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Home Guard

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See also: Operation Sea Lion
See also: Battle of Britain

The Home Guard was a civilian defence organisation set up by Great Britain in the early days of the Second World War to defend against a German invasion (Operation Sea lion) of Britain. The only combat it saw was shooting at German aircraft.

1940

The Home Guard were established On May 14 by the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden. Tuning in to the 9 o'clock news on the BBC Home Service the people of Britain heard the Secretary of State warn of the dangers of the new warfare being encountered on the continent and in particular the threat from parachute troops which the Germans had dropped far behind the front lines.

Since the war began the Government has received countless inquiries from all over the kingdom from men of all ages who are for one reason or another not at present engaged in military service, and who wish to do something for the defence of their country. Well, now is your opportunity. We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain, who are British subjects, between the ages of I7 and 65. . . to come forward now and offer their services. . . . 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. . . . This is a part-time job, so that there will be no need for any volunteer to abandon his present occupation. . . . When on duty you will form part of the armed forces. . . . You will not be paid, but you will receive a uniform and will be armed.[1]

The rush to the recruiting offices was immediate and overwhelming, before Eden had finished his broadcast, the first Volunteers were arriving at their local police stations, and by the afternoon many were unable to process all the volunteers. The constabulary were unprepared for such enthusiasm; in one Kentish village the local bobby turned out to deal with what he took to be a mob of illegally armed civilians descending on his station and ordered them to hand over their weapons, this was a harbinger of trouble to come. By that night the first LDV (Local Defence Volunteers) were out and about. Eden had expected the scheme to be well received but never in his wildest dreams had he assumed that within 6 days the LDV would number over 250,000 men, and the police quickly ran out of enrollment forms.

Organization

On 27 May 1940, General Sir Edmund Ironside was named Commander-in-chief of Home Force, responsible for the defense of the home islands. His operational concept was to employ a layered defense, with static troops to delay German forces until the limited mobile forces could counter-attack. [2] He was appointed during the Battle of France, and the defensive plan adapted as the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from the Battle of Dunkirk, losing most of their equipment. Even with these losses, however, the Royal Navy, and to a lesser extent, the Royal Air Force, could maintain local superiority over the Germans, and potentially cut their line of communication.

At first British Army General Headquarters (GHQ) controlled the Home Guard, but as their numbers grew the administrative burden become unbearable. On the 30 of May control was passed directly to the U.K. War Office. It was envisaged that the LDV would form only company-sized units, although later the more populous areas formed battalions, which were controlled by zones.

Churchill applied the name "Home Guard" during a broadcast on 23 July, and the name proved popular. By the end of July their numbers had swollen to 1.5 million. [2]

No one knew what to do with units which had been filled in, as they were to be handed over to a 'properly appointed' commander. No such commanders existed. A solution was found, the Lord Lieutenants of the counties were called in and, in concert with the senior army commanders in their areas, set about appointing retired officers as area, zone and group organisers, charged with selecting commanders for their different localities or confirming the choices already made by individual units.

Complicating the situation was the Battle of Britain, intensifying in August and September.

Also in September, Britain signed an agreement with the United States to exchange basing rights for old U.S. destroyers, further strengthening the Royal Navy. The Germans were not skilled in amphibious warfare, and destroyers could penetrate the escort of landing craft and sink the improvised vessels simply with high-speed waves.

Legal status

The Germans immediately stigmatised the LDV as 'francs-tireurs', outside the protection afforded by international law, and under their interpretation international law HAD to be shoot on sight, A fact the volunteers took great pride in. This status, however, had been argued by the Germans since the 1874 Franco-Prussian War, and was not explicit in the relevant 1899 Hague Convention. [3]

Operations

On 14 July 1940, Churchill first referred to the new citizen army as the 'Home Guard', and the name stuck.

The qualifications required were minimal, as one veteran of the First World War recalled, the Home Guard was the 'complete answer to the "old sweat's prayer"'. There was no medical examination - recruits were required only to be. 'capable of free movement' Experience with weapons was not deemed essential, with the inevitable consequences. The upper age limit was 65 but this was not strictly observed; the oldest member of the Home Guard was well in his 80`s having seen action in the Sudan campaign of 1884-85. And many of the early recruits were veterans of the First World War. Anthony Eden had promised the volunteers that ’you will receive a uniform and will be armed', but at first the only item of uniform was an armband marked LDV, later on HG, although proper uniforms were eventually issued. It was also impossible at first to arm the LDV with anything like effective weapons, for what remained in the nation's armoury was needed by the regular troops, so the enthusiastic but untried platoons of militia found themselves equipped with all manner of unlikely instruments of war. Saloon cars, and goods vans were transformed into armoured vehicles with the addition of a few strategically placed sheets of boilerplate and chicken wire to repel German grenades.

