Sgt. Denis Gray and the Byfleet Aux Units Home Guard 34 Platoon

Like most in my generation, my first exposure to the Home Guard was around 1970 with the showing of the TV Series ‘Dad’s Army.’

My late Grandfather Denis Gray used to tell me a few stories about his time in the Home Guard; the more I grew up and found about the Home Guard from research, the more questions remained unanswered.

Cap badge & photo Denis Gray pictured (left) on holiday in July 1939 in Jersey. Above him is his cap badge of the East Surrey Regiment. Surprisingly only one picture of him in Home Guard uniform survives!
This rare picture of my late grandfather taken in late November 1940 is of interest. It shows no insignia on the uniform. It is believed taken on the Basingstoke Canal towpath which ran near his then house. Denis Gray in uniform
I wondered for instance why the Sykes Fairburn knife he still had until he gave it to me in 1993 was issued to the Home Guard? It was only when I showed it to a fellow militaria collector that someone mentioned this particular pattern of knife was only issued to the Home Guard Commandos and the French Resistance. Which led me to start investigating………

Indeed in 1982, my grandfather wrote a book about his life and recounted much from his past yet mention of the Home Guard was scant and no mention was made of his pre-war trip to Germany in 1936, which he had recounted to me in the 1970’s.

Denis visited Germany in 1936 to see for himself Hitler’s Germany. He stayed with a German family and quickly realised that 1936 Germany was a totalitarian state. The family said that whenever they wanted to talk about Hitler they always referred to him as ‘Mr Smith’ lest they be discovered criticising the leader. My Grandfather spoke to a Wehrmacht soldier who told him that he regarded himself as ‘Cannon Fodder.’ For this to be said in such times took some nerve on the part of that German.

My Grandfather came back to England and went to work in London at an art studio in Soho in a 7 storey office block. Much jollity was had here to break the tedium of the work including such gags as reaching over and flushing the cisterns in the Directors toilets whilst the Directors were resident on the throne, or perhaps playing rugby with a watermelon that once ended up on the pavement below!

Like many in the 1930’s Denis took up cycling as a hobby and belonged to the West Surrey Day Association section of the Cyclists Touring Club, indeed he won the title of ‘Hard Rider of 1939’ for the most miles covered. Looking back through family photo albums it is interesting to see photos of his friends on pre-war excursions around the countryside.

With war clouds looming he surmised it would be but a matter of time before a conflict occurred and when it did, he volunteered for service. Oddly enough despite his fitness, the medical examiner said he had a heart murmur and declared him unfit, although in reality he was probably fitter than some of the potential recruits from poorer backgrounds. Despite this setback, he decided to enlist in the LDV in Feb 1940 at West Byfleet in Surrey

Despite the successful turning of German Agents by the "XX Committee" or "20 Committee" as they were officially known (the "XX" being a covert euphemism for Double Cross) which controlled all agents dropped or landed by Nazi Germany in WW2. Just prior to WW2 many persons were employed by the 3rd Reich to scout and report on strategic facilities, potential sites for Nazi Invasion and general intelligence information useful to a regime planning European domination and possible invasion of Britain.

At nearby Brooklands Race Track, also home to the burgeoning Vickers Aircraft factory in summer 1939, my late Great Uncle at the time in the RAF regiment, recovered 2 sets of German Army issue knives and forks and a tent which had been hastily abandoned by it was believed German agents. This is a picture of the one of the Forks next to a reproduction Brooklands Automobile Racing Club Badge of the 30’s.

Badge & fork The surviving fork recovered from Brooklands track in 1939 pictured next to a Brooklands Automobile Racing Club Car Badge soon to go on to my 1930 Brooklands MG Special.
With the coming months, the LDV was to evolve into the Home Guard. These must have been desperate months for those in the UK with the domino effect of the Blitzkrieg on continental European countries in the path of the Nazis and the realisation that we would be probably be next.

My Grandfather said in his book that his LDV duties were ‘guarding the Byfleet Telephone exchange.’ By day he worked on a farm doing heavy work and spent most evenings involved in HG duties.

  Montage of HG insigniaMontage of insignia collected for mounting in a picture frame. The East Surrey cap badges are the only original items of his HG uniform he retained after the War. All that remains of his uniform is one solitary plastic trouser button!
What puzzles me is how he went from Private to Sgt without any apparent previous military experience? Certainly he never related to me his rise through the ranks in progressive order i.e. to Lance Corporal to Corporal, etc.

