The Home Guard was originally known as the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). This was considered too much of a title and it became the Home Guard, though the nickname ‘Look, Duck and Vanish’ did stick – rather unfairly as the work done by the HOme Guard was very important.
The Home Guard had a number of purposes. They made those in it feel as if they were doing something constructive in the war effort. The Home Guard was not simply for older men past conscription age. Those young enough to be conscripted but who did not pass the military’s medicals could join the Home Guard. Men between 17 and 65 years could join it. The government had expected 150,000 volunteers in total but within 24 hours of Anthony Eden’s radio broadcast, 250,000 had joined. By August 1940, over 1.5 million men had volunteered.
On May 14th, the Minister of War, Anthony Eden, made the following national announcement:
|“We want large numbers of men in Great Britain who are British subjects between the ages of 17 and 65 to come forward now and offer their service in order to make assurance doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers.”|
The authorities were completely unprepared for the number that did respond. Within 6 weeks of the announcement by Eden, ten times more men had volunteered than the War Office had expected in total. To begin there were simply not enough official forms for men to apply – local police simply resorted to making a list of names.
With such a response, the War Office was faced with a number of problems. The primary ones were supplying sufficient uniforms for so many volunteers and the necessary weapons if Britain was to be properly defended. All available weaponry had, understandably, been handed to the regular military and a vast amount was to be lost by the BEF at Dunkirk. The Home Guard was ordered to find whatever it could to defend itself and occasionally men in the Home Guard were referred to as the ‘Broomstick Army’, the result of being seen drilling with broomsticks. Even six weeks after Eden’s broadcast, there was only one rifle to every six men in the Home Guard. When rifles did arrive, they were American P17’s and P14’s from World War One.
They trained in the evening in such things as weapons handling, unarmed combat and basic sabotage. However, complaints were made that too much time was spent on drill as opposed to learning about proper soldiering. Despite Churchill’s demand that the Home Guard be issued with proper weapons, the War Office issued 250,000 pikes – bayonets welded onto metal poles. Local Home Guard commanders initially received little guidance from the War Office as to training and it was left to them to develop their own tactics that were relevant to their own locality. However, with little professional support, a man in the Home Guard was four times as likely to die in an accident during training than a regular soldier.
However, training in the Home Guard was transformed in July 1940 by a veteran of World War One and the Spanish Civil War, Tom Wintringham. During the Spanish Civil War, Wintringham had developed an expertise in guerilla fighting. Using various contacts, Wintringham set up the first guerilla warfare school at Osterley Park to the west of London. Hundreds of Home Guard volunteers turned up.
At Osterley Park, these volunteers were taught how to fight an enemy. Most of Wintringham’s teachers were veterans of the Spanish Civil War including Basques who specialised in explosives. Training in guerilla warfare for the Home Guard volunteers started within 20 minutes of arrival and in the first three months Wintringham and his men had trained 5,000 volunteers. They were simply taught what they needed to know. The fame of Osterley Park was such that journalists from America did reports on it.
However, Wintringham never received the full support of the government as he had fought for the Communists in the Spanish Civil War and some in government believed that he was covertly training an army that would one day be used against the government. Though an absurdity, such a belief needs to be taken in the context of the time. In 1940, Stalin’s Russia was not an ally and had, with Hitler’s Germany, attacked Poland in September 1939. Suspicion about communists did not just start in 1939 – Lenin’s Bolsheviks had executed the Russian royal family in 1918 and pulled Russia out of World War One, thus freeing up thousands of German soldiers for the Western Front.
After just three months in charge, Osterley Park was taken over by the military and Wintringham and his men were pushed aside. However, the War Office recognised the value of such training camps and set up three more of them across the UK, based on how Osterley Park was run.
The Home Guard acted as sentries during the day and night and became extra ‘ears and eyes’ for the full-time military. They checked that people were carrying their Identity Cards. Those caught without one could be arrested and handed over to the police.
Local Home Guard units would know who lived locally and any strangers to an area would be subject to a check, especially as there was a genuine fear of Fifth Columnists. The Home Guard was also responsible for taking down road signs and any local clues that might help the enemy should they invade.
The south coast at Newhaven would have been patrolled
The “Home Guard Handbook” published in 1940 stated that the main duties of the Home Guard were :
“Guarding important points
Observation and reporting – prompt and precise.
Immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy.
The defence of roads, villages, factories and vital points in towns to block enemy movement.”
Every member of the Home Guard was expected to know :
“The whole of the ground in his own district.
The personnel of his own detachment.
The headquarters of his detachment and where he is to report for duty in the event of an alarm.
What the alarm signal is.
The form of reports concerning enemy landings or approaches, what the reports should contain, and to whom they should be sent.”
The Home Guard was also called on to man anti-aircraft guns and rocket launches around London – especially at bases at Shooter’s Hill and Pett’s Wood, both to the south-east of London. At Pett’s Wood, there were six heavy anti-aircraft guns that required eleven men to a gun. Therefore, the six guns required sixty-six Home Guard men to fully operate them. This freed up men from the regular army for other duties.
By the spring of 1944, there were 100,000 men from the Home Guard working on anti-aircraft batteries. Their main task in that year was against the V1.
To start with a ring of 1,500 anti-aircraft guns manned by the Home Guard was set up on the North Downs. Fighter planes flew just off the coast However, this did not work as planes tracking the V1’s were open to the gunfire from the anti-aircraft batteries. The plan was switched with the guns being moved to the coast – along with their Home Guard operators – and the planes flying inland. A line of anti-aircraft guns was set up from Dover to Littlehampton. The success rate was such that between 60% to 70% of all V1’s never made it to London as, one way or another, they were brought down.
Though seen as not real soldiers’, the Home Guard did valuable work. By acting as sentries, patrolling the countryside etc. they relieved the regular army to do other work. A special unit, the Auxiliary Unit, was created to fight behind enemy lines should an invasion occur. They would have lived and fought out of secret bases in the countryside. Their job would have been to sabotage anything that might have been of use to the Nazi invaders. Their knowledge of the local terrain would have been a valuable asset in any fight against the Nazis.
Winston Churchill said of the force:
|“Such a force is of the highest value and importance. A country where every street and every village bristles with resolute, armed men is a country against which the tactics that destroyed the Dutch will not succeed…………a country so defended would not be liable to be overthrown.”|