After the Eagle landed: a "Dad's Army" what-if?
Sunday, September 15th, 1940.
The crowd thronging the platform at Walmington-on-Sea's railway station were meant to be there for a morale-boosting demonstration of Britain's ability to resist the threatened German invasion. All the local civic dignitaries were there to witness the awe-inspiring arrival of one of the most potent weapons to be deployed by Southern Command in thwarting Jerry's imminent attack on the South Coast.
Instead, their wait had been a long depressing one, punctuated by the depressing sight of the condensation trails in the sky and the distant roar of wave after wave of Jerry bombers heading almost due North, towards London.
"They must run out of planes soon!." Captain George Mainwaring exploded, punching one gloved fist into the palm of the other in an expression of mute rage and angry impotence at not being able to do anything about this violation of his skies.
In appearance a small fat pompous man with an angry moustache, Mainwaring, when he radiated this sort of helpless rage, had a lot in common with an elderly bulldog. An elderly bulldog that had been living a bit too well with not nearly enough healthy exercise, but one that could still bite down hard at any enemy who came within reach of his jaws. Normally the town's bank manager, and normally to be seen in a sober pinstripe suit and matching bowler, today he was dressed in the nondescript combat fatigues of a British army captain. A holstered Webley pistol hung at his belt and a swagger stick was tucked under his right arm, but he wore no other weapons.
"It's true I've never seen them put so many up on one day." agreed Sergeant Arthur Wilson. "Although they came pretty close to it in August. I wonder what they're bombing?"
"London, of course!" snapped Mainwaring. "It's a positive bloody disgrace!"
"That ridiculous little man Hodges is besides himself" mused Wilson. "There's absolutely nothing his men can do apart from observe and phone reports in to their HQ. But he's going absolutely beserk!"
He nodded towards the town's chief Air Raids Precautions man, who was practically leaping up and down in rage and giving his men a hard time.
"To be fair to Hodges, he may be a jumped-up greengrocer with an exaggerated sense of his own importance, but he must be feeling the same as I do, as we all do, inside. You just feel so…. powerless! – inside at it all. All this bombing the past two months has been like the death of a thousand cuts. You just wish Hitler would invade, so we can get it all over with, one way or the other."
Look, Uncle Arthur, look!"
"Yes, what is it, Frank?" replied Wilson, testily. "Oh, I say…"
One of the condensation trails, high above, had ceased to be a steady line and was now describing a wide curving arc down and to the West, towards Hastings and Brighton. Two or three smaller arcs were chasing and pursuing and converging on it.
"Now there's a Jerry who won't be home for sausage and sauerkraut tonight!" Mainwaring said, exultantly
"He's going to be a real sour Kraut! I say, Uncle Arthur, did you get the joke? That German bomber's being shot down by the RAF, so I said they must be feeling like…"
"Yes, yes, Frank, very good. Very good indeed."
"Stop jumping up and down like that, will you, Pike? You're meant to be stood at ease!" Mainwaring said, testily. Adding, in a low growl:
Up in the sky, the con-trail suddenly disappeared. There was a cheer from the crowd.
"Of courrrse, it disnae mean the Brylcreems(1) got him, aye." said a rolling Scottish voice. "Those condensation trails dinnae happen below eighteen thousand feet, where the air's thicker and warrrmer. Alll it means is that the Jerry pilot's descending."
"I'm sure there have been a lot of false claims of Jerry kills brought about by people not understanding what they are seeing. This explains why the Brylcreems claim to be shooting them down in hundreds but there never seem to be any less of them, aye."(2)
"Frazer, I'm warning you!" said Mainwaring. "Any more defeatist talk like that, and I'll…"
Mainwaring turned, flushing slightly at a stifled laugh in the crowd at the hated nickname.
"Yes, Hodges. What is it now?"
"Are any of your toy soldiers manning the anti-aircraft gun? And I've said it before and I'll say it again, I don't like this business of everyone crowded together like this while an air-raid's on! A Jerry could spot it and drop a bomb on us!"
