“Although Germany would eventually abandon all plans of landing troops on British soil, the Home Guard (and its oddball arsenal) continued to hold the line until the very end of the war.”
AS THE RAF and the Luftwaffe battled for control of the skies over England throughout the summer and fall of 1940, on the ground Britons of all stripes hurriedly prepared for an all out Axis invasion of the United Kingdom. To meet the threat, the War Office hastily established the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) or Home Guard to augment the understrengthed national army battalions that were manning the defences along England’s Channel coast.
Comprised of middle-aged ‘citizen soldiers’, Home Guard brigades were issued an assortment of equally ad hoc weaponry, much of which had been rushed into production.
Although Germany would eventually abandon all plans of landing troops on British soil, the Home Guard (and its oddball arsenal) continued to hold the line until the very end of the war. Here’s a glimpse at some of their more outlandish weaponry.
Britain left more than 400 tanks and 2,400 heavy guns on the beaches of Dunkirk in June of 1940. So if Hitler’s Panzers did cross the channel later in the fall, the job of stopping them would fall to the Home Guard and their the 29 mm Spigot “Blacker Bombard” anti tank mortars. Designed by a 53-year old lieutenant-colonel turned inventor named Stewart Blacker, the weapon was cheap, simple to manufacturer and easy to operate. The 300-pound, smoothbore gun could lob a 20-pound anti-tank bomb about 100 yards. The whole system was built to be carried onto the battlefield and deployed by a crew of five. It could even fixed into a concrete fighting position. While widely celebrated in the civilian press as an example of good old English pluck and ingenuity, Blacker Bombard crews were far less than enthusiastic about the weapon. Not only was it terribly inaccurate, its high-explosive projectile — which wasn’t even capable of penetrating a tank’s armour — tended to spray shell fragments back at the crew when used on targets at close range. Despite this, more than 22,000 were manufactured between 1940 and 1941. The weapon wasn’t a total bust however — the design would go onto inform the development of the British Army’s PIAT anti-tank gun and even the Royal Navy’s highly effective anti-submarine weapon known as the Hedgehog.
While the Blacker Bombard was dangerous for its crews, the Smith Gun could be downright deadly to those operating it. Another ad-hoc smoothbore, light anti-tank weapon, the system, which was introduced in 1941, fired a 3-inch shell up to 300 yards. Unfortunately, its ammunition had a tendency to detonate in the tube when fired injuring or killing its crews.
Even more hazardous for Home Guardsmen was the No. 74 ST Grenade or “Sticky Bomb”. The adhesive-coated explosive, which was designed to bond to the side of a tank before exploding, could just as easily attach itself to the soldier throwing it, with predictably fatal consequences. More than 2.5 million of the one-pound grenades were manufactured between 1940 and 1943. Both the spherical charge and its industrial-strength gooey coating were housed in a light casing that could be cracked open just prior to use. Although the glue was certainly powerful enough to unintentionally adhere the five-second delayed fuse bomb to a hapless user’s hand, pant leg or sleeve, the weapon would often fail to attach to damp or grimy surfaces, like a mud-covered tank. Despite its shortcomings, the weapon did see service in North Africa, the Mediterranean and even the Far East.
Britain’s Home Guard even had its own armoured vehicle… sort of. The Beaverette was first manufactured in late 1940 by the Standard Motor Co. on orders of the Minister of Aircraft Production, William Maxwell Aitken, formally known as Lord Beaverbrook (hence the machine’s name). Less of a fighting vehicle than an armoured civilian car, the three-man Beaverette was shrouded with 1/3-inch (11 mm) steel plates, which were reinforced by heavy wooden planks. Initial production models were inadequately armed, packing just a single Bren gun; subsequent variants featured twin Vickers machine guns — a marginal improvement. Critically underpowered by a four-cylinder, 46-hp engine, the two-ton clunker topped out at an unimpressive 24 mph (38 km/h). By way of comparison, a 25-ton Panzer IV had a maximum speed of 26 mph (42 km/h). By the time production ceased in 1942, nearly 3,000 Beaverettes had rolled off British assembly lines. Only a handful exist today as museum pieces.
By 1940, black powder weaponry had been obsolete for nearly a century. But that didn’t stop one LDV officer by the name of Robert Northover from engineering a small field gun that used old-style gunpowder along with vintage musket percussion caps. The 2.5-Inch Northover Projector was an ordinary length of metal pipe, sealed at one end, and fitted onto a tripod. Its three-man crew could use the weapon to fire cylindrical glass grenades loaded with highly volatile white phosphorous up to 150 yards. Unfortunately, the shock of the blast inside the barrel sometimes shattered the shells scorching the gun’s crew. Nearly 19,000 of the oversized muskets were developed between 1940 and 1943. Each cost approximately £10 to manufacture.
And if you thought black powder was antiquated, get a load of this: Small arms were in such short supply following the Dunkirk evacuation, up to 40 percent of the Home Guard’s 1.6 million volunteers had to make do without rifles. So when the British prime minister Winston Churchill demanded that each LDV soldier be armed with something (anything), the government requisitioned a quarter-million Medieval-style steel pikes. Members of the guard and the wider population were understandably outraged when details of the project were revealed. The minister in charge of the War Office, Lord Henry Page Croft, tried to defend the move by pointing out that the ancient weaponry might still prove effective in close quarters battle, particularly in urban areas. It was a position that was roundly blasted by the opposition in Parliament. Accordingly, the weapons, which were never actually issued, became known sardonically as “Croft’s Pikes”. Eventually, increased weapons production remedied the shortage of rifles and sub-machine guns and all Home Guardsmen were soon more effectively armed.
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on March 30, 2014)