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.
Three red poppy wreaths were left at the foot of Marlborough’s war memorial to the town’s “own” 7th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment in yesterday’s traditional Armistice Day ceremony.
One was laid by the Mayor, Councillor Alexander Kirk Wilson, on behalf of himself and the town council, the second by Lt. Col Austin Pearce of 4 Military Intelligence Battalion, who were honoured with the freedom to march in Marlborough last June.
But it was the third wreath, laid by 73-year-old retired schoolteacher David Chandler, that evoked the poignancy of the moment on what was the remarkable date of 11.11.2011 watched by dozens of students from St John’s School.
It was Mr Chandler’s tribute to his grandfather, Private Andrew Ferguson, the gamekeeper who went to war and never returned, his body never found in the fighting fields of far-off Salonika, in northern Greece.
He laid his wreath on the stone World War 1 memorial on his behalf and that of two other grand children, Carolyn and Christopher, who last month, together with their spouses, went to see the battlefield for themselves.
As the memorial inscription recounts, the 7th Battalion, formed in September, 1914, was sent to billets in Marlborough in April, 1915, and trained on the Common, hence its local link.
After going initially to France, it was then sent to Salonika, to protect the Serbs from the Ottoman Turks who together with the Bulgarians had joined the German cause.
But Private Ferguson, gamekeeper to the Marquis of Aylesbury who volunteered for the army, aged 39, was killed at the front a year later, on April 24, 1917, his body one of many never recovered.
“He was my mother’s father, my grandfather,” Mr Chandler told me at his home in Alma Place, Marlborough. “He left a widow and seven children. We have no information as to where and how he died.”
Last month Mr Chandler led the family party of six to Salonika, visiting the town of Doiran, on the border of Macedonia, where there is the main Commonwealth war grave but no memorial to Private Ferguson.
“He was one of 2,000 soldiers who just disappeared without trace, lost forever,” said Mr Chandler. “But we were delighted to make the journey and to be there. It was a moving experience we shall always remember.”
He was equally pleased yesterday to see so many students from St John’s School, Marlborough, and a few from St Peter’s School, taking part in the ceremony of two minutes silence outside Marlborough town hall, then walking down to hill to the London Road memorial to see the wreath laying ceremony take place.
It was a reminder for him of a similar Armistice event that used to be staged at a school where he taught.
“It is important for them to know what happened is all part of life,” explained Mr Chandler. “It was very moving to see them all there. I never ever thought it was something that would take off in its own momentum and still be appreciated today.”
That is thanks to Dr Patrick Hazlewood, St John’s headteacher, who was there supervising the event along with colleagues.
“We had two representatives from every tutor group in the school,” he told me. “We talked a little bit about the event before we went down, about the importance of remembrance and what the two minutes silence actually means.”
“They found it to be a very moving experience. On the way back to school, we talked about how they felt. It was a tingle down the spine for them. One or two said they were close to tears.”
And he added: “It was part of their education. It is really important that every generation remembers.”
The Marlborough mound – now known to have been built at about the same time as Silbury Hill – is at the moment covered with trees and voracious ground cover, mainly ivy. It lies right at the heart of the College buildings.
As befits a scheduled monument, it has long been strictly out of bounds to college students. Although there’s some hearsay evidence that those trees did in days gone by provide cover for the occasional illicit smoker – so much better than ‘behind the bike sheds’.
Eventually the trees – some near the summit are 32 metres tall - and the ivy will be removed from the mound. But, as Peter Carey of the architects Donald Insall Associates who are overseeing the conservation, explained to Marlborough News Online, this must be done very slowly and carefully.
Although the vegetation is degrading the mound, too sudden removal would destabilise the whole structure and might lead to an even worse situation - making collapses of part of the mound a real possibility. That is the lesson from conservation works at other ancient ‘castle mounds’ at Totnes and Oxford.
The conservation and restoration process could take several decades. But completion of the work has been guaranteed by the Marlborough Mound Trust set up and most generously funded by Eric Elstob who was a student at Marlborough College from 1956 to 1960, and who died of cancer in 2003 aged sixty.
See also our companion story: “Marlborough’s Mound is now proved even older and more mysterious than Merlin himself.”
While at the College Elstob captained the college boxing team and won an exhibition to Queen’s College, Oxford.
He was a remarkable man – a great linguist, he spent all his working in the City of London and living in Spitalfields. When he died, the Daily Telegraph’s City diarist, Simon Goodley, wrote of him:
“Elstob was one of the City's most decent and upright people, although he would kill me if he heard me saying it, since he never quite lost his sense of fun at the absurdity of City life. He spent his entire career at fund managers Foreign & Colonial, making it a good deal more foreign and a good deal less colonial.”
He was an enthusiastic conservationist, loved Hawksmoor’s churches and was instrumental in the restoration of Christ Church, Spitalfields complete with a refuge for homeless men in its crypt.
Peter Carey says that Elstob would be “completely delighted, exonerated - just so pleased” at the news that the mound’s birthdate had been confirmed as being in prehistoric times – and was thus such a very significant part of the country’s heritage.
Work to investigate, conserve and restore the mound began ten years ago.
Already the very twentieth century metal water tank has been removed from the mound’s summit where it had replaced first Lady Hertford’s water feature and later a reservoir for gardeners and local fire wardens.
Renovation of the shell grotto has begun. This was originally worked on some years ago by the Diana Reynell who taught art at the college. She has become an expert on the eighteenth century craze for grottoes – especially those decorated with shells.
This grotto was dug into the side of the mound for Lady Hertford who was a lady-of-the-bedchamber to George II’s wife Queen Caroline. Ms Reynell has said it was once used by college boys as a bike shed – see above!
Later this year work will start to re-establish a section of Lady Hertford’s unique spiral ramp. This will be a test to see whether it will eventually be possible restore the whole feature right around the cone of the mound.
As Peter Carey puts it this would put “the jelly mould back on the jelly.” The idea is not to change the mound’s structure but to consolidate it.
The Master of Marlborough College has greeted the news of the dating of the mound to prehistoric times enthusiastically. Nicholas Sampson said: “We are thrilled at this discovery, which confirms the long and dramatic history of this beautiful site and offers opportunity for tremendous educational enrichment.”
However, the mound is on the college’s private property and access to the general public is not possible. So it cannot automatically become a new tourist attraction for Marlborough.
The trustees of the Marlborough Mound Trust have a difficult job on their hands. Their main aims as a charity are to ‘restore, conserve, preserve and maintain the mound’. But they are also pledged to ‘educate the public about the archaeological and historic significance and merits of the mound.’
And at some point in the future, when the restoration is much further on, access for the public will surely have to become possible - even if only on specific ‘open days’ during college holidays.
But it’s most unlikely people will ever be allowed to walk up the mound. Just as tourists must admire Silbury Hill from ground level, so it would be too risky to subject such an ancient structure as the Marlborough mound to the tramp of thousands of twenty-first century feet.