The Penpillick Platoon, Home Guard
This article featured in the October & November 2004 issues of Tywardreath News & Views
Philip Varcoe's thoughtful and amusing account of Platoon activities which he wrote in 1971
After 30 years, one can only hope to give the more outstanding impressions of the period during which the Penpillick Platoon, Home Guard, functioned. It all started of course in the Spring of 1940, before which, for some months, I had been engaged in Air Raid precaution work dating before the 1939 crisis. Here was something more adventuresome and active.
The members of my Platoon consisted of those in our district who had answered the call for Volunteers to defend the Cornish Coast from invasion by the Germans across the Channel. Little did I know what a friendly and splendid lot of men I was to command. We had no uniform at first, only an amlet of felt or canvas, to be placed round one arm (I cannot remember which), with the letters LDV marked on it. This stood for Local Defence Volunteers. My only training in the past had been in the Officers Training Corps at Cheltenham College, which I suffered without enthusiasm or interest. At any rate I knew how to drill. Perhaps this was why I was first in command of the Platoon.
It was only later I was able to appreciate why a retired Major, who volunteered at the same time, was not selected to lead us. It transpired that though a very charming person, he had a considerable weakness for alcohol. I was to experience the inconvenience of this defect at a later date. For a time he served as a Private in my Platoon, before fading away and saving me the further embarrassment of commanding someone of such high rank and experience. For the rest, all were countrymen living round about, mostly farmers, their sons and their labourers. One was the retired farmer father of a farmer in the Platoon called Phillips, of Polharmon, a fine old man of over 72. I had two sergeants to commence with, farmer Ray Morcom, and farm labourer Frank Truscott. It is difficult to remember which others wore stripes, but some were farmers: Phil Keat, Stan Dustow, Evelyn Mitchell, William Tamblyn, and Sidney Dance. We were some 30 men.
They were all my good friends: ready, reliable, always somehow coming on parade, though it must have been very difficult to do so on many occasions, with so much farm work to be done. The attendance of all members of my Platoon was indeed better than any other in the District. True I had one or two men that didn't quite fit in. I was somewhat embarrassed by one called Davies, a tall aloof individual with a past in the shadows, and there was his queer friend Loam. I was relieved when they lost interest and ceased to appear. The black-out arrangements in their house were always defective and lights seemed to appear at odd times in the night. At that time we were always suspicious of those people whose past was a closed book, those who had appeared upon our scene in recent months, especially if they had a foreign sounding name. I remember being warned by our company commander to beware and watch a certain gentleman called Von Haas who had recently moved house to Par. In reality he was a very distinguished and intellectual person of Central European ancestry, who was very fond of walking and could easily be suspected of examining our coastal defences during his exercise.
It wasn't long before we became members of the 13th Battalion Home Guard. By this time we were beginning to be dressed in uniform: awful denim things which didn't fit at all. But most had shot-guns, and then a few pikes arrived, made from a length of gas piping with a bayonet stuck into one end. My own weapons were a revolver and a shot-gun which had belonged to my grandfather. Then gradually the .303 rifles appeared and we began to feel more effective. At the same time our uniforms improved.
We drilled once or twice a week in Ray Morcom's barn and on Sunday afternoons paraded for field exercises, shooting practice and so on. One or two members found arms drill difficult and I remember feeling rather depressed by the inability of Frank Netherton and Edmund Gale to handle a rifle in a way the slightest bit like the other members of the Platoon. This was embarrassing when being visited by our Company Commander - he kindly looked the other way when the performance was too obvious. I remember too our roll-calls and the difficulty I had to discover whether Walter Andrews and Frank Andrew would ever agree on the correct way of spelling their surname, for they were brothers. Each claimed that the spelling in the family bible agreed with his own version. I had no alternative but to send in our attendance register and ignore their relationship, for I was quite helpless in my efforts to reach an agreement of the final 's'.
Our Company Commander was Major Thomas Macleod OBE, who had been a Pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in the first War. He was a man of great character for whom we had much respect. Our first task under his command was to guard the Trevenan tunnel between Par and Lostwithiel Railway Stations. Our guard-room was a ganger's hut near the entrance to the tunnel and we each had one night's duty a week. There were rumours of tunnels being blown up by German parachutists dropped for the purpose, though we never knew whether it had ever happened. I think, however, the real reason for our being withdrawn from this duty was because if was found after some weeks that there was nobody guarding the other end of the tunnel, and therefore our absence would not be noticed.
After this and for many months our task was to man an observation post on the old Lanescot Copper Mine spoil heaps, giving us a very extensive view over a wide area and our duty was to report anything of an unusual or suspicious character. Our guard-room was the old mine 'Count House'. We erected an old disused car body on the highest point, which acted as our post. Though it became more and more dilapidated as two of us sat in it night after night, it kept us snug and sheltered from the elements. The two men whom I shared my night's duty were Evelyn Mitchell and Sidney Dance, each Philosophers, whose conversation would while away the many sleepless hours.
