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Photographs as Propaganda
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Photography in WW2 was subject to censorship and published  images were usually chosen to present a particular message on the government's behalf. In 1940 -1 these were often directed towards a US audience in order to attract support for the war effort. Nonetheless, especially later in the war, publications managed to mount their own political campaigns and re-purposed photographs to their own end. Often, therefore, such images cannot be taken at face value. Adding to the complication, these same images have sometimes been used post-war to offer a different, even contradictory, message - dominated by a relentless assumption that anything to do with the Home Guard  had to be comedic. Below are a series of famous Home Guard images, mainly from the Imperial War Museum collection, with their background story.

There is more on this topic in To the Last Man: the Home Guard in War and Popular Culture.

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A fascinating press photo, published on 3 June 1940 in a US newspaper. This is an artful construction, with dome of St Paul's in background (so audience clear it is London), neat pyramid arrangement of rifles. The caption describes how 'an expert rifleman (left) demonstrates to London office workers the principles of rifle shooting'. An enthralled audience watches him explain the bolt of a .303 SMLE rifle. Note the contrast between the 'working class' instructor and the main female character in silk dress. The others hold what seem to be .22 BSA Martini rifles which, it is claimed, they have 'brought to work with them because they had planned on the noontime instruction in defence'. It is claimed 'All are enrolled in home defence corps ... which apparently means to include the women'. The headline is 'They'll shoot the Chuters' explaining their main purpose is to engage enemy parachute landings.

 

The Dunkirk evacuation had just been completed. Many in the USA believed that Britain would soon collapse. Here is a photo designed to present to the US audience an atmosphere of quiet calm and steely resolve. Men and women, different classes, are all shown united in defence of the country. As such, it also plays to the US assumption that the UK government would wish to arm every citizen to protect every home. This was actually far from the minds of the British government (especially in regard to women) and a cynical mind might suggest that a bundle of rifles had been collected from a local sporting goods shop for the photo opportunity! Further info on the controversy surrounding US arms donations HERE(NEA)

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The 'broomstick army' has become an iconic image of the LDV / Home Guard. It has come to symbolise the apparent ridiculous nature of the organisation. Yet in the same period it was standard practice for the regular army to drill in such a way (only they did it in the privacy of barrack squares and images of this would have been more worrying).  Significantly, this photograph is from the US Embassy collection -reflecting the use of such images to encourage the USA to provide supplies for the British war effort. (Chronicle).

Illustration from Picture Post, 21 September 1940, once taken as evidence that the Home Guard were temporarily issued with the Thompson sub-machine gun at this time.  A young Home Guard is being given instruction in the Thompson at the Dorking Home Guard training school (at the time absorbing the Osterley Training School). The Home Guard weren't actually supplied with the Thompson until 1941 but training schools were given examples in advance to whet the appetite and provide introductory instruction. There were good reasons to publish this photograph in September 1940 as the War Office believed this was the most likely time for invasion. The photograph is therefore partially aimed at an audience of  German Intelligence. The message was clear - if invaded, the enemy would face a defence they had not yet faced in their blitzkrieg tactic - a defence in depth made up of fit young men armed with the latest technology. 

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One of a series of propaganda photographs taken at Dorking in December 1940 to now present the image of a well-equipped Home Guard defending their locality.  We may presume the Bren gun and Thompson sub-machine gun were quickly removed from the self-conscious models after the photo-shoot was completed! They probably came from the Home Guard Training School at Dorking which received sample weapons in advance of regular Home Guard issue (and Bren guns remained rare in the Home Guard). (H5844)

 

 

Another of the December 1940 propaganda series from Dorking. This carefully-crafted image  reinforces the idea of he Home Guard defending hearth and home. The World War One veteran sits at the kitchen table smoking his pipe whilst cleaning a Thompson SMG. His approving wife sits behind him calmly knitting. The overall atmosphere is one of calm determination.

(H 5850)

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Original wartime caption to a photograph taken on a Ross-shire Home Guard exercise in August 1941: 'A Fifth Columnist masquerading as a nurse-maid, shoots a sentry when challenged at the road block'.  Another posed photograph whose static nature obscures the serious intent of training in how to properly man a roadblock. The key figures here are the Home Guard in the background, carefully covering the encounter.  

(H 12501)

The Home Guard quickly adopted the style of WW1 trench humour - self deprecating and often with a dark 'gallows humour' aspect. Most of the Home Guard had full-time jobs and as the Home Guard began to take on widening responsibilities for home defence from the army, they  became exhausted. They can therefore be forgiven for introducing a pantomime element from time to time in their exercise This lifted their spirits but was an irresistable magnet for press photographers

Looking like a bad modern battle re-enactment, this  image from a 1941 exercise in Northern Command has been carefully posed for the camera.  The opposing sides form a neat circle with 'dead' bodies in the centre.  The positioning of the troops in the open is the exact opposite of how the HG were trained to fight.

(H 12449) 

 

The 'dead' bodies are a sobering reminder that the Home Guard were not expected to survive invasion. Their primary purpose was to buy, with their lives, enough time for the army to regroup and counter-attack.  Fully aware of their likely fate, the Home Guard developed the coping mechanism of  'gallows humour'.  

 

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Leicester Home Guard 'capture a Nazi tank' on an exercise.  Today this might seem to be play-acting, reinforced by the static pose. At the time the corrugated iron 'tank'  was almost incidental  in the need for the men to practice techniques of ambush and defence against approaching armour.   (HU 83770)

A carefully staged publicity shot of September 1942 at Streatham Home Guard,  taken well after serious weapons training for women by the Home Guard had been banned and Summerskill had denied ever wishing for women to be trained for combat. Possibly actually a 'demonstration day' rather than serious training. The instructor has been moved by the photographer into a somewhat hazardous position. where he cannot see the nearside woman is about to lose the tip of her index finger by holding the Sten gun incorrectly. It is unlikely that a trainee would have actually been allowed to take up a firing position without the correct handling procedure having being explained. It is also not clear if the guns actually have their magazines fitted. 

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Original caption: 'Miss E. Blakeley, a clerk, makes a striking picture as she practices with a Tommy-gun during a drill of the women municipal workers of Bermondsey, London, who are being trained as local home guards'. The photo was taken at the height of Edith Summerskill's campaign to allow women to join the Home Guard and bear arms.  The War Office had just responded by banning all women from drill or weapons training with the Home Guard.  This photo is therefore making a clear political point which was repeated in a number of Picture Post issues for which it was intended - but whether it was completely staged, was from one of the 'Ladies Day' demonstration events, or was part of a serious training event is an open question. 

Not  a propaganda photo in itself - but one that shaped the subsequent coverage of the Home Guard. The 27 January 1940  issue of Picture Post had a  spread on the Home Defence Battalions. This was originally a  part-time, paid, force of former soldiers aged 45-55 - although many were much older which was mobilised for full-time service in August 1939.  Overwhelmingly composed of old soldiers with appealing back-stories, coverage of the Home Defence battalions set the tone for how the Home Guard would be typically represented - even though the average of the latter was in the late 30's.

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