“Delay, harass and inflict the greatest loss” The Role of the Men and Women of the Huntingdonshire Home Guard 1940-1944

On the 14th May 1940, Anthony Eden issued a call for volunteers not yet engaged on military service. These British subjects, aged between 17 and 65, should: “come forward now and offer their services… to become part of the force now being raised called the Local Defence Volunteers”.

During the next four years, over 1.7 million would take up the call to arms across Britain; in Huntingdonshire alone the Home Guard stood at 3,266 by the end of 1940. This is the story of those brave men and women who “would have fought nobly and to the death if Hitler’s men had invaded”.

Local Defence Volunteers mustering with their government issue armband. Picture courtesy of IWM.

Local Defence Volunteers – Inauspicious beginnings
The formation of a Local Defence Volunteer (LDV) force started immediately following Anthony Eden’s address. Huntingdonshire County Council issued a call for volunteers to sign up at police stations, and within six weeks 2,800 men had signed up. It was still unclear just what these volunteers would be doing. The government saw them as a passive defence force; maintaining roadblocks, using anti-aircraft weapons and guarding installations. This was at odds with the volunteers who begun to take a more active role; patrolling areas on foot, horse and boat to watch for paratroopers and even creating armoured vehicles by welding steel plates to civilian vehicles!

At this time there was no chain of command, no uniform (beyond an arm band with LDV on it) and no official issue of weapons. Privately owned firearms were brought along by members, but were far and far between; in the early days of the St. Neots LDVs there was only one shotgun and only their commander (an ex-sergeant from the first world war) had any military experience. This led to a large number of improvised weapons, ranging from kitchen knives to homemade explosives!

By September 1940, volunteers had a full uniform (battle dress, boots and greatcoats) but still no steel helmets – something which caused a great deal of grumbling for Home Guard members. They were also beginning to be armed with rifles and machine guns, whilst grenades were being issued sparingly. To make up the deficit, lists of local gun-owners were drawn up and shotguns and rifles borrowed at convenient times for shooting drills. Despite this sudden proliferation of firearms, Home Guard members were not entrusted with ammunition until they were deemed safe and proficient with their firearm first.

St. Neots Home Guard later in the war outside the Old Falcon on the Market Place. Courtesy of St. Neots Museum.

Home Guard – “the spirit of resistance
By the end of the year, official rank structures were introduced, and the ad-hoc village and town forces across Huntingdonshire were drawn up into platoons and companies divided between three battalions. The military role of the newly named ‘Home Guard’ was also settled upon; they were to be the first-line of defence in case of invasion, tasked to deal maximum casualties and cause maximum delay for invading forces.

Whilst the majority of members were male, there were some female members of the Home Guard. The female soldiery were prohibited from combatant or front-line duty, but they played an important role in administration, communications, logistics and medical support.

There were a number of female privates in the Intelligence Section of the Huntingdonshire Home Guard which was based in St. Ives under Col. Wilson. They alone were trained in radio usage, and also took part in company drills and practices. All had their roles in the event of an invasion. Unlike their male colleagues they had no uniform issued beyond a small bakelite brooch (easily discardable to safeguard them in the event of an invasion).

Bren Gun Carriers of the kind made available to the Home Guard in limited numbers. The pictured vehicles are on deployment with Regular Forces in Malaysia. Courtesy of IWM.

The Home Guard, whilst never fully (or even adequately) armed, were nonetheless surprisingly well trained. As well as theoretical lectures on how to detect and prevent espionage by enemy agents, street fighting techniques and how best to make “mollitoff bottles” (Molotov Cocktails) there was extensive in field training sessions held day and night in all weathers, at platoon and company levels. There was also live-ammunition training with machine guns, shotguns and grenades, and training on use of vehicles – one Home Guard driver crashed his Bren-carrier through the parapet of the St. Ives town bridge in 1941 during manoeuvres!

