I went to Henley Fort with my son’s Year 6 class earlier today. Year 6 at Furzefield Primary School are just finishing their WW2 history module, they’ve studied WW2 since September. So today was a WW2 experience for them all to get a practical feel for what it was like being a member of the Home Guard or an ARP Warden. Henley Fort do both, and we split into two groups and had an hour and a half taster of each one.

About Henley Fort

Henley Fort is one of the outer London defences built in the late 19th Century, similar to Reigate Fort. It’s up the hill behind the city centre in Guildford. The Forts were originally built as mobilisation centres, and artillery batteries, if the UK was invaded. They saw a bit of a revamp during WW1 and WW2. Henley Fort was restored in the late 1990s and is now run as an outdoor learning centre by Surrey County Council. As well as the WW2 experience it also does residential courses and other outdoor learning (we saw canoes while we were there).

WW2 Experiences at Henley Fort

Home Guard

Henley Fort motivational poster
A motivational poster from the Home Guard hut at Henley Fort.

We were met by a Captain in the Home Guard, one of the staff at Henley Fort. He sorted out the children into a long line and taught them some very basic foot drill and marched them around a little. Nothing fancy or complicated, just turning the right way, and marching in single file. Once they’d got into the swing of things he marched them into an original Home Guard hut in the main part of Henley Fort.

Inside the hut was set out with benches for briefing school parties, with posters on the walls from the period. We all sat down and the Captain quizzed the children about what they knew about the start of WW2 and the Home Guard. Seeing as they’d been doing the topic for a bit they knew most of the answers between them.

We also listened to recordings of the declaration of war, and the call for the Local Defence Volunteers. Then there was an entertaining Q&A on how you defeat German parachutists with a broomstick. I was proud that the Furzefield Year 6 children worked it out. From there we moved onto a demonstration of a bolt action rifle, and then it was time to kit out the children. There was a pile of WW2 British helmets and coveralls, along with a selection of weapons, from broomsticks to rifles.

Road blocks

We went outside and the children split into two groups. The Captain appointed a sergeant for each one (which included Alexander for his group). The Sergeants were then instructed to get their sections to set up a road block and prepare to stop everyone that came past and check their identity cards. We’d filled in identity cards in the hut.

Each section had a wooden block to move across the path, and a small snad pit with empty sand bags in it to fill and emplace under their block. Once that was done the Sergeant had to tell off an ID checker, an arrest team and a covering team. Each section took it in turns to be the civilians while the other operated their road block. Arrest rates were high. Only one out of seven passed the first road block (two should have been stopped, but they got six instead). The other side wasn’t much better, but only one of their stops wasn’t reasonable.

Bayonet drill

After road blocks we moved onto bayonet practice. Two stuffed sandbags were hanging inside a tent. The sections formed an orderly line and were briefed on safety and proper use of the bayonet. They were then equipped with a wooden pole that was painted silver on one end as their practice rifle and bayonet.

Much yelling, ducking, thrusting and dodging the return swing of the sandbags ensued. Many photographs were taken (although not by me). The children really enjoyed it, especially when the Home Guard Captain made the grown ups take a turn! All I’m saying is that the sandbags are most definitely dead…

Air Raid Precautions (ARP)

ARP briefing room at Henley Fort
ARP briefing room at Henley Fort

The other major thread of the WW2 Experience at Henley Fort was being an ARP Warden. This was a little more relaxed than the Home Guard, deliberately reflecting the civilian nature of the ARP service. Again this started with some briefing, mostly in the form of asking the children questions about what they thought the five main aspects of ARP/Civil Defence were. Photos and props were also used to illustrate the talks. For the record the five aspects of air raid precautions were:

  1. Supervising public shelters
  2. Gas warnings
  3. Blackout
  4. Rescue
  5. Helping the fire service


Morrison Shelter at Henley Fort WW2 Experience
The Morrison Shelter inside the Home Guard hut that we used during our Henley Fort WW2 Experience.

We got kitted up in navy blue coveralls and berets, with two children picked as ARP Captains to lead their team. We went through the dark narrow passages in the back of Henley Fort to the public shelter. This was set up with three lightboxes that illustrated the blackout. They had typical 1939-40 street scenes with windows, streelamps, torches and car headlights all showing light when the lightboxes were switched on. The children were shown these and then split into groups and given dark card and blu-tack and asked to fit blackout to the scenes.
This was entertaining and illustrated the effect of the blackout very well. Having come into the shelter area (which was underground) in the dark lead by candle-light was a good touch. The passage we went through was very narrow, about two feet wide, and had several turns. So those at the back lost sight of the candle every time it went round a corner.

Types of Shelters

After being in the public shelter we found our way back to the surface blocked, so we had to use the emergency exit instead. The two ARP Captains were made responsible for organising our evacuation and controlling the panic of the crowd. Our Chief Warden had earlier told the children about the Bethnal Green air raid shelter catastrophe. So they were firm with those trying to push their way to the front (as we’d all been asked to do). Outside we had two more air raids, this time with sirens, ack ack, aircraft and falling bombs from a loudspeaker. Between raids we swapped from the Morrison shelter to the Anderson shelter.

Fire Fighting

Alexander dressed as an ARP warden fighting a fire at Henley Fort.

Then there was a good talk on incendiaries, how they worked and why they were so dangerous. We also got lessons on how to put out fires and deal with any incendiaries that we might find. This lead very neatly into the last part of the experience. The children were formed into a fire fighting team and given a genuine WW2 stirrup pump and asked to form a chain to fight a real fire (in half an oil drum).
Each team had someone on the stirrup to pump, a water carrier to keep the pump bucket full, and a chain of people to keep the hose off the ground and point it at the fire. These roles were rotated every minute or so to keep the pumpers fresh, and also to give everyone a shot of each role. I was quite impressed with how far the stirrup pump threw the water, they got a good twenty feet out of it when they were pumping properly.


Once they’d put the fire out it was time to go home. It was a really good day out. In talking to the staff at the end we realised that they do a residential WW2 experience over two days, and there are even more things you can do. Looks like a good trip for next year.