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US Aid for the Home Guard

The Home Guard of WW2 relied heavily on weapons supplied from the USA, especially the .300 calibre M1917 (P17) rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), Lewis  and Browning machine guns. Most of these came from official purchases via the British Purchasing Commission in Washington or the later Lend-Lease scheme but there was also a small, but high profile, campaign in the USA to donate arms. The negative reaction to the latter by the British government might, at first, seem surprising!

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The iconic M1917 (P17) rifle supplied to the Home Guard from the USA. This was in .300 calibre rather than the visually similar P14 rifle which was .303 calibre. The P17 rifle was therefore distinguished by a red band painted around the forend sometimes also on the stock.

British Purchasing Commission

The BPC  was formed before the outbreak of war to arrange the production and purchase of armaments directly from North American manufacturers. The outbreak of war complicated the situation as the Neutrality Act of 1935 had prohibited the export of ‘arms, ammunition, and implements of war’ to foreign nations at war. This  had been modified in 1937 to allow belligerent nations, at the discretion of the President, to acquire any items except weapons from the United States, so long as they paid for such items in cash or gold and carried them on non-American ships. After a fierce debate in Congress, the 1939 Neutrality Act extended the ‘cash and carry’ provision to weapons, although the purchase had to be via a commercial third party. To further assist the allies, at the end of May 1940 General George Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff, was persuaded to declare substantial quantities of weapons and ammunition as ‘surplus to requirements’ and on 3 June the Attorney-General ruled that the sale of such guns and ammunition to Britain would be legal.  Wasting no time, the first consignment of supplies was made ready for shipment on 6 June, ahead of a formal contract on 18 June, using the US Steel Export Company as the intermediary.  During the war the BPC  arranged the purchase of thousands of weapons of all descriptions. Most significantly for the early Home Guard, it arranged contracts for the supply  of thousands of M1917 (P17) rifles and its ammunition. In early June 1940 the sale of 500,000 M1917 Enfield rifles was agreed, at a price of $7.50 each, together with 130 million rounds of .300 ammunition. There were also 38,040 aerial-type Lewis guns as also widely used by the Home Guard. The first part of the shipment was distributed to the Home Guard on 8 July 1940 and the contract was completed by the end of July. In all, 784,930 M1917 rifles were  supplied to Britain by mid-January 1941 -  733,710 of them going to the Home Guard. This all predated the Lend-Lease agreement.

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Delivery of a consignment of Thompson sub-machine guns under the Lend-Lease programme. March 1942. (©  IWM H 18068)

Lend-Lease

By the end of November 1940, Roosevelt had agreed that Britain would buy up fifty per cent of the US munitions capacity, the British effectively funding US modernization of its armaments industry. By early 1941 the British gold reserves were almost exhausted. To spread payments, the Lend-Lease bill was passed in March 1941.  This then became the main mechanism for the supply of US weapons and supplies to the British empire but the financial consequences would be glossed over in the interests of allied unity. The repayment of the Lend-Lease costs by Britain was not completed until 2006! The iconic M1917 (P17) rifle had already been supplied under the BPC contracts, but there was an ongoing urgent need for .300 ammunition as well as weapons such as the Thompson sub-machine gun, which began to be supplied to the Home Guard from March 1941 (first appearing in the April accounting returns). By April 1942, there were 43,017 Thompsons in Home Guard service (at a cost of $225 each) but numbers declined thereafter as they were superseded by the home-produced Sten gun. Lend-Lease also supplied many of the .22 training rifles used by the Home Guard. In all, 47,400 .22 calibre  rifles of all models were successfully  shipped to the British Empire (excluding Canada) between 1941 and 1945 under the Lend Lease Act, with  another 10,000 being lost at sea.

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Remington M1910 pump action shotgun supplied via Committee for Defence of British Homes (© IWM)

American Committee for the Defence of British Homes

Popular enthusiasm in the USA for supporting the British war effort by supplying arms was channeled through the Committee for the Defence of British Homes (ACDBH), founded on 31 July 1940. For the British government, the main attraction of the scheme was its propaganda value in encouraging support for the Lend-Lease Bill and it only grudgingly accepted the donations of personal weapons through the campaign.  There was a fundamental difference in attitude between the US donors, who assumed the British government would welcome an effort to arm every every household in a romantic vision of Revolutionary War militias and the British government which, in line with the Hague Convention, rejected the wholesale arming of civilians and which only wanted standard calibre military weapons (rather than the miscellany of firearms of different calibre and condition that the US Committee could provide). The support of revolutionary socialist Tom Wintringham for the campaign did not help! 

