GUARDING THE HOMEFRONT
How Britain’s volunteers trained to defend the country
The Home Guard enjoyed only a brief existence, but within its four-plus years of service it transformed from an ad hoc, poorly equipped collection of units into a force good enough to be entrusted with the bulk of home defence duties as the regular army invaded western Europe.
Always adapting, in response to different requirements and perceptions, the men and women of the Home Guard patiently prepared and waited for the moment when their country would need them. Although that did not materialise in genuine action for the majority, they still provided an invaluable service, and it should never be forgotten that they were training for an extremely dangerous eventuality – an invasion of Britain by the formidable forces of Nazi Germany. The Home Guard had a mission that has not often been understood. Some pointed and laughed at the men who, for one reason or another, were not in the army. They doubted their ability to match Germany’s battle-hardened soldiers, but that was never their main purpose.
The Home Guard was tasked with holding up an invading force, slowing down its advance to give time for the limited mobile units available to converge on and destroy the enemy. The men of the Home Guard were not expected to beat the Germans, they were expected to lose, but to lose slowly. It was a brave and selfless role, and those who embraced it deserved more than the disdain they often received.
As early as 8 October 1939, Winston Churchill (who was still First Lord of the Admiralty at the time) was posing the following question to Sir Samuel Hoare, “Why do we not form a Home Guard of half a million men over 40 (if they like to volunteer).”
Key to this sentiment was the idea that this should be a volunteer force. In fact, the organisation consequently formed was initially known as the Local Defence
Volunteers, and was made up entirely of such men. Seldom, in fact, has an organisation’s name so fully encapsulated its purpose. The men were volunteers, they would act only in a defensive capacity, and they would remain in their own neighbourhoods, where local knowledge would be an advantage in any confrontation with an invader.
On 14 May, Anthony Eden made a radio broadcast calling for volunteers and within 24 hours 250,000 men had raised their hand. By the end of June, the figure had jumped to 1.5 million. An estimated 50,000 women also served in an unofficial capacity. Inevitably, with such a daunting number of men suddenly needing to be equipped, the Home Guard suffered from serious shortages in its early days, most importantly in one crucial area.
Arming the defenders
On 5 June 1940, only one in three volunteers had been issued with a rifle. A serious shortage of arms and ammunition was threatening to cripple the new force. Arms shipments were expected from the USA and Canada, but until they arrived, improvisation would be required.
Maurice Bradshaw, an 18-year-old volunteer, remembered that “our weapons were bayonets tied to broomsticks, and old rifles, and old 12-bores. And I myself had managed to get hold of a .455 Easy Colt revolver, but I only had five rounds of ammunition”.
Throughout the nation it was a story of units making use of whatever they could find, including shotguns and hunting rifles. The dire situation regarding armaments led to one of the many derisive nicknames being applied to the organisation. Being unable to return fire on the enemy, LDV was claimed to stand for ‘Look, Duck and Vanish’. In fact, the spirit of improvisation was strong, and homemade petrol bombs were produced in large quantities, although how effective they could have been is doubtful. Nevertheless, they served one crucial purpose – they prevented the volunteers from feeling useless.
Improvisation also extended to vehicles. Actual military vehicles were in such short supply that civilian lorries and trucks were pressed into service where possible. One LDV unit, based in Middlesbrough, added armour to their lorry in an ingenious manner, using rejected steel plates from the shipping yards.
“The trucks we used were just ordinary, four-wheeled general goods trucks,” remembered Guardsman Stanley Brand. “We lined the two long sides with plates, as thick as we could scrounge. And the two ends, we wanted them armoured in case we were the rear [truck]. It was just a case of lining them with whatever we could get.”
The situation improved as the war progressed. By 1941, the 100 men of the
2nd Battalion Ely Home Guard had 10 Spigot mortars, 200 anti-tank mines and 200 antitank grenades to protect their section of the River Great Ouse at Littleport.
By the end of the Home Guard’s existence, its units were very well supplied. Platoon Commander Hawtin Mundy spoke with pride of his men being provided the same .303 Lee Enfield rifles as the men in the front lines, while officers had Sten guns by the end of the war. Mundy’s 58-man platoon also had a machine-gun (of World War I vintage but still serviceable), two Spigot mortars and “all the ammunition, as much as I wanted”.
Alongside the improved provision of weapons, the Home Guard also benefited from improved training, in line with an ever-changing role. Getting the Home Guard up to speed in military drills was not easy. These were mostly employed men in full-time jobs. After a long day of work, they would turn out to volunteer their time, but it was limited. Service was officially capped at 48 hours a month, although this was often exceeded. It is important to remember that members of the Home Guard did not get an increased rations provision, and exhaustion and war-weariness were real problems, especially as the war progressed.