I could not say that exciting events occurred during these watch nights, for except for moving lights (usually cars), flares and enemy planes passing above us, there was little to report. My own interest was particularly aroused by the night-jars which inhabited the spoil heaps. These were unusual birds with their whirring whistle and flapping wings which clapped together behind their backs as they rose into the air. They were most active at twilight, their swift flapping and crooked flight skirting the uneven surface of the spoil heaps which surrounded us.
The view from this spot is magnificent and little altered to this day. It commands a tremendous view of land and sea some 12 miles across the bay from Gribben to Dodman. My own house is about ½ mile from this post towards the sea. Possessing a telephone I was in constant touch with the Major, who, as Spring advanced into Summer during that critical year of 1940, awakened me many times at night urging me to keep my men on the alert, reminding me that Par Beach was expected to the Hitler's No.1 Priority Landing Point, for none of us knew that he had similar plans for attacking at every beach along the whole South Coast of England, though this no doubt was only in the strategic minds of British Coastal Command. So I would run quickly with my messages up to our Guard Room and the men on duty would watch with ever greater fervour for any signs of approaching craft or plane, trying to penetrate the darkness with eyes too feeble to define anything but different shades of grey or blue, nor to translate the occasional flash of light or star-like glow.
We suffered a number of daylight visits from German planes, which were called 'tip and run raids', scattering a few bombs and away. I happened to be in my garden one day and saw a German plane coming over, low down. I started to run in for my rifle, until I realised the futility. I saw it drop its bombs on houses in Tywardreath, across the valley, demolishing one completely.
Another day a plane dropped a stick of bomb in the fields, the nearest falling some 200 yards away. At the same time it machine-gunned our house. Another day we were on the cliffs at Polruan and saw a plane drop its bombs in a row along the Fowey river, hitting nothing but breaking windows with the blast. A trawler tried to shoot it as it flew out to sea, narrowly missing but making it wobble. Returning to Fowey, we asked the ferryman what it was like on the river. 'Cor', says he, 'twere like 'ell let loose'. Another day in the early morning there was a raid on Par Harbour. The bombs landed in the Harbour mud and threw up a stone about the size of a cannon ball high into the air, which penetrated the roof above my Office just before my arrival. One bomb, unfortunately, fell upon what used to be the Harbour-Master's house, killing soldiers who were billeted there. These incidents indicate the effectiveness of the raids, which were intended to strike terror in our hearts.
As May advanced in June, I learned to expect the insistent nocturnal bell and to dread the dry tone of Major Macleod's voice calling me, without emotion, to muster my men - warning me either that invasion was imminent, or that it was expected at any moment. So I would, in my turn, ring up those of my men who were on the phone and then dress hurriedly and rush to the Guard Room, sending messages for those without other means of contact. Nothing happened and, as daylight crept into the sky, we would return to our homes and our jobs. I cannot remember how many nights were broken in this way, but the toneless voice took on a nightmarish quality, coming to my ears after stumbling helter-skelter downstairs, drunken with sleep. Then came the Battle of Britain and though we were kept on the alert for months, it seemed evident by October that invasion would not take place that year. Though we continued our nightly visits through 1941, the tension diminished and in 1942 we were 'stood down', though still meeting intermittently.
At that time we had a serious operation which occupied one night. Capt Spratt, a ship-broker and a member of the Home Guard, was returning home from Par to Fowey in the growing dusk and, at the Polkerris turn, caught sight of a jack-booted, helmeted, Germany parachutist standing bewildered at the side of the road. Reaching Fowey, he immediately phoned our company Commander, Major Macleod, who put as many of us as possible on the alert and ordered us to muster at Trenython; I remember receiving the order through Hedley Rouse at my office and contacting a number of my farmers. We were ordered to comb the woods and fields between Trenython and Polkerris as well as to flush out the Railway tunnel on the Par to Fowey line, which was about ¾ mile in length. Some 20 or 30 of us combed the woods and reached the Par end of the tunnel. Two men who had brought torches were ordered to enter the tunnel and report back as quickly as possible to say if they say any sight of the parachutists. The remainder of us would then penetrate the tunnel in a body if anything suspicious was noticed. We waited for about ¼ hour during which time there was no re-appearance of the two men. By this time we were fearing the worst from the silence and supposed the German, or Germans, had taken them captive inside.
