Training The Home Guard

The War Office communicated the direction that Home Guard training and instruction was to take with the issue of “Home Guard Instructions”. These were often supplemented by the issue of Divisional Information / Intelligence Bulletins of the Field Army, which were circulated to Home Guard commanders. Some Commands also issued their own Home Guard pamphlets. There was also a large number of privately printed books issued for the Home Guard, normally “pocket” books - intended just as that, to be carried in the pockets of the Home Guardsman’ s Battle Dress. These covered subjects as diverse as weapons, unarmed combat, street fighting, map reading etc. Some, for example Major J Langdon’s “The Home Guard Training Manual”, were officially sanctioned by the War Office with the purchase of one copy for every platoon with a training grant. Training films were also used, either organized as big shows or a projector doing the rounds among the various companies of a battalion. Training films covered a variety of subjects from the P17 rifle, Know your Enemy (German equipment, AFV’s and aircraft), Camouflage and Defence of a Small Town. Later in the war, films were shown covering methods of warfare and lessons learned from various campaigns.

During the summer of 1940, instructions to the L.D.V were primarily concerned with the setting up and manning of road blocks, notes on parachutists, gas drill, sounding church bells etc. Training at first was very much the responsibility of platoon commanders. There were no training pamphlets as such at this time and L.D.V units often took to producing their own in type written form. The L.D.V. relied on those with previous military service to a great extent in the early days; it was noted that such “old soldiers” were of the greatest value in passing on knowledge, but in a few cases they could be awkward, in thinking they had done all this 20 years ago and had nothing new to learn.

Training was at first undertaken on evening and weekend parades and this did remain the primary way training was undertaken throughout the life of the Home Guard. On only one occasion were instructions received to cancel the normal weekend instructional parades of some of Suffolk’s Home Guard units, and that was during the peak of the invasion crises in September, when it was considered Home Guard time would be better used in improving their defence posts. The essentials were gone through – elementary and rifle drill, musketry and bayonet practice, bomb throwing and gas drill. Questions and answers, lectures and simple games were used to test knowledge and illustrate various principles. Examples given in Home Guard instructions included blind folding a “sentry” while the rest of the platoon passed him singly; he had to report how many passed on the left and right. This drill was to train for night work. Message passing could be tested by passing a message in relay and introducing distractions. Tactical situations could be taught using blackboards showing an enemy defence position and asking how members of the platoon would handle a given strength of troops at their disposal. Commanders often had the problem of having to train men who had already gone through individual training and those who had not. It was vital to keep the two categories separate as nothing would be more demoralizing than putting a man through lessons he had already learnt.

Musketry practice was often tricky as ammunition was in short supply at first; for example 7th Battalion Suffolk Home Guard recorded in September 1940 that rifle firing practice was limited to five rounds per man and Browning Light Automatic firing limited to 40 rounds per the two men detailed to operate it. The situation had not improved much by February 1941, with the Battalion noting that practice ammunition was almost impossible to obtain. As much practice as possible with a .22 had to be carried out as there was a plentiful supply of .22 ammunition. In addition, a small pool of .303 inch “small mark” ammunition was made available for issue to the Home Guard by the N.R.A. and was distributed to affiliated clubs throughout the country, to which Home Guard units could apply for. When the Home Guard was first issued with Sten guns, there was only sufficient ammunition at first for 20 rounds per gun for zeroing and 50 rounds per gun for training. Even by 1944, instructions stated that practice ammunition was only sufficient to train the raw recruit and that it was not to be used for match shooting or excessively by good shots. Units were still encouraged to use .22 and .303 rifles with “small mark” ammunition.

