Securing the Home Front, Politics and Preparations
Somewhat ironically, it was the disastrous Norway campaign of April – June 1940 that bolstered the British chances of resisting a German invasion later in the year. Despite German success in the land campaign, the Kriegsmarine received a severe mauling at the hands of the Royal Navy and crucially, light cruisers and destroyers had the highest attrition rates. These ships would be needed to escort and protect the invasion convoys across the English Channel. The seizing of Denmark and the Invasion of Norway was an extremely risky undertaking for the Kriegsmarine. The Royal Navy was much stronger and the Germans lost four cruisers, ten destroyers, three U-boats and a torpedo boat. The British lost an aircraft carrier, the Glorious, two cruisers nine destroyers and six submarines. However, the Royal Navy was much stronger and able to sustain these losses with no loss of capability. Admiral Raeder later admitted: “The losses the Kriegsmarine suffered in doing its part weighed heavily upon us for the rest of the war.”
Perhaps even more ironically, there was widespread public fury at the inept handling of the Norwegian campaign by Chamberlain’s Government. The man who as First Lord of the Admiralty had masterminded the campaign, gained the most from it politically. There was a public backlash against the previous years’ policies of appeasement and Churchill was remembered for his very vocal opposition to the appeasement strategy of Chamberlain and the Government. There was a general feeling that Chamberlain and his Cabinet were not suited to the rigours of governing in wartime. Churchill on the other hand was seen as possessing boundless energy and optimism, but enemies considered him reckless, particularly in the higher ranks of the Royal Navy, many of whom could remember Gallipoli. Nevertheless, come the hour, come the man and when the Germans invaded the Low Countries and Belgium on 10th May 1940, Chamberlain had to go. Churchill was summoned to the Palace and instructed by King George VI to form a new government.
The inter-war years had seen the massive advance of technology, specifically in the performance of aircraft and the evolution of air power doctrine. The more truculent areas of the British Empire had been policed from the air, mainly because it was cheap and the Treasury didn’t want to spend unnecessary money on expensive Army units to sun themselves or heaven forbid, rearmament. Air power doctrine was evolving rapidly, unlike at least in Britain and France, Land doctrine, which seemed to have learned the wrong lessons from the First World War, the Maginot Line being a case in point. However, there were far-sighted military men such as Liddell Hart, who had proposed that infantry be carried along with the fast-moving armoured formations. Due to the work of these pioneers, the British Army of 1939 was truly a mechanised force. In 1940 at the height of the Blitzkrieg, the German Army was still heavily reliant of horses to move its artillery. By being proponents of two of the essential tenets of the principles of war: concentration of force and economy of effort, the Germans were able to defeat the second largest army in the world and a modern, mechanised BEF.
The perceived wisdom that “The Bomber Will Always Get Through,” had clouded both military and political thinking. The use of area bombing as a weapon of terror in the Spanish Civil War had skewed perception of the actual effectiveness of the aircraft as a weapon of war. Even with over 1,500 front-line bombers and the latest in technology, Air Chief Marshall Harris had been unable to break the will of the German People or overcome their fear of the Gestapo.
But it had one galvanising effect insofar as a Home Office committee was created in 1935, the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Department. Its remit was to coordinate passive air defence within the British Isles. In 1937 the Air Raid Wardens’ Service was created with the aim of recruiting 800,000 volunteers. On 1 January 1938, the Air Raid Precautions Act came into force. This compelled all local authorities to begin creating their own ARP services. With the threat of war imminent in 1939, the Home Office issued dozens of leaflets advising people on how to protect themselves from the inevitable air war to follow.
The setting up of the ARP was the beginning of the networks of volunteers who would become a highly trained and effective civil defence force. They would consist of:
Wardens. ARP wardens ensured the blackout was observed, sounded air raid sirens, safely guided people into public air raid shelters, issued and checked gas masks, evacuated areas around unexploded bombs, rescued people where possible from bomb damaged properties, located temporary accommodation for those who had been bombed out, and reporting to their Control Centre about incidents, fires, etc. and to call in other services as required.
Report and Control. Central headquarters that received information from wardens and messengers and managed the delivery of the relevant services needed to deal with each incident.
