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Formation of the Home Guard

Britain had a long history of volunteer militias ready to counter both invasion and civil disorder. What distinguished the mobilisation of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) in May 1940 was not only the scale and enthusiasm of the volunteers but also the lack of a clear understanding by government of their role. Winston Churchill is often popularly seen as the architect of the Home Guard but the reality is more complicated. 

 

At the start of the Second World War, defence was in the hands of the volunteers of the small professional regular army and the territorial battalions comprising, in all, just 892,697 men. In addition, the National Defence Companies (a successor of the First World War Royal Defence Corps) were a small voluntary reserve to be mobilized on a full-time basis in the event of war but only intended to have a strength of 8,450. Enlistment was limited to former members of the British Armed Forces between the ages of 45 and 60. The National Defence Companies were mobilized in late August 1939, and in November 1939 were reorganized as Home Service Battalions of their county regiment, helping to guard vulnerable points and Prisoner of War camps throughout the war. They never developed into a major force but, nonetheless, in early June 1940 General Ironside (then C-in-C Home Forces) still saw them, rather than the new LDV, as a key element in his defence strategy.

Two visionaries from opposite ends of the political spectrum had unsuccessfully argued in 1939 for the creation of a much larger Home Guard. Tom Wintringham was a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), arrested for seditious libel and incitement to mutiny in 1925. In  1936  he was a pioneer of the concept of the International Brigades in Spain (briefly commander of the British Battalion). Although expelled from the CPGB in 1938, Wintringham remained a confirmed Marxist and differed only tactically in believing it was necessary to work with the British Government to defeat fascism, rather than waiting for a future workers’ revolution. In April 1939, Tom Wintringham called for a force of c.100,000 volunteers, drawn from among ex-servicemen and youths. Wintringham’s proposal was ignored, not least because it was part of his wider proposals to make the army more democratic. In October 1939, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, took up Wintringham’s theme, proposing to the Home Secretary ' a Home Guard'  of half a million men aged over forty. Churchill’s vision was for an expansion of the Home Service battalions, taking over guard duties and allowing younger soldiers to go on active service overseas. Equally rebuffed, Churchill then let the matter drop.

 

Until May 1940 there was an unreal ‘phoney war’ atmosphere.  As in 1914 and the formation of the Volunteer Training Corps (VTC), the first practical steps in creating what became the LDV / Home Guard was a grass roots movement of raw patriotism, tinged with frustration at the apparent complacency of the government.  In March 1940 the ‘Essex Volunteer Army Force’ was formed, based around the Romford and Hornchurch troop of the Legion of Frontiersmen and comprising around 400 men. Around the same time, Lady Helene Gleichen organized the 80 male employees and tenants on her estate near Ross on Wye into the ‘Much Marcle Watchers’.  There were now widespread demands in the popular press to create a new volunteer defence force and with rising paranoia over the fear of German airborne landings and the existence of a ‘fifth column’, the government feared  a mushrooming of vigilante groups who would might not only interfere with army defence plans  but also be liable to be shot as francs-tireur (terrorists) under international law. On Saturday 11 May a government press release  tried to dissuade civilians joining any fighting. This was a matter of legality that fundamentally directed the government plans for home defence.  Combat was only to be undertaken by uniformed bodies under military discipline that complied with international law (even if the only early uniform was an armband) and in support of the field army. This affected not only the Home Guard but also its secret guerrilla wing - the Auxiliary Units. It also explained the government reticence towards the US campaign to send arms to defend British homes  as there was no desire for a mass arming of British citizens. Thus, in deepest secrecy, a civilian resistance in the event of enemy occupation would be organised, not by the War Office, but by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6).

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General Sir Walter Kirke (1877 - 1949), forgotten architect of the Home Guard

Yet the LDV did not purely arise out of popular insistence. Behind the scenes, the then Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, General Sir Walter Kirke, had begun planning a contingency plan for invasion in the autumn of 1939 and was particularly concerned that increasingly stretched army resources were being dissipated in having to guard local vulnerable points. In March 1940, ignoring the government's complacency,  he ordered a review of lessons from the WW1 VTC in case a similar body was needed again. Kirke began to establish the broad outline of a  plan for a  local defence force with the  small size of the  VTC (just 350,000 men) heavily influencing the concept. This assumption of scale was to have long-lasting consequences. The proposed  volunteer body would help guard vulnerable points and provide pre-conscription training of youths. They would also help counter the risk of sabotage by a ‘fifth column’ or enemy agents and assist in dealing with any disruption following air raids - forming what was, in effect, an armed special constabulary. Critically, such a force could also act as a reserve to be employed in the case of invasion, organized ‘on the principle of the Boer Commando’.   

Kirke’s plan was ignored until 7 May when the Army Council finally circulated a letter to all Army Commands  asking for views on the formation of a new volunteer force. At the Cabinet meeting of Thursday, 9 May the Foreign Secretary (Lord Halifax) raised a suggestion made by Lord Mottistone in the House of Lords that local levies armed with rifles might be found from older men to guard isolated vulnerable points. On the next day, as Chamberlain resigned and Churchill became Prime Minister, Kirke became head of the new Home Defence Executive, charged  with coordinating anti-invasion planning.  Wasting no time, on the afternoon of Saturday 11 May Kirke met with the Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff (General Sir John Dill), the Adjutant-General (General Sir Gordon-Finlayson),  Sir Hugh Elles (Ministry of Home Security) and the then Secretary of State for War (Oliver Stanley – on his last day before handing over to Anthony Eden) to consider the best ways of dealing with parachutists. Kirke believed the meeting had endorsed his long-standing plan for a new volunteer force but when Dill reported to the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the Cabinet that evening he merely proposed the attachment of six or seven local volunteers to the scatter of searchlight units across the country, under Anti-Aircraft Command. The volunteers would not, therefore, be necessarily sited to defend towns and villages and it is not clear what the force might have achieved. Without consulting the C-in-C Home Forces, but panicked by the recent German parachute landings in Holland, the Cabinet (now under Churchill), gave general approval and asked for a progress report on Monday, 13 May.  Adding to the confusion, Anthony Eden took over as Secretary of State for War on 12 May but had not been party to the earlier discussions.  

