Malcolm Atkin Military Research
Doncaster ‘Civi-Corps’, 19 June 1940. (© Chronicle/Alamy)
The idea of the 'Broomstick Army' is an enduring image of the LDV / Home Guard. At first a cause of frustration, the paucity of weapons eventually became a source of pride for veterans, symbolising their determination in the face of seeming impossible odds. Any truth in the myth of the 'Broomstick Army' refers to a very narrow time span in the early days of the organisation.
The government were expecting to raise around 500,000 men for the new LDV - on the basis of their experience with the 350,000 strong VTC in the First World War. The overwhelming response to Eden’s broadcast on the evening of 14 May 1940 forced a rapid re-assessment of how the volunteers might best be used and consequently how they needed to be equipped. Within two months there were over one million volunteers - all demanding a fighting role. The government had not intended that this would be a fighting force with a need to arm every man, and also assumed that thirty per cent of the Home Guard might not be able to muster immediately upon ‘Action Stations’ due to their occupation or other responsibilities. Such reasoning was of little comfort to those without firearms. The government had enough problems trying to re-arm the army after the withdrawal from Dunkirk and could not immediately meet the expectations of a whole new force. Frustrated local units therefore armed themselves with whatever was available and the ‘broomstick army’ legend was born. Farmers’ shotguns, museum exhibits, First World War souvenirs and even kitchen knives tied to broom handles were all employed.
Some of these weapons might seem of minimal value but there was a chilling side to the home-made arsenal. One million rounds of ‘lethal shot’ for shotguns, illegal under international law, were distributed in June 1940 (four million by the end of January 1941). Many Home Guard supplemented official supplies by making their own, using melted candle wax to bind together normal shot. When rifles began to arrive, some men followed the advice of Tom Wintringham and filed down the tip of the rounds to make 'dum-dum' bullets that would cause horrific injuries. The quickest solution to produce an anti-tank weapon on a large scale was to use petrol bombs (‘Molotov cocktails’) as used successfully in the Spanish Civil War and Finnish Winter War. These were distributed to both the Home Guard and the army in 1940. A leaflet was produced in June outlining the method of manufacture and Royal Engineers travelled the country providing further training. General Ironside wanted supplies in every village and on every roadblock. Instruction was also provided at the Osterley Training School on how to make simple chemical time delay fuses that turned Molotov cocktails into incendiary sabotage devices. The Home Guard also produced home-made anti-tank mines and other IEDs, using either explosives from mines or quarries (or home-made), of the type used with such devastating effect in Iraq and Afganistan.
On parade, the LDV practised arms drill with broom handles in anticipation of the eventual arrival of proper rifles. What is now forgotten is that, at the time, the regular army were also obliged to train with broomsticks - but they could do so away from the media gaze within army barracks, whilst the LDV did so in plain view. The term ‘broomstick army’ was used by Anthony Eden at the Cabinet meeting of 17 June and quickly became current, even used as a term of pride at recruiting stations as a symbol of the men's determination to resist invasion, whatever the cost. But the term was already becoming an out-dated concept.
The memory of how long volunteers had to make do without adequate weaponry has tended to stretch over time and was inherently more memorable than the arrival of rifles. Those units within likely invasion areas naturally had priority for arms. Having received the order on the evening of 17 May to have 1,500 of the new LDV on armed patrol the next day Chatham Command provided 1,500 SMLE rifles and 15,000 rounds of ammunition. A further 2,000 SMLE rifles were provided on the following day. In all, by 13 June there were over 30,000 armed LDV in XII Corps area, rising to fifty-three per cent by 19 September at the height of the invasion threat. This was just over the fifty per cent that C-in-C Home Forces believed was an acceptable ratio for the Home Guard. Within Eastern Command Home Guard, by 10 August 1940 sixty per cent of the men had been issued with rifles. The situation was different in London where only fifteen per cent of the Home Guard were armed at this time - in the assumption that regular troops would cover the defences. The paucity of weapons in the region around the HQ of the British press in Fleet Street might help to explain the speed at which the mythology of the 'broomstick army' took hold. Yet overall, by 20 August 1940, the Home Guard Inspectorate claimed that 850,000 rifles of various types had been issued to the Home Guard. In the circumstances this was an extraordinary achievement, especially as the British Army at the start of the Second World War had been just 892,697. The War Office was effectively trying to equip a whole new army in the most desperate of situations.
The key to the arming the Home Guard were the thousands of weapons imported from the USA, first by direct purchase organised by the British Purchasing Commission and then by Lend-Lease (see HERE). On 5 June Eden had to report that around 300,000 men had already enrolled in the LDV but only 94,000 rifles had been issued and ammunition was in short supply. Yet on 8 July the first of an initial contract for 500,000 M1917 rifles (known to the Home Guard as the P17) and 130 million rounds of ammunition began to be distributed. The contract was complete by the end of the month. By mid-January 1941 there were 733,710 M1917 (P17) rifles in Home Guard service. The M1917 rifle was the main US rifle of the First World War but had been replaced by the 1903 Springfield, leaving thousands in US stores. It was a modified Enfield P14, chambered for .300 calibre and was actually a later design that the standard British SMLE rifle. It was extremely accurate but had a smaller (5 round) magazine than the SMLE and was heavier. But the most important criticism from the Home Guard was simply ... it was not the beloved SMLE. What made it worse for them was that the arrival of the new weapons from the USA meant that most of the SMLE rifles that had been distributed to the Home Guard in the early invasion panic (mainly in the anticipated invasion areas) were now withdrawn and returned to the regular army. The rifle was still seen as the defining symbol of a soldier and, somewhat strangely to modern eyes, one of the reasons given by the C-in-C Home Forces (General Alan Brooke) in December 1940 for the proposed issue of the Thompson sub-machine gun to the Home Guard was that it would allow their Ross rifles (much maligned today as a front-line weapon) to be redistributed to the field army.
