To mark the release of a new film version of Dad’s Army about the Home Guard during the Second World War, we take a look at Nunney’s own Home Guard.
The new film will hit the cinemas in February 2016. Based on the popular BBC television sitcom, the British film stars Catherine Zeta Jones, Bill Nighy, Alision Steadman, Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon.
Compared with her European neighbours Britain got off relatively lightly in the Second World War as no part of the homeland (with the exception of the Channel Islands) was occupied by the enemy, and there was no significant fighting on her soil.
Yet the social fabric of the country was completely disrupted by food and clothes rationing, evacuation of children, conscription of both men and women, compulsory direction of labour into certain industries, and devestating air raids.
At the start of the war civilians faced almost equal risks with soldiers, and the nation united – even if the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was never actually used at the time.
In 1939 the British government launched the Dig for Victory campaign to increase home food production. Soon every available green space, from back gardens to public parks, was turned over to vegetable plots.
Gas mask fittings in Nunney
Of the basic necessities of life, even good air could not be guaranteed at the start of the war. Much of Britiish defence was based on the premise that the enemy might use poison gases.
Everyone was issued with a gas mask, even babies who needed adults to operate the pump to keep them alive. In Nunney too, gas mask fittings were organised to ensure that all residents were fully protected against an attack.
Of course, the gas masks were never used in practice, but helped create an atmosphere of fear and of national solidarity, as an emblem of a nation at war.
People were instructed to carry their gas mask with them at all times in case of attack. After the initial fear of a gas attack subsided, carrying a gas mask become part of everyday life – and fashion.
In late 1940 France officially surrendered to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and in early July Hitler made plans to invade Britain.
A series of emergency measures were introduced by the UK government. A blackout had been introduced in September 1939. This was to stop lights on the ground showing enemy aircraft where to drop their bombs.
Special Air Raid Wardens patrolled the streets after dark to make sure that no lights could be seen from house windows. People took a long time to get used to the blackout.
By 1939 it was accepted that the only fair way to raise mass forces and find workers for industry at the same time was by some form of compulsion. It was first applied in June 1939, when men were called up for six months’ training.
This was quickly overtaken when the war started and the National Service (Amred Forces) Act passed, making all men between the ages of 18 and 41 liable for service for an indefinite period.
After that, men were called out to register by age group as required. Conscription for women was introduced by a further act in 1941, and the age for men was extended to 51.
7th Battalion Hampshire regiment had been moved to Marston House outside Nunney. Here the Battalion was together for the first time since the general mobilisation.
It was an unusually severe winter and living conditions in the large mansion were very uncomfortable, as there was neither heat, light nor water. However, equipment improved and vehicles began to be delivered, so that more realistic training could be undertaken.
During the war church bells were silenced, only to ring in case of a German invasion. German planes would sometimes drop empty parachutes over the British countryside, followed by announcements on German radio that spies had successfully infiltrated Britain. Naturally, this was very unsettling.
The Local Defence Volunteers formed themselves into units in response to an appeal contained in a speech by the Foreign Secretary, Mr Anthony Eden, on 14 May 1940.
The backbone of the movement was naturally formed by the men who had served in the war of 1914-18, but many civilians joined up without any previous training. At this time the military situation in Belgium had at last aroused the people of England to their danger.
The force was subsequently renamed ‘The Home Guard’ by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in a speech on 14 July 1940. There was no possibility of adequately equipping this force as all available arms and equipment were required for the troops who returned from Dunkirk. Consequently, a public appeal was made for the loan of shot guns which were carried on duty in the early days.
Practically all these volunteers were in full employment and their training therefore most difficult to arrange. It was necessary to call upon them immediately for a great deal of night duty. The first weapon issued for the whole Nunney Platoon consisted of one rifle with five rounds.
The men were gradually issued with khaki on the lines the battle dress, with a patch on the arm bearing the letters LDV in block letters. Finally, about half the men were armed with rifles and half with sten guns. The Nunney Platoon also had two Browning automatic rifles and one ‘’35 anti-tank rifle. The Trudoxhill Platoon, which included Tytherington, had a Lewis gun.
Throughout the war the greatest possible help was given in the training of the Home Guard by the units quartered at Marston Park, notably battalions of the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards.
In July 1942 the character of the force was changed and the Home Guard became a conscripted force. All men between the ages of 18 and 50 became liable to serve and were directed into it by the Ministry of Labour. Exemptions were granted in the cases of men already serving in the Civil Defence (ARP), the Observer Corps, the Police, National Fire Service and employment under the ‘Essential Works Order’.
The local organisation consisted of the 4th Battalion Somerset Home Guard commanded by Lt Colonel Hartley Spencer, South Hill House, Cranmore. Head quarters were The Drill Hall, Frome.
The Nunney company was commanded by Lt Colonel E.J. Loring, late Royal Engineers of the Old Rectory, Cloford. His 2nd in command was 1st Captain Berry of Chantry, 2nd Captain Fry of Whatley. The company consisted of six platoons: Mells, Vobster, Trudoxhill, Wanstrow, Nunney.
Members of the Nunney Home Guard pose with their Company Commander in front of Nunney Castle.
