Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Wargrave Local History Society

WARGRAVE Local History Society does not usually have a presentation in July but as meetings are being held using Zoom this year it became possible to hear Bill King tell us about the Upper Thames Patrol.

Bill is an historian and author with a particular interest in military matters and the River Thames and gave a fascinating insight into this little-known aspect of the Second World War.

The Upper Thames Patrol was formed in the spring of 1939, several months before war broke out, and consisted of about 6,000 men, who were all volunteers.

Their task was, if war did come, to police the River Thames and look out for attempts to sabotage vital locations.

Originally, the patrols consisted of men from the Thames Conservancy, the body responsible for the river, who already had craft on the water. But it was soon realised that they had other tasks to perform and would not be able to do all that was required of them in wartime.

The upper Thames area they covered was the navigable river from where it ceases to be tidal at Teddington Lock up to Lechlade. This is a distance of about 125 miles, which is why there was a need for such a large number of personnel.

Their job was to ensure the security of the river, which included 44 road bridges and five railway bridges and the many locks.

If these were to have been sabotaged, the uncontrolled rush of water downstream could have led to extensive flooding of the Thames Valley.

The need for such an operation was put forward by Sir Ralph Glynn, MP for Abingdon, who had been a major in the army.

He raised his concerns about the vulnerability of these locations with the War Office and was put in charge of the Upper Thames Patrol upon its formation.

He was assisted by a vice-admiral and a rear-admiral, one in charge of the water-borne patrols while the other dealt with the teams which patrolled the river banks and looked after the locks, weirs and bridges. From the spring of 1940 their work was aided by a new organisation called the Local Defence Volunteers (also known as “Look, Duck and Vanish”), which was subsequently renamed the Home Guard.

The volunteers of the Upper Thames Patrol carried out duties similar to those of the Home Guard in addition to their specialist role.

These included checking on black-out precautions, when people could be fined for showing a light that could be seen by enemy aircraft.

One such incident concerned a cabin cruiser at Henley where the light from an open porthole window that only had a thin blue curtain could be seen nearly 1½ miles downriver.

The boat builder who owned the vessel had the charge dismissed but the occupant was fined £1 (about £250 today).

The War Office decided that women would not be allowed to enrol in the Upper Thames Patrol, even if they had their own boats.

It was not until 1943 that they could join the Home Guard as auxiliaries but they were not allowed to carry weapons and their only uniform was an identity card and armband.

Despite this, some women were unofficial members of the Upper Thames Patrol. Young men also volunteered, such as students from Radley College, near Abingdon.

From May 1940, the Upper Thames Patrol was incorporated into what became the Home Guard, with local headquarters at Yeomanry House in Reading.

The Government made a call for volunteers to join the new organisation and 1.5 million came forward within a week.

There were three main groups — those who were too old for conscription into military service (i.e. aged over 40), those who were too young (i.e. under 17½) and those in reserved occupations, such as farmers or skilled factory workers, who were exempt from military service.

Apart from the Home Guard, they might join the Royal Observer Corps or the Air Raid Precautions teams.

The original uniform for members of the Upper Thames Patrol was basically that of the Thames Conservancy, with the badge based on its coat of arms, but later they were issued with army battledress brown uniforms.

The non-tidal section of the Thames passes through Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Middlesex and Surrey and the Upper Thames Patrol groups were based on these.

The river was divided into various stretches, the boats on each carrying a disc that identified the section and then a number.

Section B2, for example, was from Sonning to Henley, it being much shorter than the others as there were hills and forestry alongside which made it difficult territory for tanks to defend.

Each section was staffed by 50 to 60 men, who were responsible for the land for 1½ miles either side of the river as well as the watercourse itself. One of their vital tasks was to ensure that the bridges were kept open.

By mid-1940, when the Battle of France was lost, the evacuation took place at Dunkirk with about 200,000 British troops rescued and 120,000 French and Belgian (several of the Upper Thames Patrol boats assisting in the operation).

However, a further 60,000 troops and the tanks, transport, fuel and other supplies had to be left behind.

The most powerful army was poised just across the Channel. From July to October, an invasion was expected as Operation Sealion, which would have seen invading forces trying to circle London.

It was therefore essential that the River Thames was defended to make it as difficult as possible for the enemy. This would have included the bridge demolition plans being put into effect. The bridges were prepared for demolition in case enemy forces arrived by the Royal Engineers and the Upper Thames Patrol would have had the task of setting the detonators.

The cavities created for the explosives can still be seen under the abutments of some of the stone bridges. Fortunately, the invasion never happened due to the success of the Battle of Britain.

Part of the defences consisted of road blocks and the remains of some can still be seen. There were tree trunks and trestle-like structures, which could be quickly pulled across the road, with more substantial concrete bollards and pyramid-shaped blocks set into the surface.

The aim was to slow down the invaders until reinforcements could arrive. However, the river itself formed a natural line of defence from London up to Reading and then swinging north towards Oxford, with the Kennet and Avon canal also being a barrier to rapid movement across country.

However, it was a distinctive feature when seen from the air, so enemy aircraft could use it as a navigational aid.

Enemy aircraft following the river were able to drop mines about the size of a beach ball into the water, intended to float down to the bridges or locks, which could cause severe damage downstream, so the vigilance of the Upper Thames Patrol was very necessary 365 days a year.

The groups needed a convenient place to meet, be given details of their duties and so on, and riverside public houses were convenient for this. Tthere was one on either side of the bridge at Newbridge, the Rose Revived being the one used by the patrols. The uniforms of the Upper Thames Patrol had its initials — UTP — clearly visible, so it is not surprising that the groups were colloquially known as “Up The Pub”.

Bill quoted from some of the information distributed to the Upper Thames Patrol. One was about “enemy agents”, which explained that the enemy may drop agents by parachute or land by boat on the south coast, or they may be dropped to the rear of south coast defences and would very likely be carrying a small radio transmitter to send messages about what they had found.

They might also have their orders about acts of sabotage to be committed such as cutting down phone wires.

The document went on to the question of “What does a spy look like?” It would be a man, probably under 35 and was “not likely to be English”. They would probably not be sure where they were, so anyone acting like that should be regarded as suspicious. A woman walking her dog near Nettlebed saw two parachutists land, who turned out to be enemy agents carrying a wireless set, so the threat was real.

The Upper Thames Patrol became a very professional organisation. Each member had to have a certificate in watermanship, so that any of them could take charge of a boat if the need arose, and be able to swim 25m with full equipment, as well as being able to carry out the tasks done by the Home Guard, such as use a gun.

They were also taught how to send signals by flags. The groups were provided with some high-speed boats with at least one allocated to each section. These were armed with light automatic Lewis guns to be used as anti-aircraft weapons.

The work continued through 1942 and 1943 but by the spring of 1944 there was no longer a threat of invasion. Instead of defending the bridges from attack, the task was to ensure they were kept open for the movement of equipment and supplies.

Along with the Home Guard, the Upper Thames Patrol was stood down at the end of 1944. All the boats were provided with a special brass plaque to record their use as part of this work.

For more information about the society, email or visit www.wargravehistory.

Peter Delaney

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