A brief history of the Home Guard

“Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” Many of us have fond memories of the popular TV series Dad’s Army, but how close was this comical depiction to the REAL Home Guard? Here’s a brief look at its history…

The 23rd July marks the date that Britain’s Local Defence Volunteers (LDVs) officially became known as ‘the Home Guard’ in 1940, making this the anniversary of its 80th year! This band of volunteers, made up of men of all ages, was formed as ‘Britain’s last defence’ against German invasion, and from humble beginnings as the LDVs (also said to stand for ‘look, duck and cover!’), became a well-trained army of 1.7 million. Although the recruitment age bracket was officially 17-65, volunteers were below and, more often, above the age of conscription, leading to the Guard’s affectionate nickname of ‘Dad’s Army’.

From a motley crew…

A parade of the Local Defence Volunteers. Image IMW.

In its early days, the Home Guard was hardly recognisable as the defensive unit we picture today. Uniforms and weapons were high in demand to supply to the regular military, and so members of the Guard had to make do with what they could find! Shotguns, sporting rifles, and antique firearms were dusted down and put into action, along with make-shift ‘weapons’ such as pitchforks, broom handles and even golf clubs! Even when officially supplied weaponry did arrive, it was of often outdated or of a very poor standard. And as for a uniform, most battalions had to make do with a simple armband to distinguish themselves until official uniforms were supplied.

The Guard looked a stark contrast to the men and women of the Air Raid Precautions Service, which had been in position since 1937. The ARP was responsible for everything connected with a possible enemy attack, and included Air Raid Wardens, First Aid Parties, Rescue and Demolition Parties, Decontamination Squads, Ambulance Drivers and Communications Officers. The role of the Home Guard came to closely resemble those of the ARP, and tensions between the two, hilariously illustrated by the relationship between Cpt. Mainwaring and Chief Warden Hodges in Dad’s Army, soon arose!

…into a well-trained home defence

St Neots Home Guard photographed outside the Old Falcon on the Market Square.

Churchill was the man responsible for a much-needed shake-up of the Guard. It was he who had originally introduced the change of name from Local Defence Volunteers, which he quite rightly announced was ‘uninspiring’, to the Home Guard. Churchill saw to it that the Home Guard began to receive proper military training sessions, as well as other useful skills such as bomb disposal and basic German phrases, should they ever come face to face with the enemy!

According to the ‘Home Guard Guide Book’ published in 1940, the Guard’s main duties included observation and reporting, immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy, and the defence of roads, villages, factories and other strategic points in towns, to block enemy movement. The Guard was also called upon to man the big guns – the anti-aircraft guns and rocket launches positioned around London. By the end of the war, the Guard numbered around 1.7 million well-trained, fighting men – a vastly different force to the one present in 1940!

An army of volunteers

Members of the Home Guard being taught simple German phrases. Image IWM.

A butcher, an undertaker, and bank personnel, all of the characters featured in Dads Army were regular citizens pitching in to do their bit. With the increased levels of military training the Home Guard received, it’s easy to forget that its members weren’t paid to handle such vast responsibilities. They were volunteers, men who still did their regular jobs by day, and then drilled and patrolled around them at nights and weekends. Their place in the community, bringing with it important knowledge of the local people and terrain, formed a vital part of their defensive role.

An end to war

In 1944, with the Allied armies advancing towards Germany and the threat of invasion or raids finally over, the Home Guard was officially stood down on the 3rd December. To commemorate the efforts of its members, every year on the anniversary of its formation, a national ‘Home Guard Day’ was held. The events were held, in Churchill’s words, ‘so that the nation realised all it owed to these devoted men’.

Though it’s easy to focus on the comedic portrayal of Dad’s Army, it’s important to remember the huge commitment and effort made by the Home Guard to protect our country in this time of conflict.

BCH Platoon, St Neots Home Guard outside the Little Barford Power Station in 1943-1944 (St Neots CCAN)

And if you have any photographs or memories of St Neots Home Guard, or indeed any taken during the war, we’d be very interested to see them!