HL Deb 10 December 1941 vol 121 cc242-53

THE EARL OF MANSFIELD rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will consider the advisability of introducing legislation to make membership of the Home Guard compulsory, save in exceptional circumstances, for all men, up to the age of 45, who are excused military service for any reason other than on medical grounds, and who do not belong to any part-time Civil Defence Service, and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, when I originally sent in the Motion standing in my name, I had no idea that within some three days of doing so a statement would be made which apparently covers the point that I wished to argue before your Lordships. I fear that it would be presumptuous on my part to suggest that it was a case of cause and effect, but the question naturally arose of whether there was any need, therefore, to persist with my Motion. On consideration, I decided that it would be well that the Motion should remain upon the Paper and be briefly discussed, since the very welcome decision of His Majesty's Government is going to bring forward certain extremely important problems in connexion with the application of the new Regulations to the Home Guard. My qualifications for raising the matter at all are simply these, that, like many other people who were unable to find more active employment, I joined the Home Guard as a volunteer on the day it was started, and have been successively section leader, platoon commander and company commander. I am therefore, I think, in a position to speak from the point of view of how the new situation will affect the working of a Home Guard company, particularly in the rural areas; and, mutatis mutandis, I think that most of my observations will be more or less applicable to conditions in the more thickly-populated districts, of which I have no personal experience as far as the administration of the Home Guard is concerned.

There are really only two points that I wish to bring to the notice of your Lordships, and I understand from my noble friend, Lord Croft, that he will naturally be unable to make any definite reply to these points; but he has been kind enough to promise that he will lay them before the proper authority for consideration before a final statement is made here and in another place. The first point is that it is obvious that, if there is to be conscription for the Home Guard, there must also be compulsory attendance at a certain number of drills, parades, or lectures each month. It has been fairly widely stated in the Press that the period is likely to be some 48 hours per month as a minimum. Even the British Press, however, is not always infallible, and it may be that this estimate is merely intelligent anticipation; but I wish to suggest to your Lordships that, should it be correct, 48 hours per month as a minimum is quite an impossible figure. It would mean that were each member of the Home Guard to attend every other night, his period of attendance would have to be for three hours on each occasion. As the great majority of members of the Home Guard of all ages are engaged in whole-time work, very often of national importance, it is hardly reasonable to suppose that they would be able to come every other night; certainly they would not be able to do so in the country areas.

Take, for example, what is admittedly a rather extreme case. Each spring one of my platoons has almost to go into what may be called cold storage for several weeks, simply because that is the lambing season, and nearly all the members of that platoon are hill farmers, shepherds or gamekeepers and others who assist with the lambing. At that season of the year the working day of the shepherd probably starts before four o'clock in the morning and may well finish after ten o'clock at night, and that arrangement lasts for a period of several weeks. Admittedly that is pushing matters to extremes; but at the same time it is quite impossible to expect men engaged in agriculture or forestry, for example, working very long hours, to be able to come home, change into uniform and get themselves clean, have their evening meal, which is probably the principal meal of the day, walk or bicycle a good many miles in many cases, do three to four hours' work, go home again, and be in a fit state to start on their normal vocation the following day. I would most emphatically suggest that any compulsory figure should be of a fairly low nature, say not more than about 20 hours per month, and it should be left to each Battalion Commander, in consultation with his Company Commanders, to fix the number of hours which can be reasonably put in by the men under his command.

Next we come to an even more important point. Now that, somewhat belatedly, National Service is to be applied compulsorily, practically all round, the position of officers and non-commissioned officers in the Home Guard between the ages of 40 and 50 is going to become one of very great importance, and I do suggest that most careful consideration must be given to the advisability of very likely almost wholesale exemptions of such men. provided they are in other ways justifying their existence. The reason is that there are a good many men in the Home Guard—most of them in fact—who are either middle-aged or up to quite old age. The number who are really fit for active service in the field for a period of days or weeks is comparatively small, and, while we are perfectly confident that any invasion that is ever made in this country will be effectively repelled and the invaders destroyed to the last man, neither the Navy nor the Air Force has ever made any attempt to promise—indeed has expressly said it could not promise—that considerable forces could not be landed from the sea or from the air in certain areas in this country, forces which, although they would be rounded up pretty rapidly, might still give very considerable trouble and might hold limited districts for a period of days, or even weeks, before being exterminated.

