By the spring of 1940, Hitler’s Blitzkreig, his lightning war, saw his armies sweep through Belgium and Holland and across France with alarming speed. Only Britain now stood in the way of Hitler’s total domination of western Europe and on the 14th of May 1940, Secretary of State for War, Sir Anthony Eden, announced the formation of a new citizen army.
The months that followed were some of the most extraordinary in modern British history. They saw the rise of the world’s greatest civilian army, a remarkable force that became part of British folklore, and of course, the subject of one of our best-loved sitcoms.
The Government had expected around 150,000 volunteers but in the first week more than a quarter of a million men besieged police stations up and down the country to join up. By July, the number had increased to one and a half million.
While there was no doubting the commitment and courage of the Home Guard, there are plenty of occasions recorded when the mishaps of the real Dad’s Army had a lot in common with the antics of Captain Mainwaring and company. But there was another, less well-known side to the Home Guard that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the comedy series.
In the summer of 1940 Winston Churchill approached Colonel Colin Gubbins to form a special, highly secretive, auxiliary force from amongst the more able members of the Home Guard.
The first stage of training this secret force took place at Coleshill House at Highworth, a quiet country village in Wiltshire where they were taught the art of guerrilla warfare, which included everything from blowing up bridges to slitting throats and going to ground and living off the land. They were even shown how to booby trap toilets in the grand country houses that the German hierarchy would have taken over had they invaded.
The main task of the underground army was to disrupt an enemy occupation force by mounting covert missions, or ‘scallywagging’ as it was known, from which they acquired their nickname ‘the scallywags.’
The scallywags would wage a guerrilla war behind enemy lines. From their secret hideouts they would destroy anything that might be useful to the invader, such as port facilities, railway lines and petrol stores; they would also mount raids on German supply lines, blow up vehicles and equipment, carry out assassinations of Nazi officers, and, a little ominously, deal with collaborators.
Auxiliaries expected to be tortured and executed if they were captured and were ordered to shoot themselves or each other rather than be taken alive and interrogated. It was calculated that the longest an auxiliary could expect to survive behind enemy lines was 12 days – a far cry from the Dad’s Army of our TV screens.
The Home Guard was finally stood down on the 3rd December 1944 although the memory of our Dad’s Army would live on, thanks in no small part to the misfortunes of Captain Mainwaring and the redoubtable men of Walmington on Sea. But that’s only a small part of the story. On the day the Home Guard stood down the Times recalled the very real contribution they’d made to the war effort
Not only this nation and Empire, but the freedom-loving world at large, have reason to be deeply grateful to the patriotic and self-sacrificing men of this unique force. In no other country in the world would it have been possible, even in circumstances of similar dire emergency to those in which we stood after the collapse of France in 1940, to enrol 1,750,00 staunch men, the majority of them trained old soldiers in the last war, in the matter of a few months. The Home Guard brought together men in different walks of life, some of whom found new comradeship in arms. Undoubtedly the Home Guard, inadequately armed as it was, was a crucial factor in Hitler’s decision not to invade this country in 1940. @�A: