The Home Guard

From the Frank Williams obituary:

“There were one or two episodes where it’s clear it’s a serious business,” he said. “And the last episode [Never Too Old, broadcast on Remembrance Sunday, 1977] is quite moving. They all drink a toast to the Home Guard and you get this sense these funny old men would have died for their country if they had to.”

As someone once put in the comments here. Those tens of thousands of old men knew, absolutely, that if the invasion came they’d die as a result. Yet they all still turned up in church halls the country over.

50 thoughts on “The Home Guard”

  1. They weren’t all that old really. Conscription was 18-40, so anyone above that age could join.
    The HG consisted mostly of WW1 veterans who knew what they were doing too…

  2. My dad was in the Home Guard for a while before he joined the RAF. He was 19 when the war started. He remembered watching the blitz on Manchester from the top of Blackstone Edge when they were up there guarding against parachutists.

  3. I remember watching that final episode.

    It was quite moving.

    Of course many of the cast had military experience. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35491036

    As for the show itself, I remember one comedy writer saying they knew they had a hit if they managed to get a catchphrase onto common use. How many did Dad’s Army get?

    We’re Doomed
    Stupid Boy
    They don’t like it up ’em
    Don’t Panic!
    Do you think that’s awfully wise?
    Don’t tell him, Pike!

  4. Would Lord Spudcup have been on the front line when the time came? Godfrey demonstrated that he certainly would have.

  5. “Those tens of thousands of old men knew, absolutely, that if the invasion came they’d die as a result”

    Did they know? Yes, the Germans were very definite that they would be, and the British government knew that at the time, but was it generally known by the people volunteering? I thought the British government always insisted, in public, that they were official and therefore protected (which they knew was a lie, but thought to be a necessary one), and that part of the point of giving them uniforms was to make people believe that.

    The ones that definitely knew they, and their families, would be shot were the Auxiliary Units, the civilian guerillas who were to go underground on an invasion (literally in some cases; there’s remains of some of their secret bases hidden away in woods around here). They were stocked with a fortnight’s worth of rations, because they weren’t expected to survive any longer.

  6. One of the repeating plot points is how they meet in the church hall and the vicar isn’t all that keen on that all the time. Which, given that this is from the obit of the actor who played the vicar…..

  7. The BBC story about Arnold Ridley (Andrew C’s link above) demonstrates the point rather well. Ridley had a hell of a time in WW1, was wounded and traumatised, yet still volunteered aged 43 in WW2. Only after escaping Dunkirk did he join the Home Guard, he didn’t have any illusions about the risks.

  8. Watching it, you always knew that they knew that they were very likely to die if the invasion happened. But that they were entirely prepared for that and would not have hesitated. Well, maybe not have hesitated. Actually probably not have hesitated. There was a clear aim to what they were being asked to do – always very important in the military. The scripts always talked about ‘freedom’ which was in those days a key piece of being an Englishman. A clear differentiation from those ‘foreigners’ over the Channel who weren’t blessed with the Common Law and who ‘had [not] won first prize in the game of life by [not] being born an Englishman’. Overall it was a series about heroes.

    Compare and contrast to today…

  9. I wonder how many would have hesitated if they knew that much of what they believed in and were prepared to die for would be trashed and disrespected so thoroughly within a couple of generations…..

  10. MC: And the backstory of Private Godfrey was that he had been a conscientious objector in WW1 who volunteered to be a (unarmed!) stretcher bearer on the front line, and had actually seen more “action” than many of the other characters, but had never mentioned it. Not just “during the whole of 1919!”

  11. And the backstory of Private Godfrey was that he had been a conscientious objector in WW1 who volunteered to be a (unarmed!) stretcher bearer on the front line, and had actually seen more “action” than many of the other characters, but had never mentioned it

    And also didn’t talk about his award for gallantry, the Military Medal. The rest of the platoon only found out by accident.

  12. I think not all home guard would have died during an invasion.
    However any on the coast probably would have done if they were on the wrong part of the coast.
    Ironically war gaming has since shown that German logistical problems show that invading Britain would have shortened the war – but not in a good way for Hitler.

    Their navy really couldn’t have supplied the troops and possibly not even have landed them.

  13. My father was in the HG for a while. He didn’t talk about it. He didn’t talk much about his time in the army either. I think he found the business of killing Germans rather disagreeable. Though he did change his mind a bit when he saw Belsen.

  14. My mother had a friend who was on Hitler’s list of prominent people to be liquidated immediately.
    She was terribly proud of the acquaintance. But was it true?

  15. DocBud in Guildford

    David,

    For numerous reasons, British navy, RAF, logistics of landing and resupplying sufficient troops, weather, English coastline, etc., the chance of Operation Sea Lion being successful was exceedingly slim.

  16. Also the Jerries would have been in barges and not landing craft, so a successful exit was also slim. Unlike D-Day, the UK would also have had lots of warning about a crossing ( constant aerial surveillance ).

  17. DocBud in G

    Quite. Mainly the RN. We had dozens of detroyers. Plus, the RAF was not defeated.

  18. Back in the 1970’s, I read about the likely failure of Operation Sealion in the book “Who won the Battle of Britain” by WingCo HR Allen DFC. The Rhine barges (after an initial estimate of 650 barges, the Wermacht wanted 2000 of them) lack of sea worthiness made them a bit of liability crossing the Channel on most days, added to which they may also have had to contend with the Royal Navy sticking their oar in.

    Seems to me though, the Nazi’s would’ve been ok if they come across in dinghies or on LiLo’s and asked the UK Border Farce and the RNLI to give them a tow…..

  19. DocBud in Guildford

    Possibly so, Addolff. They could also have looked for a window of opportunity when the electric destroyers and Spitfires were on charge.

    Thankfully, Britain had Winston in charge and not Boris.

  20. “They weren’t all that old really. Conscription was 18-40, so anyone above that age could join.”

    People often forget the reserved occupations. Both of my grandfathers were in their 30s; one worked in the railways and joined the ARP, and the other worked for a firm that supplied camoflage, and joined the Home Guard. (In fact, by the end of the war his job had been taken off the reserved list, but by then he was over 40.)

    “And the backstory of Private Godfrey was that he had been a conscientious objector in WW1 who volunteered to be a (unarmed!) stretcher bearer on the front line, and had actually seen more “action” than many of the other characters, but had never mentioned it.”

    That had a particular poignancy in my family too. Although I don’t believe he was a conscientious objector, my great-grandfather was a stretcher-bearer in the Dardanelles campaign, shot by a sniper. Mentioned in dispatches. My gran never knew him. Those men were heroes just as much as the blokes with the guns.

  21. DocBud in Guildford

    Absolutely, Sam, if anything more so:

    Sergeant Robert McKay, a stretcher-bearer with the 109th Field Ambulance Unit, kept a diary during the Battle of Ypres in August, 1917.

    6 August: Today awful: was obliged to carry some of the wounded into the graveyard and look on helpless till they died. Sometimes we could not even obtain a drink of water for them.

    7 August: Bringing the wounded down from the front line today. Conditions terrible. The ground is a quagmire. It requires six men to every stretcher. The mud in some cases is up to our waists.

    14 August: One party of stretcher-bearers was bringing down a wounded man when an airman swooped down and dropped a bomb deliberately on them. The enemy shells the stretcher-bearers all the time.

    16 August: The infantry took a few pill-boxes and a line or two of trenches from the enemy in this attack but at a fearful cost. It is only murder attempting to advance against these pill-boxes over such ground. Any number of men fall down wounded and are either smothered in the mud or drowned in the holes of water before we can reach them. We have been working continuously now since the 13th. The stretcher-bearers are done up completely.

    19 August: I have had no sleep since I went on the 13th. The 109th Field Ambulance alone had over thirty casualties, killed, wounded and gassed – and this out of one hundred men who were doing the line.

