Revealed: the real Dad's Army

Home Guard volunteers were a bizarre mix of left wing anti-fascists, unauthorised armed women, badly trained amateurs and genuinely competent soldiers, according to a new investigation.

Professor of Modern History at The University of Manchester Penny Summerfield said the lovable but useless group of part-time combatants portrayed in TV's Dad's Army is only a fraction of the truth.

The academic examined oral histories of men and women who served in the force for a book she co-researched with Lecturer in Cultural History at Lancaster University, Corinna Peniston-Bird.

Professor Summerfield said: "The official establishment line portrayed the Home Guard as an all inclusive body in which anyone could volunteer their services just as the Dad's Army characters did.

"Corporal Jones the Butcher, Captain Mainwaring the Bank Manager, undertaker Private Frazer and even the Cockney Spiv Private Joe Frazer all joined the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard as part-time soldiers.

"But in reality, recruitment practices were much more selective and were heavily criticised by some of those who weren't allowed to join.

"Left-wingers inspired by international anti-fascist movements trained Home Guards in unauthorised guerrilla techniques.

"And as women were officially excluded, they formed their own armed organisation, sometimes helped by defiant Home Guard commanders.

"Many saw the Home Guard as a questionable military organisation which failed to turn civilian men into effective soldiers.

"Others - including Winston Churchill - saw it as a pillar of the British war effort.

"Others still, like George Orwell, thought it was a 'People's Army' and a harbinger of future radical change.

"Our research shows why it was understood to be all these different things. The Home Guard was a novel creation in wartime which attracted enormous interest."

The brain child of Commander-in-Chief Walter Kirke, the Local Defence Volunteers were launched in May 1940. The LDV was renamed the Home Guard by Winston Churchill in July of that year .

Professor Summerfield added: "The Home Guard disappeared from public view after the war until the appearance of Dad's Army in the late 1960s.

"This BBC sitcom has made a potent contribution to the durability and resonance of the Second World War in popular memory.

"Dad's Army celebrates the Home Guard as strongly as it satirises it. But the reality was more complex than the sitcom.

"Using oral histories of the men and women who served in the force we reveal how influential the Dad's Army version is on memory, even when the experience of service was very different.

"We also show how important the Home Guard was in its members' lives."

Notes for editors

Images available:

  • Professor Penny Summerfield
  • 'Sevenoaks Dad's Army boys create a poser', Sevenoaks Chronicle, 23 Sept 1999. Courtesy of Bob Ogley, Chronicler, 'Times Past', Sevenoaks Chronicle

Professor Summerfield is available for comment

Contesting Home Defence: men, women and the Home Guard in the Second World War is published by Manchester University Press.

For more details contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567