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


  1. Juliet Gardiner, Wartime Britain 1939-1945

The FitzOsbornes at War, Plus My Favourite Non-Fiction About WWII Britain

The final book in the Montmaray Journals trilogy, The FitzOsbornes at War, is released in North America today. Hooray!

'The FitzOsbornes at War' North American edition
‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, published in North America on October 9, 2012
This edition is pretty much the same as the Australian edition (apart from the cover art and the American spelling and punctuation, of course), but one difference is that it contains a family tree for the FitzOsborne family, dated 1955. As I don’t want those who bought the Australian edition to miss out, I’ve now posted a version of that family tree on my author website. (Please note that the family tree contains plot spoilers for all three books, so it’s not a good idea to click on that link until you’ve read all three books. Unless you’re the sort of reader who always reads the last pages of a novel first – in which case, go ahead and click.)

Now that the trilogy is finished, does anyone want to ask me any questions about the Montmaray books? I could set up a separate page on this blog with a big spoiler warning. If anyone thinks that’s a good idea, leave a comment below, and I’ll start a Montmaray Q & A page. (Of course, you can continue to email me with questions, but I thought it might be more efficient if everyone could read the questions and answers, especially as people tend to ask the same questions.)

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in how I went about researching, planning and writing The FitzOsbornes at War, I wrote a series of blog posts about it earlier this year. And here are my five favourite non-fiction books about Britain during WWII:

1. Debs at War 1939-1945: How Wartime Changed Their Lives by Anne de Courcy

The privileged young British women who joined the services, drove ambulances, built aircraft in factories, nursed the wounded and worked on farms during the war tell their stories.

'Wartime Britain 1939-1945' by Juliet Gardiner2. Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner

A meticulously researched account of every aspect of life on the Home Front, from the blackout, rationing and the Blitz, to the experiences of ‘enemy aliens’ and prisoners of war in Britain.

3. Voices from the Home Front: Personal Experiences of Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Felicity Goodall

Moving stories taken from the letters and diaries of ordinary British people living through extraordinary hardships.

4. Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45 by Susan Briggs

A fascinating and well-organised collection of wartime photos, cartoons, advertisements, posters, pamphlets and songs.

5. Sea Dog Bamse: World War II Canine Hero by Angus Whitson and Andrew Orr

The story of Bamse, a charismatic St Bernard who was an official crew member of the minesweeper Thorodd and a mascot to the Free Norwegian Forces stationed in Scotland during the war.

Tomorrow: The Home Guard

Britain at War: Masters of Illusion

This week, to mark the release of the North American edition of The FitzOsbornes at War, I’m going to be blogging about Britain during the Second World War. Today, it’s all about the artists who used their skills to camouflage buildings, guns, lorries, tanks, canals – and even entire cities – to protect them from Nazi attacks. Among these artists was the surrealist painter Julian Trevelyan, who was sent on a military camouflage training course in 1940. He learned how animals camouflage themselves in the wild with protective colouring, then was sent off with his paint tins and brushes to work in Cornwall, where he disguised concrete forts as cottages, public toilets and chicken houses, and used careful countershading to render anti-tank guns invisible against hedges. He also gave lectures to soldiers, showing them slide shows of how to camouflage themselves from air attacks (making sure he included slides “of nude girls under a camouflage net to wake up the men when they had dropped off”1). He was later stationed in North Africa and Palestine, where he disguised military tanks and created a dummy army to deceive the German Afrika Korps.

Inflatable dummyTank
A dummy inflatable tank used by the Allies during WWII
Camouflage was also an essential part of Operation Normandy, the Allied invasion of occupied France and Belgium in 1944. The Allied strategists went to great lengths to fool the Germans into thinking the Allied troops would depart from Dover and land in Calais. There were hundreds of fake plywood planes stationed on Kent airfields, as well as dummy landing craft floating on the Thames. They set up inflatable rubber tanks and lorries to make it look as though the Allies had more equipment than they actually possessed, and the 82nd Group Camouflage Company spent weeks making fake tyre marks in the grass so that it would appear that an enormous army had been practising manoeuvres. They also built a huge fake oil-storage tank in Dover, which was regularly ‘inspected’ by the King and Queen for the benefit of German spies.

One of the most famous camouflage experts of the war was magician Jasper Maskelyne, who was recruited into the British army at the same time as Julian Trevelyan. Maskelyne had been particularly bored during the animal-camouflage lectures of their training course (“a lifetime of hiding things on the stage had taught me more about the subject than rabbits and tigers will ever know”2), but he went on to disguise military equipment in the Western Desert and even claimed that he’d made the city of Alexandria temporarily ‘disappear’. He truly was a Master of Illusion.

Tomorrow: Publication day for The FitzOsbornes at War! Also, I talk about some of my favourite non-fiction books about wartime Britain.


