At the beginning of the Second World War a large number of middle-aged men volunteered for war service. In October 1939, Winston Churchill suggested to Sir John Anderson, the head of Air Raid Precautions (ARP), that a Home Guard of men aged over forty should be formed.
Anderson agreed with Churchill's suggestion but it was not until the German Army had launched its Western Offensive that action was taken and on 14th May, 1940, Anthony Eden appealed on radio for men to become Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). In the broadcast Eden asked that volunteers should be aged be aged between 40 and 65 and should be able to fire a rifle or shotgun. By the end of June nearly one and a half a million men had been recruited.
General William Ironside, was appointed Commander in Chief of Home Forces. Zone commanders worked voluntarily and LTVs were not paid, though some could claim a small subsistence allowance for long hours of duty.
After the defeat of France in June 1940, thousands of LDVs were deployed along the coast of Britain. They were also used to defend munition factories. At this time only one in ten was armed with a rifle. These were Lee Enfield rifles that had been used in the First World War.
When Adolf Hitler heard about that the Home Guard was being used to defend the five thousand miles of Britain coastline, he denounced them as "murder bands" and declared that after the invasion they would be executed if they attacked the German Army.
The public were invited to give their shotguns and pistols to the Home Guard and within a few months over 20,000 weapons were handed in. There was still not enough guns to go around and LDVs carried pickaxes, crowbars, coshes, spears and dummy rifles on duty. The men were also instructed on how to make Molotov cocktails that could be used against German tanks during the expected invasion. They were also trained in sabotage and the use of high explosives.
Uniforms began arriving in the autumn of 1940. Some got khaki serge battledress whereas others had to wear LDV armbands. Later the men were issued with steel helmets, greatcoats and waterproof capes.
Individual commanders made their own arrangements about training. One of the most important training schools was set up by Tom Wintringham, at Osterley Park in Middlesex. Wintringham was a former commander in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Other veterans of this war, including the author George Orwell, became involved in preparing the Home Guard to fight against German forces.
The expected invasion never came and the main role of the Home Guard was capturing German airmen whose planes had been shot down over Britain. As well as guarding munition factories and aerodromes, the men also organised roadblocks and checked people's identity cards.
What about all these people of middle-age, many of whom served in the last war, who are full of vigour and experience, and who are being told by tens of thousands that they are not wanted, and that there is nothing for them except to register at the local Labour Exchange? Surely this is very foolish. Why do we not form a Home Guard of half-a-million men over forty (if they like to volunteer), and put all our elderly stars at the head and in the structure of these new formations? Let these five hundred thousand men come along and push the young and active out of all the home billets. If uniforms are lacking a brassard (armbands) would suffice, and I am assured there are plenty of rifles at any rate.
Since the war began, the Government have 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 seventeen and sixty-five, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance doubly sure. 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. It must be understood that this is, so to speak, a spare-time job, so there will be no need for any volunteer to abandon his present occupation.
When on duty you will form part of the armed forces, and your period of service will be for the duration of the war. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniform and will be armed. You will be entrusted with certain vital duties for which reasonable fitness and a knowledge of firearms is necessary. These duties will not require you to live away from your homes.
In order to volunteer, what you have to do is to give in your name at your local police station; and then, as and when we want you, we will let you know. This appeal is directed chiefly to those who live in country parishes, in small towns, in villages and in less densely inhabited suburban areas. I must warn you that for certain military reasons there will be some localities where the numbers required will be small, and others where your services will not be required at all.
Here, then, is the opportunity for which so many of you have been waiting. Your loyal help, added to the arrangements which already exist, will make and keep our country safe.
I had expected the response to this appeal to be prompt. In fact it was overwhelming, the first recruit arriving within four minutes of the end of the broadcast. It was quite impossible to deal with the number of volunteers who flocked to join, still less to provide them with weapons. But this was only a beginning and the answer which mattered had already been given. The Local Defence Volunteers acted as a catalyst, giving point to the nation's will to resist. As the years passed, the volunteers recorded long periods of service which were often dreary, but always devoted, with only one reward, the knowledge that 'The Home Guard', as it was re-christened, closed a gap in our defences which must have been dangerous and could have been fatal.
