Whenever the BBC needs a familiar standby to fill a gap in its early-evening schedules, it turns to ‘Dad’s Army’. As a result, David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s much-loved Second World War sitcom has over the decades tickled audiences a lot younger than those who saw the nine series on their first outings between 1968 and 1977. The Home Guard volunteers of Walmington-on-Sea have become bona fide national treasures, with the show’s quirky comedy of character immeasurably deepened by our knowledge that – for a time – the real-life equivalents of these bumbling oldies did indeed stand in the front line of defence against genocidal fascism.
The Home Guard or Local Defence Volunteers, given official status by an Order in Council on 17 May 1940 and stood down on 31 December 1945, had a remarkable birth. As fears of a German invasion grew in 1940, the force’s architect had to fight his own campaign against the scorn and suspicion of military top brass and cautious politicians alike. But his idea for decentralised self-defence militias caught on fast. By July 1940, it had attracted 1.5 million volunteers across the country. Not only did the Home Guard stiffen morale at a time when Britain had no European allies against Hitler; its members took an active part in conflict by manning anti-aircraft batteries and downing many Luftwaffe planes.