The History & Genealogy of the Second World War Civil Defence

When we think of either the ARP or the Home Guard, our first thought is generally the popular British sitcom “Dad’s Army”, made famous by Captain Mainwaring’s snobbery, Lance Corporal Jones exclaiming “Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring!” and ARP Warden Hodges’ now infamous protestations for people to put their lights out! But there was more to these ‘forgotten souls’ than a television programme.

Photo ‘Forces War Records – Historic Archives’.

The Home Guard were originally named the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) when they were formed in May 1940 after Anthony Eden’s stirring ‘call to arms’ announcement:We want large numbers of men in Great Britain who are British subjects between the ages of 17 and 65 to come forward now and offer their service in order to make assurance doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers.

Eden would later note in his memoirs that the first recruit to volunteer arrived, at the police station, within four minutes of the broadcast ending; however, we don’t know who this person is or where they were from. The LDV was brought about by a need to protect Britain from a potential German invasion. The vast majority of those who volunteered were ex-servicemen who had fought in the First World War. These men had been calling for a ‘civilian’ army and the government knew that these brave souls could be entrusted with the protection of the country as they were not only patriotic but were extremely willing to protect their country. Though the government were very careful as to not allow, a bunch of people being able to roam freely shooting people at free will! Unfortunately, cases did arise where their actions resulted in a loss of life for quite mundane ‘offences’ such as not showing identity papers when asked.

This patriotism was carried through when Churchill decided to re-name the Local Defence Volunteers to the Home Guard, wishing not only for the name to be more closely associated with himself and thus the Home Guard were now seen as a vital, patriotic part of the war effort on the Home Front. Unfortunately, in some cases, Home Guard personnel were ridiculed by children for not being ‘proper soldiers’ such as those serving in the army and other armed forces. Unfortunately, the fact that they did not carry ‘proper’ weapons didn’t help this either, leading to some inventive ideas, my personal favourite being a “paper bag filled with pepper”.

You may note however that some women did join the Home Guard, though this appears to be very few and far between. Predominantly women served in what were called ‘auxiliary positions’ such as becoming cooks, runners and telephone operators. However, many also fired weapons and wore the uniform that men in local units wore. Edith Summerskill MP relentlessly campaigned for women to have these rights. Women would also receive a certificate of gratitude for their duties from 1945 onwards, which read:I have received The King’s command to express His Majesty’s appreciation of the loyal service given voluntarily to her country in a time of grievous danger by [name] as a Woman Home Guard Auxiliary. P.J. Grigg, Secretary of State for War, The War Office, London.

Genealogy is thus an important part of the Second World War and some records of those who served in the Home Guard can be viewed online at the National Archives, where you can also find a handy guide as to find a relative who may have served in the Home Guard. Looking through the records, you’ll find variance’s in age and background throughout Home Guard units – a common thread throughout the units.

You can find more information here:

A.R.P workers making a damaged property safe following a German air raid in the North-east coast of England on 9th June 1940
Photo ‘Forces War Records – Historic Archives’.

The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) service was also an important part of the war effort. The service was formed in April 1937, under then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Their primary function – to protect the British people during air raids by sounding the air raid siren and dealing with ‘the unknown’. As previously mentioned, the service is now more closely associated with ARP Warden Hodges’ protests at people breaking the blackout regulations from “Dad’s Army” and there is some truth to this opinion as well. During the so-called ‘Phoney War’ period, during which between September 1939 and April 1940 nothing appeared to happen in the war, they were seen as “busybodies” more than anything else, mainly because all they appeared to do was ‘whinge’ about chinks of light emanating from households.

However, with the onset of the Blitz, where Coventry, Newcastle upon Tyne and Swansea were just some of the cities bombed (the most notable being London), these perceptions would soon change and as historian Peter Doyle notes, these once “busybodies” would now appear to have a more “calming” effect on the British people. Quite a turn around, it would appear then! Now their duties now not only included blackout duty, but also assessing bomb damage and co-ordinating rescue operations – many will agree, quite an arduous task indeed.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a comprehensive record of all ARP wardens, however one website I’ve found appears to be more helpful in that department:

Further from this, family stories appear to be the only option as to finding out whether a relative of yours was in the ARP service or not.

Civil defence then was one of the most important, if not the most important, aspects of the Second World War on the Home Front. These brave souls put their very lives on the line to protect the country they loved so much. Genealogy can help us trace these seemingly ‘forgotten people’ and make the world remember the sacrifices they made. Were the later perceptions seen in “Dad’s Army” true though? Perhaps the words of George MacDonald Fraser, an infantryman in Burma during the war, sums it up best by saying:”anyone who supposes that Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army is a latter-day caricature can rest assured that Mainwaring was there.”

Written by Daniel Wood, Historical Consultant of Family History 4 Beginners 10/8/2015