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Need to Know


The boys who would make Hitler think again…

According to Winston Churchill’s memoirs, it was Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for War, who “Proposed to the cabinet on May 13” the idea of raising Local Defence Volunteers. Churchill, who had been appointed Prime Minister only three days earlier (on the same day in 1940 that the Germans invaded the Low Countries), approved the suggestion and, within a month, The Times reported that 500,000 volunteers had come forward.

GIRL GUARDS Factory workers organise themselves to form their own, uno cial, defensive unit

On 15 June, Sir Edward Grigg, Under-Secretar of State for War, addressed the half a million volunteers in a radio broadcast, telling them: “The time is close at hand when you can render Yeoman service to the country... you ende rank as soldiers, with a soldier’s rights, and a soldier’s obligations. The most important of your rights is to use armed force against the enemies of the country.”

MAN THE GUNS! A Home Guard crew mans an anti-aircraft gun, November 1943

Sir Edward then outlined the nature of their duties, explaining that along with “Observing and detaining suspicious characters on the roads and elsewhere”,theyweretoassistin, they were to assist in “Penning enemy troops which have landed in this country and of furnishing guards for the greater security of cities, factories, aerodromes and other important places.”

Churchill kept a close eye on the development of the force, although he was troubled by their title, as he made clear to Eden in a letter dated 26 June. “I don’t think much of the name ‘Local Defence Volunteers’,” he wrote. “The word ‘local’ is uninspiring... I think ‘Home Guard’ would be better.”

MAKING DO… A Home Guard soldier in a makeshift tank, 1940

So it became the Home Guard and, despite the name-change, the rush of volunteers continued. By the end of August 1940, its ranks had swelled to more than 1 million. Officially, recruits were aged between 17 and 65, although a blind eye was often turned if a 70-somethin volunteer was in reasonable shape.

Women were forbidden from joining the Home Guard, so Labour MP Edith Summerskill established her own such unit, calling it the Women’s Home Defence League (WHD). For several years, the War Office resisted calls by Summerskill to allow the WHD to serve in the Home Guard until, in April 1943, they permitted women to work in non-combat roles, such as drivers and cooks.

In the tumultuous summer of 1940, when invasion appeared imminent, the main task of the Home Guard was, as recorded by Churchill, to man a line of anti-tank obstacles “running down the east centre of England and protecting London and the great industrial centres from inroads by armoured vehicles”.


When it became clear the Germans had abandoned their invasion plan, the Home Guard (whose numbers now exceeded 1.5 million) continued to serve, manning anti-aircraft guns and patrolling beaches and remote coasts. It wasn’t until December 1944 that they were stood down, by which time their German equivalent the – Volkssturm – was preparing to defend the Fatherland from invasion.

ON THE LOOKOUT Home Guard Sergeant W Read guards the south coast between Dover and Folkestone in 1941
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The February 2016 issue of History Revealed