On the morning of Sunday, 12 May  the Adjutant-General  announced to a meeting at the War Office that he had now been instructed to draw up a scheme and, trying to suppress Kirke's more ambitious plan, instead presented Dill's minimalist concept. Once apprised of the situation, a furious Kirke  firmly pointed out that the War Office was usurping the authority of Home Forces and the Home Defence Executive. Kirke’s basic proposal was now accepted but  the Adjutant-General particularly objected to any reference of  the 'Boer commandos',  which,  to the War Office, smacked of anarchy. It was the beginning of a long-running conflict of emphasis in the Home Guard over ‘guerrilla warfare’.  Eden now formally proposed the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), under the command of the C-in-C Home Forces, but there was still no clear government consensus on how the new body would operate or its legal status as 'armed combatants'. Eden's broadcast to the nation, had, however, already been scheduled for the evening of Tuesday 14 May and he was keen for there to be no delay in order to establish his new status in government. A hectic series of meetings continued throughout that Tuesday, trying to resolve the fundamental issues of role of the LDV and whether they should be armed. The Treasury took the view that they should be regarded as civilians but Eden was emphatic that they should be organized as uniformed soldiers.  Eden made his announcement on the BBC  at 9.10pm as planned - but with still only the sketchiest idea of how the new force would operate. He did not narrow the scope of recruitment but he did say that ‘reasonable fitness and a knowledge of firearms are necessary.’  The initial expectation, based on the WW1 experience of the VTC, was that between 150,000 and 500,000 volunteers would come forward but within just two weeks there were 400,000 and by two months over one million. This was greater than the size of the whole of the pre-war British army and created huge logistical problems in organising its supply. As compared to the situation in 1914, there was a clearer sense of the threat and nature of the conflict with Nazi Germany but the new power of radio broadcasting was, for the first time in war, instantly able to reach a mass audience. 

The intention was still  principally a means to create a register of potential volunteers for future use, thereby hopefully stemming the tide of vigilante groups but also helping restricting recruitment to the available level of weapons (although it was still not envisaged that all LDV would need to be armed).  But by 17 May over 250,000 volunteers had enrolled and were expecting orders. In addition, there had not been time to (as Kirke had envisaged)  appoint officers before the general appeal for volunteers.  By necessity, a War Office Instruction distributed on 18 May stressed (optimistically) that ‘the outstanding features should be simplicity, elasticity and decentralised control, coupled with the minimum of regulations and formalities’. With some good reason, General Pownall, the Inspector-General of the LDV appointed on 19 June, complained that the organization had been set up by the War Office without thought for practicalities and was now a ‘dog’s dinner’. 

The volunteers wanted more than their names to be put on a register and retired General Sir Hubert Gough recorded a sense of anti-climax following Eden’s speech. ‘We got no orders, no instructions whatever, for two or three weeks at least.’ In similar vein, Sir Alfred Knox MP complained on 21 May ‘everybody is waiting for regulations, and does not know what to do’. Into the uncertainty stepped Tom Wintringham with a series of newspaper and magazine articles that were confident and aggressive, exactly meeting the aspirations of the new LDV to be more than the low-key armed special constabulary envisioned by the government. The pioneering photo-journalism of Picture Post also gave an unparalleled impact to his words, preaching an uncompromising defence policy of public participation and aggression.

Government confusion  over the role of the LDV extended to the new Prime Minister. A puzzled Winston Churchill wrote to Eden on 22 June: 'Could I have a brief statement of the LDV position, showing the progress achieved in raising and arming them, and whether they are designed for observation or for serious fighting. What is their relationship to the police, the Military command, and the Regional Commissioners? from whom do they receive their orders, and to whom do they report?'  It was in this atmosphere of confusion that the legend of the 'broomstick army' was born. 

The day following the publication of  Wintringham’s ‘Arm the Citizens’ article in the 29 June issue of Picture Post Churchill pointed out to the Cabinet ‘It would be very unfortunate if there was any failure to make the fullest practicable use of the widespread desire for combatant service’ and the Lord Privy Seal (Clement Attlee) and the Secretary of State for War (Anthony Eden) were asked to enquire into the arrangements for the equipment and employment of the LDV.  Churchill was acutely aware of the  potential of this army of voters to trigger a political disaster and tried to regain control of the situation. He now followed Wintringham's lead and championed an aggressive role for the LDV in a BBC broadcast but after this initial  period of confusion and dithering, he believed the LDV needed re-branding. Churchill first proposed the change of name to Home Guard on 26 June, but it was not finally confirmed by the Cabinet until 22 July. Neither Eden, the War Office or the Ministry of Information were happy about the swift change of name and there were grumbles over the cost of issuing new armbands (an indication of the dire state of supply in the Summer of 1940). Churchill prevailed and one important consequence of  his association with the change was that or the rest of the life of the Home Guard he remained sensitive to the political risks of offending this literal army of voters. 

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For further details on the formation, arming and history of the Home Guard , see To The Last Man: the Home Guard in war and popular culture (2017)