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‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Hitler?’: So Long, Dad’s Army, 75 Years Ago

LDV ( Local Defence Volunteers – the forerunner of the Home Guard) in instructed on how to fire a rifle at the National Shooting Centre in Bisley, Surrey, 22 June 1940.  

On 31 December 1945, with Hitler long gone and Tojo under Allied custody, the final, skeletonized units of the British Home Guard were formally disbanded.

Initially founded as the Local Defence Volunteers, or LDV, on 14 May 1940, the force took on a new urgency and

meaning after Dunkirk when it became seen as very real insurance against a looming German invasion (Unternehmen Seelöwe) that never left port. From motley beginnings, they grew to a peak strength of 1.6 million men and boys.

Their most common tasking was in guarding downed Luftwaffe aircraft and UXO, and rounding up German aircrews that hit the silk over the British Isles.

They did, reportedly, down at least one Dornier with “concentrated rifle fire.”

One of the most popular arms in the Home Guard, at least after 1941, was the M1917 “American Enfield,” with a whopping 500,000 transferred, replacing the sorry state of affairs the lads began with that included everything from old fowling pieces and Napoleanic War relics to homemade pikes and fireplace pokers. 

The December 1945 disbandment was quiet and without much ceremony. The closest that Dad’s Army came to a public farewell was when a massed 7,000-man force paraded through Hyde Park the year prior as the operations were increasingly being drawn down.

Service was unpaid, although men who completed three years with the Home Guard could petition for a Defense Medal in recognition of their, wholly voluntary, service. 

Most were simply mustered out with a handshake, a bit of kit they were able to squirrel away as a memento, and a certificate that read simply:

In the years when our Country was in mortal danger, (name) who served (dates) gave generously of his time and powers to make himself ready for her defence by force of arms and with his life if need be. George R.I.

 

Of Dad’s Army and donated bangsticks

With the release of the latest Small Arms Survey data that puts most firearms (8.4 out of 10) in the hands of civilians worldwide, I thought the below artifacts from the Imperial War Museum would be interesting.

Winchester M1894 sporting takedown rifle .30/30 Winchester (FIR 5292) This rifle was one of a number of weapons provided for Home Guard use in 1940 by an American organization called the American Committee for the Defence of British Homes. They mounted a public appeal for firearms and binoculars which could be sent to aid the defence of Britain.  Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30035096

Springfield Model 1878 rifle (FIR 7917) This rifle was one of a number of weapons provided for Home Guard use in 1940 by an American organization called the American Committee for the Defence of British Homes. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30032392

While of course, on the outset the pair of smoke-poles above would seem hard-pressed to arm a British store clerk or country gentleman against a Fallschirmjäger with an MP38 and some potato masher grenades, they were better than nothing. In the early days of the Local Defence Volunteers and Home Guard firearms of any sort were a rarity. Remember the fictional Sergeant Wilson’s weapon report to Captain Mainwaring in the hilarious “Dad’s Army” sitcom that they stood ready to meet Hitler’s parachutists with “15 carving knives, one shotgun, a No. 3 Iron, and Lance Corporal Jones’ assegai.”

The first muster from the fictional Dad’s Army

Yes, the program was a slapstick comedy, but it should be noted that it was based partly on co-writer and creator Jimmy Perry’s own experiences in the LDV during the War and in many respects is dead-on.

The 1940 British Local Defence Volunteers, not far off from the above image

At one point, pikes were famously planned to arm the local militia force.

Yes, Pikes. Via Home-Guard.org.uk

It wasn’t until 1942 that quantities of Lend-Leased Great War-era M1917 Enfield, Lewis guns and M1918 BARs in 30.06s, mixed with newer weapons such as Thompson submachine guns started arriving in force.

A long service sergeant in the Dorking Home Guard cleans his Tommy gun at the dining room table, before going on parade, 1 December 1940. He likely went “over the top” along the Somme some years earlier.

British Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service members unloading a fresh shipment of lend-lease crates ca. 41-42. The boxes contain Model 1894 Winchester lever action cowboy guns

By 1943, the possibility of outright German invasion had atrophied although the need to have armed locals in place to police up spies, saboteurs and shot down Luftwaffe aircrews would remain very real.

Three soldiers of the Home Guard pose with a wrecked Messerschmitt shot down over south-east England during the Battle of Britain. Note the Lend-Lease M1917 Enfields

The “Baby Blitz” of Unternehmen Steinbock saw He 177A’s, Do 217s and Ju 88A-4s flying over London as late as May 1944. In that point, 800,000 unarmed volunteers of the ARP and another 1.6 very feisty Home Guard stood ready to defend the Home Isles out of a population of about 49 million, which is impressive especially when you keep in mind that the country at the time fielded a 3-million man Army, a 1.2-million strong RAF capable of pulling off 1,000-bomber raids, and a million-man Royal Navy that included 78,000 Marines and 50 (albeit mostly escort) carriers.

The Improvised Smith Gun

In the first part of World War 2, stuff did not go too good for Great Britain. The island country found it for a large period alone and isolated, with the armies of Hitler just a channel away from their shores. To further complicate the matter, the Germans had tanks and the Brits had few tank-killing guns. This case of military heartburn led to the invention of the Smith Gun.

Looking like a cross between a hot dog cart and a baby carrage, the improvised direct fire mortar was good against German tanks at 50-yards.

As long as the shell didnt blow up inside the barrel.

The Smith Gun has to be one of the very few guns ever made that was designed to fire on its side.

Read the rest in my column at Firearms Talk.com
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