Weapons training was also apt to prove dangerous at times. Many members had little if any experience handling firearms; one trainee managed to hospitalise himself by dropping his sten gun and shooting himself in the foot, whilst another (not realising his machine gun was on automatic fire mode) lost control of the weapon in the St. Neots Drill hall, emptying the entire magazine through the ceiling.

As important as training individuals was planning for the worst-case scenario. Every settlement had an “Invasion Committee” which drew up plans for emergency water and food supplies, first aid posts and where trenches needed to be dug, in case the Germans landed. Villages were not expected to put up resistance to an invading force but the towns were another matter.

… and Planning
Each town had defence plans based around holding a “keep” for as long as possible; in St. Ives, Huntingdon and St. Neots these “keeps” were focussed around the bridges crossing the Ouse. Rivers were natural “stop lines” which could slow an invasion if every bridge and ford was denied to the enemy.

For example, in Huntingdon, one hundred men of No. 4 Platoon (Godmanchester) were to defend the town bridge with guns on Castle Hill, the hosiery mill and Godmanchester train station. More forces (No.1 Platoon) were defending Huntingdon train station and a smaller force was garrisoned on the Iron Bridge on Ermine Street. The Home Guard were to defend their positions to the last man, the standing order being that “under no circumstances will the garrison withdraw”. When the situation was deemed hopeless bridges over rivers were to be blown up with preset explosives.

The defenders were not just Home Guard personnel – every household in Huntingdon was issued a booklet in 1942 advising that;

When the time comes, civil defence workers and others … must fight in close defence of the town; in streets and houses with bomb, bayonet, tommy gun, molotov cocktail etc.

Home Guard during exercises. Courtesy of IWM.

Should an invasion have happened, the survival chances for the poorly armed Home Guard would have been non-existent, especially as there was no expectation of regular military forces joining the defences. It is highly unlikely that the quasi-military Home Guard would have been respected as combatants by invading Germans; these government approved orders and defences would have simply led to massacres at every population centre, the invasion being slowed by scant hours.

The “Battle” of Ingram Street
The soldiers of the Home Guard were realistic about their life-expectancy when the invasion came; they knew just how long they could “hold out”. This is because the defensive plans for population strategies were tested in invasion exercises through the early years of the war. Elaborate invasions were planned and attacks then made on Home Guard defences.

On 27th September 1942, an invasion exercise in Huntingdon assumed the Germans had landed in Norfolk six days prior and were advancing westward. These exercises were as realistic as was possible with blank firing, smoke bombs and thunder flashes to simulate artillery and grenades, and sometimes RAF planes would “buzz” defences by flying low over head to simulate German dive-bombers. Observers with white armbands would note down how the exercises went and write up reports afterwards. It was often other Home Guard companies that acted as German forces – occasionally even being dressed in captured German battledress! The exercises could go on some time and were incredibly in-depth. The “Battle of Ingram Street” was covered in the local news;

frequent explosions and flashes, belching clouds of smoke, fire engines and ambulances racing through the streets … the scene at Huntingdon was as realistic as it could possibly be

Ramsey Mereside Home Guard, the platoon who failed notify locals prior to conducting invasion exerises!

An eye witness to another exercise noted “a whole troop of soldiers in Cambridge Street in Godmanchester … attacking and defending a pink coloured large ruined house”, whilst in Ramsey Mereside, an exercise caused panic amongst residents who were not notified beforehand.

“What did you do in the war?”
The Home Guard had duties to attend to. As well as preparing for the expected invasion, they helped with guarding some of the RAF, and later in the war USAF, bases in the area – freeing up regular troops for other duties. In a country with no sign-posts left up they would act as local guides for passing troops, as well as manning checkpoints on key roads and delivering messages on foot, by bike, motorbike or pigeon!

The Home Guard Platoon who operated the anti-aircraft gun at Little Barford Power Station. Courtesy of St. Neots Museum.

