A group of Home Guard are trained in the use of a Northover Projector near the factory at which they work, somewhere in England, 1941.
On May 14, 1940, Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, announced on BBC radio the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). This force was intended to defend Britain against invading German troops, in particular paratroops, and British fifth columnists. Its members were to be men between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five not in military service because of their age or their health or because they were in reserved occupations. As German forces swept swiftly across the continent, the invasion of Britain seemed increasingly probable and groups of men eager to defend their locality had begun to form even before Eden’s announcement. Within days, more than 250,000 volunteers had responded, and by the end of July, 1.5 million men were said to have registered at their local police stations. In the same month, the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, who had suggested a similar organization soon after the outbreak of war, changed the name of the force. The LDV was henceforth the Home Guard, a more emotive title in his view. It was responsible for home defense until it was stood down in December 1944.
The speed with which the force was set up outstripped supplies of both uniforms and equipment. In the early months, the uniform was a brassard worn over civilian clothing, and equipment consisted of what could be raised locally, bestowing on the force the reputation of being a “broomstick army.” The regular army had to take precedence, but the supply situation had improved by the end of 1941. Nonetheless, the Home Guard retained a reputation for nonstandard and improvized weaponry, such as the Sten Gun, the Northover Projector, and pikes (bayonets welded to steel tubes). Initially involved primarily in observation and guard duties, by 1942–1943, the Home Guard had taken over much of the static security duties in Britain from the army, and shared duties on coastal defenses and anti-aircraft batteries. The force was in the public eye whenever the threat of invasion seemed acute, in 1940–1941, and again briefly in 1944, when there were fears that the D-Day landings might spark retaliation.
During the war, the ideal role for the Home Guard sparked military and political debate, for example, whether it should be static or mobile and the extent to which it should emulate the army in terms of military hierarchy and procedures. Public debate was stimulated by such individuals as Tom Wintringham, a former commander in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, who argued that the Home Guard should be trained in unconventional methods. Men trained in guerilla warfare, the Home Guard Auxiliaries, were often drawn from the cream of the Home Guard and used the Home Guard as a cover, but constituted a distinct, and secret, organization. The Home Guard was increasingly brought in line with the regular army, beginning in autumn 1940, when the force was restructured. From February 1941, officers and men were known by orthodox army ranks, with the exception of volunteers. In December 1941, an official memorandum that accompanied the National Service (No. 2) Act outlined the introduction of compulsion to the Home Guard. Any male subject between the ages of eighteen and fifty-one could be directed to enroll in areas where voluntary recruitment was insufficient, although men of seventeen and between fifty-one and sixty-five were also eligible to join. Volunteers were renamed privates when the voluntary principle upon which the force was founded was dropped.
Made up of men drawn from different age groups, classes, occupations, and localities, the Home Guard served as a metaphor for a Britain in which the population was “all in it together.” However, despite some local pressure and support from certain MPs, women were officially excluded. Edith Summerskill, Labour MP for Fulham West, formed Women’s Home Defence, in which women were trained to handle weapons. By 1942, it had attracted ten thousand members in London alone. It was not until April 1943 that women were permitted to join the Home Guard, and even then only as nominated women undertaking predominantly clerical work. Despite the subsequent change of name to Home Guard Auxiliaries, women were never permitted membership under the same terms as men. They were denied a uniform (beyond a plastic badge) and, in particular, a weapon.
The Home Guard was stood down in December 1944. At its peak, the force numbered 1,793,000; 1,206 of its men had either been killed in duty or died from wounds, and 557 more sustained serious injuries. Their numbers officially capped, there were nonetheless 32,000 Women Home Guard Auxiliaries in 1944. The Home Guard was revived briefly in 1951, intended as a defense against a Communist Fifth Column, but recruitment was consistently under target. It was finally stood down in December 1955 and officially discontinued on July 31, 1957.
The significance of the wartime Home Guard is a complicated issue to resolve because the force was never put to the test in a full-scale invasion. On its stand-down, King George VI, commander-in-chief of the force, argued that the Home Guard’s existence had helped to ward off that danger. The efficacy of the force would appear from veteran testimonies to have been dependent on local leadership and conditions. Historians have emphasized the role of the force in maintaining morale amongst men otherwise excluded from the military and in preparing young men for their pending army experience, as well as in relieving the regular forces. In popular imagination, the Home Guard has become associated with the television situation comedy Dad’s Army (1968–1977, and rerun regularly since) in which the force is represented as well-meaning but comic. As a part-time, unpaid military organization, the Home Guard was, and remains, caught between civilian and military identities.
Longmate, Norman. The Real Dad’s Army: The Story of the Home Guard. London: Hutchinson, 1974.
Mackenzie, S. P. The Home Guard: A Military and Political History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Summerfield, Penny. “‘She wants a gun not a dishcloth!”: Gender, service and citizenship in Britain the Second World War” in A soldier and a woman: sexual integration in the military, ed. Gerard J. DeGroot and C. M. Peniston-Bird. London:Pearson Education, 2000.
Summerfield, Penny, and Corinna Peniston-Bird. “Women in the Firing Line: the Home Guard and the Defence of Gender Boundaries in the Second World War,” Women’s History Review 9, no. 2 (2000): 231–255