He married in late 1939 and his wife Edna who worked in London then became involved in some sort of secret war work locally. When I asked her about it in the 1970’s she refused to talk about it in any way. This led me to ask why keep it a secret? I did ask my mother about it and all she told me was she had worked for the RAF, although puzzlingly no insignia of hers remains of that time. Like in the film ‘The Battle of Britain,’ I am of the opinion that there existed a local secret communications bunker, possibly housed in the back of a local shop that my late grandmother worked in, under the auspices and possibly uniform of the RAF, in case of invasion.

From the information I was able to get, it seemed that my grandparents were involved in the preparations for resistance against the possible Nazi invasion. My Grandfather wrote that when he was in the LDV, he went to a local house to report for duty guarding the Byfleet Telephone Exchange. At the house, the rifles were kept. The rifles were a luxury and although there were only 4 of them, the strategic importance of the telephone exchange, not far away from the London Portsmouth main railway line warranted this scarce resource!

However, little was said about the LDV in his book and I can only surmise that he was recruited in to the Aux Units network when the Home Guard was formed; further confirmation of this is the fact that he never mentioned names of any HG personnel, never said about going on parade and other factors like his ownership of the Sykes Fairburn Knife open up more questions!

Indeed, my grandfather said he was trained in Knife throwing by an American Navaho Indian, there was no mention of this person being in uniform, which of course he would not have been as America was neutral at this stage of the war. America did provide ‘civilians in uniform’ under the US War Aides programme and this is possibly the case. Essentially these persons wore military issue clothing with ‘War Aide’ patches.

My grandfather did tell me about the weapons he had which were a Lee Enfield rifle and a Tranter pistol. Now the Tranter was a WW1 vintage revolver and he never handed this in although he told me he gave it away in the 50’s. My mother also said he had a .22 rifle which I am aware some aux people got for sniping work and this too was sold off in the 50’s, the Lee Enfield was probably HG property. Now he did receive Marksman's badges later although these were not kept and possibly not issued or worn on his uniform, certainly the lack of insignia is puzzling, but reading about the minimal insignia worn by aux units answers this question!

In addition to my grandfather’s Sykes Fairburn knife, he made a Home made knife whilst later in the war (1942) working for Saunders Roe aircraft in Addlestone, Surrey and the handle of the knife is painted in ‘Walrus’ green that was used on the Walrus aircraft. The knife was made from stainless steel.


Sykes Fairburn knife (Top) along with home made HG Auxiliary knife in Stainless Steel and handle painted with Walrus aircraft paint green.

Local training for the Aux people would have been done well away from the public and in the Byfleet area there were areas of farm land and common land suitable for this purpose. Additionally, the area was crossed with canals and rivers offering excellent tactical objectives to protect and from which ambushes could be launched if required. Indeed there were many areas suitable for OB’s in the area including on the Basingstoke canal which divided New Haw and Byfleet and ran the important link between Addlestone through to Aldershot. Also the London Portsmouth Boat Train ran through West Byfleet, a most important rail link.

In my search with local authority records, I can find little about the Home Guard in Byfleet. I did find reference to the main Platoon no. 33 and there were some names in that list I recognised as being of local people, but no mention of my Grandfather. Then I received a piece of information that they had found his name on a list of people pertaining to 34 Platoon.

I had all but given up any hope of finding any pictures of my grandfather in HG uniform. Indeed, my mother knew of none and I guessed maybe any taken may have been destroyed in the belief of an imminent invasion. From the family photographs it seemed some were missing, I put this down to possibly lack of available film. But as luck would have it, I recently came across a box of family photos and in there were 2 photos of what I believe is 34 Platoon and one of my grandfather in the HG uniform. 34 Platoon being 12 men suggested to me also that they were Aux units of 3 x 4 men. Indeed one in the photo clearly has a Thompson SMG!

34 Platoon

Members of the 12 man ’34 platoon’ of the Byfleet Home Guard on exercise on the Wey Navigation about 1.5 miles from a ‘Shadow’ aircraft assembly plant near Pyrford in Surrey in 1940.

In the 34 Platoon photo above taken in their local area, my grandfather was injured when demonstrating sticky bombs, 2 failed to go off and the 3rd one did detonating all three, partially deafening him.

