When many people look back at World War II they only see a string of Allied victories and think victory was always certain, but in the early days of the war things looked very dark. The Nazi war machine had ravaged most of Europe, but that still didn’t stop a handful of determined volunteers from answering their nation’s call to duty, instead it only served to inspire them.
In the spring of 1940 British and French forces had been defeated by the Nazis and were evacuating France. Hitler had made it clear that he wouldn’t stop at the English Channel. The British military was in shambles and tons of valuable weapons and equipment were abandoned on the beaches of Dunkirk Federal Fire Service Recruitment. Faced with a very real possibility of invasion, the British government formed the Local Defence Volunteers also known as the Home Guard. It was believed that if England was to survive the average citizen would have to know how to defend him or herself.
The Home Guard was the idea of Captain Tom Wintringham, a soldier, journalist, and World War I veteran. Between world wars the Oxford educated veteran became a communist supporter and fought in Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigade against the Nazi supported Nationalists. The fighting he experienced was brutal and he was wounded several times. During this conflict he learned many valuable lessons that would help him in World War II. Once back in England he wrote How to Reform the Army which called for changes to the regular military and for the formation of civilian defense forces.
After he witnessed the destruction of Poland under Commander-in-Chief Walter Kirke, Captain Winteringham realized just how unprepared and vulnerable Britain was to a fight the Nazis. The first point of order was to build up the civil defense forces. In May of 1940 the government announced over the radio that any British subject wishing to volunteer to fight should report to their local police station. The government expected only 150,000 volunteer applicants but was shocked when they had 1.5 million applicants by the end of the month! Among them were women who were barred from service. These women would eventually organize their own group called the Amazon Defence Corps. They were trained in close quarters combat and all skilled markswomen.
Since the military didn’t have any weapons to spare the volunteers were forced to go on patrol with outdated military equipment, shotguns and even pitchforks. It soon became clear that if the Home Guard volunteers were going to be effective against well armed, enemy troops, the volunteers would need the best training possible. Captain Wintringham setup a school at his home and taught recruits the principals of guerrilla warfare, anti-tank operations, demolitions and street fighting.
At this time two other important individuals were tapped to help train the Home Guard. They were veteran police officers William E. Fairbairn and Eric A. Sykes. They had spent their careers patrolling the dangerous streets of Shanghai China and learned a lot about close combat and battlefield martial arts. Fairbairn had made an extensive study of Asian martial arts and created a system that only used simple and effective moves. Also he and Sykes created law enforcement’s first Swat team. They taught the volunteers practical self defense methods, and they also taught the volunteers how to disarm attackers, take out sentries, and take prisoners.
Though they’re best known for training police officers, soldiers, and secret agents Fairbairn and Sykes proved you could even teach civilians effective hand to hand combat in a short amount of time with no modification to the curriculum. The volunteer forces learned the same methods that Special Forces troops would learn later in the war. Fairbairn and Sykes knew that in a fight it is about doing what you need to do to survive, even if it means using deadly force. The same holds true for the civilian, agent, police officer and military operator: a fight is a fight is a fight.
While Britain was never invaded, the Home Guard did help free up troops for more important duties during the war and made things more difficult for enemy spies. It also proved the need for everyone to learn effective methods of fighting and proved that anyone can learn these methods and apply them successfully regardless of age, size, man or woman.