The reality of Home Guard life in Britain

Members of the Home Guard operate a Browning machine-gun from a trailer hitched to a car during exercises with regular troops, 2 February 1942.

In Britain the Home Guard were a volunteer force of part time men who would provide local assistance to the army in the event of the country being invaded. They were largely comprised of men who were too old to be ‘called up’, or conscripted, to the regular forces, plus a substantial number of much younger men who were awaiting call up.

After the war their life became popularised by the long running comedy series’Dad’s Army’ which portrayed the activities of a section of Home Guard men, located in a small town on the south east coast of England – the area which was most likely to bear the brunt of a German invasion. The reality of life for the Home Guard in 1942 was far different from the comical adventures later portrayed in the television series.

Rodney Foster had retired to England after service in India where he had gained the rank of Colonel in the First World War. He lived in Hythe – a small town on the south east coast of England – and kept a diary of his time commanding the Hythe and Folkestone Home Guard. In the spring of 1942 the invasion alert was raised as the weather improved but the main threat came from the sporadic bombing that the south east experienced.

On 10th May 1942 Foster was driving back from watching some Home Guard exercises to see another platoon, commanded by Mr Trice, a snack bar owner by day, exercising in Folkstone:

As I passed the Ritz [Cinema], I saw two women dive into a shop and further on two policemen bolt into the police station. At the same time I heard two thumps and, realising something was up, I dashed from the car and dived into a narrow doorway.

Low overhead, a black Hun flew spraying the roads with bullets and, with a loud explosion, a brown column rose up from Red Lion Square. One bullet made a hole in the canvas top of my car. I parked my car at the town bridge and followed Trice and his platoon.

One bomb had exploded just behind Trice’s snack bar, demolishing a large tin barn and flattening the bar premises. Trice and his platoon, joined by some soldiers, started at once on the wreckage; the ARP came much later.

A few soldiers had got out of the ruins only slightly hurt. The first to be brought out was young John Nicholls, 19, a young Home Guard in Trice’s old section. He had only just received his papers for joining the Army, and was not on parade. He died soon after. The next was young Dray, brother of a Home Guard, very badly hurt. Then Old Hardinge, ex-soldier and Home Guard over 65. He could walk supported, but was very badly scalded.

The last to be got out was poor Frances Barbara, Trice’s daughter, who was dead.

Two bombs were dropped in the [Small Arms] School staff quarters, but fell between the rows of houses. Mrs Allen, our late cook, got a piece of shrapnel in her back and a small boy was hit. The sirens sounded 10 minutes after it was all over.

The Huns said on their wireless that they had destroyed a factory!

See The Real ‘Dad’s Army': The War Diaries of Col. Rodney Foster

Major the Earl of Bradford (right) directs his company of the Home Guard during exercises with regular troops, 2 February 1942.

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