  1. Julian Trevelyan, Indigo Days, quoted in Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime Britain 1939-1945
  2. Jasper Maskelyne, Magic – Top Secret, quoted in Gardiner

My Favourite Books of 2010

Lots of bloggers are listing their best and worst books of the year, and I’d like to join in. I do have a few problems, though. Firstly, I don’t keep a record of what I’ve read or when I’ve read it, so I’m not entirely certain whether some of these books were read this year, or at the end of last year. Secondly, I’m not going to name any books that I’ve disliked. It is true that I’ve been disappointed by a few books I’ve read recently. In each case, I’d been expecting something great, either because I’d liked previous books by that author, or because there’d been a lot of hype about the book. However, it isn’t the authors’ fault that my expectations didn’t match their books, so I don’t think I ought to criticise them for it. Thirdly, this year has been a bit unusual for me, with respect to my reading. I spent the first few months working my way through two enormous boxes of Australian YA fiction (and some non-fiction), because I was helping to judge a literary award. Then, for the rest of the year, I was immersed in non-fiction about World War Two (with some British 1930s and wartime novels for light relief). Here, then, is a list of the books I remember enjoying (or being intrigued by) this year.

Australian YA Fiction

When The Hipchicks Went To WarI loved Pamela Rushby’s When the Hipchicks Went To War, which won this year’s Ethel Turner Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a moving account of a teenage girl who goes to Vietnam to entertain the troops, told in a fresh, funny and very Australian voice. I enjoyed all the books on the shortlist for this prize (which is not very surprising, because I helped select the shortlist). I also liked Blue Noise by Debra Oswald. It’s an engaging story about some high schoolers who start a band, with an ending that was hopeful without being too neat or saccharine (also, hooray for an Australian book that is not set in a country town, and a story that does not rely on a teenage girl getting murdered or killing herself). I was also fond of Keepinitreal by Don Henderson (imagine the film The Castle, but with greyhound racing) and The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar (an old-fashioned mystery about an intriguing house and its former owner, featuring some beautiful writing).

Other Fiction

I must have read lots of other novels this year, but only two (well, three) remain in my thoughts. The Believers by Zoë Heller has had mixed reviews, but I thought it was terrific. I admit that the characters are extremely unlikeable, and I did find the conclusion to Rosa’s story irritating and implausible. However, I was intrigued enough by this very dysfunctional New York family that I re-read the book, and I enjoyed it even more the second time.

The Night WatchThe other novel that stuck in my mind was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Really, this book deserves a blog post all of its own. Suffice to say it’s the story of four people living in London during the Blitz, linked in ways that only become apparent at the end of the book, due to the very clever structure of the narrative. This was the first Sarah Waters book I’d read, and I was so impressed by her writing that I raced out and bought The Little Stranger. Which I did not like nearly as much (see what I mean about high expectations), even though it’s a very well-plotted ghost story with a fascinating setting (a crumbling country house in post-war England).

World War Two Non-Fiction

I read a LOT of books about wartime Europe this year, but it was for research purposes – I was interested in facts, not the literary qualities of the books. However, a few of them stood out because they were not only useful, but interesting and well-written enough to appeal to (some) general readers. Firstly, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary was a fascinating, heart-breaking (and occasionally infuriating) memoir of a young RAF pilot who was shot down and badly injured during the Battle of Britain. The Last EnemyThe book gives an unsentimental account of his medical rehabilitation (his hands and face were surgically reconstructed by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe) and it describes Hillary’s evolving views on the war. The story is made more poignant by the fact that Hillary somehow managed to talk his way back into the air force (despite having only limited movement in his hands) and then crashed his plane during re-training, dying at the age of twenty-three. For a more general overview of Britain’s fighter pilots during WWII, I recommend Patrick Bishop’s Fighter Boys, which paints a vivid portrait of the individual (and very young) men who helped prevent Britain’s invasion in 1940. I also liked The Freedom Line by Peter Eisner, about the underground resistance in Belgium and France rescuing Allied airmen who’d been shot down over Nazi-occupied territory.

The best book I read about the experiences of civilians was Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner. Somehow, she managed to describe every aspect of wartime life, from rationing to the Blitz to the ‘invasion’ of Britain by American servicemen, in a way that was clear, coherent and accessible. However, at eight hundred pages, this book is probably only for those with a deep interest in the subject. For others, I recommend Keep Smiling Through: The Home Front 1939-45 by Susan Briggs, an intriguing collection of photos, cartoons, advertisements and newspaper articles from the war years, with just enough comment to provide context.

Other Non-Fiction

The God DelusionI think I only read two non-fiction books this year that weren’t about WWII, but they were both amazing. First was Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit and the rise of Hamas by Paul McGeough. It reads like a thriller, but also explains the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. By the end of the book, I had a much better understanding of Middle Eastern politics, and felt thoroughly pessimistic about peace ever being achieved in that part of the world. Secondly, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins was, as I’d expected, a clear, rational argument for atheism. What I didn’t expect was that this book would be so entertaining, inspiring and plain laugh-out-loud funny. Admittedly, I’m an atheist, but I really feel this is an important book for everyone to read, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Phew! I seem to have read a lot of Very Serious Books this year, but this really wasn’t a typical reading year for me. I’m also sure I’ve left out some wonderful books that I’ve simply forgotten (due to my brain being over-stuffed with Very Serious Thoughts). What I have decided is that, from the first of January, I’m going to write down the title of each book I read, with a very short comment. I already have some book titles for my 2011 pile, including:

India Dark by Kirsty Murray
Monster Blood Tattoo Book Three: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley
Anonymity Jones by James Roy
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

and possibly, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, depending on how brave I’m feeling.

Hope you’ve all had a great reading year, and that 2011 brings you lots of smart, enthralling and inspiring books!