During such a period, if such an invasion ever came to pass, the Home Guard would of course be on active service. Their conditions would be difficult. Their headquarters, platoons, companies, even battalions would very likely, particularly in the remoter areas, be no longer in comfortable buildings but in dilapidated cowsheds, quarry holes and the like, and perhaps a number of these men in a period of bad weather would be unable to stand exposure, with little food, and none of it hot. Moreover, even if the matter did not become as serious as that, even if they were merely kept at action stations in anticipation of an invasion, which very likely might never materialize, it would still mean throwing, for a period possibly of weeks, a very severe strain on these elder men, and it would be most unfortunate if a large proportion of the younger officers—using the word "younger" as implying men under fifty—were to be removed, because it might well mean that there would be very few substitutes to take their places.

Furthermore, possibly more important is the question of the training of the Home Guard. I do not know how many hundreds of thousands of men the new Regulations are likely to bring into the ranks of the Home Guard. Very likely the War Office itself has not yet any idea of what the numbers may be, but those numbers are bound to be very considerable. The men will be almost all completely untrained, and they are therefore going to require to be drilled in recruit classes. That is to say, in many areas the existing number of squads, classes, lectures, and drills will have to be virtually doubled. At the same time all the existing Home Guard detachments will have to be continued with their training, which is becoming ever more intensive, and it is going to be very difficult, even under present conditions, to find enough qualified instructors. For a long time we have had the most extraordinarily valuable and encouraging help given from the Regular Army, and I would like to express here my great gratitude to our own local regiment and to all the other battalions who have been stationed in our area for the help they have given, without which training would have been virtually impossible.

But we have been told that this help from the Regulars, at least on the scale which we have had, could be only of a temporary nature, and we have been instructed, and very rightly instructed, that it is our duty to provide as quickly as might be enough instructors from our own ranks, both officers and non-commissioned officers, who would be able to take over the duties hitherto performed by officers and non-commissioned officers of the Regular Army. This is particularly important in view of the fact that the Home Guard is provided with a variety of weapons, many of which do not come within the scope of the Regular Army at all, and the Regular Army docs not know how to work them. The only instructors we have, therefore, are the Home Guard themselves, who have been to the various training schools or who have undergone courses of instruction in order to learn all about these weapons and how to use them, and, most important of all, how to teach their men to use them. More weapons of a kind unknown to the Army are promised to us in the near future. I think your Lordships will agree that the public discussion of these weapons is not advisable. I merely state the fact that they are coming, we hope in the near future—very nice weapons, and of a very formidable kind, but they are all going to mean more instructors, and all these instructors will have to be Home Guards. Some of these Home Guards have already been trained, others are training. On Saturday of this week I, for example, following most of the officers of our battalion, am going off on a week's course in order to learn about these weapons.

If now you are going to call up the officers and non-commissioned officers of the Home Guard, either those who are between the ages of forty and fifty or younger men who up to the present have been exempt, you are certainly going to make the carrying on of the present training very difficult indeed, if not impossible, and you are going to render entirely impossible the training of those raw recruits whom we must expect in the next few months in very large numbers. That is why I would ask His Majesty's Government to consider very carefully whether any good purpose is going to be served by taking efficient guerrilla fighters who have been trained for the purpose of instructing their men, not for parade ground drill, but in the quickest and most efficacious manner of killing Germans, and transferring them, not to forces which are going on active service but to the Balloon Barrage, the guarding of aerodromes and the like. 1 submit that fully trained Home Guard officers and noncommissioned officers are going to do far more good where they are, and that if they are removed in large numbers the efficiency of the Home Guard as a whole is bound to be impaired.

