After the Eagle landed: a "Dad's Army" what-if?
As a history grad (well, I minored in History) and a student of the dark days of 1939-45, from a family that perhaps lost more than its fair share of sons in WW2, I have to look on the phenomena that was the Local Defence Volunteers with a mixture of bewilderment, astonishment, abashment and pride.
Bewilderment and astonishment that such a thing could have got off the ground; that so many men of non-combatant age who could so easily have sat it out enlisted and served, for no pay and six years of gruelling hard grind on top of their daily work; that it caught the public imagination the way it did; and that they would almost certainly have fought had they been called upon to do so, these grandfathers and schoolboys, the men graded as unfit for regular service, the veterans of older British wars who had already done their bit on battlefields and campaigns around the world.
Would they have made a difference if the Germans had succeeded in invading us in 1940? Well, they set an example. The Germans, in 1944 and 1945, expressly used the Home Guard as a model when creating their equivalent, the Volkssturm. Their old men and boys went into the front lines and in many places slowed, even temporarily halted, the Allied attacks, and while some cracked, others fought to the last as Russian and American tanks rolled over them in a hopeless war they could never hope to win. They too were fighting for their homes and their families in their local areas – just as the men of the Home Guard would surely have done in the latter part of 1940. This is a tribute story based on the known canon of "Dad's Army".
March, 1941. Lympne Army Camp, Kent, England.
Colonel Rogerson of Army Intelligence looked out of the window and frowned. Spring blossom was early this year. According to folklore, that meant a shirts-off summer followed by a bad winter. He fervently hoped the farmers could restore their fields and orchards and salvage what they could after he ravages of the previous autumn and winter. Otherwise, with Jerry stepping up the U-boat offensives, it meant a hungry winter for everybody. His eye passed over his personal car, a captured Jerry kugelblitz repainted in Army green and given British serial numbers. It drove like a bucket on wheels and the engine was in the boot, but he was grimly pleased that Jerry had left so much serviceable stuff behind after the surrender. It went some way towards making up for what we left behind at Dunkirk last summer.
"Send the next one in, please, mr Bentine." he requested. Lieutenant Bentine, despite his dago ancestry – Peru, wasn't it? – was a local Folkestone lad who'd proven himself in the Home Guard, denied service in the RAF because of his non-British father1(1) Quirky sense of humour, but he'd more than proven his loyalty. Damn brave chap, for a half-Spaniard, or whatever he was.
"Here's the file, sir" said Lieutenant Green, the third member of the debriefing tribunal. "Sergeant Wilson, A, of the Walmington-on-Sea Local Defence Volunteers."
"Hmmm." said Rogerson, thoughtfully. "I'm bloody surprised any of those chaps survived. Jerry came in right on top of them. All the way from Battle right round to Herne Bay."
He saw Bentine wince slightly, and sympathised. Folkestone, once a haven for well-to-do retirees, with its glowing white hotels and its neat genteel streets, and the long, long, glorious made-for-boy-cyclists Sandgate Hill, was now ruins, its harbour full of rubble and sunken Jerry ships caught by the Royal Navy as they tried to flee. He'd freewheeled down Sandgate Hill as a boy, and knowing it was no more was a pang.
"I'll get Sergeant Wilson, sir" said the boy, mastering himself. He went to the door and called into the waiting room.
A moment or two later, a painfully thin grey-haired sergeant in battered and threadbare Army uniform marched in. Well, it was an attempt at a march, but Rogerson judged that even if the man hadn't been approaching sixty, and exhausted by a battle, captivity and the privations of a PoW camp, it would still have been a louche, half-hearted, civilian-at-heart, sort of a march.
Wilson threw up a languid salute. Rogerson returned it with a touch to his cap-brim.
"Sergeant Arthur Wilson, sir. Home Guard battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment. Acting commanding officer of the Walmington-on-Sea platoon."
The elderly sergeant swayed slightly as he saluted. Bentine raised an eyebrow and glanced towards a chair. Rogerson nodded.
"Please be seated, sergeant." he said, kindly. Wilson took the chair gratefully.