Regarding training, I know he mentioned he participated in a Live fire exercise at Bramshill area near Blackbush airport area in WW2 with regular troops, quite a dangerous exercise!

Did you know that at Box Hill in Surrey there is a bunker built on top of the hill and a hotel where Churchill frequently stayed in 1940? This venue was a significant vantage point over the Surrey / Sussex area. So how did the Churchill connection come about?

The militaria collectors society I belonged to found a newspaper article on a chair that was coming up for auction from the Box Hill hotel. Someone in the society knew that this hotel was used by Churchill and that in the cellar was a whole telecommunications centre that was more or less still intact.

One area I loved to go to in Surrey was a place called Shere. I often used to cycle there with my grandfather in the 70’s and he would often point out craters where ammunition was stored and buried over. I also used to go walking in the area and found what I believe to be the Shere OB.

On a road called Coombe Bottom, also known as Coombe Lane, which runs from the top of West Clandon ridge down the 1:8 road to Shere (has a sharp hairpin bend so you can’t miss it), there is a track leading off of the hairpin bend where there is a concrete barrier mounting for a gate barrier.

This road leads up a track to a track that comes down from the back of Scotland farm on the top of the hill. Going slightly off track, one day I came across a fenced off piece of grass which was domed and there was an entrance I could see going into the ground, this I worked out was the Shere OB.

If you go into Shere Village, there is a recreation ground / Cricket field and at the back of this is a track that goes under the A25 main road. If you walk under the A25 on this road, it peters out and if you walk up the track it takes you to Scotland Farm via the OB Bunker. Now there were AA guns on the top of this ridge but it was also an important strategic point a it was the North Downs way also known as the Pilgrims way and is to this day dotted with Pill Boxes.

Coombe Bottom has one in a field visble from the road on which a pine tree came down in the 87 gales but the block house is intact.

2 miles up the road is a Whitedown Lane referred to as ‘Whitedown.’ There are a number of blockhouses in this area, one is on the roadside and others in the woods were numbered at the time and ‘187’ and ‘83’ were still on these in the 80’s. At the top of Whitedown Lane there is a farm which still has a load of Nissen Huts in its woods as they were from WW2 unchanged.

Indeed this area is rich with history if you know where to find it or what you are looking for!

All this time later, I am still amazed at how little I was told about the Aux units by my grandfather, only hints that his unit was special. I guess the Official Secrets act he signed he was warned to stick by. The significance of what he was told in his training and the things outlined in Yank Levy’s book leave me in no doubt that if we were indeed today threatened with invasion, what was known then remains very relevant today.

Much is made of how short the Aux units and the Home Guard’s lifespan would have been come an invasion. Take into account they were fighting in their own backyard, fighting to passionately defend their homeland and that would have counted for a lot when push came to shove linked with the fact that they did know the areas they were operating in intimately.

The Germans had 20 odd miles of water to traverse and keep supplies coming across, unless they had complete control of air and sea they would have likely failed to sustain their advance. Additionally, Britain was the first seaborne invasion the Germans would have made in WW2 and from William Shirer of Berlin Diary fame who observed the German landing barges being prepared (before he was ordered out of the continent), they were possibly not up to the type of capability as the American craft were on the D-Day era. The German barges were literally open cargo barges and very primitive.

General Eisenhower said of the French Resistance at D-Day that they ‘did the damage of 10 divisions’ in hindering the Germans advance. If Germany had only landed a small force by sea and Fallshirmjager troops by air, then it is debatable whether they could have maintained a foothold.

So what of the mysterious 34 Platoon? Well only one piece of paper has come to light about this unit. This is a handwritten note from late 1944 in which certain items of kit are identified to be handed in. But in this there is no mention of any special equipment such as .22 rifles, the Tranter pistols or even Lee Enfield rifles. Maybe those who knew 34 Platoon’s real purpose did not want to draw undue attention to their true existence!

I have often been to the North Downs ridge near Shere and enjoyed the countryside there, in 1940 it could all have been so different.

One thing is for certain, the more questions I have asked myself about 34 Platoon’s activities, the less I seem to know, because questions generate more questions seemingly!

I hope you have enjoyed this read, I am glad that at least now that 34 Platoon is now not forgotten.

Matt Sanders

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