WW2 – A Cornish Story: The Home Guard

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WW2 – A Cornish Story: The Home Guard

After the opening of Hitler’s offensive in Western Europe, on 10 May 1940, a catastrophic sequence of developments unfolded. The British and French armies were overwhelmed by the speed of the German advance, leading to the rapid conquest of the Low Countries and the collapse of France in June.

The United Kingdom was now the only European country left standing against the tide of Nazi aggression, and seemed poised to receive the brunt of another German assault, by air, sea and, quite possibly, on land. Though it is now accepted by many historians that a full-scale German invasion of the island of Britain in 1940 would have been impossible from both a naval and military standpoint, many in the government and much of the British public at the time felt that invasion was a genuine possibility.

Although the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe had been safely rescued from the beaches around Dunkirk in late May 1940, much of their equipment had been lost and many British soldiers needed to be re-trained in order to defend UK territory or serve overseas. As such, a well-equipped and well-trained local force would be needed to guard British shores from a possible enemy invasion.

This was where the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) would come in.

Cornwall Home Guard cadets in training, 21 April 1942. Courtesy of The Archives and Cornish Studies Service, Kresen Kernow [Ref No: corn01969].

Improvised plans for the formation of a ‘home defence force’ had been drawn up by several government departments in Whitehall since October 1939, when Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had called for 500,000 men over the age of 40 to be recruited into what he called a ‘Home Guard’ force, a citizen militia designed to support the Army and protect the country against attacks from the enemy.

On the evening of 14 May 1940, four days after Churchill had become Prime Minister, his War Secretary, Anthony Eden, delivered a broadcast on BBC Radio announcing the formation of the LDV and calling for volunteers to join the force. Eden called on all able-bodied men between the ages of 17 and 65 years, who were not already in military service but wished to defend Britain against invasion, to enroll in the LDV at their local police station, stating: “You will not be paid, but you will receive a uniform and will be armed.”

William Wallis, from St Ives, was among a number of young Cornishmen who answered the call to arms in May 1940. When Wallis reported for duty alongside his father, both men brought their own shotguns with them:

I went straight down to the Drill Hall and they gave me an armband which said ‘LDV’. My father and I both had double-barrel shotguns, and what happened was my mother made me a webbing belt, and I had all the 12-bore cartridges around it, and I looked like John Wayne!

Testimony of William Wallis, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive [Accession No: IWM 28700]

The influx of volunteers to the LDV greatly exceeded expectations. The government had originally anticipated that up to 500,000 men might volunteer; within a week of Eden’s announcement, more than half that number, 250,000, had attempted to register. By July 1940, 1.5 million applicants had been recorded. The LDV primarily recruited two age groups; youths between the ages of 16 and 17½ who were too young to be conscripted, and older men aged 41-65 who were already passed the age limit for regular military service.

The growing popularity of the new force was not lost on Churchill, who would regularly praise the dedication of its volunteers in his wartime broadcasts, and gave it the name by which it is now known: the Home Guard

The recruitment of volunteers and organisation of units generally tended to orientate around local social groups, such as sports clubs. Members of local cricket, rugby and football teams often joined the same unit in rural parishes, villages and towns. Joining the Home Guard provided young men with an opportunity to get basic military training while also enjoying the camaraderie of military life with their friends in the relative comfort and familiarity of their own localities.

However, the Home Guard was not merely a club for young part-time soldiers. Veteran soldiers, who had seen active service during previous conflicts, were also eligible to join the force, and these ex-servicemen would bring valuable experience and knowledge of military life and methods of warfare. Very often, the older veterans already held the rank of Corporal or Sergeant, and became leaders of 8-man squads or 25-30 man ‘battle platoons’. In addition, retired army officers who had served in the First World War, but were now too old to resume their commissions in the regular forces, were appointed to command Home Guard platoons, companies and battalions which were formed after May 1940, receiving command of units in accordance with the rank which they had held upon retirement.