The situation is likely to become more dangerous as far as this country is concerned. The German onrush in Russia has been definitely stemmed, and the Germans themselves admit that no progress is possible. We must therefore expect that they will turn their attention here. The Far Eastern situation, with the very unpleasant news that we have just heard this morning, is a very menacing one, and although 1 have no doubt that there, as elsewhere, we shall ultimately be triumphant, and perhaps before very long, there is likely to be a period of many weeks, if not months, of acute anxiety, and for that reason we must have our home defences in a state of complete efficiency. I hope, therefore, that nothing will be done to impair the efficiency of the Home Guard.

There is just one other point. It may be Scottish obtuseness, but I must say that in my part of the world we were not greatly amused by the Prime Minister's promise that we might be provided with maces and pikes. That was all very well eighteen months ago, when we were formed, and when the original Home Guard detachments might well have qualified, most of them, for the description, "Heath Robinson's Own"; but we are entitled to something a little better now. One of the causes why, in rural areas, recruiting has not been better has been that men, when approached to join, have asked, "Shall I get a rifle?" When the reply comes in the vernacular, roughly speaking, "Not a hope," they then say, "Well, I am not going to join." You cannot really blame them. I think we are entitled to expect that more arms will be made available at a fairly early date. It is going to be of very little use training the large numbers of men who are going to be trained unless these men are going to have at least some proportion of weapons which will enable them to take the field as an active force. These considerations are all I wish to lay before your Lordships to-day. The noble Lord has promised that he will lay them before the requisite quarters, and I am content to leave the matter in his hands. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will agree with the great part of the noble Earl's speech. Speaking for myself, I am in very full agreement with him, though I cannot support the Motion which he has placed on the Paper, for the reasons which I shall briefly describe. I understand that His Majesty's Government, according to the latest White Paper, are taking powers in certain areas where there is a shortage of man-power to direct recruits into the Home Guard, and therefore the main object of the noble Earl will be met in these particulars areas. But where there are plenty of recruits—and my noble friend the Under-Secretary knows quite well that in many districts there is a long waiting list of men who wish to come into the Home Guard but have to wait because establishments are complete—at least let us preserve this voluntary service. The noble Earl has described the self-sacrificing efforts of the officers, noncommissioned officers, and volunteers in his own district to make themselves efficient, but that is because it is a voluntary force. If you introduce compulsion into this voluntary, unpaid force you destroy something which is very precious.

The other observation I venture to make is that the War Office should take very seriously all that the noble Earl has said, and what has been said in your Lordships' House by other noble Lords, as to the need to increase the equipment and weapons of the Home Guard. In some districts they are well equipped and well armed; in others there is still a great deal required. This is a most serious matter. I do not know whether the idea is that only the coastal areas shall receive their full equipment and that the inland areas do not matter. As I see it, the greatest danger will be in the inland areas in the case of trouble. That is where the airborne invasion will probably descend if it comes—great raiding parties sent by-air—and the battalions in the inland districts need arms just as much as those in the coastal areas. Really it is a very serious matter indeed. The noble Earl spoke of every man requiring a rifle. That is all right. The rifle is an admirable weapon, but there are other weapons, besides rifles, and I cannot refrain from telling your Lordships the story, if you do not know it already, of the German airman prisoner who saw a body of men marching about with rifles. He laughed, and was asked why he was laughing—was it because he was pleased to be captured? His reply was, "We look upon the rifle as only being useful for ceremonial purposes." That is an exaggeration, because a rifle in the hands of an expert shot, especially in the mountains of Scotland, is the best possible weapon; but for street fighting, for mopping-up parachutists and so on, there are other weapons of great importance besides the rifle. These we are short of in the Home Guard, and these we require. I hope my noble friend the Under-Secretary, who is aware of the fact, will press on the powers that be the need, now more than ever, of making a great effort to provide the necessary equipment for the Home Guard, and the most modern deadly weapons you can give them.

