In May 1940 Great Britain had been at war with Germany for eight months and things were going badly. Norway and Denmark were in German hands and the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ method of warfare was proving devastatingly effective in Belgium, Holland and France. Invasion of Britain seemed inevitable.
On 14th May the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, broadcast a radio appeal for men between the ages of 17 and 65 to join a new voluntary force to be called the Local Defence Volunteer (LDV) to counter the threat of troops being dropped inland by parachute. Mr Eden promised:
“When on duty you will form part of the armed forces. ….You will not be paid; but you will receive a uniform and will be armed.”
The response exceeded all government expectations. Within a month 750,000 men had volunteered. By the end of June 1940 the force numbered over one million and remained over that figure until it was stood down in November 1944.
Organisation of the LDV was to be on a county basis and the Northamptonshire commander was to be Major General Sir Hereward Wake, Chairman of the Northamptonshire Territorial Army Association. In Raunds a meeting was called on Monday 27th May in the Church School by Captain V H Sykes. Mr Sykes, a well known local solicitor, was president of the Raunds branch British Legion and Chief ARP warden for Raunds and District.
Two days after his inaugural meeting Mr Sykes was able to report to County HQ the following recruitment statistics:
The reply from Sir Hereward Wake, dated 31st May, stated:
“No enrolment forms, no pre-stamped envelopes, but hope you are keeping careful record of expenditure. No aiming disks, no targets, no dummy ammunition and no .22 rifles, but can send you 150 rounds of ammunition.”
Papers in the Northamptonshire County Record Office show that the Raunds LDV contacts were:
Capt V H Sykes, Woodlands, Raunds, Tel Raunds 28 LDV HQ, RaundsCEInfantsSchool, Tel Raunds 35
On 24th June 1940 the Army Council instructed that the LDV should be reorganised on the usual military lines of battalions (1,500 men), companies (about 200-300 men), platoons (20-30 men) and sections (about 6 men).
The Raunds Group became ‘A’ Company of the 8th Battalion (Wellingborough District). The battalion area extended from Ringstead in the north to Grendon and Bozeat in the south and included eighteen parishes. Battalion Headquarters was at Rushden. In addition to the usual Home Guard duties of guarding vulnerable points such as river crossings and railway bridges and keeping observation from such high points as church towers, the 8th Battalion was also charged with the defence of Chelveston aerodrome.
A number of venues were used for meetings of ‘A’ Company, among them being the Parish Rooms, the Temperance Hall, Mr Sykes’s home and a room in the old skating rink at Raunds which, I am reliably informed, was at the “Golden Fleece” in Rotton Row.
About a month after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk was complete Prime Minister Winston Churchill made one of his defiant radio broadcasts:
“Any plans which Hitler made for invading Britain must have had to be entirely recast in order to meet our new position. Two months ago, nay, one month ago, our first and main effort was to keep our army in France, but now we have got it all home. Never before, in the last war or in this, have we had in this island an army comparable in quality, equipment, or numbers to that which stands here on guard tonight.
We have a million and a half men in the British Army under arms tonight. No praise is too high for the officers and men, aye, and civilians who have made this vast transformation in so short a time. Behind these soldiers of the Regular Army, as a means of destruction for parachutists, air-borne raiders, and any traitors that may be found in our midst ...we have more than a million of the LDV, or as they are much better called, the Home Guard.
These officers and men, a large proportion of whom have been through the last war, have the strongest desire to attack and come to close quarters with the enemy wherever he may appear. Should the invader come to Britain, there will be no placid lying down of the people in submission before him, as we have seen, alas, in other countries. We shall defend every village, every town, and every city.”
On 23rd July the name LDV was dropped and Home Guard became the official title of the force.
In the early days the promised uniform comprised little more than an armband stencilled with the initials ‘LDV’, but gradually uniforms became available, although not always a very good fit.
A letter of 9th September 1940 from the County Commander to East Midlands Area HQ complained:
“No boots yet received for this county. Thousands of HG wear their own boots which rapidly fall to pieces if used for military purposes. Demand is becoming serious and men may be forced to resign if boots promised are not soon issued.”
On 17th September 18,000 pairs of army boots were received at County HQ. This represented 85% of the total county strength. They were to be used only for Home Guard duties and cost of repair would be charged to the Territorial Army Association.
On 11th June 1941 the retirement of Lieutenant-Colonel H G Sotheby, commander of 8th Battalion, led to a further reorganisation. Captain Sykes was appointed Battalion Commander and promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.
The Battalion was reorganised into 7 Companies:
‘A’ Company – HQ at Raunds ‘B’ Company – HQ at Rushden ‘C’ Company – HQ at Earls Barton ‘D’ Company – HQ at Bozeat ‘E’ Company – HQ at Rushden ‘F’ Company – HQ at Higham Ferrers ‘G’ Company – HQ at Wollaston
Command of ‘A’ Company (Raunds District) passed to Captain A H Freer.
The War Office announced on 22nd January 1942 that, from February 16th, serving Home Guards between the ages of 18 and 51 would no longer have the right to give 14 days notice to resign. The principal provisions of the Defence Regulations were:
“Members of the Home Guard may now be ordered toperformtraining and operational duty for periods not exceeding a total of 48 hours in each period of four weeks. This limitation will not apply when the Home Guard is mustered. The total of 48 hours is the largest amount of training and operational duty which a man may be required to perform when he is not mustered and is not a fixed amount which must necessarily be required of every member. The actual amount of duty will depend on a number of factors which can only be decided locally, and the decision regarding the total number of hours duty a man is to be ordered to perform will normally be made by the Company Commander …
…A Home Guard who, without reasonable excuse, absents himself from parade or duty, except when mustered, will be liable on summary conviction by a civil court to a maximum penalty of a fine of £10 or one month’s imprisonment, or both.”
On 9th October 1942 a report reached Lt-Col Sykes of unexploded bombs dropped in fields off the Hargrave Road. Local residents were evacuated to the Temperance Hall in Marshalls Road while men of the Home Guard cordoned off the area and awaited the arrival of the regular army.
The death of Major Freer in March 1943 was a serious blow to ‘A’ Company. Mr Freer was manager of Bignell’s boot factory. He left the works at 5.45pm on his motor cycle and, on reaching home, sat in a chair and almost immediately passed away. Major Freer was accorded a military funeral. Raunds Temperance Band led a parade to the church and then to the cemetery, where the Last Salute was fired. Major W M Horrell succeeded to the command of ‘A’ Company.
A parade of 8th Battalion through Raunds in January 1944 was watched by the celebrated cartoonist, Bruce Bairnsfather. He picked out Private Jack Askham, described as “a strapping six-footer” and, with the permission the Battalion Commanding Officer, took him into a nearby house and made a sketch of him which he used for a twelve foot poster for the national Salute the Soldier Savings Campaign.
On Monday 30th October 1944 “The Times” reported:
“The Home Guard Stand Down on Wednesday"
"The King to Broadcast Message of Thanks"
"The Home Guard is to stand down from next Wednesday, November 1st, and will remain in reserve until disbanded. The King has approved the grant of honorary rank to officers. Stand down parades will be held on Sunday December 3rd, when the King will broadcast a message of appreciation and thanks.”
On 3rd December four men represented 8th Battalion in the national Home Guard Stand Down Parade in London. Locally a battalion parade, 705 strong, assembled in Spencer Park, Rushden and paraded through the town to the Hall Grounds where Lt-Colonel Sykes bade them farewell:
“The ranks of this battalion have never been broken. It has been a privilege to command you. I thank you for your loyalty to the battalion, your help to the country, and your service to the King.”
At the time of stand down battalion strength was approximately 1,400 men, about 200 in ‘A’ Company. The Home Guard was officially disbanded on 31st December 1945 but re-emerged briefly to be represented in the Victory Parade through London on 8th June 1946.
Sources: “Northamptonshire Home Guard 1940-1945” by B G Holloway & H Banks. Published 1949; “The Times” newspaper; Original papers in NorthamptonshireCounty Record Office.