Fascinating pictures reveal true nature of ‘Dad’s Army’ Home Guard
No Dad’s Army here! Fascinating pictures dispel the myth that Britain’s Home Guard was full of pensioners as youthful volunteers are seen blowing up dummy tanks and learning to kill at close quarters
- New book reveals Home Guard was not a group of doddery old men made famous in BBC comedy Dad’s Army
- The average age of the unit was 35 and many were men awaiting call-ups or labourers needed at home
- They were taught close combat skills by commandos and learned how to blow up tanks with explosives
- Around 40 per cent were World War One veterans used to military drills and experienced with weapons
A new book has torn apart the myth of the ‘Dad’s Army’ Home Guard as a force of clumsy and inept old men.
Historian Malcolm Atkin has revealed how the volunteer unit was full of young and fit men ready to face the enemy having been trained how to kill at close quarters by commando forces.
Meanwhile training exercises show how they learned to blow up dummy tanks with ‘Molotov cocktail’ petrol grenades and made bombs out of jam tins.
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.
It meant there was a solid core of men used to discipline, familiar with deadly weapons and ready to defend the country to the last bullet.
Pictured: Home Guard recruits duck behind a grassy bank after using Molotov Cocktail petrol grenades to blow up a dummy tank at Osterley Training School in Hounslow, London in July 1940. The picture is from a new book that has dispelled the myth created by comedy series Dad’s Army that the Home Guard was made up of bumbling old men and revealed how Britain’s last line of defence was actually far stronger than the television programme suggested. The unit’s ranks rarely dropped below one million for most of the war and the average age was around 35.
Although they may not have been considered an elite fighting force, the Home Guard was still a well-trained unit who were schooled in how to kill in close combat by commandos. Pictured here are guardsmen taking part in combat drills at the Commando Basic Training Centre in Achnacarry in the Scottish Highlands
Beloved BBC comedy series Dad’s Army, pictured, portrayed the Home Guard as a group of mainly old and clumsy men who were well-meaning but often ended up causing more problems than they solved
Home Guard members Tom Wintringham, left, and Yank Levy, right, are pictured testing a homemade 4ins mortar at Denbles Training School near Dorking, Surrey, in July 1941. The weapon had a range of 350 yards and could fire a 6lb bomb. Although older men volunteered for the Home Guard, around 40 per cent of the unit served in World War One, meaning they had combat experience, were well-drilled and were familiar with weaponry
Two Home Guard recruits are pictured here on a patrol boat in Edinburgh mounting a Lewis machine gun onto their vessel. Most of the Home Guard were men in reserved occupations or teenagers awaiting call-up and Malcolm Atkin’s book suggests the unit’s ranks were full of working men ready to put in a full day’s shift, often in manual labour, and then turn out for training exercises
These men are pictured operating a 29mm Spigot Mortar gun at the Home Guard Training School in Onibury, Shropshire, in May 1943. Units were created all over the country and volunteers signed up in their droves upon the Guard’s creation in August 1940. It had previously existed as a group called Local Defence Volunteers but Winston Churchill changed the name amid fear Nazi Germany may invade and the nation would need protecting by its citizens
Mr Atkin wrote To the Last Man: The Home Guard in War and Popular Culture as a tribute to the brave men and women of the UK who were ready to defend the nation no matter the cost.
He said: ‘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.
‘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.
This picture reveals the diversity among Lye Platoon, of the 10th Battalion of the Worcestershire Home Guard in 1940. Based in Stourbridge, it shows a mix of ages but proves many of those fighting were young men rather than the likes of the slow and clumsy Corporal Jones or stuff Captain Mainwaring. The humour among the men of the Home Guard was more a gallows humour as the men ‘knew all too well’ the situation would be bleak if they were called into action
Although Dad’s Army would never be considered a completely realistic portrayal of the Home Guard, the BBC series was based on factual accounts of those who served in the unit and kept in details such as the use of leafy camouflage worn by these two guardsmen at the Denbies training school in Surrey in July 1943. These men are wearing ‘sniper suits’ meant to disguise them in the brush using painted denim overalls and netting adorned with plants
Women were also central to the Home Guard, such as this group pictured taking part in a rifle drill at an unknown training centre. Many of the rifles were dummies but women were trained to defend themselves and thus better protect the country. They also served the unit unofficially throughout the war in administration, first aid, intelligence, signalling and catering jobs
Many of those who signed up to the Home Guard were skilled labourers needed at home to continue production of the British war machine. But they also put their specialisms to good use for the unit. Pictured here are the Crosby & Co Home Guard Bomb Disposal Unit in Farnham, posing with an unexploded device that they buried in the Surrey town. It later sparked a scare with it was discovered decades later during a development
Who were the Home Guard?
