British Home Guard

British Home Guard

Infobox Military Unit
unit_name=Home Guard
initially "Local Defence Volunteers"

caption=Walter Rankin LDV painted in 1940 by Sir William Oliphant Hutchison
role=Defence from invasion
country=United Kingdom
branch=British Army
dates=14 May 1940 - 3 December 1944
disbanded=31 December 1945
notable commanders=Field Marshal Sir Edmund Ironside

The British Home Guard (initially "Local Defence Volunteers" or "LDV", or in slang, "Look-Duck-Vanish", hence the name change) was a defence organisation active in the United Kingdom during World War II. Operational from 1940 until 1944, the Home Guard – comprising 1.5 million local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, usually owing to age – acted as a secondary defence force, in case of invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany. The Home Guard, also commonly referred to as 'Dad's Army', guarded the coastal areas of Britain and other important places such as factories and explosives stores.

Early development

The Home Guard began as the brain child of Captain Tom Wintringham, who returning from the Spanish Civil War wrote a book entitled "How to Reform the Army", which, among a large number of regular army reforms, called for:

"In addition to Regulars and Territorials, twelve divisions of equal quality to that of the International Brigade in Spain...formed the same way, by voluntary enlistment from amongst Ex-servicemen and youths."
[How to Reform the Army, April 1939 p.74]
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.

The first to grasp the nettle and form volunteer units along this line was Commander-in-Chief Walter Kirke. Witness to the destruction of Poland in September 1939, Kirke knew that it was only a matter of time before the tanks and war planes of the Wehrmacht came to Britain's doorstep. Kirke also knew that, in such an event, Britain would be woefully under prepared.

As early as 1939, following the torpedoing of HMS "Royal Oak" at anchor in Scapa Flow, Scotland, Winston Churchill wrote a letter to the Chiefs of Staff asking, "What would happen if 20,000 enemy troops were to land on the east coast of England?"

General Kirke founded the Local Defence Volunteers in February 1940. Initially devised as a means to defend the critical port of Dover, the ranks swelled quickly with local volunteers, too old to enlist but eager to fight. Though not yet acknowledged by the British government, they began training to operate the batteries of four-, six-, and nine-inch artillery pieces which defended the port. Directed seaward to repel naval bombardment, these gun emplacements doubled in number with emergency positions which were being assembled even as the British Expeditionary Force left for Europe. While the coastal guns and the LDV stayed behind, the BEF marched to the borders of France and into battle.

Official recognition

Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden announced the creation of the LDV in a radio broadcast on 14 May 1940 and asked for volunteers, four days after the German "Blitzkrieg" started in France and the Low Countries.

:"We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance [that any invasion would fail] doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers. This name describes its duties in three words. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniforms and will be armed. In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give your name at your local police station, and then, when we want you, we will let you know..."

The announcement met with near-universal enthusiasm and over a quarter of a million men tried to sign up within the next 24 hours. The government had expected 150,000 men to volunteer in total, but by the end of the first month 750,000 men had volunteered. By the end of June 1940, there were nearly 1.5 million volunteers and the number never fell below a million for the rest of the organisation's existence although the peak was 1.8 million in March 1943.

On 17 May 1940, the "Defence (Local Defence Volunteers) Regulations 1940" was passed, which officially brought the LDV into existence. Within ten days, the BEF had been pushed back and surrounded at Dunkirk. Field Marshal Sir Edmund Ironside former Chief of the Imperial General Staff served briefly as its commander-in-chief.

In July 1940 the name was changed to "Home Guard" at Churchill's instruction.

The Home Guard also served as a cover for the Auxiliary Units, a force of more highly trained volunteer troops that would function as guerilla 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. [cite web | title=Defending their realm | work=The Guardian | author= Midge Gillies | url=,,1800683,00.html | accessdate=2007-03-13 ] 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 anyway 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.

Weapons and training

Initially the LDV were poorly armed, since the regular forces had priority for weapons and equipment. Their 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 being given only negligible training and weapons such as pitchforks and shotguns or firearms that belonged in a museum. 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. [ Carrol, David “The Home Guard” , Page 35. Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1999] 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. [Mace, Martin F "Vehicles of the Home guard", Page 6, 7. Historic Military Press, 2001] Some even had access to armoured cars, though these were makes no longer in service with the regular army. [ ibid , Page 5. Historic Military Press, 2001]

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 activities in support of the Home Guard, Wintringham was never allowed to join the organisation himself because of a policy barring membership to 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 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.

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 a shotgun.

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 said 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, also the ringing of church bells was forbidden at all other times.

Anti-aircraft defences

The first line of defence against the Luftwaffe was detecting incoming raids. Even before the war, Britain had invested much time and resources into 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. Moreover, to find 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.

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 at 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 20 mm 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.

Coastal defence

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 the sand to block a landing army.

To remedy this, the Home Guard was tasked with guarding the beaches as well. The Home Guard produced a coastline peppered with unarmoured gun emplacements, equipped with old First World War naval guns. Worse still, 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, however, never the intention for coastal defences to halt an invasion such as the planned Operation Sealion. The coastal defences were only intended to delay an invasion of this type, 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.

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.

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.

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.

In popular culture

The Home Guard was immortalised in the British 1960s and 1970s 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's been 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 are involved in rivalry between the Home Guard Divisions of 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. [ [ Get Cracking] ]

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 in World War II.

Noel Coward wrote a song in 1943, "Won't 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.

British wartime propaganda film 'Went the Day Well?' starring Thora Hird made at Ealing Studios in 1942 focuses on the Home Guard victory in quelling a German Paratroop invasion. A similar story is told in 'The Eagle Has Landed', a book by Jack Higgins made into a popular film staring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Donald Pleasence and Robert Duvall, released in 1976, with the United States Army Rangers instead of the Home Guard.

ee also

*Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II
*Canadian Rangers - a group in Canada that functions like the Home Guard
*State Defense Forces - State military forces in the U.S. similar to the Home Guard
*National Guard
*Home Service Force



Further reading

*"Tom Wintringham" - 'How to Reform the Army" (Fact Monographs, 1939)
*"Charles Graves" - "The Home Guard of Britain" (1943)
*"Norman Longmate" - "The Real Dad's Army - the story of the Home Guard"
*"S. P. MacKenzie" - "The Home Guard — A Military and Political History." (Oxford University Press, 1995) ISBN 0-19-820577-5.
*'Duty Without Glory' - The story of Ulster's Home Guard in the Second World War and the Cold War by David R Orr (Redcoat Publishing, 2008)
* 'To The Last Round: The Leicestershire & Rutland Home Guard 1940-1945' by Austin J. Ruddy, Breedon Books (2007)

External links

* [ Home Guard Pocket Manual] by Capt. A. Southworth, M.B.E. Online resource.
* [ Photos of UK World War 2 Invasion Defences]
* [ The Home Guard]
* [ 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
* [ Coventry Home Guard] Photos and Memorabilia
* [ Revealed: the real Dad's Army] University of Manchester study.

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