Tuesday 09 June 1998
On the evidence of Secret History's film "Dad's Army" (C4), the classic sitcom of the same name was a masterpiece of research, rather than comic invention. Research and judicious editing, anyway - because although Jimmy Perry and David Croft had included the rumblings of class tension and the petty rivalries with police and ARP wardens, and although they exploited the absurdity of a force armed with obsolete or home-made weapons, they had passed over the more lethal consequences of uncontrolled enthusiasm.
Within 24 hours of Churchill's speech announcing the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers, 250,000 men had come forward - a quarter of a million men armed with nothing but broomsticks, agricultural implements and a sense of patriotic duty. It might have been safer if they'd been left that way, because, as soon as they got guns, they started to shoot people with them - either accidentally, through lack of training, or deliberately, through excess of zeal. They also started to die themselves, killed by weapons which the regular army had rejected as so unsafe that they effectively counted as a contribution to the German war effort. In total, 768 Home Guard men died during the war, a fairly impressive casualty list given that they almost never confronted an enemy soldier. They also killed 50 innocuous civilians, egged on by a general invasion neurosis which painted every stranger as a potential fifth columnist.
None of this was quite as damning as some advance publicity had tried to suggest. You could argue that all those victims - civilians and volunteers - died for their country just as surely as a front-line soldier, even if the circumstances of their death were marred by the bathos of accident or incompetence. One veteran recalled how three soldiers had inadvertently disembarked from a landing craft into 20ft of water. "Unfortunately, they were drowned before we could get them out," he said flatly. "And that put a bit of a damper on the exercise, as you could imagine."
Also, the fact that early volunteers recognised the absurdity of their own pretensions as a fighting force only amplified the sense of their courage. "If the Germans had started at two in the afternoon, we would have been all finished by three," said one veteran cheerfully. The Home Guard did seem to have become something of a nuisance towards the end of the war - when they applied their stop-and-search powers with such nit-picking energy that movement around the country became a laborious obstacle race. But, even then, they were only doing what they'd been told to. One newsreel showed a keen recruit checking the King's identity papers - just in case the Hun had infiltrated a royal lookalike to mount a one-man takeover.
It's hardly news, though, that power is an intoxicating substance. Put a small man in a uniform and you have a recipe for abuse, a truism confirmed by this week's Clampers (BBC1), which followed the efforts of Mike Greenidge to issue 100 tickets in a day. "Sorry, nothing I can do," said Mike when one of his victims turned up as he was gleefully slapping on a ticket. This simply wasn't true - he could take a lunch-break and he could take cover when it rains. He didn't, though, because that would bring his hourly average right down. Greenidge offered the bizarre sight of social policy mutated into a competitive sport - an inspiration to every motorist to fight their corner a little more ruthlessly in future.
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