The Home Guard was a unit formed by prime minister Winston Churchill in August 1940 to protect against any foreign invasion.
It was created out of a group established at the outbreak of war, the Local Defence Volunteers, with 750,000 people recruited in its first month.
By summer 1940 membership had hit 1million, with 40 per cent former World War One veterans experienced in combat and well-drilled.
The average age of male recruits was 35 and many were youngsters awaiting a call-up to the Armed Forces.
Others were skilled labourers needed at home, but all underwent detailed training in combat, learning how to defend themselves with rifles and their own hands.
Although they never actually faced an invasion force, the Home Guard were well-regarded at home and abroad, with US sympathy so strong an organisation was formed to ship weapons to the UK to defend British homes.
Around 1,200 recruits died during the war due to enemy bombing and training accidents.
‘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 recruits for the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV).
On 23rd August, 1940, Winston Churchill changed the name of the LDV to the Home Guard.
The Home Guard was formed because the Government believed there was a genuine risk of invasion as the Nazis and their allies swept across Europe at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile the Battle of Britain was going on above the UK, and had the Germans been successful in destroying the RAF an invasion force would almost certainly have followed.
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 unit was eventually issued with more conventional weapons, but these were still outdated.
Most weapons were either relics from World War One or had been shipped from North America, where the plucky fighting force had won much sympathy.
Mr Atkin said: ‘From the outset, there was a self-deprecating humour within the Home Guard.
Members of the Doncaster Civil Corps pictured going through a drill under the watchful eye of a former Army sergeant major in June 1940. The Civil Corps was a short-lived plan to help relieve pressure on the LDV by creating a unit where young men could be trained before they were called-up. However, both schemes ended up coming under the Home Guard’s remit once Churchill formalised it later in 1940
The Home Guard Mounted Patrol pictured on parade at Cowbridge, near Cardiff, in the early 1940s. 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. Mounted units were expected to have a key role in any such defence
As with volunteers in World War One, men signed up alongside their friends and colleagues from their workplaces, and several Home Guard units were formed out of certain companies. Pictured here is the Southern Railway LDV in early 1940, before they became part of the Home Guard, practicing a rifle drill with a batch of newly arrived weapons. Although the unit relied on many relics from the First World War, they also received weapons from the US
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 pikes. But this picture shows RAF recruits unpacking a consignment of weapons shipped over from the US collected by the American Committee for Defense of British Homes, a US-based organisation who had sympathy with the Home Guard and wanted to aid them
The Home Guard was also used as a vital propaganda tool to keep morale up among the general public. Pictured here is an anti-tank gun demonstration at a holiday park at New Road Cricket Ground in Worcester to show crowds what the unit was capable of should it ever be called into service
‘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.
Malcolm Atkin’s book, pictured, will be released in the summer
‘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 and many volunteered from the outset.
They served unofficially throughout the war in administration, first aid, intelligence, signalling and catering sections.
Mr Atkin added the contribution of the Home Guard should not be ‘relegated to background information for a television comedy series’.
He said: ‘Over 1,200 Home Guard had been killed on duty through enemy action, training or other accidents.
‘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.
Because weaponry was scarce and the priority was to keep the Armed Forces well stocked, the Home Guard resorted to using whatever it could source and come up with. Molotov Cocktails and phosphorous ‘SIP’ grenades were commonly used during training exercises because they were more easily obtained, even though rationing soon affected their use as well
Young Home Guard recruits are pictured here manning a Browning Machine gun on manoeuvres in Holylake, near the Wirral, hidden among bushes in preparation for defence against an invasion force from Germany. Although they never faced such a force, around 1,200 of the Home Guard were killed during the war through enemy bombing, training injuries and other accidents
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