for that was that I was not considered strong enough to cope with the recoil. Had I been allowed, I would not have had to wait another ten or twelve years, and my own National Service, to learn that it is one thing to hold and aim a .303 in the approved manner but entirely another to hit a small target a couple of hundred yards away. My father on the other hand was a good marksman and won various Home Guard competitions. I had to be content with an air pistol, on the couple of occasions when I could persuade an uncle to let me borrow it, which I used in totally unsuccessful attempts to reduce the Herefordshire rabbit population in the summer of 1943 or 1944; whilst at my side my father was striving to do the same thing with another item from his armoury, a lethal .22 rifle with a range of about a mile. I did on the other hand see the Home Guard weapons fired, I think at a range located in a sandpit up Little Hardwick Road, Streetly. On one occasion a machine gun was also being used firing tracer bullets. The target was a battered oil drum and I remember being impressed with the way in which this chunk of metal rapidly glowed red hot as the bullets thudded into it.

Of course to a small boy all this contact with grown-ups' weaponry was a source of continuing interest and excitement. I was not imaginative enough to sense that to thousands, if not millions of my contemporaries across continental Europe and Asia such familiarity was during those years anything but fun. But then I already knew that the world was a ghastly, cruel place, with the aim of every single German and Japanese being to kill me if they had the opportunity; and so, even if I had thought about it, I would probably have regarded it as just another facet of all that distant brutality and horror which was the norm, shrugged my shoulders and continued polishing the brasswork on my father's webbing.

But eventually it all started to come to an end. When the Home Guard was stood down in December 1944 various redundant items of which my father was custodian were disposed of in different ways. These included a couple of cartons of smoke bombs and some Sten gun components whose final resting place would probably have fallen marginally short of 21st century environmental recommendations. But somehow or another my father's official rifle never quite got handed in at that time. By then it had been joined by an American .300 with its red band and a German rifle of unknown provenance which he always described as having a kick like a mule. Their home was a corner at the back of his wardrobe. There they stayed, increasingly illegally, for thirty years until his death in 1974. My mother was probably relieved to have the opportunity of disposing of them at that time and contacted the local police for assistance. My father's treasures were gingerly carried out of the house in Chester Road, Streetly under a blanket by a young constable and disappeared to an unknown fate. Whether they were accompanied by the revolver, the .22 rifle, the 12-bore shotgun, the necessary ammunition and any other weapon of which I was unaware, I do not know; but in case any beady eye of authority should fall upon this page I should perhaps confirm that this residual armoury never passed into my possession. Neither then nor later! My mother was advised that in the circumstances the police would not be pressing charges. Which I thought was jolly decent of them.

CM (Webmaster)......... September 2005

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