Posts Tagged ‘Home Guard’

Dad’s Army and the Home Guard in the Wartime Zoo

February 6, 2016

Gnome guard wartime garden 015

Our LDV ‘Gnome Guard’ in his usual allotment spot in our wartime ‘Dig For Victory’ garden, Summer Newquay Zoo, 2010

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.


Home Guard lapel badge for your civilian clothes to indicate your branch of National Service. Author’s collection.

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:

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:

Belle Vue Zoo remained a popular brass band venue in wartime including local Home Guards Bands, 

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:  quoting Bristol Museum, Alfred Archive L13, 23 July 1993.

home guard cert ww2

Home Guard certificate for Frederick Redvers Booth, Hailsham Sussex Battalion (Author’s Collection)

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.

home guard cert ww2 reverse

Certificate (back) for Frederick Booth, Hailsham Sussex Battalion

Training this new civilian or old soldier army in national defence brought forth a wide range of publications, some recently reprinted.

Home Guard cover

(Author’s collection)

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.

Home Gaurd Brophy book parachutists

Advice about parachutist and glider troops: Page 50 from the Home Guard Handbook (1940) by John Brophy


The Last word Home Guard

Page 125 from the Home Guard Handbook (1940) by John Brophy


LDV checklist Home Guard Brophy

Page 126 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.


Gnome guard, Home Guards, meerkats, wartime gardens and the LDV: “Look, Duck and Vanish …” becomes the Home Guard, 23 July 1940

July 20, 2010

Our World War Zoo garden at Newquay Zoo has a new recruit, a “Gnome Guard” complete with his LDV Local Defence Volunteer armband that would be obsolete after the 23rd July 1940 when the “Home Guard” was renamed.  The Dig For Victory campaign of 1940 was also a successful rebranding or renaming, seen in the poster below  from 1941. 

22nd and 23rd July sees the 70th anniversary of the renaming of the LDV 

Our World War Zoo garden has a new "dig for victory" recruit, a patriotic little "Gnome Guard" complete with his LDV Local Defence Volunteer armband that would be obsolete after the 23rd July 1940 when the "Home Guard" was renamed. Dig For Victory poster from 1941.

Local Defence Volunteers, or as Churchill insisted they were now called “The Home Guard“. Against a real threat of German invasion after Dunkirk from Operation Sealion”, the Home Guard freed up many servicemen for essential war duties. 

Despite our Dad’s Army image of them now,  many of the Home Guard were too old for call up but experienced veterans from the First World War.   Zoo keeping was not as far as I know a reserved occupation, so many younger staff were called up. Many of the zoo staff remaining were over call up age of 41 and would have had extra duties of Home Guard, Civil Defence and Fire watch.   

Newquay’s imposing Great Western stone railway viaduct near the Zoo (over the peaceful Trenance Gardens) and coast were watched and guarded by local Home Guards, according  to our local historian and wartime Newquay child Douglas Knight. 

Whipsnade Zoo as a training base was a big enough estate not only to plough up sections to feed the zoo animals but also for the local Home Guard to have their rifle ranges there. 

Our as yet unnamed Gnome Guard from the World War Zoo gardens, Newquay Zoo

The gnome connection is not so strange, its rather similar to the many mascots or cartoon figures used to promote the National Growmore campaign, first name of “Dig For Victory”. Gnomes have an interesting history, and would have been suspect certainly in the First World War as they were mostly made in Germany and so fell out of fashion from the 1920s onwards, recounted in the garden historian Twigs Way’s excellent little Shire book Garden GnomesTwigs Way also wrote the Shire book on Allotments with a good section on Dig For Victory and European allotments, and edited the reprint of the Dig for Victory garden leaflets from 1945 and 

Picture Post, Sep 21, 1940 portrays the Home Guard as youthful, camouflaged and trained by veterans of the Spanish Civil War like Tom Wintringham (ZO71, from our archive: World War Zoo Gardens, Newquay Zoo)

My rusty German reminds me that one  German word for gnome, Erdmannchen also covers that LDV – ‘Look, Duck and Vanish’ – expert. the Meerkat.    My podcast friend at Kernow Pod, Matt Clarke is producing a short podcast on our little Meerkat Royal Observer Corps,  scanning the sky for the “Hun in The Sun” or for us, the “seagull in the dazzle”. Meerkats come naturally equipped with black eye shades to counteract this dazzle, then sound the alarm, especially to protect their young and warn them to run for shelter! You can see them do this at our 12.30 feeding talk each day, whilst 24-30th July is a birds themed event week at Newquay Zoo

To download this MP3 podcast, click on  meerkats.  

There is an excellent short history of the Home Guard on Wikipedia, and BBC werbsite 

Friend or foe? Young meerkats like wartime children have to learn what silhouettes mean safety and which danger. Harmless bird or hawk? (Sweet Caporal cigarette box, Archive item from the World War Zoo gardens wartime collection, Newquay Zoo)

Many Home Guard materials have been republished, now declassified including some of the deadly sabotage tricks of the ‘stay behind, hide  and sabotage’ Auxiliary Units, the equivalent to the French Resistance. 

Some of the Home Guard material we have in the World war Zoo garden archive makes much reference to learning camouflage and concealment from the animal world, ranging from countershading on antelope to cryptic colouration. One of the more unlikely military instructors was Hugh Cott, a university zoologist who wrote Adaptive Coloration in Animals, 1940 – a short biography of Cott and fellow camouflage instructors, surrealist artist Roland Penrose: 

We’re on tour with the wartime garden at Trelawney Garden Centre, Wadebridge  31 July and 1 August 2010 – come and meet us, and our LDV gnome guard! 

Wartime, gardening and outdoor events we’re involved in – we’ve loaned an image and information from our archive of WAAFs in an underground radar station to the Discovering Places Day, Lizard NNR Goonhilly 25th July. Come and meet us as a wartime zoo garden on tour at Trelawney Garden Centre near Wadebridge in Cornwall, along with our minibeasts on 31 July and 1st August 2010.

Meanwhile, enjoy the peace of your garden!

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