Britain's Home Guard Reel History of Britain


Britain's Home Guard

Melvyn Bragg reveals archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. At Osterley Park, Melvyn visits the site of the first Home Guard training school.


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Transcript


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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented...

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and changed forever the way we recall our history.

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For the first time,

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we could see life through the eyes of ordinary people.

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Across this series, we'll bring these rare archive films back to life,

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with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.

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We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step on board

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and relive moments they thought were gone forever.

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They'll see their relatives on screen for the very first time,

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come face-to-face with their younger selves

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and celebrate our amazing 20th century past.

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This is the people's story, our story.

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Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned

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in 1967 to show training films to workers.

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Today it's been lovingly restored and loaded up with remarkable film footage,

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preserved for us by the British Film Institute

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and other national and regional film archives.

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In this series, we'll be travelling to towns and cities across the country

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and showing films from the 20th century that give us the Reel History of Britain.

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Today we're pulling up in the 1940s.

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We'll hear stories about a time when millions of ordinary men were prepared to die for our country

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as Home Guard recruits during World War II.

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This is the magnificent Osterley Park in the south-west of London.

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And this, in 1941, was the first independent training school for the Home Guard,

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using these woods, these lakes, to train for the defence on land of this country.

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Coming up - a son comes face-to-face with his father as Home Guard Company Commander.

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Seeing my father again, after all these years,

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seeing him alive and well and fit and busy

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was very, very emotional.

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Dad's Army creator, Jimmy Perry, on why he signed up to the Home Guard.

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I remember my dear mother saying to me,

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"You know, if they get here, they'll put your father in a concentration camp."

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And...I joined.

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'And I get to grips with a weapon of war.'

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So that's what you charge with... a bayonet charge!

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Yes...they don't like it up 'em, Mr Mainwaring.

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Today we've come to Osterley Park in Middlesex.

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It was here in 1941 that 5,000 recruits were trained to defend our shores

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from a possible German invasion.

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Home Guard recruits were taught all sorts of unconventional ways of fighting.

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Everything from camouflage techniques to the art of mixing

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home-made explosives, knife-fighting, hand-to-hand combat.

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When France surrendered to Hitler's troops in 1940, the people of Britain

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steeled themselves for the anticipated German invasion.

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With most able-bodied men under the age of 40 already called up,

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the government put out a call for a new force of home defence volunteers.

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They needed 150,000 men, but within two months, almost 1.5 million had signed up.

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They were called the Local Defence Volunteers,

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but were later dubbed the Home Guard by Winston Churchill.

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Today, we'll be saluting their incredible bravery.

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Joining me are Home Guard veterans and their families from all over the country

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to tell me their stories about the Second World War.

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Many of them will be seeing our films for the first time,

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showing us photos of their younger selves,

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and telling us what it was like to be part of the Home Guard.

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Robert Brown has come here today from West Yorkshire.

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His father, George, was the Company Commander of the Thornton Home Guard

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and Robert has some treasured mementoes of his father's.

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-So this is your father's?

-Indeed.

-West Yorkshire?

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I don't know whether you should be allowed to see this.

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-It's classified, is it?

-It's secret.

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All can be revealed. There's Keighley, the Ottley sector, Bradford and the Halifax sector.

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Various thank you letters from His Majesty King George.

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"In the years when our country was in mortal danger,

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George Leonard Brown, who served 27th May 1944,

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gave generously of his time and powers to make himself ready for her defence

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by force of arms and with his life if need be.

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George RI, the Home Guard."

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-Wow. That's something, isn't it?

-I treasure that.

-Indeed.

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We're about to take Robert back to the '40s

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to see a remarkable film made in his home town of Thornton in Yorkshire.

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The film Robert is watching is an amateur documentary

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about his father's Thornton Home Guard unit.

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It's been preserved for posterity by the Yorkshire film archive.

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Sadly, Robert's father died 36 years ago.

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So how will Robert feel seeing him again on screen today?

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My father started off in the Home Guard as the second in command of the local company,

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because he'd served in World War I, coming out as an acting captain.

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And so he took a serious interest in the development of the company as a military unit, if only part-time.

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As kids, this was an absolute delight,

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going to the ranges when there was nobody there.

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And collecting the spent bullets, looking for empty cartridges. Finding bits of bombs.

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Because these were currency amongst young children.

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This silent film was made towards the end of the war

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by two of the company's sergeants.

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Robert's father was a managing director of a local textile company,

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and he footed the bill for this expensive colour film.

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# When Britain is in danger, when trouble's in the air... #

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I remember some bits of the film being made.

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particularly the parades, when we had a Scottish band marching in front of us.

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All the village would run after it.

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I'm sure I'm somewhere in that crowd of people running behind the band.

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# We must all stick together, all stick together

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# And the clouds will soon roll by... #

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When the Home Guard was formed in 1940,

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there were no uniforms and very little equipment,

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and many units used wooden rifles for drill purposes.

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Company commanders, like Robert's father, a World War I veteran,

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had their work cut out turning Home Guard Volunteers into

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reasonably proficient infantry soldiers.

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Seeing my father again after all these years,

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seeing him alive and well and fit and busy

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was very, very emotional.

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I can feel it now.

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He was not like that in his last years,

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so yes, it brought back very happy memories.

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Watching the film, Robert sees himself as a boy of eight

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with his younger brother James, who was seven at the time.

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An upsetting moment in the film is to see myself and my brother

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walking side by side down a lane,

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and he died some 25 years ago now.

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So that's two members of the family visible that are no longer here.

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Very upsetting.

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Training for the Home Guard varied all over the country,

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and it was a huge commitment for the millions of men who volunteered.

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Many recruits were key workers in reserved occupations -

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shipbuilders, miners, doctors.

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All held down full-time jobs as well as dedicating up to four nights a week to training.

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My next guest is 89-year-old Ken Chambers from Brighton.

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Very well, thank you. Lovely to meet you.

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Ken joined the Brighton Home Guard when he was 17

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and working as an office boy.

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He wasn't quite old enough to join the RAF,

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but he was determined to do his bit.

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Is that a diary you kept at the time?

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Oh, yes, and this was the sort of original dates, you know.

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This was...17th June, probably my first guard.

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I said, "Not a bad night, LDV on guard at the reservoir until 3.45."

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I got home at 4.15am.

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Had you always kept a diary, or did you do it because of this?

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-I've always kept a diary.

-And that turned into this book.

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"Memories Of A Young Man In Peace And War."

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We're about to take Ken back to his days as a Home Guard volunteer more than 70 years ago.

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Ken himself doesn't appear in the footage,

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but will it remind him of his own early training days?

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I remember joining up as though it was yesterday.

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They handed everybody a rifle, and we were told how to load it,

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and that sort of thing, artificially,

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because there wasn't any bullets or anything.

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And then we had the rifles, and we did a bit of drill with them,

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shoulder arms and that sort of thing. Very unsatisfactory, really.

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And we had about an hour, and then they collected the rifles,

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put them back in the van, and took us back to the drill hall and left us.

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And that was training.

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Training varied a lot in quality all over the country,

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from the highly professional to the DIY.

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Many of the Home Guard were primarily trained

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to defend key sites and to be on the lookout for surprise enemy attack.

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With very little in the way of firearms experience or training,

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Ken was responsible for guarding a local reservoir -

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with near fatal results.

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I was doing my 22nd guard duty up at the reservoir,

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and the sergeant was on guard with me, and fortunately he was there.

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At about midnight, I would say it was, we heard this clink, clink,

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like somebody rattling a chain or something.

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And across the brow of the hill was coming about 30 figures,

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all stretched out in a line, advancing towards us.

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And I thought, "What happens here?" You know?

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Unknown to Ken and his sergeant,

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approaching them in the dark was not a company of German soldiers

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but their colleagues in the regular army on a night-time training manoeuvre.

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I heard the sergeant cock his rifle and put a round into the breech,

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so I thought I would do the same,

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and unfortunately in grabbing the stock I pulled the trigger,

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and the rifle went off and fired a shot, and flame come out of the barrel.

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I saw the flame coming out of the barrel.

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It was pointed a bit up in the air, fortunately.

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And all these figures dropped down as though I'd shot the lot.

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And this highly educated voice said, "Who's there?!"

