Wargrave Local History Society do not usually have a presentation in July, but were fortunate that as meetings were being held using Zoom this year it became possible to hear historian and author Bill King tell us about the Upper Thames Patrol.
Formed in the spring of 1939, several months before war broke out, it 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 – then responsible for the river – 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 was the navigable river from where it ceases to be tidal, at Teddington Lock, up to Lechlade.
This is about 125 miles, hence the need for so many men. Their job was to ensure the security of the river, especially the bridges and 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.
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. 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”), 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
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 – 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.
The groups needed a place to meet, be given details of their duties etc, and riverside public houses were convenient for this. 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.
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, and were also taught how to send signals by flags – they were only provided with radios late in the war.
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 the Home Guard, the Upper Thames Patrol was stood down at the end of 1944.
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