Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – “Sparta had Weapons”

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Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940

“Sparta had Weapons”

22 July 1940 One of the legends of the Battle of Britain is that of the Home Guard – “Dads’ Army”, a force of ...

22 July 1940

One of the legends of the Battle of Britain is that of the Home Guard – “Dads’ Army”, a force of volunteers which played a crucial role in keeping the nation’s morale and vigilance in the time of crisis.

The story of the Home Guard started on the evening of 14 May 1940, when Secretary of State Mr. Eden made an urgent appeal on the radio to all men aged between 17 and 65 “able to fire a rifle or shotgun”. The government wanted them to become part-time soldiers to enlist as Local Defence Volunteers, or LDV.

Within 24 hours of the radio broadcast, over 250,000 men had volunteered.

The LDV was born out of the stress of the collapse in France and fear of German invasion. Ironically, at the eve of the Battle of Britain, when the prospect of the invasion was looming closer than ever, LDV was becoming more of a problem than an opportunity.

In fact, the government had not had any plans which involved ordinary citizens being allowed to take matters in their own hands. From the outset, the creation of LDV was a controversial move, as noted by George Orwell in his diary entry of 20 June:

“Went to the office of the [New Statesman] to see what line they are taking about home defence. C., who is now in reality the big noise there, was rather against the ‘arm the people’ line and said that its dangers outweighed its possible advantages. If a German invading force finds civilians armed it may commit such barbarities as will cow the people altogether and make everyone anxious to surrender. He said it was dangerous to count on ordinary people being courageous and instanced the case of some riot in Glasgow when a tank was driven round the town and everyone fled in the most cowardly way.”

By July, the LDV grew to a whopping 1.3 million men – over a million more than the Whitehall had anticipated. It left the government struggling to lay down the administrative and logistical foundations for its organisation and bring some order to its activities. It also left LDV units without any clear instructions about what was expected of them. The organisation was launched without any central staff, structure, funds, or premises of its own; Eden had only instructed his listeners “to give in your name at your local police station and then, as and when we want you, we will let you know.”.

Many LDV members were becoming impatient and frustrated by the apparent lack of progress. Expecting uniforms, weapons and command which would enable them to look – let alone feel – like ‘proper’ soldiers, they received nothing of a kind, not even service numbers. The nadir of disappointment came when it was announced that volunteers would only receive armbands printed with ‘L.D.V’ on “until proper uniforms could be manufactured”. No weapons were in sight. Also, there were no helmets or other equipment, even though some LDV squads reported that steel helmets could be readily purchased in shops at 10s. to 15s. per piece.

Social groups such as cricket clubs, parish activists, groups of local pub-goers, charities began forming their own units. These groups were often led by ex-servicemen who had previously served in the armed forces. Goerge Orwell again:

“Went this afternoon to the recruiting office to put my name down for the Home Service Battalions. Have to go again on Friday to be medically examined, but as it is for men from 30 to 50 I suppose the standards are low. The man who took my name, etc., was the usual imbecile, an old soldier with medals of the last war, who could barely write. In writing capital letters he more than once actually wrote them upside down. (…)

A thought occurred to me yesterday: how is it that England, with one of the smallest armies in the world, has so many retired colonels?”

Impatience of the LDV groups often led to conducting their own “patrols” without any official permission. Semi-military drills were performed with broomsticks, golf clubs, or pitchforks. Many undertook self-appointed policing duties. Fear of enemy paratroops and the Fifth Column was common; hence the invention of the ‘parashot’, one of the crop of new war words, designating an LDV standing guard in a field or somewhere all night, with a weapon such as a shotgun, waiting for a parachutist to come down. Some groups even commenced construction of own defence installations, without consultation with the military authorities, which to the dismay of the latter were mostly ill-sited and inappropriate.

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 taking command or being issued weapons. Numerous complaints were received by the War Office and the press. Many ex-senior officers attempted to use their influence to obtain weapons or permission to begin patrolling.

More than anything, the LDV was a very undisciplined, if well-meaning, crowd. Lieutenant General Sir Henry Pownall, who was appointed as the first Inspector General of LDV described his organisation as “a troublesome and querulous party (…) There is mighty little pleasing them, and the minority is always noisy”.

Under these circumstances, the issue of weapons was a particularly sensitive matter. Volunteer Leonard Piper in South Hampshire recalled:

“The first duty was a static one in the grounds of a large farm outside Denmead, just off the road to Hambledon. On this first patrol, or sentry duty, we were armed with one First World War German rifle and bayonet – a souvenir of that war – with five rounds of vintage ammo, a shotgun, some knuckledusters, knives and clubs. (…) Our patrol of six or eight men, I cannot remember which, included several ex-service men and these set out immediately to instruct the novices in the arts. (…) I don’t remember any rural LDVs shooting up bushes and posts but many of those just back from France did so, plus horses and cows! Easily done, I can assure you.”

From the perspective of the War Office, no weapons could be spared before the regular British Army was fully re-armed after the disaster in France. As an interim measure, government orders were placed for First World War vintage Ross rifles from Canada and similarly old rifles from the United States. A public call was made to donate private shotguns. It led to another overwhelming response – over 20,000 hunting and air rifles were handed in. Even the King donated his entire collection of shotguns to set an example. There was also random roaming of museums by LDV units, which appropriated whatever weapons could be found. To add to the confusion, orders were issued to the LDV on 24 June that all revolvers were to be handed over to the police, because they are needed for the army. Orwell commented:

“Clinging to useless weapons like revolvers, when the Germans have submachine guns, is typical of the British army, but I believe the real reason for the order is to prevent weapons from getting into ‘the wrong’ hands.”

