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.

Early for­ma­tion

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.”


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

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