Saturday, 28 January 2012

'The Real Dad's Army'

'The Real Dad's Army' is the diary of Rodney Foster, written during the Second World War.  Foster had been born in India a son of the Raj and educated in England as so many  were. Commissioned into the army he returned to India to serve there for some time before realising promotion was stilted within the regiment structure and moved to the Indian version of the Ordinance Survey, the Survey of India, where he spent most of his time. He did return to England (never Britain please note) to collect a wife and back to the Indian army once more when the Great War broke out.  After retirement in 1932 he took a house in Hythe on the south coast of England in time to prepare for the Second World War.  Because of Mr Hitlers desire to turn Poland and Russia into his new Empire this soon followed in 1939.  After Dunkirk in 1940 a great fear of invasion by Germany took hold of Britain. A Militia was called for and hundreds of thousands of men, many ex-servicemen from the 'Last Lot' enlisted. This organisation was called at first the 'Local Defence Volunteers (the 'LDV,' known as 'Look, Duck and Vanish!').  Using whatever weapons were to hand, including spears and broom handles with sharp knives attached, these determined squads of men prepared to defend their homes.  At first it was a haphazard organisation without uniforms or proper weapons, and in some cases a motley collection of leaders.  Later called ' the 'Home Guard,' this was to become a very efficient militia thanks in part to the men like Rodney Foster who took charge of  the 'Saltwood' platoon in his own locale and later 'B' Company in Folkstone a couple of miles to the east.

'Dad's Army' was a very successful comedy show made in the 70's and still shown regularly on BBC television.  This was based on a small town similar to Hythe, on the south coast, and in immediate danger of enemy action.  A great many of the stories involved situations that arose with the 'Home Guard, the real 'Dad's Army!'  A comedy it may have been but the situations that arose were very deadly at time.  Fosters diary comments on almost daily air raids, often hitting the town with resultant loss, shells fired from across the channel, and replied to by big guns based at Dover a little further along the coast, shelling from ships of both sides in the channel and convoys attacked by enemy aircraft and fast moving 'E' Boats as the convoys passed one way or another.  In spite of the danger, and the rest of the houses in their road being commandeered by the army, the Fosters remained in their home until the end of the war.  This is remarkable as they possessed no shelter bar the big kitchen table, and all three often slept through the constant air raids and accompanying sirens!  Explosions which awoke them or shook the house from afar did not always see them rise to take an interest, sleep was more important!

The diary entries are short and to the point.  These reveal something of Rodney's character and the real daily life of the war years.  Little is said about the deprivations, although hints are abundant, and the red tape that follows from major military operations in the area is constant when he drives around as a member of the 'volunteer driving pool.' This last meant often taking the sick into hospitals or various individuals around Kent on their 'war work,' some of whom bring out Mr Fosters opinions quite clearly.  Deaths, sometimes tragic, are occasionally mentioned, but his response is a soldiers response of just 'Keep calm and get on with it,' an attitude that stayed with many who endured the war, and an attitude not so common today.  Descriptions, brief but enlightening are given of the troops around them, reports of the war in far off places, and occasional rumours, which usually abound in war under the secrecy prevailing.  One interesting aspect is the weather.  How often the entry records a summers day with the words, 'Cold,' or 'Rain all day,' 'fog,' indicating in Britain some things never change.  An occasional very 'hot' day is recorded, but not many!  A notable fact is the swing from the early years of constant fear of enemy air raids to the mentions of our aircraft, in ever increasing numbers, flying of by day and by night over the coast into enemy held territory.  Also noted are the noise of explosions and the shaking of the buildings when actions take place out of sight deep in France and Belgium. Like many others Foster compares the number going out with the number returning.  Difficulties with a senior officer caused Rodney to leave the Home Guard and become an ARP warden (Air Raid Precautions) an occupation which gave him an easier life physically and with much less 'office politics' stress.  Self importance is a curse in all military establishments.  

Rodney had developed his artistic skills while working on the 'Survey of India,' and continued to sketch and paint throughout the war, even becoming considered a 'spy' at one point for painting in a main street!  He wrote a great deal and a huge archive is now in private hands, some 22 volumes, covering his time in India and elsewhere, plus paintings etc, yet he died an obscure unknown with little if anything published.  His diary has now been published, almost by accident, and his insight into the war years are very revealing of daily life in one of the more dangerous parts of the world at that time.  A great many servicemen saw less action than those remaining in the south coast of England at that time.  This diary was difficult to put down.  Easy to read and full of interesting details revealing life as it happened during the war.  Different from other war books I have read and appealing to many folks from all backgrounds I think this was an excellent book, and not just because it was a gift!



Relax Max said...

First-person books, accounts, like these are so much more interesting than even the best "researched" stories by authors who never new the war first hand.

I actually know some of the towns you mentioned. I've been at this too long. :)

soubriquet said...

I remember meeting an old guy who'd been a member of the home guard, but was also trained as part of the groups who'd go underground, literally, if the invasion ever happened.
He was working in a factory which was forging gun-barrels, so was told he was not permitted to join the army, because his skills were needed in the armaments industry. But on a night, he was being trained in sabotage and murder. He told me of underground armouries, and how he was trained to derail trains and destroy bridges, power infrastructure, he told me that they had briefings on key buildings in the city, that were likely to be used by an occupying german army, and how many of these had explosives already set in place, the explosive packs plastered over or bricked in, so an occupier would not find them. But the sabotage teams would have tunnels in place where the fuses could be accessed.

He sounded quite disappointed that he never got the opportunity to garotte a nazi.

red dirt girl said...



Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

Sounds like a good read, and this is an excellent review of it (in spite of how loathed I am to say it)!

Adullamite said...

Max, You are right there.

Soub, Yes I know about those groups, kept secret until the 80's! The centre of their organisation was a woman in a post office who died late 80's early 90's.

RDG, Just like you....

Jerry, you love me really!