THE STORM CLOUDS GATHER.
In the later part of my last year at Mersea School in 1938, we of the senior class became aware of a political crisis and rumours of the threat of War. There was little explanation of this from the teachers and the subject was more or less taboo. We learned much later that the Sudetenland close to the German border had become the first object of Nazi Germany's expansionist policies which, after War was threatened, was ceded to Germany under the Munich Agreement of that year.
We senior boys, who usually did the main work in the School Gardens were put to work in the field behind the Cookery/Carpentry building to mark out and dig an array of Zig Zag trenches to be used in the event of an Air Raid to provide some degree of cover. We laboured on and off for several days with a good result and to the Masters satisfaction. I was not aware as to how many pupils there were at the School at that time, but have to say that it was unlikely that all would have got into these trenches at any one time.
I left School at Christmas of that year and started work as an Apprentice Plumber and General Smith with the Builder C.M.White under a 5 year agreement with my Father and Mr F. Gasson. Soon after this the Government had in their wisdom decided to issue everyone in the Country with Gas Masks. Every one of us were required over a few days to attend the British Legion Hall where we had a mask fitted for size and given instructions as to their use. A cardboard box was provided with each Mask as a carrier with a string shoulder sling for transport There were special ones for babies that enclosed the infant and had to be operated by bellows by an adult. We were advised to carry the masks everywhere we went at that time and I remember that we took them to work with us for a while. However, the crisis appeared to have subsided for a while, so the habit died off with it.
Also around this time, everyone was required to register for an Identity Card. I believe that a temporary Government controlled office was opened up at Woodstock in St Peters Road and my father did the business for our family. I suppose that birth certificates would have had to be produced. I still retain my card and can recite the Identity number.
There were also appeals for folk to train as Air Raid Wardens, Gas De-contamination Officers and First Aid
Workers. Later, an Ambulance and De-Com Station was set up at The Lawns in Mill Road and an ARP unit at
Mondamin in East Road.(Captain Catchpole).
'The next 'event' of note was the installing of an Air Raid Siren at the top of the Water Tower in the louvered
roof section. I recall it being tested, but the site rejected as the sound appears to have gone clear of Mersea rather than doing its job in the village. 'The Siren was next installed at the rear of Woodstock on a couple of tall poles. Much better now as was found when tested. Trouble was though that there was no one on duty 24 hours a day to operate it. So back to the drawing board again. The Telephone Exchange in Yorick Road fitted the bill. Phone there, operator there and sound ok too and there it stayed until after the War!! It was however decided that the Exchange needed protection in event of an Air Raid and it befell to my father and myself to fill umpteen sand bags with yards of sand and build a blast wall around operations room.
The Government office later moved to the front room of Greenaways No 14 Melrose Road. It was from here that the Food and Clothing coupons were handled together with any queries or permits that might go with them. I myself applied for and was granted an extra cheese ration in lieu of my meat ration. It was often necessary for me to take a packed lunch to work and cheese was the most suitable to this end.
By now we had moved on to the 3rd of September 1939 and the Declaration of War was a reality. Feverish work on blackout facilities, criss-cross sticky tape on large panes of glass to stop shattering. The loss of what few street lights we had, and all vehicle head lamps and cycle lamps dimmed to a great degree.
Early on in the War it was decided to evacuate London children to the country and Mersea was in line to take it's share of the poor kids. As to why they should have been sent to a forward area of perhaps a battle to come is one of the imponderables of Government thinking that defies comprehension. The Billeting Officers in conjunction with the local Council, had to view prospective homes and accommodation and decide who was to receive the children. Many a row was to break out when childless folk were told that they would have take one, two or even three children and bring them up for a small payment from the State.
There was no real redress or excuse, unless the people in question were disabled and compulsion was backed by
a threat of imprisonment on failure to comply. Many couples who had no children of their own by choice, found
that they now had a ready made family overnight. A severe shock indeed. Most of the children arrived with their
gas mask slung over their shoulder and an identity card tied to their coats, perhaps hanging on to a younger sibling and looking pathetic were aged from 5 years to around 12, I would guess. Having to walk with the Billeting Officer and volunteer helpers to be handed over to their new foster parents must have been very frightening for the poor little souls. How ever, after a week or two, a sense of calm prevailed and when the School was able to adjust to the large influx of pupils, the happy chatter of children became part of life. Many of the kids came from deprived families and the foster parents were pleased to help the poor mites to come to terms with their plight. Predictably perhaps, some of the childless couples did adopt their charges with the true parents agreement when the War ended.
