As powerful, fast-moving German panzer and infantry columns rampaged across Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and into northern France early in May 1940, the British held their breath and watched apprehensively from across the narrow English Channel.
The lightning “blitzkrieg” advance split the retreating French and British armies, and the outlook was bleak for Western freedom. Within a few days, the small British Expeditionary Force, mauled and leaving behind its heavy equipment after a fighting retreat, was evacuated miraculously from the fire-swept beaches of Dunkirk. The dispirited French capitulated after a few desperate weeks, and Britain was left alone to face the Axis powers. As Prime Minister Winston Churchill grimly told the House of Commons on May 13, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears … and sweat.”
Across the tiny island nation, people went about their business with characteristic calm and even good cheer, though all knew that with France fully under the German heel they were sure to be invaded. Their innate stoicism veiled fear, for it was no secret that the British defenses were in a pitiful state. Army units were away battling the Italians in East Africa and the Germans in Norway, and Royal Navy squadrons were strung out thinly in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, North Sea, and the Far East.
In England, there were troops in the process of training and reequipping and also some coastal defense units, but if the expected 39 seasoned German panzer and infantry divisions landed, they would face only one fully trained Canadian division and a second partially trained division. The Spanish and Napoleon Bonaparte had attempted to invade England and had failed. But in the bright spring of 1940 there was little to stop the Nazi juggernaut. It was just a matter of time.
Britons scanned cloud-flecked skies for the first signs of German paratroops; antiaircraft gun emplacements were hastily dug on golf courses and in parks; concrete pillboxes were built on hillsides and at road junctions; and highway and railway station signs were blacked out to confuse potential invaders. But there was virtually no significant defense force available. A swiftly organized armed militia was the only answer, and Secretary for War Anthony Eden proposed it to the British Cabinet in London on May 13, 1940.
So, on the following day, the handsome, urbane Eden broadcast a national radio appeal for men of all ages to volunteer in the defense of the homeland. He said, “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 in order to make assurance doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defense Volunteers. The name describes its duties in three words. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniforms and will be armed. In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give your name at your local police station, and then, when we want you, we will let you know.”
The stated mission of the LDV was to deal with landings of German parachute troops. Its tactical functions would be “(a) warning; (b) delaying the enemy; (c) harassing the enemy.” The volunteers were to “serve as observation and combat patrols, which are designed to stalk the enemy and hold a defensive position as long as possible, thus forcing the enemy to check his advance.” Their task was to “delay and weary such forces, thus aiding their own regulars in their counterattack.” Part of the militia’s function was also to “carry on the struggle, if necessary, in areas temporarily overrun by the enemy.”
The response to Eden’s appeal was instant. Even before he had finished speaking, lines of volunteers started forming outside police stations, bewildering local constables who had not been briefed. By July 8, a total of 1,060,000 men and boys had signed up, eager to “do their bit.”
Motley groups of paunchy, ruddy-cheeked Boer War and World War I veterans, callow teenagers, and men classified medically unfit for the regular services mustered in cities, towns, and villages for nightly and weekend training sessions. Working men kept their jobs and spent most of their spare time learning to become soldiers. The need for the LDV became even more urgent in the next few weeks as German forces massed on the other side of the English Channel and as the men of General John V. Gort’s defeated BEF—bedraggled, dazed, but unbowed—were brought home from Dunkirk.
The LDV got off to a spontaneous and haphazard start, and there was a dearth of weapons and equipment available for it. After Dunkirk, weapons were even scarcer. Training began on a freelance basis and was organized by veterans or provided by schools set up on private initiative by wealthy backers. One such training school was established at Osterley Park in West London, supported by leading publisher Edward Hulton and headed by Tom Wintringham, a former Communist who had led the British contingent of the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. His goal was a people’s army trained in guerrilla warfare and with a minimum of formal drill and discipline. After instructing 5,000 men, the school was taken over by the War Office.
Former Army officers and sergeants enthusiastically emerged from retirement to lead LDV platoons and companies, instructing them in marching, marksmanship, bayonet and hand grenade use, night fighting, fieldcraft, map reading, camouflage, signaling, aircraft recognition, and first aid. Some units had the advantage of guidance from NCOs in the crack Guards regiments. In town squares, outside timbered village inns and taverns, and in country lanes and meadows, the new citizen soldiers drilled with aging shotguns, pistols, hunting rifles, pitchforks, clubs, hoes, broom handles, and even ancient pikes donated by museums. Small boys trooped after the marchers in amusement. Equipment was minimal, and the volunteers’ only identification was an “LDV” armband until they were eventually issued with ill-fitting Army battledress or denim overalls.
Prime Minister Churchill took a keen interest in the concept of the volunteer force, which he had suggested in October 1939, the month after World War II broke out. But he did not like the name Eden had presented. “I had always hankered for the name Home Guard,” said the prime minister. So, on July 26, he told Secretary Eden, “I don’t think much of the name, Local Defense Volunteers, for your very large new force. The word ‘local’ is uninspiring. Mr. Herbert Morrison (minister of supply and later home secretary) suggested to me today the title, ‘Civic Guard,’ but I think ‘Home Guard’ would be better.”
The persuasive Churchill found that “everybody liked this,” so the LDV became the Home Guard. A new spirit of purpose took hold, and, the prime minister observed, “The mighty organization, which presently approached one and a half million men and gradually acquired good weapons, rolled forward.”
The organization of the Home Guard was overseen by the tall, handsome General Sir Claude Auchinleck, leader of the Southern Command and an Indian Army veteran of Egypt, Aden, Mesopotamia, the North-West Frontier, and the ill-fated Norway campaign. With his encouragement, the Home Guard became a strong military asset. “The Auk” later distinguished himself by checking Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps at the first Battle of El Alamein on July 1-27, 1942, though he lost favor with Churchill.
The militia concept caught the national imagination. One of its members, Basil Boothroyd, wrote in the weekly humor magazine, Punch,“For some reason or other, the press has taken us to its fickle heart. We take precedence over the RAF, Mr. Churchill, and Gracie Fields (a popular Lancashire singer and comedienne). We appear in every other headline. The penny papers have special articles telling us how to take cover behind trees and how deep we ought to dig our trenches. The Times has light leaders about our neckties and whole columns of correspondence about whether we’re worth one-and-sixpence a night or not.”
Fearful of the peril Britain faced, Churchill was convinced of the potential worth of the Home Guard. He saw it “manning a line of antitank obstacles running down the east center of England and protecting London and the great industrial centers from inroads by armored vehicles.” As the prime minister told Sir Josiah Wedgwood, a parliamentary member, “You may rest assured that we should fight every street of London and its suburbs. It would devour an invading army, assuming one ever got so far. We hope, however, to drown the bulk of them in the salt sea.”
Late that July 1940, Churchill observed, “For the first time in 125 years, a powerful enemy was now established across the narrow waters of the English Channel. Our re-formed Regular Army, and the larger but less well trained Territorials (National Guard), had to be organized and deployed to create an elaborate system of defenses, and to stand ready, if the invader came, to destroy him—for there could be no escape. It was for both sides ‘kill or cure.’ Already, the Home Guard could be included in the general framework of defense.”