So in a body we decided to go their rescue, and to do so quickly as possible. Only two of us who remained had electric torches and they advanced at our head into the darkness of the tunnel. Their pace was hurried and anyone who has tried keeping up with two people with electric torches through a railway tunnel would understand that, with a glimmer of light advancing rapidly into the distance ahead, it is impossible, especially whilst carrying a heavy rifle and wearing army boots, to avoid stumbling and falling over sleepers, rails and loose stones. In the inky darkness the clatter and crash of falling bodies and rifles was quite impressive when accompanied by violent expletives, and was guaranteed to frighten effectively any parachutists, either Germany or British. After what seemed an interminable time, the two men carrying the guiding torches completed their flushing away in advance of the rest of us. Finding no sign of either Germany parachutists or our own lost men, they started back again and rescued the rest of us from our total blindness, with care and gentleness escorting us slowing back to the Par end of the tunnel. Since by now all light had left the sky, we decided to return to Par and contact our Company Commander, reporting our failure to capture the parachutists and the serious loss of our two men. He was able to relieve our minds later, however, and tell us that the lost men had returned to their homes. They had found nothing suspicious in the tunnel and decided to go back to their homes round the top of the tunnel and then down the road to Par. It had been realised that Capt Spratt's "parachutist" was none other than Professor Singer's elderly female gardener, who was prone to dress in beret, boiler-suit and Wellington boots, waiting at the turning to Polkerris to catch a bus home.
The only casualty we suffered during this military operation took place just after the decision was made to enter the tunnel in a body. One of my men, who shall be nameless, asked his mate to hold his rifle whilst he retired behind a bush. Unfortunately the need was too urgent and the arrangement made was not soon enough, so that he had to be granted compassionate leave to return home as quickly as circumstances would .permit. I remember his tragic cry, 'tis too late!'
It was during 1940 and 1941 that the terrible destruction of our cities took place. It was said that the Gribben headland was the guiding point which gave the bombers their path and that from there they divided, some to fly to Plymouth and the rest to Falmouth. Since our observation post overlooked the Gribben, on many fine nights the night air became filled with the distinctive throb of their engines, filling us with foreboding. The glare of flames and explosions from both areas, east and west, told us of the destruction that was transpiring. Plymouth had a vast cover of barrage balloons, which was very effective in keeping the enemy bombers high in the sky, considerably affecting their aim.
One night our duty observation post was manned as usual. It was not my night for duty so I was asleep in bed. I was suddenly alerted by the sound of gravel being thrown at my window and voices calling me. I raised the sash and the two guards told me to hurry as enemy parachutists were descending in large numbers in the direction of Looe. It was 5.30 am and the light was quickly increasing. I dressed hurriedly in my uniform, got my car and all three of us drove quickly up to the Observation Post. Sure enough there were the numerous parachutists in the sky. Yet as you watched them you became aware that they were stationary. It was then possible to persuade the men that what we could see was the balloon barrage, up in great numbers over Plymouth. The atmosphere was crystal clear, presaging a storm, and I do not think I have ever seen objects over 30 miles away so detailed. We did not report the incident.
So we went on into 1942, trying to keep up an interest which was flagging, as the object of our formation appeared less and less important. Major Macleod, greatly suffering through the prolonged illness of his wife, gave up his Company Command to Walter Graham, who in turn handed over to Hedley Rouse, who saw us through to the end of our assignment. We all of us had great respect for these three men, who were completely dependable and conscientious. For myself, who had no military training but in the OTC at School, which in no way attracted or interested me, and for every other member of my Platoon, working long and arduous hours, the parades and night duty were a considerable strain. However, there was much pleasure in the comradeship we enjoyed, and a good deal of Cornish humour, which invariable takes the form of banter and 'leg-pullng'.
I was alway amazed at our attendance records for parades and night duty, and consistently congratulated by my Company Commander for such excellent loyalty - Penpillick attendance figures were invariably the best in the Company. I continue to hold much affection for each of these Cornish farmers in whom I had complete trust, though we were never called upon to tackle the job for which we had volunteered. We did take it most seriously during those blackest days, every though we felt our inadequacy and lack of proper training and equipment. We had a battalion and a colonel somewhere at the back of us - that meant little to us. But what we did know was every inch of land around us for a good square mile or more, and we could have confused any enemy who put his foot upon it, using, perhaps effectively, the 'Molotov cocktails' which we had made with any old bottles, and which we practised throwing, even though their ignition was mostly unreliable, as well and the Lewis guns and Sten guns ultimately issued.
So my duty companions, Sgt Mitchell and Cpl Dance, are with us still. We all grow old and suffer infirmities,and would now be unable to volunteer again. During those nights of discussion, we solved most of the world's problems and looked forward to peace and harmony amongst nations. Yet after these 30 years this desirable state seems further away than ever, as man seems less and less inclined to follow the path of Jesus Christ, and each one of us seems accursed by possessiveness.
But the old aged, as they struggle through the dimness of life's tunnel, groping and falling as they encounter many obstacles, yet see the light shining at the end, getting stronger and stronger as their years pass. They live on until one day they are surrounded and engulfed in its brilliance. Blessed are the old aged. Their passion is spent. They want little and have learnt the happiness of giving. Their struggle is nearly complete and they await with patience the advancing light, which will bring them freedom from their shackles.
My friend Jack Hambly, who was my father's gardener for some years and mine thereafter, who is undoubtedly something of a philosopher, as so many Cornishmen are, said to me recently, 'You know, we have to be ready any time, and if they want a clerk they'll send for your party, and if they want a digger they'll send for me'.