Wargrave Local History Society

Latest News - July 2021

The Upper Thames Patrol - By Bill King

We were able to hear Bill King tell us about the Upper Thames Patrol. Bill is a historian and author with a particular interest in military matters and in the River Thames, and gave a fascinating insight into this little-known aspect of World War 2.

The Upper Thames Patrol was formed in the spring of 1939, several months before war broke out, and consisted of about 6,000 men, who were all volunteers. Their task was, if war did come, to police the River Thames and look out for attempts to sabotage vital locations. Originally, the patrols consisted of men from the Thames Conservancy - the body responsible for the river then - who already had craft on the river, but it was soon realised that they had other tasks to perform and would not be able to do all that was required of them in war-time. The upper Thames area they covered was the navigable river from where it ceases to be tidal, at Teddington Lock, up to Lechlade. This is a distance of about 125 miles, which is why there was a need for such a large number of personnel. Their job was to ensure the security of the river, which included 44 road bridges and 5 railway bridges over the river, and also the many locks. If these were to have been sabotaged, the uncontrolled rush of water downstream could have led to extensive flooding of the Thames valley area.

Upper Thames Patrol being reviewed by Sir Ralph Glynn on the Wargrave - Shiplake reach of the River Thames on Bank Holiday Monday in August 1939.

The need for such an operation was put forward by Sir Ralph Glynn, the MP for Abingdon, who had been a major in the army. He had raised his concerns about the vulnerability of these locations with the War Office, and was then put in charge of the Upper Thames Patrol upon its formation. He was assisted by a Vice-Admiral and a Rear-Admiral. One of those was in charge of the water-borne patrols on the river, from Teddington to Lechlade, whilst the other dealt with the teams who patrolled the river banks, and looked after the locks, weirs and bridges.

From the spring of 1940 their work was aided by a new organisation formed in May that year - the Local Defence Volunteers (from the initials on their uniforms, also known as "look, duck, and vanish") - which was subsequently renamed the Home Guard. The volunteers of the Upper Thames Patrol carried out duties similar to those of the Home Guard in addition to their specialist role. That included checking on black-out precautions, when people could be fined for showing a light that could be seen by enemy aircraft. One such incident reported in a newspaper concerned a cabin cruiser at Henley where the light from an open porthole window that only had a thin blue curtain could be seen nearly 1½ miles down-river. The boat builder who owned the vessel had the charge dismissed, but the occupant was fined £1 (around £250 in today's values).

The War Office decided that ladies would not be allowed to enrol in the Upper Thames Patrol, even if they had their own boats, and it was to be 1943 before they could join the Home Guard as auxiliaries, but were not allowed to carry weapons, whilst their only uniform was an identity card and an armband. Despite that, some women were unofficial members of the Upper Thames Patrol. Young men also volunteered, such as students from Radley College near Abingdon.

From May 1940, the Upper Thames Patrol was incorporated into what became the Home Guard, with local headquarters at Yeomanry House, in Reading. The government made a call for volunteers to join the new organisation, and 1½ million had come forward within a week. There were 3 main groups - those who were too old for conscription into military service (ie aged over 40), those who were too young (ie aged under 17½), and those in reserved occupations, such as farmers or skilled factory workers, who were exempt from military service. Apart from the Local Defence Volunteers / Home Guard, they might join the Royal Observer Corps or the Air Raid Precautions teams. The original uniform for members of the Upper Thames Patrol was basically that of the Thames Conservancy, with the badge based on their coat of arms, but subsequently they were issued with army battledress brown uniforms, although the earlier style caps were still used, with a badge based on the Thames Conservancy one. The non-tidal section of the Thames passes through Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Middlesex and Surrey, and the Upper Thames Patrol groups were based on these.

The crew of an Upper Thames Patrol vessel at Abingdon The men are either too young or too old for conscription into the armed forces. The boats identification disc can be seen, showing it to belong to section A2, where it is number 4. The boat's owner is seen to the right, down in the cabin.

The river was divided into various stretches, lettered from A1, A2, B1, B2 and C to E, the boats on each carrying a disc that identified the section and then a number. Section B2 for example was from Sonning to Henley - it being much shorter than the others as there were hills and forestry alongside which made it difficult territory for tanks to defend. Each section was staffed by 50 - 60 men, who were responsible for the land for 1½ miles either side of the river, as well as the watercourse itself. One of their vital tasks was to ensure that the bridges were kept open.

