Definitely not a “Dads’ Army”

Source: War Illustrated June 12 1942

Source: War Illustrated June 12 1942

Topic April/May 2016. In the previous Topic page we looked at the Frontiersmen leading up to WW1. We must now look more closely at what they did up to and including the early years of WW2. They may not have been given a named unit, but they certainly gave important service and carried out vital duties in many different ways. Our first explanation as to why they were not granted a named unit has been covered on the history website at www.frontiersmenhistorian.info/reason.htm.

On the history website at www.frontiersmenhistorian.info/between.htm we see that Thomas Cushny, in a far too often quoted and highly inaccurate article in the South African Military History Society Journal Vol. 4 No. 2 (www.samilitaryhistory.org/vol042tc.html), wrote that “at general mobilisation in 1939 IHQ received a single letter addressed to this Legion Captain instructing him to report for air raid duties. He locked the door and departed and the office was unoccupied for six years.” Nothing could be further from the truth! The office was constantly manned and many Frontiersmen still turned up at Frontiersmen parades, while on different occasions wearing their other uniforms as A.R.P. Wardens, A.F.S. Firemen, or Home Guard. A Legion officer wrote to a senior officer in Canada that he was delighted that so many Canadian Frontiersmen, now serving with the armed forces, had taken the time to visit Legion HQ and introduce themselves.

Frontiersmen ARP badge

Frontiersmen ARP Badge worn on Legion uniform

The much-loved BBC series “Dads Army” has one major flaw in that it promotes the Home Guard, whilst playing down the work of the A.R.P. Wardens, making Chief Warden Hodges a figure of fun. In fact the Home Guard trained for an invasion which never came and which Hitler was very reluctant to carry out, but the A.R.P. Wardens were constantly at the heart of danger, usually being the first on the scene after a bombing. They were the first responders, a duty for which today’s Frontiersmen train, ready to hand over to the specialists when they arrive. In the meantime, the Wardens put their own lives at risk attempting to rescue anyone from dangerous bombed buildings. It was not just a task of going round the neighbourhood shouting out the instruction to “Put that light out!” Many more active older Frontiersmen served with A.R.P. than in the Home Guard. In September 1935 British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin caused a circular to be produced and sent to all local authorities inviting them to make plans for protecting their people in the event of a war. This circular was titled “”Air Raid Precautions”. Not all local authorities were prepared to take action and in April 1937 the government created an Air Wardens’ Service. As we have mentioned elsewhere, the horrors of the gas warfare of the First War were still vivid in the minds of the population. The fear of gas attacks from the air steadily grew stronger right up to the first years of the Second War. That fear in the early years of the war can be compared with, and was probably much greater than, the fear in Britain in the 1960s of nuclear attack. Certainly the Germans did have gas bombs, as the Allied troops discovered when they moved into Germany late in the war and were shown stockpiles by the defeated Germans, which had to be destroyed safely.

1939 Major General Majendie, Liverpool inspection.

1939 Major General Majendie, Liverpool inspection.

In May 1935 the British Home Secretary announced in the House of Commons that the Legion of Frontiersmen working with St. John Ambulance was officially “assisting in measures to be organised…in alleviation of the consequences of air attacks.”¹ He had informed the Legion that “…assistance of this nature would be work of national importance.”² An officially recognised task for the Legion at last! In association with St. John Ambulance the Legion set up an Air Defence and Chemical Warfare School of Instruction at the Duke of York’s Headquarters in London. By September1935 the Air Command, which had been formed about four years earlier became known as the Air Communications Group. Individual Flights became known as “Air Defence Units”. The idea was to provide men to assist A.R.P. and T.A. with men who were no longer able to meet the physical and training standards of the Auxiliary Air Force. They were able to provide two hundred self-supporting and self-financing Air Frontiersmen backed up by around five hundred regular Frontiersmen in Yorkshire alone. Elsewhere on the website can be seen how the Air Command, whose members owned about nine small planes, put on demonstrations of defence against air attack, particularly from gas.³ In his address at the Legion’s annual conference in May 1938, the Cdt-General, Brigadier E. Morton encouraged all Frontiersmen to become involved with A.R.P.

I believe that too much attention cannot be given to this matter, which is of national importance and one in which the Legion should take a prominent part. We have a most efficient Gas School in London with a full and capable staff…I consider that every officer should undergo at least a preliminary course in A.R.P. and obtain a certificate of proficiency.4

By August 1938, the Derby Telegraph was able to report that almost all Derby Frontiersmen were also working as A.R.P. Wardens and M. Mothersill the Troop Secretary was additionally Head Warden for two areas. Lt. H. Smith, the Troop o.c. was Secretary of the Head Wardens’ Committee for Derby.

