Photographs as Propaganda
Photography in WW2 was subject to censorship and published images were chosen to present a particular message. In 1940 -1 these were often directed towards a US audience in order to attract support for the war effort. 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 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.
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)
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 at the time it was standard practice for the regular army to drill in such a way (only they did it in the privacy of barrack squares). Significantly, this photograph is from the US Embassy collection -reflecting the use of such images to encourage the USA to support the British war effort. (Chronicle).
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-shot was completed! (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.
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)
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.
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.
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'.