  22. My missus’ great uncle was a stretcher bearer in the London Scottish and was killed at the Somme (19).

    Reserved occupations: my grandfather ( never knew him ) was a civilian sparks in Naval dockyards. He was born 1900. Worked at Scapa Flow when the Royal Oak was sunk and then found himself onboard the Prince of Wales when it sailed to Singapore. Put ashore and evacuated in one of the last transports to Australia.

  23. There’s a new book coming out about the Auxiliary Units – the Home Guard’s job was to slow down a German invasion force long enough for the Regular Army to turn up. The AU’s job was to hang around behind German lines and kill as many German officers as possible, sabotage things etc. and they were expected to kill themselves rather than be captured. Their life expectancy if the German had invaded was estimated at 12 days.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_Units

  24. Sealion was generated out of Douhet thesis of air warfare. That a country under aerial bombardment would rapidy suffer civil then military collapse. So the expectation would be for a largely unopposed landing followed by mopping up odd pockets of resistance. Not far off what happened in the early part of the war. So take the south coastal area, move the air assets across the Channel & start rolling up the country. UK gov would probably have capitulated with the capital threatened. The RN operating in narrow seas under air attack wouldn’t have been much help.
    But all of that required air superiority. And the Luftwaffe were learning at the same time as their RAF colleagues that unprotected bombers weren’t a match for high speed interceptors & radar.
    Moral of the story, never trust an Italian

  25. Makes one wonder if the war wasn’t lost to Germany on the drawing boards at Messerschmitt. The narrow track undercarriage on the Bf109 resulted in a lot of accidents on take off & landings. Narrow track because the thin wings couldn’t take the stress of it further out from the fuselage. So that significantly raised the attrition rate.

  26. And how does the same (valid) criticism not apply to the Spitfire? Much of the problem with the 109 was the steep ground angle on take-off, but even that didn’t stop it being the highest-scoring fighter of all time.

  27. I’ve often wondered whether the ability of the RN to devastate a German inflation fleet couldn’t have been stopped by the Germans laying minefields. We are talking of shallow seas here, aren’t we? Had they built minelayers and mine-laying submarines? Or did they find pocket battleships irresistibly sexy?

  28. Had they built minelayers and mine-laying submarines?

    They had and they mined heavily along the North Sea continental coast, but I think the Channel is too easy to sweep and too difficult to operate undetected. Also the Kriegsmarine had to operate from the Baltic because the Ems was too vulnerable. They had not at the time of Sealion fortified the French Atlantic ports. If AH had been able to wait a year or so, things might have been different, but by then Lend Lease had started to take effect and the Germans were instead determined to starve Britain into submission instead.

  29. Bit of a bummer that from 1939-1941 Russia was on the same side as the enemy.

    It’d be nice if some academic in Russia acknowledged that was a mistake. German Generals must have looked at each other and thought, winning stuff is good, where do we fancy our chances next of greater glory? The Home Guard and sheer nuttiness of the Brits at that time must have put them off the cross-channel option.

  30. I think the plan for the RAF was that if the hun was getting the best of it, to pull back fighter squadrons to the midlands and north to preserve them, leaving the south east essentially undefended. Had an invasion actually been attempted the luftwaffe would not have had the skies to themselves.

    I believe the barges that would have been used could have been swamped by a destroyer passing reasonably close at speed. No need to even shoot at them!

    It’s a pity really that the hun didn’t try it, as it’s difficult to see how an invasion in 1940 or 41 could not have ended in catastrophe. Look what it took to succeed the other way four years later: the two most powerful navies in the world, absolute domination of the air (something like 9000 allied aircraft against a literal handful of german that actually showed up), a vast experience built on hard won lessons of dozens of opposed landings and a vast range of specialised purpose built equipment.

    If the hun had managed to put a couple of divisions ashore in Kent or Sussex, how would they have kept them supplied, never mind reinforced?

