Don't panic! The story of the real Dad's Army

The Home Guard was set up 70 years ago this week
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The Independent Online

As a child I always enjoyed Dad's Army, not least because of the connection with my grandfather, John. To my young self, the occasional mention of a Private Hastings among the ranks of Captain Mainwaring's disorderly platoon was confirmation that the writers somehow knew about my grandad's contribution to the war.

He is 91 now, but sitting in his armchair in his bungalow in Poole, Dorset, he still enjoys watching the sitcom. It has since become a lasting tribute to the Home Guard, the civilian militia that recruited 1.5 million men like my grandfather to help fight off a potential Nazi invasion.

Seventy years ago this week, the force, just two months old at the time, was renamed by Winston Churchill after its previous title, the Local Defence Volunteers, was given the unfortunate nickname of Look, Duck, Vanish. The decision was opposed by the force's creator, Anthony Eden, not least because it meant that a million newly created LDV armbands would need to be replaced.

When I spoke to my grandfather last week, he said much of Dad's Army was true to his memories of serving as a member of A Platoon, 30th Middlesex Battalion, in Enfield. "Some of the things that happened in real life were just as far-fetched as some of those things that went on in Dad's Army," he said.

But while the sitcom captured the lighter side of wartime life, Germany's blitzkrieg across Europe was a deadly threat in July 1940. With the Battle of Britain raging overhead, and only the rump of Britain's modest army having survived the fall of France, part-time soldiers such as my grandfather were preparing to be the country's last line of defence against invasion. Yet this didn't worry him as much as it might have done.

"We just accepted that they were going to try," he said. "I don't know whether we thought they would overrun us, but we knew that if they did invade and they got near we wouldn't have a chance. I thought I would be shot or taken to Germany for slave labour or something like that. But we didn't used to go to bed and then not sleep because it might happen, you just accepted it."

Unlike the mainly elderly men in Walmington-on-Sea's fictional platoon, the group my grandfather served with were almost all young men who held reserved occupations in factories. He was 20 at the start of the war and had enlisted to join the RAF, but like plenty of others was denied permission after his employer, Sangamo Weston, stopped making electrical meters and started making parts for fighter aircraft.

After a few months, my grandfather was armed with an American rifle which he kept in his bedroom, along with his single allocated round of ammunition. In later years, he rose to the rank of corporal and was issued with a Sten submachine gun – which incredibly he was also allowed to keep at home.

Private Pike in Dad's Army loved getting his hands on a Tommy gun to fantasise about being an American gangster, but the young John Hastings was less keen on his weapon. "Terrible things they were – talk about cheap. It had a magazine with 20 bullets in it that you used to clip in the side and: dum-dum-dum-dum-dum," he said, imitating its noise. "I don't know how they had the cheek to issue them, they were so dangerous."

Nor was training particularly safe. "They used to take us out in army lorries to a place in the country called Hell's Wood, where they had dug trenches for us to practise throwing hand grenades. You were supposed to lob them out of the trench and then wait for the explosion, but one man's didn't go far enough and suddenly the instructor shouted for everyone to duck.

"I didn't know what was happening, I was too frightened to find out, but it burst a few yards beyond the parapet. I couldn't take the mick out of the man who threw it, though – he was my foreman at work."

Parades were held in an empty shop every Tuesday and Thursday night and Sunday morning. Duties including manning anti-aircraft guns or spending a night every week or two at the factory on the lookout for fires caused by incendiary bombs.

My grandfather continued serving with the Home Guard until it was stood down in 1944, an event marked by a parade through Hyde Park. "It was a bright, sunny day, and we marched along in front of the King and Queen," he remembered with pride. "I enjoyed being in the Home Guard, but we were glad when it was all over."