The Home Guard in Britain 1940-1944: Simply 'Dad's Army' or Valuable Fighting Force
On the night of 14th May, 1940, Anthony Eden, then in his role as Foreign Secretary, made his first speech as Secretary of State for War, in part broadcasting a message asking for volunteers for the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers):
'We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance [that an invasion would be repelled] doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers. This name describes its duties in three words. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniforms and will be armed. In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give your name at your local police station, and then, when we want you, we will let you know...' (Arthur, 2004)
The Home Guard was formed when there was a clear and present threat of invasion by the German forces. Britain had watched from the relatively safety of its island position as many European countries succumbed to the Blitzkrieg, culminating in the devastating occupation of France. Most British men who could fight were already in the forces, those that were left were either too young, too old, or in reserved occupations vital to the war effort, however, many possessed the desire to in some way play an active role in Britain’s defences.
Neither Churchill nor his government had previously shown any enthusiasm for policy which involved a civilian militia, fearing imminent invasion, being allowed to actively arm themselves and possess the right to confront, detain, arrest and even attack the enemy on British soil, instead of relying on the orthodox forces of security and public order from the police and the regular army. When reports began reaching the War Office regarding the disturbing appearance up and down the country of 'bands of civilians...arming themselves with shotguns' (Steele,2003), it had been clear that the government needed to address this very real public concern.
It is still unclear whether the aim was to support and nourish this burgeoning grass-roots activism, or to restrain and curb the unofficial, unsanctioned and technically illegal actions which may result from unregulated, armed civilians under the grip of fear from invaders. Nonetheless, Eden and his advisors proceeded to improvise the initial plans to endorse a civilian defence force and, as one observer put it, thus evoked 'a new army out of nothingness' (Carroll, 1999).
The publicly released rationale for the formation of the Home Guard, though vague, made references to delaying an enemy invasion force for as long as possible, thereby giving the Government and the regular army the crucial time to form a front line from which the enemy invasion could be repelled. When they were first formed, under the epithet of the Local Defence Volunteers, the Home Guard were allegedly expected to fight highly trained, well-armed German troops using nothing but shotguns, old hunting rifles, museum pieces, and a collection of unorthodox, makeshift weaponry involving pikes, sawn-off shotguns and Molotov cocktails (MacKenzie, 1995).
Subsequently, these unconventional arms were officially sanctioned unintentionally, following an instruction from Winston Churchill to the War Office, in 1941, that “every man must have a weapon of some kind, be it only a mace or pike. “Initially intended to focus efforts towards the appropriate equipping of the Home Guard, this instruction was unfortunately interpreted literally, and resulted in the War Office ordering the production of250,000 long metal tubes, including gas pipe, with surplus sword bayonets welded in one end (Carroll, 1999). The issue of the pikes generated an almost universal feeling of anger and disgust from the ranks of the Home Guard, demoralised the men and led to questions being asked in both Houses of Parliament.
In many instances the pikes never left Home Guard stores as area and unit commanders were aware of how the men would react (Steele, 2003). However, this incident illustrates the conflicting appreciation of the capabilities and value of the Home Guard from Churchill and his wartime Cabinet. While Churchill appeared, both officially and unofficially, to acknowledge the driving need of some civilians to actively participate in practical defence strategies, the War Office continually conveyed its view that the Home Guard was nothing more than a hobbyist faction of retired soldiers, to be tolerated, humoured and indulged without expending valuable resources, time or effort better served towards the regular army.
Winston Churchill, in contrast, saw the Home Guard as an example of the British resolve, seen, in part, by his changing their title, in the summer of1940, from Local Defence Volunteers to the more proactive, aggressive-sounding name of Home Guard. The Home Guard exemplified the “nation at arms" ideal, and it was hoped that the presence of the Home Guard would send a signal to both the United States and Germany that the British would indeed fight German invaders on the beaches, fields, and streets.
Whether deliberately or unintentionally, the reputation of the Home Guard as an amateurish, unprofessional and crude mismatched collection of elderly soldiers ineffectually attempting to defend the country was only exacerbated by the War Office’s apparent deficiency of any comprehensive planning with regards to the logistics of such a defence force. The Local Defence Volunteers was launched without any staff, or designated funds and premises of its own. Listeners to Eden’s broadcasting the spring of 1940 had only the scantest of instructions to follow, to hand in their names at a local police station and wait to be called upon.
In agreement with the popular post-war public and media opinion, the wartime reality was shambolic. Eden’s message was considerably more welcome by the British populace than the government may have realised, and, before the broadcast had ended, police stations in all regions of the nation were deluged with eager volunteers. By May 15th, twenty-four hours after the initial broadcast, 250,000 men had registered their names, a number which equalled the peacetime Regular Army (Calder,1969). Officially, it was the intention of the government that this new defence force would only accept citizens within the age range of 17 to65, however, this was not strictly enforced in the early stages of the development of the Home Guard, and several pensioners, such as Alexander Taylor, a sprightly octogenarian who had first seen action in the Sudan during 1884-5, contrived to serve (MacKenzie, 1995).
Membership continued to grow at a remarkably rapid rate, and by the end of May, 1940, the total number of volunteers had risen to between300,000 and 400,000. By the end of the following month registered volunteers exceeded 1,400,000, a number approximating 1,200,000 more than any of the Whitehall bureaucrats had anticipated (Donnelly, 1999).The majority of new recruits were forced to wait several weeks before official uniforms were sent out, and even when they arrived many were missing essential elements. In many instances, the denims came without the caps, or vice versa, and the volunteers were resigned to donning armbands in an attempt to differentiate between Home Guard and other civilians. While the uniforms were necessary to impart a sense of coherency and organisation, however, the most frustrating aspect of the initial Home Guard involved the severe lack of equipment’s and weapons.
The men, who had been called upon at a time when both the government and the public were in experiencing the fear of imminent and overwhelming invasion by the German army, were now facing the possibility of having to defend king and country armed only with homemade or debilitated weaponry. While the War Office searched for suitable arms from abroad, the eager volunteers proceeded to improvise, with rolled umbrellas, broom handles and golf clubs adapted for military service, and all kinds of antique fowling-pieces, blunderbusses, carbines and cutlasses dusted down for action (Smith,2000). The Home Guard was eventually issued with more conventional weapons, but these also had their problems, with many having first been issued to the British Army in World War One. The British infantry rifle of World War One, the .303" SMLE, was issued to the Home Guard, and in addition, a number of World War One era P14 and P17 rifles were also supplied from the US and Canada later that first summer.
