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Britain's Final Defence

Dale Clark
In 1939 large numbers of British men enlisted in private armies up and down the land to defend our island, arming themselves as best they could. Once the Phoney War exploded into Blitzkrieg in 1940 it was clear to the Government that this irregular situation must be brought under control, if only to ensure that the people involved had official combatant status. Eden, War Minister, issued a call for volunteers in mid-May and by July 1.5 million were clamouring for arms and uniforms although only brassards were available initially.

Where were these arms to come from? The regular army had lost most of its kit in France and clearly re-equipping the army must be the priority. Clark takes us though all this in excellently-informed detail and explains, starting with rifles, who got what - the Home Guard finding itself in competition with RAF airfield defence, merchant ships and other claimants. On the way Clark demolishes the myth of 'obsolete' weapons, showing that the army was in fact using arms, particularly the .303 Lee-Enfield, of older origin. Somehow uniforms and other equipment of all sorts had also to be found and the improvisation Clark uncovers is wondrous to behold. Besides being the primary arm for collaring enemy parachutists - vulnerable for a golden five minutes as they sorted out their kit (the bag in the end was Luftwaffe aircrew) - the Home Guard had to guard installations, man anti-aircraft and coastal batteries, and also had to be ready to stop the first waves of armour that might come ashore. Grenades and anti-tank and other weapons are given illustrated and deeply detailed coverage.

Various publishers produced pamphlets for the Home Guard. I attach a scan of a Gale and Polden pamphlet issued to my father in law as 2/Lt i/c a HG platoon in North London, under the aegis (he told me) of the Middlesex Regiment. The other photograph shows his men apprehending 'Germans' during an exercise. As a plastics engineer involved in PLUTO and human torpedoes he was held back from joining the real army, part of the core of men of military age in reserved occupations, which Clark points out as a corrective to the 'Dad's Army' impression of a force of juveniles and the superannuated. In particular the more capable of these men provided the cadre for the VERY secret Auxiliary (stay-behind) units who have their own chapter.

With Hitler on the run the Home Guard was stood down in November 1944. By then it was on an excellent footing and armed with the same No.4 rifle as the main army. Two million men and women had participated. The anti-tank role (some fascinating if rather strange weapons there) was mercifully never activated, but the Home Guard had made a major contribution in the Ack-Ack gunpits and in coastal batteries.

The publisher could have planned the notes better for the reader. On the one hand there are copious notes to each chapter, consisting mostly of lengthy asides, piled up at the end of the book. These would have fitted better as footnotes to the relevant page. On the other, inline in the text, are longhand references to sources which disrupt the flow of the narrative and would have been far better remitted either to chapter endnotes or to the end of the book, with the titles reduced to initials referring to the source in the extensive bibliography.

This is an exhaustively researched account by a weapons expert and must be the standard work on what the Home Guard was for, and how it was equipped to go about its business. It is a much more nuanced treatment than this short review allows. It is not only a work for someone who wants to know more (much more) about the Home Guard but also for anyone with a technical interest in WW2 infantry weapons in the broadest sense.
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