After war broke out in September 1939, there was a national feeling of ‘wanting to do something’, not least among ex-regulars of the First World War. Even at this early stage, the possibility of German paratroopers and Fifth Columnists landing in the fields of Britain was seen as a real threat - a threat that was to become a reality in the invasion of Holland - and a number of volunteer groups had sprung up to keep watch and patrol some of the more vulnerable areas. In Ross-on-Wye, Lady Helena Gleichen formed the Much Marcle Watchers from her staff and tenants, but was unsuccessful in her request to the local Battalion Commander for eighty rifles and ammunition ‘with a couple of machine guns if you have any’. Essex was not to be outdone. The Romford and Hornchurch Troop of the Legion of Frontiersmen was featured when, in March 1940, the Daily Mirror wrote a report on The County of Essex Volunteer Corps, describing it as ‘this vanguard of Britain’s part-time army’. One of the most enthusiastic advocates for a volunteer militia force was the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford, writing in the Chelmsford Diocesan Chronicle of his desire to see a town-guard formed of men aged 40 to 60. He was among the first to offer his support when the LDV was formed.
The immediate result of Anthony Eden’s call to arms was a massive, and somewhat embarrassing, response, far above any means of training or arming the huge numbers of men suddenly available for part-time service. The appointment of Area, Zone and Group organisers was quickly undertaken and, in the absence of a uniform, armbands with the letters ‘LDV’ were temporarily adopted. But the problem of how to provide so many weapons seemed insurmountable. A chronic shortage of all kinds of weaponry - there was a stock of just 70,000 rifles available for the entire country - made systematic arming of the new force impossible. An appeal to the public raised another 20,000 guns, rifles and revolvers but the shortage was still dire and, during the following weeks, led to some strange and wonderful improvisations. Pikes, dating back to the Battle of Trafalgar, were requisitioned from HMS Victory. Blunderbusses, elephant guns and Crimean War rifles were all issued. The acquisition of 24 cutlasses led to one Essex group, commanded by an ex-naval rating, being gloriously named ‘The Cutlass Platoon’. In Chelmsford, the parts of a Hotchkiss gun arrived - but no instructions. So it was put together by trial and error. Some eagerly awaited Sten guns were delivered, only to be destroyed within hours by a bomb.
But gradually the supply problems were overcome. Denim overalls were issued prior to uniforms. Not all volunteers, however, were as lucky as the Harrogate Battalion. Sir Montague Burton lived there and within a week had produced 1500 uniforms, all in Barathea cloth, normally reserved for officers. Organisation of the new force proceeded apace and in July King George VI made the first royal inspection of the LDV at Woodford. Shotguns had quickly become the principal weapon at a great number of units and many an Essex Home Guard farmer kept his 12-bore cleaned and polished for the coming fray. However, by the autumn, half a million rifles - Ross, Springfield, Remington, and even Thompson sub-machine guns - had arrived from Canada and the United States, and the early improvisations could at last be dispensed with.
In the early days, the countering of enemy paratroopers and the forming and manning of road blocks were seen to be the primary duties. Until concrete and steel anti-tank barriers were constructed, road blocks were made from farm wagons, old cars and barbed wire. Even the piles of Clacton Pier were used. The Essex Local Defence Volunteers were responsible for no fewer than 380 road blocks. Soon, pillboxes were to appear in defensive positions across the countryside - 88 in the Danbury Company area alone. In time, the role of the Home Guard changed from patrols, road blocks and the manning of village pillboxes to the creation of ‘defended localities’, ‘nodal points’ and ‘keeps’ as defensive policy altered.
By the summer of 1943, there were nearly 1100 battalions covering every part of the country; a formidable fighting force now armed with an impressive array of weapons. The spigot mortar had been introduced amid great enthusiasm and the Home Guard now had a real means of knocking out enemy armour. Although only a small gun, the bomb which it hurled was disproportionately large and packed a mighty punch. The Molotov cocktail, made and stored in great quantities, was now replaced by the Northover Projector, a ‘pipe gun’, which could launch a glass S.I.P. (Self-Igniting Phosphorus) grenade a distance of 200 yards. The Smith Gun was a 3" calibre smooth-bore anti-tank gun mounted on a sheet metal carriage with 48" disc wheels. Its most unusual, and memorable, feature was its firing position; the gun was designed to be turned onto its right-hand wheel with the other in the air above the four-man crew. In the Colchester Sector, the 8th Essex Battalion Home Guard, with a strength of over 2000, held no fewer than 22 different types of weapon, including Vickers machine-guns, flame-throwers, 2-pounder anti-tank guns and 6-pounder Hotchkiss guns. At centres across Essex, training courses with new weapons were always attended with great zeal. At Bradwell, Tollesbury and Weald Park, near Brentwood, there were often up to 1000 men under canvas.
By June 1944 and the Allied invasion of Normandy, the role of the Home Guard had developed far from its early conception. At anti-aircraft sites throughout Britain, Home Guards now manned 3.7" guns and multiple rocket launchers. They crewed the 4.7" and 6" guns of the coastal artillery batteries and undertook the highly specialised and dangerous work of bomb disposal. At Shoeburyness, a detachment manned an armoured train - ‘the Terror’.
In addition to the major battalions, units of the Home Guard had been formed to cover specific locations, often from men employed at one factory. In Chelmsford, the Hoffman Home Guard protected the ball-bearing works; the Essex Rivers Catchment Board, with its valuable local knowledge of the coastal marshes and inlets, formed a Company, and the 13th Essex (35th G.P.O.) Battalion Home Guard, composed solely of Post Office staff, ensured the safety of vital centres of telecommunication.
When Stand Down came on 1 November 1944, more than one and a half million men had served in the Home Guard. Their dedication and enthusiasm to ‘do their bit’ had far outstripped anything that Anthony Eden could possibly have envisaged over 4 years previously. Before taking the final salute of the Essex Home Guard at Chelmsford on Sunday, 19 November, the Lord Lieutenant of the county, Colonel Sir Francis Whitmore, said, ‘You have, by your sense of duty, by your loyalty and patriotism, contributed pages of tradition to the historical records of our nation... you took a prominent part in the defence of our country at the most critical period of the war... In the name of our County of Essex, I thank you’.
© Fred Nash, ECC