The P14 andP17 looked almost identical, the only real difference being that theP14 took the SMLE .303" ammunition whilst the P17 took the American.30" (30-06) ammunition. To prevent accidents, the P17 had a red band painted on it to identify the 30-06 calibre. Eventually, the War Office supplied Home Guard units with such cheaply-made devices as the Stengel and the North over projector. The Stem gun experienced a pitiable reputation among the Home Guard volunteers, and was summarised by one resigned volunteer as 'a spout, a handle and a tin box' (Carroll,1999). Similarly, the North over projector, which fired grenades with the aid of a toy pistol cap and a black powder charge, in addition to being considered unsafe for the user, was likened to 'a large drainpipe mounted on twin legs' (Steele, 2003).
With such a chaotic start, it is scarcely surprising that the first enthusiasm of the volunteers quickly waned. The lack of uniforms, weapons and training syllabus resulted in the majority of the public, Home Guard volunteers and civilians alike, questioning the Government’s commitment to the defence force. These problems were exacerbated by the nature of the Home Guard membership as a high proportion of the volunteers had previously seen service in war, World War One and the Spanish Civil War among others. Former officers enlisted as Home Guard soldiers, for example, the Kensington-Belgravia unit had some eight retired generals in its ranks (Long mate, 1974), and these decorated, experienced officers were not hesitant in indicating the shortcomings of higher authority.
It rapidly became apparent that the Government, in responding to one political difficulty, the need to respond to invasion fear, had created a new, more articulate and influential pressure group. In its formative months, the LDV may have had virtually no comprehensive military utility, but it carried great political weight and was not restricted by the normal restraints of military hierarchy. Matters became so difficult, potentially damaging to British morale at home and reputation abroad, that Churchill focused on the new force. His personal interest, in turn, became problematic for those charged with bringing it into being, and documentary evidence indicates prolonged arguments between Churchill and Eden. Although Churchill forced through, against considerable opposition, a change in name from Local Defence Volunteers to the Home Guard, he also gave priority to uniforms and weapons and assisted the Home Guard in becoming a more cohesive, structured fighting force.
The feelings of frustration, however, never faded: too many men, for too long a time, found themselves continually mismanaged and poorly equipped, many using unfamiliar, makeshift and unorthodox firearms forth duration of the war. The enduring image of Britain's home guard defences during World War Two remains that of 'Dad's Army'; an amateurish and uncoordinated operation staffed largely by old men and incompetents (Donnelly, 1999). To some extent the image from the classic 1970s comedy television series reasonably reflects Britain ‘slack of preparedness for hostilities in June 1940. But by the middle of1941 the British mainland was virtually a fortress, with a public mentality of confronting the enemy in any guise he chooses. However, The 'Dad's Army' image is a false one: had German forces managed to cross the channel in 1941, they would have found considerable resistance on British soil, their passage effectively blocked in many locations, and would have faced unorthodox and unfamiliar weaponry in the hands of determined, experienced and highly indomitable civilians.
Chapter 2 - Historiography
The study of World War Two is extensive, and has been comprehensively researched and analysed for many decades. Less well-documented, however, is the Home Guard, with only a select number of influential texts available for scrutiny. The Home Guard is, primarily, discussed as part of a greater abstraction of the Second World War; a review of the military, or a generic analysis of the Home Front. Less common is the committed and detailed account of the Home Guard and its effect during the war. Similarly, those literature pieces that do exist appear to focus, predominantly, on the related shortfalls of the contemporary government, the lack of equipment and the disorganised structure of the volunteer units.
An example of this can be seen in Graham McCann’s Dad's Army: The Story of a Classic Television Show. McCann approaches the comparison of the real and fictional Home Guards in a relatively derogatory fashion, implying throughout that the volunteers stood very little chance against any official invading army. The implication throughout this text is that the fictional Dad’s Army bore more than a passing resemblance to the real Home Guard; a collection of ill-equipped, elderly men who fortunately never faced combat on home soil. The Home Guard is presented here as comical and ineffectual, and McCann insists that ‘if Hitler had invaded in strength, it is unlikely that the Home Guard, casting around for lengths of tram line to incapacitate tanks, or hurling lethal glassware at motor-cyclists, would have lasted long’(McCann, 2002).
As the initial fear of invasion receded, the Home Guard was left with fewer bridges and reservoirs to guard and fewer checkpoints to control, and McCann focuses on the mistakes of the Home Guard, regaling the fatal challenges at Home Guard checkpoints during the ‘early nervous days’ (McCann, 2002)). As such, McCann’s presentation of the value of the Home Guard relies predominantly on the Civil Defence projects in blitzed cities, and the manning faint-aircraft guns by ‘some of the more able-bodied’ of the volunteers, allowing them to finally engage the enemy ‘if only at five miles up’(McCann, 2002).
Though McCann concedes that the Home Guard volunteers numbered 1,793,000 at its peak, that a total of 1206 volunteers were either killed on duty or died from wounds, and that the unit had nationally been awarded two George Crosses and thirteen George Medals, the overall presentation of this section of British history is remarkably disparaging. Relatively few references are made towards thematic-tier purposes of the Home Guard, the bravery of the volunteers or the successes during a substantially stressful and tumultuous period for British citizens.
Comparatively, Simon Mackenzie’s analysis of the Home Guard during World War Two contrasts markedly with the Dad’s Army view of the volunteers. In his publication The Home Guard: A Military and Political History (2005), MacKenzie recognises that the Home Guard during the Second World War entered the memory of that nation more through a BBC television comedy than reality, however, his intention to reintroduce the reality of the World War II Home Guard to the national conscience is admirable.
