After stumbling across an old photograph of the Cirencester Home Guard in the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard archive, John Wilson went in search of their story

THE Home Guard has been immortalised by the evergreen television comedy Dad's Army.

Beloved characters such as Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson typify in the minds of many the sort of characters who made up the force.

But this wonderful 1943 photograph and a document from the archives tell a more realistic story of the local men who were to be the last line of defence in the event of a Nazi invasion of England in World War II.

The 3rd (Cirencester) Battalion of the Gloucestershire Home Guard were commanded by Lt Col Brian W Robinson, and he felt his position an honour.

He was proud that despite never having been called into action, by the end of the war his officers and men were no less keen than they were at its start.

There were, though, moments that would not have been out of place at Walmington-on-Sea, the fictional setting for Dad's Army.

There were the high dramas of a reported invasion attempt, and the chiming of the Parish Church bells in Cirencester to warn of an enemy parachute landing (Don't panic! Corporal Jones might have said). Both later turned out to be false alarms.

At the end of the war in 1945, Lt Col Robinson, who had been in command since 1942, wrote a brief history of the battalion and his time with it. It was later deposited with Cirencester's Bingham Library.

The picture that accompanies this report is of the battalion's B Company, formerly known as Birdlip Company, and is part of the photographic archive of the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard.

Members of the Home Guard, initially called the Local Defence Volunteers and set up in May 1940, were usually men above or below the age of conscription and those unfit or ineligible for frontline military service.

According to the Imperial War Museum, it was at first a rag-tag militia with scarce and often make-do uniforms and weaponry.

Yet it evolved into a well-equipped and well-trained army of 1.7 million men.

Men of the Home Guard were not only readied for invasion, but also performed other roles such as bomb disposal and manning anti-aircraft and coastal artillery. Over the course of the war, 1,206 of them were killed on duty or died of wounds.

Despite his evident competence, there was, perhaps, just a touch of the Mainwaring about Cirencester's Lt Col Robinson.

In the forward to his memoir he laments – in a tone not unlike his fictional counterpart – his misfortune that his force had not gone into action against the enemy, as had some Home Guard anti-aircraft batteries.

"This history would have been more interesting had we been given the opportunity... to have a crack at the Hun."

Later, he describes the reported invasion attempt on September 7, 1940, which put his men on alert for seven hours.

"The speed with which the companies assumed their battle stations was astonishing, and practically 100 per cent attendance was reported," he noted with satisfaction.

Then there came the sounding of the Parish Church bells to warn of a parachute landing, which was quickly recognised as a false alarm.

Lt Col Robinson said peace immediately returned to Cirencester, "although it was difficult to communicate the news to the bell ringer, who had 'just in case' locked the doors at the bottom of the tower."

He described how lines of defence were laid around the town to repel invading forces. They comprised anti-tank ditches, steel rails and dragon's teeth (pyramid-shaped concrete obstacles to vehicles) and roughly followed the course of waterways and railways around the town. In several places ancient fortifications made by the Romans were made us of.

For the first two years of its existence the battalion was short of arms. Only one man in three had a rifle, the rest had shotguns and ludicrous Croft's pikes – hastily assembled weapons consisting of a long steel tube with an obsolete bayonet welded to the end.

Sten guns arrived later, but as Lt Col Robinson dryly observed: "It is sad to relate that the ammunition was not so rapid in making its appearance, with the result that it was difficult to train the men in the use of the Sten."

It was not his only complaint about arms. Many of the men recruited to the Home Guard worked on nearby farms, and were still required to fulfil their agricultural duties.

This exasperated their commander when he put together a platoon to compete in a shooting competition.

"Owing to that tiresome animal the cow requiring milking twice a day, it was extremely difficult for a platoon commander to get 100 per cent of his men for practice on any given day," he complained.

The battalion was stood down on December 3, 1944, at the Abbey Cricket Ground, Cirencester.

There was a short service, presentation of honours and 1,000 men – soldiers, not comedy stereotypes – marched proudly past their commander to the strains of the band of RAF South Cerney.

Perhaps that was the day Lt Col Robinson decided that these men would not be forgotten. Five months later he sat at his desk and begin to write...

  • Do you recognise any of the men in this picture (or where it was taken)? What became of Lt Col Robinson? We'd love to share their stories. Email