IT was with some satisfaction that we received a letter from a certain nonagenarian Willenhall man in response to our recent articles on the Bilston Home Guard (see Bugles 956 and 957). We had printed a number of photographs of Bilston’s ‘Dad’s Army’ taken by the late Bob James, a keen amateur photographer who had served with them during the war. For the dozens of men pictured we had no names and we hoped that among our readers would be those that could identify them, even an ex-Home Guardsman who could share his memories of those wartime days.
Step forward George Phillpott. It is seventy years since George joined the Bilston Home Guard while he worked in a reserved occupation. Like thousands of others on the home front, his was a twofold war effort. For while working long hours in industry to supply Britain’s forces with armaments, machinery and equipment, in his free time, at evenings and weekends, he also donned uniform and took up his gun prepared, if it should ever come to pass, to defend hearth and home.
George has written with some of his recollections of Bilston’s Home Guard and has named a few of his colleagues that were photographed.
He writes: “Your articles and pictures about Bilston Home Guard have really brought back memories for me, because, you see, I was one of ‘em! “I am 92 years old and I don’t suppose there are many of us left now.
“In around April 1939 I was one of the thousands of 20- year-olds who were to be conscripted into the armed forces, to prepare for the inevitable conflict with Nazi Germany. However, I was an articled apprentice and my call-up was deferred until my apprenticeship was completed on my 21st birthday, 30th September, 1939.
“But war was declared on 3rd September and I expected to go double-quick. However, nothing had happened by mid October, so my employers, Bradley and Co., Ltd., on the Willenhall Road, sent me to find out what was what.
“I was told that I was in a reserved occupation as a press toolmaker and born before 1st October, 1918. I didn’t tell them that I was born at 10 minutes to midnight! “I did not volunteer for the LDV for a short while, because I expected to be called up after the collapse of France. When I did eventually join the Home Guard we had real army uniforms, not denims, and rifles, not broomsticks, and so on.
“There were several units in Bilston, stationed at various sites. ‘A’ Company and ‘E’ Company were both stationed at the Drill Hall, opposite the police station. Other units were at Sankey’s works, another at John Thompson’s, and I believe there was one in Vulcan Road. Almost certainly there was one at Stewarts and Lloyds steelworks.
“I was in ‘A’ Company and we shared guard duties with ‘E’ Company. We mounted guard at several key positions in the town such as the Drill Hall, the ARP centre behind and under the library, the telephone exchange at the main GPO, the pumping station beside the canal at Bradley, and the water works at Bratch, Wombourne. Sentries were posted at each of these sites, in four shifts or two hours each, between 10pm and 6am next morning.
“Each detail usually comprised one or two NCOs and five men — the fifth was the orderly who made tea and ran messages but was really there is case any of the others were unable to fulfil his duties. We marched to all our posts except the Bratch, where we travelled to and fro often in Johnny Toole’s coal wagons!
“I have vivid memories of marching up Oxford Street, Bilston, at about ten minutes to six in the morning and as we approached the war memorial Corporal Whitehouse would call, ‘Detail! — March to attention!’, then, ‘Detail! Eyes left!’ and, with him at the salute and us sloping arms, we marched past the cenotaph with hardly another soul in sight.
“We were on duty at one or other of these sites every eighth night and it should be remembered that many of us worked a 12-hour day. In fact, I worked from 8am to 8pm, Tuesday to Friday, and then went straight to the Drill Hall, having gone to work in uniform complete with rifle!
“Every night the sentries were given a different password and everyone who approached to get past the sentry had to give that password before they were allowed to pass. This password was known to key organisations; police, fire service and probably ARP staff.
“I remember one night I was on sentry duty at the ARP HQ, next to the Town Hall and underneath the library. The sentry stood near the steps leading underground.
“There was a dance on at the Town Hall, probably in aid of the Red Cross or the ‘Wings for Victory’ campaign, and at 11 o’clock the dancers started to leave the Town Hall by the side door, which was almost opposite the sentry box.
“Within a few minutes the yard was crowded, the suddenly one of the dancers, obviously the worse for drink, approached me and asked to have a look at my rifle — he didn’t think it was real. I tried to ignore him, being acutely conscious of the fixed bayonet and the five live rounds in the magazine. He tried to grab it, so I rang the alarm bell, which turned out the guard.
“The look on the fellow’s face as Corporal James, Lance-Corporal Wilson and four men came dashing up the steps was ‘worth a guinea a box’! At this juncture, two policemen stepped forward, lifted the man off his feet and took him away. I never heard any more about it.
“A more pleasant memory is of the 4am to 6am posting on the door of the Drill Hall. Sometimes, at about 5.30am, from the direction of Bunker’s Hill, would come a strange clatter, gradually getting closer. Bear in mind that it was pitch dark in the blackout, and silent except for the hum of distant factories. Then the clatter was recognised as footsteps, the walker wearing steel-soled shoes, and, as a vague shadow passed by in the gloom, came a cheery greeting, ‘Good morning, sentry!’ It was a steel worker going to start his morning shift at Stewart and Lloyds! “There were plenty of other activities, including practice attacks on ‘enemy posts’, street fighting and such like.
“Many of us had fulltime jobs and I recall on at least two occasions leaving work at Bradley’s at 4 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, jumping on my bike and cycling to Sedgley Beacon, where our mob were under canvas and engaged in field exercises which would last until around 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon.
“Very occasionally we were able to provide a bed for a member of the regular forces who was stranded overnight while travelling home on leave or back to his unit. One soldier remarked that he wouldn’t change places with any of us for ‘all the tea in China’. Mind you, that was before D-Day.
“Finally, there may have been some truth in the oftrepeated rumour that some of the decisions affecting the activities of ‘A’ and ‘E’ Companies were taken, not in the Drill Hall, but across the road in the smoke-room of the Globe public house!” George has identified some of his Home Guard colleagues from the pictures we printed in Bugles 956 and 957 — Sid Routely, Tom Evans, Bob James, Lieutenant Bob Ford, Major Hopton, Corporal Bill Whitehouse, Sergeant Turpin and Corporal Ted Wilson.
In Bugle 956 we also featured a list of “battalion administrative staff for G Section attachment” that was written in pencil on the back of an army C2128 message form and found with Bob James’ pictures. George recognised some of the names and wrote, “Regarding the names in the article, Major D.E. Wells was, I am pretty certain, Dr Wells, who, in uniform, passed us fit to serve. Lieutenant R.N.S. Peach was, I think, Captain W.S. Peach, who was my old headmaster at Bilston Boys Central School in Fraser Street and whom I met a couple of times in uniform.”