Various schemes were proposed following the outbreak of war with Germany in September,1939 which were aimed at mobilising those men who were either too young, too old, or medically unfit to serve with the regular forces. It was realised that there was a huge pool of veterans from the First World War who could be utilised should Germany attempt to invade and that these required only equipping and organising. Fears of German invasion waned during the 8-months of the so-called ‘Phony War’, when both sides faced each other across long-prepared defences on the Franco-German border, and with them went the appetite for spending scarce resources on a ‘Dad’s Army’.
All that changed in May,1940 when the German armed forces launched their ‘Blitzkrieg’ (Lightning War) offensive into France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The Allied defences were thrown into utter disarray by the speed of the German advance and the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) escaped annihilation only through the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’; albeit at the cost of almost all its heavy weapons and equipment.
Suddenly a German invasion again seemed a very real possibility. The Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) were hurriedly created on 14 May and all men between the ages of 17 and 65, who were not already serving in some capacity, were called upon to volunteer. They would not be paid, but were assured that they would be dressed and equipped in-line with the regular army. In the event this proved to be easier said than done.
Exceeding all expectations, a quarter-of-a-million men came forward during the first week of the scheme. With any official involvement hopelessly swamped, informal bands of volunteers were formed at factories, or from sporting and hobby clubs. As the authorities finally started catching up, an LDV command structure was organised along regional lines, and the volunteers were at least issued with an identifying armband; but no weapons other than those they provided themselves!
In truth, the disaster that was befalling the BEF in France meant that such resources that were available had to be channeled to the regular forces. With morale suffering due to the obvious low priority being given to the volunteers, Winston Churchill, who had become Prime Minister on 10 May, directed that the name of the organisation be changed to The Home Guard to emphasize its crucial role in the nation’s defence. It was pointed out at the time that a million ‘LDV’ armbands had already been printed, but Churchill ignored the waste and on 22 July the organised was formally renamed.
From the outset there was a mis-match between what the volunteers believed was their purpose and what the military authorities had decreed. To the volunteers, around 40% of them veterans of the First World War, they were to serve in a support role to the regular army and confront any German forces that appeared in their assigned areas. The military authorities, however, realised that, despite their fighting spirit, the volunteers would be no match for a well equipped, well trained and battle-hardened military force like the Wehrmacht, and instead saw the Home Guard taking on a variety of low level military tasks to free-up regular troops for combat duties. The TV series ‘Dad’s Army’, which is superb in its accurate, if tongue-in-cheek, depiction of the formation and functioning of a Home Guard platoon, conveyed this disparity on a regular basis. In one scene the Platoon is being lectured on how to blow up an advancing enemy tank, in the next they are standing rota for guard duty at the local gas works.
Because they were unpaid volunteers who had been raised to meet what was seen as a short-term crisis, members of the Home Guard had no official military status. Members could come and go as they pleased without punishment and they held no defined ranks. When it was realised that the War was not to be over quickly, however, the organisation was placed on a more permanent footing. Its command structure was remodelled in November,1940 along regular Army lines and by the end of that year it comprised 1,200 Battalions organised into 5,000 Companies and, in turn, 25,000 Platoons.
The strength of each varied widely from area to area. The Platoon was the core unit and each generally operated semi-independently – again, think of the TV show ‘Dad’s Army’. Typically, a Platoon would have a fighting strength of perhaps 25 men, equivalent to 2 Army Sections plus command ranks. However, because members would often be missing due to work commitments, each Platoon would perhaps have twice that many men on its books. The armament problem had been eased by this time by the lend-lease purchase of half-a-million M1917 Enfield Rifles from the United States; a modified version of the British .303” Enfield, or Rifle No.3, which was the standard weapon of the British Army during World War One. Surplus army battledress and boots had also finally become available and were increasingly issued to the Home Guard during the Summer of 1940; the period of the Battle of Britain.
Severe shortages remained, however, in such items as equipment webbing, gaiters, greatcoats and steel helmets. Often stop-gap measures had to be introduced wholesale, such as the issuing of capes to keep the volunteers warm and dry while on guard duty.
From February,1941, members of the Home Guard were permitted to use their equivalent regular Army ranks. For some reason, however, the lowest rank remained ‘Volunteer’ until the Spring of 1942 when it was finally changed to the more familiar ‘Private’. Around this same time limited conscription was introduced to fill the ranks of understrength Home Guard units in particular areas. Home Guard officers were granted the King’s Commission from the end of 1940, but were held to be junior to their regular counterparts.
As the effectiveness of the organisation began to be realised, it was used to provide manpower for more active units. These included Anti-aircraft and Searchlight Batteries, Coastal Gun emplacements, Bomb Disposal Sections and Motor Transport hubs. In 1940 there had been an adverse reaction to the suggestion that women should be allowed to serve in the Home Guard and this attitude persisted throughout the War. However, in 1942, by which time they had more than proven their worth elsewhere, women were given the chance to join the new Women’s Home Guard Auxiliaries. These acted in support roles to the Home Guard in such activities as administration, but did not wear uniforms.
Members of the Home Guard were eligible for the same combat bravery awards as their regular equivalents. However, because their interaction with the enemy was strictly limited, the only known instance of such an award was a Military Medal awarded to Volunteer Glyn Jones in September,1940 for an action with a German submarine. This was not the case for those awards made for acts of bravery not involving the enemy, however. Two Home Guard members were awarded the George Cross, both posthumously, and 13 the George Medal; these being the country’s supreme non-combat bravery awards.
Because they were not allowed to serve abroad, the only Service Medal available to the Home Guard was the Defence Medal. This was awarded to military personnel, and members of some civilian organisations, to recognise their involvement in the war effort while based in the United Kingdom.
Not until the end of 1944, long after the threat of invasion had been removed, was the Home Guard finally stood-down and even then its members remained on a reserve list, liable to be recalled in an emergency. The organisation was finally disbanded in December, 1945.