MacKenzie traces the Home Guard from its origins as locally organized militia groups preparing to meet the invader, through its evolution into a component of His Majesty's forces, and its final disbandment at the end of the war, and also includes the re-creation of the Home Guard for domestic service in response to the growing threat from the Soviet Union during the 1950s. The result is a mostly political history of support and opposition of the Home Guard in British society and government. By the time that the Home Guard is unreasonable military order and has a better allocation of weapons, Mackenzie asserts, the threat of invasion has totally passed.
The problem then existed in how the government was to keep the members motivated. Documenting arguments in Cabinet about the diversion of 1.8million men to playing soldiers when the country desperately needs to increase industrial production, MacKenzie is generous in his conclusions, believing that the advantages to national morale and there leasing of regular soldiers from guarding duties outweighed the costs.
He accepts that there is no evidence to show the existence of the Home Guard had any effect on German invasion plans, and to many it will seem that Mackenzie’s catalogue of muddled professional advice, political posturing and misallocation of scarce resources during a war of survival is a lesson for the future. His concluding section on the short-lived successor Home Guard of the early 50's suggests that few of the lessons had been learned.
While MacKenzie concedes that the men of the Home Guard were never given an opportunity to prove themselves in battle, and that there are many more distinguished units that had actual disasters in war, the television comedy series Dad's Army virtually destroyed the post-war reputation of a dedicated home defence organisation. Events commemorating the Home Guard war effort are scarce, and Mackenzie claims that it seems Churchill was mistaken in forecasting that: “History will say that your share in the greatest of all our struggles for freedom was a vitally important one".
Professor MacKenzie has written a serious analysis of the policy history of the Home Guard. Inman ways this well-researched, cross-referenced, academic study shows that the saga of this volunteer force was funnier and more confused than any scriptwriter could invent. Yet the topic is an important one, not just for the historian but also for today's military planner, particularly with regard to the allocation of priorities made between the front line combat forces and this last ditch defending army of civilians, the sensibility of the operational concept, and the existence of such a force having a deterrent effect on the enemy.
MacKenzie, as an American professor, compares and contrasts the British Home Guard with their American counterparts, and a primary similarity involved the general lack of opportunities to confront the German invaders. The British Home Guard did, however, become heavily involved in the less glamorous but nevertheless necessary work of civil defense and manning anti-aircraft weapons. Despite Mackenzie’s contention that the Home Guard existed more out of political than military necessity, the Home Guard became increasingly valuable to the British Army as regular soldiers became scarce on the home islands.
For this reason, Churchill, as well as many Members of Parliament who also belonged to Home Guard battalions, supported the Home Guard in its quest for a combat role, though this part of the Home Guard’s history is only briefly mentioned by MacKenzie. Primary sources indicate that Home Guards relished the idea of fighting the Germans and did not quietly accept War Office plans for using the Home Guard for guarding bridges or simply reporting the presence of Germans. The question over guerrilla warfare or static defence was never completely settled.
The War Office always pushed for static defence, with units fighting to their last bullet, while many Guards, as well as their political supporters, clearly favoured partisan warfare behind the lines after a German invasion. MacKenzie does, however, illustrate that the Home Guard formed as a result of local initiative, but survived and sometimes thrived because of government support. However, when local enthusiasm waned, such as the removal of the threat of German invasion after the Allied invasion of Normandy, government support could not keep it alive.
From a non-academic perspective, A. G. Street’s From Dusk Till Dawn: The Sedgebury Wallop Home Guard Platoon Prepare for War (1989) records the history to the Home Guard from personal experience. In this text, Street has recorded the story of the Home Guard from its birth in 1940,through its teething troubles and adolescence, to the mature and efficient force that it quickly became. As a farmer and an enthusiastic country Home Guard, Street recounts the story of the Sudbury Wallop Platoon in the Wessex district.
According to Street, the force itself was an example of British improvisation, and every one of the early volunteers, officers and men alike, improvised in various ways to give his unit the highest possible efficiency in the shortest possible time, in expectation of the universally predicted invasion by German military forces. As a non-academic, first person account, Streets text is unashamedly biased in favour of the Home Guard’s role in World War Two, however, compared to many academic research pieces, which tend to focus on the problems, assumed in competencies, and believed ineffectuality in the event of an invasion, this text redresses the balance and avoids focussing overwhelmingly on the inabilities of the Home Guard.
Addressing the history of the Home Guard from the perspective of photographic evidence, David Carroll’s research in The Home Guard recalls the activities of the auxiliary force otherwise known to the British public as 'Dad's Army'. The book draws on the early days of the Local Defence Volunteers from the moment when Anthony Eden broadcast an appeal, to the official stand-down of the Home Guard in 1944. This title evokes memories of World War Two in a domestic setting and asserts life on the Home Front from the perspective of those left behind to defend it.
Carroll approaches the historiography of the Home Guard by the analysis of more than 200 photographs of Home Guard duties. After a brief introduction to the Home Guard, this 125 page paperback book displays page after page of photographs and detailed annotations showing the Home Guard in its different forms and fulfilling many different functions. While not the dissecting analysis expected of academic research, this methodology allows the historian to review the history of the Home Guard from a form of primary evidence otherwise unobtainable.
One of the most influential historiographies of the Home Guard, with regard to its efficiency in the event of a significant invasion, is Norman Long mate’s If Britain Had Fallen (2004). The question of what would have occurred if Germany had invaded the British Isles has long preoccupied writers, but few have dealt with the subject as comprehensively and effectively as Long mate. If Britain Had Fallen attempted to cover every phase of the subject, from the Germane-invasion manoeuvring and preparations, and the landing of troops, to the German seizure of power. Long mate has endeavoured to present contemplation of what may have occurred following an attempted invasion by the German army, and how Britain may have been able to repel such an attack.
Under the supposition of the Luftwaffe defeating the Royal Air Force and winning the Battle of Britain in the summer and early fall of1940, Long mate provides an in-depth recount of what might have happened if this “counterfactual” event had occurred: that the Germans would have successfully launched Operation Sea lion in September 1940 and occupied Britain. As a result, the British Isles would not have become the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” from which the Allies could launch their own invasion of Fasting Europa, and the history of both World War Two and the world would have been drastically different. Although other authors have written about a successful invasion and occupation of Britain, these works cover a single phase, the preparations, landing, or subsequent campaign.
