“In 1940 , a handful of men, no uniform, ammunition or weapons, but enthusiasm yes! To-day an Army well trained, clothed and equipped” - Home Guard SFK 11
At the start of the War, there had been some consideration of forming local defence forces from those debarred by age or other circumstances from general service in the armed forces. On the May 10th and the succeeding days, news from Holland transformed strategically the position of Britain overnight. On May 10th a meeting was held at the War Office, attended by the Secretary of State for War, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the Adjutant-General, Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, and it was decided that anyone aged between 16 and 75 who had fired a rifle or shotgun and was “capable of free movement” should be eligible to join a local defence organization. It was on the 14th May 1940 that Mr Eden, Secretary of State for War, broadcast his appeal for a citizen force, to be named the Local Defence Volunteers. The response was instant, with patrols going out 24 hours later in Worthing, Sussex and an order from Eastern Command for patrols to be carried out by 1,500 LDV’s apparently complied with. Within six days more than a quarter of a million men had enrolled and by August the LDV had an enrolled strength of more than a million men.
On May 15th, the War Office dispatched a telegram to the Commanders-in-Chief of the Military Commands and the Commanders of the 19 Military areas into which England, Scotland and Wales were at that divided into. The telegram authorized the Military Commanders to raise the LDV. The Regional Commissioners were to appoint Area Commanders for the LDV and on 15th May, Sir Will Spens, The Eastern Regional Commissioner announced the appointment of Major-General Sir Arthur Mills, a retired officer of the Indian Army, as Organizer for the East Anglian Area. The Regional Commissioner, along with the cooperation of the county Lord Lieutenants were also to appoint “County Commanders” for the LDV or as officially referred to Zone Commanders. Zone Commanders than organized their county into Groups and appointed Group Commanders. The decision to sub-divide Groups in the East Anglian Area was taken by General Mills as no mention of the Group sub-division of the LDV was made in the 15th May telegram. General Mills wanted the LDV organized along the lines of the Police – Zone, Group, District and Parish organizers of the LDV corresponding to the Chief Constable, Police Superintendant, Inspector and Village Constable.
On May 18th, the War Office announced that the LDV would be brought onto a military basis, part of the Armed Forces and subject to military law. However there would be “no officers or non-commissioned officers in the ordinary Army sense of terms”. The telegram laid down that the basic unit was to be the section (approx 10 men), being grouped into platoons and platoons into companies. No mention was made of Groups in this telegram , although these naturally became battalions but not until Army Council Instruction 653 was published on June 24th was this officially recognized. On July 4th the LDV were renamed the Home Guard, reflecting the military role.
On May 30th, Major-General Sir John Brown of the War Office accepted the immense role of organizing the force, along with help of the Territorial Association, and in supervising its training in consultation with the Director of Military Training. Operational control was vested in the Commander-in Chief, Home Forces. At first rifles were available for about a third of the force. The rest were armed with shotguns, sporting rifles or improvised weapons such as golf clubs, sticks, bludgeons and pitchforks. It was not really expected that the LDV would be a match for armed parachutists but at least they may aid the depleted Home Forces by raising the alarm.
The question of ranks still caused some concerns – Army Council Instruction 924 of August 15th defined the position as “This is a citizen force organized on the principles of equality of service and status. There is accordingly no system of ranks though there are appointments suitably graded for the commanders of the various formations”. In effect all were “enrolled volunteers” subject to Military law as privates. It was also difficult to see how the Home Guard could function without some form of recognized military ranks. This was addressed in January 1941 when the appointment of Officers to Home Guard Commissions was approved.
Spring 1941 is said to mark the close of the original citizen force and its transformation to part of the Armed Forces. No major reorganizations were carried out during the remainder of 1941. The next major change occurred early in 1942 when compulsory service was introduced to all areas. It was to apply to all British subjects between 18 and 51, with the Ministry of Labour and National Service making the selection of men to be called up and which were to be directed to the Home Guard. The Home Guard was now enrolled for the duration of the war or until their service was no longer required. A Home Guard could now be fined or imprisoned for one month for missing parade. If “Action Stations” was called, the Home Guard was considered as a serving soldier under the Army Act and would be liable for the same punishments as a soldier for absence without leave and desertion and for any other military crime committed while on active service.