By mid-1940, when the Battle of France was lost, the evacuation took place at Dunkirk with about 200,000 British troops rescued, and 120,000 French and Belgian (several of the Upper Thames Patrol boats assisting in the operation). However, a further 60,000 troops, and the tanks, transport, fuel and other supplies had to be left behind. The most powerful army was poised just across the English Channel. From July to October, an invasion was expected, as Operation Sealion, which would have seen invading forces trying to circle London. It was therefore essential that the River Thames was defended, to make it as difficult as possible for the enemy, and this would have included the bridge demolition plans being put into effect - but on the other hand, the troops who had returned from Dunkirk had been sent to the north of the country, so if the British launched a counter attack, the bridges would need to have been protected and defended. Therefore, the bridges were prepared for demolition, in case enemy forces arrived - the work being undertaken by Royal Engineers, but it would have been the Upper Thames Patrols who would have had the task of setting the detonators. (The cavities created for the explosives can still be seen under the abutments of some of the stone bridges). Fortunately the invasion never happened due to the success of the Battle of Britain.

Radcot Bridge, looking northwards. The large concrete pill box can be seen on the far bank of the river, to the right of the bridge, with a public house behind the large tree.

Part of the defences consisted of road blocks - the remains of some can still be seen. There were tree trunks and trestle like structures, which could be quickly pulled across the road, with more substantial concrete bollards and pyramid shaped blocks set into the surface. The aim was to slow down the invaders until reinforcements could arrive. However, the river itself formed a natural line of defence from London up to Reading, and then swinging north towards Oxford, with the Kennet and Avon canal also being a barrier to rapid movement across country - but was a distinctive feature when seen from the air, so enemy aircraft could use it as a navigational aid.

Although an enemy advance would be expected to come from the south, it was also possible that they would descend by parachute. This meant that a variety of types of defence were needed. Radcot, built about 1300 is the oldest between Lechlade and Oxford, where breastwork fortifications were put on the northern approach, and a large pill box housing a heavy anti-tank gun nearer the river bank, facing south. Downstream at Newbridge (so called as newer than Radcot, though built about 1480!) There were defence trenches placed alongside each of the roads leading to the bridge, whilst on the Berkshire bank there was a large gun called a blacker bombard - a very dangerous weapon - housed in an extemporised gun pit there.

Two of the high speed boats high-speed boats seen near Sonning.with the Lewis guns ready for action. They appear to be going rather faster than the 5 mph limit!

The groups needed a convenient place to meet, be given details of their duties, and so on, and riverside public houses were convenient for this - there was one on either side of the bridge at Newbridge - the "Rose Revived" being the one used by the patrols. The uniforms of the Upper Thames Patrol had its initials - UTP - clearly visible - so it is not surprising that the groups were colloquially known as "Up The Pub"! The patrol would walk from their base along the river bank for 2 - 3 miles to the next bridge, and return, when the next patrol would set off, checking the locks and so on. Enemy aircraft following the river were able to drop mines about the size of a beach ball into the water, intended to float down to the bridges or locks, which could cause severe damage down-stream - so the vigilance of the Upper Thames Patrol was very necessary 365 days a year.

Bill quoted from some of the information distributed to the Upper Thames Patrols. One was about 'Enemy agents", which explained that the enemy may drop agents by parachute or land by boat on the south coast - or they may be dropped to the rear of south coast defences, and would be very likely to be carrying a small radio transmitter to send messages about what they had found. They might also have their orders about acts of sabotage to be committed - such as cutting down phone wires etc. The document then went on to the question of "What does a spy look like?" It would be him probably under 35, as landing by parachute was a young man's job, (and might suffer a leg injury in the process) and was "not likely to be English". They would probably not be sure where they were, so anyone acting like that should be regarded as suspicious. A lady walking her dog 'near Nettlebed' did see two parachutists land, who did turn out to be enemy agents carrying a wireless set, so the threat was real.

The Upper Thames Patrol became a very professional organisation. Each member had to have a certificate in watermanship, so that any of them could take charge of a boat if the need arose, and be able to swim 25 metres in their full equipment, as well as being able to carry out the tasks done by the Home Guard, such as use a gun etc. They were also taught how to send signals by flags - they were only provided with radios late in the war. The groups though were provided with some high-speed boats, with at least one allocated to each section. These were armed with light automatic Lewis guns, to be used as anti-aircraft weapons.

The work continued through 1942 and 1943, but by the spring of 1944 there was no longer a threat of invasion. Instead of defending the bridges etc from attack, the task was to ensure they were kept open for the movement of equipment and supplies. Along with the whole of Home Guard, the Upper Thames Patrol was stood down at the end of 1944 - the Patrols considering themselves to be the 'senior service', having been founded a year before the remainder. All of the boats were provided with a special brass plaque, to record its use as part of this work.