Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Guarding the Home Guard’s Home

Family group, Trafalgar Square, London (July 1949)
Grown-ups (L-R): Joe Ritson, Agnes Ritson (née Cunningham), Marie Ritson (née Cranfield)
Front: Brenda Ritson (later Mrs Henry)
On 14 May 1940 German land forces were making rapid advances in the west, through the Netherlands, Belgium and France. This was due, at least in part, to German parachutists taking and holding some key installations. It was also on this day that ordinary British citizens (but only the men!) were asked to volunteer to safeguard their land, their homes and their families against the threat of German parachutists and become a 'Local Defence Volunteer'.

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Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(1) Anthony Eden appeals for 'Local Defence Volunteers'

Mr Anthony Eden, recently-appointed Secretary of State for War in the coalition government led by Winston Churchill, made an appeal on 14 May 1940 in a radio broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Speaking firstly about the risk of German parachutists invading Britain, he made the following appeal for what were initially referred to as 'Local Defence Volunteers':

"Since the war began the Government have received countless enquiries from all over the kingdom from men of all ages who are for one reason or another not at present engaged in military service, and who wish to do something for the defence of their country. Well, now is your opportunity.

We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain, who are British subjects, between the ages of 17 and 65 to come forward now and offer their services. The name of the new Force which is now to be raised will be 'The Local Defence Volunteers'. This name describes its duties in three words.

This is a part-time job, so there will be no need for any volunteer to abandon his present occupation. When on duty you will form part of the armed forces. You will not be paid, but you will receive a uniform and will be armed .........."

[Taken from the IWM WW2 display about the Home Guard]

Within a day or so about a quarter of a million volunteers had come forward to join the LDV throughout Britain. Among the early volunteers was Joe Ritson (father of the writer of this article, and seen in the photograph above at Trafalgar Square, London with his mother, sister-in-law and niece). My father’s eldest brother, Tom Ritson, also joined up to serve in the Home Guard during WW2. At that time, the two of them worked as miners at Walkmill Colliery, Moresby, Cumberland.

In these early days most of the LDV volunteers had neither uniforms nor arms, and the organisation of each unit could be described as somewhat haphazard at best. For example, in some areas school army cadets (also under the 'official age' of 17) were detailed for guard duty, although were not usually formally admitted to the LDV. At the other end of the age range, many 'old soldiers' over the official upper limit of 65 were also admitted.

Shortly to be re-named 'The Home Guard', it had a somewhat quaint and perhaps rather outwardly 'amateurish' appearance. The LDV became known rather as a 'Look, Duck and Vanish' brigade, and also by the name that it would be remembered by: "Dad's Army". In May 1940 the need for and functions were, however, very real with German parachutists and a German sea-borne invasion of the British mainland perceived likely. The fact that an invasion of the British mainland did not, in the end, take place, should not detract from the achievements of the Home Guard during the war between May 1940, and being disbanded in late 1944.

At the time the attitude among those who were in the LDV / Home Guard was that "No Invader shall take our land". Whether it would be Trafalgar Square in the centre of London, on the coastline or in the hills - everywhere would be defended by these civilian volunteers to the last man. On the whole that would seem to have been the attitude of the time, something that would enter into history as part of the 'myth' of Britain in those days. If necessary, these volunteers would give their lives if need be to defend their homeland.

Tuesday, 18 May, 2010  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(2) Winston Churchill suggests a new name: 'The Home Guard'

There were some, including Winston Churchill, who had recognised the likely need for a volunteer civilian force early in the war. As early as October 1939 Winston Churchill had already suggested the name 'Home Guard'. Although the new force known as the LDV had been in operation only a few weeks later in the height of summer 1940 Winston Churchill suggested that it should indeed be known as 'The Home Guard'. A sequence of written notes from Winston Churchill to Anthony Eden shows how this came about.
On 22 June 1940 Winston Churchill sent the following note to Anthony Eden about the LDV:

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War

Could I have a brief statement of the LDV position, showing the progress achieved in raising and arming them, and whether they are designed for observation or for serious fighting? What is their relationship to the police, the Military Command, and the Regional Commissioners? From whom do they receive their orders, and to whom do they report? It would be a great comfort if this could be compressed on one to two sheets of paper.


On 26 June 1940 Winston Churchill sent another note to Anthony Eden about the LDV:

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War

I don't think much of the name "Local Defence Volunteers" for your new very large force. The word "local" is uninspiring. Mr Herbert Morrison suggested to me today the title "Civic Guard", but I think "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.


On 27 June 1940 Winston Churchill sent a third note to Anthony Eden about the Home Guard:

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War

I hope you like my suggestion of changing the name "Local Defence Volunteers", which is associated with Local Government and Local Option, to "Home Guard". I found everybody liked this in my tour yesterday.