Coleshill House Memorial Tree

Coleshill House Memorial Tree

At the start of the war, the A.R.P. Wardens were considered an irritation as their task was to patrol the streets to make sure that everyone’s blackout was secure and no chink of light showed. They carried a police whistle, a torch and a first-aid kit. When the bombing began in earnest the job became highly dangerous as they had to look out for incendiary bombs landing and starting fires while people were in the air raid shelters. They also dealt with unexploded and time bombs that had landed, making sure that the streets were clear of people and then to wait for the Army bomb disposal team. They were often first on the scene at any bombed house as first responders to attend to the injured and the dead. All back doors of houses had to be left unlocked at night so the rescue services could get in to deal with casualties. The Wardens also acted as Special Constables and dealt with looters. Although there were no gas attacks, the many Frontiersmen who served as A.R.P. Wardens in general had more dangerous tasks than many in the Home Guard.

 When the war came the Sheffield Squadron of the Legion of Frontiersmen was ready. The War Office at once sent out an appeal to the Legion squadrons for senior ncos from the 1914-18 war to take up their old rank in the Army and accompany new battalions to France and Sheffield sent its quota.

With very little training they were able to resume their old ranks of sergeant-majors and sergeants and went out to France, where there are now eight of the Sheffield Squadron on active service.

Five of the members were Naval reservists and went back into the Navy, others joined the Army again in the ranks, four went into the Balloon Barrage section of the R.A.F., one was with the Police Reserve, and those who, like their o.c., a veteran of the Boer War, were too old for the uniformed service joined the A.R.P.5

In June 1939 Major-General Vivian Majendie, C.B., D.S.O.⁶ opened a new Legion H.Q. in Liverpool.

Recently the Legion received official recognition from the War Office, and the Liverpool Squadron has a waiting list and is almost up to full strength. Major-General Majendie congratulated the men on their parade and smart turnout…Major-General Majendie said the Legion of Frontiersmen bore a great responsibility. They could set a fine example to others and he did not believe any government could afford to waste the services of such a body.⁷

Here was the G.O.C. 55th (West Lancashire) Infantry Division accepting the Legion as an officially recognised body! But this was not the view of all senior officers or of some at the War Office. One is led to wonder what was “official recognition”? At how senior a level did this recognition have to be announced? One of the younger Frontiersmen, Ernest Meacock wrote:

When the Territorial Army was doubled overnight, we were asked whether we could supply n.c.o.s and officers to help with the training and there was an immediate response naturally. I vividly remember a T.A. Sgt. Major whispering in my ear, ‘Sir, when you call the Parade to attention, you must not address them as Frontiersmen, the order is Squad.’ ⁸

It was admitted that many Territorial Army units were superior to some of the regular ones.

In fact the Territorial units often managed to recruit officers of a higher calibre than those who joined the Regular Army. Many Territorial officers were well used to leadership and management in their professional careers.⁹

This could well be applied to the Frontiersmen who offered a multitude of skills. No wonder they were sought out by many units.

What about the Home Guard and Frontiersmen service with them? There may well have been fewer Frontiersmen in the Home Guard than serving as A.R.P. Wardens, but in some areas they formed an important part. One Government file goes almost as far as crediting the Legion activities as the trigger to inspire the founding of the L.D.V. In a March 1945 report Lord Cobham said:

In the present war the first move in the formation of the above bodies [LDV] was made at the end of November 1939 when Col. Sir Francis Whitmore, Lord Lieutenant of Essex, came to see me, who then occupied the position of Under-Secretary of State for War at the War Office, on a matter that was causing him concern. It appeared that an odd formation known as the Legion of Frontiersmen was carrying out rapid recruiting from men in Essex who were not liable to be called up for the Services. Sir Francis wanted the War Office to know all about this quite unofficial undertaking particularly as he was not satisfied that the man at the head of it was the best person to run it. The following morning I had a talk with the Adjutant-General Sir R. Gordon Finlayson about this, and he agreed that if encouragement were given to the creation of a voluntary force of this nature, it was likely to meet with a very ready response all over the U.K.¹º

The suggestion that the Legion was the trigger that caused the formation the L.D.V., later the Home Guard, is an odd one, especially as the Essex unit numbered no more than 75. Not unusually, the Frontiersmen were yet again in advance of official thought:

The majority were mobilised on August 25 1939 and did duty on bleak airfields and elsewhere during the trying winters of 1939-40 and 1940-41…The average age of the men was 50 to 55.¹¹

