The Home Guard (initially “Local Defence Volunteers” or LDV) was a defence organisation of the British Army during the Second World War. Operational from 1940 until 1944, the Home Guard – comprising 1.5 million local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, usually owing to age, hence the nickname “Dad’s Army” – acted as a secondary defence force, in case of invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany and their allies. The Home Guard guarded the coastal areas of the United Kingdom and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores.
When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, debates began in official circles about the possible ways in which the German military might launch an invasion of Britain; in the first week of the conflict numerous diplomatic and intelligence reports seemed to indicate that there was the possibility of an imminent German amphibious assault.
Many government ministers and senior army officials including the Commander in Chief Home Forces, General Walter Kirke, believed that the threat of invasion was greatly exaggerated and were sceptical but others were not, including Winston Churchill the newly installed First Lord of the Admiralty.
Churchill argued that some form of home defence force should be raised from members of the population who were ineligible to serve in the regular forces but wished to serve their country; in a letter he wrote to Samuel Hoare, the Lord Privy Seal on 8 October 1939, Churchill called for a Home Guard force of 500,000 men over the age of 40 to be formed. At the same time that government officials were debating the need for a home defence force, such a force was actually being formed without any official encouragement; in Essex, men not eligible for call-up into the armed forces were coming forward to join the self-styled ‘Legion of Frontiersmen’. Officials were soon informed of the development of the legion, with the Adjutant-General, Sir Robert Gordon-Finlayson, arguing that the government should encourage the development of more unofficial organisations.
However, the fear of invasion quickly dissipated as it became evident that the German military was not in a position to launch an invasion of Britain, and official enthusiasm for home defence forces waned, and the legion appears to have dissolved itself at the same time.
The Battle of France began on 10 May 1940, with the Wehrmacht launching an invasion of Belgium, the Netherlands and France; by 20 May, German forces had reached the English Channel and on 28 May, the Belgian Army surrendered. The combination of the large-scale combined operations mounted by the Wehrmacht during the invasion of Norway in April, and the prospect that much of the Channel coast would soon be occupied made the prospect of a German invasion of the British Isles alarmingly real.
Fears of an invasion rapidly began to grow, spurred on by reports in both the press and from official government bodies, of a fifth column operating in Britain which would aid an invasion by German airborne forces. The government soon found itself under increasing pressure to intern suspect aliens to prevent the formation of a fifth column and to allow the population to take up arms to defend themselves against an invasion. Calls for some form of home defence force soon began to be heard from the press and from private individuals as the government began to intern German and Austrian citizens in the country.
The press baron Lord Kemsley privately proposed to the War Office that rifle clubs be formed to form the nucleus of a home defence force, and Josiah Wedgwood, a Labour MP, wrote to the prime minister asking that the entire adult population be trained in the use of arms and given weapons to defend themselves. Similar calls appeared in newspaper columns; in 12 May issue of the Sunday Express a brigadier called on the government to issue free arms licences and permits to buy ammunition to men possessing small arms, and on the same day the Sunday Pictorial asked if the government had considered training golfers in rifle shooting to eliminate stray parachutists.
These calls alarmed government and senior military officials, who worried about the prospect of the population forming private defence forces that the army would not be able to control, and in mid-May the Home Office issued a press release on the matter; it was the task of the army to deal with enemy parachutists, as any civilians who carried weapons and fired on German troops were likely to be executed if captured.
Private defence forces soon began to be formed throughout the country, placing the government in an awkward position; these private forces, which the army might not be able to control, could well inhibit the attempts by the army during an invasion, yet to ignore the calls for a home defence force to be set up would be politically problematic.
An officially sponsored home defence force would allow the government greater control and also allow for greater security around vulnerable areas such as munitions factories and airfields, but there was some confusion over who would form and control the force, with separate plans drawn up by the War Office and General Headquarters Home Forces under General Kirke.
The government and senior military officials rapidly compared plans and by 13 May had worked out an improvised plan for a home defence force, to be called the Local Defence Volunteers, but the rush to complete a plan and announce it to the public had led to a number of administrative and logistical problems, such as how the volunteers in the new force would be armed, which would cause problems as the force evolved. However, on the evening of 14 May 1940 the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, gave a radio broadcast announcing the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers and called for volunteers to join the force.
In the radio announcement, Eden called on men between the ages of 17 and 65 in Britain, who were not in military service but wished to defend their country against an invasion, to enrol in the LDV at their local police station. The announcement was met with a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the population, with 250,000 volunteers attempting to sign up in the first seven days; by July this number increased to 1.5 million.
As volunteers and social groups such as cricket clubs began forming their own units, dubbed ‘the parashots’ by the press, the War Office continued to lay down the administrative and logistical foundations for the organisation. In telegrams to the Lord Lieutenants of each county, it was explained that LDV units would operate in pre-defined military areas already used by the regular army, with a General Staff Officer coordinating with civilian regional commissioners to divide these areas into smaller zones; in London this was organised on the basis of police districts. On 17 May the LDV achieved official legal status when the Privy Council issued the Defence (Local Defence Volunteers) Order in Council, and orders were issued from the War Office to regular army headquarters throughout Britain explaining the status of LDV units; volunteers would be divided into sections, platoons and companies but would not be paid and leaders of units would not hold commissions or have the power to command regular forces.