"Please be absolutely assured you are not under arrest, sergeant. I've read your written record – absolutely commendable – and I can safely say that no disciplinary action nor censure applies to any of your actions over the past five months. Everyone who has passed through this office with cause to mention your name has been, with few exceptions, complimentary and positive. In fact, on the strength of the exemplary performance and witness testimonies to your actions since Eagle Day, you may well be recommended for promotion and a decoration."
Colonel Rogerson let this sink in, assessing the dark, exhausted, circles around the man's eyes.
He's been through hell and back, poor chap. And at an age where most fighting soldiers are either dead or long since retired.
"This meeting is just a military formality. Your unit went into action. It was dispersed and partially destroyed. As is mandatory with all those who at some point felt they had no option other than to surrender and who have spent time in enemy captivity, we have to have this debriefing session on your liberation from the prison camp. I'm convinced no blame or censure attaches to you, but unfortunately this cannot easily be said of others. Therefore I wish to know of any cases of cowardice, of refusal to obey legally constituted orders, of active collusion and collaboration with the Germans. Don't think of this as running to Teacher with tales outside of school: there are good men who suffered and died because of collaboration with Jerry, or from damned self-serving spivs looking to turn a profit out of the occupation."
Rogerson noted a flicker of reaction to the comment about elf-serving spivs and black marketeers.
Good. I can bring up Private Walker later, he thought.
"And of course the other thing, as we have found it's easier to talk about, are any atrocities or breaches of the Geneva conventions carried out by Jerry. It's hard to acknowledge that some of our own chaps behaved badly (there's that flicker again), but we have no illusions about Jerry. If you can identify times, places, events and if possible the Jerry unit involved, we can cross-reference against the prisoners we hold – did you know we have twenty-five thousand in the bag? – and we can tell the world about it. And make no mistake, sergeant, the world wants to listen! I remember Belgium in May last year. The same Waffen-SS unit Hitler sent over in his first wave. The bloody Totenkopf"
Rogerson spat out the word with contempt.
"Did you know they rounded up a hundred British prisoners from the Norfolks and machine-gunned them in a field, rather than slow down their advance by taking prisoners? A rat called Mohnke was responsible…"
"Did you say Mohnke?" the sergeant interrupted him. "I met him. Nasty piece of work!"
"Long. Lean. Underweight. Like a walking corpse or Nosferatu the vampire…"
The Sergeant broke off.
"Take your time, old man." Colonel Rogerson said, gently.
"I'm terribly sorry, sir. I was remembering a time when Frank, my….. nephew… badgered me to go and see the film when it was on at the Walmington Tiffany Cinema."
The Segeant shook his head. "The old silent horror movie Nosferatu the Vampire. Poor Frank had nightmares for a week afterwards. His mother wasn't pleased with me at all. But he really ought to have been more frightened of the real Nosferatu that came out of the heart of Germany."
"Mohnke took him prisoner on the Tunbridge Road near to Godfrey's Cottage. That is, a defensive point Captain Mainwaring set up at the crossroads, just north of Walmington. I remember this tall thin German officer with sunken cheeks and maniacal staring eyes, and a long curved scar on his right cheek. You know, you never forget a face like that. I remember the skull badge they wore. SS-Totenkopf. The Death's Head, isn't it?"
"Yes. That's Mohnke. The scar on the face clinches it."
"He was furious a mere boy had held up the advance and written off three of his tanks and blocked the road to the Germans. In a way, it was quite funny, really. A wrecked tank is a jolly good roadblock, and thanks to Frank….Private Pike – there were three of them. And down on the coast, more and more German vehicles were unloading on the beaches with nowhere to go to, because the only road inland had been blocked. . That was my Frank… Private Pike, that is."
Then Wilson frowned and looked vaguely disapproving. "The German officer shot him. There and then, in the road. But Frank wasn't scared. He saw it all as a big adventure, right up until the very end."
Wilson closed his eyes and blinked the bad memory away.
"I believe I've given you a war crime, colonel. Now do you mind awfully if I start from the beginning?"
1 (1) After the war, Goon Show comedian Michael Bentine, whose early war years were ones of being deported from his lifelong home in Folkestone as an unreliable alien, followed by repeated attempts to prove his loyalty and enlist in the British forces in any capacity. He finished the war as an RAF intelligence officer.