Messengers. Often Boy Scouts or Boys Brigade members aged between 14 and 18 as messengers or runners would take messages from wardens and carry them to either the sector post or the Control Centre. Bombing would sometimes cut telephone lines and messengers performed an important role in giving the ARP services a fuller picture of events.
First Aid Parties. Trained to give first response first aid to those injured in bombing incidents.
Ambulance drivers. Casualties from bombing were taken to First Aid Posts or hospital by volunteer drivers. There were also stretcher parties that carried the injured to posts.
Rescue services. The rescue services were involved in getting the dead and injured out of bombed premises.
Burberry wasn’t always the Haute Couture of the Chavs
Around this time, ideas were circulated about recruiting a citizen army of volunteers in order to provide local, community defence in the eventuality of war or invasion. The Army was unhappy at the suggestion because it was felt that a new formation of this kind would dilute the Territorial Army concept, and a large number of politicians were extremely unhappy with the idea of a civilian force having access to weapons. However, the invasion of the Low Countries and Belgium and lurid tales of German paratroopers dressed as nuns descending on a helpless population galvanised an otherwise reluctant establishment.
The Government announced the creation of the Local Defence Volunteers on 14th May 1940 with the initial specific purpose of dealing with German Paratroopers, such was the level of paranoia the use of Fallschirmjäger in Norway and The Low Countries had engendered. Within twenty-four hours, 250,000 men had signed up. While this commendable response was a sign of the times, so was the shortages of uniforms, weapons and other equipment and training. There was also an undercurrent of scepticism directed at the new force, many noting that the parade timings seemed to coincide with pub opening hours. The LDV was known in some circles as the Look, Duck and Vanish, or the Last Desperate Venture. Initially weapons consisted of shotguns, muskets, blunderbuss, swords and of course, pitchforks.
While many were indeed veterans from of the Boer, Sudan and World War One, the average age of the LDV was thirty-five. There were doubts about the use of LDV as the title of these units and Churchill particularly disliked the formation’s name. On 22nd June Churchill decreed that the force would be known as the Home Guard. As with all organisations, some were good and some weren’t. Those units with men who had served in the previous war and took discipline seriously became as good as regular troops. Others with lazy instructors became drinking clubs and would likely have been more of a liability in the event of invasion. During one training exercise, a reviewing officer asked a member of the Home Guard: “What steps would you take if you saw German paratroops descending?” “Bloody long ones,” came the reply.
Initially finding uniforms and weapons was problematic and the Regular Army had its own problems re-equipping. An exotic selection of weapons came from America, including 1918 vintage machine guns and Winchester rifles from the reforming cavalry units. Improvisation was a must and some units were quite ingenious in the construction of devilish contraptions of killing.
And some Home Guard units were so good and so well trained, their existence was a state secret. Britain was the only country that created a multi-layered resistance and guerrilla movement that was state sanctioned. The purpose of the Auxiliary Units was to resist enemy occupation by sabotage, mass murder and the killing of collaborators. They were secretly recruited from the very best of the Home Guard and were told in no uncertain terms that they would not survive and may live for a maximum of two weeks. In that time they were to raise hell. They called themselves “Scallywags” and their modus operandi was known as “Scallywagging.”
Remains of an Auxiliary Unit OB at Wangford and Uggeshall, Suffolk
They were generally farmers, landowners and poachers, men who knew the country. They operated in units of four or a maximum of eight. Each Patrol was a self-contained cell, expected to be self-sufficient and operationally autonomous in the case of invasion, generally operating within a 15-mile radius. They were provided with elaborately concealed underground Operational Bases (OB), usually built by the Royal Engineers in a local woodland, with a camouflaged entrance and emergency escape tunnel. It is thought that 400 to 500 such OBs were constructed. Some Patrols had an additional concealed Observation Post and/or underground ammunition store.
Patrols were provided with a selection of the latest weapons including a silenced pistol or Thompson sub machine gun and Fairbairn-Sykes knives, quantities of plastic explosive, incendiary devices, and food to last for two weeks. Members anticipated being shot if they were captured, and were expected to shoot themselves first rather than be taken alive. The Auxiliary Units were disbanded in 1944 and many joined the SAS or Jedburgh Teams.
© Blown Periphery 2018