Home Defence Mid-July 1940 Part II

Two Local Defence Volunteers receiving instruction on either a Pattern 1914 or M1917 Enfield rifle. The two Volunteers are wearing the denim overalls over their ordinary clothes, one of them is wearing a collar and tie underneath. Note also the field service caps, the LDV armlets and civilian shoes worn without gaiters. The sergeant instructor is wearing standard Battle Dress.

The army had long been seen as the weakest of the three services, but even here the deficiencies should not be exaggerated. Contrary to the myth that Dunkirk had left the British army hopelessly denuded, the total number of men under arms in the United Kingdom in mid-July 1940 was 1,313,000, and that did not include the 600,000 men who had registered as Local Defence Volunteers. This huge force included 595,000 troops in the regular field army, 42,000 in home defence battalions, 13,000 in coastal defence, 365,000 in training units and 38,000 from the Dominions. However, the real effectiveness of the force was not nearly as impressive as these numbers suggested, since 220,000 were in support organisations and had not been trained to fight, while 150,000 of the soldiers had less than two months’ service. In addition, sixteen of Ironside’s twenty-eight divisions were still re-equipping and regrouping after their disastrous ordeals in France. Nevertheless, when it came to equipment, the army’s position was improving compared to early June. It now had 710 field guns, 198 medium and heavy guns, 263 towed anti-tank guns, 291 tracked light tanks, 10,000 Bren guns and 4,500 anti-tank rifles, although this was all far below the armoury of the Germans in the West.

Static fortifications were the centrepiece of the Ironside plan, made up of trenches, sandbagged strongpoints, roadblocks, mines and tank traps. Allied to natural obstacles like rivers or woods, these man-made barriers formed the local and GHQ ‘stop lines’ that Ironside hoped would halt the advance of the invader.

While worried about the numbers of troops and the quality of their training, Ironside was pleased with progress on his stop lines and beach defences. ‘Our fortifications are getting better every day,’ he wrote on 8 July. One indicator of this progress was the delivery of a new, more powerful type of anti-tank mine filled with ammonal, an explosive largely made up of ammonium nitrate and TNT. From mid-July, these were sent to the army commands at the rate of 20,000 a week.

As well as the beach defences and the stop lines, work had continued on obstructing fields that could be used as potential landing grounds for German airborne troops, although progress here was hampered both by the need to maintain agricultural production and by severe shortages of labour. At the beginning of July, Churchill became concerned that the effort to block open spaces was ‘not being pressed with sufficient vigour, particularly in the Western and Midland areas. Local authorities or owners should be made personally responsible for the execution of this work.’

In the mood of wartime emergency, the construction of anti-invasion defences was sometimes accompanied by a degree of ruthlessness, with the normal respect for private property and individual rights often being ignored by the military under Emergency Powers legislation. One of the toughest in this regard was Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, who was put in charge of No. 3 Division, based near Brighton, on his return from Dunkirk. Typically, he was quite unashamed about his uncompromising attitude, boasting in his memoirs that his division ‘descended like an avalanche on the inhabitants of that area; we dug in the gardens of seaside villas, we sited machine-gun posts in the best places. The protests were tremendous. Mayors, County Councillors, private owners, came to see me and demanded that we should cease our work; I refused and explained the urgency.’ Monty’s harshness was witnessed by Lieutenant Colonel Brian Horrocks, commander of the 9th Infantry Brigade based in the South-East. ‘Monty used to pay constant visits. “Who lives in that house?” he would say pointing to some building which partly masked the fire from one of our machine gun positions. “Have them out, Horrocks. Blow up the house. Defence must come first.” ’

Sometimes the destructive mood of haste could be counter-productive. According to a report to the Home Defence Executive on 11 July, some soldiers who were trying to obstruct fields near the RAF base at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire ‘dug up in the course of a few days an aerodrome and eight miles of piping which had taken the Air Ministry 18 months to do’.

Fighter Command’s key role in the summer of 1940 was, of course, to prevent the Germans gaining air superiority over the south-east of England, but in July the Air Ministry also drew up plans to use almost every available aircraft in the country, no matter how old, obsolete or ill equipped, in a last-ditch fight against the invader. Code-named Operation Banquet, the scheme essentially meant that all aircraft, apart from those in Fighter Command, would be absorbed into a series of striking forces to bomb the enemy as they landed. Under this operation, even training planes and unqualified students would be sent into action. The most unorthodox element of the plan was a separate initiative called Operation Banquet Lights, by which 350 Tiger Moth biplanes from the Elementary Flight Training School would each be fitted with eight 20-pound bombs and then fly to the landing beaches. Despite its almost suicidal nature, given the planes’ slow speed and vulnerability, the plan for Banquet Lights was taken seriously, and trainee pilots at the Elementary Flying School in mid-1940 were instructed in bombing, although shortages of dummy bombs meant that they often had to use bricks during such practice.

