By Alex Jones
A FASCINATING new book explodes the myth that the Home Guard was a doddery, comical ‘Dad’s Army’ and instead shows a youthful, fighting force who were ready to sacrifice their lives should the Nazis storm the mainland.
Stunning vintage photos show the gritty reality as combat-ready volunteers blow up a dummy tank with fiery Molotov cocktails, recruits learn how to kill at close quarters under the supervision of commando forces, and two brave members practice with a homemade ‘jam tin bomb’.
The remarkable shots are included in historian Malcolm Atkin’s new book To the Last Man: The Home Guard in War and Popular Culture, a tribute to the brave men and women who went above and beyond to keep the country’s shores safe in wartime.
“The popular impression of the Home Guard has become inextricably entwined with the TV comedy series Dad’s Army and this book tries to separate fact from myth,” explains Atkin.
“There was humour a-plenty in the Home Guard but, especially in 1940, this was a ‘gallows humour’ as the men realised all too well that their role was expected to be sacrificial as the chilling ‘last man, last round’ order made clear.
“The humour was increasingly overtaken by exhaustion, with most of the Home Guard not the retired pensioners of popular myth but working men who were expected to work a full shift, often in heavy manual labour, and then turn out for Home Guard duty.
“The publicity attending the new Dad’s Army film in 2016 made it clear that the popular media was reluctant to escape the mythology of the 1970s and that the history of the Home Guard risked forever being associated with the fictional ‘Walmington-on-Sea’ platoon.
“By all means laugh at the comic genius of Jimmy Perry and David Croft and enjoy Dad’s Army as a 1960s/1970s television comedy – but also recognize that this was an affectionate tribute to the Home Guard where selected snippets of genuine experience were deliberately taken to the limits of absurdity for comic intent.
“Above all, spare a thought for the extraordinary men, and the women who worked with them, of the real Home Guard and especially those 1,206 men who were killed whilst on duty.”
Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War the British Government broadcast a message asking for volunteers for the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers).
On 23rd August, 1940, Winston Churchill changed the name of the LDV to the Home Guard.
The Home Guard was formed because there was a genuine risk of invasion as the Nazis and their allies swept across Europe at an alarming rate.
Far from being the aged pensioners of Dad’s Army myth, most of the Home Guard were men in reserved occupations or teenagers awaiting call-up, with an average age of around 35 years.
Even considering the youthful average age of the Home Guard, up to 40 per cent of the men had served in the First World War but in 1940 ‘old sweats’ did not necessarily equate to ‘old men’.
It gave a solid core of men, already blooded, used to discipline and familiar with the weaponry still in use by the British army.
The Home Guard was formed with the intention of delaying an enemy invasion force for as long as possible and to give the Government and the regular army time to form a front line from which the enemy invasion could be repelled.
When they were first formed, the Home Guard were expected to fight highly trained, well-armed German troops using nothing but farming shotguns, air rifles, old hunting rifles, museum pieces, bayonets, knives and self-engineered pikes.
The Home Guard was eventually issued with more conventional weapons, but these were far from perfect.
Most weapons were either World War One weapons or were shipped from North America, where the plucky fighting force was taken to heart.
“From the outset, there was a self-deprecating humour within the Home Guard,” continued Atkin.
“In part, this was a very British refusal to take the war too seriously, in the tradition of the First World War Bairnsfather cartoons [a newspaper humourist].
“It was also ‘gallows humour’ in the stoic acceptance that the task of the Home Guard was essentially sacrificial in order to buy a few hours for the field army to concentrate its meagre forces.
“Any discussion of how ‘effective’ the Home Guard was must be seen in this context as few Home Guard in the invasion areas were likely to have survived the first day of invasion.”
The government was expecting 150,000 men to volunteer for the Home Guard.
Within the first month, 750,000 men had volunteered, and by the end of June 1940, the total number of volunteers was comfortably over one million where it remained throughout the entirety of the Second World War.
As well as acting as a ‘buffer’ to allow the British Army to rally around in the event of invasion, the home guard was also responsible for keeping the civilian population calm, keeping transport routes clear, protecting the coastline, manning roadblocks, and ensuring vital ammunition stocks and airfields didn’t fall into enemy hands.
Women were vital to the Home Guard too.
Women volunteered for the LDV/Home Guard from the outset and served unofficially throughout the war in administration, first aid, intelligence, signalling and catering sections.
For Atkin, the contribution of the Home Guard should not be “relegated to background information for a television comedy series”.
“Over 1,200 Home Guard had been killed on duty through enemy action, training or other accidents,” he said.
“Sadly, there are just a handful of memorials to the work of the Home Guard, although the reinforced plinths of the Blacker Bombard (anti-tank weapons designed for the Home Guard) can still be found in many places; they are covered in overgrowth and lie neglected beside crossroads or bridges – in some ways a metaphor for our understanding of the Home Guard.”
Malcolm Atkin’s To the Last Man: The Home Guard in War and Popular Culture, published by Pen And Sword Books, is due for release this summer. Preorder here.