Dad's army and a battle of wills

The Home Guard
July 21, 1995

Any reference to the Home Guard is guaranteed to bring a smile. It is not as though the men of the Home Guard were ever given an opportunity to prove themselves in battle: there are many more distinguished units that had actual disasters in war. Did the television comedy series, Dad's Army, destroy the postwar reputation of a dedicated home defence organisation? By coincidence, this book arrived for review as the VE celebrations were coming to their climax. I looked in vain for events commemorating the Home Guard war effort. It seems Churchill was mistaken in forecasting that "history will say that your share in the greatest of all our struggles for freedom was a vitally important one". On the other hand, he had to say something heartening as he stood down the Home Guard after its brief four years of existence.

S. P. MacKenzie has written a serious analysis of the policy history of the Home Guard. In many ways this well researched, cross-referenced, academic study shows that the saga of this volunteer force was funnier and more confused than any scriptwriter could invent. Yet the topic is an important one, not just for the historian but also for today's military planner. How was the allocation of priorities made between the front line combat forces and this last ditch defending army of civilians? Was the operational concept sensible? Did the existence of such a force have a deterrent effect on the enemy?

The force that we now know as the Home Guard came into being in almost literally one day in 1940. The extraordinary combination of public hysteria over the possibility of invasion, the springing up of unregulated militias and the outcry from the great and good, all led to an inevitable political response. On May 14 1940, Anthony Eden announced that recruiting had begun for a new force to be known as Local Defence Volunteers -the LDV. It was perhaps not surprising that there was only a sketchy view of what the LDV should actually do. There was talk of both a counter-invasion requirement and also detection of fifth columnists. The critical staff work had been done in the previous 24 hours, and that from a position where the operational army commander had a completely different concept from the War Office. Neither had bothered to clear such details as cost with the Treasury, and this caused subsequent difficulties that the modern Whitehall warrior would recognise.

With such a chaotic start, it is scarcely surprising that the first enthusiasm of the volunteers quickly waned . The lack of uniforms, weapons and training syllabus makes them question the government's commitment. These problems are exacerbated by the nature of the LDV membership: a high proportion of the volunteers has seen service in the previous war. Former officers enlist as soldiers (the Kensington-Belgravia unit had some eight retired generals), and are not slow to indicate, on the basis of their vast previous experience, the shortcomings of higher authority. It rapidly becomes apparent that the Government in responding to one political difficulty (the need to respond to invasion fear) has created a new more articulate and influential pressure group. At this stage, the LDV might have next to no military utility, but it carries great political weight and is not bound by the normal restraints of military hierarchy. Soon, matters become so difficult that Churchill focuses on the new force; and his personal interest hardly makes things easier for those charged with bringing it into being. He argues with Eden over the title, and forces through, against considerable opposition, a change in name from Local Defence Volunteers to the Home Guard. He gives priority to uniforms and weapons.

By the time that the Home Guard is in reasonable military order, and has a better allocation of weapons, the threat of invasion has totally passed. Now the problem is to keep the members motivated. There are arguments in Cabinet about the diversion of 1.8 million men to playing soldiers when the country desperately needs to increase industrial production. The author is generous in his conclusions, believing that the advantages to national morale and the releasing of regular soldiers from guarding duties outweighed the costs. He accepts that there is no evidence to show the existence of the Home Guard had any effect on German invasion plans. To many it will seem that MacKenzie's catalogue of muddled professional advice, political posturing and misallocation of scarce resources during a war of survival is a lesson for the future. His tailpiece on the short-lived successor Home Guard of the early 1950s suggests that few of the lessons had been learned.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is commandant, Royal College of Defence Studies.

The Home Guard: A Military and Political History

Author - S. P. MacKenzie
ISBN - 0 19 820577 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 2

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