Part-Time Warriors: The Home Guard, 1940-1944

by James Goulty

Images of 'Dad's Army'

Mention the Home Guard to anyone today, and more likely than not it will conjure up images of the hit TV comedy series ‘Dad’s Army,’ that first aired in the late 1960s. This had a basis in fact, as it was inspired by the wartime memories of Jimmy Perry, one of the script writers, who as a youth served with 10th Hertfordshire Battalion Home Guard. Likewise, as a seventeen year old, Norman Longmate was a member of 3rd Sussex Battalion Home Guard, and recognised similarities between the fictional Walmington-on-Sea Platoon and his own unit. Yet, in the summer of 1940 there was nothing amusing about the conditions that led to the establishment of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), or Home Guard as it became.

By May, Norway had been overrun, Denmark occupied and France and the Low Countries were on the brink of capitulation. It appeared as if the might of Hitler’s forces would be turned against Britain next. The population feared aerial bombardment, was gripped by rumours over supposed fifth column activity, and faced the prospect of being assaulted from the air by waves of German airborne troops, if an invasion came. These had seemingly been deployed to devastating effect in the Low Countries, although it was later known that the Germans never had anything like the numbers of trained parachutists that many feared at the time.

The Home Guard 1939-1945 Local Defence Volunteers: A sergeant instructor explaining the working of a rifle to two members of the Local Defence Volunteers at Bisley range. Source IWM

The Local Defence Volunteers (LDV)

On 14 May, Anthony Eden, then Secretary of State for War broadcast to the nation asking for ‘large numbers’ of ‘men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five, to come forward and offer their services.’ These volunteers were to be organised for local defence, notably countering the threat of German parachute troops. They had to register at police stations that were rapidly inundated, and by June nearly one and a half million had enrolled in the LDV. Villages, urban areas, coal-mines, docks, railways, factories all established their own LDV units. These were promised arms and uniforms, although it would be some time before these arrived, and similarly they wouldn’t receive any pay. As military historian Ian Beckett stated this was the last ‘of the ad hoc wartime manifestations of the amateur military tradition,’ something that can be traced back in Britain to at least the sixteenth century, and so the Home Guard was not as unique as some contemporaries might have supposed. Left-wingers even hoped that the LDV would act like the socialist POUM militia that they’d experienced during the Spanish Civil War, and become a genuine ‘People’s Army.’

Given the prospect of invasion in 1940, the desire of citizens to take action was understandable. Even before the formation of the LDV, there were numerous unofficial wartime attempts around the country at organising civilian groups for local defence. In Herefordshire, during March, Lady Helena Gleichen, formed the ‘Much Marcle Watchers,’ comprised from her staff and tenants, and based around the ancestral home of Much Marcle. They were to watch for any signs of invasion, particularly much feared parachute troops, and she even approached a nearby army unit for loan of small arms, ammunition and machine guns, although her request was refused.     

In a sense the LDV tapped into grass root feelings and provided a legitimate platform for them. Soon after its formation men began to drill enthusiastically around the country, and set about mounting guard on key sites. Sometimes this could border on overzealousness. At Chipping  Campden, Gloucestershire, the persistence of LDV sentries in asking for ID cards grew to such proportions, that one regular commuter felt ‘it was well-nigh impossible to convince them that he had any right’ to be there. In the absence of rifles, the LDV armed themselves with a variety of make-shift weapons such as sporting guns, clubs, cudgels, pitch- forks, cutlasses and even spears. They wore civilian clothes but had LDV brassards/arm-bands in lieu of uniforms. Initially there were no officers and NCOs, instead company commanders were selected and nominated by volunteer area organisers. However, eager volunteers were organised into sections, usually of around ten men, with three sections forming a platoon, and four platoons to a company.

