initially "Local Defence Volunteers"
Home Guard post in central London, 1940
|Active||14 May 1940 - 3 December 1944|
|Role||Defence from invasion|
|Disbanded||31 December 1945|
The Home Guard (initially "Local Defence Volunteers" or LDV, or in slang, Look-Duck-Vanish, hence the name change) 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 her allies. The Home Guard guarded the coastal areas of Britain and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores.
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 Brigade 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. 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 Germany on 1 September, 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. 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. 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'. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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 the 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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 enroll in the LDV at their local police station. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk between 27 May to 4 June. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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'. 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.
The Home Guard did not, initially, admit women to its ranks. Some women formed their own groups like the Amazon Defence Corps. 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.
The Home Guard was stood down in late 1944 when the danger of invasion was recognised as past and male members were rewarded with a certificate. It would not be until 1945 that those women who had helped as auxiliaries were recognised with their own certificate.
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.
However following the successful invasion of France and the drive towards Germany by allied armies, the Home Guard were formally stood down on 3 December 1944 and finally disbanded on 31 December 1945. The only decoration for the Guard was the Defence Medal and then only if the recipient had served three years and requested it.
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 an emergency so as to free up the better-trained Territorial forces for more important roles. The Force was disbanded in 1993.
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. 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. Some even had access to armoured cars, though these were makes no longer in service with the regular army.
Ex-Communist and Spanish Civil War veteran Tom Wintringham, a journalist and key advocate of the LDV and later 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.
On 23 July 1940, the LDV was renamed the "Home Guard", a name suggested by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. 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.
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 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.
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.
The first line of defence against the Luftwaffe was detecting incoming raids. Even before the war, Britain had invested much time and resources in the construction of the Chain Home radar line. The CH system which dotted the English coastline operated on a 24-hour schedule, and could detect incoming aircraft from over seventy miles away. To locate low-flying planes, which could avoid detection at less than 500 ft (152 m), the British also operated the narrow wavelength "Chain-Home: Low" system, which detected planes travelling low yet still over five hundred feet. These gave the British sufficient warning to allow their fighters to reach the necessary altitude before arrival of the bombers.
Once inland, the movements of German aircraft were visually tracked and reported by the Royal Observer Corps, a volunteer civil unit formed in 1925 administered by the Royal Air Force. It eventually grew to over 40,000 men and women and 1,500 observation posts nationwide, their work allowing the RAF to know the strength as well as location and direction of the enemy, permitting them to predict the target and defend against it with minimum fuel consumption.
Enemy aircraft proved to be a menace throughout the war. Operating in both day and night raids, the defence against the Luftwaffe required huge amounts of anti-aircraft construction. For the British, heavy anti-aircraft weaponry was in no short supply. With over a thousand HAA guns divided across seven divisions under Anti-Aircraft Command, the British troops had guns in a quantity rivalled only by variety. In the early months of the war Great Britain still used Great War surplus armaments in the form of a truck-mounted 3-inch gun which provided more enthusiasm than fire-power. The next largest was the QF 3.7-inch gun, which shared some of the anti-armour capabilities of the German 88 mm gun. The largest guns were the 4.5-inch and the enormous 5.25-inch similar to guns used aboard some Royal Navy warships which were mounted in two different types of turret. Though the Royal Artillery handled most of the shells physically, the men of the Home Guard often filled in as replacements. From April 1942, Home Guard Anti-Aircraft units were formed, and by 1944 these units had taken over many anti-aircraft batteries, operating artillery from the light to heavy guns and also the semi-secret rocket batteries (also known as "Z-batteries").
The aiming and management of communication was the sole domain of women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). On the Wirral Peninsula, Cheshire, the shortage of men, who were guarding the beaches, required women to operate the town's single AA battery alone.
The HAA stations could stop a high-flying bomber but not the fast-moving escort fighters and the dreaded Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers which came with them. The Light Anti Aircraft was in dire shortage thanks to a lack of direction and planning. In the 1930s, the British had expected to use their own Vickers 2 pounder "pom-pom", but with complex multiple gun mounts weighing 800 lb (363 kg) it was limited to Royal Navy use. Therefore they turned to foreign sources.
In 1937, the British Army had ordered one hundred of the Swedish Bofors 40 mm gun. The Bofors had attracted international attention as a quality weapon. Britain had evaluated the gun and arranged licensed UK production. With engineering revision and reduction, the British produced it twice as fast at half the cost. Production steadily increased to 200 or more per month by mid 1940 but production was not expected to match requirements until 1942.
In 1939, the only other supply of LAA was a hastily conceived plan to purchase Breda 20mm guns from Italy. The Tripartite Pact ended that possibility.
Even with the impressive series of anti-aircraft defences which spread across the island over the next four years, emergency precautions were taken to reduce the danger to civilians. The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Civil Defence Service was controlled by the Home Office. Men and women alike offered their services as fire fighters in the Auxiliary Fire Service, but 'fire watching' (reporting of fires in commercial buildings and dealing with individual incendiary bombs) was compulsory for all civilians in towns. Early warning observers were used during the V-1 campaign. All of these jobs served to relieve the local population.
Despite a history of coastal defences stretching back to the days of Henry VIII, the British had not extensively fortified their coast, but had concentrated on what were considered 'vulnerable points'. The result was a series of ports guarded by 6-inch and 9-inch guns; a number of 9.2-, 13.5- and 18-inch railway guns and howitzers (the 18-inch howitzer being nicknamed "Bosch Buster") were deployed to various parts of the coast immediately after the Dunkirk evacuation; surrounded by open undefended beach with nothing but sand to block a landing army.
To remedy this, the Home Guard was tasked with guarding the beaches as well. The Home Guard peppered the coastline with unarmoured gun emplacements, equipped with old First World War naval guns. Some of the LDV manning these positions were untrained and armed with little more than shotguns. Others, such as Robert Neal, had rifles dating from the 1880s, and wrote in his diary, "I don't know what they expect me to do, I can't even use my own gun, much less this enormous contraption next to me." In the event of an invasion at that time, the beaches would almost certainly have fallen to German forces.
It was never the intention for coastal defences to halt an invasion such as Germany's planned Operation Sealion. The coastal defences were only intended to delay an invasion, and combined with Stop Lines, slow down an attack in order that naval forces could be deployed to cut off supply lines, and troops moved into appropriate locations. This strategy was borne out in war games conducted at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in which a combination of the Coastal Defences, Stop Lines and a naval deployment from Scapa Flow to halt Axis naval forces effected a surrender of the invading forces.
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 Kennedy) believed that this could cause, in the event of invasion, all US citizens living in London to be shot as Francs-tireurs.
The Chief Constable of Glasgow suggested that criminal elements joined the home guard in order to break, enter and loot during the blackout..
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 to have kept the efforts of the Home Guard in the public consciousness.
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.
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 the Second World War.
Noel 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.
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 Great War as an adult. In the monologue dealing with World War Two Sam is sent to the Home Guard instead of the front line, much to his bemusement, and whilst their 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.
The British Home Guard was a defence organisation of the British Army during World War II. It was active from 1940 until 1944. The Home Guard had 1.5 million local volunteers who were not able to serve in the army. This was usually because they were too old. They were to be a secondary defence force, in case of invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany and her allies. The Home Guard guarded the coastal areas of Britain and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores.
They were made famous by the television sitcom Dad's Army.