Reenactment The Home Guard
By: John Norris
John Norris looks at re-enactors portraying the ordinary people that made up the heroes of the British Home Front.
During the Second World War there were many specialist units raised and a number of elite forces created, such as the Long Range Desert Group, Commandoes and Parachute Regiment. However, not all new units were ‘front line’ but that did not prevent them from considering themselves as doing important work.
From LDV to the Home Guard
In May 1940 as the German Army attacked west into France, Belgium and Holland there was little which could be done to halt the Blitzkrieg and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) withdrew towards Dunkirk. In that month a broadcast was put out on the radio calling for men to join the newly-formed Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). It was not long before the initials of this new force were used to coin the term ‘Look, Duck and Vanish’. Despite this the volunteers persevered and formed themselves into platoons. For some members this was easy because they were veterans of WW I and earlier wars. In July that year after the evacuation from Dunkirk the LDV was renamed the ‘Home Guard’ and the threat of invasion was very serious. Civilians had found themselves in the front line before in previous wars, but this was different and on a scale never-before imagined.
Heroes of the Home Front
Indeed, the civilian population as a whole came to be known as the ‘Home Front’ and as air raids destroyed towns and cities the resolve among people to see it through grew stronger. Units to cope with all types of crises were established including Air Raid Precaution, Women’s Voluntary Service and many others. Volunteers to serve with the Auxiliary Fire Service and Special Constables also came forward to help. The Home Guard continued to grow in strength so that by the time it was finally ‘stood down’ or disbanded in 1944 it numbered more than 1.5 million. Today, 67 years after the end of the war, there is a strong sense of nostalgia and there are more re-enactors depicting this episode of the war. Special 1940s dances are organised around the country and events themed as ‘Dig for Victory’ have become extremely popular. This interest has, in turn, sparked a demand for 1940s civilian memorabilia and items associated with the Home Guard. These items have been always been available from traders but no-one really bothered with them, whereas now identity cards, gas masks and coins are being snapped up.
Suppliers specialising in reproduction items are proving extremely popular as the original items become harder to obtain. One of these is Sharon Todd, based in Hook in Hampshire, who operates DivPatch (www.divpatch.com) and can supply top quality arm bands for ‘LDV’ and later ‘Home Guard’ along with a range of many others including the ‘WVS’. As the originals are fragile these reproductions are ideal for wearing at events and they are as good as the real thing. Hair styles, patterns for clothing and period magazines can all be obtained from traders at shows such as War & Peace and many other events. The Home Front is portrayed by many groups across the country, such as the ‘Blitz Buddies’, with great authenticity and show how different areas coped. The Website at www.cc41.net offers a range of items such as reproduction gas mask boxes to recreate the image. Period music can also be obtained from specialist traders and even wartime recipes are reproduced in books on the Home Front.
The Women’s Land Army was established to assist the farmers and fill the shortage of labour whilst the men were away, and during the war some 80,000 women served in its ranks. They had a distinctive uniform of corduroy ‘jodhpur-style’ trousers, jumpers and hats along with other items of clothing. The women worked long, hard hours to produce food and today they are remembered by re-enactment groups such as ‘Nell’s Belles’ which turns out at events with displays of memorabilia to remind people that another 6,000 women were enrolled in the Timber Corps. Sometimes called ‘Lumber Jills’, they were employed to cut down trees for wood to make crates, railway sleepers and many other uses. Original items of WLA uniform are very collectable but for re-enactors the company of Stand Up Hook Up 1941, offers a pack of reproduction kit including the hat, belt and badge. They can be contacted at Head Quarters, Lea Hill, Back Leeming, Keighley, West Yorkshire BD22 9NN. Telephone 01535 646719.
You can’t trust a Special like an old time copper!
The husband and wife team of Barry and Jackie are one of the outstanding portrayals of the role of the police during the war. They have gathered together a collection of artefacts to depict a police station right down to the typewriter, stationery and official rubber stamps. They have their Website at: www.thelawatwar.co.uk and they attend many events around the country where they answer questions and offer advice for other groups.
The Fire Service was essential in all the bombed cities from Bristol to London and Liverpool. Even Belfast in Northern Ireland was bombed, and the National Fire Service is remembered at events giving displays of how fire stations looked at the time with all the equipment. One of the best Websites for information is at: www.nfs.afs.org.uk
Many re-enactment events also feature ‘civilian’ Home Front displays with period cutlery, crockery, cooking pots all of which can be obtained at bric-a-brac shops and militaria fairs. It is also worth looking in charity shops for bits and pieces.