Another vital step in invasion planning was to maintain effective and secure communications between the three service headquarters and the front-line forces, made up of the five army area commands (Scottish, Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western), the Home Fleet commands and the RAF Fighter Groups. Normal radio and landline links were insufficiently reliable in an emergency as well as carrying the danger that they might be used by the Germans. So a separate network was developed, code-named the ‘Beetle’ scheme, which had two main elements for use in the invasion: first, a point-to-point wireless service to pass information from the headquarters to the commands; second, a medium-power radio service to enable instructions to be broadcast by the commands to the lower units. The transmission of the code words ‘Beetle’ or ‘Stand-By Beetle’ by either of these means indicated that enemy action was under way.

In addition to Beetle, several other warning systems were developed. The General Post Office installed special alarm circuits that connected their local and main telephone exchanges in the vulnerable areas of the South, with the aim of preventing the enemy sending bogus messages. In similar fashion, the Admiralty gave new instructions to naval ships for sending coded messages about the invasion, either by wireless or by pyrotechnic signal. On top of all these sophisticated systems there remained the ancient method of ringing the church bells as a warning to the public and the LDVs that the invasion had started. Although simple, the move into campanology was ultimately to cause deep confusion in September.

The overall mood in the government and the armed forces was one of resolution rather than fear or panic. The Information Minister Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary, ‘We half know that the odds are against us, yet there is a sort of exhilaration in the air.’ It was this widespread optimism that impressed several American observers, like the journalist Virginia Cowles, who wrote in the Sunday Times on 21 July: ‘No one could fail to admire the deep gallantry with which the English people wait, almost hour by hour, for the mass air raids which may signal Nazi Germany’s final bid for European domination. But as an American what has struck me most has been that since the fall of France, the people seem to reflect an even deeper confidence than before.’

Cowles explained that this confidence had been emboldened by the success of the RAF, faith in the Royal Navy and Britain’s long history of resisting invasion. But as an American she might have mentioned another, more immediate factor: the arrival of large quantities of arms and equipment from the USA, strengthening the army and transforming the capability of the Local Defence Volunteers. Organised by President Roosevelt’s government with heroic cunning to circumvent the USA’s neutrality laws, the first large consignments of rifles, machine guns, field guns and mortars started to reach Britain on 8 July. Most of this matériel was destined for the LDVs, although the 900 75-mm field guns and mortars went to the regular army. ‘There was no need to worry. The equipment will soon be here and then you will have guns galore,’ Churchill told General Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealander in charge of the army on Salisbury Plain. In fact, the USA was even more accommodating than the original deal had outlined: instead of the agreed 500,000 rifles, the Americans sent 615,000, each with 250 rounds of ammunition.

It has often been suggested that this act was not nearly as helpful as it seemed, since the M1917 rifles were supposedly antiquated and ill matched to British needs. ‘The ancient rifles,’ wrote the historian Norman Longmate, ‘arrived caked in heavy grease, like congealed Vaseline, which had protected them during their long years of disuse.’ Cleaning them up with paraffin was a laborious task.

The negative image of these American M1917s, sometimes called just M17s, was in fact unjustified. On joining up, volunteers had expected to be handed the much loved, standard-issue British infantry weapon, the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE), so they were disappointed when instead they were supplied with an alien one using American .300 rounds. Nor did the tough work of removing the congealed grease initially endear the M1917s to their users in Home Guard. Moreover, the American shipments tended to be associated with the 75,000 Ross rifles that had arrived from Canada in June. But the Ross, cumbersome and prone to jamming, was an unsatisfactory weapon and had been rejected by the British army for service before the First World War; the M1917 was far superior. The idea that it was badly outdated or ineffective is one of the more persistent myths about the summer of 1940. It was no more antique than the Short Magazine Lee Enfield, whose original concept dated back to 1907, whereas the M1917, as its name suggests, had been designed in the penultimate year of the First World War and it went on to be used during both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. Clifford Shore, a Home Guardsman who later became a sniper instructor, said that the M1917 ‘was probably the most accurate rifle I have ever used’. To distinguish the M1917s from British rifles, a red band two inches wide was placed round the barrel so guardsmen would not attempt to load them with British .303 bullets.

It is another myth that in the summer of 1940 the LDVs were desperately short of ammunition. Thanks to the American shipments, each guardsman on duty could be issued with fifty rounds, the same as the standard issue for the regular army.

The influence of folk memories, allied to the enduring appeal of the TV show Dad’s Army, have obscured the truth about the equipment for the LDV. Not only was the M1917 an excellent rifle, but other American weapons supplied in 1940 to the LDVs were also highly efficient. These included a total of 25,000 Browning automatic rifles, which had a rate of fire of 500 rounds a minute, and 22,000 Browning water-cooled machine guns, which, like the M1917, used .300 bullets and were fitted with red bands to differentiate them from British weapons. Again, as with the M1917, some volunteers preferred the American Browning machine gun to its British counterpart, the .303 Vickers machine gun.