Some units acted as anti-aircraft spotters and gunners; Home Guard snipers fired at German bombers attacking an army camp in St. Neots in 1941 and routinely manned an anti-aircraft gun (made of four machine guns bolted together!) on top of Barford power station. As a uniformed and organised force they would often support ARW (Air Raid Wardens) and the firemen of the National Fire Service in fighting fires, and acting as first responders for bombing raids and the not-infrequent plane crashes that occurred.

Slightly more high tech anti-aircraft guns being operated by members of the Home Guard. Courtesy of IWM.

In some cases they assisted with tracking down escaped POW’s; Private Shelton (of D Company, Third Battalion) notably shooting and killing Antonio Ameo, an Italian prisoner who had killed a guard, stolen his rifle and holed up in a farm at Pertenhall in 1943. Home Guard members also arrested hostile airmen who had bailed out over Huntingdonshire, such as in 1941 when four airmen were captured just over the Bedfordshire border. They were trained to watch out for German agents and paratroopers, and arrest or kill them if encountered. Most famously, the Ramsey Home Guard arrested a certain Josef Jakobs.

Josef Jakobs – Dentist turned Spy
Josef Jakobs was a German dentist-turned-counterfeiter who had been interred in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in 1940 for his criminal activities. He was released into the custody of the German Military Intelligence Service, who trained him as a spy.

Josef Jakobs, dentist-turned-counterfeiter-turned-spy.

Josef was dropped into Britain by parachute on 31st January 1941. He was carrying British papers, £497 in ready cash, a radio, German sausage and a flask of brandy. A mishap in the parachute drop (either when leaving the aircraft or on landing) badly fractured his ankle, and as a result when he landed outside Ramsey he was unable to get far.

He was swiftly arrested the next morning by Corporal H. Godfrey of the Ramsey Home Guard after two local farm workers reported their suspicions of this unknown man. When searched, his clothing was found to have German labels and his papers were found to be fake. He was taken into formal custody by the police and escorted to London handcuffed to Inspector Horace Jenkins of the Ramsey Police.

After several months in hospital he was interrogated by MI5 who deemed him unsuitable for use as a double agent, instead he was formally charged with espionage under the Treachery Act (1940). He was condemned following evidence given by the Ramsey Home Guard officers and NCO’s involved in his arrest and sentenced to death.

Ramsey Home Guard Platoon, Corporal Harry Godfrey can be seen back row fourth from right.

He was executed by firing squad at the Tower of London and buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London. Not only was Josef the first German spy to be executed in the war, he was also the last person to be executed in the Tower of London.

Certificate issued to all who served with the Home Guard during the war.

By 1944, the tide of war had turned quite definitely against Germany and her allies, and as road blocks and barbed wire were being removed from Huntingdonshire the Home Guard was being wound down. As early as the Normandy landings in June, members of the Huntingdonshire Home Guard were being transferred to coastal Home Guard units to free up more regular troops.

The Home Guard were stood down from active service nationwide on 3rd December 1944. Final parades were held, platoon and company photographs taken and weapons returned to the authorities, however personnel kept their uniforms in case they were needed again before the war ended. The final parade for the Huntingdonshire Home Guard was on December 7th, when seven hundred men mustered on Mill Common, marched through the town and were addressed by Col. Wilson;

you have helped to stave off the invasion: you have helped to turn defeat into the coming victory: you have done your duty honourably and well”.

The Home Guard was officially disbanded on December 31st 1945. Of the over three thousand men and women who had joined up during the course of the war, three were killed in the performance of their duties;

This blogpost is dedicated to their memory:

Private Leslie Borson, 2nd Hunts Battalion
Private Eric Moore, 2nd Hunts Battalion
Private George John Austin Taylor, 1st Hunts Battalion

N.B. I could only find reference to these three casualties from the Huntingdonshire Home Guard, if I have missed any others please do get in touch and I will amend this dedication.

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

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