The Home Guard
The Fall of France heralded the most serious phase of the war and, in expectation of a Nazi invasion, road signs and station name boards were removed. The regular army was in no state to repel the expected invasion, many of the men who had returned from Dunkirk being totally exhausted, while huge amounts of vital equipment had destroyed in France to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
Under these circumstances, it was decided that a new defence force would be formed for the defence of the British homeland, and on 14th May the Secretary of State for War appealed for able-bodied men aged 17 or over to register for service in a home defence force or local militia to be known as “The Local Defence Volunteers”.
The response was immediate and almost overwhelming as thousands of men – many of them veterans of the Great War – enrolled for service in the new force. On 15th August 1940 the LDV, which now had a strength of 1,472,505, was renamed “The Home Guard”.
The main threat, in the summer of 1940, was perceived to be from enemy parachutists and “Fifth Columnists”, and in this context there were inevitable false alarms, with innocent persons being rounded up and confined in makeshift cells. On the night of 17th-18th September 1940 an invasion was thought to be taking place and, the codeword “Cromwell” having been given, the Home Guard rang the church bells as a warning of imminent attack. The next few weeks provided “many exciting and amusing incidents, until the approaching winter made the chances of invasion less probable”, and the Home Guard units settled down to a programme of organisation and training.
The Oxfordshire Home Guard was originally commanded by the reassuringly-named Brigadier-General A.Courage, but in November 1940 General Courage retired as Zone Commander, his replacement being Captain the Hon. B.Mitford RN. There were, by this time, seven Oxfordshire Home Guard companies with headquarters in Banbury, Bicester, Chipping Norton, Bullingdon, Henley, Oxford and Oxford University.
Following the publication of Army Council Instruction 653 in June 1940, these units were subsequently organised into eleven battalions of varying strengths, the larger units such as the 1st (Banbury) and 2nd (Bicester) battalions, having over 1,500 men and 1,600 men respectively, while the 3rd (Chipping Norton) Battalion ultimately had a strength of 60 officers and 2,191 men. There was also an Anti-Aircraft Battery, while the 6th (Oxford City) Battalion was later asked to form a “Rocket Battery” at Cowley. Oxfordshire Home Guardsmen were affiliated to the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and, as such, they wore the familiar stringed bugle horn cap badge
Oxfordshire Home Guard Organisation
The Oxfordshire Home Guard ultimately reached a strength of 13,500 men, the various battalions being as follows:
1st Oxfordshire (Banbury) Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel A.Stockton (1940); Lieutenant-Colonel H.T.Lefeaux MC OBE (1940-45). Final strength 60 officers and 1,533 men.
2nd Oxfordshire (Bicester) Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel Lloyd-Mostyn (1940-41). Final strength 54 officers and 1,670 men.
3rd Oxfordshire (Chipping Norton) Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel E.T.Chamberlayne DSO, TD (1940); Lieutenant-Colonel The Hon.B.Mitford DSO (1940-45). Final strength 60 officers and 2,191 men.
4th Oxfordshire (Bullingdon) Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel A.V.Spencer DSO (1940-45). Final strength 58 officers and 1,208 men.
5th Oxfordshire (Henley) Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel H.C.Tweedie DSO, OBE (1940); Lieutenant-Colonel A.F.R.Wiggins (1945). Final strength 57 officers and 1,382 men.
6th Oxfordshire (Oxford City) Battalion:- Captain E.L.Francis (1940); Lieutenant-Colonel J.A.Douglas (1940-45). Final strength 83 officers and 2,069 men.
7th Oxfordshire (Oxford University Senior Training Corps) Battalion:- Colonel C.H.Wilkinson MC (1940-45). Final strength 4 officers and 444 cadets.
Oxford Company:- Major F.Beecher (1942-45). Final strength 8 officers and 244 men.
111th (101st Oxfordshire HG):- ‘Z’ Anti-Aircraft Battery: Major R.B.Freeman MBE (1943-45). Final strength 35 officers and 1,400 men.
South Midland Home Guard Transport Column:- Lieutenant-Colonel W.B.Street (1943-45).