Improvisation was required for ranges on which to practice musketry and bomb throwing as well as bayonet practice. An illustration of improvisation with bayonet practice was the bayonet fighting assault course constructed at Sidegate Avenue, Ipswich, by B Company 11 Suffolk Home Guard. The L.D.V. could not fire a rifle until two hours of musketry drill had been completed and firing a .22 on a miniature range taken place. Many Home Guard units constructed their own .22 ranges with moving targets representing descending parachutes, dive bombers, defenders appearing in the windows of houses etc. Such ranges could be set up in sand pits or areas of open ground; D Company 11 Suffolk Home Guard constructed a live grenade range at Nacton Heath and a 30 yd rifle range at Kesteven Road. Bungay Home Guard set up their miniature range in a disused malthouse at the bottom of Staithe Road and A.E Patrick describes his first visit in 1942:

“The long low building has no windows and used to be a steeping floor for the barley, a man under five foot could stand upright but others taller had to stoop and mind the rafters least they should hit their heads. Their was a plank or tow on the far side to sit on and wait your turn to fire, their was an electric light both ends of the building and a rug and sandbags at the firing point, two .22 rifles ready for use. The first two men got down while the rest looked on. It was years since we had done any shooting and we were anxious to see if we could still do it properly. The light was not too good and the first five rounds were ‘applications’ at 25 yards. There was nothing outstanding in any of the results and I had the satisfaction of getting my five on the card as did several of the others. Some did not waste the paper targets and kept them clear…The targets were fixed in iron slots and at the back of these was a great bank of timber and sand.”

Once ready and when ammunition shortages were no longer an issue, shooting with a rifle on an open range was carried out. Again, improvised ranges were used as well as visits to rifle ranges. Major S.G. Catchpole, 11 Suffolk Home Guard, recorded that a motor coach trip to the seaside for firing at the Landguard range or a trip into the countryside to fire at the Bromswell range always produced a full parade. Bungy Home Guard made visits to the open range at Pakefield, described by A.E. Patrick:

“The range itself had eight targets with the sea at the back of them and after leaving the road came onto a ‘wide open Wednesday’ with hardly a tree and a few brambles growing on it…Forming up in detail we started shooting at 300 yards, then advanced to 200 for snap shooting and finally to 100 yards for the silhouettes”.

Ranges could be combined with assault courses. In 1943, Col Tuck, “F” Company, 7th Suffolk Home Guard started a combined rifle and bombing range and assault course in an old pit. Capt J.E. Pettit (Coy 2nd i/c) was indefatigable in chasing his men around the course and expecting his men to hit the target after clearing the last obstacle in an exhausted state!

These improvised ranges were not without difficulties. In 11 Corps area, many reports of damage to electric lines and cables were received as a result of firing on such ranges. Instructions were issued that a full reconnaissance for hidden or partially hidden electric cables should be undertaken before a range was used.

Despite all the problems in musketry training, and the fact that the Army still viewed the .22 as just an upgraded air-gun, it is interesting to note that Major Catchpole considered that rifle shooting was the only side of Home Guard training that reached a standard comparable to the Regular Army.

The Home Guard were also issued with a variety of “heavy” artillery– the Spigot Mortar, Smith Gun and Northover Projector , which all needed practice with. “D” Company, 11 Suffolk Home Guard constructed a railway track 150 yards long at Nacton Heath, complete with bogey on which a canvas target was erected. The bogey was towed behind a car at about a speed of 15 mph and shooting was carried out at a range of 150 yards. A.E. Patrick records being part of group detailed for practice firing of the Northover Projector at an imitation tank target, which resulted in a substantial area of common being set alight and the Beccles N.F.S. being summoned!

By 1941, the Home Guard had access to War Office Schools and Divisional Schools. Over 4,000 Home Guard had passed through Instructors Courses at the War Office by the winter of 1941. It was intended that the Home Guard as it progressed would rely on these instructors to pass on their knowledge. This was especially important when the new conscription act was introduced and battalion sizes increased. Further assistance was given by the Travelling Wings of the War Office Schools( for example Lt Col Ovey, 7th Suffolk Home Guard records the War Office Home Guard School Travelling Wing visiting the Battalion on four occasions during the period 1942-1944). Many of Suffolk’s Home Guard passed through Divisional Schools; 15th Division’s School was located at Rendlesham Park while 54th Division which followed 15th Division, had theirs at Felixstowe. Demonstrations were also an aspect of training; 11 Suffolk Home Guard note that dive bombing was demonstrated at Goose Hill and tank actions at Thetford while 7th Suffolk Home Guard record an invitation to attend a demonstration on the best way to shoot down hostile aircraft at Wattisham aerodrome. As noted above, men who had undergone specialist training were expected to pass on and demonstrate the knowledge they had gained. As an example, on 16th May 1943, the two Ipswich Battalions were to parade at Portman Road Football ground. After the parade a series of demonstrations by 11th Battalion were to be held:

  • In Christchurch Park a demonstration of Battle Drill (“B” Company under Lt Bailey), machine gun demonstration (“D” and “E” Companies under Lts Hewitt and Ling), Stretcher Bearing (Maj Bell-Jones) and a signaling demonstration (by both battalions under Lts Steele and Barley).
  • At Cox Lane a street fighting demonstration (“A” Coy, Capt Mee).
    • Collective training was a vital part of Home Guard training. Frequent exercises were held to practice the actual role the Home Guard would be required to undertake in the event of invasion; such exercises were often held with the Field Army. In the early days of the Home Guard, much imagination was required as described in the History of the 11th Battalion Suffolk Home Guard:

      “Token road blocks, token mines, token trenches and even token rations and token reinforcements – all these were common-places in the early stages of our career. The Home Guard needed considerable imagination in those days, and sometimes a generous endowment of good humour in order to take the will for the deed.

      We remember and exercise in which most of the road-blocks consisted of such devices as a tape stretched across the road or a plank balanced precariously on a couple of tubs, so perhaps it was hardly surprising that “enemy” tanks (generally Bren carriers as “tokens”) heartlessly swept them aside in their attacks on our positions. On such occasions their might be a solitary Home Guard standing exposed to the wintery blast, because his Weapon Pit only existed in the imagination, while he himself represented a token squad. It was rather trying, too, for a party of men to stand for hours in a private garden, or outside a Pub., because their Rest Quarters had no substance in fact. (There were also sometimes compensations, for No. 1 in the L.M.G. team often had to carry a rifle as a token for the B.L.A. (Browning Light Automatic) and these eased his burden to some extent. Certainly token ammunition was more portable and less dangerous than the real thing).

      The cemetery, as one would expect, abounded in tokens, for there was a certain understandable reluctance to do much indiscriminate excavation ...”

      A number of full scale exercises were held such as “Kangaroo”, “Joker”, “Scorch”, “Repulse”, “Orwell” and “Stalk II”. Opinion on these exercises was mixed. Lt-col Ovey , 7th Suffolk Home Guard, considered that not much was learnt in these exercises except perhaps from a Battalion HQ or Signals point of view. The History of the 11th Suffolk Home Guard recorded a similar opinion of these exercises:

      “They had a number of common factors; all were too ambitious and difficult to control, umpires were always inadequate in numbers and the weather was usually atrocious. The attacking forces were so small in numbers that it was only possible to test a tithe of the defence positions with the result a large portion of the men saw no action in any of the exercises, which tested their patience and tempers, if nothing else. The turn-out of the Battalion on all of them was most gratifying and great keenness was displayed -at least at the start- to be tempered somewhat after many hours of looking for trouble and only seeing the milkman in the morning.”

      The Battalion History does however concede that some weaknesses were exposed by these exercises and those luckily enough to take an active role enjoyed taking part in such exercises.

      Battle Drill was introduced to the Field Army in 1942, and it was also relevant to the Home Guard, as defensive positions they manned, as part of the garrison, had parties of men detailed off for patrolling and offensive defence. Battle Drill training for the Home Guard was essentially the same as for the Field Army, but took into account the limited role of the Home Guard, less time available for training and from their very character, a different level of physical fitness and youth. Battle Drill involved both tactical drills for dealing with common tactical situations that the battle squad would face and parade ground drills, which broke down the tactical drill into easy steps. Lt Col Ovey, considered that Battle Drill greatly improved training as it bought out individual initiative in all ranks.

