Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Home Guard, by Neil Storey - a review

I was unaware of WWII Britain's Home Guard until a few years ago. I gather most Brits are at least familiar with the BBC comedy, Dad's Army. Of course, as an American I had never heard of this TV show. My introduction to the subject was actually a wargame project on Matakishi's Tea House hobby blog.

The Local Defense Volunteers (later named The Home Guard by Winston Churchill) was an organization with a compelling story. It was established to channel the patriotism of those British men too young or too old to join the military. They were charged with the protection of their own towns against the very real threat of a German invasion. What started as a rag-tag bunch, dressed in street clothes and drilling with broomsticks had by war's end become a capable fighting force. Thorough, yet concise, Neil Storey's The Home Guard published by Shire Books is a brilliant introduction to these defenders of Britain.

Storey's 56 page book is a bit like an Osprey Publishing Men at Arms title. It's heavily illustrated (color and black & white photos, actually), it covers all the basic information one would want to know about the Home Guard as a military unit, and it arranges this info in a clear and visually appealing way.

What I found most interesting was the resourcefulness required of the Home Guard troops during their early days. Early training relied on illustrated guidebooks, self-initiated courses, but eventually included specialized training schools run by the British military.

So lacking in government support, the Local Defense Volunteer (LDV) "uniform" initially consisted of a simple armband worn over civilian clothes. In time the Home Guard troops received uniforms mirroring that in the regular Army.

Organization was based at the county level. The author details on county abbreviations, cap badges, rank, and other insignia. As it grew the simple patrolling institution developed specializations such as antitank, antiaircraft, transport, and bomb squads.

The first LDV troops were armed with whatever the men themselves could provide: hunting pieces, museum collections, even knives tied to a broom handles. As volunteer numbers swelled they gained government support, first receiving thousands of surplus American WWI rifles. Later their weapons included more standard Army pieces and artillery specially designed for the Home Guard.

The Home Guard also includes info on woman volunteer units and Churchill's Secret Army, the Auxiliary Units. These were top-secret paramilitary men often plucked from the ranks of the Home Guard. Their job would go into affect after Britain's occupation by German forces. They were instructed to live as civilians, while organizing guerrilla attacks in areas controlled by the enemy.

Britain's Home Guard had been lacking in serious scholarship until really the last 10 years or so. Storey's book is a great place to start a more detailed study. In addition to his own overview, the author suggests further reading. There are a few other Home Guard history books recently published, and many of the original 1940s training manuals are now available a reprints.

P.S. (May 28, 2010) I just found out that Winnie the Pooh author, A.A. Milne was a captain of a Home Guard platoon in Hartfield & Forest Row. (this according to Wikipedia)

1 comment:

bazza said...

There was a another, later programme by the creators of Dad's Army called It Ain't Half Hot, Mum.
This was set in the far east folowing the adventures of an ensemble whose job it was to entertain their fellow soldiers.
They were a 'camp' bunch of actors and the comedy was derived from the juxtaposition of the effeminate entertainers and their traditional ferocious Sergeant-Major, similar in style to Private Benjamin.
Both shows were enormously popular in their day!