On the History Trail: Home Guard’s war book illustrates fear of invasion

Bishop Wilton Home Guard.
Bishop Wilton Home Guard.

On 14 May 1940, Anthony Eden made his first speech as Secretary of State for War.

Part of his speech was asking for volunteers for the Local Defence Volunteers:

“We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of 17 and 65, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance [that an invasion would be repelled] doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers. This name describes its duties in three words. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniforms and will be armed. In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give your name at your local police station, and then, when we want you, we will let you know...”

The name was changed from ‘Local Defence Volunteers’ to ‘Home Guard’ in July 1940 on the instructions of Winston Churchill as he felt the original name was uninspiring. The Government expected 150,000 men to volunteer when Anthony Eden made his broadcast on 14 May 1940. Within 24 hours of the broadcast, 250,000 men had put down their names and by the end of May 1940 the number was between 300,000 and 400,000. By the end of June, 1940 the number of volunteers was just under one-and-a-half million. The numbers peaked at 1.8 million in March 1943 and never fell below one million until the Home Guard was disbanded on 31 December 1945. From this date, the Home Guard ceased to exist.

Invasion committees were set up throughout the country to take responsibility for local arrangements should the Germans invade. These committees had to prepare secret Invasion Schemes based on criteria issued by the Ministry of Home Security and keep them up to date throughout the war. These committees were to prepare war books in accordance with a standard proforma issued by the Ministry of Home Security. Should hasty evacuation become necessary, the war books were to be destroyed.

Luckily the invasion plans of Bishop Wilton survived and were found in 2003 in the possession of the ex-schoolmaster of Bishop Wilton Alan Hobbs. He had been given it many years ago by the vicar the Reverend Richard Fawcett. Alan presented it to the Bishop Wilton History Group, who in turn submitted it to Beverley Archives. It is a remarkable document which illustrates the fear of invasion and the detailed planning that took place in just one village in our region. There are 22 parts within it starting with a statement of the perceived local invasion threat and continuing as a very detailed list of local assets and personal responsibilities with location and telephone number of the various key individuals.

The preparations include the appointment of officers for the Home Guard, casualties and first aid, fire wardens, Womens Royal Voluntary Service leaders, a feeding centre officer and a billeting officer. Plans included a first aid centre in the church, purchase of a stretcher and bandages, a feeding centre in the school had to be capable of feeding 90 people, but it was noted they only had crockery for 24 persons. A siren was given to the village by W.L. Fisher, and village donations enabled accessories to be purchased enabling its installation. Civil Defence Messengers Gordon Foster, Arthur West and Laurence West were enrolled and acted as messengers for the Invasion Committee. It was noted “As the telephone system at Bishop Wilton is extremely erratic in operation and often out of order the committee feel that a car should be allowed to be mobilised as long as possible so that, in an emergency, contact with the Sub-Control at Pocklington and outlying stations, may be maintained as long as possible.” It was felt necessary that a suitable building in the churchyard should be set aside by the Church Council for use as a mortuary, and would be in charge of the parish clerk and Sexton, Mr J. H. Burgess with Mr G. Barker acting as his deputy and assistant. In an emergency “Burial by blanket method” was to be adopted. An N.F.S. petrol driven trailer pump and box car with equipment was stationed at Bishop Wilton for use by the local fire party under the leadership of Mr S. Bailey, who could be contacted directly or by telephone on B.W. 254. For fire fighting purposes the beck, running down the middle of the village, was to be dammed, and water could also be pumped out of the fish pond near the church.

Down Braygate in Bishop Wilton was a wooden hut which was a wartime observation post manned by the vicar Richard Fawcett and other volunteers who were members of the Royal Observer Corps. Further down the lane is Awnham’s Lane where there was a nissen hut. This was where a searchlight battery operated from 1941 to 1945. It was manned by 12 soldiers who lived in the adjacent wooden hut. They operated a searchlight, powered by a large generator that was on wheels, and also one Lewis gun. Every village in the area made similar contribution to the war effort.

The scheme was produced in response to a very real threat and the preparations made show how seriously it was taken. We can only imagine the relief when the committee could finally be disbanded on 23 October 1944 after a letter from the Regional Commissioner dated 3 October 1944, although it was some months before the war finally ended.