Following the “wireless” broadcast appeal made on 14th May, many hundreds of Buckinghamshire men registered at police stations for enrolment in the Local Defence Volunteers. The response was truly magnificent, and suitable commanders were soon appointed to set up the necessary organization. On Friday 17th May 1940, Colonel P.A.Hall was appointed commander for Buckinghamshire with the approval of Brigadier MacMullen, the commander of the South Midland Area in which Buckinghamshire was then included.
A conference of county commanders and chief constables was called at Area Headquarters on the following day, and it was agreed that Buckinghamshire would be sub-divided into seven areas, which would correspond to the local police divisions. It was initially envisaged that the new force was would have no formal ranks, and apart from the Area Commanders, all leaders were expected to be selected by merit, election or common consent – the implication being that the Local Defence Volunteers would be a purely local force for the protection of individual towns, villages and hamlets.
The first few months involved an immense amount of work, while the lack of uniform, arms, equipment and financial backing engendered “the largest amount of honourable indignation, jealousy and deliberate misappropriation that has possibly ever existed in this county at one time”. Nevertheless, by “gradual and rather grudging stages” the Buckinghamshire local defence force developed into a pattern very similar to that of the regular army, with commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers and a light framework of discipline, “all this to the intense delight of many old warriors who had borne with ill-concealed dissatisfaction a state of affairs that they regarded as deplorable”.
The seven areas became seven battalions, each battalion being sub-divided into companies and sections. By June 1940, when this force of enthusiastic part-timers was re-named “The Home Guard”, it had developed into a conventional military organisation, with “proper” ranks and uniforms. As in Oxfordshire, it was agreed that the Buckinghamshire Home Guardsmen would be affiliated to the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the “swan” badge of the Bucks Battalion being adopted as the cap badge of the Buckinghamshire Home Guard.
As regards routine work and duties, all over the county vast numbers of men were kept up all night manning numerous and overlapping observation posts. Government departments, local Authorities and business leaders called for guards on what were deemed to be vulnerable installations such as aerodromes, factories and railway lines. Indeed, the Home Guard devoted much of their time to patrolling railway installations and, in some places the local railway stations became Home Guard headquarters or assembly points.
As in other counties, the Buckinghamshire Home Guard were called upon to man block-houses and pill-boxes which were, in many instances, erected at “nodal points” at which ambushes could be staged. Trenches dug “at every conceivable point, frequently sited most unsuitably; and road-blocks, usually in the form of a tree with a wheel at one end, to hold up wheeled traffic, were placed to obstruct vital roads all over the county”. Despite their apparent eccentricities, the Home Guard rapidly became a force to be reckoned with and, as humorists pointed out, sudden challenges and occasional random shots “soon made the country a land unfit for anyone but heroes to live in, at any rate after dark”.
As the numbers and strength of the Buckinghamshire Home Guard began to increase, it became necessary to add additional battalions, and in November 1940 the original 6th Battalion was sub-divided into four battalions which then became the 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th Battalions – all covering the southern part of the county.
Following a later sub-division, the 5th Battalion was split to form the 5th and 11th Battalions, the 5th being concentrated in the Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross and Denham area, whereas the 11th Battalion covered Chesham, Amersham and the surrounding districts.
In the north of the county, a further subdivision took place when a new battalion, the 12th, took over parts of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalion areas. Meanwhile, a 13th battalion was formed by employees of the Hawker Aircraft Company at Langley, in the south of the county.
Later still, the Buckinghamshire Home Guard acquired a rocket battery at Slough, an Anti-Aircraft battery covering the Windsor area and a Mechanical Transport Company with its headquarters at High Wycombe.
Buckinghamshire Home Guard Organisation
1st Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel H.M.Edwards OBE (1940-45).
2nd Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Everard Duncombe Bt, DSO, DL (1940-42); Lieutenant-Colonel R.E.Hagley OBE (1942-45).
3rd Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel R.Haworth DSO, MVO (1940-42); Lieutenant-Colonel A.E.Impey (1942-45).
4th Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel H.Beaumont OBE (1940-42); Lieutenant-Colonel L.W.Kentish, D.S.O (1942-45)
5th Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel P.M.Beachcroft OBE (1940-41; Lieutenant-Colonel W.Gibson, DSO OBE, MC (1941-45).
