The Skipper

Tobin with Roger Pocock c1934. Photograph reproduced by kind permission of the Tobin family.

Surprising Snippets 7: Known to his children, who were all devoted to him, as “The Skipper”, Vahd William Tobin was known always as Bill. According to his son Peter (who himself became very well-known in southern Africa as a broadcaster and actor), Bill “always seemed the biggest, strongest and most capable among the Frontiersmen and either the leader or innovator in just about everything.”

In the Founder’s later years, Roger Pocock and Bill Tobin became very good friends:

I remember the great Roger Pocock very clearly in his Frontiersmen uniform and with his grey/white beard. He was a kindly quiet-spoken man for whom the Skipper had a tremendous regard…I treasure the memory of Bill Tobin, splendid in his uniform, a big, strong, big-hearted man, every inch the soldier, astride an enormous horse.

(letter Peter Tobin to his sister Daphne, 30/03/1984 in response to an enquiry from us).

Bill Tobin appears in our page on the Frontiersmen Remounts:

and in his account of F.C. Selous in the previous “snippet“.

His early military career has not been verified but he is believed to have served in South Africa in the Imperial Yeomanry and then in the Transvaal Mounted Rifles (where he was wounded) also in the 1906 Zulu Rebellion. After this, until July 1914 he was working in Rio de Janeiro where he married his Brazilian/Irish wife. Like Lt.-Col. Driscoll, Tobin originated from a land-owning Irish family and with their common links it seems likely that Driscoll would have wanted to take Tobin to East Africa as one of his officers, but his complement was quickly filled. Tobin was commissioned into Winston Churchill’s old regiment, the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars until he was discharged in May 1917 with serious shrapnel wounds to his neck and face. After he had recovered sufficiently he served as a Captain commanding a company of the officer cadet unit of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry. Following the war he returned to Brazil for some years. On returning to England in the late 1920s he became O.C. of the Erith, Kent, Squadron of the Legion. He worked for the Atlas Preservative Company, owned by the Thatcher family, which was made very successful due to the skills of the young Denis Thatcher. Denis became a well-known name when he married politician and later Prime Minister, Margaret. According to Bill’s daughter, the actress June Tobin, Denis was not much liked by the firm’s staff.

In W.W.2, Bill Tobin was called back to the army and given the rank of Major (acting Lt.-Col.) and given command of the 56th Kent Battalion Home Guard. Although we have found more Frontiersmen serving in the A.R.P., here was a Frontiersman holding a senior position in the Home Guard in one of the most badly bombed areas of the Blitz. Charles Graves’ 1943 “The Home Guard of Britain” tells us the story of just one night in the life of the C.O. of 56th Kent Battalion Home Guard:

Fighting had been going on one September afternoon, and from his house the C.O. 56th Kent Battalion Home Guard watched formation after formation of Hun ‘planes broken up by our fighters. There was an incessant crash of fire from our ant-aircraft guns, light and heavy. Prudent people were either in their own dug-outs or in air-raid shelters. There seemed to be no pause between the enemy daylight attack and the even heavier raids which began when darkness set in. It was only when night fell that the full effects of fires could be seen.

That night he had to go on duty as Umpire at an Exercise, but he left home at five o’clock because of a number of Home Guard duties he had to perform. So he went straight from his Headquarters to Dartford Heath, where the exercise was laid on, and which was to begin at 9 p.m.. Elements of the Battalion were opposed to a detachment of the Guards.

By 9 p.m. the blitz was at its height. Fires were burning across the Essex side of the river. There was an enormous blaze at some oil depot on the Thames. Woolwich Arsenal seemed alight, judging by the enormous glow in the sky. Searchlights were probing the skies in all directions, and the A.A. guns on and around the heath cracked out continuously in almost deafening uproar. In this ideal setting the exercise commenced.

Shortly after 10 p.m. the O.C. was nearly run down by a Regular D[espatch] R[ider] on a road skirting the heath. He stopped and asked for the Major in charge of the Scots Guards Detachment. The O.C. found this officer for the D.R. and stood by him while he read the message the D.R. had delivered him. Then, turning to the O.C. he said: “Exercise off. I suggest you make your own way back to your Battalion area. Orders are for my Battalion to prepare to move within the hour.”

The O.C. thought: ‘ Well, here it is, the invasion has come.’ His men were ordered back to their respective Company areas and he returned to Headquarters and waited for orders. A little later he left and returned home on being informed that he could remain in the vicinity and be contacted by ‘phone if the necessity arose.

On arriving home the O.C. found the family up, but his wife away. She had gone to Woolwich. The glow over there was brighter than ever, and as he had some posts to visit out in that direction, near Plumstead, he stepped into his old car and set off. On the outskirts of Plumstead he was stopped by a Home Guard picket, whose orders were to allow no cars to pas through, as the road further on was impassable. In the middle of the argument as to whether or not he should proceed any further on his way, a Hun ‘plane above dropped a cluster of incendiaries. Some of these fell upon some houses close by, and off dashed the picket to help put out the fires. Plumstead was only a little way ahead, so the C.O. went along in his car and soon found that the road was indeed impassable.

He spent the night visiting posts in the Battalion area and returned home at six in the morning. Five minutes afterwards his wife walked in, having spent a nerve-racking night in Woolwich. She had gone there to have her hair dressed, in the middle of which the blitz struck the town. The hairdresser, however, was a plucky girl, for she stood up to the ordeal and finished the job. A kindly police officer conducted the C.O.’s wife to a public air-raid shelter, where she spent the night; and a companion in the shelter, who turned out to be a bus driver, took charge of her at daybreak and managed to find a bus on the outskirts of the town to take her home to Erith.

Life for many Frontiersmen was a succession of adventures. We continue to attempt to relay any of their stories that we manage to discover.

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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