The Dad’s Army guide to defending Britain

Thanks to the famous BBC series, which has inspired a new comedy film, the image of 'Dad's Army' as a group of bumbling misfits has been burned into the British consciousness. Yet, in reality, the Home Guard was a tough, dynamic fighting force. Leo McKinstry reveals five ways in which it readied itself to repel a Nazi invasion

Members of the Palmers Green and Winchmore Hill LNER (London and North Eastern Railway) LDV (Local Defence Volunteers) dressed in their civilian clothes march along a platform passing a steam locomotive on 1 July 1940 in London. (Photo by Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1

Recruit young, athletic men

Far from being a laughable, marginalised organisation, the Home Guard actually reflected the public mood of resolute defiance against Nazi Germany.

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On 14 May 1940, when the war secretary Anthony Eden broadcast his call for men to join the new force, initially known as the Local Defence Volunteers, the response was overwhelming. Within seven days, 250,000 men had registered. By the end of July, the total had climbed to 1,456,000.

Contrary to the Dad’s Army myth (which has it that recruitment was dominated by elderly men like Corporal Jones, below), half of the volunteers were under 27. Most of these men were barred from military service, not because of unfitness, but because they were in reserved occupations vital to the war effort, like mining,  farming or civil administration.

The Pearl Harbour attack, 7 December 1941: sailors at the Naval Air Station, Ford Island, stand amid wreckage watching as the USS Shaw explodes in the centre background. The USS Nevada is also visible in the middle background, with her bow headed toward the left. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The Home Guard’s primary task in 1940 would have been to act as a secondary line of defence against German landings from the air or by sea along the southern and eastern coasts. Other duties, like guarding installations or enforcing curfews, were not without some comic moments. It’s said that one Home Guardsman, having spied an amorous couple in a car that was illegally parked in a military zone on the Kent coast, rapped on the driver’s side door. The driver enquired what the problem was.“You’ve entered a prohibited area.”

“Oh no he hasn’t,” said a female voice from the passenger’s seat.

But there is no doubt that the Home Guard could have been a powerful obstacle to invaders. “They would never have had an inch they wouldn’t have had to fight over,” recalled Jimmy Taylor, a bicycle despatch rider from Hampshire. That determination was reflected in casualties. During the war, 438 Home Guardsmen were killed by enemy action or died of their wounds (mostly following air raids). A further 768 died from causes attributable to their service.

2

Arm yourselves to the teeth

The depiction of the Home Guard as a pitchfork army has long been cemented in the public imagination. It is true that, when the force was first established in May 1940, there was a disturbing shortage of arms – so much so that LDV (as the guard was initially called) was jokingly said to stand for ‘Last Desperate Venture’.

At first, the volunteers had to make do with a bewildering variety of weaponry, including muskets, swords, blunderbusses, truncheons and even golf clubs. One Lancashire Unit was armed with Snider-Enfield rifles that had been held in Manchester Zoo and had last been used in the Indian empire during the 19th century.

But the picture changed rapidly, thanks to the massive import of arms from North America. In June, 75,000 Ross rifles and 60 million rounds of ammunition arrived from Canada. Even better, in July the USA sent 615,000 M1917 rifles, each with 250 rounds of ammunition.

In his last official photo, Adolf Hitler leaves the safety of his bunker to award decorations to members of Hitler Youth. (Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images)

President Roosevelt got round America’s strict neutrality laws by, first, declaring the vast arsenal surplus to his country’s own requirements and, second, by selling it to the US Steel Corporation, who then sold it on to the British government.

Historians have often been dismissive of these American arms supplies. “Poor weapons,” is the verdict of Sir Max Hastings. But much of this negativity was unjustified. The M1917 was no older or less efficient than the standard-issue British infantry weapon, the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE), whose origins dated back to 1907. In fact, the M1917 was so durable that it went on to see action in the Korean and even Vietnam wars. Sniper instructor Clifford Shore later described it as “probably the most accurate rifle I have ever used”.

3

Create a radical people’s army

The Home Guard’s supposed association with class-ridden, traditional conservatism is embodied in the authoritarian, snobbish form of Captain Mainwaring. Yet there was another side to its politics.

During the 1930s, as totalitarianism swept across Europe, and Spain was plunged into civil war, there were elements of the radical British left that saw a mass volunteer force as a vehicle for extending democracy and challenging the old order. One enthusiast for this concept was George Orwell, who joined the Home Guard in June 1940. “That rifle on the wall of the working-class flat or the labourer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy,” Orwell wrote in the Evening Standard.

An even more powerful advocate of such thinking was the journalist, military expert and First World War veteran Tom Wintringham. A former communist who had been expelled from the party because of his turbulent private life, he wrote a bestselling pamphlet in 1939 which set out the case for a people’s militia to provide home defence. “This army of free men available for service at a few hours’ notice is part of a tradition of the peoples of these islands,” he said.

