Before relating this story I need to introduce a character (John A) who played a major part in the events of this particular day. He was a fellow evacuee, in the same class as Eric and I, and of the same age. He had the reputation of being a ‘wide boy’ as he was adept at acquiring all sorts of goodies that were in short supply or almost non-existent in the war, by various illegal or immoral means. Furthermore, he seemed to be friendly with all the local girls much to the envy of the rest of the class, including Eric and I. His attraction to the girls we thought was due to his curly brown hair, his devilish grin and his jaunty step but, on reflection, it could have been his access to the ill-gotten goodies, which was of the main interest to them. It was a complete surprise to both Eric and I when JohnA approached us at school to tell us that he would be coming to the next exercise with the HG on the following Sunday morning. He had acquired an invitation through the good offices of his landlady, who was an intimate friend of the HG Sergeant.
At the briefing we learned that the exercise was to attack an old ruined mansion on a farm South of the railway station, the attack to be carried out by the town HG led by their captain (MW). All three of us evacuees were allocated to a small unit with three elderly HG men, under the command of a corporal, a few hundred yards from the target area alongside a haystack and quite near the farmhouse.
We were ‘In Reserve’ until signalled to join in the attack or otherwise, if required.
The HG corporal told us to ‘shin up’ the ladder by the haystack to observe the mansion and the battle scene, reporting any activity to him. It was a lovely late summer’s day and all three of us quickly settled down on top of the haystack whilst the HG men sat at the base consuming their breakfasts, provisioned by their wives. With the warmth of the haystack beneath us and the morning sun above both Eric and I became quite drowsy and we hardly noticed JohnA slip away down the ladder. It transpired that he had an assignation with the farmer’s buxom daughter Annie, when he returned with her carrying a tray on which there were bread rolls and a flagon of rough cider. Annie, being a helpful and homely girl invited Eric and I to partake of this unexpected treat, so we gathered round in a circle and tucked into the feast, not realising the likely effect of the cider on us.
Suddenly, from the other side of the haystack, the corporal yelled ‘What’s going on round there lads, make sure you keep your eyes open, it’s getting near to zero hour’. Suppressing our laughter, Eric and I took it in turns to ‘shin up’ the ladder and report any activity, whilst JohnA refused to play his part and continued to ‘chat up’ Annie.. Unfortunately, as Eric and I changed watch, our progress up and down the ladder became more and more hazardous, the effect of the cider on us multiplied and eventually Eric fell off the ladder half way down and lay in a heap giggling on the ground with the ladder on top of him. Meanwhile, having lost interest in the unit’s duties completely, John A and Annie had decided to leave the scene for the privacy of a neighbouring haystack out of our sight.
As I took up the watch I saw the main attack developing and promptly informed the corporal who rushed around the haystack and snatched the fallen ladder from Eric, who was sitting slumped against the haystack still giggling, and climbed up to join me at the top. The main force, led by MW, was about halfway to the mansion when they stopped suddenly and turned around, to view smoke arising from the freshly cut cornfield behind them. We could sense their indecision about what action to take when they all turned about and rushed back towards the fire, dropping their weapons and removing their jackets in an attempt to extinguish it. Open mouthed the corporal and I watched as the attackers placed their jackets over the smouldering stubble and stamped on them. They were losing the battle when, fortunately, the town’s fire engine appeared on the scene and quickly dowsed the fire together with their half burnt jackets We learnt later that one of the HG men had accidentally started the fire by dropping his ‘fag end’ in the stubble just before the attack.
Adding to the scene the enraged farmer emerged from the farmhouse admonishing our corporal about the consequent fire damage and demanding to know the whereabouts of his daughter Annie. I glanced in the direction of the nearby haystack and noticed the figure of JohnA disappearing into some nearby bushes whilst a rather dishevelled Annie was speeding towards the back door of the farmhouse.
‘All’s well that ends well’
This is the last instalment of Arthur House’s reminiscences on his time in the Home Guard… for now!