HL Deb 20 November 1940 vol 117 cc703-16

VISCOUNT BUCKMASTER rose to call attention to the proposed changes in the organisation of the Home Guard; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I am indeed anxious in present circumstances not to take up your Lordships' time if it can be avoided. I was therefore in some doubt as to whether I should put this Motion on the Paper or not. If we accept, as I believe we must, that in the course of next year our maximum effort will have to be exerted outside this country, weakening to a certain extent the defences here, and if we accept also that Hitler may realise he cannot win the war outside this island and may then be tempted, if not driven, to invade it, we are forced, in my view, to grant to the Home Guard an importance which cannot be denied. I [...] this matter should have been debated in another place only yesterday, so that your Lordships have not had an opportunity of fully considering what was then said. I had understood it would have been debated in another place last Thursday, and my Motion would then have given your Lordships ample time to pass in review what transpired.

We have heard the new decisions of the Army Council, and in the main we must welcome them, but we may feel that in some respects they do not go quite far enough. In particular, we notice that the conditions of service are not to be altered. These conditions, to my mind, contain two essential weaknesses. One is that a member of the Home Guard can resign at fourteen days' notice; the other is that there is no power to compel him to attend instructional parades. This question of notice has been very fully discussed in your Lordships' House before, and I shall not labour the point now, except to say that, in practice, even the fourteen days' notice disappears. There have been cases—not many it is true—in which men have handed in their rifles, told the commanding officer they were going, and have gone. In such cases there is no proper action which the commanding officer can take. All of us admit that some right of resignation should be given, and I suggest to your Lordships that if the right to resign is limited to cases where the reason is a good one, and where the commanding officer gives his consent, then the Home Guard will have been very fairly dealt with.

If we deal with the problem of getting attendance for instructional parades we are of course confronted with the issue that always faces us when we are dealing with volunteer organisations. In some units attendance on parade is extremely good—90 per cent. In others unfortunately it is a bare 50 per cent. It is always difficult to select a time for these parades that will suit everyone, and I do not suggest that these men do not attend through lack of keenness. I think it is in some cases partly because they do not understand that the training is a most important part of the work of the Home Guard and they do not fully realise the seriousness of the duties that have to be undertaken. But be that as it may, your Lordships do not need telling by me that untrained men even in the Home Guard are of little use. They may, in fact, constitute a source of danger. This difficulty can be overcome if we are prepared to ask the Home Guard to sign a new agreement. I suggest that attendance on parade should be insisted upon, but that the parades should be spread over a reasonable period of time and that the prime consideration should be that the time fixed should, as far as possible, be such as will suit the men's convenience. If we could get an agreement on these lines, embodying also the right to resign for a valid reason and for no other, then I think we should have done more to strengthen the Home Guard than any other proposal which, at the moment, I can suggest.

Assuming that this is done, and that we get the men to attend these parades in full strength, we still have to consider the nature and extent of the training which they are to receive. I am sorry to say that in some units now that outposts have been drawn in, there is a tendency, like Caesar's, of old, to hibernate. They are satisfied with an occasional lecture and a church parade once a month. The enthusiasm of the Home Guard does not need kindling, but if the position is dealt with on these lines in that way, then that enthusiasm will be damped and will finally be extinguished. This question of training is a very vital thing. The Home Guard are not professionals and those who have had previous military experience find to their distress that to a large extent their knowledge is now out of date, and if they are to be adequately trained it can only be done if the Army makes itself responsible. I want to make myself clear. I do not suggest that the Army should do the training, but that the Army should be responsible for seeing that in fact training is done. There does exist at the present moment very real co-operation between the Army and the Home Guard.

In some cases this co-operation is not quite as willing as one would like it to be, but in most cases, especially in the area with which I am familiar, it is freely and generously given. I would like, if I may, to pay some tribute to the commanding officers who have given up their time to plan this training and also to those young officers, non-commissioned officers and men who have given up their time and sometimes their Sundays of their own free will to train these men. They do not ask for any reward but they have it in the very real gratitude and genuine appreciation which the Home Guard have shown them. None the less, even that is not enough because if the Home Guard commander asks for nothing, nothing in fact is done. In one case which I have in mind, there are two units side by side. In one the commanding officer has approached the Army and a full, interesting and active programme of training has been embarked upon. In the other nothing has been done. What is the result? The men are idle and now they are approaching their friends in the other unit asking whether they may join in the programme which has been prepared.