Local Defence Volunteers: The first manned Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) post in central London. The men pictured are being inspected by General Nation and Major Hughman: Source IWM
Home Guard
A Home Guard unit undergoing rifle inspection, after Dunkirk, large numbers of rifles were obtained from Canada and America. (Source: C. Eshborn Collection, SWWEC)
Home Guard
Cheshire Home Guard on exercise, Photo C Eshborn

'Unashamed Iregulars'

Specific units often had their own distinctive character, such as the ‘Lincoln Imps.’ According to A. G. Street, rural units were ‘unashamed irregulars,’ whereas urban Home Guard were more like ‘soldiers, or … the pre-war territorials come to life.’ Similarly, in Northern Ireland the Home Guard was deeply sectarian, initially linked with the Protestant RUC, over fears arms might otherwise reach the IRA. Contrastingly, in England, Wales and Scotland the organisation crossed the social divide. The platoon established in Burford, Oxfordshire comprised several farm labourers, lorry drivers and the local MP. Despite the official cut-off age being sixty-five, numerous far older men enrolled, including Alexander Taylor from Creiff, Perthshire a retired company sergeant major. As a veteran of the Sudan Campaign of 1885, Boer War and First World War, he is regarded as one of the oldest, and was still serving on his eightieth birthday.  

In June 1940 as C-in-C Home Forces, General Sir Alan Brooke (later Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke) bemoaned that the country was turning ‘to all the old men when we require a new volunteer force’ and this spelt ‘delay and chaos!’ However, many former servicemen clearly had skills and experience to offer. According to some sources, in 1940 ex-servicemen may have accounted for seventy-five per cent of the overall membership of the LDV/Home Guard, although the actual figure was certainly much lower. Yet, it was perfectly possible to find former senior officers serving in comparatively lowly positions. A. G. Street found that there were three types of ex-servicemen. Some veterans proved willing to learn new methods and used their experience to instruct other Home Guard. Simultaneously, there were those who viewed this amateur force scornfully, and ‘refused to take any rank or responsibility’ but would serve until the threat of invasion had receded. There were also those who refused to attend parades, drill and train, claiming they had already done enough of that during the First World War, and ‘already knew all that was necessary.’

In July the War Office somewhat reluctantly re-branded the LDV as the Home Guard, largely due to the pressure exerted upon it by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. First World War veteran army commander, General Sir Hubert Gough, who organised the Chelsea Home Guard, commented: ‘People may ask ‘‘What’s in a name?’’ but as a matter of fact there is often a great deal!’ It probably improved morale and Churchill was motivated to forge a more aggressive role for this volunteer force, and that they should be valued as an integral part of the nation’s defence.     

Role of the LDV/Home Guard

As John Brophy noted, the LDV/Home guard was initially ‘designed…to meet and overcome-the parachutist and the fifth columnist…novelties in a new sort of warfare.’ To do this they had their rag-tag selection of weapons alluded to above, along with potentially fearsome home-made ‘Molotov Cocktails’ or petrol bombs. These comprised old wine, beer or spirit bottles, filled with a mixture of petrol and tar or petrol, paraffin and tar, with a rag tied around each bottle. When required, a man was expected to uncork the bottle, soak the rag and knot it around the neck to act as a wick, then light it with a match and throw immediately. They were considered to be particularly useful against tanks, when thrown from ditches or road-blocks designed to hamper enemy forces.

According to Home Guard manuals of the early 1940s, several duties had to be performed, particularly in the event of a full-scale invasion. Units were to observe enemy activity accurately and swiftly report information, something that linked closely with the ‘Look, Duck, Vanish’ tag with which the original LDV were popularly and unkindly labelled. Simultaneously, units were to attempt to delay the enemy by any means possible, until stronger forces arrived, when if necessary they could act as guides to the military. Crucially the Home Guard had to provide a static defence of key points, such as railways, bridges, factories, and the Post Office communications network. Even petrol supplies needed guarding, and if necessary had to be rendered useless to the enemy. Other duties were of a less overtly military nature, and included countering subversive activity and actively co-operating with the Civil Defence Services. If an invasion occurred, units would also be required to control movement and help bolster the morale of the civil population.