In addition to the evacuees, an influx of Land Army Girls arrived to work on the local farms. Some of the girls
were billeted in Orleans House on the Coast Road; others at Well House farm. Later, a Hostel was built on the outskirts of Peldon to house many more.
After a few feverish weeks of preparing for the worst, things did settle down as we moved into the so called
phoney period. Yes there were things happening such as the order to confiscate any metal gates, railings or
the like to help with the War effort. One notable loser was the Parish Church which lost all its cast iron
railings from the boundary walls. They sadly have never been replaced. There was the odd incursion by lone
German planes and quite a few over head dogfights that we witnessed. Also the large amount of troops, many of
whom took over the many empty houses which were in the main, summer homes for wealthy people. However,
following the British Expeditionary Forces defeat in France in 1940 and the evacuation of British and French
troops from Dunkirk between 27th May and 2nd June by the Navy and a fleet of small ships; the need for a rapid
defence system update became a top priority. The local Army Commander ordered the complete removal of all of
the beach huts from the seafront in one week. Tall order that, for we of Clifford Whites got orders from far and wide to remove and store huts on the owners behalf. Many lived in the London area and the local Council or Whites had to notify the owners by letter as few had phone lines at that time of day. It was all hands on deck as every lorry and cart was mobilised and we started to dismantle the sectional ones first having put all of the effects into tea chests or boxes. Everything was taken up to Whites field near to the Brickyard and put for storage. It soon became clear that this method was taking far too long, so an army of us had to lift an entire hut bodily onto the lorries and carts which then greatly speeded the removals up. People came from far and wide and took off huts on their own transport that did not belong to them and it quickly became a free for all. Those that were a problem were often sold for a £1 to anyone who would buy them. We had some good wage packets that week for with double British Summer Time it stayed light till around 11 o'clock, allowing us to work for many hours.
Then came the intensive building of Pillboxes and the Gun emplacements, anti tank Dragons Teeth and road blocks of all sorts. The beach was Mined from West Hall to the Decoy wall and barbed wire was everywhere. The Strood was prepared for Mines and a steel pipe conduit for the electric firing wires taken back to the Army base at Strood House and Mersea Island became a restricted area.
One more thing was to come which was a bit of a surprise to say the least and that was the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers out of the blue. Whilst this was a one off for the War years and rightly so; it brings forth the question as to why Britain, who has it's own borders to maintain, never had a National Guard on a permanent basis?.
THE WEST MERSEA HOME GUARD
It began, like the War itself with a Broadcast on the BBC Home Service Radio. On the 14th May 1940, during the evening the newly-appointed Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden addressed the Country. Four days earlier, on the previous Friday, the Germans had begun their long awaited offensive in the West and already alarming reports of their success and the unexpected methods they had used to achieve it were reaching Britain, as Eden explained.
The Local Defence Volunteers (L.D.V.) was formed and a request for men of 17 to 65 years of age to enrol at their local Police Station was met by a huge number of men who needed a chance to at least do something for the defence of dear old Britain. Amazingly, something like 250,000 men over the Country (equal to the number of the UK peacetime Regular Army) gave in their names in the first 24 hours. The hastily printed. enrolment forms had quickly run out and paper slips were thus signed to be updated in. the future. As the news from France got worse and it became clear that Britain would have to go it alone; by the end of June volunteers had taken the numbers who joined to almost 1½ Million.
The decision as to Leaders and subordinates appears to have been solved by the Ex Officers, NCOs and other ranks finding their own niche so to speak and accepting the structure of the usual taking ones military status into civilian life. Once this was sorted and a Commanding, Officer installed and a Head Quarters established, the signing up for service was handed over by the Police.
At the outset of the LDV Colonel (Ret) Cartwright of Garden Farm House, East Road became Platoon Commanding Officer with Major (Ret) De-Manby of Barrow Hill the Adjutant assisted by Capt Scott of Seaview Avenue and Capt Purkis of Alexandra Avenue making up the first Officers. Sergeant Major Tom Clarry of Churchfields and Sergeant Herbert Griggs of Mill Road taking the senior NCOs for the start with some others later as the numbers increased. A Corporal Millbank of Selby East Road who had a small motor car of sorts became the run-a-round transport for the Officers after petrol coupons had been obtained.