Long mate, however, has attempted to address all aspects of a successful invasion and the defence strategies in place to counterattack them. Only three of the seventeen chapters are fictional, and although it is uncertain what actual effect the Home Guard volunteers would have had on repelling an invasion, Long mate has addressed their value in a counterstroke campaign, and during the initial invasion stages. Although Long mate has drawn on documents collected by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), which produced television film of the same name, the key to this alternate history is Goring and Hitler’s decision during the Battle of Britain to continue attacking Fighter Command and British radar stations until German forces defeated the RAF, rendering it unable to stop a cross-channel invasion.
The Nazi leaders realized they needed air superiority over the English Channel for a successful invasion. However, they in fact ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb cities, especially London, in early September 1940, a critical decision that gave the RAF breathing room to recoup its losses and prevent the Luftwaffe from establishing air superiority. As a result, the Germans postponed Sea lion several times, finally cancelling the operation (Cox, 1977). There are only two blatant criticisms of such an approach to historiography. While valuable in the sense of a hypothetical, this form of historiography reneges on crucial factual accounts of the capabilities of the Home Guard.
Additionally, although the author discusses his references in bibliographical essay for each chapter, Long mate provides no notes to identify the sources of specific passages. However, his acknowledgement that, despite the presence of the defensive and committed Home Guard, Britain would probably have been successfully invaded should the English Channel have been secured illustrates the continued awareness that the Home Guard provided no adequate defence in a full-scale invasion scenario.
Regimental records, while not complete, do assist in the analysis of the Home Guard during the Second World War. In addition to records commemorating decorations awarded to Home Guard volunteers, there are also primary sources in the form of newspaper accounts, particularly with regard to civil defence during blitzkrieg incidents, andante-invasion records to the defence strategies of the British Isles. Acknowledging that Britain was existing during a time of extreme propaganda, where civilians were frequently and routinely warned that ‘walls have ears’, newspaper accounts of civil defence can only be relied upon to a limited degree.
Morale in Britain would have severely suffered had the media regularly reported, correctly or incorrectly, that the civil defence measures, including the Home Guard, were in some way failing. However, the anti-invasion records provide something of asocial history of the pillboxes and other roofed defence structures which are so widespread over great tracts of the landscape. Many lie in remote locations, overgrown, and with easy access through unblocked entrances and other openings, and can be readily seen as providing ideal sites where misdeeds and accidents might happen.
The database records one wartime tragedy: a pillbox at Kenmore in Perth and Kinross was the scene of a fatal Home Guard shooting of a tramp who did not respond to a sentry's challenge. First comes the understanding of the intensity of the militarisation of Britain, in particular during the Second World War. In particular, an appreciation of the structure of the anti-invasion defences of 1940-41 shows not a few badly sited pillboxes manned by gallant, octogenarian Home Guards with pikestaffs, which is still the popular mythology, but an intensely planned and implemented defence strategy, involving a totality of defence over the entire landscape that can only be appreciated when the original documentation is analysed.
It is true to say that there was not one square foot of the United Kingdom that was not included in some military or civil defence scheme. By the summer of 1941, when the defences had reached their most complete state, most of Britain had been planned, measured, and armed for defence - roads were blocked, fields were strewn with obstacles, bridges were mined, factories, railways, airfields, and ports were protected, the coastline, towns and villages, the length and breadth of the country bristled with fortifications and with troops and weapons to man them.
If the Germans had invaded in June 1940, then there would have been few defences, and even fewer weapons, to stop them. By the end of the year, however, and into 1941, the situation had changed dramatically. Even if the Germans had managed to cross the Channel, they would have had a very hard battle to fight themselves ashore. Records relating to the Home Guard volunteers frequently include detailed lists of defence works with the Home Guard units who were responsible for manning them, often with maps.
However, contrary to the popular view that the majority of Home Guard regimental records were destroyed, it is imperative to understand that certain aspects of World War Two were only semi-documented. It has also been ascertained that the Home Guard deliberately set out to be a “paperless army”, and thus its records are relatively sparse. (Lord,1999).
It is, therefore, necessary to analyse as many reliable sources as possible, and hence literatures, such as Carroll’s The Home Guard, which rely on non-orthodox historiographies have value within this period of research. When analysing events from an era where spies abounded and there was the continual fear of the enemy gaining access to valuable material evidence, it is important to not disregard unusual or unofficial evidence without extensive consideration.
Records suggest that the relationship between the Home Guard and active army differed from the American practice. While the U.S. War Department insisted on the distinctness of State Guard uniforms, British Home Guards were soon required to wear the standard British khaki uniform. With the heavy threat of invasion in the early years of the war, the training schedule of the Home Guard was far more intense than that of their American counterparts.
Home Guards were expected to train 48hours each month, exhaustive when compared to the infrequent and limited training required of American State Guardsmen. The American State Guardsmen complained when the federal government replaced rifles with shotguns, however, the British Home Guards found themselves issued an odd assortment of cheap weapons, including homemade Molotov Cocktails, sticky bombs and self-igniting phosphorous grenades, designed more to give each man a role rather than a real weapon.
The lack of effective weapons caused Home Guard supporters to question whether the War Office truly expected the Home Guard to provide creditable opposition to a German landing (Calder, 1969). Although most Britons realized that British industry and finances were hard pressed to arm all active forces, some suspected that the Home Guard's role had more to do with channelling enthusiasm and creating propaganda, than in providing real security.
Official and unofficial primary sources indicate that the inclusion and official acceptance of the Home Guard was neither immediately nor warmly embraced by all in the Home Guard or in the government. Many of the initial enthusiasts of the Home Guard had served in the Spanish Militia during the Spanish Civil War and hoped to see the Home Guard become a similar leftist militia of British workers. The War Office, by gaining control over the Home Guard, effected the exclusion of radicals on the left as well as the right. The inclusion of the Home Guard into His Majesty's forces never placed the Home Guard on equal status with the army.
Originally, Home Guard units functioned without commissioned officer or NCO ranks. Instead, leaders held authority only by their position. As a result, discipline remained almost wholly voluntary. Many in the Home Guard preferred the situation as it was, but records indicate that the movement for greater control and efficiency led tithe introduction of ranks. However, whereas American State Guard officers held commissions from their states, no such level existed in Britain, and the War Office remained concerned that Home Guard officers would give out orders to army personnel. Eventually Home Guard ranks, as constructed, simply did not apply in parallel to regular army personnel.
Although the Home Guard had sections, platoons, companies and battalions, they were organised differently from the regular army. In the regular army sections, platoons, companies and battalions are formed on a number basis so that when you compare the size of companies in different infantry battalions, normally they would be about the same. Home Guard battalions were formed on an area basis, normally covering towns or districts.
This meant that a battalion in one town could be four or five times larger than the battalion in a neighbouring town. Within each battalion, again platoons and even companies were formed on an area basis, covering specific parts of towns or districts. This led to morale-inhibiting affronts, as seen on train transport where regular British army officers rode in first class comparative tithe Home Guard officers who rode in third class with all other Home Guard volunteers.
Chapter 3 - The South
Civilians living in the South of England during the Second World War experienced regular air raids, and the town, cities and surrounding countryside frequently endured German aerial bombardment. Aeroplanes which could not reach London, due to heavy defences or poor visibility, often deposited their bomb loads on Kent and the south coast before returning home. Local armaments factories were also a potential target for the bombers.
Flying bombs aimed at London sometimes fell short of their intended target and landed in and around the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, frequently resulting in severe architectural damage and multiple casualties. For example, in excess of 13,000 houses in the Dartford area alone were damaged as a result of the bombing, and one hundred and fifty local people were killed in the raids, with another700 Dartford residents being injured.
Records kept by local A.R.P.officials, Fire Watchers and the Home Guard, give some indication of the extent of the air raids on the South of England. The tally of bombs included thousands of high explosive bombs and hundreds of aerial mines, oil bombs, phosphorous bombs and an estimated 750,000 incendiary bombs (Galvan, 1980).
Local people also had to face the very real threat of invasion, and it was widely believed that Hitler would attempt to land his invasion force somewhere along the coast of either Kent or Sussex. Confronted with the threat from the skies and the threat of invasion, citizens in the South of England rallied round and co-operated in every way possible to ensure that Britain won the war. The Home Guard and civilian resistance, unlike France, would have been valiant, if somewhat ineffectual. Certainly, any German panzers driving with commander up and lids open through a Kent or Surrey town, as they did in France, would have been mercilessly and continually petrol-bombed and sniped.
Many of the munitions supplied to the Home Guard were not for regular Army usage. For example, self-igniting phosphorous grenades, at a weight of 1lb and 3oz, were only issued to the Home Guard. It basically consisted of a glass bottle filled with a combination of phosphorous and benzene, and upon breaking the phosphorous would ignite the benzene on exposure to the air. A piece of crude rubber inserted into the bottle was designed to soften and partly dissolve during storage to make the mixture more viscous.
There were two versions of this grenade; the first, which had a red cap, was designed for hand-throwing, and the second, which had a green cap and slightly thicker glass, was designed for firing from the North over projector. If not handled correctly, this was an extremely dangerous grenade, and it was not unknown for the grenade to burst either in oars it left the North over projector barrel. Issued to the Home Guard only, this may have been a weapon the German military were unfamiliar with, thereby lending a distinct advantage to any volunteer units faced with invading regiments.
With the acknowledgement that the most likely invasion sites for the German army existed in the South of England, particularly the south coast, Home Guard units in these at risk areas were issued with more combative weaponry, such as incendiary devices and chemical grenades, some of which were not issued to the regular army, compared to other areas of the British Isles.
While it was the intention of Churchill to arm all Home Guard units equally, and with a variety of weaponry, a general shortage of armaments, and the War Office’s lacklustre approach to supporting the Home Guard, resulted in weapons being differentially supplied to the volunteers. As a result, special and unorthodox munitions, such as the North over projector, the Smith gun and the Spigot mortar, were sent primarily to the South of England units (Carroll, 1999).
The people who lived in the South of England between 1939 and 1945had to face many hardships and go without many of the luxuries which they had enjoyed before the start of the war. The courage and resilience shown by many ordinary people, in addition to the Home Guard, meant that this period was ‘London’s finest hour' (Donnelly,1999). When plans were devised to set up Local Defence Volunteers units in the southern counties, it was thought locally that approximately 30men would sign on to form each platoon.
In one town alone, some 200 men rallied round within hours of the announcement being made, and formed the beginning of what was to become a battalion of some 1,300 fully armed and relatively well-trained men. In the early days, and as with most units nationwide, the volunteers in the south lacked headquarters, weapons, uniforms and equipment. For months, only exceptional enthusiasm and the determination of all concerned maintained the intention to be a useful and worthwhile force. Gradually, all the necessary requirements were met and the platoons in the South of England became companies, and finally formed battalions averaging seven companies each (Galvan, 1980).
These companies were divided to focus on separate and specific areas of defence, including generic defence tactics, and battalion reserves undertaking specific tasks on an ad hoc basis. Headquarters companies were developed to undertake administrative duties, signals work and military intelligence. In the later years of the war, the Home Guard in counties in the South of England added transport companies to complete the organisation. In the South of England, in particular, close liaison was maintained with surrounding units, including the regular forces who provided valuable training and experience. Complicated war games were devised and military exercises conducted in realistic surroundings in the field.
The object of the exercises was to test the standard of training and, by attack and defence, the quality and strength of local defended sites. Training sessions were held at the discretion of each individual unit, however, the more realistic the threat, the more training each company undertook. At some of the more obvious target sites for German invasion, companies undertook rigorous training each night after work, including drill, exercises, manoeuvres, and shooting practice at various ranges and disused quarries.
Home Guard defence tactics in the South of England had the primary impetus of defeating any invasions by German forces. A significant and overwhelming aspect of this impetus resulted from the German invasion plans for Britain, entitled Operation Sea lion. By June 1940, less thane year after the start of the war, the German Army had overrun France, Poland, Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway.