By 1941 many connected to the Home Guard were pressing for a more mobile or even an armoured role. Instead of just harassing the enemy and retiring in the wake of superior numbers, General Brooke sought to create ‘nodal points,’ centred on strategic locations or around villages, where the Home Guard would mount a defence, and the cumulative effect of meeting several of these would delay the enemy long enough for the army to launch a full-scale counter-attack.

Home Guard
Standard Mk II Beaverette II light reconnaissance cars manned by members of the Home Guard in the Highlands of Scotland. Source IWM
Home Guard
Members of the Cheshire Home Guard on exercise, as the war progressed, skills such as fieldcraft and weapon handling became an integral part of Home Guard training. (Source: C. Eshborn Collection, SWWEC)

The potential for deploying the Home Guard as a guerrilla force

Likewise, as historian S. P. Mackenzie has identified during 1941-1942 there was a revived interest in the potential for deploying the Home Guard as a guerrilla force, partly owing to the impact that partisan forces seemed to be having in Russia, something that particularly inspired left-wingers. A major characteristic of the Home Guard that encouraged its members to favour guerrilla warfare was that they knew their area well. Many also resented the static role and so were keen on anything that promised greater mobility. As a Regular Army commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks experienced several exercises in conjunction with the Home Guard. ‘Their greatest asset was local knowledge and operating against them… was like hitting a pin cushion; we could make a dent but they always bobbed up somewhere else.’ Yet, the official line rejected any form of guerrilla style tactics as this would cause confusion. Instead the ‘nodal points,’ were to be defended to the death if necessary. During March 1942, orders were even issued prohibiting the Home Guard from arming the civil population and forming partisan groups, not least because this might cause unnecessary confusion and casualties. Moreover, although contemporaries may not have been aware of it, the government had already sanctioned the deployment of ‘Auxiliary Units’ specially trained for guerrilla warfare.   

While the General Service battalions (effectively infantry) were the backbone of the Home Guard, numerous specialist units emerged. Along rivers and lakes ‘naval’ Home Guard patrols existed, notably the Upper Thames Patrol, comprised of private boat owners who kept watch on London’s riverside. In areas such as the South Downs, Dartmoor and the Welsh Border mounted patrols were established using local horses/ponies, and at least one armoured train was manned by the Home Guard. Similarly, establishments such as factories tended to organise their own Home Guard units, ever mindful of the threat posed by saboteurs.    

By far the largest employment of Home Guard manpower outside the General Service battalions was with Anti-Aircraft Command, where together with women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) they were employed to replace gunners required for other duties, once the threat of air bombardment had diminished. The Cheshire Home Guard, for example, established three rocket anti-aircraft batteries and two heavy anti-aircraft batteries. By the summer of 1942 over 11,000 Home Guard volunteers were being trained by the Royal Artillery in anti-aircraft procedure, and the handling of the necessary guns and equipment.

Although by 1942 the threat of invasion had diminished, there was still a role for the Home Guard. Notably, rather than provide an additional force to regular troops, it came to be regarded as integral component of the Home Forces. This proved particularly relevant in Lieutenant-General (later FM) Bernard Montgomery’s South-East Command, where he encouraged Home Guard units to ‘be affiliated to an army unit for training’, and maintained that ‘the efficient co-operation of the Home Guard’ was essential and they needed to be trained ‘up to a very high standard.’ Likewise, as increasing numbers of army personnel were being required for overseas deployments, the importance of maintaining the Home Guard was apparent. It also made a valuable contribution towards civil defence, carrying out tasks such as directing movement, clearing rubble, plus freeing-up eligible civil defence workers for military service.

