It’s May 1940. The war which had been lying dormant for many suddenly sprang to life. Britain and France are fighting desperately to fend off the Nazis, but it was clear that the Battle of France was going very badly indeed, writes John Duncan (Newbattle at War).
On May 14, 1940 Defence Minister Anthony Eden gave a radio broadcast announcing the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers and called upon men between the ages of 16 and 65, and not in the armed forces to volunteer. The response was immediate and overwhelming, with over 250,000 volunteering in the first week. Although lacking equipment, it should be remembered that many of the volunteers had fought in the Great War were still in their early 40s, fit, strong and well versed in military discipline and weapons.
A few weeks later France fell, Britain was on its own. By now nearly a million men had volunteered and finding weapons for them was a problem. However, find them they did and the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided that the LDV was not an inspiring choice and renamed them as we all know them, the Home Guard. In the early days they had no uniforms, or weapons, but in a few short months they were kitted out with ‘one size fit all’ denim uniforms and weapons dating from the Great War.
Typical of the units set up was the company in the Newtongrange, comprising mainly miners and surface workers who were exempt from military service. They were under the leadership of Captain James Preston DSO and Lt Peter Bourhill, who had served with the 8th and 9th Royal Scots throughout the last war and battle hardened NCOs such as Sergeant Peter O’Connor, Military Medal and Bar, who had served with Royal Artillery.
Initially too many men volunteered, but gradually all were accepted into the ranks. By the autumn of 1940 some 80 men attended a ‘smoker’ in the Unicorn pub in Dalkeith. Morale was high and Sgt Syme presented Sgt Major Hemmings with a gift in appreciation of his hard work in knocking the men into shape.
By 1941 the immediate threat of invasion had receded, Britain drew its breath and set about training up a vast citizen army.
The Home Guard took on many duties to free up front line troops and their weapons/training improved dramatically. In June 1942, tragedy struck the platoon. John Crawford (26), a corporal from Sixth Street, was killed by a fall of coal at work in the Lingerwood Pit. His loss was keenly felt by the men, and the following week he was buried with full military honours at Newbattle Cemetery. In attendance at the funeral were a large detachment of men under the command of Major Preston, Major Donaldson and Newtongrange Pipe Band, led by Pipe Major Scott.
In June 1943, the Newtongrange Home Guard were placed on high alert, not to face an expected German invasion, but to search along with large numbers of police for three Lewis machine guns and 1000 rounds of ammunition that had been stolen from their store.
The theft caused great consternation. Was it 5th Columnists or perhaps gangsters who had taken them? Either way they were dangerous weapons and in the wrong hands would cause mayhem.
After a widespread search of the Red Woods, the weapons were found concealed in a culvert within the woods, near to derelict gates down by the bridge over the South Esk. The culvert can be seen today but the vegetation obscures much of it. The guns had been assembled and were ready to fire but had not been used. The whole incident was treated very seriously with several detectives being allocated to the case. After much door knocking and a spot of cage rattling of local criminals a breakthrough was made and Newtongrange Police arrested three local youths. All three were charged with the theft. The eldest admitted the theft and his sentence was deferred to June 11, 1943. The case against the two juveniles was continued at the juvenile court.
By the autumn of 1944, it was clear that Germany was close to defeat. The Allies were ashore in mainland France and on December 3, 1944, it was decided to stand down the Home Guard, by which time the Home Guard lost a total of 1,206 members on active service. They had stood ready to fight. These were the men of the real ‘Dad’s Army’.