The first Headquarters as such were in the large kitchen of the Colonel's Farmhouse until a more permanent
place could be negotiated for the use of the British Legion committee room; a brick built out building to the
rear of the main hall. (now demolished). This became the Office/Guardroom and used by the whole Platoon. In
the early days and indeed nights, there were always 2 or 3 men on duty there and armed. It was a flask and
sandwiches for night duty I'm afraid but it did not come often. Of course there were no uniforms available at
the beginning although the Officers found theirs as if by magic. Arm bands were soon issued with L.D.V. from somewhere but no Rifles for a week or two when some filtered through with a little ammunition. I believe that some old lads took their own shotguns for a start. Not too safe things to have around when crawling through scrubland. However, by the time I was old enough to enlist rifles were available for everyone. They did need a good clean up and the bayonets in particular wanted a bit of hard work to get them shining. Almost all of the rifles were Springfield 17s which dated them somewhat for a start. The ammunition they fired was .300 and a red band was painted around the barrel to denote this fact for the regular forces had been using .303 ammunition for many years. We were allotted just 5 rounds each to carry with us home unless we had to go out on patrol.
Uniforms were also a bit of a problem as sizes tended to be on the odd very large or very small scale in the early days. I suppose that it was a way of clearing out some old stock in the hope that someone would sort things out. A good deal of them were well used at some time although they had been sterilised but had holes and tears that could have been battle scars. Most needed the attention of wives and girl friends before being fit to use on parade. Following the fear that civilian dress with an arm band would not give protection to the men under the Geneva Convention, it was decided that full uniform would be provided and the L.D.V. be renamed the Home Guard with full Military status on the 23rd of July 1940. Quite an important move forward from the nick-named "The Parashots" that was tabled because of the original intended task. That of a fear of a repetition of the tactics used in the Low Countries, of airborne troops dropping from the skies. The idea of large amounts of locals who carried their rifles every where that they went would indeed present fire power to be reckoned with, giving time for the Regulars to move up in force.
The lack of facilities for firing practice in the early stages was to some extent alleviated by the use of the British Legion Rifle Club range situated under the Hall Stage. The loan of the Clubs .22 target rifles in the first instance and later, a couple of SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfields), that had been tubed to .22 were obtained and these were much more like the real weapons to be handled in both size and weight. The Legion Hall was in fact used a great deal by the Home Guard for lectures and in the winter months for unarmed combat, bayonet practice and the all important stripping down and re-assembly of sub-machine guns and carbines.
What is the carpark at the side of the Legion now was the general assembly point and from there different squads would head off on practice patrols. Usually these could amount to routes taking in Hillybrooms and the overgrown areas around. there, or down Marsh Lane from Brickhouse Farm and out onto the marsh and seawalls at the 'back of the Island'. The beach was of course out of bounds having been mined from near West Hall beach right through to the Decoy Wall and well protected by a very considerable array of barbed wire.
Spigot Mortar on concrete mount
Our main area for training was on De-Manby's marsh and lower field at the bottom of East Mersea Road hill,
just before the Strood. Here we had some old cars filled with sandbags which we used for target practice. We
tried out the new Cup Discharger and threw Mills Bombs, (grenades) from a protected throwing bay. The old cars also received the odd burst from the Tommy Gun. The Spigot Mortar was also tried here from a respectful distance but sadly the target proved to be too soft to explode the Warheads and these had to be set off with gun-cotton delayed charges to make them safe. We at first used the Spigot Mortar from it's own 4 legged support frame, but later a concrete emplacement was installed for us near to the road facing the Strood with another two at Weir Farm corner and at Broomhills corner. These comprised of a stainless steel spigot set into a circular concrete base with a trench dug around for the operator to get some protection from return fire. This Mortar was a fearsome weapon indeed, and required some nerve on the part of the operator and his assistant who's job it was to load the Shell onto the horizontal firing tube. There did seem a 50/50 chance that you might well blow yourselves up along with your intended target. However, no nasty mishaps occurred whilst I was with the Platoon or after that I am aware of. The Mortar itself fired a Warhead capable of destroying a tank if targeted in the right spot and ranged in 100 yards.
Another addition to our armoury was the Sticky Bomb; a hand held grenade type of weapon rather like a club. The Warhead, which was round and some 6 inches in diameter, was encased by two half-circular metal sheets. Designed to knock out a tank or armoured vehicle, the plan was to hide in a ditch or behind a hedge for the enemy to appear. Then, if you were brave enough, dash out of cover shedding the metal casings and exposing the Warhead which was coated with Bird Lime and smack it hard onto the side of the tank, releasing the spring loaded handle to start the 10 second fuse and run off. Stuck fast to the tank, it exploded towards the area of most resistance as happens with armour piercing shells or bombs that are designed for that purpose. A jagged piece of metal would be sent flying around the inside of the tank, hopefully doing untold damage to the troops manning it. A lot of ifs here, but it was never used in anger in this country that I'm aware of.
