On 10 May, 1940, after seven months of inactivity on the Western Front, the German Armed Forces invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. From the outset, Blitzkrieg1 indicated that this war would not be like the Great War of 1914-18 and that the Allies would face defeat. Since the British Army was heavily involved with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France and Belgium and was still required to defend the Empire, the mainland of Great Britain would be almost undefended. With this in mind, the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, broadcast an appeal for volunteers to form a defence force against invasion on 14 May, 1940. The response was the beginning of what was to become the Home Guard.
The Second World War began in September 1939. A large number of middle-aged men volunteered their services but were often turned down on account of their age or physical condition. Sir John Anderson2 in charge of Air Raid Precautions (ARP) agreed with an idea from Winston Churchill that men over 40 years of age should be formed into an organised body for use in their local area. This was discussed in October 1939 but set to one side as the Sitzkrieg or 'Phoney War', a period of military inactivity, continued in Western Europe. This ended with the attack on 10 May 1940.
Anthony Eden asked for volunteers between the ages of 40 and 65, fit enough to march and fire a shotgun or rifle. The response was immediate; unfortunately no one had thought about the logistics of enrolment. Police stations and local government offices were besieged by volunteers who would not go until a list had been drawn up. The plan was for 150,000 volunteers but the first month brought 750,000 made up of men in reserved occupations3, and those too young or too old for war service. Many of the older ones were veterans of the Great War. By the end of June, there were over one million volunteers.
If the enrolment was a poor example of organisation, then the equipping of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) could be said to have none. The only uniform was an armband with LDV on it. Since the military had first use of modern weapons and lost many in the retreat through France, any 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. A batch of surplus bayonets from the USA was welded onto gas pipes and used as pikes; 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 FD Roosevelt, in the USA for any suitable personal firearms. An astonishing variety, totalling 200,000, was collected and distributed. Going a step further President Roosevelt, leader of a neutral USA, also got Congress to permit the disposal of a million old rifles from reserve to Britain in mid-July 1940 with 10 rounds of ammunition apiece.
Uniform and webbing appeared in dribs and drabs. Perhaps three pairs of trousers with no buttons, a jacket now and again, belts of all descriptions and bags and pouches that would not fit. It was not uncommon to find issues of trousers only or some with jackets and some with caps - the variation was endless. So comical was the appearance and activities of the volunteers, that jokes were easily made about the LDV ('Look, Duck and Vanish'). Eventually, production and distribution was stabilised and a standard issue was established.
As in every other aspect, no one really knew what to do with the volunteers. There was no established role for them to fulfil. There were considerable regional variations on equipment, organisation and deployment. Dartmoor had a mounted 'cavalry' unit while on Windermere in the Lake District they used motorboats. This aspect always remained with the volunteers, no two units were quite alike.
In August 1940, Winston Churchill made a radio broadcast in which he called the LDV the 'Home Guard'. The name stuck and became the official title. One of the features of the Home Guard was the number of ex-soldiers who volunteered. Officers would happily enlist as soldiers, one unit boasting eight generals serving in the ranks. The organisational confusion was gradually overcome and the Home Guard was given a number of roles in the defence of the mainland. A signal dated 29 November, 1940, from Brigadier GV Clark explained the roles and conditions of service envisaged. Each month they would be expected to do 48 hours of unpaid duty, as well as their civilian job. They were to resist the enemy by any means possible mainly at nodal (road junctions, railway facilities) or vulnerable points, defend local communities, airfields, any vital infrastructure points and traffic routes. In addition, they often supported the Civil Defence in recovery and rescue following air raids.
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. One was to place boxes on the road propped up at one end with a stick to which was attached a length of string. This led off into the hedgerow or undergrowth, prompting the Germans to investigate. It was recommended that some had bombs or booby traps incorporated, just to make them think about the others.5. One of the least effective would be the idea of removing all manhole covers so that the Germans would fall down them in the dark!