With your Lordships' permission, I would like to ask my noble friend a specific question upon this point. The War Office Instruction to Home Guards No. 14, 1940, says in substance that it is important that Home Guard units should have no doubts about the rôle allotted to them, and the kind of training to carry it out. Then it goes on—and this is the real point— This [training] is the responsibility of the military commander of the area in which the Home Guard unit is located. I have not been able to find any military commander who has ever seen this pamphlet nor have I heard of one who would accept the responsibility referred to in it. Does the instruction in fact mean what it says, and if so, will my noble friend take steps to see that it is understood in this sense?

We can only welcome the provision that Commissions are going to be granted, yet something must be said in this connection. At the present moment the Home Guard has this virtue, that it can rid itself of its officers if they are not too exalted in their rank. Once they have been granted Commissions this would not be so easy. It would appear from such reports as one has seen of what took place in another place as if there is to be a Selection Committee comprised largely of members of the Home Guard who will select those to whom these Commissions are to be granted. Now one must remember—I regret to say—that some of these senior officers may not be efficient. There are units—I will give my noble friend specific information if he wishes—in which hardly a single man knows the name of the battalion commander. I know of one in which since last June the battalion commander has once only appeared and then at a formal parade. He has never attended any instructional parade or been present at any work which the men are doing. If a man of that type is to be one of the Selection Committee he surely cannot have the knowledge to pass judgment on the officers who are serving under him. I hope that difficulty can be overcome in some way. I dislike the idea of a unit selecting its own officers, but it might be that the subordinate officers anyhow should be allowed to express some opinion as to those who are to lead them. This question of leadership is almost as vital as training, and by it in fact the Home Guard must stand or fall.

I do not think that much need be said by me in regard to the question of equipment. That is coming forward well. There are some little shortages, small size boots being particularly difficult to obtain, but those are not matters of great moment. There are, however, two subordinate considerations in regard to equipment which might be mentioned. One is this: If you take a unit in which the outposts have been withdrawn, is it right that the men who never attend for parades should be issued with battle dress and overcoats? What use are they going to have for them? Would it not be a means of getting them to attend by refusing to issue these things unless they definitely undertake to attend instructional parades on receiving them? The other point is this. As your Lordships know, these men may have their equipment in their own homes. Many of them work in places remote from the district in which they would be called upon to serve if a crisis arose. Might it not be a prudent course to provide that in time of grave crisis, when invasion appears imminent, these men should be ordered to wear uniform and carry their rifles, as the Army do? In such case, if they left their own areas and were willing to join a Home Guard unit in the area in which they found themselves, they would be able to do so.

I have purposely been brief. I hope your Lordships will not feel that the views which I have put forward are mine alone. I would not have ventured to intrude my own personal opinions on your Lordships had they not been to some extent supported by others who have close and intimate knowledge of this subject. We know the spirit of these men and we know that their equipment is now modern—in fact, that their fire power in some cases is greater than that of the battalions of 1914. All we need do now is to see that they have a programme of training properly related to their needs, that they are obliged to undergo this training, and that they get the best leadership we can give them. Then if they are put to the test we need never be in doubt as to the answer that will be given.


My Lords, may I intervene for one minute to make one or two remarks following the very interesting speech from my noble friend Lord Buckmaster? My noble friend referred to one particular point about the training of the Home Guard. He advocated that there should be compulsory parades for the Home Guard. I would ask you to remember that when the Home Guard was introduced into this country it was in order to quell what seemed the possibility of imminent danger of invasion. That was the reason why many of us came forward and offered our services. Many of us were many years over military age, but we were asked to come forward and take our places in the ranks and do what we could to meet the grave and imminent danger of invasion.