One example of a veteran soldier who served in Cornwall’s Home Guard was Sergeant Edgar Bluett. A portrait of Sergeant Bluett, produced by wartime artist and fellow veteran Home guardsman, Eric Kennington, is housed in the National Army Museum. Bluett is depicted in his Home Guard uniform wearing his service medals, including the 1914 Star, British War medal 1914-20 and the Victory Medal. His medals suggest that he was an ‘Old Contemptable’, a veteran of the original British Expeditionary Force deployed to Belgium in 1914 to stop the advance of the Kaiser’s army, who went on to fight in other campaigns, surviving through the entire duration of the First World War. In the background of the painting is the Cornish seacoast, with what appears to be St Michael’s Mount behind his left shoulder, indicating that he served in a Home Guard battalion in western Cornwall.

The combat experience of veterans like Bluett would surely have benefitted younger and inexperienced volunteers during their training, and may well have contributed greatly to their prowess as soldiers, sailors or airmen when they were later called up to fight in the regular armed forces. In a 1940 BBC broadcast, Churchill said of the Home Guard:

These officers and men, a large proportion of whom have been through the last war, have the strongest desire to attack and come to close quarters with the enemy wherever he may appear.

Throughout the UK, the Home Guard was organised at county level, with each county raising a certain number of local battalions. All county Home Guard battalions fell under the direction of regional headquarters which were organised into Areas and Commands; the Cornwall Home Guard was in the South-Western Area under Southern Command.

In total, there were 14 battalions of the Cornwall Home Guard, along with one independent company recruited from among the residents of the Isles of Scilly.

Battalion:Location/HQ (if not in title):Abbreviation:
1st Cornwall (Stratton) BnBudeCO 1
2nd Cornwall (Coastal) BnDelaboleCO 2
3rd Cornwall (Castle) BnLauncestonCO 3
4th Cornwall (Wadebridge) BnPadstowCO 4
5th Cornwall (St Austell) Bn CO 5
6th Cornwall (Liskeard) Bn CO 6
7th Cornwall (Falmouth) Bn CO 7
8th Cornwall (Helston) Bn CO 8
9th Cornwall (Cambourne) Bn CO 9
10th Cornwall (Truro) Bn CO 10
11th Cornwall (Newquay) Bn CO 11
12th Cornwall (Land’s End) BnPenzanceCO 12
13th Cornwall (Bodmin) Bn CO 13
14th Cornwall (Hayle) Bn CO 14
Isles of Scilly Independent Coy St. Mary’s

Battalion organisation of the Cornwall Home Guard, 1940-1944. Source: www.home-guard.org.uk

Throughout Cornwall, the local Home Guard was divided up into units specific to certain towns and localities, and, typically, each company and battalion was recruited and organised in the vicinity of major towns and urban centers throughout the county. In Helston, for example, the local battalion was the 8th Cornwall (Helston) Battalion.

While there is no exact figure for the number of wartime Home Guard members in Cornwall, the number of volunteers in the South-Western Area peaked at 56,000 in October 1940. Given the fact that an individual Home Guard battalion usually numbered up to a thousand volunteers or more, on the basis of the number of battalions that were formed throughout the county that year, it is possible that as many as 15,000 men had volunteered for the Cornwall Home Guard by the close of 1940.

As was the case in other parts of the UK, South-Western Home Guard volunteers were short of standard army issue weapons, with 30,000 infantry rifles and over 1,300 machine guns. However, the number of private rifles and shot guns in their possession was higher than the national average – almost 1,000 hunting rifles and over 6,000 shotguns.

When William Wallis joined his local Home Guard unit, he was already experienced in the use of weapons. However, he recalled that, although the quality of training was good, the initial shortage of good quality standard issue rifles was an issue:

We had very good training. Because I – what had happened was, before the war started I used to belong to the Rifle Club, in the Drill Hall, and we had .22 rifles, and we used to have targets to shoot at, you know. So I was quite used to using a rifle, you know.

When I went in the Home Guard first, we had the Canadian Ross rifles, but they weren’t very accurate. And, eventually, we got the Lee Enfield .303 rifles, and they were very good, very very accurate. And then we had the gas masks and the tin helmet.

Testimony of William Wallis, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive [Accession No: IWM 28700]

A squad of the Helston Home Guard, photographed with their drill sergeant in the playground of Penrose Road School with a ‘Toffee-Apple’ mortar commonly used during the First World War. Helston Museum [Ref No: HESFM:2010.11011.14].

Cornwall was a coastal county, and, therefore, vulnerable to the possibility of German attack or infiltration by enemy agents. As such, local Home Guard volunteers were tasked with coast-watching duties. In the event of an attack or invasion, they would be responsible for defending the Cornish coastline until the regular armed forces arrived.

The Home Guard virtually covered the whole coast of Cornwall. Cus, I mean they had they Home Guard in Devon, obviously. But it covered right down to Lands’ End, and the Lizard. So everybody was detailed – sometimes you’d be moved somewhere else, you know, and you were taken by like an Army vehicle.

And then we had a little small gun, kind of like mounted, you know, on wheels, and you could move it, and we used to have that. Because what it was, they used to be a bit scared as to whether some of the German MTB boats, you know, or U-boats would come in you see. And this is why they built this big pillbox on Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives. So what you do when you were on duty, you know, you kept looking out to sea. Whether you saw anything rather weird, you know – that’s a boat, what’s that doing here…

Testimony of William Wallis, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive [Accession No: IWM 28700]

In order for the Cornwall Home Guard to be at full readiness for all eventualities, it was necessary for their volunteers to conduct regular drills and engage in constant training. This also involved taking part in exercises and manoeuvres, to rehearse their role as an anti-invasion force. These manoeuvres were conducted in broad daylight as ordinary people got on with their lives, and it was not unusual for farmers and property owners to encounter familiar faces in uniform trespassing on their land or manning fixed positions in their gardens against an imaginary invader.

Roger Clotworthy was a young child during the war years. His father served as a Warrant Officer Band Master in the 9th (Cambourne) Battalion at Redruth. Roger recalled waking up one morning and looking out of the window of his home to find two Home guardsmen hiding in his parent’s front garden:

One morning I looked out of the window to see two Home Guard soldiers hiding behind one of the shrubs in the front garden; they were in full uniform, tin hats and rifles. They saw me looking out of the window and kept smiling and waving. At about ten o’clock, my mother invited them in for a cup of tea and some heavy cake (or duff, as my mother called it) and found out that they were ‘on manoeuvres’. All day long they sat in the garden, or drank tea in our kitchen (one of them let me hold his rifle, it was very heavy) and then at about five o’clock they decided to go home. I remember my mother telling my father about them and saying how very polite they were. My father thought that they had probably got lost and were in the wrong garden.

Excerpt from the memoirs of Roger Clotworthy (submitted to the museum in February 2021)

However, it is a mistake to believe that local Home Guard volunteers had purely leisurely motives in mind when it came to their service. Though most undoubtedly enjoyed their service, it was clear that they took their duty very seriously. If called upon to defend Cornwall’s shores at any moment, these part-time soldiers would have to make the ultimate sacrifice, not just for their King and country, but for their county, their community and their families and neighbours.

It was surely the case that many young men in Cornwall’s Home Guard did eventually sacrifice themselves on the field of battle some years later, in North Africa, Italy, Burma and Normandy, after they had been called up for service in the armed forces. For those who survived the maelstrom of war, it was in no small part due to the training and skills learnt while serving in the Home Guard that helped bring them through, and contributed to their soldierly abilities. Many ex-servicemen, like William Wallis, who went on to serve in the RAF during the war, held onto very cherished memories of service in their local Home Guard battalions with joy and appreciation.

It was, perhaps, also the memories of all the people in their communities, whom they had once guarded back home in Cornwall during the dark days of 1940, which may have kept them going throughout their military service abroad, and when moments became dark, reminded them of what they were fighting for.

Joseph Quinn

Digital Intern (Second World War & Holocaust Partnership Programme)

Top image shows members of the Sithney & Lowertown Home Guard photographed at The Butts, Lowertown. This platoon was part of the 8th (Helston) Battalion, and was formed on 12th May 1942 [Image courtesy of Martine Knight, and submitted in January 2021].

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