Today there is hardly a person living in the country that has not seen at least one episode of the classic comedy ‘Dad’s Army’ and it is rarely off the television screens due to its popularity. We laugh at the antics of Captain Mainwaring but in 1940 it was deadly serious as men paraded to guard bridges, the gas works and railways. They were armed with some standard forms of weaponry such as rifles and machine guns, but they also had a unique range of weapons including the Northover Projectors and the Blacker Bombard. Members even used their own weapons and some enterprising groups built armoured cars called ‘Beaverettes’, named after Lord Beaverbrook, and were based on civilian vehicles such as the Humber Snipe.
The uniforms for these groups can be bought from various sources such as Epic Militaria (www.epicmilitaria.com) based in Aberystwyth in Wales, which has recently added Home Guard uniform to its stock list. Another supplier of reproduction Home Guard uniform is Soldier of Fortune (www.1944airborne.com) including arm bands, shoulders flashes, webbing equipment and anklets (gaiters) for a complete turnout. Combat Service Support (www.combatservicesupport.co.uk) also has some items of Home Guard in stock and it is worth calling them on 01673 858001.
The Northover Projector
Some enterprising groups such as the Barmy Army Film Club (www.barmyarmyfilmclub.com) have made very good copies of the Northover Projector which was a weapon unique to the Home Guard. Developed in 1940 as an ad hoc anti-tank weapon the Northover comprised of a barrel mounted on a four-legged stand and fitted with rudimentary sights. It fired a 2.5 inch calibre projectile out to ranges between 100 and 150 yards and some 19,000 were built and issued to units around the country. They were not very reliable, probably being more dangerous to the firer than the enemy, but they were better than nothing. Each weapon was built for the remarkably low price of only £10 per unit. The blacker Bombard was another weapon unique to the Home Guard and operated on the ‘spigot’ principle similar to the PIAT used by the regular army. No doubt a group will build one of these - if it has not already been made!
Weapons of the Home Guard
The Home Guard also used a range of more standard weapons including Vickers machine guns, Lewis machine guns, Bren Guns, Thompson sub-machine guns, Sten Guns and revolvers for officers. Deactivated versions can be obtained through reputable dealers such as World Wide Arms Ltd in Staffordshire (www.worldwidearms.com), Ryton Arms in Nottinghamshire (www.rytonarms.co.uk) or JC Militaria (www.jcmilitaria.co).
In the early days of its formation members of the Home Guard carried shotguns, some of which were veritable antiques at the time. Nevertheless, they were better than nothing and patrols carried them and even a range of improvised weapons, such as bayonets or carving knives on broom-handles. Some units were lucky enough to be issued with .30 inch calibre Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR) and deactivated versions are still available. Other rifles used by the Home Guard included the Canadian Ross and the American P14, but it was the P17 which will forever be associated with the Home Guard.
This was an American weapon dating from WW I and operated using a bolt-action which would have been familiar to old soldiers. However it fired the no-standard .30-06 inch calibre round rather than the .303 inch as fired by the No 4 Lee Enfield. Around 2,193, 429 M1917 rifles were made by 1918 and with such a large number lying in stores in America it made sense that the British Government should buy them to issue to the Home Guard. They were termed P17 and to prevent them from being loaded with the incorrect calibre ammunition they were identified by having red tape or a red band painted around the fore-stock or butt-stock. They were carried by the Home Guard throughout the war and a bayonet was also issued for use with it.
The P17 measured 46.25 inches in length and weighed 9lb 10 ounces and had a magazine capacity of five rounds. The weapon can be obtained through dealers such as Ryton Arms who report that it has become very popular with re-enactors. A spokesperson told Gun Mart that they took a delivery of some fifty P17 rifles about 18 months ago and they are now all sold. The price, they said, was £450 each. They have also noticed an increased interest in Home Guard units springing up across the country and so demand for such weapons will increase. Hand grenades and other items were also used and examples of these can be obtained from dealers by ‘shopping’ around.
Many period cars and trucks are used at Home Guard re-enactment events, just as they were pressed into service for real during WWII. It is probably only a question of time before we see a Home Guard ‘Beaverette’ armoured car at an event. There were even boats used for Home Guard river patrols and artillery units also existed. In the countryside horses were used to cover many miles on patrol. Andy Smerdon, an experienced horseman and well-known figure among re-enactors, has actually created a Home Guard horseman depiction. He has a Website at: www.historyhorse.org.uk
How to get involved
There are Home Guard re-enactment groups across the country and they also participate in large events, such as Fortress Wales, Military Odyssey and War & Peace. It’s also worth noting that there were some women in the Home Guard and research can be done to allow this to be depicted and would be very interesting to see at an event.
There are Websites for further details such as www.staffshomeguard.co.uk which has links to a large number of other units. There is a site specially dedicated to historical research for the Home Guard and this can be found at: www.home-guard.org.uk
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