The beaten British Army had withdrawn from Dunkirk without its heavy weapons and equipment, and Britain now stood alone against a German dominated Europe, with only 25miles of the English Channel separating it from the victorious German armies. Britain was very weak, but still had a strong air force and navy, and although Germany expected Britain to surrender, primarily due to its isolated location, Germany’s expectations were vastly overrated. To bolster the morale of the British public and army, on June 4th, the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his now famous "... we shall fight them on the beaches..." speech (Cox, 1977).
Germany was now faced with two options: to besiege to Britain or to invade it. On 16th July, 1940, Hitler issued his Directive 16 "...I have decided to begin to prepare for, and if necessary to carry out an invasion of England" (Cox, 1977). The operation was given the codeword Sealion, despite the reluctance of the German Navy to attempt an invasion of the British Isles. Germany was inexperienced in amphibious warfare, its navy was weak and it was fully aware of how powerful the Royal Navy was, however, the Army was keener and plans were hastily drawn up. It was possible that Hitler was bluffing, but realised that full scale preparations, in the form of propaganda at least, were needed to convince the British to either come to terms or surrender.
According to Operation Sea lion, the German army intended to land one 200 mile wide front on the south coast of England, stretching from Lyme Regis in the west to Ramsgate in the east, however the navy, constantly concerned about the threat from the Royal Navy, insisted one narrower landing. A compromise was arrived at where the landings would be from Brighton in the west to Folkestone in the east (Cox,1977). The first wave of about 60,000 men was to secure the beaches while the second wave comprised of the tank divisions that were to break out of the beachheads and capture the secondary objectives. The landings were to be assisted by airborne troops landing on the Downs above Brighton and north-west of Folkestone to help with the capture of crossings over the Royal Military Canal. The Oberkommando des Hers(OKH) planned for the invasion to consist of nine divisions by sea and two divisions by air, however, the operation was postponed on September17th, 1940, and eventually became shelved indefinitely.
While a distinct concern for both the British public and the British government, it is widely believed that Operation Sea lion would not have succeeded under any circumstances, and it is possible that the sole intention of the invasion plans was to inspire mass hysteria in Britain. The ability to transport an invasion force across the English Channel requires landing craft en masse. Germany had very few, and, in1940, they were of very poor quality. Plans for Sea lion involved using Rhine river barges for transport across the Channel. The problem with these was that they were not designed for use in the ocean, and would swamp if exposed to anything but the very mildest weather or if a large ship passed close to them at high speed. Even if this were not problem, there simply were not very many of them.
The Germans estimated that they had sufficient craft to ship across an invasion force of at most ten divisions. Without proper landing craft, heavy weapons such as artillery and tanks could only be transported with extreme difficulty, and therefore the invasion plans detailed only ten infantry divisions. The most effective scheme the Germans could come up with was shipping across tanks on barges, one to a barge, and having them shoot off the front end of the barge so that they could exit it at the landing zone; a method virtually guaranteed to lead to a high rate of failures of tanks attempting to land (Cox, 1977). Without a major addition to their landing craft fleet, which would take a great deal of time to build and would be very obvious to the rest of the world, the Germans could not hope to send across more than ten infantry divisions with almost no heavy weapons in support.
A force of this size would be slaughtered by Britain’s defenders, which included many divisions of soldiers evacuated from France and equipped as infantry, enough armoured forces to outnumber anything the Germans could bring across, tens of thousands of Home Guard militia, and several fully equipped divisions of reinforcements from Canada. In event of an invasion, the British government was fully prepared to use all means at its disposal to stop it, such as poison gas attacks and flooding the English Channel with burning oil. Poison gas could be used by the Germans as well, but they would need time to prepare countermeasures and to use their own gas. The British would gain a short-term advantage by being the ones to introduce gas, and a short-term advantage is all they would need to crush a fledgling invasion attempt.
As a result of Operation Sea lion, defences were hastily erected inebriation, part of which involved the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers. General Sir Edmund Ironsides was placed in charge of Britain’s defence, and, with the lack of equipment available, he decided to build a static system of defences which could delay the Germans long enough for more mobile forces to counter attack. The defences were made up of concrete pillboxes, anti-tank obstacles, trenches and minefields which took advantage of natural and man-made features. The main line of these defences was known as the GHQ Stop Line. In July 1940 General Ironsides was replaced as commander of the Home Forces by General Alan Brooke. General Brooke changed the defence strategy away from static defence lines to mobile formations, although defence lines continued to be built.
The Home Guard had the potential to have been very effective indeed. It was motivated and it was apparent to all that times were desperate indeed. A system of fortifications had been constructed in the summer of 1940 extremely quickly, which could have proved effective. The Home Guard, if it had done its job, had the potential to slow down and delay German invasion forces, could have confused and distracted them, allowing the regular British Army in England to mobilise and launch counterattack.
It is also important to acknowledge that the Home Guard was not the sole auxiliary unit Churchill had developed in the British Isles. In the mid-summer of 1940, Nazi Germany dominated Western Europe. Britain's pre-war intelligence networks in Nazi-occupied Europe had been rescinded and the nation was facing invasion. However, Churchill answered Germany’s widely pronounced threats of invasion by issuing an order to 'set Europe ablaze', and the result was the formation, in July 1940, of the Special Operations Executive (SOE),with headquarters in London's Baker Street. SOE was tasked with supporting the European resistance movements, building arms stores, gathering intelligence and planning sabotage and escape lines.
Eventually over 11,000 agents would be engaged on these tasks, not only in Europe but also in Africa and the Far East (Helm, 2005).Colloquially known, in recent years, as Churchill’s Secret Army, these Auxiliary Units formed a highly trained covert army that would hide in clandestine underground bunkers, called 'Operational Bases', if Germany had invaded Britain. Many volunteers in the Auxiliary Units also served in the Home Guard, and as such, many of the Home Guard were exceptionally well-trained in espionage, counter-intelligence tactics and defence procedures, far in excess of the Home Guard training known to and observed by the British Public (Helm, 2005).