"From twenty-two thousand feet? He'd need good eyesight" said Private Walker from a rear rank.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous! We don't have an anti-aircraft gun, although Lord knows I've asked for some. We just have a single Lewis gun rigged up through the top of Corporal Jones' van. And the men know that I've given strict orders not to fire it. We don't have that much ammo and we need to conserve it against the day, not blaze away at a target we can't hit!"
"Do you know, sir, I've often thought that if Hitler were just an ordinary man in the street with his painting and decorating business, he'd be in the Austrian equivalent of the ARP." mused Sergeant Wilson. "He certainly has the temperament for it!"
"Now see here, you public-school nancy boy…"
"You have been reporting back to Observer Corps HQ about the number, height, and direction of those Jerry planes?" Wilson asked, in an innocent voice. "It is one of your duties…"
A spreading red flush rising from Hodges' neck told Wilson his barb had hit home.
"Well said, Wilson" agreed Mainwaring. "Now listen to me, Hodges. Those Jerry planes are attacking London. In the greater scale of things, our town is not important to them."
"Yet" said Frazer.
"So be off with you and do something useful.."
The sound of a distant train drawing nearer intruded on Mainwaring's speech. The crowd turned and looked up-track in expectation. And there it was. A large locomotive made more massive by a layer of armour-plating chugged into view. It was painted in bands of disruptive brown and green camouflage. The rake it pulled was distinctive, too: a massive flat-bed carriage had been built up to carry a massive naval gun, surplus to Royal Navy requirements. This was protected by armoured sheets on all sides, although it was plain to see the weapon had the ability to traverse through ninety degrees on both sides. Stabilising outriggers could be dropped to prevent the recoil tipping the train over on its sides. Behind the gun, it towed a sleeper carriage, evidently as a crew comfort, a goods van, and a guards' van at the rear.
As it stopped, a Royal Artillery sergeant stepped out, found Mainwaring, and saluted him.
"Sergeant Sugden, sir. Fifty-six Heavy Rail Regiment, Royal Artillery. I'm here to show you gentlemen round and explain what this here weapon is for."(3)
"Jolly good. Let's get started, then"
Sugden took several parties of civilian dignitaries around his command before the Home Guard got their chance.
The men were entranced and impressed by what they saw. Huge ready-access shells, almost as tall as a man, with propellent cases, stood for ready use near the gun. Private Pike could not resist going to the breech and making whoosh! Bang! Noises as if he were pretending to fire the weapon.
"Stop that, Pike! Stupid boy." said Mainwaring, automatically.
The sergeant smiled, indugently.
"We've got a lad like that, sir. Milligan. Enthusiastic. Odd, but enthusiastic."
Other artillerymen grinned appreciatively.
"So you can hit France from here?" Sergeant Wilson said, patting the breech.
"That's what we're here for, sir! Most of the time we've been trying to get Jerry's guns around Calais, but at this range it's like trying to get a needle out of a haystack by standing at the edge of the field and waving a magnet at it. Makes 'em keep their heads down, though."
"But we're fighting back!" Mainwaring said, exultantly. He slapped himself on the thigh, and rocked slightly with the impact. The sergeant beamed.
"And between the four guns of the battery, we made enough holes in one of his forward air bases to put it out of use for a while. We're proud of that!"
Sugden lowered his voice and leant forward.
"But these last couple of nights, sir, the target's been Calais and Boulougne harbours. Whichever one Bomber Command isn't hitting. Word is, Jerry's been building an invasion fleet and it's imminent. We've been trying to sink as many of his boats as we can."
Mainwaring and Wilson nodded.
"Have you ever been attacked by the Luftwaffe?"
"A time or two we've had a lone fighter shoot us up." He indicated a row of bullet-strikes. And a flight of Stukas tried to bomb us. The only thing to do then is to fire back – we've got machine guns set up for ack-ack over here, here and here. Oh, and signal the driver to make for the nearest tunnel, full-speed. Once we're in there, we're safe. "
"Dangerous job" mused Wilson.
"No, not really, sir. If we get a direct hit from a Jerry gun, then it'll be so quick we won't know if we're in Heaven or Aldershot. And while the Stuka's an accurate dive-bomber, it's not so accurate that it'll hit a moving target or a train track from a thousand feet. They just make a noise, that's all."
"Do you hear something, Wilson?"
