Britain at War: The Home Guard

Today, I’m going to be talking about Dad’s Army . . . I mean, the Home Guard, a defence organisation made up of British men who were too old, too young or otherwise ineligible to join the regular British Army. The Home Guard (initially called the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’, or LDV) was formed in 1940, when there was a real fear that Britain was about to be invaded by Germany. By that time, the Nazis had overrun Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, while most of the rest of Europe was ruled by dictators who supported Hitler. The British government called for volunteers to ‘defend our island’ and was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response.

Local Defence Volunteers in London, 1940
Local Defence Volunteers in London, 1940
At its peak, the Home Guard had nearly two million members. Unfortunately, the government was struggling to provide enough uniforms and rifles to the regular army (they’d lost quite a lot of equipment in their hasty withdrawal from Dunkirk), so the Home Guard had to improvise. They made bombs out of jam jars and beer bottles filled with petrol, borrowed ancient weapons from local museums, and sharpened up their pitchforks and kitchen knives. In June 1940, Churchill ordered that “every man must have a weapon of some sort, be it only a mace or a pike”, so 250,000 ‘pikes’ (obsolete bayonets welded to long steel tubes) were dutifully ordered (although never actually distributed to the Home Guard).

The Home Guard set up watch posts in coastal towns and erected roadblocks, but some of them were a little too enthusiastic in carrying out their duties:

“. . . on the night of 2/3 June 1940, LDVs shot and killed four motorists at separate locations; on 22nd June it was reported that two motorcyclists and their passengers had been killed and wounded in the north of England and in Scotland; on 26 June an ARP [Air Raid Precautions] warden was shot dead when he ignored (or maybe didn’t hear) an LDV challenge; and in Romford in Essex a car exhaust backfiring prevented the driver hearing the command to stop: four passengers were shot dead and a fifth seriously wounded.”1

The Home Guard did even more damage to themselves, as can be seen here. Although the Germans never invaded Britain, over 1,600 Home Guardsmen were killed on duty, often by self-inflicted injuries.

Officially, women weren’t allowed to join the Home Guard because it would be “abhorrent” for a female to bear arms. “What about Boadicea?” pointed out Labour MP Edith Summerskill, but she was ignored. Eventually a Women’s Home Guard Auxiliary was formed, but women who joined were only allowed to perform traditional womanly duties such as cooking, cleaning and taking telephone messages. This did not deter Marjorie Foster and her fellow female patriots, who set up the Amazon Defence Corps and trained women in the arts of musketry, bombing and unarmed combat. Henry FitzOsborne would have approved.

Tomorrow: Bletchley Park

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  1. Juliet Gardiner, Wartime Britain 1939-1945

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