We also had another type of anti-tank grenade, again a hand held affair rather like a thermos flask and around the same shape and size. To activate for use, a small protection cover at the top had to be removed to expose a tape which was graduated with a scale of equal portions which had to be pulled out to determine the fuse time. The more tape pulled out, the longer the get away time that you yourself had to judge before pushing the firing button and throwing into the tank tracks if possible. A real man's job this!!!
A further weapon and of much more use was the Cup Discharger Rifle. An S.M.L.E. (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) basic rifle which had its entire length of wood cladding from breech to barrel end tightly bound with stout wire to stop any shattering. Welded to the barrel muzzle end was a steel cup just large enough to receive a Mills Grenade to be slid into. A round metal disc was screwed into the base of the Grenade which would just fit into the cup. This would form a partial gas seal when the Grenade had been carefully fed with firing lever depressed and the retaining split pin pulled out before pushing the Grenade right down to the base of the cup. A special blank cartridge was loaded into the breech, the rifle butt held onto the ground with the barrel inclined towards the target and crouching low, you pulled the trigger. The Grenade would fly high toward the enemy. arming itself upon leaving the cup. A 7 second fuse Grenade was used as the usual 4 second type would have exploded in the air as the flying time was greater than the hand thrown conventional method of delivery. It proved to be a very useful and light to transport piece of equipment.
Some months after joining the Home Guard, a consignment of Canadian Ross Rifles arrived for us. These were very old indeed, with a long barrel and were said to kick like a mule. Their arrival coincided with the Government making it compulsory for any able-bodied man between the ages of eighteen and fifty one could from January 1942, be ordered to join the Home Guard and to attend for up to forty eight hours of training or guard duties a month, under penalty of a month in jail or a £10 fine. This swelled the size of the West Mersea Platoon and these extra rifles were needed. The Ross's were a bit battered and packed with grease for storage and transit, so a good clean up was the priority. Then our Armourer, Sergeant Ernest (Bear) Woolf enlisted me to go with him down to our range at the seawall near to Kiddies Land, (now the Youth Camp) to test and sight the rifles up to standard. Well over 50 weapons were transported there in the car and Sgt Woolf and myself cycled down on a Sunday morning with a small amount of tools and took a Butt each. It took about 5 shots on average to adjust the sights although a few rifles were ok any way. We had a couple of chaps under the targets marking for us which helped no end. Kick hard they did and I had a bruised right shoulder to prove it.
I well remember the joy in the platoon at the arrival of a Thompson Sub-machine gun and a Bren gun to add to our armoury. A regular soldier came on couple of occasions to the Legion Hall to give us instructions on the use of them. How to strip them down, cleaning and re-assembling with each part being named as this operation took place. One set of parts still stays in my memory over the years Rear-sear Release Unit, Retainer, Keeper and Spring. What I cannot remember is whether they refer to the Tommy or the Bren, but I suppose that matters no more.
As is usual with all of the Armed Forces, the rank which was held upon leaving. the regular service tended to be carried into Civvy Street and was therefore accepted as a matter of respect. There was little in the way of any real control over discipline available to the Officers and NCOs of the H.G. No 'Fatigues' or 'Jankers' as such. I suppose that the 'Order of the Boot' was an option. As everyone in the main knew each other, often by their Christian or as is the case for Mersea, Nicknames, the question of 'pulling rank' was a bit difficult. On one Sunday morning muster at the British Legion, saw Sgt Major Clarry calling for us to "Fall In" ready for the Officers to preside. "Form up there, and quickly! Get in line there Private Pullen" "Yes Tom" ! "SERGEANT MAJOR to you Pullen" came the shout. "`Right-O Tom." Well, there is no real answer to that and not many straight faces either.
Early in the War, two large concrete Gun Emplacements with inter-linking service tunnels were built close by the Victoria Esplanade and were manned by 373 Battery of the Royal Artillery. A single barrel 4.7 calibre pedestal mounted Gun was installed in each. The ammunition of shell and cartridge being separate. The crew consisted of the Gun layer/Sight setter, a man who opened and closed the breech, a man who loaded the shell, a man with a ramming pole who forced the shell up into the rifling of the barrel proper. This was followed by a man with the brass cartridge charge to be pushed in the breech which was then slammed and locked. All now ready for firing when target was within range. It was most important to stand clear of the Guns rear for the recoil when fired was massive. The shells and cartridges were stored in racks well to the rear and protected by blast walls. There was also a Magazine at some point further back which was not disclosed to the H.G. in the early days. The shells were each marked by a coloured band at the nose end to denote it's type. H.E. Armour piercing etc. A massive steel door closed the front of the emplacement when not in use. A brick extension was built onto the front of the existing conveniences to house a long base Barr and Stroud Range finder and a Tannoy system was linked to the Guns. Down at the beach was an emplacement housing a searchlight to sweep the river. The Guns covered the river mouth well out to sea ranging towards the target by 200 yard increments until a hit or over shoot, in which case, ranging back by 100 and/or 50yards at the direction of the rangefinder.
