Home Guard Manual 1941

25 May 2008

For those interested in seeing a bit of what today’s book review choice looks like, here’s an online edition of a similar but smaller manual.

Home Guard Manual 1941

In May 1940, as the British Expeditionary Force was being driven back through France to the beaches at Dunkirk, Minister for War Anthony Eden made a radio broadcast that called for all British men between the ages of 17 and 65 to volunteer to join an organisation that would be known as the Local Defence Volunteers. Volunteers would not be paid, but they would be able to stay in their current jobs and homes as part of a civilian army formed for the defence of the British Isles in the event of an attempted invasion. The LDV, soon known as the Home Guard, focused its efforts on the defence of the coastal towns and key manufacturing cities that would be targets for the enemy. Despite the problems that the Home Guard had with organisation and training in the early days of its creation, its purpose was taken quite seriously by the military and civilian authorities. The War Office did its part to provide information for the volunteers by churning out instruction books, pamphlets, manuals, and field guides. Not many of these materials survive today, but those that do are interesting, informative, and often sobering primary sources about a time period in which the struggle for survival was a very pressing and immediate concern in most everyone’s mind.

This edition of the Home Guard Manual was prepared for the New Zealand Home Guard, drawing on the publications issued by the British War Office. The sections of the manual break down the different aspects of training, describing proper drill formations; appropriate handling of firearms, bayonets, grenades, and high explosives; guidelines for shooting from different positions and at different kinds of targets, tactics for maintaining cover and setting up firing positions; and instructions on open combat in situations ranging from anti-tank expeditions to street fighting at the most basic levels. Useful bits of fieldcraft are scattered throughout the book, such as the suggestion that on hard ground, ‘a knife blade inserted in the earth to its full extent will, if the ear is placed to the handle, record the footsteps of persons approaching up to quite an appreciable distance‘. Homemade and makeshift weapons, ranging from crude grenades and pipe bombs to Molotov cocktails — the last described as ‘an improvement devised by the Finns on the Petrol Bottle used in the Spanish [Civil] War‘ — suggest the likelihood that a soldier would have to improvise a weapon out of very little equipment. The general tone is pragmatic and straightforward, written to be read in short chunks and consulted as necessary, with occasional mnemonic devices given to help the reader remember the most important bits of information and procedure.

All of the technical specifications will be of interest to those with a military bent, but the manual also provides details that bring the human side of warfare closer to the forefront. Instructions for officers, both commissioned and non-commissioned, strongly stress the importance of keeping up morale and providing care for the soldiers under their command. Officers are expected to remember the importance of hygiene and personal cleanliness in keeping everyone fit and healthy, and are reminded to encourage the men to come to them with grievances and differences of opinion to settle small problems before they affect the rest of the company. NCOs are advised that after a tiring day, they should ensure that their men are settled and comfortable before settling down themselves — a small gesture that the men are likely to notice, remember, and possibly even appreciate.

The wartime invasion never actually happened, and the Home Guard finally stood down in late 1944. A few decades later, the popular TV sitcom Dad’s Army drew much of its humour from stock jokes and folk memories of ill-equipped, unevenly formed units of ageing men who had fought in the Great War and younger, untrained civilians, bank managers and bricklayers struggling with ranks and orders and military discipline. The reprint of this manual gives a much better idea of the real people behind the comic history by showing a glimpse of what these bank managers and bricklayers were expected to know and do…or rather, what they knew, but what they likely hoped that they would never have to do.


One comment

  1. […] 24 August 2008 I ought to have posted this shortly after I finished my review of the 1941 Home Guard Manual, or perhaps saved it for Remembrance Sunday, but I was flipping through it the other day and […]

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