The first Home Guard patrols were mounted by the Worthing Battalion of the Sussex Home Guard on the night of 14/15 May. On the 17th of May Eastern Command issued an order for patrols to be carried out by 1500 Volunteers in Sussex and Kent. As invasion fever gripped the country the LDV dutifully manned roadblocks, river crossings and country footpaths. Obstacles boasting descriptive names like "Dragon's Teeth" and Hairpins" were established in an effort to deny the German armour use of the main roads. In the fields steel girders, old cars and wooden poles were placed to reduce the space available for glider landings.

With so many men armed with unfamiliar and deadly weapons (even to themselves) perhaps more accidents than those that occurred could have been expected, although possibly not. enthusiastic but untrained Volunteers were more of a menace to their fellow-citizens than the enemy, and through roadblock became a new and potentially lethal hazard for motorists to negotiate.

On the night of June 2, for example, four people were shot dead in separate incidents for failing to notice or stop at LDV roadblocks. Another Home Guard unit stopped their own milkman on his rounds and forced him to turn back and fetch his papers. In another incident a Home Guard sergeant shot dead a GPO inspector visiting a local post office. At the height of the battle of Britain a Polish ace was shot repeal by Home Guard after parachuting out of his aircraft, despite the fact he was on fire and pleading for help (in Polish!). Despite these incidents it must be said that the early days of the Home Guard were characterised by mostly comic rather than tragic events.

Even the police were not immune to Home guard excesses, and it was necessary to come up with a compromise that basically and officially told the Home guard they were still subject to Police authority. Although in a move guaranteed to cause confusion, the police remained liable to questioning by the Home Guard. Inevitably the Home Guard's amateurish approach was forced to submit to more orthodox military discipline, to the consternation of many, especially some old officers now serving in the ranks (according to one veteran one Home Guard unit had 6 retired generals in it, all in their old uniforms according to one veteran). At the beginning of August 1940 its units were affiliated to county regiments, partly to undermine the German claim that the Home guard were francs-tireurs, and the process of integration with the Army began.

Training

In the summer of 1940 training had largely been left to the individual initiative of local commanders. The most notable freelance effort was the training school at Osterley Park run by Tom Wintringham, a Communist who had commanded the International Brigade’s British (13th) battalion in the Spanish Civil War.

Wintringham was a passionate advocate of guerrilla warfare, and brought with him from Spain a trio of Spanish miners who taught Volunteers how to destroy tanks. Five thousand men, passed through Wintringham's school between July and October 1940, after which it became ‘War Office No. 1 School' for the Home Guard.

The government was concerned with the Communist affiliations of Wintringham and his associates, and their desire to form a post war "citizens" army.

Eventually, they were replaced with four War Office schools were established, from which 'travelling wings' were dispatched to train units all over the country. These schools went on to train regular troops, and even the commandos in irregular warfare. Despite the excellent training programmes, the Home Guard was still capable of reducing the most serious manoeuvres to surreal slapstick.

1941-43

In February 1941 a formal system of ranks was introduced with commissions for officers. At the end of the year conscription brought an end to the purely voluntary nature of the Home Guard. With the introduction of army disciplines came army bureaucracy, and Commanders were buried under an avalanche of red tape.

From 1942 the Home Guard also provided valuable training for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who entered its ranks before their call-up.

1943-45

In the summer of 1943 there were 1100 Home Guard battalions, a total of 1.75 million men. The influx of teenagers from early in 1942 had reduced the average age to under thirty, and the proportion of 'old sweats' had dwindled to 7 per cent. The Home Guards' dress and weaponry were now almost identical to that of the regular Army, the only major difference the red shoulder flash bearing the legend "Home Guard".

The Home Guard was Over 2 million strong in 1944, of which nearly 150,000 were serving in AA batteries.