6th Battalion:- Colonel S.W.L.Ashwanden. DSO, TD, DL ADC 1940-43. (Disbanded 1943).
7th Battalion:- Colonel L.L.C.Reynolds DSO, TD, DL (1940-42); Lieutenant-Colonel L.W.Strong (1942-45).
8th Battalion:- Colonel L.M.Wilson CMG, DSO (1940-42); Lieutenant-Colonel T.L.Wakley (1942-45).
9th Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel W.H.Lewis, DSO, MC (1940-42); Lieutenant-Colonel E.R.Clarke MC (1942-45).
10th Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel H.R.Douglas Harding (1940-42); Major-General Sir Richard Howard-Vyse KCMG, DSO (1942); Lieutenant-Colonel W.R.Corfield MC (1942-45).
11th Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel G.S.Marston DSO, MC (1942-45).
12th Battalion:- Brigadier-General J.Micklem DSO, MC (1942-45).
13th Battalion:- Lieutenant-Colonel P.W.S.Bulman CBE, MC, AFC, (1943-45).
101st (Bucks Home Guard) Rocket Anti-Aircraft Battery:- Major F.S.Low MC (1942-43); Major G.S.Deakin OBE (1943-45).
71st (Bucks and Berks) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery:- Major J.B.S.Bourne-May (1942-45).
2003rd (Bucks Home Guard) Mechanical Transport Company:- Major E.A.Hearne (1943-44); Major F.W.Tillion (1944-45).
Home Guard Equipment
The meagre supply of weapons and equipment available for use by the Home Guard during the early months of 1940 included shotguns, “Molotov bombs” and pikes, but these deficiencies were remedied during the following winter and, thereafter, “matters gradually improved until every man had an up-to-date personal weapon, while examples of every conceivable bomb, grenade, mortar and anti-tank device eventually found their way into the local Home Guard armouries”.
The standard Home Guard weapon was the Ross bolt-action rifle, though Sten guns, Lee-Metfords and other weapons were also employed. Lieutenant-Colonel A.V.Spencer, the Commander of the Bullingdon Battalion, recalled that, by the late summer of 1940, the Home Guard had become a properly-equipped force:
“By the end of August 1940 uniform and equipment was being issued comparatively freely, and each man had a suit of denim, a pair of boots and anklets, while about one-third had great coats, haversacks, belts and steel helmets; blankets and ground sheets also were coming in. The arms on charge at the end of the year were 570 .300 American rifles, 60 Browning automatic rifles, 20 Browning machine guns and 24 Lewis guns. All weapons were .300 bore, with the exception of some .303 Lee-Enfield rifles, obtained from an unofficial source. There were forty rounds SAA per rifle and 550 per machine gun available for operations, with a very small surplus for practice”.
Home Guard Duties
The function of the Home Guard had been enlarged from observation and reporting to include delay and obstruction of the enemy and the protection of towns and villages. Road blocks were erected at the entrance to villages, at bridges and other tactical points, constructed usually of tree trunks on a pivot with a wheel for easier operation. These were guarded by slit trenches and other fire positions. Defended localities in and around the villages were also constructed. The role of the defenders, however, was still completely static.
Training was carried out, mostly at section level, on Sunday mornings and one or two evenings a week. It must be remembered that Home Guard duties except in the event of active operations were not to interfere with civilian work of national importance in which the majority of all ranks were engaged.
At Witney, for example, many members of the Home Guard worked for De Havillands at Witney Aerodrome, so many aircraft workers having volunteered for Home Guard duties that a special “De Havillands Platoon” was formed. It was only on Sundays and after work hours, therefore, that they were available for duty or training.
A large proportion of the members of the Bullingdon Battalion, as indeed of all battalions in the county except the 6th (Oxford City) Battalion were engaged in agriculture, and their free time especially during hay-making and harvest and in the case of milkers, was very limited. None the less, attendance at parades was very good.
