Topic April / May 2023. It all started very well. The Legion of Frontiersmen have always trained with enthusiasm on simple crafts, such as basic first aid, fieldcraft, using radios etc. and been prepared to serve the State in times of need. What they had wished for for since the inception at the beginning of 1905 was some form of official recognition. They had duly served in the First War as 25th Bn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen): in the 1930s as trainers in anti-gas warfare: in the Second War in Home Guard, A.R.P., A.F.S., but with the younger Frontiersmen joining the armed forces. Other than in the First War they never achieved any kind of officially recognised named unit. It was almost eighty years after the founding of the Legion, in November 1984, that a letter in an official envelope arrived on the desk of Peter Fitchett who was commanding officer of the U.K. Command of the Legion of Frontiersmen. The letter on official government headed paper came from Air Marshal Sir Leslie Mavor, Coordinator of Voluntary Effort in Civil Defence, based at Easingwold in Yorkshire:
Dear Brigadier Fitchett,
I understand that you are the operational head of the Legion of Frontiersmen in the United Kingdom, a body on which I have lately been informing myself as a potential source of support for emergency services within local authority war emergency plans.
As we have seen in earlier topic pages, the Frontiersmen were traditionally strong and well-regarded in Yorkshire, although their representation there had faded badly in recent years. Their reputation was still strong enough to have reached the ears of Air Marshal Mavor. The information was passed around senior Frontiersmen officers.
Sadly, official acceptance was to last, as we shall see, no more than a very few months before an explosive report was to appear on the front page of a national magazine.
During the 1950s and early 1960s Britain had quite an efficient civil defence structure. There was an official Civil Defence Corps of more than a quarter of a million members, but by 1968 a political decision was made to save money and the Corps and all civil defence plans were virtually disbanded. When the Conservative government was elected in 1979 they were deeply concerned about the possibility of war, and indeed nuclear war. The U.S.S.R. was constantly ‘sabre-rattling’ and British people were worried. In 1980 measures were introduced and some money was made available to local Councils to provide for Emergency Planning Officers. There was not the finance for a quarter of a million Civil Defence workers – or even for a fraction of that number. The government thought there would be plenty of volunteers. Indeed there were, but these were people busy planning and organising and there were never going to be enough volunteers willing to give many hours of unpaid time. Some people did sign up and attend a few courses. Competing groups sprang up such as “Civil Aid” and “Blue Triangle Civil Aid” registered as charities but not prepared to co-operate. These required a subscription which few ordinary people could or would afford. A magazine “Practical Civil Defence” was published, but the contents were such that they would depress the reader. A controversial official “Protect and Survive” booklet was issued. An additional problem was that the ‘peace movements’ were highly active and successful and a large number of local Councils under left-wing political control declared themselves “Nuclear Free Zones” and would have nothing to do with any form of voluntary civil defence. What notice any attacking country would have taken of these NFZs sprouting up around the country is debatable.
The discovery of a voluntary organisation providing at no cost a trained body of well-structured uniformed men must have seemed pure gold dust to Air Marshal Mavor. Using his Legion of Frontiersmen rank, Brigadier Fitchett replied to Mavor:
…For my part I am most agreeable to seeing the United Kingdom Units of the Frontiersmen being ‘committed’ to the support of local authority war emergency plans…
I have already made contact by telephone with the three Colonels and my Chief of Staff. These gentlemen have all agreed in principle to your proposal. I have called a meeting…
On 29th November 1983 Fitchett was able to write to Mavor confirming that the meeting was all in favour. On 1st December a highly pleased Mavor replied:
…I will inform the Emergency Planning Officers of all county councils to this effect in my next newsletter (January 1984). I will send you a copy in due course. In the meantime, it would be helpful if you would inform me of the counties in which you have active units (and the ‘point of contact’ in each) so that those emergency planning officers fortunate enough to have a unit of Frontiersmen in their area can make the initial approach across the bridge that you and I have built.
Mavor made one very big mistake here. He asked about the units, but did not ask for the number of men serving in each unit. Some could offer 30-40 men, such as Bexleyheath and a very successful unit in Sussex and across the Hampshire border. These were already giving general voluntary help to local authorities and regularly receiving letters of thanks from Police, Fire Brigades and Councils for their services. Some smaller units had only a few men, often of retiring age, who met regularly and then went for a beer. Reading that United Kingdom Command was commanded by a Brigadier who had three Colonels reporting to him, Mavor mistakenly thought that the Frontiersmen numbers under these senior officers were similar to those in the army. He was wrong. The Legion at that time followed a policy of finding experienced men as Legion officers and then believing that these leaders would attract a number of men keen to serve under them. It did not work and the Legion was top heavy.
On 6th December Fitchett wrote to all Squadron and Troop commanders:
I have now received confirmation that we are to be included in the support of Local Authorities through the Emergency Planning Officers of all County Councils.
This is a major breakthrough and should be a great incentive for recruitment and training…
Remember we are a Registered Charity and the guidelines set out must be adhered to at all times.