Of course the conditions of the Home Guard vary immensely all over the country. May I take my own case? I am working in London, but in my own home district I expressed the wish when I joined the Home Guard in London that farm labourers in my home district should join also and they did. How is a farm labourer going to devote a great deal of his time to attending parades? He cannot plough and look after cattle and attend parades at the same time. He is quite prepared to, and does, make himself as efficient as possible in the use of a rifle, and after all the most important part of our duties is to be able to use a rifle and perhaps a Bren gun, a Browning gun, a Hotchkiss gun—and now I hear there is a new one. We do the best we can. Take another case, that of a bank clerk. In the particular place where I serve in London the post is defended at times by bank clerks. Look at their work. They work all day long until five o'clock in the evening, and then they perhaps have to go on Home Guard duty for several hours. They have to go to work again next morning at nine o'clock or half-past nine It is very noble of these people to come forward and offer their services and spend all that extra time preparing to defend their country, but I think it is impossible to ask them, to waste time learning to turn to the right or left by numbers and salute by numbers on a barrack square. I have had to do that myself. I have been a soldier all my life, but although I do not profess to know half as much as the modern soldier, it is in my view really the limit to waste the time of these men turning to right or left by numbers and saluting by numbers. Thank heaven that has been stopped in my unit because we protested and said our legs would not stand it any longer.

I ask your Lordships to be very careful over this matter of compulsory parade. If you do make parades compulsory you may lose the services of a great many men who are now doing most useful service. We know that generals and colonels have come forward and are acting as private soldiers. They are only too proud to be private soldiers. The proudest day in my life was the day I became a private soldier. I found I had missed my opportunities by being an officer, because a private soldier has nothing to do. We are ready to-day to go to Dover and defend the coast if necessary, but do not ask us to give up all our work as many of us have varying affairs to see to which help to keep the country going—do not let us give all this up to go and spend the time on parades or doing work which we believe is unnecessary. We are ready at any moment, if there is danger of invasion, to go anywhere and to give up our work to fight for our country.

At the end of his speech, my noble friend referred to the question of commissioned rank. I do not think that there is any anxiety about this point. We have commanders of battalions and we have zone commanders. I have heard of no complaints; they are extremely helpful. They listen to any proposals which we have to make, and we get on very well with them. They work very much harder than the rank and file. I do not want your Lordships to think for a moment that there is any ambition on the part of the rank and file to be made officers. We do not want that at all, and it is going to be very difficult, I think, to find the men for the purpose. I make these few remarks because they concern matters which we are continually discussing, and I think that they are germane to this subject.


My Lords, I did not intend to intervene in this debate, but, in view of what the noble Earl has said, I should like very much to endorse his remarks with regard to compulsory parades. In the House of Commons and in the House of Lords it has been extremely difficult, since the inception of this Home Guard movement, to get parades; the members have other duties to perform. At the same time, there is a great desire on the part of those who an able to do so to drill and to attend parades whenever possible, and I feel that parades and drill stimulate men to take an interest in the corps and to take a pride in what they are doing. I feel that our great work is to repel an invasion and to be an emergency reserve for the troops. I feel that at the present time, although matters are in a state of fluidity as regards invasion, the danger still exists. I sincerely hope that the Home Guard will take it seriously to heart that the danger does still exist and will do everything possible to make themselves efficient, so that if they are called upon to take the place of the Regular Army for any reason whatever—either because the Regular troops have gone abroad or because they are transferred to another part of the country—they will be able to play their part. From conversations which I have had during the time that we have been drilling and guarding the Palace of Westminster, I find that that is the main reason stimulating those who are taking an active part in this work.

As the noble Earl has rightly said, every district in this country has different difficulties with which to contend. There are some of those who are serving in the Home Guard of the Palace of Westminster who are also serving in the Home Guard in their constituencies. There are some who are concerned in the making of munitions and who have to go about the country to see that the man-power available in their factories is being used to the fullest extent. If the powers that be, when appointing officers to the various commands, will give them a certain amount of latitude in regard to seeing what work is really essential and can be carried out with efficiency in each district, that will be the right thing to do. I have mentioned these two points because they were suggested to me by what the noble Earl said.


