Marlborough’s own Dad’s Army is brought back to memorable life
They called them the Local Defence Volunteers at the start, the brave band of men who took up arms after the flight from Dunkirk to protect our shores – and sky – from the expected hordes of Hitler’s troops.
Tommy Trinder, the cheeky stand-up comedian of radio fame labelled them Look, Duck and Vanish. And so it was later left to Winston Churchill to rename the biggest unpaid army ever raised in Britain the Home Guard.
And, of course, it has stuck to this day and embellished by the comic antics of the BBC’s long-running and loved TV show Dad’s Army.
“If it hadn’t been for Dad’s Army, the Home guard would have been largely forgotten,” admits local historian Roger Day (pictured). “But the record needs to be put straight by emphasising how close this nation came to a Nazi invasion in 1940.”
And so he sincerely hopes his new book, Look, Duck and Vanish, a fascinating and highly readable history of the 6th (Marlborough) Battalion of the Wiltshire Home Guard from 1940 to 1944 will go a considerable way to addressing the issue.
Indeed, it is a valuable exercise in social history, packed with pictures and illustrations, the more so since he thought he had left it too late to research such a history when he was contacted by Sir Sydney Giffard in 2008. He asked if Roger was interested in the Marlborough Home Guard and piles of documents relating to World War II that he held.
They had belonged to his father, Walter Giffard, the battalion’s commander, and Marlborough-born Roger discovered that the range of information was “beyond my wildest dreams.”
But were there still members of Marlborough’s Dad’s Army around to interview – was he too late?
The surprise there was that he discovered more than 20 who could recognise themselves among the photographs now in his possession and had a mindful of memories before some, alas, have now passed on.
Their mission at first was to watch the skies for it was believed the Germans would infiltrate by launching an airborne invasion of spies and fifth columnists, so the volunteers were nicknamed parashooters.
Life on night patrol could be full of scares and possibly trigger happy volunteers, some of whom were equipped with American gangster-style Thompson sub-machine guns.
And there were plenty of them. Within five days of an appeal by Sir Anthony Eden more than 250,000 men had volunteered and in Marlborough’s seven sections there were no fewer than 520 in the volunteer ranks.
Not that anything stupendous happened. “Fortunately, the war by-passed Marlborough to a large extent, so it’s difficult to say exactly what the Marlborough Battalion’s most significant event was,” admits Roger, who now lives in Hungerford.
“However, the day a German aircraft dropped its bombs while the battalion was watching a demonstration on Manton Down must be near the top of the list. If the aim had been better the consequences could have been disastrous.”
Roger’s own passion for history started as a child when his parents and grandparents recounted their stories of life on the Home Front. And it is after a career as an engineer, insurance agent and postman that, now retired, he has appropriately brought it back to life in book form.
I loved the story of the night-time challenge issued when a wayward sound was heard, only for the perpetrator to turn out to be a “barking” hedgehog.
Roger recalls: “I thought Dickie Brown’s account of being on guard at the Durley roadblock when a young soldier refused to hand his paybook to toy soldiers is one of the best stories. I still wonder if Lionel Wootton would really have shot him.”
Luckily he didn’t.
As Tommy Trinder used to cry “You lucky people!” when he performed, so we are fortunate too that Roger Day has worked so hard and researched so diligently to bring back to beautiful life the 6th Battalion of the Marlborough Home Guard.
There may yet be more to follow.
“My interest in the 6th Marlborough Battalion does not end with the publication of this book, as I am fairly certain there’s a lot of material still waiting to be rediscovered,” Roger points out.
“I therefore invite ay reader with further information to please make contact, so that it might be included in future editions.”
Look, Duck and Vanish, price £12.95, is available at Marlborough’s White Horse Bookshop.