 

The only British minister to support the scheme was Lord Beaverbrook who headed the Ministry of Aircraft Production. He wanted the weapons to arm the Home Guard defending his factories and consequently the Ministry of Supply described the campaign as an 'MAP racket' in which the ACDBH and Beaverbrook were cynically deceiving US donors into believing they were supporting the defence of individual British households. The donations  only began to arrive in November 1940, when the man shipment of arms arranged by the BPC was well under way.  In an effort to encourage support for the campaign the Committee and its British arm (Civilian Committee for the Protection of Homes in Britain) massively exaggerated the number of donated arms, but the passage of the Lend-Lease Bill in March 1941 signalled the death knell of the campaign. It was increasing seen by the government and War Office as an irritation that interfered with  Lend-Lease contracts. In desperation, the British Committee even resorted to bribery. With the government ignoring appeals to give publicity to the scheme, on 17 June  a letter was sent to the  Home Secretary, advising that he was being personally sent a consignment of two Krag rifles, 1 Mauser sporting rifle, 1 Remington sporterized M1917 and a Browning shotgun ‘for allocation at your discretion or for your personal use’ and suggesting that, in return, he might like to provide a public message of appreciation and support.  The entry of the USA into the war in December 1941 was the final straw for the campaign as US citizens now had more immediate concerns. After the war, the US Committee found it too expensive to repatriate the weapons and most were either sold to raise money for charity or were destroyed. 

The scale of the campaign was subject to considerable exaggeration. In November 1940, Picture Post  claimed that ‘tens of thousands of pieces’ had already been collected. The truth at that time was less than two thousand! The final total of donations was  25,343 firearms and 2,042,291 rounds of ammunition​. The campaign was also uninformed as to the existing scale of official imports from the USA.  The  British Committee in November 1940 made a plea to their US counterparts for 100  ‘Tommy guns’, claiming that the Thompsons were unobtainable in Britain.  In fact, the War Office had placed its first major order for Thompsons in January 1940 and by November 1940 Britain had taken up the whole of Thompson gun manufacturing capacity in the USA (having ordered around 150,000 guns). By comparison, the US Committee could only provide 110 Thompsons over its lifetime, including 40 criminal weapons confiscated by police forces and only supplied after December 1941 

The specified donations included

 

Thompson M1928 sub-machine gun (110)

Lewis machine gun

Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)

French army 1874 and 1894 rifles,

Winchester M1892 and M1894 lever action rifles

Savage M1899 lever action rifles,

Springfield M1898 Krag rifles,

Springfield M1903 rifles

'Springfield' M1917 rifles (actually produced by Winchester, Remington and Eddystone)

Remington 'sporterized' M1917 rifles

Ross M1910 rifles

Remington No.4 rolling block .32 rimfire rifles

Whitney rolling block .32 rimfire rifles

Winchester, Steyr and Marlin carbines,

Mannlicher and Mauser hunting rifles

Remington .22 rifles, 

Remington M1910 12g pump-action riot shotgun

Harrington and Richardson .410 handguns

 

There were also an assortment of  shotguns, nineteenth-century revolvers,  modern .32 and .38 revolvers, and .22 automatic pistols. The .410 Handy Guns were a single-shot, breech-loading handgun produced from 1921 to 1934 by Harrington & Richardson but were now illegal to own, and  for US owners, donation was a convenient way of avoiding prosecution.   

The most useful weapons were the 110 Thompsons, Lewis guns and BARs but the number supplied under this scheme paled into insignificance with the official purchases. There are few Second World War photographs that show Home Guard armed with identifiable  weapons supplied by the campaign  and few mentions of the donations in unit histories. By the time the miscellany of weapons  began to arrive, the Home Guard had much more practical, standardized, alternatives. 

Please contact me if you have further documented examples.

The Return

A post-war myth  is that, after the war,  most of the donated guns were either scrapped or dumped in the North Sea by the British government.  In fact, the British government  steadfastly refused to accept any responsibility for the scheme which it neither sought nor encouraged, both during and after the war. Some of the weapons were lost due to enemy action. In all, U-boats sunk  4 out of 64 of the shipments of US donations.  Some weapons were found to be unserviceable on arrival and others were useless due to their unusual calibre. Many of these were indeed scrapped rather than spend scarce resources on their repair or conversion. On 28 June 1941, there arrived 500 defective pistols (around nine per cent of the donated total) and 50 defective shotguns. 

 

Despite all the problems, after the war 146 crates of arms were handed back into the care of the ACDBH. The continuing concern to maintain it as a private venture meant that responsibility for organizing the return was to be entirely at the expense of the ACDBH. It proved to be a fraught process: upon arrival in the USA, damaged guns and those without any accompanying identification of donors were sold off, amounting to 36 cases of rifles and shotguns and a large number of revolvers. Another complication was found to be  in shipping handguns across the USA, due to differing State regulations. After the first returns, given that few original donors had seriously expected to see their guns again,  the remaining weapons in Britain were instructed to be  sold and the proceeds donated to service charities. Some of the proceeds went to the Royal Cadet Corps and the School for Orphans of the Merchant Navy.​

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RAF personnel unpacking the first shipment of weapons collected by the American Committee for Defense of British Homes.  in November 1940. Visible is part of the gift of 100 Remington rifles from a single donor. (©  IWM)

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For further details, including the complicated history of the Committee for the Defence of British Homes see To The Last Man: the Home Guard in war and popular culture (2017).