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The sergeant spoke up and said, "Home Guard, who are you?"

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And this voice said "I thought as bloody much!" he says.

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"You mustn't go firing like that, you might hurt somebody."

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Strange to say that was the first time I'd fired a 303 rifle.

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You look at Dad's Army and think, "It was a bit like that, you know."

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Luckily for Ken, no-one was hurt that time.

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But the Home Guard volunteers did face real danger.

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Inadequate firearms and explosive training caused many deaths.

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25 members of the Home Guard were awarded medals of bravery

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during accidents with live grenades.

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Three of them were posthumous.

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Home Guard work was serious,

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but the lighter side of the volunteer army is captured enduringly

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in the classic BBC sitcom Dad's Army,

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featuring the hapless exploits of Captain Mainwaring and his platoon.

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You tap the muzzle of the rifle, the man brings his gun and his foot round, so...

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-FIRE! Like that, you see?

-I see, sir, yes.

-I'll show you how to do it.

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FIRE!

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LAUGHTER

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Today's been haunted by Dad's Army and little surprise,

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it's a wonderful series, but it's worth remembering

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that the experiences it portrayed began when a 16-year-old boy

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in the Second World War was determined to join the Home Guard.

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That boy went onto become one of the creators of Dad's Army.

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I'm meeting up with Jimmy Perry here in the grounds of Osterley Park.

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You joined when you were 16?

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-Just over 16, yes.

-So what prompted you to join?

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Well, to stop the Germans.

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Nobody understands how desperate things were.

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I remember my dear mother saying to me,

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"If they get here they'll put your father in a concentration camp."

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And...I joined.

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What did they ask you to do? Who trained you?

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We were trained by sergeants, instructors, veterans from the First World War.

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Every town, every hamlet, everywhere in the country

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had a Home Guard platoon,

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a Home Guard brigade.

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And I loved it, I loved it. And so did all the other young boys.

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How serious did they take it because Dad's Army has given us all the idea that it's a bit of a lark?

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No. Please don't say that.

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People just don't understand how dangerous it was.

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They would have overrun us, you know.

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All that business of tying knives on the end of broom handles,

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it's really exaggerated because within 18 months the Home Guard was an efficient guerrilla organisation.

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Can you give us some examples of how it had become efficient?

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-And in what ways it was an efficient organisation?

-Drills, exercises, lectures.

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Small-arms practice, bayonet practice. Serious training.

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And we took it seriously and so did everybody else.

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Everybody was scared stiff, we all were,

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but you never put it on, you don't show it.

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You had to be positive, couldn't be negative.

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On Reel History we've come to Osterley Park in Middlesex

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to remember the millions of brave men who volunteered

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to defend our country from a possible German invasion.

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It was in these grounds at Osterley Park that some of the first ever members of the Home Guard

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were taught the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare.

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Today, some members of the Barmy Army Film Club have come along

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to re-enact some of those original training exercises that they were taught here in the 1940s.

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All stations, all stations, receiving, all stations?

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So what is this all about?

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The re-enactment of the Home Guard, July 1940.

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We get people from all over the world coming to see us at shows, there's an interest in it now.

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A lot of the re-enactment groups are American and German, there are very few British.

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And people with a nostalgia, they love it. They love what we do.

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And also people that served in the Home Guard can show their grandchildren what happened -

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what they wore and what weapons they had.

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Attention! Left press.

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Captain, the squad is ready for your inspection.

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Lance Corporal, I notice you've got First World War medals on. Where were you most?

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Western Front, sir, 1914-1918.

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Western Front? Something wrong with your feet, Lance Corporal?

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-No, sir.

-They should be together, Lance Corporal.

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Sir, sorry about that, sir.

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So that's what you charge when you...a bayonet charge?

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And they don't like it up 'em, Mr Mainwaring!

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-It's a weight, though, isn't it?

-It's a heavy weight.

-It's a real weight.

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It was government policy that only men could participate in combat duty,

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so women weren't officially admitted into the Home Guard until May 1943

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when the real threat of invasion had passed away.

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They were called Women's Home Guard Auxiliaries. They wore home-made uniforms,

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but nothing, beyond a small Bakelite brooch, was issued.