[Taken from 'The Second World War' (Vol. 2): Their Finest Hour' by Winston S. Churchill (1949), Cassell & Co, London]

Winston Churchill went on to use the term "Home Guard" during a broadcast on 14 July 1940, and the official name of the LDV was changed to "Home Guard" on 23 July 1940. The process of integrating the Home Guard into the Army began shortly afterwards, on 6 August 1940. Later in the year (November 1940) the Home Guard became an even more formalised organisation, recognising commissioned officers and NCOs although many units had previously adopted this form of organisation.

Tuesday, 18 May, 2010  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(3) The men of the Home Guard

What then, were the men like who made up the Home Guard? In truth, they were as diverse as one would find throughout a national population, united by this one belief that no invader would take their land.

The following wartime description of one unit in September 1940 comes from the diary of Mrs Brinton-Lee, whose husband became a Major in the Home Guard in London in 1940. The original diary is now in the Imperial War Museum.

"They were most of them elderly, with kind, careworn faces. How nice they were, neither bombastic or craven, like the Germans I had met. They had done their job in the last war, as their ribbons showed. They had worked and worried and raised their families.

The things they were interested in were good things - their work, their hobbies, their children and their sport. They had no inferiority complex; they had never gone hysterical or wished to take away anybody's freedom. Their only crime was that, being unable to believe that the rest of the world was crazy, they had been rather inclined to let things slide.

They did not know how to spell Czechoslovakia, or where it was, and they had been only too willing to believe that Europe was no concern of their's. Now, when they found everything had come unstuck, they turned up quite cheerfully, and offered themselves and their services again.

They were tough and uncomplaining. I was sure they would fight like tigers when it came to the point, and meanwhile they practised their drill and shooting in the friendliest way, and went home to be with their families through the night's hell, till it was time to go to work in the morning".

Tuesday, 18 May, 2010  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(4) Summary (some personal thoughts)

According to a popular wartime song by the comedian / singer George Formby, the men of the Home Guard were “…guarding the Home Guard’s home.” Many of the antics the Home Guard got up to seemed comical to bystanders even at the time, and probably more so in the years since. Was the Home Guard really going to try and stop the German panzers with a dinner plate, a blanket soaked in petrol and a box of matches? What were the Germans going to be doing while all these elderly men and young boys were running round here, there and everywhere?

Well, these are of course relevant questions. However, the L.D.V. – shortly to be renamed the Home Guard – volunteered to help out their land in its time of greatest danger. They wished to defend London – Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament etc, the provinces, their own homes and their families. Often in wartime situations people are prepared to make great sacrifices, including their lives if need be, provided they have a reason to do so. The desire to defend one’s home and family is one of the most basic reasons of all.

Perhaps that was the strength of the ‘Home Guard’ – an apt description suggested by no less a person than Winston Churchill. Although the photograph at the beginning of this narrative dates from just after the war, I feel it illustrates some of the important things in life that people were prepared to serve in the Home Guard for: to defend their family, their home and even London’s Trafalgar Square with its pigeons!

During its lifetime of a little over four years it would be true to say that, thankfully, the Home Guard was the ‘army that never fought a battle’. Had it been called upon to do so, would there have been a great loss of life? Quite likely, there would have been. One may consider that this would have been on a similar scale that happened when partisans took on full-time regular troops during the war.

The perceived role of the LDV / Home Guard changed during the course of its life. Initially, it was seen by many to be merely a relatively small force in rural areas ready to look out for and then report German parachutists. Among its own members, and with the support of no less a prominent figure that Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as firstly a force that could take pot-shots at any invaders, engage them and fight small-scale defensive battles if necessary. In some areas plans were made for the Home Guard to mount full-scale counter-attacks upon any invading force. By that time the threat of an invasion from the mainland was highly unlikely.

Tuesday, 18 May, 2010  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

My understanding is that in West Cumberland - where my father served in the Home Guard - there were no real plans for the Home Guard to mount a full-scale counter-attack on an invading force. Because of its relative isolation (in NW England on the Irish Sea coast) if the Germans had invaded Britain - presumably in the South or East - then by the time such a force had reached West Cumberland they were unlikely to stop them in this way.

However, as many of the West Cumbrian Home Guard platoons probably had a large number of farmers and miners serving with them, they would have been formidable opponents to harass and delay any invading force. For example, farmers and farm hands who would have been used to shooting rabbits, pigeons, foxes and consequently adept with firearms. Among the mining and quarrying contingent would have been Shotfirers - men who used explosives on a daily basis as part of their work. So it would not have taken much to adapt these skills to harry the armoured might of an advancing enemy.

The final word should, perhaps, go to Anthony Eden who went on record in 1974 (when Lord Avon) as stating the formation of the LDV (Home Guard) gave a great morale boost to the British public at the time, ".... a catalyst of the country's spirit and mood at that time." Perhaps even more important was what it demonstrated to other countries - including Germany and the United States:

"It showed people that we were not pushovers, that there was a mood of resistance in the country which was tough."

No invader was going to find the Home Guard a pushover! It was a unique army, the like of which will probably not be seen again!

Tuesday, 18 May, 2010  

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