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Local Defence Volunteers

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Local Defence Volunteers

Home Guard
initially "Local Defence Volunteers"

Home Guard post in central London, 1940
Active 14 May 1940 – 3 December 1944
Country United Kingdom
Branch British Army
Role Defence from invasion
Disbanded 31 December 1945

The Home Guard (initially "Local Defence Volunteers" or LDV) was a defence organisation of the British Army during the Second World War. Operational from 1940 until 1944, the Home Guard – comprising 1.5 million local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, usually owing to age, hence the nickname "Dad's Army" – acted as a secondary defence force, in case of invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany and their allies.[1][2] The Home Guard guarded the coastal areas of Britain and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores.

History

Early development

The origins of the Home Guard can be traced to Captain Tom Wintringham, who returned from the Spanish Civil War and wrote a book entitled How to Reform the Army. In the book, as well as a large number of regular army reforms, Wintringham called for the creation of twelve divisions similar in composition to that of the International Brigades which had been formed in Spain during the conflict; the divisions would be raised through a process of voluntary enlistment targeting ex-servicemen and youths.[3] Despite great interest by the War Office in the book's assertion that 'security is possible', Wintringham's call to train 100,000 men immediately was not implemented.

When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, debates began in official circles about the possible ways in which the German military might launch an invasion of the British Isles; in the first week of the conflict numerous diplomatic and intelligence reports seemed to indicate that there was the possibility of an imminent German amphibious assault.[4] Many government ministers and senior Army officials including the Commander in Chief Home Forces, General Walter Kirke, believed that the threat of invasion was greatly exaggerated and were sceptical but others were not, including Winston Churchill the newly installed First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill argued that some form of home defence force should be raised from members of the population who were ineligible to serve in the regular forces but wished to serve their country; in a letter he wrote to Samuel Hoare, the Lord Privy Seal on 8 October 1939, Churchill called for a Home Guard force of 500,000 men over the age of forty to be formed.[5] At the same time that government officials were debating the need for a home defence force, such a force was actually being formed without any official encouragement; in Essex, men not eligible for call-up into the armed forces were coming forward to join the self-styled 'Legion of Frontiersmen'.[5] Officials were soon informed of the development of the Legion, with the Adjutant-General, Sir Robert Gordon-Finlayson, arguing that the government should encourage the development of more unofficial organisations. However, the fear of invasion quickly waned as it became evident that the German military was not in a position to launch an invasion of Britain, and official enthusiasm for home defence forces waned, and the Legion appears to have dissolved itself at the same time.[6]

The Battle of France began in May 1940, with the Wehrmacht launching an invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and France; by 20 May, German forces had reached the English Channel and on 28 May, the Belgian Army surrendered. The combination of the large-scale combined operations mounted by the Wehrmacht during the invasion of Norway in April, and the prospect that much of the Channel coast would soon be occupied made the prospect of a German invasion of the British Isles alarmingly real.[7] Fears of an invasion rapidly began to grow, spurred on by reports in both the press and from official government bodies, of a fifth column operating in Britain which would aid an invasion by German airborne forces.[8] The government soon found itself under increasing pressure to intern suspect aliens to prevent the formation of a fifth column and to allow the population to take up arms to defend themselves against an invasion.[9] Calls for some form of home defence force soon began to be heard from the press and from private individuals as the government began to intern German and Austrian citizens in the country. The press baron Lord Kemsley privately proposed to the War Office that rifle clubs be formed to form the nucleus of a home defence force, and Josiah Wedgwood, a Labour MP, wrote to the Prime Minister asking that the entire adult population be trained in the use of arms and given weapons to defend themselves. Similar calls appeared in newspaper columns; in 12 May issue of the Sunday Express a Brigadier called on the government to issue free arms licenses and permits to buy ammunition to men possessing small arms, and on the same day the Sunday Pictorial asked if the government had considered training golfers in rifle shooting to eliminate stray parachutists.[10]

