How the Home Guard worked to protect their local communities

Bowmer Bank, Morpeth.
Bowmer Bank, Morpeth.

THE Home Guard did not originally figure in the Government’s war plans.

It was set up in response to public demand and to bring unofficial combat units under military control. The Local Defence Volunteers were created by an Order in Council in May 1940.

Against official advice, Winston Churchill called it the Home Guard, by which name it has been known ever since.

Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn has two files, one of general correspondence and the other an establishment list. It also has photographs and oral-history recordings.

The correspondence consists mainly of orders and instructions. The Blacker Bombard, for instance, was a spigot mortar fired by ramming the mortar bomb over an iron rod. It was an emergency weapon intended to make good the shortage of anti-tank guns, and again it was Churchill who sanctioned it against the advice of the experts.

The main benefit arising from it was psychological. It gave the Home Guard a weapon to fight with, even if only makeshift. The instruction for firing live ammunition from it during exercises was simple: Don’t!

It was effective up to about 100 yards and had therefore to be positioned close to a road or bridge.

It was usually mounted on a concrete column called a thimble. This was sunk into a pit to give the troops a degree of protection.

If you find a thing like a concrete dustbin lid buried in the ground, with a metal spike on top, it’s probably the thimble for a Blacker Bombard.

Home Guard units were organised within the Army’s existing geographical structure.

The Commanding Officer of the Northumberland zone, which included the City of Newcastle and the Borough of Tynemouth, was Col the Viscount Allendale MC. His headquarters were at Bowmer Bank, Morpeth.

The zone was divided into 13 groups, each with one or more battalions. The initial version of the list, dated March 1941, contains the following:

No. 1 Group: 1st. Northumberland (Berwick) Battalion, 2nd. Northumberland (Alnwick) Battalion. No. 2 Group: 4th. Northumberland (Hexham) Battalion, 5th. Northumberland (Gosforth) Battalion, 10th. Northumberland (Otterburn) Battalion. No. 3 Group: 3rd. Northumberland (Morpeth) Battalion, 6th. Northumberland (Blyth) Battalion, 7th. Northumberland (Tynemouth) Battalion.

No. 4 Group covered Newcastle, while the 13th Northumberland (Post Office) Battalion seems to have existed outside the normal group structure.

The Commanding Officer of No. 3 Group was Col J Greene DSO. His HQ was the Villa Nanon, at the corner of Berwick Hill Road in Ponteland.

The 3rd Battalion was under the command of Lt Col B Cruddas DSO. Unusually, he already had a second-in-command, Major TN Sample. Nine other positions were unfilled. This was par for the course, though the Tyneside battalions seem to have done better in this respect than the rural ones.

Most positions are self-explanatory, like Intelligence Officer and Machine Gun Officer, but less so Gas & PAD Officer. PAD seems to mean something like Protection and Decontamination.

The unexpected one is that of Chief Guide, but the need for this becomes obvious when you remember that all signposts and milestones had been removed and put into store to hinder an invading enemy.

Add to it that all the street-lights were off and vehicles had to use baffled headlamps, the combined effect was no small hindrance to our own war effort as well.

The 3rd Battalion HQ was 14 Market Place, now the Newcastle Building Society. It consisted of nine companies. Each company had a unit commander and headquarters, and was organised into platoons: No. 1 Company, commanded by Maj J Abercrombie, had its HQ at the Drill Hall, Ashington. One of its four platoons, No. 2, was located in the Dolphin Hotel Tea Room, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. Lucky them!

No. 2 Company, Maj CB Swanston, Pegswood Welfare Pavilion, had five platoons: No. 9, Lt HD Stanton, 41, High Street, Guidepost; No. 10, Lt CR Rogers, Blue House, Netherton; No. 11, Lt WE Turner, Pegswood Welfare Pavilion; No. 12, Lt MPSC Armstrong, Cockle Park, and No. 13, Lt M Hully, Land Settlement, Stannington Station.

Maj GL Rutherford, No. 3 Company, was unusual in having a second-in-command, Capt GA Catcheside. His HQ was at Heighley Wood, Morpeth. The platoons were No. 17, Lt JG Miller, Warreners House, Northgate; No. 18, Lt JT Trevelyan, School House, Netherton.

No. 19, Lt J Eustace-Smith, had two sections, one at Rothley Crag and the other in Scots Gap Temperance Hotel, now the regional offices of the National Trust. No. 20 Platoon was based at the Shoulder of Mutton in Longhorsley.

No. 4 Company was commanded by Maj CE Pumphrey, based at West Bitchfield, Belsay. No. 23 Platoon, Capt SGM Dobson was at Belsay Post Office; No. 24, Lt W Hall, Meldon North Side Post Office; No. 25, Lt W Whitfield, the Beresford Arms, Whalton; No. 26, Lt R Atkin, the White House, Glororum.

No. 5 Company, Maj JA Flint, 2nd-in-Command Capt. G.F.Howell, was based entirely at Morpeth Police Station, platoons and all: No. 27 Platoon, Lt WC Welsh; No. 28, Lt SJ Henderson; No. 29, Lt EE Fail, and Platoon Officer, 2 Lt G Kennedy.

No. 6 Company, Maj WM Craigs, Post Office Chambers, Ashington, had three platoons: No. 31, Lt R Brian, Linton Colliery; No. 32, Lt W Ball, Welfare Pavilion, Lynemouth, and No. 33, Lt T Moscrop, 48, Ena Street, Widdrington.

There was also an Ashington Pit Company, which had no number. Its platoons were numbered 1-5 and therefore not in the main sequence.

Their platoon headquarters were: 1. Guard Room, Ashington Colliery. 2. New Disposal Plant, do. 3. Woodhorn Colliery. 4. Lynemouth Colliery (O/C Lt. G.H. Proctor, Platoon Officer H. Lane.) 5. Ellington Colliery (O/C Lt. J.D. Shepherd, Platoon Officer R Lawson.)

There was likewise a Newbiggin Pit Company and a London & North Eastern Railway Company. Within the latter, the Railway Platoon North, O/C Lt GM Cannell, was based at the Railway Office, Morpeth.

It is not immediately obvious what a platoon officer was, though clearly not its commander. Some are identified only by name, but were presumably given a rank eventually.

In other similar cases, such people are referred to as Volunteer So-and-so. This term was only in use for about a year, when it was replaced with Private.

The headquarters included suburban villas, a council house in Widdrington Station, welfare pavilions, colliery, railway, police and post office premises, and public houses.

No. 2 Company in the 6th (Blyth) Battalion had its headquarters at The Alma Inn, Bedlington.

The 12th platoon in that company was at the General Havelock, East Sleekburn, and another was based at Newsham Mechanics’ Institute, while No. 3 Company’s headquarters was Vicky’s Café, Whitley Bay.

It sounds comfortable and convenient, but I wonder if Vicky and her café were still open for business?

By July 1941, the Morpeth Battalion had a full complement of specialist officers: Medical Officer, Dr HS Brown; Chief Guide, Sgt Charlton; Intelligence Officer, Lt H Graham-Barrow (and Liaison Officer); Weapon Training Officer, 2 Lt GA Middlemiss; Signal Officer, Lt H Wilkinson, and Gas & PAD Officer, Lt SJ Henderson.