After the outbreak of war on September 3rd, 1939, Britain faced a problem; namely, what could be done to defend the British Isles in case of invasion by Germany. At this stage of the war, the potential of a German invasion in the very near future seemed high, according to intelligence. Plans were made to establish a force of 500,000 men over the age of 40 who wished to play their part in the defence of Britain.
Fife Free Press and Kirkcaldy Guardian, Saturday 30th November, 1940
This imminent invasion of Britain didn't materialise, however, and nor did the 500,000-strong force of men ineligible for military service who would have been called upon in Britain's time of need. It wasn't until May 10th, 1940 and the Battle of France that invasion once again seemed like a distinct and immediate threat. Germany swept across Belgium and the Netherlands, attacking France and reaching the coastline that would have allowed them a prime opportunity to launch an amphibious invasion.
The British public were, naturally, gravely concerned by this possibility. Appeals were made for the government to mobilise members of the public into an armed defence force, and for training to be provided to the civil population in order for them to defend themselves. In addition to the demands of the public, the government were faced with pressure from the press, where calls were made for members of the public to be armed in order to deal with paratroopers and other enemy soldiers.
This placed the government in a difficult situation. An armed populace might interfere with the plans of the military should invasion occur, and an untrained member of the public confronting a trained enemy paratrooper would very likely be killed. With private defence forces being established across Britain, the government had to act.
With this caption was a sentence reading 'Parachute troops who may attempt to invade County Durham are having a hot reception prepared for them'
On May 14th, 1940, Anthony Eden – Secretary of State for War – announced on the radio that the Local Defence Volunteers force was being formed, and that men between the ages of 17 and 65 who were not engaged in military service but wanted to play their part in the defence of Britain should volunteer. The response from the public was overwhelming, with a quarter of a million men volunteering in the first week.
Nottingham Evening Post, Wednesday 15th May, 1940
The beginnings of the Local Defence Volunteers were tumultuous. Many of those who had volunteered were veterans, and so didn't believe that they required additional training. There was uncertainty about the role the Volunteers played – the government viewed them as a force that would observe any invading forces and report back to the military, while members of the LDV viewed themselves as an armed resistance, disrupting the German occupation.
Then there was the issue of equipment. At the outset, the LDV weren't issued with uniforms, instead being supplied an armband that read LDV. This rankled volunteers, and this disquiet was worsened when no weapons or weapons training was supplied. The dissatisfaction felt by the LDV, and the fact that some groups were conducting unsanctioned patrols with private weapons, meant that the War Office was forced into action. A clearly defined role for the LDV was issued and, at Churchill's recommendation, they were renamed the Home Guard. They were issued with surplus American and Canadian rifles, and provided with training.
By 1943, the Home Guard would be relatively well equipped. Their arsenal would mainly come from private collections, improvisation and weapons the army no longer used. By this point, they were an armed, trained, uniformed force, responsible in some parts of the country for manning anti-aircraft batteries. By the time of their disbandment in 1945, over a thousand members of the Home Guard had given their lives in defence of their country.
A fond farewell to the Home Guard
To learn more about the Home Guard, with contemporary newspaper reports, visit Findmypast today. For more on the outbreak of war and the civil population of the time, register for more information about the 1939 Register , which we're launching later this year.