These calls alarmed government and senior military officials, who worried about the prospect of the population forming private defence forces that the Army would not be able to control, and in mid-May the Home Office issued a press release on the matter; it was the task of the army to deal with enemy parachutists, as any civilians who carried weapons and fired on German troops were likely to be executed if captured.[11] Private defence forces soon began to be formed throughout the country, placing the government in an awkward position; these private forces, which the army might not be able to control, could well inhibit the attempts by the army during an invasion, yet to ignore the calls for a home defence force to be set up would be politically problematic.[12] An officially sponsored home defence force would allow the government greater control and also allow for greater security around vulnerable areas such as munitions factories and airfields, but there was some confusion over who would form and control the force, with separate plans drawn up by the War Office and General Headquarters Home Forces under General Kirke.[13] The government and senior military officials rapidly compared plans and by 13 May had worked out an improvised plan for a home defence force, to be called the Local Defence Volunteers, but the rush to complete a plan and announce it to the public had led to a number of administrative and logistical problems, such as how the volunteers in the new force would be armed, which would cause problems as the force evolved. However, on the evening of 14 May 1940 the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, gave a radio broadcast announcing the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers and called for volunteers to join the force.[14]

Official recognition

In the radio announcement, Eden called on men between the ages of 17 and 65 in Britain, who were not in military service but wished to defend their country against an invasion, to enrol in the LDV at their local police station.[15] The announcement was met with a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the population, with 250,000 volunteers attempting to sign up in the first seven days; by July this number increased to 1.5 million.[16] As volunteers and social groups such as cricket clubs began forming their own units, dubbed 'the parashots' by the press, the War Office continued to lay down the administrative and logistical foundations for the organisation.[17] In telegrams to the Lord Lieutenants of each county, it was explained that LDV units would operate in pre-defined military areas already used by the regular Army, with a General Staff Officer coordinating with civilian regional commissioners to divide these areas into smaller zones; in London this was organised on the basis of police districts.[18] On 17 May the LDV achieved official legal status when the Privy Council issued the Defence (Local Defence Volunteers) Order in Council, and orders were issued from the War Office to regular Army headquarters throughout Britain explaining the status of LDV units; volunteers would be divided into sections, platoons and companies but would not be paid and leaders of units would not hold commissions or have the power to command regular forces.[18]

However, implementation of the legislation proved to be extremely difficult, particularly as the primary focus of the War Office and General Headquarters Home Forces was on Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk between 27 May to 4 June.[18] This apparent lack of focus led to many LDV members becoming impatient, particularly when it was announced that volunteers would only receive armbands printed with 'L.D.V.' on them until proper uniforms could be manufactured and there was no mention of weapons being issued to units; this impatience often led to units conducting their own patrols without official permission, often led by men who had previously served in the armed forces.[19] The presence of many veterans, and the appointment of ex-officers as commanders of LDV units, only worsened the situation, with many believing that they did not require training before being issued weapons; this led to numerous complaints being received by the War Office and the press, and many ex-senior officers attempting to use their influence to obtain weapons or permission to begin patrolling.[20] The issue of weapons to LDV units was particularly problematic for the War Office, as it was recognised that the re-arming and re-equipping of the regular forces would have to take precedence over the LDV. Instead, the War Office issued instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails and emergency orders were placed for First World War vintage Ross rifles from Canada and Pattern 14 and M1917 rifles from the United States.[21] In the absence of proper weapons, many LDV units broke into museums and appropriated whatever weapons could be found, or equipped themselves with private weapons such as shotguns.[22]

Another problem that was encountered as the LDV was organised was the definition of the role the organisation was to play. In the eyes of the War Office and the Army, the LDV was to act as 'an armed police constabulary' which in the event of an invasion was to observe German troop movements, convey information to the regular forces and guard places of strategic or tactical importance. The War Office believed that the LDV would act best in such a passive role because of its lack of training, weapons and proper equipment.[23] However such a role clashed with the expectations of LDV commanders and members, who believed that the organisation would be best suited to an active role, attacking and harassing German forces. This clash led to morale problems and even more complaints to the press and the War Office from LDV members who were opposed to, as they saw it, the government leaving them defenceless and placing them in a non-combatant role.[24] Complaints about the role of the LDV, as well as continuing problems encountered by the War Office in its attempts to clothe and arm the LDV, led the government to respond to public pressure in August, redefining the role of the LDV to include delaying and obstructing German forces through any means possible.[25] At the same time Winston Churchill, who had assumed the position of Prime Minister in May, became involved in the matter after being alerted to the problems, obtaining a summary of the current LDV position from the War Office on 22 June. After reviewing the summary, Churchill wrote to Eden stating that, in his opinion, one of the main causes of disciplinary and morale problems stemmed from the uninspiring title of the LDV and suggesting that it be renamed as the 'Home Guard'.[26] Despite resistance from Eden and other government officials, who noted that one million 'LDV' armbands had already been printed and the cost of printing another million 'Home Guard' armbands would be excessive, Churchill would not be dissuaded; on 22 July the LDV was officially renamed the Home Guard.[27]

