Britain's Final Defence
Arming the Home Guard, 1940-1944
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire UK: The History Press, 2022
Paperback. 304pp RRP: $39.53
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, April 2023
In a broadcast on 14 May 1940, Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, asked men between the ages of 17 and 65, who could not otherwise serve, to join the Local Defence Volunteers, shortly to become the Home Guard. The Home Guard would be issued with uniforms and would be armed, but they would not be paid. While a target of 500,000 would have been appropriate, the Home Guard eventually numbered over 1.6 million.
The BBC’s ‘Dad’s Army’ television series has created the perception of groups of slightly comic middle-aged men, badly armed with obsolete World War 1 weapons and of negligible military value. This mistaken belief has become an accepted fact, a belief that former British Army Officer and author of books about weaponry Dale Clarke shows to be very far from the truth.
The standard British Army rifle in 1940 was the 1907 pattern .303 Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) plus 300,000 .303 Pattern 1914 (P14) rifles and a very few new Number 4 rifles. Limited numbers of rifles SMLE, P14 and the Canadian Ross were issued to the Home Guard, but rifles were in short supply and large numbers of American M1917 rifles (the British P14 rifle adapted to the .30-06 round and packed in grease for the past 20 years) were purchased for the Home Guard who then had to hand their .303 rifles over to the Regular Army. The SMLE was considered a ‘handy’ rifle and its loss was bitterly resented by the Home Guard, although its ballistics were inferior to the M1917, which was a newer weapon than the rifles used by the Regular Army!
The Home Guard consisted largely of old soldiers and men of military age in reserved occupations. The local defence of factories (especially favoured by Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production) and their local areas against airborne troop landings were seen as the role of the Home Guard, but in the summer of 1940 they played a vital role by manning fixed defences in the expected path of a German Invasion.
The Lewis light machine gun was another supposedly obsolete weapon issued to the Home Guard, but it had only been superseded by the Bren light machine gun in 1938. Although the Bren gun was a superior weapon, the Lewis gun was in demand throughout the War, especially in the anti-aircraft role. Separate chapters discuss all categories of weapons developed for the Home Guard including the Sticky Bomb and the 29mm Spigot Mortar, both effective in the anti-tank role. The Spigot Mortar was used in North Africa to ‘thicken up’ the anti-tank defence.
Later in the war, some Home Guards helped to man anti-aircraft batteries, thereby releasing regular soldiers for other employment. To make up for the shortage of weapons, when ‘pikes’ (bayonets welded to lengths of pipe) were issued late in 1941 they were a public relations disaster and confined to stores by Home Guards armed with Sten sub-machine guns, grenades and spigot mortars.
Anyone interested in weaponry and how a citizens militia came to play a vital role in the defence of Britain against an expected German invasion should enjoy this fascinating book.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.