Monthly Archives: April 2016

Will the real Captain Mainwaring please stand up

I have always loved a good comedy, Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo included. No one, for even one moment, thought that the French Resistance was in anyway like the ‘adventures’ of Rene, yet many people seem to think that the bumblings of Captain Mainwaring and his men somehow epitomised the Home Guard during the Second World War. So, who were these men really?

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It was on 14th May 1940 that Anthony Eden, in his first speech as Secretary of State for War, asked for volunteers to join a Local Defence Volunteer force (LDV) with the aim of fighting the Germans if they should successfully land on British shores. In his speech he said ‘We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance [that an invasion would be repelled] doubly sure. 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. 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…’ Later in the year Winston Churchill changed the name of the volunteers to the Home Guard, saying “Such a force is of the highest value and importance. A country where every street and every village bristles with resolute, armed men is a country against which the tactics that destroyed the Dutch will not succeed…a country so defended would not be liable to be overthrown

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Early 1940 found most of the British public expecting an invasion. Many men had already been called up to serve their country. Some who wanted to fight were either too old, too young, not fit enough or serving in reserved occupations which were vital to the war effort. These men all wanted to do their bit too, to defend their homes and families from the Nazi invaders. They saw the LDV as just the place for them.

The numbers of men who wanted to serve caught the government off guard. They expected around 150,000 volunteers in total yet, just twenty four hours after Eden made his broadcast, 250,000 men had signed up and, by the end of June, there were just under one and a half million men in the LDV. Numbers did not fall below one million until the Home Guard was stood down in December 1944. In the first wave of volunteers, approximately 40% had served in the First World War. The age limit for joining the LDV was from 17 to 65, although these limits were often quietly ignored. For example, P. D. Willeringhaus, aged just 16, was mentioned in dispatches for brave conduct; and Alexander Taylor, who signed up when in his eighties, had previous served in the Sudan in 1884. (I wonder if these men were the inspiration for Pike, Godfrey and Jones in Dad’s Army?)

PKT3310 - 235917 1943 H.G. TRAINING Lessons on Spigot mortar, anti tank and personnel gun.
Lessons on Spigot mortar, anti tank and personnel gun.

Initially all members of the Home guard were volunteers, but as 18 was the conscription age for the army, it was decided towards the end of the war that conscripting 17 year olds into the Home Guard would give them training and acclimatise them to the military life before being called up to serve in the regular army.

We are used to seeing the Home Guard portrayed as infantry units, but this was not the whole picture. There were mounted units and waterborne units such as the Upper Thames Patrol, there were factory units formed by workers to protect their factory during an emergency, there were coastal defence units and anti-aircraft units, motor transport and bomb disposal.

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Over 1,600 members of the Home Guards died whilst on duty, four of whom were decorated posthumously.* Approximately 1,000 other medals and commendations were awarded to men serving in the Home Guard. Anyone who had served in the Home Guard for three years was entitled to receive the Defence Medal, other medals for service during World War 2 were not available to them as they had not served overseas. If a man had served less than three years but was killed on duty, or left the Home Guard because of wounds received on duty due to enemy action, he would also received the Defence Medal.

Whilst some aspects of the TV series Dad’s Army are highly fictionalised, there are others that are accurate. When first formed, the volunteers had whatever weapons they could find – shotguns and air rifles, pitchforks and scythes, knives and bayonets tied to the end of pieces of wood – before eventually being issued with real weapons. These ‘new weapons’ were, however, mostly relics from the First World War and hardly the best choice to hold back an invading army. Volunteers trained in the evening in unarmed combat, basic sabotage and weapons handling. Training was amateur and ad hoc, leading to many accidents, and it was not long before the government saw the need for more formal training. The first guerrilla warfare school for members of the Home Guard was set up at Osterley Park in London; three mores such schools were soon to follow.

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Home Guard duties were varied, ranging from acting as sentries to checking identity papers, from questioning strangers in their local area to removing road signs to confuse the enemy if they should invade. In the spring of 1944, around 100,000 men from the Home Guard were working on anti-aircraft batteries, mainly aiming to down V1 rockets before they reached populated areas.

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The “Home Guard Handbook” published in 1940 stated that the main duties of the Home Guard were:

  • Guarding important points
  • Observation and reporting – prompt and precise.
  • Immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy.
  • The defence of roads, villages, factories and vital points in towns to block enemy movement.

Every member of the Home Guard was expected to know:

  • The whole of the ground in his own district.
  • The personnel of his own detachment.
  • The headquarters of his detachment and where he is to report for duty in the event of an alarm.
  • What the alarm signal is.
  • The form of reports concerning enemy landings or approaches, what the reports should contain, and to whom they should be sent.

By the end of 1944 the tide of the war had changed. The Allies were on mainland Europe and pushing towards the German homeland and a ‘Home Gard’ was no longer needed to repel an invasion. Therefore, on 3rd December 1944, the Home Guard was stood down and became an inactive reserve unit. They were finally disbanded on the last day of the year 1945, and the Home Guard, Dad’s Army, ceased to exist.

As recognition of their role, the Home Guard were asked on the first anniversary of their formation, and again on their fourth, to the mount the guard at Buckingham Palace. This is an honour which many regiments have not held in the centuries of their existence, and goes to show just how important and well respected these volunteers were.

