The Home Guard (officially the Local Defence Volunteers or LDV) is an armed citizen militia operating in support of the Republican Army in Great Britain. Beginning operations from 1927, the LDV has over 4 million local volunteers operating in various capacities and levels of activity, ranging from semi-reservist military training towards official guard duties. It's official duties outside of war include military training, organising local militias under centralised leadership and limited guard duties.
The LDV would initially experience a stunted and embarrassing start, being mocked for its poor state owing to a lack of adequate training, equipment and leadership. Initially nicknamed the 'Broomstick Army' by the general public for its utilisation of the aforementioned cleaning apparatus in lieu of actual weapons; a series of embarrassing political gaffes would only further damage its reputation. However, despite this false start, a successful propaganda campaign and its eventual transformation into a proper fighting force would earn it in the endearing respect and fondness of the public, leaving it better known by the nickname 'Dad's Army'.
The origins of the Home Guard lie in the various militias and irregular forces that formed during the British Revolution. Following the end of the war, these militia forces were officially disbanded, though many had been stood down anyway as the Republican Army became the Union's primary fighting force. Regardless, the concept of the 'worker's militia' had been engrained in British politics, with some radical politicians and activists such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Eric Blair calling for the government to continue to support local militia forces. While the workers had largely put down their arms, general notion of the militia and public involvement in it was no longer a foreign concept to British citizens.
Furthermore, Captain Tom Wintringham first pioneered the notion of a central militia trained in guerrilla warfare, inspired his service in the Civil War. He would publish a pamphlet entitled How to Reform the Army which called for the creation of 12 'irregular divisions' similar in composition to that of the militias which had been formed in the revolution. The divisions would be raised by voluntary, part-time enlistment targeting working men, youths and ex-serviceman for national defence and guerrilla warfare. Despite great interest by the War Office in the book's assertion that 'security is possible', Wintringham's call to train 500,000 men immediately was not implemented and the proposals were ultimately abandoned.
Local Grassroots Forces & Early Pressure
Amid the Banditry Crisis of 1926, debates began in official circles about the possible ways in which the Canadian military might invade Britain, with it being believed that loyalist paramilitaries were forming the first stage of an imminent invasion. While some in the government were sceptical of an invasion, paranoia and fear that the Canadian military would launch an amphibious assault remained are the forefront of military concerns. The Republican Army was certainly not incapable but undergoing a period of reorganisation and a proper build-up, leaving national defence exposed. One of area of particular concern was also that of internal security as many local police forces remained over-stretched or poorly staffed following the civil war. With some areas lacking any real major policing or security, they were left exposed to banditry and loyalist attacks.
While government officials were debating the need for a home defence force, such forces were actually being formed without any official encouragement or government oversight. Often noted as the first of these, in Essex, local men were coming forward to join the self-styled "Legion of Guardsmen", acting as an unofficial security militia to ward off bandits and other ne'er-do-wells. Officials were soon informed of the development of the legion, and others like it as local militias in rural areas began to reform to protect their communities. Likewise in cities, some workers banded together to guard factories and workshops in a means to safeguard their livelihoods from royalist sabotage. The developments alarmed government and senior military officials, who worried about the prospect of the population forming private defence forces that the army would not be able to control, and in mid-May, the Home Office issued a press release on the matter, criticising 'unsanctioned development of unaccountable private armies'. On the contrary, the efforts of these militias was largely lauded by the press and public, particularly in the face of government inaction over the issue and an inability to provide proper policing in some areas.
Soon enough, even within the government itself calls were being made as Labour politician, Josiah Wedgwood, wrote to Deputy Chairman Wheatley asking that the entire adult population be provided with arms, ammunition and the training to use them. Similar calls appeared in newspaper columns: in an issue of the Daily Worker, a brigadier called on the government to issue free arms licences and permits to buy ammunition to men possessing small arms, and the same day, the Guardian asked if the government had considered training would-be-golfers in rifle shooting to eliminate stray parachutists. Spurred on by this, some rural shotgun users formed groups to watch the skies for parachutists, dubbing themselves the 'Parashots'. The government promptly attempted to suppress these after Minister for Air, Fred Jowett, warned that any targets were more likely to be RAF airmen having conducted a failed test flight than stray Canadian commandoes.