The Home Guard also served as one of a number of covers for the Auxiliary Units, an extremely secretive force of more highly trained volunteer resistance troops that would function as guerrilla units if the UK was invaded.

The Home Guard did not, initially, admit women to its ranks. Some women formed their own groups like the Amazon Defence Corps.[28] Later a more organised but still unofficial Women's Home Defence (WHD) formed with many groups across the country. Limited female involvement was permitted later on the understanding that these would be in traditional female support roles and not in any way seen as combatants. Auxiliary Units however may have had female members in both support and combat roles, although records are scarce.

Later years

Even once the threat of invasion had passed, the Home Guard remained in existence manning guard posts and performing other duties to free up regular troops for duties overseas. In 1942 the National Service Act allowed for compulsory enrolment where units were below strength. At this time, the lowest rank within the Home Guard, 'volunteer', was renamed to 'private' to match the regular army usage.

It is a common fallacy that the Home Guard never fired a shot in anger during the whole of the Second World War. This is untrue, individual Home Guardsmen helped man anti-aircraft guns as far back as the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. By 1943 the Home Guard operated its own dedicated batteries of anti-aircraft guns and rockets plus coastal defence artillery as well as engaging German planes with their machineguns. They are credited with shooting down numerous Luftwaffe aircraft and the V-1 flying bombs which followed them in the summer of 1944. The Home Guard's first official kill was shot down on Tyneside in 1943. The Home Guard in Northern Ireland also took part in gunbattles with the IRA.[29]

However following the successful landings in France and the drive towards Germany by the Allies, the Home Guard were formally stood down on 3 December 1944 and finally disbanded on 31 December 1945. Male members were rewarded with a certificate, bearing the words:

"In the years when our Country was in mortal danger, (name) who served (dates) gave generously of his time and powers to make himself ready for her defence by force of arms and with his life if need be. George R.I."[30]

If he had served more than three years and requested it, members would be awarded the Defence Medal. It would not be until 1945 that those women who had helped as auxiliaries were recognised with their own certificate.

A modernised version of the Home Guard was briefly re-established in December 1951. Although units in coastal areas were authorised to recruit to full strength, it fell foul of a complete reassessment of Britain's defence posture following the advent of the H-bomb and was disbanded in July 1957. In the 1980s, the Home Service Force was established, consisting of older ex-servicemen who could not meet Territorial Army (TA) training requirements; it was envisaged that this force, a company in every Territorial battalion, would be used to guard strategic points in the event of important roles. The Force was disbanded in 1993.

Equipment and training

Initially the LDV were poorly armed, since the regular forces had priority for weapons and equipment. The LDV's original role had largely been to observe and report enemy movements, but it swiftly changed to a more aggressive role. Nevertheless, they would have been expected to fight well-trained and equipped troops, despite having only negligible training and only weapons such as pitchforks and shotguns (a solid ammunition for shotguns was developed for this purpose) or firearms that belonged in museums. Patrols were carried out on foot, by bicycle, even on horseback and often without uniforms, although all volunteers wore an armband that said "LDV". There were also river patrols using the private craft of members.[31] Many officers from the First World War used their Webley Mk VI .455 revolvers. There were also numerous private attempts to produce armoured vehicles by adding steel plates to cars or lorries, often armed with machine guns.[32] Some even had access to armoured cars, though these were makes no longer in service with the regular army.[33]

Ex-Communist and Spanish Civil War veteran Tom Wintringham, a journalist and key advocate of the LDV and later the Home Guard, opened a private training camp for the LDV at Osterley Park, outside London, in early July 1940. Wintringham's training methods were mainly based on his experience in the International Brigades in Spain. Those who had fought alongside him in Spain trained volunteers in anti-tank warfare and demolitions.

