Civil Defence: Home Guard

With the threat of a German invasion in the spring of 1940, the government made plans to make use of civilian men who were keen to help guard Britain from attack but were not eligible for the armed forces. The Local Defence Volunteer force (LDV) was established in May 1940 following a radio broadcast by Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, in which he called for male civilians, ‘of all ages who wish to do something for the defence of their country', to register for the LDV. Shortly after its creation, Winston Churchill changed the LDV’s title to ‘Home Guard’.

In its first few weeks and months, the newly formed organisation was ill-equipped, lacking proper uniforms, guns and ammunition. The men initially had only LDV armbands to indicate their status and carried improvised weapons and replicas. The film Formation of the Home Guard, Thornton Bradford (1939-1945) documents these early days and illustrates a Bradford based LDV division’s development into a fully fledged Home Guard unit.

Once established and equipped, units around the country began to embark on training and exercises to prepare for any possible invasion or attack. Training included camouflage techniques, assault training, the handling and firing of various types of weapons, learning how to set up road blocks and check-points and how to deal with downed German pilots and other captured enemy invaders.

Many Home Guard units around the UK captured their training and exercises on film to serve as a record of their activities. These films would have been used as both an instructional tool for new recruits and to promote the work of the Home Guard amongst the public. The films often show individual units practising their defence procedures such as in Sheffield at War (1939-1945), where they are filmed setting up machine guns in the city that overlooked areas vulnerable to enemy attack. In Kendal Home Guard (ca.1943), this colour film includes training activities such as bayonet practice, cross-country motorcycling and the use of camouflage to conceal positions. The Cornish Home Guard (1942/1943) can be seen learning to fire rifles and throw hand grenades. Film of the West Sussex Home Guard (1941?) shows the ‘right and wrong way’ to deal with various scenarios including an encounter with ‘fifth columnists’ and paratroopers, the setting up of road blocks, taking cover, attacking an enemy outpost and bringing in prisoners. Also from West Sussex, Procedures in the Event of an Enemy Attack (1941?) uses a dramatisation to tell the story of a Home Guard unit practising techniques associated with the setting up of a network of defences which are then tested by a visiting General.

Home Guard units also filmed themselves practising drills, taking part in parades and demonstrating their skills to the local communities. The film Bomb damage and Home Guard (1940) shows battalions parading and taking part in a display in Hythe, Hampshire. In Birmingham, D Company is shown marching and performing exercises in front of a civilian crowd in the film Home Guard 'D Coy' Aston Park Birmingham (ca. 1940).

The mainland invasion that the Home Guard had trained for never came, but many of the skills they developed were put to good use including working alongside other civilian volunteer groups in rescue and clearance work after bomb attacks. The Home Guard was officially stood down at the end of 1944 and disbanded the following year. ‘Farewell’ parades were held in 1944 in London and around the country and many also took part in the post-war commemorative parades and were honoured alongside fellow volunteer services and military units.