Formation of a Defence Force
By 1927, banditry and loyalist forces in the South of England had largely been eliminated and elsewhere across the country it was beginning to wane in threat. Though small-scale and sporadic attacks would continue in the North of England, these were uncommon and largely motivated by criminal purposes rather than loyalist devotion. Regardless, the public consciousness still attributed these attacks to Royalist agents and the army still believed that a Canadian invasion was at least possible. In such an event, the private militias could well inhibit the army's efforts during an invasion, but continuing to ignore the calls for a home defence force was proving to be politically problematic. An officially-sponsored home defence force would allow the government greater control and also allow for greater security around vulnerable areas such as munitions factories and airfields; but there was some confusion over who would form and control the force, with separate plans drawn up by the War Office and General Staff. Additionally the issue was further muddied when proposals to establish a 'gendarme' style force under the control of the Home Office emerged but these were quickly shot down.
The government and senior military officials rapidly compared plans and, by late April, worked out an improvised plan for a home defence force, to be called the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). The rush to complete a plan and announce it to the public had led to a number of administrative and logistical problems, such as how the volunteers in the new force would be armed, which caused problems as the force evolved. On the evening of 5 May 1927, Minister for War Christopher Thomson gave a radio broadcast announcing the formation of the LDV and calling for volunteers to join the force: "You will not be paid, but you will receive a uniform and will be armed. Your duty, first and foremost, is to defend our island, defend our republic, defend Britain."
In the official radio announcement, Thomson called on men between the ages of 17 and 65 years in Britain who were not in military service but wished to defend their country against an invasion to enrol in the LDV at their local police station. It was anticipated that up to 500,000 to 750,000 men might volunteer, a number that conformed generally with the Army's expectation of the total numbers required to fulfil the LDV's expected functions. However, the announcement was met with much enthusiasm: 400,000 volunteers tried to sign up in the first seven days, and by July this had increased to 2 million. Social groups such as football clubs began forming their own units, but the bulk were workplace-based, especially as co-operation with unions was necessary to ensure that volunteers would be available for training and operational patrols. Indeed, many workers envisaged the LDV units primarily as protecting industrial plants from fifth column attack.
Women in the Home Guard
The LDV did not initially admit women to its ranks despite enthusiasm and requests to do so. After being refused participation, women in formed the Amazon Defence Corps (ADC) and began training in unarmed and rifle combat. Though legally prevented from carrying firearms, members neverthless practiced with rifles in shooting galleries set up in public amusement arcades and members’ homes. Weighted beanbags served as facsimile hand-grenades and fire bombs. The Amazons also studied unarmed combat, rehearsing jujitsu throws on their lawns, being trained by ex-suffragettes affiliated with Sylvia Pankhurst. Marjorie Foster, the only woman to have won the Republican Shooting Prize, the highest award at the National Rifle Championships, was a prominent member and rifle-trainer.
Despite being impressed by these efforts, it was only after successful lobbying that limited female involvement was permitted in 1929. This was only approved on the understanding that these would be in traditional female support roles (e.g. clerical, nursing. driving) and not in any way seen as combatants, as part of the official Women's Home Defence Corps (WHDC) though the Amazons would continue to train privately as they had done so before anyway. While this was shocking to many male members, others actively supported the 'fighting women' and were simply eager to have any support in the face of impossible odds.
The War Office continued to lay down the administrative and logistical foundations for the LDV organisation. Thomson's public words were generally interpreted as an explicit promise to provide everyone who volunteered with a personal firearm. In retrospect, it was recognised that recruitment would have been better limited to the numbers required (and capable of actually being armed), with later volunteers given places on a waiting list. However, once volunteers had been enlisted, it was considered impossible from a public relations perspective to then dismiss them. Nevertheless, the regular army saw no priority in providing more arms and equipment to the LDV than would have been needed had numbers been properly constrained in the first place.
In telegrams to the various regional defence ministers of each county it was explained that LDV units would operate in predefined military areas already used by the regular army, with a General Staff Officer coordinating with civilian regional commissioners to divide these areas into smaller zones. In London this was organised on the basis of police districts. On 20 May, the LDV achieved official legal status when the Executive Committee issued the Defence (Local Defence Volunteers) Order of State, and orders were issued from the War Office to regular army headquarters throughout Britain explaining the status of LDV units; volunteers would be divided into sections, platoons and companies but would not be paid and leaders of units would not hold commissions or have the power to command regular forces.
Implementation of the legislation proved to be extremely difficult, particularly as the primary focus of the War Office and General Staff was on conducting the ongoing reorganising of the army. The apparent lack of focus led to many LDV members becoming impatient, particularly when it was announced that volunteers would receive only armbands printed with "L.D.V." on them until proper uniforms could be manufactured, and there was no mention of weapons being issued to units. The impatience led to many units conducting their own patrols without official permission, often led by men who had previously served in as leaders in revolutionary militias or the armed forces.