In a letter on 7th December Mavor wrote to Fitchett:
…I am grateful, too, for the information on the country-wide distribution of your units, which confirms my view of the potential of the Legion to contribute to local civil defence. I will certainly do my best to ensure that county emergency planning staffs don’t “drop the catch”…
Mavor was invited as a guest to the Frontiersmen’s 80th anniversary dinner in January 1984. The one thing Frontiersmen did well was to organise a formal dinner. Meeting all those smart uniformed Frontiersmen officers, the Air Marshal truly believed that here was an organisation with a large body of trained men in the background. Here was the answer to his problem.
It was not.
Why, if he was giving the Legion recognition, as a very senior officer with a long career he didn’t ask for a nominal roll so that he could check there were no unsuitable characters, and sufficient numbers, remains a puzzle? Fitchett was inclined to claim that there were 2,000 Frontiersmen, but he was including those in Commonwealth countries. Certain units were prone to exaggeration, including names of men who had signed on but done nothing more.
So, success after all those years for the Legion to gain official recognition! It was not to last. On February 1984 the “New Statesman” featured a major article with a front page headline “Private Armies on the Move” and a photograph of Peter Fitchett in Legion officer uniform. The “New Statesman” had very much a left-wing political stance, although it was read not only by supporters of the political left but also by leading civil servants and Conservative Ministers and Members of Parliament who wished to know the way Labour views, and particularly left-wing Labour supporters, were thinking. The magazine article rattled the foundations of the Legion in Frontiersmen in Britain, but the Executive decided not to respond, taking the view that magazine criticisms are soon forgotten. They weren’t forgotten by the Government or the Civil Service and the Ministry of Defence who had been irritated by the Legion many times in the past.
Reading the article again in the cold light of nearly forty years on, it has to be accepted that many of the criticisms by the author, Duncan Campbell, were mainly justified. In addition to the photo of Fitchett on the front page the magazine had acquired a photo of Frontiersmen training in the field. To the average civilian the uniform these Frontiersmen wore for their working dress seemed little different to the uniform of British soldiers. This was totally against the original concept of the Legion, as indeed were the high ranks. In June 1922 the Legion Founder, Roger Pocock, wrote that he deprecated:
…any rank above Legion Captain is calculated to lower the dignity of the Society and to prevent the hospitality which was so readily extended by the Army when we competed at their rifle ranges or engaged them in tournaments.
When the Legion was communicating in 1952/3 with what was still then the War Office, it quoted from Legion Orders:
Legion officers throughout the world are hereby notified that the use of Army Field Ranks is unauthorised, except in the case of officers who have held the King’s commission with Field Rank and with permission to retain it on retirement.
(War Office File WO32/16484, T.N.A.)
Unfortunately, by the time of this event the adherence to Legion rules had become rather lax.
Duncan Campbell quoted from a letter to an enquirer from Major (his old army rank) T.C.R. Armstrong-Wilson of Dumfries, who commanded the Legion in Scotland. Unfortunately for the Legion, Armstrong-Wilson repeated one of the old myths (which the historians have been battling against for years):
The Legion… is a Military (or, rather, Cavalry) style force very similar to the T.A., but it is not part of the Ministry of Defence. It is however, approved by the MoD otherwise it could not exist…
Nothing could be calculated to infuriate the Ministry of Defence more than this old inaccuracy.
In addition to this, Duncan Campbell wrote:
Last month the Home Office incorporated the Legion’s paramilitaries into its civil defence volunteer programme and announced that the Legion was officially regarded as ‘committed to the service of…war emergency plans.’
He was also concerned that the Legion was a registered charity:
‘Peace’, paradoxically is not officially recognised as a charitable activity…
The Legion has established a complete military structure throughout Britain… All of the officer cadre use military titles ranging from Lieutenant to Brigadier.
The Ministry of Defence advised the Legion to become a charity. According to Brigadier Fitchett:
‘We decided through [advice from the] MoD to legalise ourselves – it’s taken three years’. The Legion, although independent, is a member of the government-funded Reserve Forces Association (RFA) which embraces over 200 territorial army-type units…
The Ministry of Defence hotly disputed the Legion’s claim to have their official backing. The Legion:
…is not officially recognised by MoD. It is not allowed to use our drill halls[actually for many years Frontiersmen used to be welcomed by the T.A. all over the country]. We are uncertain of its charitable status, but we have not sponsored it as a charity.
“New Statesman” did make it quite clear that the Legion had no connection with any fascist organisation and that members had fought against the Nazis.
In October of that year Air Marshal Mavor retired from his position as official Co-ordinator of Volunteer Effort in Civil Defence. He was replace by an army Brigadier. There is no record of that Brigadier ever making contact with the Legion. Did the Air Marshal jump or was he pushed?
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the age of glasnost the Government lost interest in Civil Defence and even the Royal Observer Corps was disbanded. The concern of possible nuclear war with Russia receded and the belief arose that Russia could be integrated into world affairs. In the light of recent events was that a safe decision?
INDEX TO ILLUSTRATIONS:
1) Back cover of Civil Aid folder used for recruitment, showing the various skills which they planned instructing.
2) Front cover of “Nuclear Preparation” booklet which many Councils distributed to all residential addresses.
3) Front page of “New Statesman”, 10th February 1984.
4) Illustrating the front covers of some issues of “Practical Civil Defence”. Most of the articles in the magazines would have been likely to scare anyone of a nervous disposition.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.