World War 2 History: My Dad was in Dad’s Army

Updated on October 9, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Home Guard Training

Home Guard soldiers training to defend a street with Molotov cocktails. Circa March 1941.
Home Guard soldiers training to defend a street with Molotov cocktails. Circa March 1941. | Source

Home Guard

My father was a teenager when World War II started in 1939. When he was old enough, he joined the Home Guard, Britain's local defense force. Consisting of those too young, too old or unfit for regular military duty, it was also somewhat good-naturedly referred to as "Dad's Army". Initially, their main function was to act as a reserve defense force in case of an invasion.

At first, they had to train with wooden replicas because there was a severe shortage of weapons and armaments in Britain. The regular army had lost almost all of their equipment in France when they were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940 and the armaments industries were desperately trying to resupply them. By 1942, though, even the Home Guard was equipped with real weapons. During the Home Guard’s existence, from 1940 to 1945, one and a half million volunteered for service.

As serious as the situation was in the early years of the war, my father often commented that the BBC’s television comedy series Dad’s Army wasn’t that far off the mark as far as some of the characters were concerned. Though many were genuinely in it to do their part, there were those who were indeed over-officious or bumblers or black marketeers in it for themselves.

Real Weapons

WW2: Home Guard pictured with their Vickers gun mounted in an army lorry.
WW2: Home Guard pictured with their Vickers gun mounted in an army lorry. | Source

"Zed" Rockets

WW2: Home Guard soldiers load an anti-aircraft rocket at a 'Z' Battery.
WW2: Home Guard soldiers load an anti-aircraft rocket at a 'Z' Battery. | Source

The Rocket's Red Glare

Dad was later assigned to a 'Z' Battery, one of many anti-aircraft rocket batteries ringing Birmingham in the Midlands. When sirens warned that German bombers were approaching the city, each member of the Home Guard would drop whatever they were doing and go to their stations. The 'Z' Battery was a two man affair with one man receiving orders and instructions over a headset and relaying them to the other. In between them was the six-foot long, 3-inch rocket carrying a 28-pound warhead. Although the shortages in military ordnance had been made up, rockets were not in abundance and Dad's training had never included live firing. Most nights they never received the order to fire so they just sat, waiting in the absolute dark, enforced by the blackout. Then, one night the bombers came from a different direction and the order to fire came from headquarters. The firing handle was depressed. Apparently, his training also didn't include a vivid description of what it was like to stand next to a six-foot rocket being launched. Thoughtfully, though, the design included a metal shield, small as it was. He said the whole world lit up and a great sheet of flame roared out between the two men as the rocket blasted off towards the enemy planes. They stood, stunned and momentarily blinded by the light. Their rocket exploded at the appropriate altitude, but any damage to the enemy was doubtful.

German POW Camp

Derelict camp in England that once held German POWs.
Derelict camp in England that once held German POWs. | Source

Prison Guard

When he turned eighteen he joined the RAF (Royal Air Force). He didn't get to do anything glamorous like fly Spitfires or bombers. I don't think he ever got off the ground. Instead, he eventually ended up on guard duty, guarding German prisoners of war. Again, nothing glamorous. The most excitement he had was when he escorted a group of prisoners through some woods from a farming detail and ended up with one less than he should have. For the first time in his life, he was armed and looking for the enemy. He heard a sound and saw movement and raised his rifle. He shouted “Hande hoch!” (“hands up”). The German prisoner, behind a tree, raised his hands and my father warily approached. It was then he noticed that the man had no pants-- they were lying in a bundle to the side-- and was just trying to relieve himself. Dad waited for him to finish and then quietly escorted him back.

Nazis and Traitors

He said that, for the most part, the German prisoners he had to guard were decent enough, doing what they were told and rarely causing any problems-- especially the older ones who'd been through years of war. The only trouble they had was between the old and the young prisoners. They had to physically keep the two groups apart because they almost hated each other. They would shake their fists at each other; the old soldiers would call out “Nazis!” and “Hitler-lovers!” and the young soldiers would shout back “Traitors!” and “Cowards!”.