The presence of many veterans and the appointment of ex-officers as commanders of LDV units, only worsened the situation, with many believing that they did not require training before being issued weapons. That led to numerous complaints being received by the War Office and the press and to many ex-senior officers attempting to use their influence to obtain new weapons or permission to begin patrolling. The issue of weapons to LDV units was particularly problematic for the War Office, as it was recognised that the arming and equipping of the regular forces would have to take precedence over the LDV. Many LDV units countered this by simply arming themselves with pre-owned civilian weapons, particularly pistols and shotguns, or prior-used weapons from the civil war. Officially these were to have been handed over to the authorities but many ex-militia men and soldiers opted to keep their rifles. Owing to these weapons having been poorly maintained and lacking service, they proved more of a hindrance than a boon.
For public (and enemy) consumption, the government maintained that large stocks of Lee-Enfield rifles remained from the Revolution, but the actual total reserve stockpile amounted to 250,000, and they had already been earmarked for the modernisation of the regular armed forces. Instead, the War Office issued instructions on how to make firebombs (in some areas called 'Petrol Willies' after Tom Wintringham) and the government requested any spare armaments that Communard France could provide. In the absence of proper weapons, local units would use civil-war era weaponry or civilian shotguns donated by farmers. Improvised weapons, especially grenades, mortars and jury-rigged grenade projectors, became a staple of local LDV units. In these early days, whatever came to hand would be repurposed into potential weaponry, and the legacy of self-reliant improvisation in the face of what was interpreted as official disregard and obstruction has remained as a popular characteristic of the Home Guard to this day.
Mutiny of the Broomstick Army
Owing to the vast influx of recruits, the government's weapon stocks that had been designated for the LDV were quickly overran and depleted within the first week. Tom Wintringham, one of the main architects of the Home Guard, had sponsored the creation of a private training camp in Central London that would provide specialist guerrilla courses to more advanced recruits but was dismayed to learn that as rifle stocks had been depleted he would have to either request recruits bring their own weapons (likely unusable or a liability) or instead use broom-sticks that had been provided by the War Office. Wintringham would write an open letter to the War Office condemning the 'frankly appalling state' of the LDV after many other branches had likewise expressed outrage at being provided with broomsticks for training.
While there was a general sympathy in the War Office for Wintringham's plight, many of its higher members felt there was little that could be done. Thomson responded by publicly agreeing that the state of the LDV was indeed 'not brilliant' but argued that the government was doing its best and that local branches would simply 'have to make do' until proper weapons could be provided in due time. Outrage among the LDV was now becoming palpable and many felt insulted at being left to train with cleaning equipment over proper weapons. As such, the press began to jokingly term the LDV, 'the Broomstick Army' on account of their weapon of choice.
The situation was made even worse when following the letter, Thomson remarked in private that Wintringham's assessment was correct and that 'every man needs some sort of proper weapon, even if it were a mace or pike.' A group of bumbling civil servants took Thomson at his word and ordered 1 million pikes from the Ministry of Air, each consisting of a long steel tube with an obsolete bayonet welded to the end. Surprisingly, no one at the Air Ministry noticed the blunder and the order was processed. When these began to trickle into the Home Guard units there was furious outrage. In the small Lincolnshire town of Caistor, livid Home Guard members took their pikes and broomsticks, besieged the town hall and demanded that they be provided with proper weapons immediately. After seven hours the Home Guard relieved themselves of the siege and went home. Following the incident, the War Office sharply criticised what it called a 'dangerous publicity stunt' but similar (and often more mild) shows of Home Guard outrage occurred across the country.
Herbert Morrison, then an MP, spoke for the Home Guard when he said in the Provincial Parliament that the provision of pikes, "if not meant as a joke, is an utter insult". Robert Smilie, the Minister of Finance, who was in fact not involved the crisis, opted to defend the War Office by saying that the pike was 'a most effective and silent weapon, incredibly deadly in the right hands'. His name was attached to the affair thereafter and they became known as 'Smilie's Pikes'. The armaments shortage was solved when the army would begin to supply some of its weapons and surplus French arms would trickle into Britain. Smilie had already come into disrepute with the War Office when he proposed (on the 'encouragement' of Tom Mann who felt the LDV name was uninspiring) that the LDV name should be scrapped and simply be officially called the Home Guard. Thomson firmly rejected this on the grounds that the War Office had just purchased 3 million LDV armbands and that it was already struggling to provide proper uniforms so having to purchase an additional 3 million 'Home Guard' armbands and scrap the rest would be too costly.
