Orders of the Day — Home Guard.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 18th December 1941.

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Photo of Mr John Colville Mr John Colville , Midlothian and Peeblesshire Northern

I should like to congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Major Marlowe) on his maiden speech, and I am sure the House will join with me in hoping that he will take part in our Debates on many occasions. He carefully observed the two maxims that were laid down for him, though I was afraid that at one time he was going to stray into a matter of controversy when he began to deal with the relative values of women and men expressed as vulgar fractions. He steered his bark away from that hazard, and I congratulate him on the case that he has made for the Home Guard.

I welcome the statement made by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Secretary of State for War, and in justification for taking up a little of the time of the House to-day, I should like to say that I have spent the last 18 months in whole-time work for the Home Guard, first of all as a local Defence Area Commander and later as a G.S.O.I., H.G., in a Scottish area. That area comprises a number of counties, very varied in type, and in the Home Guard we have men of all kinds and conditions, the dweller in cities and the dweller in the country, the shipyard worker and the Gaelic-speaking ghillie, and it has given me a fair cross section of Caledonian humanity to study in speaking of the problem. Conditions in all parts of the United Kingdom vary greatly and Scotland is only a part of the problem. My service, however, gives me some confidence in speaking, and, with that experience, I welcome every word which my right hon. and gallant Friend the Secretary of State has said. This statement is one of great importance and it marks a change in policy which has not been lightly undertaken. It has been undertaken only after much careful thought and inquiry, and I congratulate the Government on having decided to take this step.

Compulsion, in my view, is a proper and necessary step in the present circumstances, but judgment and experience will be necessary in carrying out this change if the vital needs of war-time industry and agriculture are to be safeguarded and if that great and line spirit which has animated the vast majority of members of the Home Guard for one and a half years is to be fully maintained. In reading the White Paper and in listening to my right hon. and gallant Friend's statement, I am satisfied that these safeguards are fully in mind, and that it is the intention of the Government to see that they are implemented. Those who have knowledge of civilian conditions as well as of the arts of war must take a part in administering these safeguards, and I hope the Government will keep that fully in mind in working out their proposals. Indeed, the White Paper makes provision for this, as I see it, and takes into account the widely varying conditions which affect the civil employment of men in different parts of the country.

Why is compulsion now necessary? For a long time I was opposed to the introduction of compulsion in the Home Guard. Like many others, I have become convinced that it is necessary, and for three reasons. The first reason is that the obligations which have been applied to members of the public for Civil Defence clearly make it quite anomalous that similar obligations should not be applied for the Armed Defence of the country. The National Service Bill visualises that, and rightly determines that Armed Defence as well as Civil Defence should be on the same basis. The second reason is that the Home Guard is being called upon more and more to undertake new tasks in defence of their locality. With every extension of the field of war abroad, the importance of the Home Guard at home is magnified and its tasks increased. It is indeed vital that the Home Guard should be strengthened and rendered more efficient for this work. I believe that for these new duties some men can be found by voluntary enlistment; but I do not think that all can be found, and it is a risk we could not afford to take if these new tasks are to be fully discharged.

My third reason for not only accepting, but urging, compulsion is this: I am sure that everyone who has had experience in the Home Guard will agree with me that there is a small but persistent minority in the Home Guard not pulling its weight in duties or in training. Not every unit has this hard core, but a great many of them, I will go so far as to say most of them, have some drones in the hive. It is the good men who are to-day pressing that these men should be made to take their full share of the work. For these reasons I welcome the proposals of the Government. We are fighting for our lives in the greatest war in history. If the Government did not, after thinking it necessary, face the step of compulsion for the Home Guard, they would be gravely lacking in their sense of duty. I am not afraid that the spirit of the Home Guard will be adversely affected if these measures are wisely applied. Compulsion to train did not affect the spirit of the pre- war Territorials, or detract from their keenness. Nor has compulsion affected the spirit of the British Army. He would be a rash man to-day who would say otherwise than that the spirit of our Army is as high as ever in history.