Americans in the Home Guard

There were 50 - 60 Americans who volunteered. Winston Churchill inspects the American Squadron of the Home Guard. US Ambassador, Joe Kennedy (JFK's father and no real friend of the British), said this gave the Germans an excuse to execute Americans.
There were 50 - 60 Americans who volunteered. Winston Churchill inspects the American Squadron of the Home Guard. US Ambassador, Joe Kennedy (JFK's father and no real friend of the British), said this gave the Germans an excuse to execute Americans. | Source

Finis

So, that was my Dad's war; as I said, nothing heroic or exciting or even particularly dangerous, aside from having to remain outside every night when the Germans dropped their high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city. He just did his bit and got on with his life when it was all over, like so many others.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 David Hunt

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      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Too true, aesta1. BTW, my Dad was born in Cornwall, Ontario in 1925 and passed away last June. Thanks for commenting.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        My Father also fought in WW2 as part of the USAFFE. War is not what we want.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Gosh... you mean the AMERICANS didn't board the sub {insert sarcastic emoticon here}? Hollywood really screws up history don't they? I suppose if all anyone remembers is that a crew boarded a German sub, that's at least something. Thanks for the great comment.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Speaking of Enigma, know the story of U-559? Forget the Hollywood movie, this is the real story:

        On October 30th, 1942 U-559 was being hunted by several British destroyers in the Med and was suffering from leaks in the hull. Kapitanleutnant Hans Heidtmann surfaced close to HMS Petard. The destroyer opened up on the submarine and the crew abandoned ship under orders from the commanding officer. He was in a hurry to leave the sub and only too late realised he hadn't thrown the Enigma machine and codebooks overboard as per instructions from the Admiral Doenitz. A launch was sent to the stricken U-boat with Lt Anthony Fasson, Seaman Colin Grazier and NAAFI canteen assistant Tommy Brown aboard. Grazier found the machine and books and passed them to Fasson, but the submarine suddenly began to sink. Fasson managed to escape but Grazier and Brown went down with the vessel.

        The rest is history, as the saying goes...

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Right you are, alancaster. I hear the incredible workload drove a lot of Bletchley Park denizens over the edge. Thanks for commenting.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        And on the altogether 'un-glamorous' side, we mustn't forget the men and women at Bletchley Park, latterly also the Americans who joined them after 1941.

        Initially the Poles had been working on Enigma before they were over-run, and they took their results to France in 1939. Unluckily for the allied war effort, the French were - due to various reasons, including the cack-handedness of its military leadership at the time - unable to capitalise on the Poles' sterling work.

        Thankfully one of the Luftwaffe telegraphers was lazy, using his girlfriend's name to sign off. The Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine codes were a bit harder to crack until one of their U-boats was intercepted with its code books and keys still intact.

        Chance is a great thing if it works on your side, ain't it?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        I agree with you, Silkekarina, except it's not just children who do not understand the reality of war, unfortunately. If those responsible for deciding to go to war were required to fight, there would probably be less war. Thanks so much for your great comment.

      • profile image

        Jean Valerie Kotzur nee Stoneman 

        5 years ago from Germany

        I don't think many people find war glamorous except, perhaps, children who do not understand the reality of it. This was a very informative hub. If it hadn't have been for the Home Guard I think a great deal more British people would have died at home and abroad. My father was fighting in France (Dunkirk) and in 1940 was trapped, with thousands of other troops, between the Germans and the deep blue sea. If it had not been for hundreds of fearless small boat owners and their courage in getting most of these troops away from the Dunkirk beaches, there would have been many more losses. It doesn't matter if you are shooting down enemy planes or sailing a fishing vessel to a battle area, you are just as important as the soldiers in battle. Voting Up

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for the comment, Movie Master. It was a memory burned into his mind. Pardon the lousy pun. And thanks for the vote up, too.

      • Movie Master profile image

        Movie Master 

        6 years ago from United Kingdom

        I should imagine that was terrifying for your dad firing that rocket, without any proper training!

        A fascinating insight into the home guard, well written and interesting, thank you and voted up.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        And then there's WWI, where the British lost nearly 20,000 soldiers killed and 40,000 wounded in one July day.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Compared with WWII the action in Afghanistan is a 'side show'. We read a lot about the heroes fighting the Taliban, and the occasional Yank running riot because of mental problems. We also read - past tense, but it could still be - that some of the Taliban talk with Brummie or Manchester/Bradford accents. In WWII there weren't just 400-odd lost and the odd Yank going up the wall. Think of 'friendly fire', and consider the numbers despatched in training for D-Day at Slapton Sands. The Russians alone lost over two million, many of them needless due to 'Uncle Joe' putting his foot down over Stalingrad. WWII was a 'numbers game'.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for the comment, digitskyes. I'm a little concerned for my own country (and others) along those lines, though it certainly isn't as bad as that. Yet. [end of personal interjection :)]

      • Digitskyes profile image

        Digitskyes 

        6 years ago from Highlands, Scotland

        Wow love the bit with the old and young German soldiers.

        Must have been a terrible thing to see those values taking over your country if you were German and didn't agree with it :/

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thank you very much, Doc. I think that's why I enjoy history so much-- trying to understand what it was like and where we came from.

