Sunday, 14 August 2022

Dad’s Army? I was 16 when I joined the Home Guard

WITH the Dad’s Army film in the cinemas, it brings back memories of the legendary Seventies sitcom that

WITH the Dad’s Army film in the cinemas, it brings back memories of the legendary Seventies sitcom that portrayed the Home Guard as a bunch of bumbling soldiers well past retirement age.

But nothing could be further from the truth, according to Martin Grugeon, who was a member of the Henley unit based at the Drill Hall in Friday Street.

Now aged 90, he was just 16 in January 1941 when he joined the unit as a dispatch rider, one of about 150 men ready to protect the town in the event of an invasion.

His role was to deliver orders to the smaller units in villages surrounding Henley during the Second World War.

At that time he was living with his parents Charles and Beatrice and older brothers, Peter and David, in St Andrew’s Road.

"I just volunteered," he said. "They were formed in 1940 and I would see them about on weekends going on exercises. As soon as I was old enough I wanted to join them.

"I don’t think fear came into it, we just thought ’if those Germans are going to invade us, we’re going to give them a hard time’."

The young Martin was inspired by his uncles Eric and Lawrence, who had been RAF pilots during the First World War.

Mr Grugeon recalled: "When I was a young boy they used to stay with us at Christmas and they would sit around the fire smoking their pipes and telling stories about swapping bumps with the Red Baron and dogfights over the front line.

"I thought ’I’d love to do that’ and I thought the Second World War was laid on for my benefit!"

Mr Grugeon was just 14 when the war broke out and little did he know that he would follow in his uncles’ footsteps only four years later.

He said: "In 1940 there were a lot of dogfights with the Battle of Britain and we used to sit on the cricket lawn at school. We weren’t scared, we were excited really.

"I thought I’d like to serve in the Home Guard in 1940 because there was a danger of us being invaded.

"It wasn’t as Dad’s Army would have you believe. We had quite a lot of young men in it and the older men were only in their late forties, although there were some older.

"The oldest chap was probably 60. They were nothing like Corporal Jones, who had served in the Sudan and Boer War. I would say about 50 per cent of them were men who had served in the First World War and they were very useful because they were still fit and they had combat experience.

"It was a very effective outfit, very well organised, and we had good equipment.

"I thought it was great fun. There was a good bunch of blokes and quite a lot of them were managers of local shops so I knew them.

"I became the adjutant’s dispatch rider. It was very grand and they gave me a couple of stripes for that so I was a corporal.

"My adjutant and training officer were responsible for the training programme for the whole battalion and the administration. They had a lot of orders that had to go out to the officers at the smaller units throughout the county."

Mr Grugeon would travel to units in Nettlebed, Woodcote, Goring, Hambleden, Skirmett and even Abingdon on his 350cc Ariel.

"I enjoyed it because I was out on my own and I didn’t have to answer to anybody else until I got back," he said.

He spent most of his time with the unit during his holidays from Hampton School and also had the opportunity to brush up on his shooting skills.

He was already a proficient marksman, having learned to shoot rats on his uncle Lawrence’s farm near Maidenhead using a .22 rifle.

"He was getting overrun with rats," he said. "I think he regretted saying he’d give me six pence for each one!"

He would visit the Bisley rifle range in Surrey for shooting competitions as part of the battalion rifle team.

His other duties included standing guard at Marsh Lock, performing sentry duty at Henley Bridge and patrolling the town.

Guarding the lock was an important job. Mr Grugeon explained: "If enemy saboteurs had blown the lock up Henley would have probably been flooded and the river would not have been navigable without the lock working properly.

"Once two of us were down there and we got startled by a bloody swan. It was about 2am and it was pitch black and we shot it.

"We realised afterwards you’re not supposed to shoot swans so we dragged it away and took it to the platoon headquarters and we cooked it and ate it. We had swan sandwiches for weeks!"

He left the Home Guard in December 1942 after two years and joined the RAF a month later after leaving school at the age of 17.

After two weeks he was moved to the Initial Training Wing at Torquay and from there he went to the British Flying Training School at Lancaster in California where he trained on Stearman Cadets and Harvards. He was presented with his wings on December 16, 1943 — his 18th birthday — by Billy Bishop, a Canadian flying ace.

During the war he flew Spitfires and Hawker Tempests and flew the Spitfire IXe in support of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.

His first sortie was at 4am and he flew a further three on that day, supporting the forces on the ground and flying as low as 200ft over the beaches at Normandy.

He recalled: "They were still trying to get off the beach. Flying across, it looked as if you could walk across the Channel on the ships — there was every kind and shape you could imagine there.

"You’d only think about how bloody hairy it was when you got back. You’d look at each other and think ’that was bloody dodgy’. I was a veteran at  18-and-a-half!"

Mr Grugeon continued flying two to three missions a day for the next few weeks, taking off from forward landing fields near Bayeux and returning to England at night.

On July 14, Bastille Day, he and French pilot Paul Rumey, a lieutenant in the French Air Force, flew over Paris at about 200ft and dropped the Tricolour on the Arc de Triomphe.

Squadron 274 re-equipped with the Hawker Tempest V in August 1944 and the squadron disbanded on September 7, 1945.

Between October 1945 and the summer of 1947 Mr Grugeon was engaged in collecting aircraft from all over Europe for sale, re-equipping or disposal. These included Mustangs, Typhoons, Spitfires, and Tempests, the odd Hurricane and Kitty Hawk from Italy and ME 109s and FW 190s for evaluation.

He flew with an American squadron in Korea in 1952, flying Sabre Jets, having taken a conversion course.

At Boscombe Down in Wiltshire he took part in test flying, testing different combinations of armaments for the ground attack version of the Hawker Hunter.

On one occasion he had an engine failure and was ordered to bail out. However, due to the expensive  equipment on board that would have been destroyed, he refused and instead managed to land the plane undamaged.

He ended his RAF career in 1959 as a squadron leader and went on to take up motor racing, eventually racing for the Leverton Formula 1 team in the mid-Sixties to early Seventies against the likes of Jack Brabham and Jim Clark.

He lived on and off in Henley until the mid-Sixties and now lives with his fourth wife Elizabeth, 73, in Wheatley Close, Reading.

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