Dad’s Army (Rolleston and Stretton branch)

Local Home Guards exercising in a wood, where they are advancing towards the supposed hide-out of enemy parachute troops. So said the front page of the Burton Daily Mail of Tuesday, June 3, 1941.

Pictured are half a dozen young men in khaki, rifles at the ready. It's a wonderful photograph; you can almost feel the wind rustling, ever so gently, the grass in that clearing of the sunlit wood.

But where is it and where are the men from? The paper inside did say that the exercise started with a march from Rolleston to the Acorn Inn, where the men got their orders for the afternoon. Fellow Home Guards were acting as the enemy, in an unidentified patch of 'gorse wood'.

"Although (for obvious reasons) little can be stated publicly of the tactics adopted by the Guard, one is permitted to state that the company concerned in these operations displayed fitness and keenness," the Mail assured its readers.

Readers who waited for the weekly sister newspaper Burton Observer of Thursday, June 12 — more of a picture paper — learned more: that the men were from Rolleston and Stretton. In one picture, HA Parson their commander is testing his men on tactics. By his side is an old soldier with a pipe in his mouth, and a couple of men in the group have, rather casually, a cigarette in their mouths.

Other photos show a platoon on the march; and a captured 'enemy' being marched away by one of the riflemen. The photographer has separately snapped a dozen of the men who were veterans of the First World War. One sergeant kneeling at the front is in good humour enough to display not a firearm but a bottle of beer.

It may be supped at the end of the exercise — if it wasn't empty already! It's looking quite jolly. The exercise was probably on a Sunday morning, to end in good time for lunch or a drink in the pub.

Local author Mark Rowe has looked up the photographs at the Magic Attic in Swadlincote while he is finalising a book about the Home Guard nationally.

The date is significant. While it's well known that Britain was at risk of German invasion in 1940 — which prompted the forming of the Home Guard — it's not as appreciated that the country was on tenterhooks in the early summer of 1941, in case Hitler should choose to attack.

Instead, the Burton Mail on Monday, June 23, reported how Germany invaded Russia the day before - probably three weeks after the volunteers of Rolleston and Stretton tried out how they would beat Germany's elite paratroopers.

It may be unfair to argue that if the Home Guard really hunted for parachutists like that, any paratroopers would probably have machine-gunned them — assuming the Germans having landed would have hidden in the first place.

You can guess from the photos that besides their rifles the defenders only had bayonets — hanging from their sides. In any fight with invaders, the Home Guard would have been hopelessly outgunned.

That is why the BBC comedy series Dad's Army — which has had another repeat lately on BBC2 — was able to poke fun at the Home Guard. Maybe Rolleston and Stretton Home Guard units had their own equivalent of the fictional Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones and Private Pike.

But if the Germans had tried to invade England not Russia that month, there can be no doubt that those men in the photographs, and men like them around the country, would have fought for their homes and given their lives.

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Last updated: 12 August 2009