The U.S. National Rifle Association collected and shipped large numbers of privately donated rifles for use by the Home Guard. These were collected and destroyed after the war.[34]. Within a few months they were issued proper uniforms and equipment, as the immediate needs of the regular forces were satisfied. After September 1940 the army began to take charge of the Home Guard training in Osterley, and Wintringham and his associates were gradually sidelined. Wintringham resigned in April 1941. Ironically, despite his support of the Home Guard, Wintringham was never allowed to join the organisation himself because of a policy barring membership by communists and fascists.

An example of a Home Guard exercise is one in the small village of Dundry that defensively overlooks Bristol: the exercise involved the Home Guard units of several neighbouring villages.[35]


It was not until 1943 that they were a properly trained and equipped force. They were frequently equipped with improvised weapons, or non-standard ones purchased by the government from abroad. For example, large numbers of M1917 Enfield rifles were purchased for the use of the Home Guard. These used the (30-06) cartridge – an American 0.30 inch round which was a totally different type of ammunition from the 0.303 round used by the British Lee-Enfield rifle. A 2-inch-wide (51 mm) red band was painted around the fore end of the stock as a warning since a 0.303 round would load but jam the rifle. That the similar-in-appearance P14 rifle was supplied to the Home Guard, in 0.303 calibre that took the British round, only added to the confusion.

The Home Guard inherited weapons that the regular Army no longer required, such as the Blacker Bombard anti-tank weapon, and weapons they no longer desired, such as the Sticky bomb. Their arsenal also included weapons that could be produced cheaply without consuming materials that were needed to produce armaments for the regular units such as the Northover Projector, a blackpowder-powered mortar; the No. 76 Special Incendiary Grenade, a glass bottle filled with highly flammable material and the Smith Gun, a small artillery gun that could be towed by an automobile. They also used Lend-Lease Tommy guns and American Browning Automatic Rifles.

"Croft's Pikes"

By late 1940, the Home Guard had amassed 847,000 rifles, 47,000 shotguns and 49,000 machine guns of various kinds. However, as there were more than 1,682,000 volunteers at the time, this meant that 739,000 men were without a weapon. There was little improvement in June 1941 when Churchill wrote to the War Office saying that "every man must have a weapon of some sort, be it only a mace or a pike." The civil servants took Churchill at his word and ordered 250,000 pikes from the Ministry of Aircraft Production, each consisting of a long steel tube with an obsolete bayonet welded to the end. When the first of these reached the Home Guard, there was uproar and it is thought that none were actually issued to Home Guardsmen. Captain Godfrey Nicholson MP, himself in the Home Guard, spoke for his colleagues when he said in the House of Commons that the provision of pikes, "if not meant as a joke, was an insult". Lord Croft, the Under-Secretary of State for War could have correctly blamed the fiasco on Churchill, but attempted to defend the decision, saying that the pike was a "a most effective and silent weapon";[36] his name was attached to the affair thereafter.[37] The problem began to be solved when the first mass-produced Sten submachine guns entered service early in 1942.[38]

Paratrooper defence

The use of German paratroopers in Rotterdam, where Fallschirmjäger landed in a football stadium and then hijacked private transport to make their way to the city centre, demonstrated that nowhere was safe. Worse still, the airborne abduction attempt of the Dutch royal family had failed only because the Dutch had possessed detailed plans of the operation well in advance. To counter the threat of an airborne assault, the Home Guard manned observation posts where soldiers spent every night until almost the end of the war continuously watching the skies, and initially armed with shotguns.

To spread word in the event of an invasion, the Home Guard set up a relatively simple code to warn their compatriots. For instance, the word 'Cromwell' indicated that a paratrooper invasion was imminent, and 'Oliver' meant that the invasion had commenced. Additionally, the Home Guard arranged to use church bells as a call-to-arms for the rest of the LDV. This led to a series of complex rules governing who had keys to bell towers, and the ringing of church bells was forbidden at all other times.

