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Bonzer Words!: Dad's Army At War

John Powell, a member of the Civilian Home Guard (Dad's Army) manned a rocket anti-aircraft battery in London during World War Two.

John writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

During the Blitz on London, some of the 'Whitehall Warriors' in the War Office, surfacing, no doubt, from yet another rather heavy, after-lunch, semi-somnambulant stupor, had the most insane of all their ideas: they decided, between hiccups and a few baritone belches, that if volunteers could be obtained from the Civilian Home Guard (Dad's Army), to man the rocket anti-aircraft batteries in London, then the Royal Artillery gunners could be released for active duty elsewhere.

Applications flooded in—mine included. Not, unfortunately, let the truth be known, through any particularly zealous patriotism on the part of the applicants, but because this would involve only one 'All-Night' parade a week instead of three long, boring, evening ones.

With the others I reported to a Drill Hall for a few evening training lessons, at the end of which we were unceremoniously stripped of our lofty rank of Private and given the equally lofty rank of Gunner. This metamorphosis was evidenced by the shoulder insignia handed to us: they depicted a bow and arrow pointing skywards. They should have left it at that.

The rocket projector, with a two-man crew, was a ramp onto which Number 2 loaded two rockets and controlled the height elevation of the ramp by turning a wheel. Number 1 took orders over earphones and controlled the direction by pushing the projector, by means of a bar, round a circular turntable, about one foot off the ground. The whole contraption was very simple, which is, maybe, why the 'Whitehall Warriors' thought that Dad's Army would be able to cope.

The rockets, however, were something that we volunteers had not taken into account. They were six foot long, made of metal and were very, very heavy. Thus there was always a race for the projector to be Number 1, so that the earphones could keep one's ears warm and so that Number 2, by lifting the rockets to load them, became the candidate for a hernia.

It will probably be no breach of the Official Secrets Act now, to disclose that our battery was situated near the Marble Arch corner of London's Hyde Park, alongside the Army's heavy anti-aircraft battery. Our battery was composed of four troops, each of twenty rocket projectors; thus a salvo blasted off 160 rockets at once. The object was not only to shoot down aircraft, but also to make a bomber change course when on a bombing run due to the box-barrage effect. In this way we could protect very important locations such as the War Office, the Admiralty, Lord's Cricket Ground and the Windmill Theatre, with its nude reviews.

So Dad's Army took over; the old soldiers with World War One ribbons and beer bellies prominent, those in reserved occupations, and teenagers, as I was, awaiting call up.

Right from the start there was a hoodoo on our Unit.

Whereas all those parading on other nights had been in action, with us the hoodoo decreed that we took the orders over the earphones, fused the rockets, loaded them on the ramps, and reached 'Stand By' only to be followed, not by 'Fire', but by 'Stand Down' to unload.

One night we had returned from the NAAFI canteen to our Nissen hut. The conversation gradually died down as we lay in our bunks hoping for an hour or two of sleep before the alarm. Silence fell upon the hut, silence, that is, except for the unbelievable variety of noises that forty men make when asleep, especially after a few helpings of baked beans and beer in the canteen. Suddenly the ear-splitting alarm bell rang.

"TAKE POSTS!" yelled Sergeant Walters. As usual old Joe, the Lambeth Council lavatory attendant, rolled out of bed, forgetting that he was on the top bunk, and crashed on top of Bill Steers, businessman and factory owner. As they sorted themselves out, Sir Ernest, of the Foreign Office, pulled a boot half on and let out a yell,

"Something bit me!"

"Gaw! What a laugh," roared Tom, the irrepressible cockney boiler-cleaner from the Battersea Power Station, "Them's me bleedin' boots. It's me teeth what's in 'em. I always leave 'em in me boots so's I know where the little bleeders are. Of course they bit yer; they thought yer was a-tryin to pinch 'em. 'Ere, let me put 'em in me mouth, quick."

He started laughing fit to burst until Sergeant Walters yelled at him, "I'll put my bloody fist in your mouth if you don't get a move on, Tom. Take posts!"


Whitehall Warriors: The managerial/clerical personnel who 'fought' the war from the offices of the Ministry.
Dad's Army: The Civilian Home Guard, made up of men too old or one reason or another judged unfit to fight at the front.

© John Powell


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