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In Praise of the Home Guard

Discussion in 'The Home Front' started by Jim, Sep 3, 2011.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    This review was by Hamilton Fyfe who during the war years was renown for the reviews he wrote regarding War Books.


    As I have been looking through Eric Kennington's brilliant series of drawings in colour in Britain's Home Guard, by John Brophy portraits from life of typical members of the force in all parts of the country, my memory has naturally enough gone back to the early days, the days, when I joined and served in it as orderly, room clerks, those warm, cloudless, delicious summer days of 1940. Can it be, I ask myself as I turn these pages that the scratch lot we were then, without any soldierly qualities except that of determination to stand up and be killed after we'd had a shot or two at the enemy, can it be that we developed into such men as Kennington shows us, soldiers every ounce of them, hard-bitten, wearing their uniforms with a professional air, men whom you feel instinctively form part of the Army proper?

    Mr. John Brophy, noveiist and broadcaster and member of the old L.D.V., whose book, in collaboration with artist Eric Ken-nington, is the subject of the present review.

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    Yet that is what happened, and happened very quickly, marvellously so when you remember that they were only spare-time soldiers and had to acquire their training after their day's work was done and at weekends. I saw something of the transformation. It did not begin until we were "issued with" uniforms. (I hate the expression, but it has become so general that I have to use it instead of saying grammatically "until uniforms were issued to us.") Even then, in our denim battledress, we looked more like sacks of sugar or cement until the stiffness of the stuff relaxed a bit; and even then we had to share our small stock of rifles.

    Those Molotov Cocktail Drills

    John Brophy, who has written the "character study" of the Home Guard which accompanies Kennington's drawings, and is well worthy so to do, knows how bitterly that was resented. He says it is "traditional, a survival from the past, and particularly from 1914 to 1918, that every British soldier is apt to feel that he is not a soldier at all unless he is given a rifle which is his and his alone ... So it was a shock to many a man in the Home Guard when he discovered that until some unspecified date in the future he was to share his rifle with others.''

    This tradition of which Brophy speaks goes back a very long way. In Soldiers Three, Kipling "showed Private Stanley Ortheris treating his rifle like a favourite child. And a large proportion of the first to enlist in the Local Defence Volunteers, as they were called to begin with, were men who had been in the Army. They had been longing for a chance to contribute to the war effort:


    At long last they were required to act and were given a job they could get their teeth into . . . Most of them calculated that their personal task would be sacrificial; the utmost they could hope for was to fire a few shots from behind a hedge or a wall perhaps, if they were lucky, to throw some petrol-bottle grenades and see a German tank or lorry catch fire before they were blasted out of this life.


    How well I remember those Molotov cocktail drills! Before we had our horrible denim battle-dresses, before we had one rifle among five of us, we learned how to throw these missiles at approaching tanks, waiting until they were level with us, as we crouched by the roadside, and then, smashing the bottles just in the right place! Looking back, it seems funny, but we were dead serious about it. Few of us, Brophy says, "believed it possible that the Germans would not invade. Every night, whether it was their turn to patrol and watch the skies or to sleep at home, they had to face the question, 'Will the Nazis come before morning?' Such awareness is not to be lightly borne in the hours of solitude by men who have outgrown the irresponsibility’s of youth."

    This uneasy apprehension never overcame me. I was one of the minority who did not believe it possible that there should be an invasion so long as the British Navy remained unbeaten. Long, long before, in my boyhood, I think, I had been told the story of Von Moltke, the famous Prussian general of the war of 1870-71, being asked" whether it was true that in the War Office at Berlin there were plans for invading Britain. He answered without a glint of a smile, "There are a number of such plans. They fill many pigeon-holes. But no one has ever produced a plan for getting the invasion forces out of Britain again!"

    I knew in 1940 that this was still true. German forces might land from the air if not from the sea; but their communications would be cut instantly. They would be marooned in a hostile land. They might do some damage. They might cause panic here and there for a short while. But a full-scale invasion such as Brophy seems to have considered feasible I never for an instant believed in so long as the Royal Navy held the seas.

    Brophy suggests that the German General Staff were deceived by our appeal for volunteers from fifteen to sixty-five and for shotguns to be used by them. "The German generals must have suspected a colossal bluff, a trap baited with too much cheese; otherwise the invasion of Britain would surely have been undertaken forthwith, by slamming the troops into any and every sort of air and sea-craft available." But we were not bluffing; we were just letting ourselves indulge in bureaucratic silliness.

    Nor were the Germans humbugged by the error which substituted "fifteen" for "eighteen" as the minimum age of enlistment, or by the belief that we really meant to pot at them with sporting firearms as if they were rabbits. They were as well aware as was Von Moltke in the seventies of last century that, although they might succeed in establishing some sort of a force in Britain, they would never get it out of the country again unless they could first defeat and dispose of the British Navy.

    Answer to Friends Forebodings

    The value of the Home Guard was that it prevented nuisance raids by parachute troops, which might have done a great deal of damage. It formed the second line of defence behind a very thin front line. It gave us more confidence, it strengthened our resolve never to give in and don't forget that in 1940 all the world, not only the French but the Americans, not only the friends of Hitler but our friends, everywhere, believed that we should have to give in. The Home Guard was the answer we gave to those gloomy forebodings.

    By its continued existence and increased strength it enabled Britain not only to outlive the threat of German invasion, but to send great forces abroad, to Africa, Burma, the Middle East, Italy, France, and ultimately into Germany. It was an army which was never called upon to fight, yet helped to win one of the decisive battles of world history by being always ready to fight.

    It does one good to look at the faces Kennington has drawn and to see what splendid types could be picked out almost haphazard from the ranks of the Home Guard. In their faces, kindly though resolute, intelligent as well as sternly self-disciplined, you can find the qualities that have made us what we are. There are townsmen and countrymen. Brophy says he noticed a good deal of difference between them. Town units had more ceremonial, more spit and polish, more bands playing, more of "the old-time rigidities of parade-ground drill.'' The officers established messes on "an intermittent dining club - cum - smoking - concert basis." There was too much of the old Army atmosphere surrounding most of the Home Guard town units. Brophy preferred the country companies on that account.
    In both he says there was far too much of what the French call paperasserie (in our Army there is a less decorous name for it). Far too much "instructional paper printed, cyclostyled or typewritten was produced and circulated. There seemed to be a paragraph and sub-paragraph to cover every tiniest event which could possibly happen, not only to every man but to every buckle and bootlace. In consequence, the administration of Home Guard units tended to follow the placid, careful, and elaborate course of Civil Service routine, and many a man felt encouraged to take shelter behind an appropriate regulation rather than think and act for himself."

    I saw this growing even before my age was detected and I was discharged (not "with ignominy," but without any particular politeness). It became a curse, as it has too long been the curse of all our Government Offices and to some extent of our local administration also. It sapped some of the first fresh vitality out of the Home Guard, Brophy says. "But only some of it; on the whole, the Home Guard suffered less from bureaucracy than either the full-time fighting services or Civil Defence." But the disease, he adds, is serious. He is terribly right.
     
  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Portrayed By Eric Kennington, an original L.D.V. and several of whose pictures belong to the Nation, these grand types of Britain's Home Guard are representative of a number painted during the artist's travels all over the country, to form a souvenir of hard times and good times experienced by that unpaid army of nearly 2,000,000 who "stood down" in the autumn of 1944.

    Corporal Smith, Argyll Home Guard


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    Corpral Robertson, City of Edinburgh Home Guard

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    Company Sergeant-Major Waters, Lancashire Home Guard


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    Sergeant Hampshire, Middlesex Home Guard


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