Chapter 4 - The Midlands
Similar to the South of England, within days of Eden’s broadcast in excess of 30,000 men had volunteered in Birmingham alone, and although, initially, they were held together by little more than their own enthusiasm, organisation was quickly tightened up and the Home Guard began to establish itself as a co-ordinated team with shape and character. Enrolments in Birmingham took place in local police stations, and Lieutenant Colonel E.D. Barclay, Commanding Officer of the 45th Warwickshire Battalion, noted on the first day he had been assigned only half the necessary enrolment forms for the volunteers showing interest, and that numbers volunteering were so great that further supply was needed the following day. There were over 400volunteers in a matter of days at his post at Canterbury Road Police Station, Perry Barr (Arthur, 2004).
Towards the end of 1941, many factories began to form units drawn from their personnel, initially for the purpose of protecting their own factories. But this was soon abandoned and factory units with sector defence plans became commonplace and were assigned the tasks of general civil defence. Within the West Midlands, distinguished factory units of Home Guard volunteers included H.P. Sauce Ltd., Norton Motors Ltd. Ansell’s Brewery and the Birmingham Gazette (Arthur, 2004).
Birmingham Battalion led the country in 1942 by forming the First Women’s Auxiliary, and eventually, in April 1943, the War Office gave official sanction to the formation of a national Women’s Auxiliary. Council Departments and Birmingham industry played a prominent role in the Home Guard; for example, the 31st and 32nd Warwickshire(Birmingham) Battalions were composed entirely of Transport Department Personnel (Gardiner, 2005), and the Home Guard in Birmingham at onetime reached a total of 53,000, a significant number of which were involved in the considerable industrial culture of the area. In line with other areas in the UK, Its stand-down was finally announced when all danger of invasion had passed, and a great parade through the central streets of the city took place on Sunday December 3rd, 1944.
In addition to the Home Guard in the West Midlands, other areas away from the southern counties enjoyed considerable successes. On the May10th, 1941, Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess parachuted into Scotland, landing at a site close to Glasgow. While his motivations to travel to Britain remain unknown, and despite conspiracies theories that have developed since, the established facts of the “Hess Incident” involve the Home Guard. A pilot for more than twenty years, Hess took off from the Messerschmitt works airfield at Augsburg, Bavaria, in a twin-engine Bf110 fighter-bomber.
After a journey of almost 1,000 miles lasting four hours, Hess crossed the British coast over Airwick in Northumberland, and flew on towards his objective, Dun gavel House, eventually parachuting out at 11pm to land near the village of Eagle sham (Hayward,2004). Detained by the local Home Guard, Hess gave his name as 'Alfred Horn' and asked to see the Duke of Hamilton, then a serving RAF officer. Hess was transferred between various Home Guard units, before being transferred into army custody.
Though Hitler denounced Hess’s allegations, of being sent to Britain to seek peace as hallucinations, Hess was detained in Britain as a prisoner of state until his conviction for conspiracy and crimes against peace at Nuremberg in1946. Thereafter Hess was held as a Prisoner No. 7 at Spandau Prison in Berlin, always denied parole, and died on 17 August 1987 at the age of ninety-three. The Home Guard’s role in this incident was remarkably significant, and though Hess’s actual reason for flying to Britain remains a mystery, without the Home Guard in place nationwide, Hess may not have been detained and imprisoned.
For the West Midlands, weaponry was significantly diminished in comparison to their southern England counterparts. The only uniform available to Midlands units was an armband with LDV on it, for months after the first uniforms were sent to the southern counties. Since the military had first use of modern weapons, and lost many in the retreat through France, within the West Midlands any Home Guard weapons were usually owned by the volunteers. These ranged from shotguns, hunting rifles and obsolete military rifles to swords and flintlock muskets. For those who had none, they either shared or did without. Similar tithe southern counties, batches of surplus bayonets from the USA were welded onto gas pipes and used as pikes, and bottles mysteriously vanished from doorsteps and shops to reappear as Molotov cocktails4 for use against German Panzers.
Appeals were issued in the UK and, thanks to President F. Roosevelt, in the USA for any suitable personal firearms. An astonishing variety, totalling 200,000, was collected and distributed. Going a step further, Roosevelt, leader of a neutral USA, also encouraged Congress to permit the disposal of a million old rifles from reserve to Britain in mid-July 1940 with 10 rounds of ammunition apiece. There were considerable regional variations on equipment, organisation and deployment; the majority of the more appropriate weaponry and clothing was distributed to Home Guard units in the South of England, with less being shared among the remaining volunteers in the UK.
Uniform and webbing appeared sporadically in the West Midlands, and it was not uncommon to find issues of trousers only or some with jackets and some with caps - the variation was endless. Eventually, production and distribution was stabilised and a standard issue was established. The government was still unsure of the purpose of the Home Guard away from the primary target sites for invasion, and for months there was no established role for them to fulfil in the West Midlands. For example, Dartmoor had a mounted cavalry unit, while on Windermere, in the Lake District, the Home Guard used motorboats for training and patrol.
This aspect always remained with the volunteers; no two units were quite alike. Given their poor equipment, it was left to units to develop their own methods. Some of these methods were comical, but may have been effective at least initially. A favourite tactic of units within the West Midlands involved the placement of boxes on the road, supported at one end with a stick to which was attached a length of string leading off into the hedgerow or undergrowth, prompting the Germans to investigate. It was recommended that some had bombs or booby-traps incorporated, to make the German soldiers cautious about investigating other boxes.
While the purpose of the Home Guard away from the south coast remained vague for months following its inception, the blitzkrieg offensive strategies by the German army provided substantial opportunities forth West Midlands Home Guard units to participate in civil defence. Coventry, in particular, was exceptionally heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe, and the Home Guard were responsible for the evacuation of civilians from bombed buildings, for escorting people into suitable air-raid shelters, the fighting of fires alongside the fire service, and the detection of unexploded bombs.
Though the opportunities for attacking or detaining German infantry for the West Midlands Home Guard remained limited, their service to civil defence as a result of air-raids remains extremely significant, and resulted in a number of decorations awarded to members of Home Guard units in the West Midlands. For example, in 1941 Sub-section Leader Beattie, of the 6thBirmingham (Factories) Battalion, assisted in the rescue of nine people from the flaming debris of a building. On several occasions he crawled into a hole in the debris and made contact with trapped survivors, bracing up lumps of concrete and saturated with oil and water.