Oral history frequently maintains that, even if they did have rifles, the men only had five rounds of ammunition, another potent symbol of how they had been prepared to stand against seemingly insurmountable odds. Five rounds was only the allowance for guard duty outside the time of any invasion; individuals may not have been aware that there was a deliberate policy of holding back supplies of ammunition until actually needed. Substantial quantities of ammunition were held as a reserve, avoiding the problems of men holding scattered quantities of live ammunition at home. Some battalion and company commanders reduced the ammunition issued even further to create an unofficial local reserve. Each M1917 rifle shipped in July had been accompanied by 60 rounds and in August, the War Office advised that 50 rounds were available ‘on man or with unit’. In September, the Home Guard Inspectorate confirmed that 50 rounds per man had been distributed for frontline Home Guard, with another 20 held in Command reserve, plus an additional War Office reserve. Some ammunition for rifles was, however, re-allocated to supply the machine guns, where the allowance from 20 August was 750 rounds per weapon and a further 500 rounds held in reserve. In December 1940, reflecting the reduced risk of invasion over the winter, the distribution was reduced to 40 rounds per rifle and 550 per light machine gun. By February 1941 the Home Guard was holding 75.6 million rounds of .300 ammunition.
Despite all efforts, there remained an on-going shortage of personal weapons - but this was not unique to the Home Guard. In some frustration, Churchill wrote to the War Office demanding 'every man must have a weapon of some sort, be it only a mace or a pike. One spur came from the German airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941, raising fears that troops responsible for airfield defence had a serious shortage of weapons. The only consolation was that the first wave of paratroopers had been badly mauled as they were landing by Cretan peasants armed with scythes and billhooks. This led to the widespread distribution of what became known as the 'Croft Pike' across Home Forces.
The chronology of the distribution of the 'Croft Pike' is now somewhat hazy, not least because it became a public relations disaster to be buried as quickly as possible. Some sources have put the distribution as late as 1942 but they were certainly issued during 1941 and there was some deliberate dissembling as to their scale of issue. The history of 4th Battalion, Oxfordshire Home Guard maintained they received pikes as early as March 1941 - before the invasion of Crete (with the caveat that local histories sometimes get dates confused). The notorious ‘Bayonet Standard’, better known as the ‘Croft Pike’ was certainly distributed from June 1941. This was a 5ft steel tube with a bayonet welded to the end. The War Office ordered 250,000 but it was clear that there would be complaints and the Chief of the General Staff stressed that it should be explained to Home Guard units that regular troops were also being issued with them. By May 1942 just 100,000 had been distributed to Home Forces and of those only 40,884 went to the Home Guard, with many Home Guard officers refusing to distribute them to their men. The ‘Croft Pike’ has become a key element of the supposed absurdity of the Home Guard but they actually received less than fifty per cent of the weapon, the rest going particularly to Anti-Aircraft Command. They have become particularly associated with the Home Guard only because they were the most public recipients and the most vocal complainants - and because there was a deliberate manipulation of the story to focus away from the problems of the rest of the armed forces. General Pile, head of Anti-Aircraft Command admitted that due to the shortage of rifles his men, like the Home Guard, were issued with cudgels and pikes but ‘we were asked to keep quiet about having them too.’ Even with the Croft Pike, in January 1942 there remained a shortage of 400,000 personal weapons in Home Forces.
'Bayonet Standard or 'Croft Pike'.(© IWM)
By the end of 1942, the Home Guard was still clamouring for every man to have a personal weapon but many Home Guard were now serving as gun crews to support weapons such as the Northover Projector or Blacker Bombard; their main role was increasingly to take over guard duties from regular forces rather than prepare for a mass anti-invasion role. Others were serving on anti-aircraft or coastal artillery gun sites, bomb disposal or in support roles where a personal weapon was not considered strictly necessary. Their firepower had also been greatly improved by a widespread issue of the new Sten Gun (to replace an earlier, smaller, issue of nearly 34,000 Thompson sub-machine gun from March 1941). The Sten Gun came into Home Guard service from March 1942, just a few months after its first issue to the regular army. By November 1942 the Home Guard had 248,234 Sten guns, together with 34 million rounds of its 9mm ammunition, with distribution eventually reaching a ratio of one per six men
The image of the LDV drilling with broomsticks became a potent symbol of the ‘blitz spirit’, a symbol of unity with men, young and old standing together, determined to protect the country at whatever cost. The post-war government, and indeed proud veterans, cultivated this image and a manuscript History of the Home Guard produced for the War Office in 1951 included a wholly inaccurate statement which, at the start of the Cold War, harked back to a more innocent time and became part of later misunderstanding: 'for the first 12 months, no uniforms, arms or equipment were available but these began to be issued in 1941, in the meantime men wore their own clothes and boots, made do with shot-guns and .22 rifles, any old revolvers were dug out, broom handles were used for drilling purposes where rifles could not be borrowed from school armouries etc., but it was accepted with good humour and spirit as "part of the game"'. This wholly misleading account was the romantic propaganda image that was adopted by the Dad's Army TV series and which has distorted the perception of the Home Guard thereafter.
For further details on the arming of the Home Guard , see To The Last Man: the Home Guard in war and popular culture (2017).