Training was mostly improvised at first. With veterans filling leadership roles in many units, there was plenty of wisdom to be passed on to what were almost exclusively eager subjects. With the Home Guard made up of volunteers in the early days, the vast majority were motivated and eager to learn. Residential training facilities also began to spring up, notably one at Osterley Park, staffed by veterans of the International Brigades from the Spanish Civil War and former members of the Communist Party. Thousands of men attended camps like this, usually over a weekend.
Training initially focussed on area defence, camouflage and patrolling – the core duties of the Home Guard in the early stages of the war when invasion was a real possibility. Training was often undertaken at section strength, with a section comprising a leader, a deputy commander and between eight and ten men.
Later, training shifted in focus. As the threat of invasion receded, ‘active defence’ skills were taught. This was also a result of the Home
Guard becoming steadily more proficient and capable, but also due to the changing nature of the perceived threat. Rather than attempting to slow down a massive invasion force, the Home Guard would now be expected to track down and destroy small bodies of enemy soldiers engaged in small-scale raids and sabotage missions.
By the end of the war, training may have remained limited, but it often rivalled that of the regular forces when it was provided. Maurice Bradshaw remembered a training exercise in 1944 being “in the same manner as the regular forces”. Bradshaw’s unit was thoroughly drilled in battlefield conditions. “We had live bombs thrown at us and live ammunition shot over our heads,” he remembered, “and we had aircraft dropping bags of flour on us.”
The final result of increased experience, better weapons provision and more sophisticated training, was that the Home
Guard began to rival regular units in some respects. It is fitting, then, that the organisation was quickly moved to the same system of rank as the regular army.
Home Guardsman Hawtin Mundy had marched into battle with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry during World
War I. In 1944, he reckoned his unit was “better trained, more intelligent, better equipped, and I could almost say equal physically with, I think, the men who went in 1915 with the Bucks”.
Improvement in the proficiency of the Home Guard allowed its men to take on a more integral role in UK home defence as the war progressed. By 1942, they were deemed suitable for guarding so-called ‘vulnerable points’, important structures such as power stations and telephone exchanges. Their effectiveness would be tested by unannounced mock incursions and sabotage attempts.
By the end of that year, they were even considered good enough to guard RAF bases. It was a big step up from the early days, when they had been expected to operate behind a hard ‘crust’ of coastal defences in little more than a sacrificial role, tying up German forces that managed to penetrate the main line of defence, until regular mobile units could react.
Despite this increase in the level of respect the Home Guard received, morale remained a problem throughout the war. This was of concern to the Government, who saw the need for a motivated home defence force and took action where possible.
There was no escaping the fact, though, that the Home Guard never had to fulfil its primary purpose. Despite increasingly taking on more important roles, (7,000 Home Guardsmen were manning coastal defence batteries and 120,000 were operating anti-aircraft guns by the end of 1944), there was still an unfair sense that they had not really been essential.
Working with Civil Defence organisations during bombing raids and guarding bombedout shops from looters were necessary, even vital duties, but it was not the same as facing German invaders. Morale took an extra hit when conscription was introduced for the
Home Guard in the National Service (No. 2) Act of December 1941.
One of the efforts to keep morale as high as possible saw the third anniversary of the creation of the LDV commemorated with a series of parades on ‘Home Guard Sunday’. On 16 May 1943, medals were handed out and units demonstrated their skills to an impressed, and possibly surprised, public.
Standing down the guard
The Home Guard never had to defend the United Kingdom against invading German troops, but its contribution to the war effort went much further than merely being there just in case. The regular servicemen freed from duties manning defensive installations were able to take part in offensives overseas (more than 100,000 anti-aircraft gun crew were thus released), and by the time of D-day, the Home Guard was the main pillar of the UK’S defensive system.
The perils of war did not forget the Guardsmen and women. Only a few may have rounded-up downed German pilots, but they faced other dangers. A member of the Home Guard was considerably more likely to die or suffer injury in the UK than a home-based regular soldier, and 1,206 of them were killed in the course of their duties.
Over a thousand battalions had been formed by the time the organisation was officially stood down in late 1944. Although there were hopes that the Home Guard might continue in peacetime, it came to nothing, the fighting spirit of its men should not be doubted. “I think the Germans would never have had such resistance as they would have had in England,” said Guardsman Jimmy Taylor. “From every single village and hamlet, every corner, every ditch, every river … They would never have had an inch that they wouldn’t have to fight over.”
“I THINK THE GERMANS WOULD NEVER HAVE HAD SUCH RESISTANCE AS THEY WOULD HAVE HAD IN ENGLAND”
Churchill was always aware of the need to keep morale in the Home Guard high
Japanese high-school students are put through rifle drills, but Japan’s Volunteer Fighting Corps never saw action
BELOW: Guardsmen undergo training in grenade-throwing, under the watchful eyes of a group of MPS INSET, RIGHT: Later in the war, the Home Guard was much better equipped. Here, Guardsmen operate a ‘Blacker Bombard’ spigot mortar This sergeant is lucky enough to have been issued with a Thompson submachine gun
Local Defence Volunteers, distinguished only by an armband and the occasional medal, in 1940