      • Doc Wordinger profile image

        Doc Wordinger 

        6 years ago from Manchester, UK

        I really enjoyed reading this hub UnnamedHarald. It reminds the reader that everyone in Britain had an important role to play during the war regardless of age. It was a giant team effort and we have a lot to be thankful for today. I've often tried to imagine what it must have been like to live through World War II, either as a fellow Brit, or as a citizen in an occupied country like France. I'm just glad that my generation, and yours, haven't had to experience it for real, and hopefully never will.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for the interesting comment, alancaster. "Dad's Army" was hilarious-- my dad said some of the antics and characters were fairly typical in his opinion. I had an uncle who supposedly got re-routed from the Hood's last embarcation before she ran into the Bismarck.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        Hello there,

        Nice bit of everyday history you've given us. Dad's Army was an essential element, if not purely for morale value. They gave sterling service as well. The episodes on the 'box' with Arthur Lowe, John LeMesurier, Ian Lavender and co. must have been drawn from actual reports, so the one with Philip Madoc as the U-Boat captain (translating the requirements of his men in the fish'n'chip sketch was hilarious) may well have happened to one platoon at least.

        My Dad and one uncle were involved in the 'glamour' up to their ears, Dad going up through North Africa, Sicily and Italy, uncle Harold in the Navy everywhere else (an didn't he let you know! Still, he meant well). Dad might have been training other soldiers at Catterick with stripes on his arm but he wanted some action. And he got it, in the arm. A narrow squeak! I think Harold was in a life raft more than once. My father-in-law started in the Merchant Marine but transferred to ground crew in the RAF (family man), working on Lancasters... Funny that, to think his daughter married one. Only uniforms I've worn were a) Scouts, b) Security, c)Royal Mail and d) Museum Steward at Lord's ground.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Dadibobs, thanks for sharing this.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks, Rufus. It's one thing to read the history books and quite another to hear and read what ordinary people went through. I just discovered your hubs with your great-grandfather's letters so I look forward to reading them. I appreciate the vote up.

      • Rufus rambles profile image

        Rufus rambles 

        6 years ago from Australia

        Voted up. This hub just shows that sometimes people's contributions might seem trivial or unimportant. But they are still a vital part in the machine. My great grandfather did happen to be in fierce battles in World War One and I suppose that is more "heroic" but at the same time, my grandfather (his son) was in World War Two in the Navy and while he did see some action, he always played it down. He would not have been as exposed to death and battles as my great-grandfather, but he still protected Australia's waters and played a very important role in the Battle of the Coral Sea. I think that just the fact that these men and women were prepared to risk their lives and have the altruism to put their own safety aside shows that they deserve our respect. These days, so many young men I know would never in a million years risk their lives, let alone losing their families or relationships for anything at all that wouldn't directly benefit them. My great grandfather's letters were recently discovered and I have scanned and transcribed them on my hub. They reveal the very human face of war and while even he played down his experiences, my knowledge of the battles he fought in at Gallipoli and Pozieres show that despite his modesty - he fought in some of the most dangerous and fierce battles of all time. Thanks for this hub. Voting up.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for the Vote Up, george; it's much appreciated. I imagine being a skipper in the merchant service would have been fraught with danger, what with all the U-Boats in the Atlantic.

      • georgethegent profile image

        georgethegent 

        6 years ago from Hillswick, Shetland, UK

        Very interesting, I've heard so little about the Home Guard in WW2 as there was no talk of it in my family, probably due to different personal history. My father was a skipper in the merchant service and my mother was in the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRENS). If you have any more then I'd love to hear it. Definitely voted up!!!

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thank you, phdast. Members of the Home Guard went about their normal daily lives, living at home, etc. unless on duty or, as I mentioned, during air raids. It was a curious mixture of the old and young and some hardened veterans of the First World War. There was a British TV series called "Dad's Army" which was hilarious, but also protrayed life in the HG somewhat factually.

      • phdast7 profile image

        Theresa Ast 

        6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

        Good Hub. Nice perspective from a teenager. Thanks for explaining what the Home Guard was. I had seen the prase in books but never knew exactly what it stood for.

      • dadibobs profile image

        dadibobs 

        6 years ago from Manchester, England

        No problem, I'm sorry if i came over a bit preachy :)

        You wrote a great hub regardless!

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        I appreciate your comment very much, dadibobs. My dad, though, would be the first to say there was no glamor in what he did, and he also would play down his role. Perhaps I expressed some of his reticence in my article. In no way did I intend to imply what he did was not important-- there might be too much of his British understatement in it. Thanks again for bringing this to my attention.

      • dadibobs profile image

        dadibobs 

        6 years ago from Manchester, England

        I disagree with your thoughts on the glamour element. Your Grandad helped to keep the skies clear of bombers and helped to keep the German prisoners in line, without men like your Grandad, we would have lost the war. Every aspect of the armed forces is vital, he is as much a hero as the chaps who survived Dunkirk and Normandy.

        Grandads like yours are the unsung heroes.

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