Effectiveness and employment

At the time of greatest danger, in the summer of 1940, its effectiveness would have been very limited, and the Home Guard may have perhaps even been a hindrance. Nevertheless, Churchill planned an all-out defense., in which the "whole trained British Army and its Territorial comrades drilled and exercised from morn till night and longed to meet the foe. The Home Guard overtopped the million mark, and, when rifles were lacking grasped lustily the shotgun, the sporting rifle, the private pistol, or, when there was no firearm, the pike and the club."
I have often wondered however what would have happened if two hundred thousand German storm troops had actually established themselves ashore. The massacre would have been on both sides grim and great. There would have been neither mercy nor quarter. The would have used Terror, and we were prepared to go to all lengths. I intended to use the slogan, "you can always take one with you."[4]

This is especially true of some of the more unusual units; boats were of limited use, and often of dubious offensive value. Although it comprised a million men under arms, its static nature meant that only those units in the Southeast could have rendered any immediate assistance to the Army, if Sea Lion had taken place as planed, and the others could not be moved south without seriously undermining the regular armies mobility. However, at this time of national peril it was the Home Guard's very lack of mobility which proved an invaluable asset.

The regular Army was in desperate need of training, but this could not be achieved if it was committed to the defence of Britain's coastline, factories, public utilities, airfields and thousands of 'vulnerable points' (VPs). The Home Guard’s availability for these duties released thousands of troops for training and relieved the Army of a strain which might have proved intolerable. By the end of June the Southern Railway's LDV units alone were patrolling at nearly 500 VPs in its system, four times as many as those guarded by the Army. Its very lack of mobility also meant that the invaders would have found every village and town hall a strong point. Although If the Germans had resorted to reprisals ageist the civilian population (as they had in Belgium in WW1) the question has to be asked would the Home Guard have been as keen. Or would the colonel "Blimps" have considered discretion the better part of valour.

The Home Guard also served as a back-up to the Civil Defence services and the anti-aircraft arm.

Social and cultural impact

On a social rather than a military level, Home Guard duties, however taxing after a day's work, provided much-needed companionship for men whose families had been evacuated. And in the urban areas the Home Guard was a focus for a wide-range of social activities and sporting activities.

Amazon defense corps and other odd units

In 1940 an 'Amazon defence corps' was formed by ladies in Worthing Surrey, Apparently intending to serve as front line nurses, although they were not formally recognised as part of the Home guard. Other informal, and unofficial units of women were formed from time to time. The Upper Thames Valley patrol for example used women as boat crew as early as 1940. In 1943 the government finally submitted to pressure to permit women a more formal role in the Home Guard, and permitted their services, in a limited capacity. The so-called 'Nominated Women', later renamed 'Women Home Guard Auxiliaries'. Although officially these women were only supposed to take a supporting role, and non-combative roll, in practice some women were taught how to handle a rifle and use military equipment. By 1944 there were 32,000 Women Home Guard Auxiliaries (not to be confused with the Auxiliary units).

A number of hunts formed cavalry troops, even being trained to fire from horseback. Part of the Exmoor mounted platoon rode bicycles. There was at least one other bicycle platoon, in Gloucestershire.

In London a unit of roller-skaters was formed, to act as 'runners'. There were also a number of Pidgin units formed, also for use as communications units. The Home Guard formed a number of waterborne units to patrol Britain’s inland waterways. They used a wide variety of pleasure craft, often armed with MG`s, although not all were so well equipped. The first such unit formed seems to have been the Upper Thames valley patrol, formed within days of Eden’s broadcast.

There were also a number of dog teams formed, although I am not sure as to their purpose. Presumable to round up spies and saboteurs and aircrew.

Between 50 and 60 US citizens living in London formed the 'American Squadron' commanded by General Wade H Hayes. The US ambassador in London Joseph Kennedy believed that this could cause, in the event of invasion, all US citizens living in London to be shot as Francs-tireurs.[5]

And lets not forget the worlds only miniature armoured train, ran by the Romney, Hythe and Dinchurch railway. Credited with a lest one German aircraft.

Post war

The Home guard was disbanded on 31 December 1945, it was revived again in 1951, only to be placed on a reserve basis in 1955, and the Home guard finally ceased activity in 1957

References

  1. Norman Longmate (1974), The Real Home Dads Army, Arrow Books, page 7
  2. 2.0 2.1 Fact File: Formation of the Home Guard, BBC
  3. Convention (II) with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, International Committee of the Red Cross, 29 July 1899
  4. Winston Churchill (1986), The Second World War, vol. II, Their Finest Hour, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 246
  5. Hitler on the doorstep, Egbert Kieser, page 32