Once they started their guarding activities it released the Services to more vital tasks. Initially, they were regarded as a poor relation of the Civil Defence, which was formally organised by the local authorities. Hitler however, branded them 'murder gangs' and promised to have them shot on sight. Perhaps with this in mind, they took on a more military air and organisation, before long becoming linked to local regiments whose badges and colours they adopted. A typical organisation is illustrated by the Workington (Cumbria) Battalion:
- A Company - Workington Iron and Steel Works.
- B Company - The town company.
- C Company - Largely manned by railway and other transport employees.
- D Company - Clifton, to the east of the town.
- E Company - High-duty Alloys Factory at Distington.
- HQ Company - Headquarter.
- Coastal Battery detachment: guarding/manning guns.
- Signals and Intelligence.
This is largely the same as a service infantry battalion of the period. Armament would be different though.
The mix of civilian and obsolete military weapons gave way to a more regular issue once the USA began supplying arms in earnest, although still neutral. Most Home Guard weapons were chambered for .30" M1906 (30'06), the US standard rifle ammunition, and were marked with a red band to avoid confusion with .303" weapons. The P17 bolt action rifle was well used, together with some .303" Canadian Ross rifles. Light machine guns consisted of Lewis Guns, most adapted from aircraft guns, Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR) and there were even some Vickers MMGs, all of 30'06 calibre. Naturally, there were some native .303" weapons, but most of these were used to re-equip the returning troops. There are instances where Regular and Home Guard units salvaged German MG15s from downed bombers and set them up as makeshift anti-aircraft guns. Ammunition was not an immediate problem as it could be salvaged from downed aircraft or they could use tank machine gun ammo (BESA) which was 7.9mm and not in as much demand as .303" in 1940.
There were some novel and ingenious methods of projecting explosives. The Northover Projector looked like a 'drainpipe with legs' and the Smith Gun which could be towed on its wheels, upended and used the axle to traverse. Both were crude, smooth-bore pieces which used black powder to project grenades, both anti-personnel and anti-tank from 100 - 450 yards. One of these anti-tank grenades was a glass bottle containing phosphorous and latex (raw rubber). They were sealed and designed to ignite on contact with air as the glass smashed against the side of a tank. These have been found fifty years later, buried to provide a hidden reserve in 1940, and still highly dangerous today.
By late 1941, the Home Guard was an effective fighting force, well armed and trained. By then, the threat of invasion had receded and the invasion of Russia in the Summer of 1941 more or less finished the idea of the Germans crossing the Channel. Air attacks lessened too, but the Home Guard remained to capture downed airmen and man anti-aircraft batteries. It was stood down (deactivated) in September 1944 and a final parade held in London on 3 December 1944.
Old Soldiers Never Die...
In December 1951, amid the fears of the Cold War, the Home Guard was revived as a cadre force, a skeleton organisation of trained men and women to act as the basis for an expansion when required. This was disbanded in July 1957.
In July 1968, Dad's Army appeared on BBC TV for the first time. The writers, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, based the series on their own memories of the time (Jimmy Perry had actually been a member of the Home Guard as a youth; the character of Pike in the show was inspired by Perry's own experiences). They created 81 half-hour episodes between 1968- 77 with audiences of 18.5 million in the early 1970s. Outside the characterisations most of the incidents are based on fact and the atmosphere of the time. Always amid the humour and farce, the truth is never far behind, as is the serious intent of the volunteers at the time.
In 1982, the Home Service Force (HSF) was founded to aid a reduced Regular Army in the guarding of UK key points. This was a variation in the Territorial Army Regulations, which allowed those between the ages of 18 and 59 to volunteer with a training obligation of four weekends a year. Given the memories of the Home Guard and the BBC Series still fresh in the mind, they were given the nickname 'Dad's Army'. By 1984 there were platoons in 11 cities and an expansion to 5000 attached to existing TA companies. The end of the communist threat and a reorganisation of the Territorial Army prompted the disbandment of the HSF in 1993.