The question was if LDV, with their apparent lack of training and no clearly defined aim, had a potential of becoming as much risk to themselves and the public as to the enemy. 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 observe German troop movements, convey information to the regular forces and guard places of strategic or tactical importance.

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, attacking and harassing German forces.

Issues related to LDV prompted lively debate in the Parliament throughout the summer.

“26 June: Inquiry by Sir Richard Acland to Secretary of State for War:

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that neither the commanders of Local Defence Volunteers nor the volunteers themselves have the remotest idea of what kind of physical structures they should now be preparing in villages and fields in order to make them as strong as possible against tanks? Should not some kind of lead be given to these people, who are very keen to be getting on with their job?”

“2 July:

Mr. Hammersley asked the Secretary of State for War whether he will make it clear that the Local Defence Volunteers is not an organisation instituted for the purpose of drilling, saluting and presenting arms; that its main duties are observation, communication and attack; and that within the ambit of these duties the utmost initiative of the personnel is to be encouraged?

Mr. Eden: The main duties of the Local Defence Volunteers are as described by my hon. Friend, and he can be assured that their energies will be directed accordingly.”

By mid-July, LDV gained a popular nickname “Look-Duck-Vanish” and the whole affair prompted a reaction by Churchill. In an effort to stem negative publicity and give the formation a fresh start LDV was renamed to Home Guard.

[US National Archives]

On the following day, Anthony Eden made a statement in the House of Commons:

“Mr. Shinwell asked the Secretary of State for War whether he will make a full statement on the organisation of the Local Defence Volunteers; their numbers and the provision of equipment; the method of selection of officers; whether sections are being formed by works and colliery managers and in such cases who is responsible for the selection of men; why applicants in certain areas must submit their names to the British Legion; whether men are allowed to join solely for the purpose of guarding works or collieries or are available for general defence purposes; and whether he is in a position to say what the general state of efficiency of this organisation is?

Mr. Eden: I am glad to have the opportunity of making this, statement. The Home Guard is a voluntary unpaid part-time force having its origin in the desire of patriotic citizens engaged in ordinary civil occupations to make some active and voluntary contribution to defence, especially to the defence of their own localities. The object of the force is to augment the local defences of Great Britain by providing static defence of localities and protection of vulnerable points and by giving timely notice of enemy movement to superior military formations. The force has been assigned a definite role in the defence plans of the country and its value lies not in the individual action of its members, but in proper coordination with the other parts of the military machine. The organisation of the Home Guard is under the control of the War Office. The Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, exercises operational control and is responsible under the direction of the War Office for the training of the force. Under the War Office and General Headquarters, the chain of command and organisation is through the Army commands and military areas. At the headquarters of each area commander there is an officer holding the appointment of Home Guard area commander whose duty it is to supervise the Home Guard in the area. Area commanders have the benefit of the assistance of an honorary organiser. The military areas are divided into zones and into groups as necessary and thence into battalions, companies, platoons and sections.

The local administration of the force is conducted by Territorial Army Associations. Appointments in the Home Guard are made by those holding the higher appointments. Battalion commanders and upwards are appointed by area commanders. Sections are being formed in works and collieries: the men register at their works and the registration forms are then deposited in bulk at the nearest police station before the men are enrolled by the company commander. There is no necessity in any area for applicants to submit their names to the British Legion. Men are allowed and encouraged to join units for the purpose of defending industrial undertakings when these are of sufficient importance to justify the diversion of men and arms from the defence of the locality as a whole. Many such units are being formed, but they normally form part of the local Home Guard organisation. Their use in schemes for the defence of their factories is under the general supervision of the military authorities and their members are in all respects members of the Home Guard.

Hitherto there has been no fixed establishment of the force, and the response to the appeal for recruits has been so magnificent that its strength already exceeds 1,300,000. It has therefore been decided temporarily to suspend in the near future recruiting except in those districts where strengths have not yet met immediate requirements. This decision will enable provision of equipment for all accepted volunteers to be pressed forward: it is already sufficient to ensure that the Home Guard shall play the part allotted to them efficiently, but it is not complete. The breathing space thus afforded will also enable commanders to assess their requirements more accurately and to remedy any defects in the organisation which may come to light. The suspension of recruiting is a temporary measure, and applicants may continue to register at their local police stations, but after recruiting is suspended they will be put on a waiting list and will not be enrolled or form part of the local defence forces until vacancies occur or recruiting is reopened.

As to the general efficiency of the force, disparities are inevitable in a force of over a million and a quarter men which has been raised and officered in a period of little more than two months. But rapid progress has been made with organisation, training and the allocation of duty to units. The Home Guard area commanders are responsible for this and should be consulted when doubts or difficulties arise. I am satisfied that in equipment, in efficiency and above all in fighting spirit the Home Guard are a valuable addition to the Armed Forces of the Crown and a formidable reinforcement to national security.”

One million LDV armbands, which had already been printed, were to be replaced with new armbands.

On 6 August, parliamentary dispute took on Home Guard again:

“Mr. Cocks asked the Secretary of State for War whether he will take steps to accelerate the supply of arms to members of the Local Defence Volunteers, especially to those who are members of the British Legion and ex-Service men?

Mr. Eden Everything in my power is being done to accelerate the supply of arms to Local Defence Volunteers.

Mr. Cocks Will the right hon. Gentleman remember that, although Sparta did not have walls, it had weapons?”

References
- The Orwell Diaries, http://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/
- BBC People’s War, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/
- Hansard Parliament Records, 1803-2005

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