Home Guard strength over 2 million

By the summer of 1943 there were 1,100 Home Guard battalions, and the force as a whole had a strength of over 2 million. However, the overall character of the organisation when compared with 1940-1941, had altered considerably. Many older members had left, younger ones had joined the armed forces, and consequently the average age dropped to around thirty. Men eligible for conscription were also directed to the Home Guard, albeit it had always been considered a voluntary organisation. Military ranks had been introduced but ex-servicemen now only comprised around seven per cent of the total force. Although women were officially barred, thousands performed auxiliary roles, such as providing food, acting as messengers or secretaries.

The role in assisting civil defence and manning anti-aircraft defences became increasingly important, especially once Hitler started to target Britain with his vengeance or ‘V’ weapons. The organisation performed another valuable function in providing military training to young men before they were conscripted or volunteered for the armed forces. After his Home Guard service, Roy Elmer joined ‘the real army’ and ‘was far ahead of those who had not been members in knowledge of arms and discipline.’    

In September 1944 with the Allied armies safely on the Continent and the war turning against the Axis powers, the Home Guard was stood-down. This was followed in December by a national stand-down parade in London that proved, ‘a great experience for those who took part, for it was marked by friendliness and was carried through with ceremony befitting the occasion.’               

Home Guard
Winston Churchill inspects the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard on Horse Guards Parade, London, 9 January 1941. The Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspects the 1st American Squadron of the Home Guard on Horse Guards Parade, London, on 9 January 1941.
Home Guard
Home Guard personnel demonstrate a Northover Projector. Designed by HG officer Robert Harry Northover, this was officially designated by the War Office ‘Projector 2.5 inch’ and was an ad hoc anti-tank weapon capable of firing a variety of grenades, notably Self-Igniting Phosphorous or SIP. (Source: C. Eshborn Collection, SWWEC)

Weapons and Equipment

The first officially issued uniforms consisted of denims and Field Service Caps. These proved unpopular owing to their poor fit. The commanding officer of 4th Buckinghamshire Battalion Home Guard remarked, ‘it was always a toss-up whether a man resembled an expectant mother or an attenuated scarecrow.’ Similarly, the FS Caps would often perch uncomfortably on the wearer’s head and risked falling off. Subsequently, army type battle-dress was issued, although many still had to employ tailors to alter it to achieve the desired fit. An issue that caused considerable consternation was when ex-officers flaunted their old uniforms, complete with rows of medal ribbons. Such social snobbery or superiority was damaging for morale. A. G. Street remembered it came as an immense relief, when during 1942 the War Office issued an order ‘insisting on regulation dress for all ranks’ and forbidding members to wear privately tailored uniforms. Eventually, most Home Guard were issued with other army type items such as great coats, helmets, gas masks, pouches and webbing equipment.     

Initially numerous improvised items were employed. To provide shelter for men on OP duty on exposed downs 8th Wiltshire Battalion Home Guard, scrounged an old car body from a scrap dealer. Similarly, various sorts of home-made grenades were manufactured employing old jam tins etc. In Lancashire a number of discarded spindles were turned on a lathe and fashioned into sword sticks that officers could carry on duty. Former Home Guard member Earnest Pearce recounted that one anti-tank weapon that did work, consisted of a length of ‘drainpipe, a six-foot brush handle, a penny balloon, a wooden bung with a hole in it, a small amount of powder, and a detonator…fired by a torch battery.’ In training a wooden block was used to simulate explosive, but in action the idea was that the brush handle could be launched from the drainpipe with an explosive charge attached.

After Dunkirk various weapons were issued to the Home Guard, although the regular forces had priority over what was produced in Britain. Consequently, 75,000 Ross Rifles from Canada were obtained, that many considered clumsy and required considerable cleaning because they were caked in thick grease. Around 100,000 .300 Springfield and Remington rifles were purchased from America. General Gough noted that, ‘we… considered ourselves lucky if five rounds of ammunition were issued to us’ and this only enabled ‘target practice on a restricted scale.’ Other small arms used by the Home Guard, included the American manufactured Browning Automatic-Rifle and Thompson sub-machine gun ‘of gangster fame.’ Later the British made Sten sub-machine gun, a mass produced weapon of dubious reliability was employed, plus the heavier Lewis and Vickers machine guns with which many ex-soldiers were familiar.