The preparations which the Germans have made for landings are reported to be very great indeed The figure has been given of 100,000 cheap crash aeroplanes for landing troops. They do not know whether the aeroplanes will get off again or not, but they are prepared to crash them here. Then there are the gliders which can carry ten or twelve soldiers each. The number in preparation this winter is stated to be of the order of 100,000. If there is anything like 100,000 aircraft available for this work they can send a very large force to this country in great raids. I am not worried myself about the conquest of this island. I think we are far too strong for any Army the Germans can bring by sea or air, but I am worried about the amount of damage which can be done by great raiding parties sent by air, and we have the new lesson of what is happening in the Far East to reinforce what we saw in Greece and Crete. The quick answer, the ready answer, to the great air-borne raiding party attempting to blow up bridges and destroy towns and factories is the Home Guard, but the Home Guard must be armed with the most deadly weapons available, and the force must be made up of men of great devotion and resolution, as I am sure they are. That is why I reinforce the plea of the noble Earl and urge—here I believe I am speaking for my colleagues—that, wherever possible, let us preserve the voluntary spirit and the fine patriotism that inspire the Home Guard to-day, and will continue to inspire it in the future.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for the manner in which he has placed his case before us, and I think your Lordships will all agree that he made his three main points with very great clarity. Two of them have been emphasized by the noble Lord opposite, and I can assure him also that everything that has been said to-day by noble Lords who have taken an active part in Home Guard work will naturally receive our earnest consideration. As has already been stated in another place, the National Service (No. 2) Bill will include statutory power to direct men between the ages of eighteen and fifty to serve in the Home Guard in areas where it is necessary, and to direct them to attend for the duties and training necessary to their efficiency. This power will be exercised by regulation, and opportunity for debate will be given if necessary.

I may mention here that any figures which the noble Earl may have read in the Press are certainly not official. I was myself very surprised to hear the numbers, etc., laid down, and it would be wise for us all to wait until the Regulation is issued. I would add that compulsory service in the Home Guard, being armed service, will be subject to all the rights of appeal and exemption already laid down in the National Service Act. The Prime Minister last week made it abundantly clear that the Government attach the utmost importance to the Home Guard. He described it as our great prop and standby against invasion, and particularly invasion by air-borne troops carried in gliders or crashable aircraft. Since that speech was delivered events have occurred which immensely strengthen the need for the best equipped and most highly trained Home Guard which we can secure without dislocating the industries essential to our war effort. The noble Earl, by calling attention to this question, gives me the opportunity of saying that his views will be most carefully noted and considered. He will realize, as indeed he has suggested, that until the Regulation is issued I am unable to make a fuller statement at this stage. But we hope and expect that the ranks of the Home Guard in country districts where there may still in some cases be a shortage will speedily be filled with adequate reserves for all eventualities.


My Lords, before asking leave to withdraw my Motion there are one or two observations I should like to make. Firstly, in regard to the observations of the noble Lord opposite (Lord Strabolgi), with reference to the rifle, I feel that the noble Lord rather underrates its use in modern war, and even the bayonet, which the clever young men who now set themselves forth to be military experts tell us is a completely useless weapon, has been proved in Crete and elsewhere, to be far from useless at close quarters; it has in fact been shown to be just as formidable as ever it was, and just as much disliked by the Germans. For the rough country in which a great portion of the Home Guards have to carry out their operations, the rifle is absolutely essential, simply because, even if you had a supply of a very large number of very light automatics, which I hope will be the case, it is very doubtful whether the men would be able to get enough ammunition to enable them to work those guns so as to keep up a continuous rate of fire.


