Guarding the Royal Albert Bridge
‘Dad’s Army’, - not just the TV programme but the name itself conjures up an image of Corporal Jones but the reality was very different. 50 per cent of the Home Guard were aged between 28-65 while the remaining numbers were made up of 22% aged 19-27 and 28% between the ages of 17 and 18.
A few years ago I sat down with a gentleman who, as a young lad, had been a member of the Home Guard.
He told me they were instructed to protect the Royal Albert Bridge. A guard post was set up in the down platform waiting room and a guard posted at the platform end to observe the bridge. The post was manned from one hour before sunset in winter and one hour after sunset in summer. The usual contingent was one NCO and three men. Each man would take it in turn to stand at the end of the platform and watch the bridge. Their initial armament was one rifle and two rounds of ammunition. This was given to the man watching the bridge.
The end of the platform was a lonely and bleak place at night, particularly in bad weather. After protests a sentry box was sent down from Newton Abbot, This was a big affair like a garden shed with no windows so the man on duty had to stand outside it to keep an eye on the bridge. A complaint was raised by the NCO and a couple of days later a man came to rectify the fault. It was thought that he would cut windows in the side but he cut the whole front of the box off. He also recounted stories of people walking across the bridge returning from a night out in Plymouth and missing the last ferry, mainly young girls!
One night a train arrived unexpectedly at the down platform loaded with sleepers. These were to be unloaded onto the platform for laying along the track across the bridge to provide a roadway for military vehicles to cross in an emergency. The whole of the Saltash Home Guard and the station staff had to be mobilised to unload the train. Over the next few nights the sleepers were laid between and around the lines and the veranda at the Devon end of the platform removed.
I was a bit sceptical about this ‘road over the bridge’ as I had never seen any official document about it. Then I came across a signalling notice that said,
“In an emergency military vehicles could cross the RAB but had to be treated as a train showing the correct lights and obeying signals. A pilotman would pick up a single line token from the signal box and ride in the last vehicle handing it in to the other signal box when the bridge had been cleared”.
The first recorded crossing was by a Bren Gun Carrier.
Recently a works order has come to light dated 17th Oct 1945 authorising the removal of timber over the structure and to re-instate the veranda at the end of the up platform. The contract was for £400 but this included a credit of £130 in respect of recovered material.
The Royal Albert Bridge survived the war with no damage. (Although there were near misses). Maybe they knew that attacking it was futile with Saltash Home Guard to contend with or maybe they couldn’t find it as it was painted grey in 1938 on the command of the ‘Air raid precaution authority’ in anticipation of a war.