WW2, 1940 to ’41, in order, The Grenadier Guards at Whitehall

In time we, in the Westminster Homeguard were chosen to man blockhouses in Whitehall. Crude, concrete structures, set across a road leading to Whitehall and with a gate making free access impossible. Our job was sentry duty outside the blockhouse on ‘X’ nights a week and at weekends. In the blockhouse it was like a squat, comfortless, and outside, bitterly cold. There were three troopers, a sergeant and me. They all had ammunition I had none, presumably for their safety rather than my own. It was here that I first came across the unthinking use of expletives, the more disgusting the better. The ‘F’ word was used indiscriminately, certainly rarely in context and often between syllables. In retrospect I find it strange how soon I became acclimatised to the whole atmosphere. Our blockhouse was beside the Liberal Club, one of the clubs in London and the Members, on duty nights, welcomed us and allowed us to use the club between bouts of duty and to have a half of Bitter in those august rooms, if we liked when we were doing duty at weekends. It was another world. The quiet smooth running of the club was like a well oiled engine which had been in service since the dawn of time; the unruffled, discreet way the staff appeared to serve, almost without being there, the over-stuffed, oxblood-coloured leather, the rich carpets and curtains and above all the almost cloistered atmosphere of the billiard room, with its raised leather benches, its green baize and cowled lights over the tables, a world away from any previous experience, and awe-inspiring. It seems it took a war to break down the barriers.

Tedium epitomises the lot of the lower ranks in all the services and I include the police in this. The aspect I have found strangest is that at the time we are not aware we are wasting our lives. The system really works, all that marching up and down, forming fours or whatever, standing to attention with ne’er a muscle moving, does seem to concentrate the mind in the physical sense rather than the metaphysical, to a point where it is incapable of critical thought. The greatest of all boring duties is ‘Guard Duty’ in whatever service one is in. In the police, especially in Ireland during an ‘Emergency’, it can be lethal, in the Navy it is a joke, unless one is caught, and in the Army it is taken very seriously, even when all that is being guarded is so insignificant that no one would want to steal it or copy it anyway. The main function of the guard is to keep on the alert in case he is caught, having a crafty pull on a cigarette, is improperly dressed, or is slouching, all deemed to be heinous crimes with unspeakable punishment if caught. In wartime there are innumerable sergeants and officers creeping about trying to catch these guards committing these diabolical offences.

At the time we also had the Blitz to contend with. I was on guard duty outside the blockhouse in Whitehall on a very black night, when a shadowy figure approached. I said the obligatory ‘Halt! who goes there? Approach and be recognised.’, feeling like a total idiot, knowing full well it was one of the Regiment, nobody else would be fool enough to be out in the small hours on a wet and cold night. It was the Guards Officer doing his rounds, and I suspect my lack of sincerity must have come through. “Who the f…. are you?” he said with all the venom of an embittered mother-in-law. There was absolutely no way he could have thought I was other than what I represented. . I was sure the officer, even if he were dim, could not have been unaware of what and who I was. Anyway, it would have been on the order-paper or some typically bureaucratic sheet. “Home Guard, on duty. Sir.” I replied reasonably, with my bayonet still pointed at his supper.” ‘X-ing Home Guard!” he said and pushed past me with hardly a glance at anything but the bayonet which I was now waving about as I grounded the rifle. The poor Guards sergeant, who was a decent fellow, if also scathing about the Home Guard, got an earful, which carried out to me even through the layers of sacking, which acted as blackout curtaining. If one had the opinion one was aiding the war effort by being in the Home Guard, a few weeks with the Guards soon made it clear one was as useful and as desirable as another head.

Categorized as WW2

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