When the threat of invasion lessened, the need for regular gunners elsewhere arose. It was decided to enlist the Home Guard and train them in the drill to take on the bulk of the Battery Volunteers at the first with the conscripts later taking their share of the job. It all appears to have worked well even after a days work before the training involved. The technique of the loading and firing of the Guns was essential and called for flawless team work and above all, speed to keep up a barrage should the need arise. A Dummy-Loader had been installed by the Army in the old Spinney Cafe (Beach Tea Gardens). This was a full scale model of the Breech end of a Gun less the barrel, recoil and firing gear. The shells and cartridges were also Dummies of similar weight and size. Thus it was possible to work up a speed and team effort without firing a shot, but hard and exhausting on a hot day never the less
A Gun was fired a couple of times for a demonstration in my presence and this was most impressive indeed. I think that there was a great desire amongst those of us present to become Gunners by trade.
Those of us consigned to the Guns were also required to attend lectures on Artillery theory and the use of the Range Finder on a few evenings a week. This was most interesting to we younger ones, but somewhat wasted as I was soon to leave the H.G. anyway. The school room behind Five Gables bungalow in Willoughby Avenue was used for this purpose whilst the bungalow itself was the Sergeants Mess and Cookhouse. It was necessary to file past the Cookhouse end to get to the lectures and one very hot summers evening doing just that, there were 3 large swill bins overflowing with waste food, covered with wasps and flies and smelling to high heaven. Waiting to be collected by a pig farmer I must add. Private Robin Day, (of broadcasting fame later) remarked loudly and to our great amusement, "So that's why they call it a Sergeants Mess". Robin later went on to become a Captain in the Royal Artillery I understand. He resided with his parents in Seaview Avenue.
I enjoyed my service with the Home Guard and to some extent it served me well when I left to join the Royal Air Force on the 5th November 1942. At times, the subject of much hilarity and perhaps even ridicule, I'm sure that all involved would have given of their very best if the crunch came. It was a well intended project which was never put to the test which perhaps is fortunate for us who lived through those troubled times.
There were stories about the Guns at various times as to their origin. One had it that they at sometime in the past had been removed from a, sunken ship and then rebuilt. Possible I suppose but they appeared to be in excellent condition in close up to me and fired faultlessly.
Another tale has them of Japanese origin which poses rather a lot of whys and wherefores I think.
And yet another tale that I have seen in writing. They were Anti-Aircraft Guns. I can give a resounding NO to that Even if it were possible to slide the Foot thick emplacement roof back to allow the gunner to see the sky, the Guns could not elevate for the purpose and the ammunition completely unsuitable anyway.
Peter Tucker, Skegness, 1942
I left the Home Guard in October 1942 prior to joining the Royal Air Force on 5th November 1942.
I am not too conversant with events after that date, but understand that the main role of the Mersea Platoon centred on or around the Battery, whilst still retaining links with the British Legion on the Admin and Parades side.
Conscripts kept up the manpower however, for the volunteer element fell off as it became clear that Germany was on the defensive. I think that Battery Sergeant-Major Jim Argent and a skeleton staff stayed on to ensure the safety of munitions and the well being of the Guns and ancillary.
Jim married Mersea girl Joan 'Cissie' Mussett; Elgar's daughter of 46 Victory Road, and raised a family together. Upon Demob, he did much good work to put the British Legion Club on a sound finacia1 footing from which it has not looked back.
The Home Guard was disbanded, (Stood Down) in December 1945.
This article is in Mersea Museum archives, dating from February 2008. It is not known if it was published in this form
but much of the Home Guard section appeared in issues of Community News magazine on Mersea in 2006. These articles are
online - see CNS_005_025 .
Peter died 7 September 2020
Evacuees and Wartime Life, by Peter Tucker
Guns on Victoria Esplanade
Wedding of Sgt James Argent and Winifred Joan Mussett
Peldon Home Guard