The Home Guard has long suffered from the Dad’s Army image of the 1960s and 1970s comedy programme, but an image that has helped to keep its memory alive.
The new Dad’s Army film with Bill Nighy and other famous British actors is due out on 5 February 2016.
Zoos and botanic gardens sometimes had their own Home Guard companies ranging from Whipsnade Zoo to Kew Gardens, with big wide open spaces suitable for paratroop or glider landings.
Kew also possessed its very own Home Guard in the shape of a special Garden Platoon. Many of those involved were old soldiers or regular visitors. The manning of Kew Bridge was one of their tasks.
Kew Gardens staff were involved in the local 63rd Surrey (RICHMOND) Battalion V Zone Home Guard:
“Few units have such a beautiful and historic area to defend as the 63rd Surrey (Richmond) Battalion.
In the early days its members were called on to provide nightly guards on the Thames bridges in their territory and on such historic premises as Kew Observatory and Wick House, once the residence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which stands on Richmond Terrace …
Major Bott, who had fought so hard for this, was offered the command of the new Battalion. He refused on the ground that his work did not allow him the time to do the job as he felt it should be done. So the command was given to Sir Geoffrey Evans, C.LE., eminent botanist and soldier, who held it until his appointment as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Major Bott was made second-in-command.
Many zoo keepers over or under military age served in the Home Guard, along with other evening jobs at their zoo or in the local community in the National Fire Service, Firewatching, Air Raid wardens (ARP) or other war work including Dig For Victory gardens.
Often these Home Guard staff from zoos were veterans of the First World War.
In the chaos and lack of weapons after the British Army’s evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940 when German invasion by paratroops or landing craft seemed imminent, surprisingly zoos were often allowed to keep their rifles and rifle-trained staff on account of the fears over large dangerous animals being loosed by air raids. Angus MacDonald (‘Mac’) was one such sure shot and a fine pest controller as well at London Zoo, as remembered by the zoo writer L.R. Brightwell.
Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester became a source of some rather ancient weapons from its theatrical spectacular firework displays including 1866-vintage Snyder rifles, which were issued to members of the local 49th Lancashire Battalion of the Home Guard during the Second World War (mentioned in Norman Longmate’s The Real Dad’s Army published in 1974 / 2012).
In 1943 the Fireworks Island itself was used for a public display of Home Guard Training, the Home Guard capturing a ‘nazi Flag’ as part of the display: http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/files/original/c5c53efac3b80d96d3ac3a866b207a3f.jpg
More information on Belle Vue as a venue for the Home Guard can be found on the Virtual Belle Vue digitised collection at Chethams archive: http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/files/original/22e81e259938404e6a9a309f33d0640a.jpg
Belle Vue Zoo remained a popular brass band venue in wartime including local Home Guards Bands, http://www.chethams.org.uk/bellevue/files/original/42e062a73a956504bccb320614777833.jpg
Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire had its local Home Guard unit under ex-Army Captain W.P. Beal, the Zoo Superintendent. Areas were turned over for rifle ranges and Home Guard training as mentioned in Lucy Pendar’s Whipsnade My Africa and Paul Wilson’s ZSL website article:
Mrs Beal’s jovial husband Captain W P B Beal (the Zoo’s first Superintendent, made famous by his curries in the Gerald Durrell’s book, Beasts in my Belfry) became the leader of the local Home Guard and made use of the Zoo’s facilities as far as he could. The Estates office became the Headquarters, the Cloisters were transformed into an indoor firing range and an outside range was created at the bottom of the downs below Bison Hill. The Zoo witnessed groups of men marching around, initially with just broom handles and farm implements and later with proper weapons.
Bristol Zoo was also home to its local Home Guard Unit:
The Home Guard of the 11th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment was based in the zoo’s cafeteria during World War Two. One member based at the zoo recalled how they were not allowed to march and parade in front of Alfred’s cage lest he become aggressive. At the time the troops discussed the causes of this, musing that it might be that their uniforms reminded Alfred of other primates. On reflection, as the keepers also wore uniforms, the writer concluded that it was more likely the marching itself which upset the gorilla.
He also recalled how night watch at the zoo was his scariest experience during his time in the Home Guard. On the one hand, he was worried about Germans appearing out of the dark but he was equally concerned that if a bomb dropped near the zoo the animals might escape from their cages. ‘Often, 17 year olds like myself exchanged our fears about what one would do if, spare the thought, in such an event the monstrous form of Alfred were to lumber forward out of the darkness’, he recalled, ‘probably run towards the enemy!’ he concluded.
Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_the_Gorilla quoting Bristol Museum, Alfred Archive L13, 23 July 1993.
If you come across a Home Guard certificate, they only have the person’s name (as both men and women served) on the front but very usefully they are often stamped on the back with the Home Guard group and battalion they belong to.
Training this new civilian or old soldier army in national defence brought forth a wide range of publications, some recently reprinted.
The aims of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) or Home Guard are set out in many of these rapidly written and published advice books, focussing on tone modern methods of war shown in the Invasion of Poland and Blitzkreig across Holland, Belgium and France of 1939/40. Parachutists, gliders and tanks required training in roadblocks, street fighting and ambush techniques.
Page 125 from the Home Guard Handbook (1940) by John Brophy
As we come across new stories of zoo or botanic garden Home Guard units or links, I will post them on this blogpost.
Posted by Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo.