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

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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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

© 2011 David Hunt

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