Unclear Roles & Disciplinary Issues
Another problem that was encountered as the LDV was organised was the definition of the role the organisation was to play. Initially, in the eyes of the War Office and the army, the LDV was to act as 'an armed police constabulary', which, in the event of an invasion, was to man roadblocks, observe enemy troop movements, convey information to the regular forces and guard places of strategic or tactical importance. The War Office believed that the LDV would act best in such a passive role because of its lack of training, weapons and proper equipment. Such a role clashed with the expectations of LDV commanders and members who believed that the organisation would be best suited to an active role of hunting down and killing parachutists, marines and fifth columnists, as well as attacking and harassing enemy forces.
"In the popular mind it was the twin terrors of Canadian paratrooper and Royalist fifth columnist traitor which were the Home Guard’s nemesis, its natural enemy. Notwithstanding that the LDV was to actually spend most of its time defending ‘nodal points’ against tank attack, operating anti-aircraft artillery or locating unexploded bombs."
The clash led to morale problems and even more complaints to the press and the War Office from LDV members who were opposed, as they saw it, the government's leaving them defenceless and placing them in a non-combatant role. Complaints about the role of the LDV and continuing problems encountered by the War Office in its attempts to clothe and arm the LDV were expounded in 1928 after many the Ministry of Information, then headed up by ex-SPGB member J.R. Campbell, proposed having Home Guard volunteers be vetted on political loyalties. The MoI had growing concerns that the Home Guard could be an inadvertent means of training and arming counter-revolutionary forces, particularly among increasingly radical Scottish (and to a lesser extent Welsh) nationalists during the ongoing independence referendum period. The terror of the army unwittingly arming, training and organising a royalist paramilitary force that could then cause unspeakable havoc terrified many civil servants. Proposals to stop all Home Guard operations in Scotland were floated but ultimately abandoned amid anticipation of massive public outrage, with Home Secretary J.R. Clynes joking 'we need not suspend anything, they're not being trained anyway'.
The situation was only further exacerbated by mass disciplinary issues within the force, spurring on concerns of royalist infiltration. As the Home Guard was a civilian militia, entirely distinct from the regular armed forces, volunteers originally had no recognised military rank, were not subject to military discipline and could withdraw at any time. In late-1928, nominal ranks were introduced for Home Guard 'officers'. Many men who had served as officers in the Great War or had commanded militias in the Civil War believed that they would be automatically granted these ranks but were disappointed, and in some cases angered, to discover that they were all demoted to regular Privates until proper officer selections could take place. No timetable was given for this and the decision was delayed into 1929, with many seeing the government's handling of the force as farcical.
Going into the following year, despite the myriad of issues the force faced, swathes of enthusiastic volunteers remained in service and completed rudimentary training exercises, often in fields, entirely in plain clothes and with limited, if any, weapons. With the threat of war with Canada dying down, the exact purpose of the Home Guard was called into question and the War Office considered disbanding it. Outraged at the thought of being 'put out to pasture' so early, many Home Guard units furiously declared they would not stand down as the defence of Britain, whatever the foe, was too paramount to be 'bound up in government red tape'. Inspired by their unwavering determination, the press once more sang the praises for the LDV in the face of 'penny-pinching civil servants' with supporters in the army lobbying to keep the organisation afloat. Bowing to pressure, the government agreed to delay the issue and further discuss it with the General Staff.
Formal Combat Status
Eager to keep the LDV alive, high-ranking officer and Home Guard champion, Tom Wintringham, organised for the nominal commander of the Home Defence Forces, Edmund Ironside, to be witness to a Home Guard training drill in the rural West of England. Initially ambivalent to the idea, Ironside agreed and in the summer of 1929 was escorted to the Western countryside to see a group of village Home Guards perform a joint training exercise. With many of the soldiers lacking uniforms beyond an LDV armband (though all had a weapon of some description, no matter how rudimentary) basic rifle drills, hand-to-hand combat and 'rural guerrilla fighting' were demonstrated. Various jury-rigged and dangerous weaponry were displayed to Ironside and his entourage, with enthusiastic recruits showing a slew of 'armoured fighting vehicles' they had built: re-appropriated vans and milk floats with metal armour and openings for guns. Despite initially being bemused at the sight, Ironside felt it was emblematic of the Home Guard's characteristically British resourcefulness.
So impressed by their unwavering diligence in the face of insurmountable odds and certain death, Ironside returned to London and became an important supporter of the Home Guard, lobbying for them to gain an official combat role and better conditions. Despite pre-existing concerns, Ironside argued that the men in question should not be seen as 'glorified constables' but as a proper militia to be utilised in the defence of Britain, going so far as to call their devotion, 'nothing short of courageous'. Despite government and military concerns, the order was eventually signed and the War Office declared the Home Guard would be transitioning towards becoming a semi-reservist force and citizen militia to be 'utilised in the preparation for and final defence of Great Britain'.