The Local Defence Volunteers, later known as the Home Guard, was launched on May 14, 1940 in response to Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries, and within 24 hours more than a quarter of a million men had come forward to join.
One such volunteer was William Arthur Townsend, the son of John, a moulder at the GWR works and his wife Elizabeth. William, also known as Art, was born in 1903 and grew up at 280 Cricklade Road, Gorse Hill. On leaving school he followed his father ‘inside’ to begin a boilermaker’s apprenticeship. By the time war was declared in 1939 William was married with a young family.
In a collection of pocket diaries William recorded his daily routine providing a unique account of one man’s war time experience in the GWR 13th Battalion of the Home Guard.
The official age range for Home Guard volunteers was from 17-65 but there were reports of more than just a few old soldiers joining the ranks, some in their 80s. By June 1940 more than 1,4000,000 men had joined the LDV and in July Winston Churchill changed the name of the organisation to what he felt was the more inspirational Home Guard.
Regular army ranks were introduced in the Home Guard in February 1941 and in December 1942 William records that he was made a Lance Corporal. On Saturday April 12, 1941 he registered for National Service. His diary entry for that day records he went to bed early as he was on Home Guard duty at the GWR Transfer Yard from 1.15am to 5 am the next day.
William’s diaries give an indication of the number of air raids Swindon suffered. Some were reasonably short, others much longer such as the one on Saturday January 4, 1941 when the warning sounded at 10.40 pm with the all clear coming at 7am. And during one eleven day period in March 1941 the town was subjected to ten air raids with just two night’s respite.
‘Bombs dropped (Kembrey Street) 11.30 pm,” William recorded on Monday August 17, 1942. ‘House damaged, Front Roof off.’ He spent the following day ‘clearing up Air Raid Damage all day.’ At the end of that month William writes of another raid to hit Swindon – Saturday August 29, Bombs dropped on Drove Road 9.00am.
Throughout 1943 William records his ongoing training – firing practise on the rifle range, lectures on ammunition, gas, AA batteries, grenades and on Sten Gun firing and on Saturday July 29th 1944 William wrote – ‘HG Camp at Lydiard Tregoze for 1 week.’ The men received intensive LMG instruction, but there proved to be time to entertain their families as well.
The standing down of the Home Guard took place in December 1944 and William’s last entries record the final events. A Home Guard parade on Sunday October 15 was followed by B Coy concert at Whitehouse. He makes just one entry in November – Sunday 12 Home Guard photos taken.
1943 GWR (Wilts) Home Guard Training
1944 GWR Home Guard at Swindon Works
Photographs courtesy of Swindon Local Studies visit the website on www.flickr.com/photos/swindonlocal
Many thanks to Bob Townsend for access to his father's diaries.