The question of a uniform arose early on as International law required “the uniform of irregular troops most have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; complete military uniform is not essential”. The Germans announced they would shoot anyone in the LDV in any case, but some sort of uniform was still essential so that the LDV could recognize and not shoot at each other! At first all that could be issued were civilian denim overalls and the “distinctive sign” – the LDV armband.
The first rifles to be issued were usually the Ross .303 pattern ’14 rifle or the S.M.L.E Mk III but by July these were largely being replaced with .300 American P.17 rifles following a consignment of one million that arrived from America. Special trains were waiting at the ports to distribute these rifles. However ammunition was in very short supply during these early days, with as little as five rounds per rifle. The next American weapon that was issued was the .300 Lewis, consignments which arrived from America in early November. Arms and ammunition were frequently stored in the Group/Battalion Commanders garages or other similar make-shift stores at first and often distributed to the various villages in the Commanders own private car!
In early September, the first great coats, boots and cap badges began to arrive. The full issue of clothing and equipment could not be made until the factories had made good the losses from Dunkirk, but by October battle dress began to be issued. By the end of the year, the Home Guard were able to parade as fully dressed soldiers, but it would be a year later before webbing equipment was fully issued.
Increasing amounts of weapons were issued, e.g. Browning medium machine guns, Browning Automatic rifles, E.Y rifles and Thomson sub-machine guns (later replaced with Stens). Anti-tank weapons consisted of the Northover Projector, Blacker Bombard (or Spigot Mortar) and the 3” Smith Gun as well as a mix of obsolete calibers such as the 13 pdr. Rather late in the day, the 2 pdr anti-tank gun and anti-tank rifles were issued to replace the mix of obsolete equipments. A profusion of grenades were also issued – the No.”36”, “68”, “73”,”74” and “75” grenades as well as a plentiful supply of anti-tank mines, all now stored in purposely built stores and not the garages etc of the local Commanders!
By the start of 1943, the main focus for the Armed Forces was “reorganizing our forces in the United Kingdom to form the largest possible balanced offensive force” – i.e a build up of forces for service in other theatres. The Chiefs of Staff had now ruled out the possibility of a German invasion in 1943 but still considered minor airborne or seaborne raids a real possibility. It was vital that the Home Guard be kept on a high state of efficiency to deal with such raids.
The Home Guard had by now moved much further on from its initial role of static defence and observation posts, roadblocks and patrolling / providing guards to a much more “offensive defence” role; every town and village with a Home Guard garrison contributed to a network of Defended Places, designed to slow down and harry any enemy penetration inland from the beaches, often with its own mobile force for relief and counter-attack. Smaller units, insufficient for the defence of their village were formed into recce and fighting patrols. As well as taking on a growing share of home defence to allow Field Forces to train and prepare for deployment overseas, the Home Guard was also undertaking roles in AA and Coastal Gun Batteries.
In summary, the original LDV was often referred to as “the gamekeepers union” – to be given a gun and a few rounds of ammunition with which to destroy “vermin” and that was that! However its potential was soon realized and it was slowly organized into an Army of Home Defence, increasingly taking over the roles of the Field Army and releasing them for overseas service. By 1944, it was the Army which guarded Britain.
The Defence of the United Kingdom, B Collier, HMSO, 1957
We Also Served, The Story of the Home Guard in Cambridgeshire and The Isle Of Ely 1940-1943, W Heffer and Sons Ltd, 1944
The Home Guard Training Manual, Major J Langdon-Davies, John Murray & The Pilot Press, Fifth Ed, July 1942
Home Guard SFK 11, TNA