However, implementation of the legislation proved to be extremely difficult, particularly as the primary focus of the War Office and General Headquarters Home Forces was on Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June. This apparent lack of focus led to many LDV members becoming impatient, particularly when it was announced that volunteers would only receive armbands printed with ‘L.D.V.’ on them until proper uniforms could be manufactured and there was no mention of weapons being issued to units; this impatience often led to units conducting their own patrols without official permission, often led by men who had previously served in the armed forces.
The presence of many veterans, and the appointment of ex-officers as commanders of LDV units, only worsened the situation, with many believing that they did not require training before being issued weapons; this led to numerous complaints being received by the War Office and the press, and many ex-senior officers attempting to use their influence to obtain weapons or permission to begin patrolling.
The issue of weapons to LDV units was particularly problematic for the War Office, as it was recognised that the re-arming and re-equipping of the regular forces would have to take precedence over the LDV. Instead, the War Office issued instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails and emergency orders were placed for First World War vintage Ross rifles from Canada and Pattern 14 and M1917 rifles from the United States. In the absence of proper weapons, many LDV units broke into museums and appropriated whatever weapons could be found, or equipped themselves with private weapons such as shotguns.
Another problem that was encountered as the LDV was organised was the definition of the role the organisation was to play. In the eyes of the War Office and the army, the LDV was to act as ‘an armed police constabulary’ which in the event of an invasion was to observe German troop movements, convey information to the regular forces and guard places of strategic or tactical importance.
The War Office believed that the LDV would act best in such a passive role because of its lack of training, weapons and proper equipment. However such a role clashed with the expectations of LDV commanders and members, who believed that the organisation would be best suited to an active role, attacking and harassing German forces. This clash led to morale problems and even more complaints to the press and the War Office from LDV members who were opposed to, as they saw it, the government leaving them defenceless and placing them in a non-combatant role. Complaints about the role of the LDV, as well as continuing problems encountered by the War Office in its attempts to clothe and arm the LDV, led the government to respond to public pressure in August, redefining the role of the LDV to include delaying and obstructing German forces through any means possible.
At the same time Winston Churchill, who had assumed the position of prime minister in May, became involved in the matter after being alerted to the problems, obtaining a summary of the current LDV position from the War Office on 22 June. After reviewing the summary, Churchill wrote to Eden stating that, in his opinion, one of the main causes of disciplinary and morale problems stemmed from the uninspiring title of the LDV and suggesting that it be renamed as the ‘Home Guard’. Despite resistance from Eden and other government officials, who noted that one million ‘LDV’ armbands had already been printed and the cost of printing another million ‘Home Guard’ armbands would be excessive, Churchill would not be dissuaded; on 22 July the LDV was officially renamed the Home Guard.
The Home Guard also served as one of a number of covers for the Auxiliary Units, an extremely secretive force of more highly trained volunteer resistance troops that would function as guerrilla units if the UK was invaded.
The Home Guard did not, initially, admit women to its ranks. Some women formed their own groups like the Amazon Defence Corps. In December 1941, a more organised but still unofficial Women’s Home Defence (WHD) was formed under the direction of Dr Edith Summerskill, Labour MP for Fulham West. WHD members were taught weapons training and basic military training. Limited female involvement was permitted later on the understanding that these would be in traditional female support roles and not in any way seen as combatants. Auxiliary Units however may have had female members in both support and combat roles, although records are scarce.
Later Years and Disbandment
Even once the threat of invasion had passed, the Home Guard remained in existence manning guard posts and performing other duties to free up regular troops for duties overseas. In 1942 the National Service Act allowed for compulsory enrolment where units were below strength. At this time, the lowest rank within the Home Guard, ‘volunteer’, was renamed to ‘private’ to match the regular army usage.
It is a common fallacy that the Home Guard never fired a shot in anger during the whole of the Second World War. In fact individual Home Guardsmen helped man anti-aircraft guns as far back as the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. By 1943 the Home Guard operated its own dedicated batteries of anti-aircraft guns and rockets plus coastal defence artillery as well as engaging German planes with their machine guns. They are credited with shooting down numerous Luftwaffe aircraft and the V-1 flying bombs which followed them in the summer of 1944. The Home Guard’s first official kill was shot down on Tyneside in 1943. The Home Guard in Northern Ireland also took part in gun battles with the IRA.
However following the successful landings in France and the drive towards Germany by the Allies, the Home Guard were formally stood down on 3 December 1944 and finally disbanded on 31 December 1945. Male members were rewarded with a certificate, bearing the words:
“In the years when our Country was in mortal danger, (name) who served (dates) gave generously of his time and powers to make himself ready for her defence by force of arms and with his life if need be. George R.I.”
Aside from deaths in accidents, the Home Guard lost a total of 1,206 members on duty to air and rocket attacks during the war.
If he had served more than three years and requested it, a member would be awarded the Defence Medal. It would not be until 1945 that women who had helped as auxiliaries were recognised with their own certificate.