The Citizen Soldiers of the Home Guard and Auxiliary Units
The rights of citizens to defend their own country was hotly debated during the discussions leading to the 1907 Hague Convention. Whilst large states contended that lawful combatant status should only be given to members of recognised armed forces, smaller countries wanted to protect the right of a general population to defend itself against an invader. Article 1 of the Hague Convention eventually provided four criteria for lawful combatant status:
to be commanded by a person responsible for their subordinates
to have a recognised emblem that was recognisable at a distance
to carry arms openly
to conduct their operations according to the laws and customs of war
In a concession to the smaller states, Article 2 also allowed the concept of the levee en masse for populations who spontaneously took up arms but carried them openly and obeyed the laws of war, but this was open to wide interpretation. Compliance with the Hague Convention remained a key consideration of the British government in 1940 – although they were much more cavalier in encouraging foreigners to take up arms in a resistance against the Nazis.
In March 1940, the GOC, General Kirke, ordered a review of lessons from the First World War equivalent to the Home Guard – the VTC - in case a similar body was needed again. Kirke began to establish the broadest outline of a plan for a local defence force that was legal and could take action ‘before civilian residents on the East Coast took the law into their own hands and formed their own private defence bands’. When the LDV (later the Home Guard were formed in May 1940 the men who volunteered in the first days and weeks following Eden’s broadcast probably thought very little about the legality of their actions. All they really wanted was a gun with which to defend their country and they were proud of their status at the time as citizen volunteers. The introduction of conscription in 1942 was, therefore, greatly resented. The absolute priority of government in May 1940 was, however, to provide some sort of uniform to prevent the volunteers being classed as francs-tireur or terrorists. The the legal position was given in Defence (Local Defence Volunteers) Regulations, 17 May 1940. In order to give them protection under international law: 'Members of the Local Defence Volunteers shall be members of the armed forces of the Crown and every such member shall, notwithstanding that he may hold any rank or commission in any other of His Majesty's forces, be subject to military law as a soldier.'
The existence if the LDV was consequently included as such in the Army Act. The position of the Ulster Defence Volunteers (UDV) raised on 28 May as the Local Defence Volunteer Section of the Special Constabulary (the ‘B Specials’) of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was more complicated. Although entitled to bear arms as part of the RUC, the latter remained a civil power and the UDV (unlike their counterparts in the rest of the UK) therefore did not have combatant status. Government legal advice in 1940 was that military status could be given, without the need for formal attestation, at the point that they were called upon to resist invasion but they would not thereafter be able to revert to the civil role of special constables. The legal dispute as to whether this would bring the volunteers within the bounds of the Hague Convention rumbled on until 1942 when a system of formal attestation was introduced.
At the War Cabinet meeting of 8 July Eden supported the belief of C-in-C Home Forces, General Ironside, that actual fighting should be restricted to the military and Local Defence Volunteers, and that no civilian who was not a member of these forces should be authorised to use lethal weapons. The distinction was made clear in the public information leaflet Stay Where You Are which stated 'Civilians who try to join in the fight are more likely to get in the way than to help. The defeat of an enemy attack is the task of the armed forces which include the Home Guard, so if you wish to fight enrol in the Home Guard'.
Although the principle of individual self-defence was accepted, there was no suggestion of arms being indiscriminately provided to make it more effective and Beating the Invader (May 1941) advised that if fighting broke out in the neighbourhood the population should ‘Keep indoors or in your shelter until the battle is over’. John Langdon-Davies explained the legal position to his readership later in 1942: 'the laws of war, which must be obeyed by every British subject, whether or not they are obeyed by the Nazis, do not permit of civilians offering armed resistance, unless they are organised in a regular corps and wear a recognisable uniform. That is why people, who would otherwise be civilians, have to join the Home Guard and receive uniform'.
In 1942 their status as part of the armed forces of the crown' was repeated in Regulations for the Home Guard, 1942 but amplified 'The members of the Home Guard are unpaid. They are not, however, required to give whole-time service or to live away from home, except when mustered by reason of an actual or apprehended invasion.'
The legal status of the Home Guard caused a complication with the enthusiastic American Committee for the Defence of British Homes (ACDBH) whose campaign to collect weaponry for Britain (ostensibly for the defence of civilian homes) had caused consternation with the British government. To comply with US law they repeatedly said that the arms were being collected for civilian use. But in 1941 the story unravelled when the ACDBH asked to formally make contact with a delegation of the Home Guard Directorate, which they learned was to go to the USA to advise on the possible establishment of a US Home Guard. The Foreign Office patiently pointed out that the Home Guard would have to be received as part of the British armed forces and any joint appearance with the ACDBH might lead to questions over the legality of the latter’s campaign. The Foreign Office wrote in September 1941: Sir F. Stewart is beginning to be rather worried about the competence and reliability of the Macneil of Barra, who is showing signs of panic at the prospect that the fact that the Home Guard is definitely a military body may now be revealed in the US.