The bayonet proves popular

The bayonet seems to have been popular in the Home Guard, some units even employing bayonet drill in lieu of physical training as a means of warming-up during cold months. However, a weapon that came to be universally despised was the pike, which appeared during autumn 1941, and consisted of a length of metal piping, weighing five pounds, with a seventeen inch bayonet welded to the end. The idea was that they’d be useful in street fighting but in practice they were seldom used for anything other than litter picking.           

Various types of sub-artillery became available that potentially boosted the Home Guard’s fire power and helped maintain member’s interest. One of these, the Northover Projector, named after its inventor Major H. Northover, was lightweight and cheap to manufacture. It fired a Self-Igniting Phosphorous (SIP) grenade but was not accurate beyond 150-200 yards, and susceptible to misfire in wet conditions. On firing it gave off a thick white cloud of smoke that not only obscured the target but gave away the position of the three man crew as well.    

In late 1941 the grandly named Blacker Bombard, soon re-named Spigot Mortar, appeared. Again named after its inventor (Lt. Col. L. V. S. Blacker), it worked by having a heavily sprung steel rod or spigot, inside a short tube, which was released to strike a small charge on the end of the projectile, and thus propel it towards the target. Tactics were developed around the Spigot Mortar, and it was viewed as a suitable weapon with which to ambush armoured vehicles, although in practice its five man crew were only likely to get one chance at this.       

Another piece of sub-artillery was the strange looking Smith gun, a three inch smooth-bore barrel mounted on a two-wheeled carriage that had to be turned over so one wheel acted as a baseplate. Conceived as an anti-tank weapon, it had an effective range of 100-300 yards, and a reputation for awkwardness and unreliability. Yet, despite these flaws many Home Guard seem to have viewed the weapon favourably. 

Home Guard
Poet and radio broadcaster Z A Bokhari attending bayonet drill with the rest of his colleagues in the BBC Home Guard at Bedford College in 1941. Source IWM
Home Guard
British Home Guard improvised weapons. Source IWM

Home Guard Training

Training took various forms, and was partly dependent on the skills that individual members brought. The Chelsea Home Guard benefited from ‘a school of instruction in minor tactics’ established by General Gough. Likewise, early on the ‘Colonel Blimp’ types, who often held positions of authority, contributed financially and willingly gave their time to improve the organisation. Training became better organised, especially once training schools were established, dealing with topics such as fieldcraft and weapon handling, which embraced all the various types of arms employed by Home Guard. At one school trainees constantly had to act as if they were under fire, which became demanding. Travelling training wings were formed as well to tour Home Guard areas. According to A. G. Street, all this training wasn’t designed to turn them into soldiers, but rather fostered improvisation and individualism ‘to produce first-class irregulars or even rural bandits.’

One of the most well-known schools was at Osterley Park, where in 1940 the Earl of Jersey allowed his grounds to be used for instruction on topics such as hand-to-hand combat and the ambushing of tanks. Initially the chief instructor was the journalist and Spanish Civil War veteran Tom Wintringham, who together with his staff brought the same level of zeal that had been necessary when fighting Fascism in Spain.  

Later Home Guard members encountered ‘Battle Drill,’ which as Norman Longmate discovered, broke down ‘elementary tactics into a series of simple movements and orders so that the soldier’s responses on the battlefield became as automatic as on the parade ground.’ Throughout the war various exercises were held, frequently alongside the army, and with mixed results. Frank Taylor’s unit was ‘wiped out’ early on exercise, after advancing the wrong side of a hedgerow, and wasted the entire day sitting in battalion HQ. Contrastingly, Joseph O’Keefe’s unit encountered troops from the Durham Light Infantry, who with the sunlight shining off their highly polished brasses on their equipment advanced right into their ambush.

