top of page
The Real Dad's Army
with Ray Sturdy

As a social historian Ray Sturdy set out to talk about the “real Dads Army” – what the Home Guard really got up to, how and why it started and what they did. He looked at what they presented and what they became.

When WW2 broke out in 1939, Britain was totally and completely. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and realised the situation that the British forces were being overwhelmed by the German military machine.  He arranged the withdrawal of our troops from Dunkirk and knew we were next because Germany had already published their plans (Operation Sealion) for invasion in 1940 and had invaded the Channel Islands. It was agreed that Churchill and Anthony Eden (Secretary of State for War) would make an announcement, saying that if anyone in this country who wants to help Britain in its time of need they should contact their local police station, and would eventually be given uniforms, arms and ammunition.  It was originally called the Local Defence Volunteers.

It was thought there would probably be about 100,000 people, but the response was immediate: that first evening about 10,000 went to volunteer – from the farming communities and the cities. Men were eligible between the ages of 16 and 64 (most were between 35 and 45). Older men volunteered who had fought in the First World War – and they were worth their weight in gold: having had experience of fighting they were involved in training operations for a lot of recruits who had probably never seen or fired a gun in their life.

This was going to be another army: we had the Regulars and now Churchill wanted to put another army on its feet But the uniform they were promised turned out to be an armband with LDV on it and of course there were no guns at that time. So the LDV went down to their local barracks, and they would be trained with borrowed guns. It didn’t take long for the comedians in our society to change the initials to the `Look, Duck and Vanish Brigade’.  They were quickly renamed the Home Guard. Churchill said consider yourself like lifeboats, you will carry on your day-to-day work until the alarm goes off and then you will immediately start to work in defending our country; what I want you to do – every one of you – is to wear these badges so all your colleagues and everyone around you will know you’re in the Home Guard and know that you can be summoned instantly to defend your country.

When our 330,000 troops were evacuated from France they had to leave their arms and ammunition in France, so there was a deficit of weapons. Massive orders were given to the arms companies to replace them all, but, of course, they went to the regular Army. The Home Guard they were told ‘you have to understand that you are a military unit, and you must know how to present arms: go down to your hardware store and buy a broom handle.’ And it was back to basics with Molotov cocktails made from beer and pop bottles: a real hand grenade would have been a very rare object to have been seen at that time.  The Government said ‘don’t worry if you see a heavily armed German: use Ju Jitsu! if you see a German in a field jump over the hedge, throw him over your shoulder, job done!’ And they had the audacity to ask for two shillings for that information!


Ray Sturdy said that he felt very sorry for these young people who’d been given a gun and, probably, a few rounds of ammunition and they must have thought how am I going to defend this country! There were bombers coming over, the Luftwaffe were in our skies and the Germans were just 22 miles across the English Channel.


The first Home Guard training centre was at Osterley house in the southeast of England.  They were told they were going to be trained as guerrilla fighters: the very first thing they were told to do was to go to a music shop, buy piano wire put a piece of wood each end and that would be your garrotting device and it would be noiseless as well. They were trained on how to be operate in open country, a lot of simulated attacks in various areas using different types of ammunitions and vehicles.  They were issued with a Homeguard pocketbook which had all the tactics listed that could be used in the field, this was renewed every year to include new tactics.


Places were set up for target practice anywhere that was suitable, it was suggested that one spent at least half a day at weekends at the firing range: people gave up their lunch breaks to improve on their shooting abilities. Sure enough, the Home Guard took on the Regular Army and found that a lot of them were better shots than the Regulars in some instances! They started with small weapons and eventually manned the guns that shot down German aircraft along the Thames estuary.


Improvisation was everywhere. Home Guards in the countryside often met in the car park of the local pub: to be taken for the manoeuvres. Some farmers decided to form a local militia using horses: they would be able to go out and catch a German paratrooper far easier than anyone trying to drive along the local roads. One idea was to use a massive catapult using an inner tube from a lorry tyre stretched back far as far as possible to launch a Molotov cocktail (unfortunately it wasn’t very accurate).  Most of the young men aged 16 in the Home Guard had bicycles, and so became messengers, carrying information between units.  The Home Guard were also very useful indeed as spotters: lookouts all along the coast to could warn of German bombers and fighter planes. Field telephones were used to relay the information to a central Home Guard monitoring point and then passed on the air force control centre. Search lights were another very important job, these incredibly powerful lights would pick up the German planes from the ground and enable our guns and fighter planes to shoot them down.


Of course, the whole country was affected by the war and involved in the war effort. Gas masks of course were very much in evidence at the time: 13 million masks were made and distributed although, happily, no gas was used throughout the war. If there was a need for a fire to be put out, ladders to climb or people to be rescued anyone with a uniform on would be asked to help.  There was an incredible sense of working together. All the railings around cathedrals and elsewhere were taken and melted down and used to build tanks and aircraft. Women for the first time volunteered in their hundred to come into the ammunitions factories and they did a wonderful job in increasing the output of ammunitions. The Women’s Land Army was formed, and also did a brilliant job: they worked in all weathers, drove tractors and farming equipment.  They even farmed on land that was previously considered too difficult

Alongside the Home Guard was an organisation called the British Resistance Organisation: it was around for as long as the Home Guard were there. The ancillary units were the crème de la crème: the best of the best and the specialist branch of the Home Guard.  These people were all crack shots, they were able to put their minds to becoming assassins and saboteurs.  They were trained in the use of explosives, and were expected to be totally self-sufficient in any situation in the field.  It was supposed that Hitler would put his High Command in castles, country estates and manor houses.  These ancillary units were to find ways into these places, to get in and assassinate the German high command, and get out again without being noticed.  The Royal Engineers would build between 800 and 900 underground bases specifically for their use. Each underground base would accommodate between six and eight men; some would be out working, while the others were resting. Many of these survive in different parts of the country. Although there is no map of where they were, farmers and ramblers come across them sometimes; of course they are empty rooms now.


The end of the War was the first time that people could see the sheer numbers of the Home Guard who had volunteered to help their country: there were 1,700,000 members at this point. They had been told by their commanders to keep a low profile until the Germans arrived, and now of course they could go out and be seen by everybody.


They had started work using small guns, and then went on to coastal defences all along the south and east coast of Britain and then were given total command of anti-aircraft installations.  From the training and the work that they did, they put together an active unit that effectively became another army. Over 1300 men died working for the Home Guard.


In 1944, when there was no danger of Germany invading, the King asked the Home Guard to stand down.  He took the salute as they marched through Whitehall and then he wrote to every single member.  Those who had served for three years could apply for the Defence Medal.

  • = - = - = -

In 1967 Jimmy Perry and David Croft two comedy writers from the BBC, put together Dads Army which carried on recording until 1976.  The series was filmed in Thetford in Norfolk.  There is a real Jack Jones in Thetford who is a family butcher just like Jones in the series, down the road is Pikes Lane and there is a Dads Army Museum founded by Bill Pertwee, the ARP man in the series.

bottom of page