Following many hours of this work Beattie was evacuated by the medical authorities suffering from exhaustion. Similarly, Section Leader J.Topham, again of the 6th Birmingham (Factories) Battalion, rescued trapped members of his battalion from an air-raid shelter damaged in direct hit, and, once the casualties were safe, moved on to save a further five people from a building which had been struck by high explosive and incendiary bombs. Both volunteers were awarded a British Empire Medal for bravery for meritorious service which warranted such a mark of royal appreciation (Gardiner, 2005). In contrast to the Home Guard in the West Midlands, the risks faced by the southern counties Home Guard units occasionally involved engaging the enemy.
In July1943, Antonio Amide, an Italian prisoner of war, escaped from working party by killing a guard with a hedging hook. Having taken possession of the guard's service rifle and ten rounds of ammunition, the prisoner was tracked by armed parties of soldiers, Home Guards and police, who carried out a search of the district from shortly after the escape until the early afternoon of the following day, however they were unable to locate the escaped man. During the evening of the following day, the escaped man entered a house occupied by a Home Guard volunteer, private Shelton, and his family.
Having finished his stolen meal from the kitchen, and seemingly unaware of the residents’ presence in the house, the prisoner passed into the hallway with a rifle in his hands and came face to face with Private Shelton, who had entered the passage from another room. The escaped prisoner immediately fired at Private Shelton, narrowly missed him, and fled upstairs.
Private Shelton ascended another staircase and worked his way along the landing until he located the escaped prisoner in a bedroom, in a position from which the Italian could cover anyone coming up the main staircase. Despite the obvious threat of this, Private Shelton entered the room and, with his service rifle, shot the Italian through the chest. According to his commanding officer in his subsequent report, Private Shelton was confronted with a situation where there was no time to ask for orders from his superior in the Home Guard, and he showed marked initiative, personal courage and presence of mind, backed by sound training and thus gave an outstanding example of the way a Home Guard should behave in a situation of this kind (Arthur, 2004).
Chapter 5 – Conclusion
When the British and French armies were defeated in France by the Germans in May 1940 the future looked very bad. Britain was the last significant country in Europe still openly resisting Hitler, and it faced the real threat of an invasion from the Germans across the sea from France. The British army had been badly weakened by the defeat in France and, as a result, the British government realised a home defence force may achieve two purposes: to provide a structured, regulated method to prevent dangerously armed, unknown militia in the UK, and to create a civil defence system, making Britain harder to invade and better able to deal with airborne attacks.
Hundreds of thousands of men joined the Home Guard in the summer of 1940 and served through the war. The force had some problems to begin with because they did not have proper weapons or uniforms. Despite this they began training to resistant enemy invasion and soon became a familiar sight around the country, performing a number of roles. The government was expecting 150,000 mentor volunteer for the Home Guard. Within the first month, 750,000 men had volunteered, and by the end of June, 1940, the total number of volunteers was over one million (Carroll, 1999). The number of men in the Home Guard did not fall below one million until they were stood down in December 1944. The Home Guard was nationally disbanded on 31stDecember, 1945.
Although it was expected, the Germans did not try to invade, so the Home Guard never faced an invading force and the question remains about how they would have fought. It is correct as well to emphasise the major role played by the Home Guard in defending the country, and to highlight the fact that many men who served in the hundreds of Home Guard battalions were tough veterans of the First World War in their forties and fifties, and with more than a sprinkling of younger men, often from farming communities, who were otherwise exempted from regular military service.
The television programme Dad's Army was extremely popular during its time, and although it can be held partially responsible for the disorganised, comical reputation the Home Guard now experiences, the series did contain many essential truths about the events of 1940, including the lack of support provided by the British Government and the War Office, and the spirit of the time. It cannot, however, possibly be regarded as history, reinforcing, as it does, mythology with amiable caricature.
The Home Guard, though never tested in combat, became one of the great successes of democratic mobilisation, attracting 1,800,000volunteers to part-time defence. On May 20th 1941, the first anniversary of the inception of the Local Defence Volunteers, the Home Guard units were given the honour and privilege of mounting guard at Buckingham Palace (Carroll, 1999).
This honour was bestowed upon the Home Guard again on 20th May 1943. There are some regiments that have been in existence for hundreds of years that have not had this honour, yet a unit that was in existence for only 4½ years was asked to mount guard twice, something that would not be asked of a group of geriatrics, incompetents and immature men as "Dad's Army" has portrayed them.
Churchill’s statement, of September 1941, declared his insistence and fortitude in the face of continual invasion threats by Germany. Acknowledging that the British army was small and relatively weak when compared with the German or Russian armies, it had not had the repeated successful experiences of the German army, which are a formidable source of strength and morale for both the military and the public.
Realising the benefit of auxiliary units, Churchill professed that the British army was a finely honed weapon, supported by nearly 2,000,000of armed and uniformed Home Guard, that could be relied upon to destroyer ‘hurl into the sea’ an invader who succeeded in making a number of successive or simultaneous lodgements on our shores.
Of particular concern to Churchill were the ‘absolutely frightful, indescribable atrocities’ which the German police troops were committing upon the Russian population in the rear of the advance of their armoured vehicles, and it was apparent that the responsibility of the British government to maintain at home an ‘ample high-class force to beat down and annihilate any invading lodgement from the sea or descent from their comes home to me in a significantly ugly and impressive form’(Reynolds, 2005). In essence, Churchill believed that it would be highly irresponsible of him to allow the seasoned and disciplined fighting forces, created predominantly during the First World War, to remain inactive when Britain faced such a blatant threat on home soil.
Similarly, Nigel Steel, head of research at the Imperial War Museum, whose collection includes Home Guard drill manuals, uniforms and details of artillery such as the Blacker Bombard mortar, claims that the Home Guard was actually a very real, fierce and potentially difficult adversary for any invader. It was also very good for national morale and the psychology of people looking for some way of helping the war effort.
With reference to the popular television representation of the Home Guard in the eighty aired episodes of Dad’s Army, Steel claims that a primary difference between fact and fiction was with regard tithe age of the volunteers. Most volunteers would have been active, and in their late 40s or 50s, 40% of them with frontline service from the first world war, in contrast to the televisual portrayal of geriatric servicemen unable to accurately fire a rifle.
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