The day our town fell to the ‘enemy’

The day our town fell to the ‘enemy’

By Gareth Dennison | 04/12/2020

The day our town fell to the ‘enemy’

 

ENEMIES arrived by parachute and took over Rotherham on December 13, 1941.

They were here to secure targets of military importance, to destroy power installations and to cut off communications.

Air raid wardens were overpowered by spies, one of which gained entry to the main headquarters.

They commandeered a lorry from Rotherham Corporation’s highways depot and forced the driver to head to the town hall, where a battle took place.

There were more than a dozen fires. Cottages were set alight...

Thankfully, all this was orchestrated as an elaborate training exercise for the Home Guard amid the concern about an invasion of Rotherham from the skies during the Second World War.

A year earlier, it has been warned that this was an “imminent danger” — hence the need for preparation.

The Home Guard was formed across the nation to be a second line of defence against invasion.

A recruitment drive in Rotherham was followed by large scale training exercises, such as the one above in which Lt-Col MC Martyn was in charge of the defending troops and Lt Col HE Lowe ran the “enemy” team.

The Advertiser said at the time: “While the action lasted, it was good spirited stuff. Blank shots and fireworks exploded and as in other combats, blood was drawn.”

Others took the chance to learn from the day, too. The National Fire Service and Civil Defence dealt with more than 15 incidents, even though most of the “bombing” was improvised and the cottages set alight had been empty.

Margaret Drinkall, who wrote about the Home Guard in her book Rotherham at War and Peace, said: “Rescue simulation from all the services was carried out swiftly and well.

“The umpires quickly called a halt to the battle when the mayor’s parlour was captured but it was said that an important military objective remained undiscovered.

“The Advertiser reporter pointed out that lessons were learned on both sides and everyone who took part in the exercise was to be congratulated.

“Perhaps the people witnessing the exercises caused some disruption as civilians were asked to remain indoors when another exercise was announced to take place on December 7, 1942.”

Group commander Cpt AS Furniss was met with a wave of enthusiasm when he recruited to the Home Guard from the summer of 1940. A meeting in May saw 600 men turn up to volunteer — with another 300 outside waiting to get in.

MP Alderman William Dobbie told the men that in the fields of industry and — if necessary — the battle at home, the Home Guard had to demonstrate they were ready and capable of defending.

There were huge cheers as he ended his speech by saying: “Whatever danger you may have to face I want to share it with you.”

Rotherham’s Home Guard numbered more than 1,200 by the time of their first big parade in September 1940.

The Bishop of Sheffield, Canon Waring, was appointed as their honorary chaplain — and praised the men for their magnificent response.

He said: “We are part of a great commonwealth out to overcome the enemies of freedom and raise the banner of truth and liberty throughout the world. We are taking our part in the overthrow of our enemies of all that Christianity and religion stand for.

“We go forward inspired by that great vision, looking forward to the day that our task will be accomplished and a new day of peace shall dawn for the world.”

It took a while to get all the Home Guard equipped, with some forced to choose improvised implements as weapons for a while.

Gradually, uniforms, guns and grenades were distributed to the men — about two-thirds had previously served in the forces.

There were several battalions by summer 1941. An Advertiser reporter among the ranks said there was considerable initiative shown in methods of disguise when training exercises were held and some played the part of attackers.

The Tiser man added: “It emphasised the fact that in a case of invasion the Home Guard must assume nothing at all but must make perfectly certain of the identity of people using the roads.

“For the first time, I saw the terrifying spectacle of a bayonet charge on a strongly held position.

“The attackers could not have put more enthusiasm into their charge had the defenders of the position been cold-blooded Nazis.”

Serving with the Home Guard was not without risk. Pte Archibald Wallis was killed at Swallownest in 1941 when live ammunition was used by mistake during a machine gun demonstration.

The coroner criticised the fact that both live and dummy ammo had been kept in the same container — but praised the work of the Home Guard generally. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

The following April, butcher James Cottam lost both hands in a detonator explosion. It was said that explosives had been added at the last minute to make the exercise more authentic.

A collection was started for the stricken trader — strongly backed by his fellow butchers. It topped £422 within a month.

The Home Guard demonstrations in Clifton Park were open to public viewing. They were well attended and usually finished with music from the 60th Battalion Home Guard Band.

One such event marked the second anniversary of the Home Guard formation, while the third birthday involved a parade at Wentworth Woodhouse, featuring 3,000 officers and men.

Training and drills were stopped in autumn of 1944 because the end of the war was in sight. The Home Guard was to stand down before the year was out.

At the final parade through town, on December 3, crowds cheered as the 1,976 men saluted commanding officer Lt Col WJB Landon.

He said: “I would like to express not only my regret at this farewell but my heartfelt thanks to all who have contributed to making the Home Guard in the sector an efficient fighting force.

“I pay tribute to the unselfishness of the womenfolk over the last four-and-a-half years for permitting their men to devote their leisure time to the Home Guard.

“Let us keep alive in the battalion areas the fine spirit of comradeship on which must have its inevitable influence on promoting good citizenship and the understanding of each others.”

Mrs Drinkall said: “These men were groups of patriotic men who unable to enlist due to their age, demonstrated their commitment to the defence of the town and districts.

“Although there had been some ridicule in the early days of the war when men were mustered holding broom handles and pitchforks, these men had proved their worth in defending our towns and cities.

“Many had jobs which they undertook during the day and attending exercises in the evenings and weekends.

“There is no doubt that the people of Rotherham owe much to this body of men.”

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