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Experiences of the Home Guard and Air Raids by Fred Williams

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project Fred Williams reminisced about his memories of life on the Home Front. This is his story, in his own words:

I would call myself a veteran Home Guard, serving them when they were called the Local Defence Volunteers (L.D.V.), which some of us would jokingly call Look, Duck and Vanish! If German paratroops had dropped in after L.D.V. had just started to be organised, there might have been some truth in it! My first weapons were a pickaxe handle and a sporting shotgun. The Home Guard was my last resort. My employer, South Durham Steel & Iron Co., blocked any hopes I had of joining the army by claiming I was in their Reserved Occupation List, being semi-skilled. I volunteered for the Territorial Army thinking I might be able to get to the action in the war as some Terriers had been drafted in to support the army. “Get back to work!” I was told. The same applied even for the Civil Defence.

Different parts of the town had their own Home Guard units and headquarters, such as the South Durham Steelworks, the shipyards and other organisations. Most Home Guards had compulsory duties to perform, like fire watching at night and patrolling communication centres which could be miles apart, and be armed doing so. Then, amongst those duties, we had to go on parade on Sundays; there were the weekly attendances for learning the use of weapons, apart from the rifle, such as machine guns, tommy guns, mortars, sten guns, mills bombs, anti-tank bombing and also gas mask drill. When using bombs we went to the “Snooks”, where the Greatham Creek area was, or the “Blue Lagoon” and “Slag Wall”. With mills bombs there was a target. When your turn came a live bomb was thrust into your hand, then you had to run towards some sand bags. On reaching them, you pulled out the pin, threw the bomb at the target, then dropped behind the sand bags for shrapnel protection on exploding. On one occasion, I was told that a chap took fright and froze when he threw the bomb, and it dropped very close. Sergeant Walter Nunn, in charge, ran and pushed the fellow down, and both were injured from shrapnel. Being on the ground saved them from serious injury. I think the Sergeant was the first in the country to receive a “wounded in service” bold braid stripe.

At times we were enlisted to night patrols: sometimes for fire watch in case of bomb attacks from “Gerry’s”, sometimes we would go to patrol headquarters to report for duty at the Marine Hotel at Seaton Carew. We’d set off and walk right along Port Clarence Road to the junction of Brenda Road, then back to Seaton Carew. It was a precaution, I suppose, for anything suspicious happening. Of course we were armed – some with sten guns, others with rifles – and in contact with Headquarters. Another story I was told concerned an incident in the Marine Hotel, when a patrol reported in there. One of the men slipped a sten gun from his holder and bumped it, butt first: being spring-loaded this bounced the firing pin and fired a bullet through the ceiling, causing uproar in the bedrooms, and one or two screams. Apologies all round, I suppose. 

Emergency regulations ordered us to cover our job at the steelworks if our mate was ill or otherwise absent, as the work carried on round the clock. So sometimes it could be a double shift, or two mates having to work twelve-hour shifts if it was sickness. So, after working twelve hours or whatever at the steelworks, we still had to perform Home Guard duties, and any excuse for failing to do so would be reported to the “higher ups”, and I think it could have been serious. The whole steelworks had emergency light warning day and night. A yellow light was for standby, that enemy aircraft were approaching: if the red light appeared, lights everywhere were blacked out with sirens blaring. We had to seek cover in the air-raid shelters provided at convenient points, which was a bit tricky in darkness with all the obstruction about the place.

One hair-raising experience I had was when a surprise German plane beat the air-raid scanners one night, and the lights went out suddenly, accompanied by sirens. Everybody ran for it, but I couldn’t – I was unloading a bogey load of very hot slabs and the glow was stark against the darkness, showing very vividly to the sky. I could hear the plane and anti-aircraft guns in action, with searchlights probing about. My foreman came running over and pressed me to unload the slabs and put them anywhere under cover in the mill’s building. He and some other workers threw corrugated sheets and anything of that nature over the top of the slabs, also shovelled sand and scale on the slabs. I had to be guided with a torch where to place them. Anyway, the emergency blew over safely without anybody being blown up! Some bombs did drop, about seven or so just outside Number 2 mill, near a boiler and gas main. Later in the war, the boiler man got killed, the gas pipe ignited causing problems. Another bomb hit the storehouse not far away but didn’t explode. Bomb disposal engineers defused it after digging down for it, as calmly as you like.

All this pressure wasn’t to be eased by anything as the town was industrial, as was the surrounding area – Middlesbrough and Stockton being examples – so we were regularly visited by bombing raids sweeping in over the Tees mouth and going back to Germany over our area. So sleep was a premium. I have a small book giving figures of air raids in Hartlepool: between 1940 and 1943 we were subjected to 43 air raids, with 70 deaths and nearly 200 injured. Altogether, we had 480 siren warnings to take shelter. Sometimes there were parachute mines which drifted soundlessly when they dropped, till they hit the ground, or something, and were devastating. There were also scatter incendiary bombs, and in later raids huge bombs dropped at a great height fitted with high pitched screaming devices meant for demoralising people, and it seemed an eternity waiting, as the screaming got louder and louder till impact, with a terrible explosion.

Nearly six thousand buildings were damaged. Over one hundred buildings totally lost. In the latter stages of the air raids, a most weird approach to our town happened, and I felt sure at the time it was to be all for the worse for us. We had the usual searchlights, ack-ack gunfire, sirens, the drone of bombers and fighter defence aircraft, all above us. Then came a strange quietness. High in the sky were four twinkling lights, like stars, in a huge square. When they started to cascade like fireworks I realised they were flares. They hovered for minutes on end, casting an orange or golden glare, and everywhere the streets and houses were lit up. I had a terrible feeling that we were to be blitzed. The silence was unbearable for a while, until the flares burnt out. I could only assume that our defences had sent the enemy packing that night.

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