      On the other hand, A.E. Patrick did not think much of a series of exercises held by the Bungy Home Guard in the summer of 1943, undertaken with the Battle Drill technique. For one exercise on Outney Common to test observation and cover, he records:

      “Half the men turned round while the other half did a series of ‘sectional rushes’ taking cover on the way. The idea was to spot where the hiding places where and how many men employed. This was so much like the children’s game of ‘tag’ that we got ‘browned off’. We did this on Whitt Sunday 1943 and finished parade early. Nuff said”.

      He also notes an exercise in which a wood was ‘swept’ looking for the ‘enemy’, and getting fed up as one individual could not be found. That poor individual was left hiding up a tree while the rest returned for dinner!

      Many Home Guard, if the day had come, would have been involved in street fighting. Training was required for this type of warfare. The Town Fighting School at Birmingham was mad available to the Home Guard and some from Suffolk travelled to Birmingham for the six day course. The course was held in an area of Birmingham that had been badly damaged by enemy bombing and was no longer habitable. Major W.D. Akester, 11th Suffolk Home Guard, describes the scene and training he received:

      “The street disappeared amid piles of bricks and rubble with isolated remains of the foundations of small dwelling houses. The background was of four-storey tenements still standing, but town open to reveal gaudy wallpaper, a fire-place and the mark of a staircase across what was now an outside wall.

      The scene of desolation, the result of the German aerial bombardment, gave an atmosphere of realism to the training we were to undergo. Here we were to learn methods of movement through streets and gardens as opposed to open country, the variations of principle on battle-drill, inter-com. and camouflage, the best weapons to employ and how to use them and many ways of adapting our normal training to fit in with the very different circumstances of street fighting.”

      The fact that the Home Guard were able to share in facilities and the training the Regular Army received no doubt resulted in much pride. Street fighting training was also carried out in Battalion areas with the aid of the War Office Home Guard School “Travelling Wing”. In Ipswich, Sgt L.G. Smith describes learning to move around quietly, in slippers and with face and hands blackened, armed with his sten; such activities often resulted in embarrassing encounters with the police or courting couples! Once the basics had been mastered, exercises were held in the Cox Lane / Rope Walk area, such as one half of the class having to sneak into the area and retrieve a disk from a truck while the other half guarded the area.

      Another means of carrying out advanced training (i.e. subjects that could not be just taught as well at in drill halls or parade grounds) was in week-end camps. The official recommendation for the ideal camp was a battalion or sub-unit camp as it would allow for as many men as could be spared from their civilian occupations to attend. It was also desirable to organize such camps in the battalion or sub-unit area, so that practice could take part on the ground where the fighting would take place. Levington Hall was placed at the disposal of 11th Suffolk Home Guard for their weekend camps, running from June to September 1943. The camp was placed at the disposal of the various Companies in rotation. The grounds and surrounding fields provided an excellent training facility. A special feature of the camp was the Battle Course, which tested physical fitness to the full and struggling Home Guards where “assisted” with passage over the course with thunder-flashes in their vicinity! The camp was highly enjoyed by those that attended, especially Saturday nights at the “Ship Inn”.

      Completions were viewed as a method of keeping up interest and improving skills. Competitions could be at unit level or inter-unit level. Prize money could be awarded for unit completions provided that they were on a broad basis and not confined to specialist experts. Rifle shooting completions with the .22 were very popular at company and inter-company level; inter-company level completions produced all the excitement of a local Derby. Home Guard units also competed with the Field Force in various small bore completions. Perhaps the biggest ever small bore shooting completion, the Mackworth Praed Competition, was organized in 1943, with 2,336 teams taking part; 13 Platoon, 11 Suffolk Home Guard came well placed in this completion. An East Suffolk Area completion was held for the Spigot Mortar near Dunwich in 1943 where sand filled bombs were fired at a tank; “D” Compnay, 11 Suffolk Home Guard won the completion. Other completions recorded in the 11 Battalion History were in Signals and Street Fighting.

      Finally mention should be made of the introduction of the Proficiency Badge in 1943. All Home Guard were expected to reach a minimum standard in elementary training for which the badge would be awarded. An additional award could be made to good marksmen – the Skill-at arms badge.

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