With regard to safeguards, the intake to the Home Guard by compulsion will be controlled, as the Secretary of State pointed out, and as this is a static force, unlike the Army whose recruits we may move anywhere, the views of local military commanders should be taken fully into account in considering the requirements in any area for the Home Guard. The White Paper states that the Army Council, jointly with the Minister of Labour and National Service, will decide what intake is necessary. I ask my right hon. and gallant Friend, in view of the static nature of this Force, that full consideration should be given to the views of the Army commanders, and the district and area commanders whose requirements for the defence of their Commands must really govern the numbers required for the Home Guard.

The numbers to be called up, will, in my view, be affected by three factors; the tasks required, the weapons available, and the facilities for training. Taking first the tasks, I believe that ground defence must be the paramount task. It was the task for which the Home Guard was called into being. But it is not the exclusive task. My right hon. and gallant Friend has referred to antiaircraft defence, both guns and searchlights. That is a duty which the Home Guard can and will undertake, but it requires careful organisation. The rota system, to which he referred, requires careful working out to ensure that a large balance of men not on duty on any given night can be given a proper and useful task when action stations are manned. There are other duties, such as guides and traffic control, for instance, for which the Home Guard are eminently suitable. The point has been stressed that there is no intention to change the character of the Home Guard duties in respect of directing men to go a great distance from home to carry out their duties. That should be clearly emphasised to avoid misunderstanding.

Intake must be governed, secondly, by the weapons available. Those who are brought in must have weapons. It would be folly to enlist a large number of men and not provide them at a very early stage of their training with such weapons as are necessary for their instruction. I am sure that my right hon. and gallant Friend has that in mind, but I stress it, because I know nothing that would more quickly dishearten men than that they should be brought in by compulsion and for a long period have no weapons for training. The question of weapons is a difficult one. I would say at once that a notable improvement has been made in the armament of the Home Guard. They have got new and powerful weapons, but there are still gaps. Obviously I could not discuss these across the Floor of the House, but I should like to whisper in the Secretary of State's ear, and also whisper the word "priority," because the degree of priority accorded to the Home Guard has a most important bearing on our home defence.

Finally, there is the question of training facilities. A large intake will necessitate the provision of training officers and facilities for training. I make one or two suggestions in that connection. For some considerable time Home Guard battalions have had a paid officer with each battalion, an adjutant quartermaster. These officers are generally used more for administrative duties than for training. They were chosen largely from the ranks of the Home Guard or from the administrative assistants. Army officers of field experience were not available. With the increasing importance of the Home Guard and the new duties being handed over to them, it is important that battalions should, if possible, have, as adjutants, officers capable of field training, and in addition have a quartermaster for administrative work. Further, in some Commands, and I know this is true of the Scottish Command, we have had a great deal of help in training from Regular officers.

That is a scheme which I strongly commend to my right hon. and gallant Friend. I hope that he will encourage it in all command's. One recognises that it must be governed by the needs of the Services in other directions, but I hope that there is a possibility of extension of the scheme of attaching active officers from field units for a period to Home Guard battalions to help in their training, and particularly in the training for mobile patrols. The prewar Territorial Army had a much larger number of permanent staff instructors attached to battalions than has been the case with the Home Guard. When one considers that many Home Guard battalions are even more scattered than were the Territorial battalions, one realises how valuable would be an increase in the number of permanent staff instructors, and I hope and believe it is coming.

My right hon. and gallant Friend has spoken of the maximum period of training in any four weeks as 48 hours, and has stressed that, in applying the rule, good sense and understanding of a man's civil occupation should be shown. A man may change his occupation while he is in the Home Guard, and regard should be paid to that possibility. The ordinary farm hand may become a cattleman, a steel works labourer may become a furnaceman, and many other kinds of workers may change their duties in a similar way. It may be necessary then to change the number of their drills. Therefore, those who have had experience of civil life must play a part in the administration of these provisions. I believe that the Government are wise to limit the age of compulsion to 50 for new recruits as in the Military Service Act. As I understand their proposal, men above 50 and up to 65—or older men if they are allowed to stay on longer—will be under a general compulsion to train, just like those who are under 50, and I think that is right and proper. I understand, however, that they will retain the right to contract out at a fortnight's notice. I believe that we shall lose very few as a result. I cannot imagine that men are likely to leave the Home Guard because of the changes now being made. I agree with the. proposal that they should have the right to contract out, but—