  31. Rhoda,

    The Bf109 got a big score because it had the obsolescent, ill-trained USSR to play against in 1941, where Luftwaffe experten had hordes of hapless targets to mow down.

    Somehow, when presented with a skyful of late-model Spitfires, Typhoons, Thunderbolts and Mustangs over France in 1944… the Bf109 failed to rack up kills, or dominate the air, or devastate Allied ground troops.

    Hence the grim joke among the Heer – “If it looks silver, it’s American. If it looks black, it’s British. And if it’s not there at all, it’s German…”

    There’s a similar issue with tanks: famed SS tank ace Michael Wittman was rolling around the Soviet steppe slaughtering RKKA armoured vehicles and anti-tank guns by the dozen for years. Transferred to France in 1944… he was dead within a few weeks of D-Day.

  32. Dearime,

    The Germans did lay mines, and try to clear British minefields: the problem being that they were so badly outnumbered on both counts. The Sea Lion plan did depend on “impenetrable” minefields being laid across the Straits of Dover and roughly from Cherbourg to Chichester… but the problem was that those “impenetrable” minefields required many, many, many more mines than Germany actually possessed or could lay.

    At worst the simple tactic of running an old Victorian paddle-steamer with a hold full of empty beer kegs through a suspected minefield at max chat (with the crew all up on deck in lifejackets, and the Portsmouth destroyer flotilla following in line astern) would have worked pretty well as a hasty expedient, while better channels were swept for the forces coming from Guzz (which would have included the old but serviceable HMS Revenge, who sortied to shell the occupied Channel ports from time to time)

    As it was, over a tenth of the Sea Lion fleet was destroyed in harbour before ever getting to sea, and had to be scattered inland to avoid the attentions of the RN and Bomber Command.

    “Interruptions caused by the enemy’s air force, long-range artillery and naval forces have assumed major significance. The harbours at Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne cannot be used as night anchorages for shipping because of the danger of British bombing and shelling. Units of the British fleet are able to operate unmolested in the Channel. Owing to these difficulties, further delays are expected in the assembly of the invasion fleet.” – Kriegsmarine HQ, Naval Group West, September 12 1940.

  33. Mark,

    One of the major issues that would have beset the Germans conducting any effort at Sea Lion, would be finding someone to surrender to after a week or so ashore (when ammunition has run out, and evacuation is not happening)

    The declared intent of the Germans was to use “robust measures” to deter any disobedience or non-cooperation, and to summarily execute all members of the Home Guard as an “unlawful murder-band”.

    This might, maybe, work if you’re winning… but when your ammunition pouches and belly are both empty, and soldiers, Home Guard and civilians are roaming about collecting stragglers, there’s a very real risk that whoever finds you may simply introduce you to both barrels of a shotgun, a lamp-post and some hempen rope, or just a half-brick and a drainage ditch, as payback for the “robust measures” employed in that first flush of victory.

  34. @Rhoda
    “And how does the same (valid) criticism not apply to the Spitfire?”
    I’ve flown in a Spit. Albeit a two seat trainer. They’re stable on take-off & landing. Bf109’s undercart is attached to the fuselage. The effects of things like track tend to be logarithmic rather than linear. A little makes a lot of difference.
    All of the single seater fighters of the period were tricky because with all that engine in front of you can’t really see where you’re going. The angle of attack depends on how quick you want to get off the ground. A lot of the fields they were operating out of weren’t really built for those sort of planes with high stall speeds. And a lot were grass & bumpy. So you were trying to get off before you ran out of room or ripped the undercarriage off.

  35. There’s a museum to the Auxiliary Units, also known as the British Resistance Organisation, in Parham, Suffolk. It’s on what used to be USAAF Framlingham Station 153. There’s a museum of USAAF 390th Bomb Group there too.

  36. I don’t believe some of the accident stats you see on the 109. It operated from grass improvised fields a lot. It had a relatively high accident rate in takeoff and landing but this didn’t have an operationally significant effect. Its kill record outside of the Eastern front was probably still enough to make it the most successful fighter. In 1941 it was taking down spitfires over France at a rate of six to one. In Africa, better than that against Hurricanes and P40s. And so on and on. It was still an effective fighter in 1945, if not as good as the best of the allied side.