Sergeant Wilson concentrated. "A bit muffled in here, sir, but I do believe it's the church bells. Awfully nice to hear them again, sir, on a Sunday."
"That's not the point, Wilson! That damn vicar is breaking the law! It was clearly said that church bells are not to be rung for the duration of the emergency except as..a warning… if the Germans….are… invading…"
Mainwaring's voice tailed off as he realised what he was saying. Then he ran for the platform, Wilson unhurriedly following.
Don't panic! Despatch rider for Captain Mainwaring! Orders only to speak to the Captain! Don't panic! Don't panic!
Captain Mainwaring ran to where the young despatch rider from HQ had parked his motorbike.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Verbal instruction from the colonel, sir, for your ears only."
Mainwaring impatiently waved away the platoon to beyond listening range. The rider leant forward.
"Just one word, sir. Cromwell. That is all. Now if you'll excuse me…"
He saluted, and kicked the machine into life again, then was gone.
"Damn it, I left the secret codes list in the office. That's a codeword, I'm sure of it. But what does it mean?"
Sergeant Wilson cleared his throat.
"I took the liberty of memorising the codewords, sir. There weren't many of them. On issue of the codeword Cromwell, I'm afraid it means the invasion is imminent within the next forty-eight hours."
"And the church bells are ringing."
"It would appear so, sir. Shall I brief Sergeant Sugden? He'll need to know as he's in command of a very potent asset. If the Germans capture it, they'll point it at us.."
Frank Pike was still aboard the mobile gun, where a long thin gunner was reaching him how to traverse and fire the anti-aircraft turret.
"You steps on the hydraulic pedal here, and it swings right. Step on the pedal here, she swings left. Like a fairground ride, innit? Then you got twin three-oh-three machine guns. I'd be happy if you dint touch that, as that's your safety catch and she's fully armed."
Wilson nodded, knowing Pike had an odd affinity with weapons. He'd earned the platoon's first tommy-gun by virtue of being the best shot in the platoon: the gunnery range officer had been impressed. When you got past the overgrown schoolboy, there was more to Frank than met the eye. Jones had been bowled over by the recoil, Frazer had shot wildly adrift of the target, he and Mainwaring had merely achieved competence, Godfrey had refused to go near it, citing his non-combatant status as medical orderly, and Walker had somehow produced four more in a shady and complicated deal involving Jonesey's off-ration meat supply.
And as for the Blacker Bombard…
Wilson shook himself.
"Er… a word, please, Sergeant Sugden?"
Wilson had passed on the signal from HQ; Sugden, a long-time veteran, merely grunted and nodded.
"Won't it change things for you? When Jerry lands paratroops, and he will, you'll be a big target."
"Standing orders are to make for Dover with all speed and supplement the defences there. If we are attacked, let me show you…"
Sugden pointed to a wooden case underneath the gun trunnions.
"Fifty pounds of explosives. If we're in danger of being captured, we stick a fuse in and blow up the gun to deny it to Jerry. Then orders are for us to fight on as infantry and evade capture."
Sugden laughed grimly.
"We're artillerymen, mr Wilson. Not infantry. When the gun goes, our job is over. If we can't run, we surrender. If I can manage it, I'm blowing up the ammo truck, too."
He paused. The same thought must have struck both sergeants simultaneously.
"Listen, I hear you Home Guard lads haven't got much in the way of ready-use ammo?"
"Forty rounds of rifle ammo per man and six full magazines for the machine-gun. And the tommy-guns use it up like you won't believe. We're lucky, though. In July, when we started out, it was only five rounds per rifle."4(4)
"Get some of your lads to the ammo truck. We can help you out here. I need enough for my machine-guns and maybe eighty rounds per man."
"That's awfully kind of you."
"If Jerry attacks we won't have that long a fight hand to hand. Better our spare ammo goes to somebody who can use it. Less to blow up, too, if a Stuka lands a bomb in it"
It took surprisingly little time to transfer the spare ammunition to the back of Jones' truck. By the time the Me-109's swept low over the seafront and Walmington town, the van was safely parked out of the line of fire.
Wilson remembered only a fast-moving shadow, a roar of engine and cannonfire, and men diving for cover. Cannon shells clanged off the side of the armoured train and ricocheted randomly, causing at least one casualty.