By the end of July 1940, with more than 600,000 well-armed men in uniform, backed by machine guns and improvised bombs, the LDVs were nothing like the hapless, clowning rabble of legend. Altogether, by the beginning of July, 1.166 million men had registered to serve in this force. Churchill was not indulging in fantasy when, in his inspiring radio broadcast on 14 July, he proclaimed that the Local Defence Volunteers, ‘a large proportion of whom have been through the last War, have the strongest desire to attack and come to close quarters with the enemy wherever he may appear. Should the invader come to Britain, there will be no placid lying down of the people in submission before him as we have seen, alas, in other countries.’

That spirit was recalled by Jimmy Taylor, who served in his village LDV unit in Hampshire as a bicycle dispatch rider: ‘I think the Germans would never have had such resistance as they would have had in England. Every village and hamlet, every corner, every ditch, every river would have been defended, even with obsolete guns. They would never have had an inch that they wouldn’t have had to fight over. The scenes we knew in France and Belgium during the blitzkrieg would not have been repeated in Britain, in my estimation.’

Serving in the Bristol LDV in his spare time from his job as a clerk at the local Corporation’s Electricity Department, Jack Yeatman recalled: ‘We were under no illusions as to what would happen if the invasion did take place, but the invasion forces would not have the rapid and easy dash across country which they had enjoyed in Belgium and Northern France. We wouldn’t have been able to stop them but their progress would have been slow and their casualties high. The LDV were a very real part of the defence of the realm.’

The novelist and poet Cecil Day Lewis, who joined the LDV in Devon, thought that a powerful sense of local pride helped to galvanise the force: ‘One thing we did have – and that’s the thing that made the LDV such a roaring success in the country districts: we had the familiarity and pride of the village, the moral strength – that is the only word for it – of men used to working and living together in a small community. We were to defend our own little patch of England. As one recruit said to me, “That’s all right, I’ll join. But us don’t have to go and fight for those bastards at Axford, do us?”, naming the next village.’

Churchill may have been impressed by the resolve of the LDVs, but he loathed the name. With his historical romanticism and lyrical gift for language, he found the title Local Defence Volunteers far too utilitarian, bureaucratic and mundane. The Minister for Supply, Herbert Morrison, sharing this dislike of the acronym LDV, had already put forward two alternatives, the Town Guard or the Civil Guard. Churchill, in whose view both of those names were ‘too similar to the wild men of the French Revolution’, offered another. ‘Home Guard would be better. Don’t hesitate to change on account of already having made armlets etc, if it is thought the title of “Home Guard” would be more compulsive.’

War Secretary Anthony Eden, partly on practical grounds, rejected the suggestion. Not only had the term LDV ‘passed into military jargon’, he told the prime minister, but more than 1 million armbands with LDV on them had been manufactured. ‘On the whole I should prefer to hold on to the existing name.’ In an attempt to bypass Eden, Churchill approached Duff Cooper to ask whether the Ministry of Information would encourage newspapers to use the term and make it part of popular currency, telling him on 6 July, ‘I am going to have the name “Home Guard” adopted, and I hope you will, when notified, get the press to put it across.’ Through the simple tactic of repeatedly referring to the Home Guard rather than the LDV in his correspondence, broadcasts and Parliamentary speeches, the prime minister ensured that the phrase became increasingly popular with the public. Towards the end of July he got his way, the force of Churchillian pressure having broken the resistance of the opposition.

By September, the Home Guard was moving towards something more like the volunteer wing of the regular army, complete with army-style ranks, stripes, appointments and discipline. Even with their improvements in equipment, arms, uniforms and training, the essential tasks of the Home Guard remained largely the same during the summer months of 1940: protecting vulnerable points, manning roadblocks, dealing with sightings of paratroopers, carrying out defensive patrols and passing on information to the regular armed forces.

An atmospheric insight into the experience of one Home Guardsman comes from the memoir of Eric Hart, who served in the Folkestone Battalion and was regularly out on patrol at night by bicycle.

The prime evil at this time threatened us from 25 miles across the Channel, in the form of the German Panzer divisions assembling there. The modest size of our platoon meant that each member was called upon to carry out a tour of duty at least two nights per week, on the basis of two hours on duty and an hour rest period. The cycle patrol took us along the restricted [no-go zone] undercliff road. Before the outbreak of war this had been a local beauty spot, with … a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowered borders, but all this had to pay the price of being in the front line. It was replaced with borders of barbed-wire barricades and awesome skull-and-crossbones ‘Danger Mines’ signs. Sometimes the night patrols were quite rewarding – clear skies and quiet calm as we made our almost silent progress along the deserted coast road.

Ironside saw the Home Guard as crucial for the continued implementation of his plan. Indeed, as the volunteer force grew in strength, he wanted to have more of them operating the stop lines, thereby freeing increasing numbers of the regular troops for other duties. But at the very moment he was pondering his future strategy, his authority within the military establishment and the government was crumbling. As the invasion threat deepened, so disillusion with the Home Forces commander grew, the high hopes of success when he had succeeded Kirke in May having been dashed by mid-July.

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