How the Home Guard would have fared under enemy fire is open to question. Tommy Wilkinson from Northumberland reckoned that, ‘given good equipment and expert training, we would not have let anyone down.’ Overall it contributed significantly towards victory, despite being the butt of many jokes both during and since the war.    

Home Guard
Troops from the Cheshire Home Guard negotiate difficult terrain during an exercise. Contrary to the popular view a lot of HG training became tough and more organised the longer the war continued. (Source: C. Eshborn Collection, SWWEC)
Home Guard
Signallers from the Cheshire Home Guard get ready to relay information during an exercise. (Source: C. Eshborn Collection, SWWEC)

Home Guard Bibliography

Anon, Home Guard Manual 1941 (Reprinted: Stroud, Gloucs: Tempus, 2006)

Anon, History of the Cheshire Home Guard: From L.D.V. Formation to Stand Down, 1940-1944 (Reprinted: Uckfield, East Sussex, Naval & Military Press)

Brophy, John, Britain’s Home Guard (London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd, 1945)

Beckett, Ian F. W., Britain’s Part-Time Soldiers: The Amateur Military Tradition 1558-1945 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2011)

Danchev, Alex and Todman, Daniel (eds), War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord AlanBrooke (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001)

Gardiner, Juliet, Wartime Britain 1939-1945 (London: Review, 2005)

Gough, Gen. Sir Hubert, Soldiering On (London: Arthur Baker Ltd, 1954)

Graves, Charles, The Home Guard of Britain (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, 1943)

Green, Brig-Gen. A. F. U., The British Home Guard Pocket Book 1942 (Reprinted: London:   Conway, 2009)

Hamilton, Nigel, Monty Volume 1: The Making of a General, 1887-1942 (London, Sceptre, 1989)

Horrocks, Lt-Gen. Sir Brian, A Full Life (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1962) 

Longmate, Norman, The Real Dad’s Army (Stroud, Gloucs: Amberley, 2016)

Macksey, Kenneth, Armoured Crusader: The Biography of Maj-Gen. Sir Percy ‘Hobo’ Hobart (London: Grub Street, 2004)

Mackenzie, S. P., The Home Guard: The Real Story of ‘Dad’s Army’ (Oxford: OUP, 1996)

McCann, Graham, Dad’s Army: The Story of a Classic Television Show (London: Fourth Estate, 2002)

Scott, Ronnie (ed), The Real Dad’s Army: The War Diaries of Col. Rodney Foster (London: Penguin Books, 2012)

Shaw, Frank & Joan (eds), We Remember the Home Guard (London: Ebury Press, 2012)

Shears, Gen. Phillip J., The Story of the Border Regiment 1939-1945 (London: Nisbet & Co. Ltd, 1948)

Street, A. G., From Dusk Till Dawn (Oxford: OUP, 1989)

Wintringham, Tom, New Ways of War (London: Penguin Books, 1940)

The Second World War Experience Centre preserves and shares the experiences of people who lived through the Second World War, both combatants and non-combatants from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. It has created a unique collection of thousands of wartime memories and personal experiences preserved in recorded interviews, letters, diaries, photographs, memoirs and other memorabilia to ensure that they are available to future generations.  

We would like to thank the Second World War Experience Centre for their kind assistance with this article

About The Author

James Goulty holds a masters degree and doctorate in military history from the University of Leeds, and has a particular interest in the training and combat experience of ordinary soldiers during the world wars and Korean War.

He has published numerous articles and written 5 books for Pen and Sword Ltd, including The Second World War through Soldiers’ Eyes: British Army Life 1939-1945; and Eyewitness Korea: The Experience of British and American Soldiers in the Korean War 1950-1953.

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