My Lords, the War Office are always very grateful when the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, or any other member of your Lordships' House, displays an interest in this remarkable Force. I should like in particular to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, not only for being extremely interested in this question from the very start, but for serving himself with great enthusiasm and for being a master of his subject. The details of the reorganisation of the Home Guard will be settled very soon, now that, as mentioned in another place yesterday, the Director-General has been appointed. It is only possible at the present moment to discuss the broad outlines of the matter, but I hope that I can give satisfaction to my noble friend with regard to the questions he has put to me.

The position as to the volunteer being able to resign by giving a fortnight's notice is admittedly not ideal, but it is most strongly felt that any other solution would interfere with the whole character of the Force, in that it would necessitate disturbing the normal economic life of the country. Men's conditions of work change very rapidly in these days; by State pressure or the pressure of events they are frequently moved from one place to another, and it is essential that this flexibility in conditions of service should be observed. I should like to remind my noble friend that it is an extremely small number of members of the Force (which can now be described as a vast one) who have taken advantage of that clause. I think that the number is something like 4,000 for the whole country, and of that number probably 90 per cent, have had every reason to resign, because they have been transferred so that their services can be more usefully given for war production in some other area, or have had some other satisfactory reason for their action.

With regard to the second point that he mentioned, the Army is most definitely responsible for the training of the Home Guard. That was laid down, as my noble friend mentioned, in Instruction No. 14 on Training, and has never been departed from. It has been re-emphasized, I think, by the recent decisions which have been taken. The actual extent to which the military commanders are able to provide instructions varies, of course, in different localities. In some cases the training of divisions—which I am glad to say has now for the first time become really possible under large-scale conditions—is of such intensity that it has been impossible in those localities to give all the supervision and help which could be desired. In some cases the supervision of the Home Guard is difficult owing to the scattered nature of the Regular formations in the areas concerned. More and more, however, we are glad to be able to record that the Regular commanders, in the areas in particular, are being brought into closer touch with the Home Guard; and it is now generally understood, I think, that the military commander of the Army in the area where the Home Guard unit is situated is responsible, and it is for him to ensure that the standard of training is sufficient to prepare the unit to play its part.

Where there is a shortage of numbers—and I know that this point has exercised my noble friend—in certain rural and vulnerable areas of this country, it has been necessary to look to the Regular Army to fill the gap. In the case of some such areas the Regular Army has had to be brought in, and there it will remain so long as the present danger is with us. But recruiting is still being allowed in certain areas where there is clearly a shortage, and it is under consideration whether further steps can be taken in collaboration with the civil authorities in order to make the best use of available man-power in such districts. There is no reason to suppose, however, that the shortage, taking the country as a whole, is serious in any large district. It happens to be so in certain areas, but it is not the general rule.

I was rather struck by my noble friend's suggestion that the issue of full clothing and equipment, where it may still be short, should go first to the men who have proved themselves efficient and keen. I think that that is highly desirable and, where there is such a shortage of uniforms, clothing, greatcoats and so on, I think the local officer responsible for the distribution of equipment should take care to see that the efficient men are as far as possible provided for first, in order, as the noble Viscount pointed out, that the man who is on duty has a greatcoat and other essential garments and equipment to meet the conditions of winter.

The question of collecting suitable leaders for the Home Guard, now that Commissions are to be granted, will, I can assure my noble friend, receive the most careful attention of the authorities, and when Commissions are granted the commanders of every district, from the bottom upwards, will come up for review. And that is going to be in the immediate future. I want to assure my noble friend, in answer to the point he raised just now, that the selection is not going to be confused to the Home Guard, that there will be no privileged position. The military commanders by now have a pretty good idea as to the efficiency of the Home Guard commanders, and they will have an undoubted say in this matter. There are, of course, some indifferent leaders—men of good will who are really not up to the job on account of age or for some other reason, though they have done their best; but I think undoubtedly that those who are definitely not up to the job will depart.

Now with regard to the other question which he touched upon—namely, the difficulty of any form of compulsion in regard to training, etc., I want to point out that in the winter conditions there are no definite hours laid down for Home Guard duties. In each locality circumstances vary and the best use is being made of such personnel as may be available, subject to the overriding principle that the Home Guard's civilian occupation must come first. There is an idea, I think, that the hours of work for the Home Guard have been limited from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., but that is not so. It depends upon local conditions. In some districts it may happen that those hours are the ones at which the Home Guard are most readily available. When it is so they are performing a most vital rôle by acting as observers at times when there are no others available, except the police and the Regular Army.