In Salford in the north-west of England Legion Captain Bob Moyse M.C., D.C.M. received a phone call from the police. According to his family he disappeared for a few days and when he returned the L.D.V. was up and running in his area. After the war Bob Moyse was awarded the B.E.M. for his services to the Home Guard. The question this poses is whether he was just working with the Home Guard, or whether he was involved in the highly secret Auxiliary Units – Auxunits as they became known. These were set up mainly with Home Guard members with specialist skills augmented by some regular soldiers posted to them. In the event of a German invasion these men, and a few women, were to go underground (often literally) for a couple of weeks and then disrupt the Germans lines of supply and communication. Although it was thought that the main area of attack for the Germans would be south-east England, there were Auxunits all round the country including a complex communications network of Auxunit Signals. The training of the men for Auxunits was remarkably similar to some of that shown forty years earlier in the Frontiersman’s Pocket Book, and the instructions for use of explosives and demolitions in that handbook would have been of considerable value. Did Frontiersmen serve with the Auxiliary Units? We cannot say for certain as not until some fifty years after the war only a very few of the survivors of those units even began to talk about their experiences. We have no record of any Frontiersman admitting to serving in the Auxunits. As we have always said, Frontiersmen were men of action rather than words. When the Auxunits were stood down in 1944 they were all told that their service must stay secret. In those uncertain times there always remained fears that an invasion of Britain might occur in the future. Even if those who had trained in that war became too old, a younger generation would be needed to follow, so all the plans and arrangements had to stay on the secret list. There have always been internal suggestions that some Frontiersmen did serve, and what is intriguing is the memorial tree to the Frontiersmen who served with them, whose plaque is shown here. This was planted at the headquarters of the Auxunits, Coleshill House.

In Canada there was little threat of invasion and bombing. Older Frontiersmen put a lot of effort into recruiting for the armed forces. There were concerns of possible terrorist acts by dissidents and spies. The Frontiersmen served as auxiliaries to the Police, with A.R.P., and in providing volunteer ambulances. At times the Frontiersmen were asked to take part in exercises using their skills to attempt infiltration into guarded areas. In this they proved as successful as British Frontiersmen had been since before the First War. In June 1942 the Canadian Reserve Militia asked a local Frontiersmen Squadron in Guelph Ontario to act as German spies and cross the Speed River by any of the four bridges. Twelve Frontiersmen were used and their descriptions given to Militia Headquarters. Ten of the twelve – even with weird assumed names – succeeded easily, although it is surprising that Legion Captain Corke in women’s clothes as “Leni Belchenburp” was not picked up as “she” was smoking a pipe while crossing a bridge. Only two of the twelve were captured and one of those, who had been recognised as a local taxi driver, seized the rifle from his careless guard and held up the whole Militia Headquarters Staff officers.¹²

Throughout its history the Legion of Frontiersmen in Canada gave great service to the Canadian authorities, particularly police forces. A major dispute and split in Canada in the late 1930s caused great problems and, due to the Canadian Division Charter, Eastern Command, had to be re-named by official request as the Corps of Imperial Frontiersmen, although the C.I.F. still held allegiance to Frontiersmen Headquarters in London. The story of the Frontiersmen in Canada working as auxiliaries to the Police and other authorities is something to be covered on these pages in the future. Be prepared for yet more surprises about the Legion’s importance to history.

¹ Sunderland Echo 23 May 1935, see also the same newspaper 9 September 1935.

² Sunderland Echo 23 May 1935. A number of other provincial newspapers also carried this story.

³ frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/gas/

⁴ Legion of Frontiersmen Annual General Meeting minutes, 14 May 1938, report and address by Cdt-General E. Morton, Bruce Peel Special Collections and Archives, University of Alberta.

The Star, Sheffield 15 December 1939.

⁶ Major General Vivian Majendie, CB, DSO, later became G.O.C. Northern Ireland and President of the War Office Regular Commissions Board until he retired in 1946.

Liverpool Daily Post, 19 June 1939, report and photograph.

⁸ Personal letter from the late Ernest F. Meacock held in Legion archives.

⁹ Arthur Ward, Churchill’s Secret Defence Army, (Pen & Sword 2013) p.151. This is a highly informative book about the Auxiliary Units that is well worth reading.

¹⁰ The National Archives CAB106/1188.
¹¹ Letter from Troop Sergeant Pilgrim, Essex Chronicle, August 30 1946

¹² History of the Legion of Frontiersmen, with particular reference to the Canadian Division, private publication, Regina, Sask, n.d. c1980 p.156-7.

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About Windows into History

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyardview.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Frontiersmen, History, Latest Topic, Legion of Frontiersmen, World War II and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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