    However, the undercarriage criticism stands. The wheels weren’t even vertical so any lateral tilt resulted in an unwanted sideways thrust.

    Oh, and ten Kriegsmarine destroyers were lost at Narvik in June 1940. Halving their strength. Seelowe became impossible from that time, IMHO. The second battle of Narvik is not widely known, but in the best traditions of the RN.

  37. @Rhoda Klapp,

    The qualities or otherwise of the 109 became less important as the war progressed, given that on the allied side the greater population and resources meant that the quality as well as quantity of allied pilots became perhaps the dominating factor. Add to that easy replacement if lost aircraft and an abundance of fuel and it become remarkable how long the luftwaffe was able to resist.

    It is worth noting though how many of the luftwaffe experten, given that they essentially had the pick of what was available, stuck with their 109s

  38. Rhoda

    The 109’s superior armament was a big factor in its success along with an engine that allowed it to dive at speed and in control. To be fair to the Spitfires over France, they were doing “the wrong job”. The early marque Spits were purely short range interceptors, not suited to escort work and operating at their operational limit.

  39. Pike always makes me think of my Pops. Even more so as his mother was a widow. He told me he got a motorbike and he joined the HG for the extra petrol rations he got to be the dispatch rider. Throughout his teens he’d had an after school job in a radio repair high street shop (i imagine it like those mobile repair shops you see everywhere now). So by the time he was 18 and got the call up he was working in a radar lab, they said they needed him and that was that.

  40. Re German invasion of Britain using barges, Erskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands is on Film4 this afternoon (set pre-WW1). Childers was a fanatical imperialist, who became a fanatic for Irish Home Rule and was executed (by the Irish!) during the Civil War.

  41. Riddle of the Sands, pretty good film with Michael York and the late Simon McCrocodile rowing about Friesland. Excellent book.

    Childers… His fate is one that can be squarely blamed on his wife. She radicalised him.

  42. @Rhoda etc

    Yes, the 109 was superior to Spitfire & Hurricane

    However, Merlin engine problem in dive/bank was quickly solved – by a woman. Also, adaptabtabl free thinking RAF quickly developed tactics to use Spitfire’s agility to defeat 109. Rule based luftwaffe too slow to respond

    One factor that I’m eternally grateful for is Hitler ended Battle of Britain as he believed he couldn’t win. However, one/two days more and we’d have lost

    Related
    Brazier reflects on the sacrifices of the young volunteers of RAF Bomber Command
    44% Were Killed
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uq1gicfwudc

  43. “However, one/two days more and we’d have lost”
    Not really (depends on how you define ‘lost’). One or two more days of attacks against the RAF bases, rather than switching to attacks on London, might have made them untenable, and forced RAF fighters to be withdrawn north of the Thames, but that still means RAF can control the air over most of the east coast (too far for single engined German fighters to reach, and the Bf110 struggled to defend itself against Hurricanes and Spitfires). Over the SE of England, both sides would have been operating at ‘range’ from the air bases, but the reality would still have been: RAF plane in trouble, it is over friendly territory; German plane goes down, it’s over hostile territory then sea, so less chance of the aircrew being recovered.

  44. Getting back it to the Home Guard, there was a book published in 1942 called ‘From Dusk to Dawn’, following the activities of a fictional (“for security”) rural Home Guard platoon. That it was published in 1942 suggests that the UK government was happy with the content.
    At one point the platoon members are discussing what will happen if the German tanks come. I can’t remember the exact wording, but from memory, one character says (approximately) “We’ll be lucky to last 20 minutes. But there’s 6 villages between here and the coast, and if we each survive 10 minutes, then that’s an hour our regular army have to get ready”. I’m pretty sure that the members of the Home Guard had a sound understanding of their role, and their chances of survival if they were called into action.

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