Foreign nationals

Between 50 and 60 US citizens living in London formed the 'American Squadron' commanded by General Wade H. Hayes. The US ambassador in London, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., believed that this could cause, in the event of invasion, all citizens of the then still-neutral US living in London to be liable to be shot by the invading Germans as francs-tireurs.[39]

Social impact and representations

Anthony Eden summarised the raising and equipping of the British Home Guard during a debate in the House of Commons in November 1940, when he was Secretary of State for War; "No one will claim for the Home Guard that it is a miracle of organisation... but many would claim that it is a miracle of improvisation, and in that way it does express the particular genius of our people. If it has succeeded, as I think it has, it has been due to the spirit of the land and of the men in the Home Guard."[40]

The chief constable of Glasgow suggested that criminal elements joined the Home Guard in order to break, enter and loot during the blackout.[41]

The British wartime propaganda film Went the Day Well? starring Thora Hird and made at Ealing Studios in 1942 focuses on how the Home Guard and local people defeat a German paratroop invasion.

Noël Coward wrote a song in 1943, "Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun?" that pokes fun at the disorder and shortage of supplies and equipment that were common in the Home Guard, and indeed all of Britain, during the war.

The Home Guard also played a significant part in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. In it, the lead character, a career soldier who had retired from the active list, joins the Home Guard and rises to a leadership position in it.

The 1943 British film Get Cracking starred George Formby as a Home Guard lance corporal who is constantly losing and winning back his stripe. Formby's platoon is involved in rivalry with the Home Guard sections of the local villages Major and Minor Wallop. At the end of the film Formby is promoted to sergeant after inventing a secret weapon – a home-made tank.[42]

The Home Guard was immortalised in the British television comedy Dad's Army (1968–1977), which followed the formation and running of a platoon in the fictional south coast town of "Walmington-on-Sea", and is widely regarded as having kept the efforts of the Home Guard in the public consciousness.

The Home Guard also featured in the 1971 Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and in the 2003 "War Games" episode of the British detective series Foyle's War, which is set in Hastings during WW2. In 2010, an episode of the Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures featured Clyde Langer being transported back to the British coast during WW2, and featured the Home Guard. The Home Guard appears in a scene in the film Hope and Glory when a unit shoots down a wayward barrage balloon.[43]

In the last of his 'Old Sam' series of monologues, Stanley Holloway writes of the protagonist of the series, Sam, attempting to join the Army at the outbreak of war in 1939. In the series, Sam is a serviceman who fought at the Battle of Waterloo and in the First World War as an adult. In the monologue dealing with World War II Sam is sent to the Home Guard instead of the front line, much to his bemusement, and whilst there finds that his stories of glory are debunked by another character who turns out to be the Duke of Wellington with whom he fought at Waterloo.

Home Guard honours

Awarded to the
Home Guard
Ribbon Medal Notes
2 George Cross (GC) Both Posthumous
24 Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) Military Division
129 Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) Military Division
396 Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) Military Division
13 George Medal (GM)
408 British Empire Medal (BEM) Military Division
1 British Empire Medal (BEM) Civil Division
1 Military Medal (MM)
? Defence Medal (United Kingdom)
1 110px Mentioned in Despatches
58 110px King's Commendation for Brave Conduct 2 were Posthumous

See also

Notes

References

External links

  • "The Home Guard Training Manual" by John Langdon Davies
  • Photos of UK World War 2 Invasion Defences
  • 23rd Sussex Home Guard British Re-Enactment Group
  • The Home Guard
  • Stonehouse (Gloucestershire) Home Guard Training – early WW2
  • BBC History Home Guard pages
  • Wartime defence found A spigot mortar emplacement
  • The story of a typical Home Guard Battalion and information on other units
  • "Pitsford Home Guard". Major Living History And Research Group in Northamptonshire. Period photos, information, and recreations, with original uniforms and equipment of the Northamptonshire Home Guard in World War II
  • Coventry Home Guard Photos and Memorabilia
  • Revealed: the real Dad's Army University of Manchester study.
  • Glamorgan Home Guard Living History Group Living History Group in South Wales
  • Home Guard operating in Bures, Suffolk
  • Meldreth Home Guard Meldreth Home Guard: photographs and transcription of Home Guard diary

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