The Home Guard
The Home Guard (originally the Local Defence Volunteers) was formed on 14 May 1940 and by the time it was stood down in September 1944, around four million men (and the female Home Guard Auxiliaries or 'Nominated Women') had passed through its ranks.
When formed in what one civil servant described as a precipitous rush, the purpose of the Home Guard was confused. It was unclear if its eager volunteers were expected to be a small body of special constables, an observer corps, a guerrilla force or a static guard and to a large degree its eventual role was driven by the enthusiasm of its volunteers, often to the frustration of the War Office.
The modern impression of the Home Guard has been distorted by the popularity of the TV comedy series Dad's Army. This was never intended to be a documentary history but the mythology it created of a bumbling, farcical and aged Home Guard was given a spurious legitimacy by the publication in 1974 of Norman Longmate's The Real Dad's Army, which was itself linked to the TV series.
The mythology is endlessly repeated in the media and in internet chat rooms, perpetuated in old texts that are re-packaged as new works. To The Last Man was an attempt to rediscover the true Home Guard and analyse how the mythology was created out of small grains of truth that have been distorted over time.
There was a great deal of amount of humour in the Home Guard but the context of that humour was lost post-war. At times it now seems impossible to consider any aspect of the Home Guard without trying to give it a comedic twist in order to meet the expectations of an audience brought up on Dad's Army. Much of the original humour was based on the traditional soldier's humour as best expressed in the First World War Bainsfather cartoons. There was also a considerable element of self-deprecating 'gallow's humour'. In 1940 the volunteers were under no illusion of the suicidal nature of their role following any invasion of buying even a few hours delay to allow the army to regroup for a counter-attack. The General Staff had realised that although the German army had struck with incredible speed during the blitzkrieg in France and the Low Countries, their tanks had largely kept to the road system. If this tactic was followed in any invasion of Britain, their advance could be delayed by holding 'nodal points' where roads converged. The time - and petrol- that the Germans expended on clearing these 'nodal points' might have been crucial to success.
Although the role of the Home Guard was expected to be essentially static as they defended fixed points, it was always recognised that there would be a harassing role to again delay the enemy's line of march. This was enthusiastically seized upon by many Home Guard, who saw their role more as a guerrilla force. The War Office desperately tried to control this trend, fearing it would lead to a loss of discipline and strategic control and preferring to rely, in the coastal areas, on the official Home Guard guerrilla units of the GHQ Auxiliary Units. It does, however, seem likely that SIS quietly encouraged the Osterley Home Guard training School as a potential source of recruits for the planned national British resistance organisation.
The pride of the Home Guard in their determination to follow orders and hold their positions to the last man meant that their willingness to do so with whatever weapons came to hand achieved special significance. The government had never intended to arm all of the Home Guard and the unexpected number of volunteers made this impossible. The War Office was, after all, was having difficulty enough arming the regular army - but the men naturally wanted weapons. It is often forgotten that in the Summer of 1940 even the regular army were drilling with dummy rifles and later that the majority of the infamous 'Croft Pikes' went to the army (who were ordered not to reveal this fact). Stories of arming themselves with pitchforks and muskets abounded and had obvious post-war comedic appeal. The legend of the 'broomstick army' was born. Less newsworthy was that, as early as early June 1940, the first shipments of thousands of M1917 rifles began to arrive from the USA. The men also remembered being issued with only five rounds of ammunition but were perhaps unaware that reserves were held at company and battalion level, but only to be distributed as needed after invasion. The complexity of attitudes to arming the Home Guard is well-illustrated by the government disinterest in the plans for the US Committee to Defend British Homes to campaign for weapons to be donated to the Home Guard. The history of this campaign was subsequently distorted as part of the on-going movement to resist gun control in the USA.
The anti-invasion role of the Home Guard was dramatic, but ultimately their greatest significance was their ability from 1942 onwards of taking over duties from the army, including anti-aircraft and coastal artillery. This allowed the troops to train for D Day. The duties were hard, tiring and time-consuming, especially as most of the Home Guard had full-time jobs in reserved occupations. (The idea of the Home Guard as a body of pensioners is another myth and one veteran instead declared it a 'Kid's Army'). The overwhelming memory of men from this period is one of exhaustion and there was a fall in morale. Norman Longmate had been a teenage conscript to the Home Guard in this period and this coloured his somewhat cynical account.
To The Last Man cuts through the mythology of the Home Guard and explain its role in the defence of Britain in 1940-1 and thereafter how it took on increasing responsibilities for air and coastal defence and bomb disposal. During the war, the image of the Home Guard was carefully managed but its already began to create its own myths around the desperate days of 1940. In the post-war period, the myth began to overtake reality and has had both a fundamental impact on the nature of research into the Home Guard and its specialist guerrilla units in the Auxiliary Units.
This publication continues the re-examination of the roles of the Home Guard and Auxiliary Units began in Fighting Nazi Occupation, and dissects their image in popular culture.
The book also contains the most detailed account to-date of the scheme for the private donation of arms from the USA and explains why this campaign was so unwelcome to the British government. It also re-examines the role of women in the Home Guard, showing their importance from the very foundation of the organisation.
To the Last Man also analyses the mythology of the 'people's army' and the role of socialists in shaping the Home Guard including the, at first sight, surprising opposition to it from the International Brigades Association..
Also included is a study of the near-forgotten 1950s Home Guard.