Much assistance in training was given by the Regimental Depot, who sent out NCOs to give instruction to platoons and sections at their own headquarters and also ran short courses of instruction in weapon and other training at Cowley Barracks, to which members of the Home Guard went on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings”
The Osterley Reds
Churchill’s “Finest Hour” broadcast on 18th June 1940 had paid tribute to the Spanish Republicans who had resisted Fascism during the Spanish Civil War, while at the same time many left-wingers became enthusiastic supporters of the Home Guard, which they regarded as a kind of “citizen army” on the lines of the Spanish Republican militias that had defended Madrid.
In this context, Tom Wintringham (1898-1949) and other veterans of the Spanish Civil War set up a “Home Guard Training School” at Osterley Park to train the volunteers in the techniques of guerrilla warfare - which was one of the tasks of the Home Guard, as well as the rounding up of enemy parachutists and “fifth columnists”.
Many establishment figures were highly-suspicious of Wintringham and his “Osterley Reds”, who were seen as socialists and communists who could not trusted to lead the Home Guard “along the paths of truth and righteousness”. Yet, despite a certain amount of official opposition, the school trained over 5,000 men during its first six months of operation, Buckinghamshire Home Guardsmen being among them.
Frank Pakenham, the future Lord Longford, was a member of the Oxfordshire Home Guard. He had enrolled as a private in the (Territorial) Light Infantry in 1939 and, at the outbreak of World War II, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Evelyn Waugh recorded meeting him “in uniform, full of ambitions to serve in any capacity, civil or military, greatly dismayed by the obscenity of conversations among private soldiers”.
2nd Lieutenant Pakenham's career as a soldier was not a success. He was incapable of undertaking routine tasks such as making his bed or keeping his equipment clean, and the psychological strain soon made itself felt. Having suffered a severe personal crisis, this member of a long-established military family was invalided out of the Army on “medical” grounds in 1940. This was a bitter blow for a man who, despite his very obvious eccentricities, had been determined to combat the rise of fascism, a political creed which he abhorred.
In an attempt, perhaps, to prove that he was, after all, a worthy descendant of Wellington, Frank Pakenham helped Maurice Bowra to raise and command the “South Company” of the Oxford City Home Guard Battalion. Unfortunately, even this worthwhile activity descended into pure farce when he was shot in the foot by the only member of his company to possess any ammunition.
A good place to be if something should happen
Local Home Guard units met in a variety of unlikely premises, including schools, church halls and private houses. Inns were also pressed into use as Home Guard meeting places – for example, the headquarters of the Bullingdon Battalion, which had initially been in Wheatley, was moved to the Swan Hotel at Tetsworth on 26th May 1940.
South Leigh station, on the Great Western Railway branch line between Oxford and Witney, was perhaps one of the more unusual Home Guard meeting places. At one stage in the war it was being put to good use by local Home Guard members such as Arthur Smith and Rob Brown, who met there for regular training sessions! Rob Brown remembered that “it was quite a good headquarters” because it was one of the public few buildings in the village and, moreover, it had a telephone link to the outside world.
There were about eight men in the South Leigh Home Guard sub-section, and they would be “on call” at the station every night - palliasses being provided in the waiting room for the men who were not out on patrol in the blacked-out countryside. The railway was, at that time, kept open throughout the night in connection with military traffic, and the station was regarded as “a good place to be, in case anything should happen”.
The Home Guard Coach
At High Wycombe station the Great Western Railway fitted-up an ancient four-wheeled passenger vehicle as a mess room for the Home Guard, the vehicle involved being former composite No.6615. It was later decided that a dismounted coach body (possibly the same “Home Guard Coach”) would be lifted onto the up platform as accommodation for the Home Guard at an estimated cost of £59. Unfortunately, the final cost was £76 16s. 3d. because “Sunday labour had to be worked”, and “the engine power and crane hire” was more expensive than been anticipated!
In addition to providing accommodation for the Home Guard, the High Wycombe station also served as the headquarters for a detachment of Air Raid Wardens, who were comfortably installed in the Ladies’ Waiting Room on Platform One – this being the source of some tension between the Home Guard and the ARP Wardens because the Ladies Waiting Room had been fully-equipped with cupboards and beds, with a gas ring in the nearby Foreman’s Office!