By midsummer, as the country waited for the promised invasion, one of the most widespread sources of frustration lay with the Home Guard. This body - called originally Local Defence Volunteers and issued with canvas armbands lettered LDV as its sole form of equipment - had come into existence by popular insistence. The War Office, faced with the problem of re-equipping a large part of the British army following the evacuation of Dunkirk, did not want to be bothered with a lot of amateurs and it was only as the result of agitation, particularly in the newspapers, that they had got as far as constituting the LDV an official force at all. The men who immediately joined it in large numbers were not the genial old buffers of 'Dad's Army', but were mainly young men waiting to get into the army or working in reserved occupations, plus a leavening of ex-soldiers from the First World War longing to get back into action. All had only two wishes - to obtain weapons and to secure realistic training. The authorities had their hands full with the armed forces, or thought they had; meantime the LDV were told to wait patiently until someone or other could pay them some attention.
As I was watching yesterday 250 men of the Home Guard take their places for a lecture at the Osterley Park Training School an air-raid siren sounded, and a dozen men with rifles moved to their prearranged positions as a defence unit against low-flying aircraft.
The lecturer began to talk of scouting, stalking and patrolling. And as I watched and listened I realised that I was taking part in something so new and strange as to be almost revolutionary - the growth of an "army of the people" in Britain - and, at the same time, something that is older than Britain, almost as old as England - a gathering of the "men of the counties able to bear arms."
The men at Osterley were being taught confidence and cunning, the use of shadow and of cover, by a man who learned field-craft from Baden-Powell, the most original irregular soldier in modern history (with the possible exception of Lawrence of Arabia). And in an hour or two they would be hearing of the experience, hard bought with lives and wounds, won by an army very like their own, the army that for year after year held up Fascism's flood-tide towards world power, in that Spanish fighting which was the prelude and the signal for the present struggle. I could not help thinking how like these two armies were: the Home Guard of Britain and the Militia of Republican Spain. Superficially alike in mixture of uniforms and half-uniforms, in shortage of weapons and ammunition, in hasty and incomplete organisation and in lack of modem training, they seemed to me more fundamentally alike in their serious eagerness to learn, their resolve to meet and defeat all the difficulties in their way, their certainty that despite shortage of time and gear they could fight and fight effectively.
The school that they were attending had in a way been made by themselves. Two or three months ago, when this newest army in the world was first proposed, I wrote two articles in Picture Post on ways to meet invasion, on the experiences of Spain, and on the first rough steps to be taken for the training of a new force. So many queries piled into the offices of Picture Post, so many requests for more teaching and more detail, that it was natural for Mr. Edward Hulton to think of the idea of a school for the Home Guard - or, as they were then, the L.D.V. Osterley was a Picture Post idea, and Osterley has given free training to over 3,000 of the Home Guard at Edward Hulton's expense. The same evening that he decided to go ahead with the idea, he got in touch with Lord Jersey, who permitted us to use the grounds of his famous park at Osterley.
On July 10 the first course was given at the school. Our aim was then to give 60 members of the Home Guard two days' training three times a week. By the end of July over 100 men were attending each course, 300 a week. The numbers rose sharply in August; during the week when this was written one of the courses included 270 men.
Those attending the school in July were nearly a thousand; those attending in August over 2,000; the September figures will probably be around 3,000. We could not keep them away with bayonets - if we had any.
But all was not plain sailing; there were prejudices to be broken down. Soon after the school was founded an officer high up in the command of the L.D.V. requested Mr. Hulton and myself to close the school down, because the sort of training we were giving was "not needed." This officer explained to us with engaging frankness that the Home Guard did not have to do "any of this crawling round; all they have to do is to sit in a pill-box and shoot straight." The "sit in a pillbox" idea, a remnant of the Maginot Line folly not yet rooted out of the British Army, met us on other occasions.
There were shepherds, farm hands, gardeners, village shopkeepers, a retired civil servant from India, a retired schoolmaster, and one or two folk who worked in London and had cottages in downland. We held a subsidiary meeting at another village over the hill. Men came in from their work in the fields, and we stood round a farm waggon in a farmyard and discussed things and elected a local section leader, calling him corporal. Communications were the difficulty, so we went to the big house of a local colonel to get him to agree to let us use his telephone. The corporal's wife (a domestic there) could answer if need be. Then came the 'election of officers', which was a serious and difficult matter. The local section leader must obviously be a chap always there in the village, so the choice fell on Roy, mine host at the pub. "He's the best rabbit shot in the neighbourhood," said one of his backers.