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By 1945, when the Home Guard was disbanded,

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records show that there were 32,000 female members.

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But the armed Home Guard remained the preserve of men

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some as old as 80 and boys as young as 14.

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I'm meeting one of Osterley's, youngest recruits, Sir James Spicer.

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It's a great privilege.

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Here we are in Osterley Park and I was here, actually in the Home Guard, when I was 14.

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And most of the other people there were 40 plus, and they'd all served in the First World War.

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-And what did you do at 14? Did they let you do the real stuff?

-Everything.

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Yes, yes. And of course in this part of the world we were very, very important

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because we all expected to see parachutists coming down.

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And so we had to cover a whole area and do it by night

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and know each of these places so we could turn out in a hurry.

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I expected us to be invaded.

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Do you know, I had my father's pistol and I used to go on the bus to school

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and take that pistol with me in those good old days.

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Now we're going to bring back those good old days for Sir James.

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He's about to watch a training film that was commissioned

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by the West Sussex Home Guard in 1941,

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called Procedures In The Event Of An Enemy Attack.

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By the way, I've heard a whisper the GOC might be coming round when the work's completed,

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so be on your toes. If I get wind of it in time, we'll man the posts.

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It's set in the fictional town of Warnbridge

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and no-one knows who the actors are,

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probably Home Guard recruits, just like Sir James.

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Jenkins! Take this to Sergeant Connor.

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Tell him to phone up headquarters and let them know the old man's on his way.

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How will he feel watching the film today?

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We just did our jobs as private soldiers

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and I used to enjoy so much

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standing outside on guard with a fixed bayonet

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and shouting to the commanding officer, "Halt! Who goes there?"

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And he would have to tell me who he was and then would be allowed in.

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-May I see your pass, sir?

-Don't you know who I am?

-Afraid not, sir.

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Good heavens, man. Doesn't the uniform mean anything to you?

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-Well, yes, sir. I could pass the uniform.

-But not the man, eh? Good, very good.

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The film reminds Sir James of his days as an army cadet, desperate to sign up.

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I would have joined the Home Guard the day it was formed

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but the CO was a headmaster of the school and who knew me and knew I was only 13.

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So I had to go away and come back another day

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and I was an aid raid messenger in London until I was able to get into the Home Guard

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and then I was lucky enough to get into a commando section of the Home Guard.

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Good man, that. Knows his job. Polite but firm.

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We had a job to do. We were ready to do it and about the only thing I understood

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in that film was that we were ready to die for it.

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Well, we were.

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By 1942, the Home Guard were being trained to take over roles

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on anti-aircraft and coastal defence batteries,

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to free up regular troops in the artillery for service overseas.

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The training was very specialised and technical

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and one Home Guard member who undertook it is 87-year-old Bill Horn, from Kent.

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Like many volunteers in the south-east, he would have been

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on the frontline of defence against Hitler's army

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and was trained in heavy weaponry and anti-tank guns in preparation for the expected invasion.

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Do you think you were well prepared?

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Yes.

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Home Guard in different parts of the country,

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they had different equipment.

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Down there I was trained to use a Thompson submachine gun.

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But you don't think you'd have had a chance against a big German invasion.

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You'd have held them up for a while? You must have discussed this.

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I very much doubt... From the way we were and how we felt,

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we would have probably had a go, but I don't think it would have lasted very long.

0:23:380:23:44

We're about to wind the clock back now over 70 years for Bill

0:23:500:23:53

and take him back to the time he was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country,

0:23:530:23:58

as a member of the Home Guard.

0:23:580:24:00

It didn't matter who you talked to, man or woman, at that time,

0:24:140:24:17

they would have given their left arm,

0:24:170:24:20

given their life, to protect this country, no doubt about it.

0:24:200:24:24

Bill later saw active service with the Royal Electrical Engineers,

0:24:250:24:29

but he took his early Home Guard duties just as seriously.

0:24:290:24:33

Will watching our films today remind him why he volunteered?

0:24:330:24:36

I joined the Home Guard because I wanted to do my bit,

0:24:360:24:40

I wanted a future and I knew that future wouldn't exist

0:24:400:24:44

if that invasion took place.

0:24:440:24:46

I wanted a future...

0:24:470:24:48

not just for me, but for everybody.

0:24:480:24:51

Everybody felt they were doing their bit

0:24:520:24:56

as much as they could.

0:24:560:24:58

HE SIGHS

0:24:580:25:01

UPBEAT JAZZ MUSIC

0:25:010:25:04

Despite all the seriousness, watching these training films

0:25:090:25:12

has brought back some humorous memories, too.

0:25:120:25:16

'On goes the General's party towards Valley Wood,

0:25:160:25:20

'which has been wired in accordance with Major North's suggestion.

0:25:200:25:23

'Look out!'

0:25:230:25:25

TIN CANS CLANK

0:25:250:25:29

Look, CO! Blimey.

0:25:300:25:32

'That's exactly how we did train.'

0:25:320:25:34

It is reality, it's exactly how it happened.

0:25:340:25:37

When they're walking across the field and trip over the rope with the tins on the end,

0:25:370:25:42

that's the sort of thing we done. It really did happen.

0:25:420:25:44

But you see, the comical part is the officers

0:25:440:25:49

weren't as intelligent as what we was, that's basically what it was.

0:25:490:25:53

We used to do things deliberately and make them make a fool of themselves.

0:25:530:25:58

It helped to lighten the load a bit, that's all.

0:25:580:26:00

I knew it weren't no blinking Germans.

0:26:000:26:04

Germans don't make half the row generals do, Germans don't.

0:26:040:26:07

How long we got to stop here for, Bill?

0:26:070:26:10

Till the blinkin' brass hats have been around.

0:26:100:26:13

Oi!

0:26:130:26:14

-Surely that pill box is a bit obvious, isn't it?

-Yes, sir. Decoy.

0:26:160:26:19

Position covered from over there.

0:26:190:26:21

It took me right back, it was so real!

0:26:220:26:26

I wasn't in that cinema watching a film. I was back in time in 1940.

0:26:260:26:32

It all comes back to you.

0:26:330:26:36

Just like it was.

0:26:360:26:38

What did you think of the films?

0:26:480:26:50

Brilliant.

0:26:500:26:52

It's unbelievable. To see those films, it really put you right back in the 1940s.

0:26:520:26:58

Exactly as it showed you there. That's how it was.

0:26:580:27:02

The funny remarks they were making... It was really Dad's Army.

0:27:020:27:07

On December 3rd, 1944, the Home Guard was stood down.

0:27:080:27:12

By that date, more than 1,600 members had been killed on duty

0:27:120:27:17

and over 1,000 medals and commendations awarded,

0:27:170:27:21

including 137 for brave conduct.

0:27:210:27:24

We should always remember the Home Guard were true citizen soldiers.

0:27:240:27:28

What's most struck me today is that

0:27:290:27:31

a lot of those people who were in the Home Guard still find

0:27:310:27:34

refuge in jokes and the fun of it, treating danger very lightly

0:27:340:27:39

but behind it there was a serious purpose, they were a thin

0:27:390:27:42

khaki line against Hitler's troops who were ready to come over here

0:27:420:27:46

and they're aware of that too and they made us aware of it,

0:27:460:27:49

I think me aware of it, without...

0:27:490:27:52

Well, they're shy about it, without going on about it.

0:27:520:27:55

Very British.

0:27:550:27:56

Next time on Reel History,

0:27:570:27:59

we're in the East End of London,

0:27:590:28:01

collecting memories of Britain's slum conditions in the '30s.

0:28:010:28:04

Everything in the house is on the floor...

0:28:060:28:10

They say, "How could you have had such a great childhood,

0:28:100:28:13

"loved it so much, when you lived in such dire poverty?"

0:28:130:28:18

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:330:28:36

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:360:28:40

Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country, to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.

This episode comes from at Osterley Park in Middlesex, the site of the first Home Guard training school, to look back to the Second World War and a time when millions of ordinary men were prepared to die for their country.

Home Guard recruit Robert Brown comes face to face with his father as a Home Guard Company Commander; Dad's Army creator Jimmy Perry explains why he signed up to the Home Guard; and Ken Chambers shares us his own extraordinary stories from his time in the Home Guard, some of which could have been taken straight from Dad's Army.


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