MEMORY LANE: ‘I loved my time in Pulham’s Home Guard’

Peter Blackburn sole survivor from the Pulham Market home guard.

Peter Blackburn sole survivor from the Pulham Market home guard.

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Who better to solve the mystery of the Pulham Market Home Guard picture in last week’s paper than the last surviving member from that line up?

Peter Blackburn, a retired farmer, who still lives in Pulham Market, was among that band of men in the latter half of the Second World War, joining shortly after turning 17, on May 23, 1943.

Pulham Market Home Guard ANL-150302-122618001

Pulham Market Home Guard ANL-150302-122618001

He worked on his father’s farm throughout the Second World War, helping the war effort by producing food.

Now aged 88, he recalls why he joined up. “I just wanted to get into the Home Guard,” he said. “I will be very truthful - I always loved shooting. I had an air gun and so on.

“I knew all the chaps. I had the uniform straight away.

“I always kept a diary. I kept a list of all the times I went on parade. It was 87 times.”

The last parade was December 3, 1944. It was no longer necessary to maintain a Home Guard after it became clear the threat of a German invasion was over - particularly after the D-Day landings and Operation Overlord in the summer of 1944.

It is possible that the image of the Home Guard, particularly to younger generations, has been coloured by the television sit-com Dad’s Army.

Mr Blackburn said: “People today probably laugh at the Home Guard. But the (German) invasion could have happened, and very nearly did.

“It was only the Battle of Britain with the Hurricanes and Spitfires and what they did (that stopped it).”

He is in no doubt that the improvised force would have offered little resistance to the formidable German armies.

“We could not have stopped them, believe me, we could not have stopped them,” said Mr Blackburn.

“If they would have invaded, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Indeed, the situation was no joke, as Mr Blackburn recalled in one training session. He said: “We were given a lecture on what to do if the invasion happened. If we took any prisoners, we were told we couldn’t afford to keep them. We were either to shoot them or use our bayonets to kill them.

“Well, can you imagine that as a 17-year-old farm boy?”

But the Home Guard received training, including rifle practice, machine gun practice, night time operations, camouflage and even staged operations like the attempt to capture Thorpe Abbotts airfield, then in the command of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF).

Mr Blackburn is somewhat sheepish to say that he enjoyed his time in the Home Guard, but also remembers the hard work.

Not only was it quite a big Home Guard for a small village, many of the men were relatively young. This was not uncommon in a farming community, where men were still expected to work the land to provide food rather than join the armed forces. In the pre-mechanised era, more hands were also needed per farm.

Some of the men had to be up at 5am to milk the dairy herd, for example, before then setting out for Home Guard duties.

Billy Harris was one of the older Pulham Market Home Guard members, aged about 60. He was also a veteran of the First World War.

“He just did what everyone else did,” said Mr Blackburn. “There was no crying off.”

Of his many memories of Pulham Market in wartime, Mr Blackburn recalls a German bomber targeting the former Pulham airship station, which once was the base of the ‘Pulham Pigs’ airships, but then became a weapons dump. “The German plane came over and I counted 19 dropped bombs,” he said.

“I stand to be corrected, but only one of those bombs went through the building, and it didn’t explode.”

Mr Blackburn also saw a German plane downed over Starston by a Spitfire, and also remembers the sight of a sky filled with American aircraft, with East Anglia littered with US airbases.

He said: “You couldn’t believe how full the sky was of aeroplanes.

“Once I saw two planes crash into one another. You realised that 18 men had lost their lives in an instant.”

He also had two Italian prisoners of war working at his farm, one of which, called Jan Catalano, was among the best workers he had.

“He was on piecework,” said Mr Blackburn.

“He used to go out in the field in the morning at nearly 5am and would come in for breakfast at 7.10am when the other workers were just starting.”

Mr Blackburn said he was the fastest and most accurate at the back breaking process of ‘chopping out’ beet in the field.

Mr Blackburn has named all but one of the Home Guard pictured (see side panel). We also received the names from Gilbert Clarke of Harleston.