A Night to Remember in 1942

Tom Smith

It was a hot Wednesday night during the summer of 1942 at the headquarters of Audley Home Guard, the old Conservative Club in Alsager Road.  The building contained one large room, which was suitable for parades, lectures and so on.  To the right, behind this room, was an office, toilet and cooking facilities, and to the left, immediately opposite the front door, was a small room which had been converted into a bunkhouse.  This had multi-tier bunks at each side, with a fireplace at the far end.  To the right of the fireplace was a window, complete with blackout.  Just outside the window was a small, flat-roofed pigeon cote on which someone had placed a pile of straw.  This made it a very comfortable place to bed down, weather permitting.

Audley Home Guard had come a long way since the time when its only official equipment was arm bands with the letters LDV (Local Defence Volunteers).  The unit was now equipped with Canadian Ross rifles, several Sten sub-machine guns and, I believe, a number of hand grenades.  In addition, the road opposite Audley Waterworks had been mined by digging a large oil drum into the hedgebank with a space behind if for an explosive charge.  In those days the road was much narrower and the hedgebank much steeper than they are today.  Firing the charge would have ignited the oil and tar in the drum and blasted it across the road, enveloping any vehicles in its path.  At the other end of the village a number of large concrete blocks had been positioned under the ‘bottom bridge’ by the Plough.  These could be dragged across the road to form an effective road block.  They were also used as a convenient seat under the shelter of the bridge by courting couples.

When we went on duty that night, we found that a truly ‘Dad’s Army’ type piece of equipment had been delivered that day, a Blacker Bombard.  This had been designed by a Colonel Blacker and was intended to provide a type of short-range artillery.  It consisted of a tripod on which was mounted freely rotating cycle handlebars.  In their centre, where the cycle lamp is normally fitted, was a long metal spigot which projected forwards and which was connected by cable to the right-hand brake lever.  This device, along with five brightly-coloured projectiles, had been set down in the narrow space between the two sets of bunks.  The projectiles consisted of a long (rocket) tube attached to a bomb-shaped shell.  They were marked ‘Inert’ in bold letters, which we assumed meant that they were dummies to practice with.  In this we were only partially correct.

Doug and I had done our hour on guard and because it was so hot and the bunkhouse was not always as quiet and sweet smelling as it might have been, we decided to bed down on the pigeon cote outside.  We had been there for about ten minutes or so, a plane had just gone over which we identified as ‘one of ours’ from the steady drone of its engines, when suddenly, just behind us, there was an almighty explosion.  The window of the bunkhouse - glass, frame and blackout - erupted outwards.  The light from inside shone on Doug and I and we realised that a spray of fine particles was falling all around us.  Doug shouted ‘Gas!’ and we dived off the pigeon cote and dashed round to the front door to get our gas masks.  When we opened the door, the first impression was that the building had taken a direct hit.  Great clouds of black soot were billowing out through the bunkhouse door and its dazed and frightened occupants were crawling out on their hands and knees.

We quickly found out that in fact no one had suffered so much as a scratch.  What had happened was that someone had asked one of the corporals, ‘Jack, how does this thing work?’

Jack, who later became managing director of an engineering firm, said, ‘Well it’s pretty obvious.  You put the end of the rocket tube onto this spigot, you aim it by turning the handlebars, then you pull this brake lever.’  Which he did.  It then became clear that the projectiles were not just dummies.  Apparently, ‘Inert’ meant that they could be fired on the range but, since the shells were filled with sand, they would not explode when they landed.  The shell had flown between the two lines of bunks, which were only a few feet apart, had glanced off the edge of the chimney breast and out through the window, frame and all, narrowly missing Doug and me outside on the pigeon cote.  It then disappeared in the direction of Ikin’s smallholding.  The recoil had made a hole in the floor boards and the impact with the chimney breast had brought down the soot from a chimney which obviously had not been swept for many years.  What we had thought to be gas was sand from the damaged shell.

We didn’t quite know what to do next.  Somebody suggested knocking up Charlie, one of the sergeants who was not on duty.  He was not pleased.  He told us to clear up the mess as best we could, then to find what was left of the shell.  Well, we didn’t find it, not then and not later.  I believe it was eventually found at the end of the war.  Jack lost his stripes and a few months later I was called up. The Conservative Club has since been divided and made into two bungalows.  I wonder if the occupants of 29 Alsager Road know what happened on that hot night in 1942.