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Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor looks at the town’s own Dad’s Army and finds a ‘well-organised fighting unit’





The Local Defence Volunteers or LDV was inaugurated by the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, on May 14, 1940. The age group of 17-65 years of age saw an enormous enrolment of 1.5 million by July and with a somewhat inspirational name change to the Home Guard. Their role was to man road blocks and guard coastal areas and important locations such as factories, airfields and munitions.

Here in Bury St Edmunds the defence of the town began in 1942 when an Invasion Committee was set up in Angel Corner, on Angel Hill, the map room until recent years still evident in the basement.

Part of the town’s ring of defences, a pill box on Holywater Meadows
Part of the town’s ring of defences, a pill box on Holywater Meadows

An observation post was set up on the top of the Greene King brewhouse and various means of communication were to be used including homing pigeons. The loft for these was in nearby Maynewater Lane and maintained by a Sergeant William Cocksedge of 60 Avenue Approach.

As a matter of course, military uniforms were issued to members of the Home Guard but an initial shortage of weapons meant improvisation was an important factor. One of the many weapons used was the ‘Northover Projector’, cobbled together from several components including a length of pipe on legs. This home-made mortar was designed to fire a self-igniting phosphorus grenade.

Gradually arms such as rifles were supplied, each man being allocated 50 rounds of ammunition, the Home Guard’s motto being: “To the last man and the last round.”

A 'Dragon's Tooth' which was designed to halt traffic was found at the bottom of Thingoe Hill
A 'Dragon's Tooth' which was designed to halt traffic was found at the bottom of Thingoe Hill

The HQ was at 3 Honey Hill, while further administration took place at 80 Guildhall Street. As the 2nd battalion of the Suffolk Home Guard, it was run along the same lines as the British Army. There were three companies; G company held the defences along the River Lark, H company at the sugar beet factory and beyond, and J company the Western Approaches. It was this company that were probably responsible for the four enormous concrete blocks that were uncovered at the Spread Eagle junction in 2018 when protracted road works were being undertaken. The blocks would have been used to prevent the flow of traffic as would have been the ‘Dragon’s Tooth’, a huge pyramidal concrete block found hidden amongst foliage at the bottom of today’s Thingoe Hill.

The huge wartime concrete blocks uncovered at the Spread Eagle junction in 2018
The huge wartime concrete blocks uncovered at the Spread Eagle junction in 2018

The main entrances/exits to the town were designated as ‘Green’ enforcement roads, which is to say road blocks would operate here when required.

Other defensive measures were that the town was ringed with an anti-tank ditch, where required, and at strategic points concrete pill boxes were situated. Perhaps the most fortified area of the town was on the eastern side, from Rougham Hill across No-Man’s Meadow, past the grammar school and then on to the sugar beet factory. If in the event of an invasion this outer ring was penetrated, the last stand would take place at the ‘Inner Keep’. This area was approximately from Mill Road to St Andrew’s Street South, the Cattle Market (todays arc) and King’s Road.

Bury was split into two for administrative purposes, East and West, and the aims of the Home Guard were to: “To delay, harass and inflict maximum casualties on enemy advancing through their area.”

Apart from their normal work duties members were required to attend 48 hours a month on operational duty except for certain officers and NCOs and subsistence of 3 shillings (15p today) was paid per night.

At its peak, the 2nd battalion had 622 members with strict disciplinarian Lt Colonel Gadd DSO, MC – a regular soldier of World War One - plus Lt Colonel Samuel Sampson MC as its commanders.

There were three codewords used for a state of readiness: ‘Bouncer’, a preliminary warning that key men should be mustered and that the next code-word might follow. This would be ‘Bugbear’, that an attack was imminent followed by ‘bugbear stand down’ to revert back to a normal state of readiness. Nationally, the Home Guard was stood down in late 1944 and finally disbanded on December 31, 1945.

Bury's former Home Guard Club, in Abbot Road
Bury's former Home Guard Club, in Abbot Road

A lasting legacy of this fraternity is that of the Home Guard Club in Abbot Road. Formerly known as Perry Barn, the club was formed by F G Banks aka ‘Monty’ of Vinery Road. He was a lieutenant in the Home Guard and after the war, in 1947, he became a councillor, the start of a distinguished local political career. He was mayor 1957-9 and oversaw the very successful Bury Pageant in 1959. Made a freeman of the town in 1971, he retired from the council in 1974 and died in 1987.

Martyn Taylor
Martyn Taylor

-- Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.