Most of us have, at some time or other, enjoyed the BBC television series "Dad's Army", with its somewhat light hearted look at the Second World War's Home Guard. With its memorable signature tune " Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?” it's usually among the first imagery evoked when thinking of the Home Guard.
However, despite this portrayal, in its time the Home Guard represented a formidable force of willing volunteers ready to give up their lives in protection of their country. Indeed, should Hitler's Germany succeed with its invasion plans, the Home Guard would be ready and waiting.
So how did it all begin and how did the Home Guard hope to protect Britain from a seemingly unstoppable Germany?
PICTURE: Churchill acting tough and holding the line!
PICTURE: A satirical view of how some people felt the 'old boys' of the LDV would operate! Cartoonist: Nicolas Bentley.
It was with considerable haste during the spring of 1940, that Britain began to prepare itself for a potential German invasion. With the government all too aware of how real this threat was becoming and how it was affecting Britain's morale, it began to think up ways of how the country could be helped should the unthinkable ever happen.
As a direct result of one of the darkest days of World War Two (on the 14th May 1940), where Germany had poured into France practically unchallenged, the war minister Anthony Eden gave a now historic radio broadcast to the nation. In it, he warned of the threat of invasion by means of German parachute regiments and how this awful scenario would need an established fighting force already in place to see off these unwanted visitors.
He urged all male civilians aged 17-65* who had (for whatever reason) not been drafted into the services, to put themselves forward for the sake of their country and help to form a new fighting force called ‘The Local Defence Volunteers’ or LDV for short, or (as some people later joked), ‘Look, Duck and Vanish’!
* It’s worth noting that this age band was not always strictly adhered to. The oldest member of the Home Guard (as the LDV was to later become known) was apparently well into his eighties!
Eden had made clear in his broadcast that the passing of a medical examination wouldn't be necessary and that providing you were male, ‘capable of free movement’ and of the right age, all one needed to do was enrol at their local police station.
It's true to say that if Eden was ever in any doubt about the impetus his broadcast had had on the general public, his fears were soon to be allayed. For by the end of the following day some 250,000 men had volunteered, with these volunteers coming from all walks of life including mining, factory working, public transport and farming to note but a few. Then even more staggering, by the end of the month a total of 750,000 men had come forward. Some problems did exist initially with many police stations soon running out of the enrolment forms. However, despite this small inconvenience it was good to see that Britain shared in the governments view that it had best guard itself in some manner and 'better be safe than sorry'!
The early LDV uniforms were scarce, but those available consisted quite simply of a denim battledress and armband proudly displaying the LDV initials. Willing volunteers of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) were among those who made these LDV armbands.
PICTURE: A Comic view of the LDV uniform (or lack of it!) Cartoonist: Leslie Baker.
In a moment of inspiration, Winston Churchill renamed the LDV, the Home Guard, although later it became affectionately known quite simply as ‘Dad’s Army’. Considering the LDV had only been in operation for a month and a half at the time of this announcement, it came as a surprise to most. However, despite this, the role of the Home Guard principally remained the same.
Because the newly named Home Guard still lacked sufficient numbers of weapons, its high-spirited members often had to improvise. While on patrol they would take with them items such as pikes, truncheons, pick axes, broom handles and even golf clubs! It was reported that in at least one Home Guard unit, the guards took with them on patrol duty packets of pepper which would, if required, be thrown into the eyes of invaders and thus interfere with their vision!
The Home Guard also made its own fully functional weapons from pieces of scrap and litter. For example, Molotov cocktail anti-tank grenades were made from used beer and mineral water bottles and old pieces of cast iron drainpipes became 13-inch mortars! Quite ingenious don't you think?
As much as we can look back on this situation of improvisation with amusement now, it was of a real concern to Churchill who believed that the lack of equipment could deter volunteers from coming forward. Uniforms were also limited and all volunteers had to begin with were a simple forage cap and ‘HG’ stamped armband.
Gladly though, this deficiency in arms didn’t last for too long. Thanks to the United States, old World War One rifles and revolvers/ammunition were provided for use by the Home Guard. A consignment of 500,000 .300 rifles that arrived in the country in July 1941, was just one such example of America’s generosity. Proper uniforms eventually became widely available too and by the winter of 1940, all Home Guard volunteers had been kitted out with standard issue army uniforms.
Being a Home Guard volunteer was far from easy. All but a few members would work all day in their full time jobs and then (later that evening) take up their Home Guard duties. It was also extremely dangerous too with some 1206 members killed whilst serving on duty and 557 seriously wounded.
PICTURE: A Home Guard member checks his unit's rifles.
PICTURE: Capturing the invader - a Home Guard exercise.
PICTURE: A Home Guard River Patrol.
PICTURE: An amusing way in which the Home Guard's patrolling was seen! This time through the eyes of cartoonist Norman Mansbridge.
The cartoon caption reads: "Thought I'd better patrol the links for a bit".
PICTURE: The Home Guard practising their tactics in an organised exercise.
Of course, while recruits enthusiastically carried out their duties, they would always be listening out for the ring of church bells - the pre-arranged signal announcing the start of Germany's invasion.
All of these responsibilities helped to release the regular army to do other equally important tasks. It also helped to boost the morale of troops serving overseas, for they knew a very able force back ‘home’ was looking after their families.
Despite Hitler and the other fascist armies often sneering at the Home Guard, Hitler (in particular) was all too aware of the growing strength of British Civil Defence.
Under the National Service (Number 2) Act of December 1941, male civilians found that they could be ordered to join the Home Guard and attend up to 48 hours training a month. This 'call-up' was quite a surprise especially considering that the numbers of volunteers never fell below one million!
To mark the first anniversary of the Home Guard, a parade was held at Buckingham Palace on the 20th May 1941. With its volunteers totalling 1.5 Million at this point in time, the Home Guard was clearly going from strength to strength.
Winston Churchill talking about the Home Guard in one of his many speeches.
This growing of strength was how it was over the next three years until in late 1944, the Home Guard were finally disbanded.
With the Battle of Britain long won and invasion looking less and less likely, everybody was now preparing for victory and not invasion. And after 'Operation Overlord', a real feeling of this victory being within Britain's grasp was shared.
Even when Hitler unleashed onto the country his V1 and V2 terror weapons, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths, Britain's earlier belief in a German invasion was now seen as unrealistic.
So on the 3rd December 1944, with a stand down parade of 7000 men in London, the Home Guard finally bowed out.
PICTURE: The Home Guard Stand-Down Parade in London.
The country had always been both proud and grateful for its 'Dad's Army'. King George VI expressed the nations thoughts when he said "You have earned in full measure your country's gratitude".
PICTURE: One example of the many letters that King George VI sent to all of the brave Home Guard volunteers by way of a 'Thank You'.