Back row: Sgt. Bill Hall; Arthur Hughes; Sgt. Joe Richards; Cpl. Reg. Herridge; Bill Howlett; Frank Bradley; Charlie Howlett; Alfie Hillier; Cecil ‘Mick’ Bartlett; Oliver Brooks; Albert Seviour
Front row: L/Cpl. Silvester Seviour; Herbie Seviour; Sgt. Fred Fowler; Captain Bradshaw; Major E.J. Loring; Sgt. Blacker; Sgt. Monty Conibear; Bill Vince; Fred Hiller; Mr. Anderson
Many members of Nunney Platoon were employed in Coleman’s Quarry. These included Reg Herridge, Bill Howlett, Charlie Howlett, Cecil Bartlett, Oliver Brooks, Bill Vince and Fred Fowler who was employed as a driver.
Arthur Hughes was a council employee, Alfie Hillier a farmworker. Fred Bradley’s skills were always required, being the local blacksmith and plumber. Fred Hillier’s inclusion suggests he had been a member of the Home Guard and had been called up subsequently.
Cecil ‘Mick’ Barlett passed away in August 2003, the last surviving member of the group photographed above.
The Nunney Home Guard’s local observation point was a small hut on wheels, still in use as a shed today. A hole in the centre of the door towards the bottom was not made by mice, but is the result of a ‘negligent discharge’ by Bill Vince.
Another result of forgetfulness was the finding, many years after the war, of four hand grenades in Sgt. Bill Hall’s loft.
After Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and France, an invasion of Britain was a real possibility. An Invasion Committee was formed for the combined villages of Nunney, Trudoxhill, Chantry and Whatley to draw up emergency plans in case a considerable number of refugees suddenly arrived as a result of actual German invasion of the blitzing of Bristol and Bath.
The minutes of its meetings make chilling reading. Practicalities that had to be dealt with in case or large numbers of casualties, injured or evacuees included planning temporary mortuaries in the castle and in a cowshed ‘of accredited standard’ at the Manor Farm, a temporary cemetary and even a temporary prison in teh crypt of the Manor House.
The plans included detailed lists of vehicles, spades and stirrup pumps available in the four villages, as well as houses where exhausted and slightly injured Home Guard or other troops could rest up to 48 hours.
Nunney First School would serve as a reception centre where injured people could be directed to either the hospital at Nunney Court or to a dozen homes in the village.
An Emergency Ration Committee chaired by the Rev. Percy Clough was put in charge of planning the supply of food and drink in case large numbers of people descended on the four villages.
The Invasion Committee had to take into account that some of the men serving in the Home Guard and Air Raid Patrol were likely to be needed for army duties in case of an invasion.
To force Britain to surrender, 300 German planes bombed the London docks on 7 September 1940 and rom then until May 1941 London was bombed heavily.
Other cities and towns were also heavily bombed, including Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton, Plymouth, Birmingham, Coventry and Liverpool.
Over 30,000 British people were killed during this period – over half in London, which was bombed almost every night. Although we can’t say for sure whether the Germans used Nunney Castle as a navigation point for these and later ‘Baedeker raids’ on Bath and Bristol, British military aircrafts continue to use Nunney as a navigation point to this day.
The Baedeker raids were named the popular Baedeker travel guides, which included descriptions of Nunney Castle and village. German propagandist. Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm, a spokesman for the German Foreign Office, is reported to have said, “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.”
The Blitz ended in mid-May 1941, when much of the German air force was sent east to prepare for the invasion of Russia. The immediate threat of German invasion was over, although bombing continued at less intensive levels in 1942 and 1943.
For three weeks at the outset of the war the Nunney air raid and fire warden’s post was manned day and night by paid personnel. Subsequently, until September 1944, it was manned by wardens by roster for several house – at least four – every night.
Bombs were dropped in teh town of Frome and the parishes of Mells, Buckland Dinham, Lullington, Rode, Beckington, Rodden, Woodlands, Marston Bigot, Gaer Hill, Wanstrow, Upton Noble, Whatley and Chantry. A total of 246 bombs were dropped in the Frome area, of which 121 bombs between July and December 1940, 114 bombs between January and November 1941, 3 in November 1943 and 8 in spring 1944.
Fire wardens attended three lectures on fire fighting and were organised as stirrup pump teams. It had been intended that each fire guard should be issued with a helmet and an official certificate authorising them to break into burning houses when on duty.
Actually, they only received armlets. Each team was posted to a definite area to avoid delays in tackling any fire at its outbreak. Each warden’s post was issued with a stirrup pump, a hand-operated pump to put out fires.
Villagers were urged to provide themselves with additional stirrup pumps, funded through subscriptions, whist drives and such. The price was 25/- each.
In view of the heavy and persistent attacks by incendiary bombs at the outset of the war, large quantities of sand and sandbags were provided by the County Council in every village and all householders urged to keep at least two sandbags filled and available for immediate use, together with buckets filled with water.
During the heavy raids on Bristol and the Baedeker raids on Bath on the nights of the 25th and 26th of April 1942, the German planes passed over Nunney. The first air raid warning given by the sirens in Frome was on 26 June 1940 and the last update was on 13 June 1944. The Air Raid Patrol Services were officially stood down on 2 May 1945.
On 8 July 1941 a German Heinkel Bomber, returning from bombing Bristol, crashed near Murdercombe at 1.15am. Three of the crew baled out and were captured. The pilot fell into a field of standing corn and was not found until it was cut, some considerable time afterwards.
The Invasion Committees were formally discontinued in November 1944. The Home Guard was officially stood down on 3 December 1944.
Visit Nunney’s exhibition Keep Calm and Nunney On – Nunney during the Second World War is available on our website. It continues the story of a remarkable community and its response to the perils of war.