On the evening of Tuesday May 14th 1940, newly appointed Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden made a vital appeal to the nation.
He spoke gravely on the BBC of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. It was a new way of fighting – and it was not going well for the Allies
Eden explained how the Germans had dropped highly trained troops by parachute behind enemy lines to knock out key targets ahead of the invading main force.
Important points such as aerodromes, power stations, railway junctions and telephone exchanges would be destroyed or held until the arrival of reinforcements.
To combat this menace, Eden called on the men of Great Britain between the ages of 17 and 65 to come forward to form a new force – the Local Defence Volunteers.
Minutes after Eden’s broadcast, the volunteers started rolling in. On Merseyside, where shipping and industry were so vital to the country’s economy, employees formed units to protect their works premises.
Those under the age limit added a year or two, while those over 65 did the reverse. In all, more than 1.5 million volunteers came forward to serve their country.
Veterans of the Great War brought combat experience to the ranks – and were immensely helpful in battle-training exercises like the one pictured on Merseyside.
Weapons for the new units were initially in short supply. The first pieces of kit issued were whistles and broom handles, although men going out on patrol carried everything from sporting guns to swords and battleaxes.
One Lancashire unit had six Zulu spears with which to fend off any paratroopers descending from above!
On July 23rd, the LDV – which had already been christened ‘look, duck and vanish’ – was renamed the Home Guard. The very next day they got their second piece of kit – army boots.
Uniforms were issued over the next few weeks and then a large shipment of guns arrived from the USA. Our photo shows Liverpool Home Guard members, some still in their civilian clothes, trying out machine guns.
Most importantly, the consignment (including rifles and Thompson sub-machine guns) meant the Home guard could transfer its 30,000 British type .303 rifles and ammunition to the regular army.
Mechanised troops in the North West were trained in rough riding in preparation for an emergency as our photo of soldiers on motorcycles clearly illustrates.
Home Guard units now stood ready to repel invasion. The pre-arranged signal for a paratroop landing was the ringing of church bells upon receiving the code words Operation Cromwell.
Although the Home Guard did not officially admit women to its ranks, it was estimated that around 25,000 were serving in more than 200 units by the beginning of March 1943.
Many had weapons training while others took over vital support roles such as telephone operators, wireless telegraphists and first aid providers.
Women also served in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) – the women’s branch of the British Army during World War II – which numbered 190,000 at its height. Our photo shows the ATS demonstrating a range-finder to Liverpool members of the Girls Training Corps.
Men and women on the home front were pressed into action during the Liverpool Blitz. One of the heaviest raids on the city took place on November 28th 1940, causing what Winston Churchill described as the ‘single worst incident of the war’.
An air-raid shelter in Durning Road was destroyed, causing 166 fatalities. Our poignant picture shows the aftermath with servicemen and civilians working together to comb the wreckage.
Prime Minister Churchill paid tribute to Liverpool’s spirit when he visited Merseyside in April 1941. He was cheered by workmen at Cammell Laird shipyard which he toured with company chairman R. S. Johnson.
*Hundreds of remarkable pictures from around Britain during World War II will feature in Clive Hardy’s latest book The Home Front – available soon from publishers iNostalgia.