The LDV/Home Guard were, therefore, considered a formal part of the armed forces of the crown, with a defining element being their uniform (if inly an armband in its early days). But this was a part-time army and military law only applied when they were on duty (as it does with the modern Reserves). Their status would however be regularised when fully mobilised upon invasion. They were indeed a ‘citizen army’ but if called to arms they would be considered first and foremost as soldiers. As formally part of the Home Guard, the same principles applied to the Auxiliary Units, with a clear distinction being drawn between them and the civilian Home Defence Scheme of SIS Section D.
The status of the Auxiliary Units was described in an official statement in July 1940: 'The object of the Auxiliary Units, Home Forces, on the fighting side, is to build up, within the general body of the Home Guards, a series of small local units whose role is to work offensively on the flanks and in the rear of any German troops who may obtain a temporary foothold in this country.' The War Office consistently stressed that a pre-requisite of membership of the new Auxiliary Units was enrolment in the LDV / Home Guard to maintain their legality as guerrilla fighters. The instructions to Auxiliary Units Intelligence Officers on 27 July 1940 makes this clear: 'Auxiliary Units will be created within existing LDV units. Suitable men you have found not in LDV should be brought into it'. Lieutenant-General Bernard Paget, at the time Chief of Staff, Home Forces, explained a few days later on 30 July to Duncan Sandys of the new Ministry of Defence: ‘These men, being members of the Home Guard, will of course fight in uniform . . . being a uniformed and properly organised body, its members are in no way violating ‘international law’ even if fighting behind the advanced elements of the invading forces, where units of regular troops will also be fighting…’ Sandys, in turn, explained to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill in a report of 8 August 1940: 'They are intended to provide, within the framework of the Home Guard organisation, small bodies of men specially selected and trained, whose role will be to act offensively on the flanks and in the rear of any enemy troops who may obtain a foothold in this country ….' This concern over the legal status of the Auxiliary Units is in sharp contrast to Tom Wintringham's teaching to his guerrilla warfare students at Osterley - where, if overrun, he exhorted them to bury their uniforms and rifles, blend back into the community and fight on in teams of two or three with pistols and grenades.
The administrative details of the Auxiliary Units were explained in a letter of 20 January 1941 from the Director General of the Home Guard to the Territorial Army Associations who managed the Home Guard regarding ‘the control of Auxiliary Units of Home Guard known as “Scout Patrols” or “Observation Units”’. The letter stated that the men were to be formally enrolled into the Home Guard, with their enrolment form ‘endorsed to show membership of Auxiliary Units’. Their details were also published in Home Guard battalion Part II orders, suggesting they were not the secret organisation of legend.
The official position is therefore quite clear – the operational branch of the Auxiliary Units was part of the armed forces of the crown and uniformed members of the Home Guard. This has been hotly denied by veterans who, after the war, clearly saw themselves as an equivalent to the now famous European resistance movements, and a modern romantic vision of the ‘civilian’ Auxiliary Units. In 2022 the book Britain's Secret Defences:civilian saboteurs, spies and assassins ironically features a photo of uniformed Auxiliary Units on the cover. Indeed, wartime photographs of the Auxiliary Units overwhelmingly show them in uniform. Nevertheless, some veterans denied they ever trained in uniform and as supposed proof said they wore denim jackets and trousers to protect their clothes – forgetting that in 1940 these actually were the uniform of the Home Guard. Later they had standard army battledress with shoulder flashes identifying them as being part if the ‘reserve battalions’ of the Home Guard. Part of the reason for a concerted effort to distance themselves from the Home Guard was a quite understandable desire to put distance between them and the popular image of a bumbling, aged Home Guard as promoted by the TV series ‘Dad’s Army’ and in this, as in other aspect of Home Guard history, there is a divergence between what the volunteers believed and the official situation. So, were the Auxiliary Units part-time soldiers or civilians? If they are considered civilians then does that also make the Territorial 23 SAS who manned the observation hides in North Germany also civilians - or indeed the modern Reserves who fought in Afganistan?
Letter of General Paget to Duncan Sandys,30 July 1940.
Officers and NCOs of Worcestershire Auxiliary Units, 1944. Is the image one of soldiers or civilians?
To the Last Man (2019) is a comprehensive study of the Home Guard. It contains the first detailed account of the work of the American Committee for the Defence of British Homes and its donations of weapons to the British war effort.