After the formation of the Home Guard, Wintringham put his efforts into improving the training of the volunteers. His belief was that far too much emphasis was placed on basic drill, and not enough on skills such as the uses of camouflage, dugouts, explosives grenades and mortars.

West Kent Territorials train to defend Britain against Nazi attack in 1939. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

With the help of some influential friends in the media, Wintringham acquired Osterley Park, the residence of the Earl of Jersey, as a new training base. But the government, suspicious of “any possible Bolshevism”, disapproved of this initiative despite its success and in September 1940 it was closed down, with the army taking over Home Guard training.

Despite this, the anti-establishment mood certainly lived on among recruits, reflected in Labour’s landslide in the 1945 general election. “There are those who say the idea of arming the people is a revolutionary idea. It certainly is,” wrote Wintringham.

4

Train elite troops to fight dirty

The bungling ineptitude of the platoon led by Captain Mainwaring (below) in Dad’s Army could not be further removed from the ruthlessness shown by the Auxiliary Units, the elite wing of the Home Guard that would have carried out a guerrilla campaign against the Germans in the event of an invasion. Sometimes known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’, the units were the brainchild of two men: Peter Fleming, a military intelligence officer and elder brother of the James Bond novelist Ian Fleming, who started recruiting for an embryonic resistance in Kent from April 1940; and Brigadier Colin Gubbins, whose involvement in the campaign against the IRA from 1919–21 provided him with valuable insights about underground warfare.

For organisational purposes, the coast of England was divided into 12 sectors, each with its own network of Auxiliary Units. Most of the recruits were tough, self-reliant men with a deep knowledge of their localities. Gubbins – who was appointed leader of the units when they were given the green light in June 1940 – later said that, in Lincolnshire, he “sought out fenmen who knew every foot of their marshes and tricky fens”, while in Hampshire he looked for forest rangers who moved across the land “as silently and swiftly as their own red deer”.

German soldiers with a horse-drawn cart during the retreat from Ukraine in 1943. The idea of Teutonic efficiency was a triumph of Nazi spin, says James Holland. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Each unit had its own operational base, usually a well-concealed underground hideout, which contained sleeping accommodation, washing facilities, food store and water tanks, as well as an impressive arsenal of weapons, explosives, knives and sabotage equipment. Indeed, with their own Colt automatic pistols and Tommy sub-machine guns, the units were far better armed than most of the regular army. They were also trained in everything from night patrols to physical combat, including eye gouging and mouth slitting. “Foul methods help you kill quickly,” was one of the mottos of the courses.

At their peak in late 1941, the Auxiliaries comprised 3,500 men in 600 patrols, and the force was not formally disbanded until the autumn of 1944.

5

Become a “miracle of improvisation”

As befitted a bank manager, Captain Mainwaring was devoted to the bureaucracy and rules of the Home Guard. But in reality there was a far more innovative, creative spirit about the organisation. That was reflected not only in how quickly more than 500,000 men were armed and put in uniform but also how efficiently it was administered. An analysis conducted in November 1944 found that the average annual cost to the Treasury of each member of the Home Guard was, incredibly, just £9.

In a departure from traditionalism, from 1942 women were recruited into the Home Guard in small numbers, though only in non-combatant, non-guarding duties like cooking and driving. Originality could also be seen in the grenades and bombs provided to the Home Guard in 1940, when the shortages of munitions were at their worst. The most primitive of these was the Molotov cocktail, essentially a glass bottle full of petrol with a fuel-soaked rag as the source of ignition. A technical advance on the Molotov cocktail was the self-igniting phosphorous grenade or AW Bomb, which comprised a half pint bottle filled with a highly combustible mixture of yellow phosphorous, benzene, crude rubber and water. By August 1941, 6 million of these bombs had been made, nearly all of them going to the Home Guard.

Even more sophisticated was the Anti-Tank No 74 Grenade, known as ‘the sticky bomb’, which featured nitroglycerine encased in a metal sphere. Although crude, it could penetrate armour an inch thick. Altogether 2.5 million of them were made between 1940 and 1943.

Other enterprising developments include the Northover Projector (a form of primitive grenade launcher) and the Blacker Bombard (an anti-tank mortar), as well as an array of static roadside flame traps, flame fougasses (burning barrels of oil fired at the enemy), and mobile flamethrowers, all of which exploited Britain’s huge reserves of petrol in 1940. Not for nothing did Anthony Eden describe the Home Guard as “a miracle of improvisation”.

Leo McKinstry is a journalist and author. His books include Operation Sealion: How Britain Crushed the German War Machine’s Dreams of Invasion in 1940 (John Murray, 2014).

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This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine