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Home Guard in Britain 1940-1944

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Published: Mon, 26 Feb 2018

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 comm


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