How Britain trained to defend itself in Osterley Park
On June 18th 1940 the Evening Standard published a cartoon by David Low. It showed a grim faced British soldier standing on a rock in the middle of a stormy sea shaking his fist at a squadron of enemy bombers approaching across a pitch black sky. The caption read “Very well. Alone.”
And so it was that late spring of 1940. Britain was alone. France had just fallen to the Nazis. The British Expeditionary Force was back home from Dunkirk, badly chewed and short of equipment. America, yet to join the war, was prevented from resupplying us because of the Neutrality Act. Faced with the prospect of imminent invasion and encouraged by a public anxious to “do its bit”, on the 14th May the Government formed the Local Defence Volunteers (L.D.V), shortly to become the Home Guard, as a second and final line against the Nazis.
“Arm yourself, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict, for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation.”
CHURCHILL May 19th 1940 quoting from the Apocrypha 1 Maccabees 3:58-60
There were some who thought the idea of arming spotty teenagers and doddery geriatrics was a waste of the vital resources desperately needed by the regular Army. Tom Wintringham, a writer for ‘Picture Post’ magazine and a battle hardened veteran of the Spanish Civil War thought otherwise. He saw the L.D.V for what it was - fit young men already fretting to join the army and older comrades with combat experience gained in the trenches of the 1st World War. All they needed - and all they were asking for - were weapons and training in modern warfare.
“An immense problem now faces the Home Guard. Is it to go forward or hang fire? Properly trained, it can - by the end of the coming winter - become the chief defensive force of the British Isles.”
TOM WINTRINGHAM Sept. 21st 1940
With the Government slow to react, in June 1940 Wintringham, supported and financed by the ‘Picture Post’, decided to form his own ‘Home Guard Training School’ at Osterley Park lent for the purpose by Lord Jersey. The response from the L.D.V was instant and overwhelming. By the end of July 1940 over 300 men a week were taking the 2 day course. By the end of August the number had increased to over 2000. In September 1940 it has grown again to 3000.
Wintringham’s chief instructors were an eclectic mix of individuals. The CO was Peter Wyatt-Foulger, a WW1 veteran who specialised in shooting down low flying aircraft with rifle fire. Stalking and field craft was taught by Boy Scout leader Stanley White. Wilfred Vernon, who liked to boil up dynamite in his kitchen, was an expert on improvised explosives. The camouflage instructor was Roland Penrose, a surrealist painter. Adding to the mix were 3 Spanish miners who talents included the manufacture and use of Molotov cocktails and techniques for destroying armoured vehicles and tanks.
When compared with the parade drill and “forming fours” training that the L.D.V had received so far the techniques taught at Osterley Park were unusual to say the least. As Tom Wintringham later put it “The aim of the school was to teach members of the Home Guard to become first-class irregulars.” It was an introduction to guerrilla warfare with lessons in improvising mortars and land mines, blowing up tanks, sniping and with Peter Wyatt-Foulger in charge, shooting down low flying aircraft with rifles! With its emphasis on homemade weaponry including pikes and killing knives some commentators said that the school taught murder rather than war but Wintringham disagreed. He insisted that any weapon “is good enough to kill Germans with if you know its values and limitations … but in modern war standard supplies all too often run out and you have to do with what you can ‘organise’.”
It was a bit too bloodthirsty for some Home Guard personnel. One member of the 23rd Middlesex Home Guard Unit from Edgware felt that the methods taught at Osterley “were so foreign to the British temperament that the value of the instruction was doubtful.” Another, Lance-Corporal Ernest Raymond, a former clergyman, said to one particularly aggressive instructor, “I might suggest, sergeant, that if we are only able to win the war by adopting all the things that we have condemned in the Nazis we may win it materially but they will have won it spiritually!”
As unorthodox as the training might have seemed it was deemed so successful that in September 1940 the Government took over the Osterley School and went on to set up similar establishments in other parts of the country. Even if the only thing the Home Guard learned from these courses was how to live off the land by boiling potatoes in their helmets their morale was greatly improved by the realisation that someone, somewhere so valued their public spiritedness, their courage and their determination to stand firm - “Very well, alone” - that they were prepared to train them.
“Trained to new methods, equipped, organised and led, the Home Guard can fight - can be the ‘line’ that cannot be pierced by any German invading force whenever it cares to come.”
TOM WINTRINGHAM Sept 21st 1940
And when the war was over and the Home Guard finally disbanded all these men had left - these ‘first-class irregulars’ - was a certificate from the King and some profound memories…
“Finally as we take off our uniforms for the last time we know we were needed very sore….the memory of a wild, bitter night deep in the winter of 1940-41. A crude, small shack crouched under a cliff hedge overlooking the Atlantic, six men on duty after a hard day’s work; two on guard, four resting. No bands, no pay, no medals, no glory. The sublime devotion to duty of it wrung my heart.”
A MEMBER OF THE 11TH BATTALION CORNISH HOME GUARD
Credit: Some of the information in this article came from “The Real Dad’s Army” by Norman Longmate published by Arrow in 1974
– from Martyn Day