I am sure the noble Earl does not wish to misrepresent me. I admitted that the rifle in expert hands had a very great use, and I particularly mentioned its use in the highlands of Scotland and in other open country.


I still maintain that the rifle is useful in other places—in street fighting for instance, as well as in fighting elsewhere—but I agree that light weapons, such as automatics, are needed in greater number, and I put in a special plea that we should provide that useful little weapon the 2-inch mortar. Then there is the question of compulsion. I entirety agree with the noble Lord opposite. I myself dislike conscription, 1 should have liked our old voluntary system to be possible, but we have had to introduce conscription in order to win this war, and that conscription has had to be extended until it has become practically universal. The Party to which the noble Lord belongs is always very insistent upon every one taking a fair share of what has to be done, and of people being put upon an equality. On this question of fairness, I would like your Lordships very briefly to listen to the story of six small farmers. I could give the names, for this is an actual story.

Four of them joined the Home Guard, two refused to do so. One of them disliked having to turn out at an Alert on a cold November morning, and shortly afterwards resigned. Another has lately resigned because he finds that, with the increased ploughing programme on top of his other work, it is very difficult for him to put in his drills. But the two others, whose circumstances are precisely similar to the other four, continue to come in after their day's work for a distance of several miles over very rough roads when they have been working for many hours at their ordinary occupation. They are regular attenders and are among the most satisfactory men I have got. Therefore, I ask, is it fair that the other fellows should escape simply because they do not like to do a lot of extra work on the top of what they are already doing? I submit that they should not be allowed to escape all responsibility for looking after the defence of the country, and that they should not be allowed to do absolutely nothing to help their neighbours. That is why I suggest that compulsion all round would be a fairer method.

There is one other thing the noble Lord opposite said which shocked me. He said—and it was not contradicted by the noble Lord, Lord Croft—that in many areas there is a long waiting list for the Home Guard. If that is correct I consider the War Office is very much to blame. If in any area there is a long waiting list, then new platoons, or companies, or even battalions should have been established long ago. The mere fact that they may not be required in their own areas does not come into the matter. Any man who wishes to join the Home Guard ought to be able to do so.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will permit me to interrupt, I should like to say that the reason I did not intervene on that particular subject was that I had no notice that this question of arms was to be discussed. I think, however, that it is necessary for me to say here that we are satisfied that we are getting more arms of every description week by week and month by month, and I hope that will be realized. The noble Lord himself must be aware that this Force grew out of nothing to its vast present strength, and I do not think it is helpful for any one to suggest they could all have been armed immediately. I am very glad to say that a very large increase, especially of automatic weapons, has been coming along. We have machine-guns giving us a greater fire power than I should say we had when we faced the Prussian Guard in 1914. I did not correct the statement that was made about the Home Guard in the big cities and urban areas, because I thought it was generally well known that there were men adequate for the purpose in some cities, and the noble Lord is quite right in saying that there were actually waiting lists. Where there have been forces of the Home Guard in one particular city with a waiting list, it has been due, in the past, as we know, of course, to a shortage of arms and equipment. Would it have been an encouragement to them to have taken in men in those particular areas when we were steadily proceeding with the armament of the Home Guard in other more vital areas of this country?


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he has said. There is just one other reason why universal conscription would be not only fair but may, in country areas, be very necessary. That is that the numbers have been steadily declining owing to various causes, including death and retirement, and, particularly, the calling up of men; and, moreover, that most valuable institution the Air Training Corps is taking away a considerable number of the lads who would otherwise have joined the Home Guard. I believe I am correct in saying there is no reason why they should not belong to both organizations, but very few can possibly spare the time to attend the drills of both. For this reason I think that if we are to maintain our strength in country areas some form of compulsion will have to be applied, for the reason of fairness as well as for the other reasons I have given. I thank the noble Lord very much for the considerate reply he has given, which was all, I know, that could possibly be expected from him. I therefore beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.