In my novel, Heronfield, I wanted to show that it was not just soldiers, sailors and airmen who served during the war, but that everyone had a role to play. That is why I created the character of Joe, a young man who tried to join the army but was found unfit so he joined the LDV the day after Eden’s speech, protecting the aircraft factory in which he worked. The description of what Joe experienced during the bombing raid on Coventry on 14th November 1940 is an amalgamation of some of the work done by members of the Home Guard, and is my tribute to them.

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*Posthumous decorations for Home Guard members

Section Commander G. W. INWOOD – George Cross

“Immediately following an intense air raid on the night of 15th/16th October 1940, Section Commander Inwood was called upon by the police to assist in rescue duty in Bishop Street, Birmingham. Taking charge of a party of six volunteers, he found that several people were imprisoned in a gas-filled cellar. A small hole was made and Section Commander Inwood was lowered into the cavity. With great bravery he succeeded in bringing up two males alive. Although nearly exhausted, he entered the cavern a third time and was overcome by fumes. He was dragged out by one of his comrades, but despite the attention of a doctor and nurse, it was impossible to revive him. He showed the highest form of cool courage and self-sacrifice for others.”

Section Commander Inwood died on 16th October 1940 and is buried in Yardley Cemetery, Birmingham. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 10th October 1941.

Lieutenant W. FOSTER, M.C., D.C.M. – George Cross

“When Lieutenant Foster was instructing a class in throwing live grenades a Mills bomb rebounded to the firing position. Without hesitation Lieutenant Foster threw himself on the bomb one second before it exploded, thus saving the lives of his comrades nearby. This officer’s gallant action was not carried out in the heat of battle, but deliberately in cold blood, and with full knowledge of the consequences. As a result of this action Lieutenant Foster lost his life.”

The incident in which Lieutenant Foster was killed took place on 13th September 1942. He is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, Alderbury, Wiltshire. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 2nd March 1943.

2nd Lieutenant W. COOK – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct

“On 3rd April 1943 2nd Lieutenant Cook was instructing in the throwing of live No. 36 grenades set with four second fuses. One grenade fell short, struck the parapet and dropped back into the bay at the feet of the thrower, who stooped to retrieve it. 2nd Lieutenant Cook, realising the danger of delay, dashed into the bay, pushed the man to safety, and himself seized the grenade but before he was able to throw it from the trench it exploded. He was mortally wounded and died three hours later. By his unhesitating action this very gallant officer, at the cost of his own life, undoubtedly saved that of one of his men.”

2nd Lieutenant Cook, who died on 3rd April 1943, is buried in North Merchiston Cemetery, Edinburgh.

Lieutenant L. B. BRUDENELL – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct

“For bravery and devotion to duty in saving life at the cost of his own during live grenade practice.”

Lieutenant Brudenell died on 28th February 1943 and is buried in Porchester (St. Mary) Churchyard, Fareham, Hampshire.

Record of medals awarded to members of the Home Guard

Book Review – ‘An Officer And A Spy’ by Robert Harris

an officer and a spyParis in 1895. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer, has just been convicted of treason, sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, and stripped of his rank in front of a baying crowd of twenty-thousand. Among the witnesses to his humiliation is Georges Picquart, the ambitious, intellectual, recently promoted head of the counterespionage agency that “proved” Dreyfus had passed secrets to the Germans. At first, Picquart firmly believes in Dreyfus’s guilt. But it is not long after Dreyfus is delivered to his desolate prison that Picquart stumbles on information that leads him to suspect that there is still a spy at large in the French military. As evidence of the most malignant deceit mounts and spirals inexorably toward the uppermost levels of government, Picquart is compelled to question not only the case against Dreyfus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his country, and about himself.

I can remember a brief study of the Dreyfus Affair while I was at school. It intrigued me but I never followed up on it, so when I saw ‘An Officer And A Spy’ by Robert Harris I felt I had to read it. I was not disappointed.

This book is an amazing read. Mr Harris has utilised all of the primary sources and leading academic works on the subject to create an incredibly detailed novel, drawing on court records, and also Dreyfus’ own writings. This may give the impression that ‘An Office And A Spy’ is a dry history book, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Mr Harris has written a gripping novel which draws you in – I certainly found it difficult to put down. The scenic descriptions are detailed, giving a great feel for time and place, the characters are well drawn, the dialogue totally believable. But what is most compelling about the novel is the complex plotting. Spying, forged documents, trials and hearings, attempted assassinations and attempted government cover-ups all lead to a taut thriller. I had to stop a number of times and remind myself that this story is real, a true accounting of an historical event, yet it reads like a novel by John le Carré, Robert Ludlum or Frederick Forsyth.

Mr Harris has brought to life the divisions of the Third Republic in France, the racism and anti-semitism, the corruption within the army and the government. From the initial miscarriage of justice, through the search for the truth by Georges Picquart and the defence of the free press in Zola’s J’accuse speech, we are led to the final triumph of justice and release of an innocent man.

The Dreyfus Affair, a scandal and one of the most famous miscarriages of justice of all time, has lain in dusty history books for 120 years, but in ‘An Officer And A Spy’ Mr Harris has transformed it into a spellbinding, gripping thriller which I hope that someone will one day make into a movie. If only all history books could be this exciting!

Robert Haris’s web page

‘An Officer And A Spy’ on Amazon

You can see more of my Book Reviews here