But I would also point out in regard to the difficulties of manning posts in some local districts, about which my noble friend expressed his fears once before, that those difficulties are mitigated, as I think he will agree, owing to the fact that the whole of the agricultural population, now that a change has been made in regard to the hours of summer time, are at work long before dawn. Even in the hours of darkness the countryside is humming with people a large number of whom are trained in Home Guard duties, and the very fact that they are going to their work at these hours will be an additional precaution against any definite effort at landing from the air at that time, when they would be able very speedily to give warning. It is essential in our opinion that there should be some limitation of hours of duty, for the reason given by the noble Earl. You cannot expect a man to be at the same time working at vital agricultural duties and also to be on parade. But we have every reason to hope that he will speedily be at his post when the alarm is given and the church bells ring.

One other question my noble friend raised, and that was with regard to the age limit. The decision was come to only yesterday that from battalion commander downwards the age limit shall be fixed at sixty-five. In general, however, I think it may be said that the duties of those who hold the higher administrative posts are not such as would necessitate the age limit being strictly applied. Exceptions may be made and I think anybody who is conversant with the machinery of the Home Guard will agree that a Zone Commander or an Area Commander, who may be a very distinguished soldier, is no less capable of carrying out his duties than let us say some of the senior Generals of the past—men like Lord Roberts or Marshal Joffre or Hindenburg, or other highly efficient soldiers of the past who have been able to fulfil far greater duties. Therefore we do not intend to be absolutely rigid for the higher commands, but we do realise that the modern conditions of war—and you are going to be up against a savage enemy—demand that you must have men who are active and able to meet the enemy in modern conditions.

It may interest the noble Viscount to know that I heard only to-day from a relative of mine who has a very large Command in the Home Guard and who has written me on many occasions—not complaining, but demanding the very best or the Home Guard. I have been a little bit anxious that this correspondence, as the newspapers say, "should cease," but I have a letter from him to-day in which he says that it is extraordinary now how the stuff is coming forward, and its quality also. In this very large Command the men are really happy in the knowledge that they have a very considerable lire power should the enemy invade his particular county.

In thanking the noble Viscount for raising his question, I would only once more emphasize the supreme importance which the Army Council attach to the Home Guard. Obviously the invasion peril is with us to the end of the war. I cannot conceive myself, indeed, how Hitler can hope to win this war without a successful invasion of this country. This formation of the Home Guard is, perhaps, the most remarkable achievement seen in this or in any other country. I do not believe it could have happened anywhere else. It is not a rigid disciplined force, nor is that intended. It is just one of those extraordinary things which happen in Great Britain where with good will you arrive at the highest kind of efficiency that is within your reach. I do not believe there is any recorded instance where a force of some 1,600,000 or 1,700,000 men within a very few months, without any hope of reward other than the recognition of their service to their country, has demonstrated the good will of the people and their resolute intention to defend their native land. I should just like to add, because the time is opportune, that our thanks are also due, not only to the ex-soldiers but to civilians who have taken such a noble part in this miracle organisation in this remarkably short time. We do appreciate all that they have given in service to their native land.


My Lords, before thanking my noble friend, I should like, with your Lordships' permission, to say one word to my noble friend Lord Clanwilliam. There appears to be some misunderstanding. My purpose was not to get men to turn to the right or left, but to get them to understand the use of modern weapons. While I should appreciate the privilege of serving with my noble friend, I should enjoy it still more if I felt he attended classes for instruction in the latest automatic rifles and latest types of machine guns.


I have been learning that for weeks.


I understood my noble friend did not want to attend such parades. I thank my noble friend Lord Croft for the generous terms in which he expressed himself, and for the full and satisfactory answer he has been good enough to give. In particular, I should like to say how much I welcome the fact that he is alive to this question of numbers which, in certain areas on the coast, is a very vital matter. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.