“Dads Army” and Others Came to West Berkshire

A guest post from Ray Hopgood.

On the evening May 14th 1940, a little over 80 years ago immediately after the nine-o clock radio news, Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, made a broadcast directed at the countless ordinary citizens, especially those not eligible to enrol in armed forces, who wished an opportunity to serve the defence of the nation.

The nation he stated required “large numbers of men who were British citizens, between the ages of 17 and 65 to come forward now and offer their services”.

The appeal was chiefly aimed at those who lived in the countryside, small towns and less densely populated suburban area. The name of the new force was to be the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). To volunteer it was only necessary to register their name and address at the local police station.

The response was overwhelming and the police stations were inundated with prospective recruits, often to the bemusement of the desk sergeants who had not heard the broadcast or been officially informed. Within twenty-four hours of the appeal a quarter of a million men had put down their names and by the end of June there were nearly one and a half million volunteers. Often these volunteers had military experience having served in South Africa and of course the First World War. Indeed, most LDV units comprised of 50 to 75% old soldiers. The LDV designation did not meet with Churchill’s approval and was changed to the more popular name of “the Home Guard”.

The Newbury area was no exception to this was wave of enthusiasm. By the third week of May no fewer than 885 volunteers had registered in the Newbury Divisional Police area, which included Hungerford, and no less than 531 came from within the Newbury borough. Throughout the whole of Berkshire (that is the proper Berkshire of old) over 6000 signed up. (Although a military organisation, under military command, the Home Guard recruited and was organised by police divisions.

The County Commander, Lieutenant Colonel G Walton OBE was appointed together with Brigadier A. H. D. West DSO of Chieveley as the Divisional Commander for the Newbury police area. There being eight other divisions within the county.

Some disquiet, however, was voiced as to the actual effectiveness of this untrained, lightly armed, or even unarmed force, against German paratroopers or the arrival of troop- carrying aircraft.

The one advantage the men had was that Berkshire was a rural county and most of the volunteers were countrymen, farm labourers and the like, who had an intimate knowledge of the locality and could monitor the enemy forces and thereby aid the regular forces who would then deal with the enemy…. “their strength was not so much the ability to fight the enemy but their intimate knowledge of fields, footpaths, lanes and roads around their own home”.[1]

In the same week the other volunteer force, the ARP, was practising its skills in Cold Ash and Ashmore Green. They dealt with results of a “high explosive bomb” being dropped at Barlow’s timber yard, a “gas bomb” (using mustard and garlic to represent the smell of mustard gas) outside the Vicarage with a decontamination squad being sent to deal with it. This was followed by an “incendiary bomb” setting fire to the grounds of Downe House School which was extinguished by the staff using the water from School’s swimming pool. The Thatcham A.F.S. (Auxiliary Fire Service, another volunteer force) also attended and “gave a really good show” [2]. All the incidents were dealt with successfully.

These events demonstrate how the civilian inhabitants of Newbury, Thatcham and Berkshire did not hesitate to come forward “to do their bit” in the nation’s hour of need.

  • [1] NWN, May 23rd 1940
  • [2] NWN, May 23rd 1940