A second German fighter followed the first, its cannonshells ripping into the fabric of the station building.
Hodges, of all people, was right, Wilson reflected, wondering why he felt so calm.
Then there was answering fire. As the third fighter swooped over it was met by a twin stream of machine-gun fire from a turret on the armoured train. As the pilot strove for height, it juddered in the air and pieces were see to fall off it. Wilson fancied he could hear I got him, uncle Arthur! coming from the train. As the stricken aircraft limped away trailing white smoke, a fourth flew over into the growing hail of return fire. The pilot wisely decided not to stay around, but disappeared south, in the direction of France.
Then all was quiet. Wilson picked himself up and went to find out who had been hurt. It had been Private Sponge who had taken a cannonshell. Kneeling next to him, the sad-eyed Private Godfrey shook his head and closed his medical bag.
"PIKE!" Mainwaring roared. "Stupid boy! What did I say about careless fire? Needlessly expending ammunition?"
"But I got him, sir. I got the Jerry. Didn't you see?" protested Pike.
"Leave it, Frank. Yes, I saw too. Awfully well done. Sir, I'm afraid Private Sponge is dead. The German planes got him."
"Oh. Well. I see."
The wind taken out of his sails, Mainwaring removed his cap and looked down at the body of Sponge with something approaching respect and sadness.
"Frazer, you were a sailor. Let's say the German fleet has set sail. How long do you think it will take for him to get here?"
"No less than twelve hours, sir. And with that number of boats in the sea at the same time…well, we had to take care at Dunkirk too. Against collisions and against Jerry aircraft. It could be up to a day, sir. Twenty-four hours."
"We have time to prepare our strategy, then. And above all to bury Sponge. Frazer, will you kindly?"
The old Scotsman, the town undertaker by profession, nodded.
There was nothing else to say.
And Sponge was the first.
"That's how it started, sir." Sergeant Wilson said, in the present, to Colonel Rogerson.
"Our first casualty, but by no means the last."
"You may be pleased to know that after he left Walmington station, Sergeant Sugden came under further air attack, but made it safely to Dover, where his rail gun joined in the battle and exchanged shells with German ships in the Channel. He survived the battle. He was in this room a few days ago and said you looked like a man with his head screwed on correctly. He wished he'd been able to take that boy with you, the one who shot down the German aircraft. We're recommending young Pike for a posthumous decoration, by the way. Not nearly enough for a VC, but certainly the MM."
"Thank you, sir. His mother may be consoled."
Rogerson looked at Wilson for signs of sarcasm or heavy irony, but saw nothing.
"And now we move on to the circumstances in which Captain Mainwaring decided Walmington was indefensible and elected to fight from… where was it now… Godfrey's Cottage. In your own time, Sergeant."
(1) Royal Air Force pilots, despite the genuine respect they got in the Battle, were thought of as flash and rather vain young men. They were known as the Brylcreem Boys, after a popular (but rationed) brand of hair styling oil.
(2) This is true. Derek Robinson devotes a chapter to explaining why British claims of German aircraft shot down were so hopelessly exaggerated, at the end of his novel about the RAF in 1940, A Piece of Cake.
(3) Really true. In June 1940 before even the fall of France, Germany directed all available long-range artillery to the Pas de Calais, so tat it might begin demoralising the British in the expected invasion area by shelling the south of England across the narrowest possible route. Even today on Dover harbour, there is a preserved propaganda banner captured from the Germans when the gun sites were over-run in 1944, boasting that the German guns together fired 7,000 shells at Kent over the four years. Folkestone and Dover both preserve churches destroyed not by the Luftwaffe but by long-range shelling. The British rail guns were a mobile response that retaliated against the Germans.
(4) In July 1940, comedian Spike Milligan recalls being in a forward position on a Sussex cliff-top with only five rounds for his rifle – all the Army could spare. Even then, when relieved, he had to pass the five rounds onto his relief. Supply was really that bad. Milligan did not serve on the armoured trains, but like many other artillerymen, valued them as a free taxi service to pubs and nightclubs all along the south coast and a guaranteed ticket back to his home barracks before midnight.