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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Formation of the Home Guard

14 May 1940

Location: Britain
Players: Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden (Secretary of State for War), Sir Edmund Ironside
Outcome: The creation of a volunteer army to defend Britain's shores against invasion from Germany.

The government had not anticipated that it might establish a volunteer army made up of men who for one reason or another were considered unfit to serve. However, the civilian population had their own ideas regarding the defence of the nation: as the threat of invasion became more severe, bands of armed men were reported to be patrolling the countryside.

It became clear to Churchill and his staff that the best outcome would be to legitimise such operations. The creation of an army of Local Defence Volunteers (as they were initially called) was announced on the BBC Home Service by Sir Anthony Eden, addressing 'men of all ages who wish to do something for the defence of their country... Here, then, is the opportunity for which so many of you have been waiting.'

Despite Eden's concerns about safety, the new volunteer corps was something of a loose cannon. Many of the volunteers were men too old or too infirm to join the regular army (if they were not in protected trades and thus exempt from conscription). They were poorly equipped, without regular uniform and they practiced their own quirky versions of military drill. The corps had been launched without any staff, funds, or premises, and it was clear that Eden and his advisors had improvised plans to create, as one observer put it, 'a new army out of nothingness'.

On 27 May 1940, Sir Edmund Ironside was appointed Commander-in-chief of Home Forces. He realised that a static defence system was necessary. This way, Ironside hoped to delay German invasion troops after landing and gain time to bring small mobile reserves into play. If the Germans could be delayed on the beaches then they might lose impetus, and the British volunteer army would have a chance to counter-attack effectively.

On 23 July, the force became known as the Home Guard after Churchill coined the phrase during a BBC broadcast. By the end of July around 1.5 million men had volunteered, a huge figure which reveals the seriousness with which people took the threat of invasion in the summer of 1940.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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