After the fall of France came the air-raids on London. The House met three times a week and we got ourselves night shelter somewhere near our lodgings. I joined a company of the Westminster Home Guard whose duty it was to defend the Houses of Parliament if an invasion came. We had a gun trained on Westminster Bridge in case the Germans should try and come over the Thames. We set it up in the Speaker's Dining Room, but it was not well fixed. Looking back on it, I think we should have done more damage to the Speaker's Dining Room than we should have done to the
Death dealing blows were struck at the heart of a quiet South-East town soon after 5 o'clock on Friday, when one of about ten enemy raiders swept in from the coast to cause havoc in the shopping centre, and a large number of casualties among men, women and children. The majority of the casualties were in a cinema, where a bomb scored a direct hit. It was there that the death toll was heavy.
Within a few minutes of this ruthless attack on an open town, Civil Defence workers, including police and the N.F.S. as well as troops and members of the Home Guard, were on the scene effecting rescues. Members of the public also helped in the heroic task. The combined services accomplished many feats of skill and daring, and worked feverishly throughout the late afternoon and night.
There were many harrowing scenes as children and women were recovered from the debris. A newspaper office was used for a mortuary, and later the bodies were taken to a garage where they were left for identification purposes. Not half of the victims had been identified by Sunday.
The attack on this quiet little country town will long be remembered for the manner in which defenceless women and children were massacred, and the viciousness of the attack by the Nazi raider on a locality which had no military pretensions. The one high explosive which caused the greater number of casualties was that which penetrated the roof of the attractive cinema. It actually dropped among the cheaper seats, which were mainly occupied by women and children. The cinema, which had a seating accommodation for 400, was fairly full at the time. Most of the children in the audience had gone to the cinema straight from school, a regular Friday night 'habit' among them.
One by one, and two by two, pale faced and lifeless children were brought out of the ruins. Some were found almost naked with their clothes blasted from them. It was a sickening scene, one which brought tears even to the stoutest hearts among the gallant lot of rescuers who toiled on through the night.
One man was told it was time to rest. The rescuer looked up, inwardly moved, but not betraying a sign of emotion, replied: "No, I work on. Under this rubble is my wife. I must find her." And so he went on toiling. Also under the brick and dust was a worker's sister-in-law. He dug her out and went on looking for her child.
Load after load of broken glass was swept up by soldiers and other Civil Defence workers and carted away out of sight. By Saturday morning those hard workers had cleared much of the debris. And while many worked on to make the road less like a shambles, there were several shopkeepers who were actually doing business with customers on the pavements instead of their damaged shops. One young woman was taking orders for delivery of groceries that morning. The order included cheese and streaky bacon. This had to be served up from the bombed shop. In the afternoon there was a sad queuing up of relatives at the garage.
It so happens that this war, whether those at present in authority like it or not, has to be fought as a citizen's war. There is no way out of that because an order to defend and protect this island, not only against possible invasion but also against all the disasters of aerial bombardment, it has been found necessary to bring into existence a new network of voluntary associations such as the Home Guard, the Observer Corps, all the A.R.P. and fire-fighting services, and the like ... They are a new type, what might be called the organized militant citizen. And the whole circumstances of their wartime life favour a sharply democratic outlook. Men and women with a gift for leadership now turn up in unexpected places. The new ordeals blast away the old shams. Britain, which in the years immediately before this war was rapidly losing such democratic virtues as it possessed, is now being bombed and burned into democracy.
Gerald is now in trouble with the police. It seems he was out with the Home Guard a few nights ago, and used his electric torch to inspect the sandbag defences. A short time later several policemen rode up on motor bikes and shouted, "You were signalling to the enemy!" Gerald blew up and they became more reasonable, but he was later told, "We think it only fair to tell you we have reported you to Headquarters as signalling to the enemy". The head of the Aldboume Home Guard was sympathetic but thought nothing could be done. He quite agreed with Gerald that these were Gestapo methods - "Mind you, I think Fascism in one form or another has got to come." It seems to have come already. Gerald is thinking of resigning from the Home Guard and is very cynical about the hopeless confusion of our home defences.
The L.D.V.s, drilling with stakes on village greens and city parks, looked ridiculous enough; and the proud title 'Home Guard' now summons up an image of overgrown schoolboys playing at soldiers. Hindsight, as always, makes fools of us. Even before Churchill's speech, the Volunteers expected to fight in the fields and in the streets and never to surrender. How effectively they might have fought in these early days, one may doubt. One afternoon that summer, a parachute landing was reported in Croydon; a local platoon commander had only one Volunteer available, as the rest of his men were at their work in London, and when he was able to assemble fifteen of them, their armament consisted of one rifle, ten cartridges, a revolver and a shotgun.