At the height of invasion fears in the summer of 1940, the British government asked for civilian volunteers ‘to go on duty against airborne invasion’ and be ‘entrusted with certain vital duties’ for which a knowledge of firearms would be necessary.
Many people in Britain expected some kind of attempt by the Nazis to land in the country, but responded in various ways, depending upon their age, class, occupation, and gender.
There were certainly serious concerns on the part of key British intellectuals that they were on Nazi target lists, and would be some of the first individuals to be rounded up and incarcerated. The writer Vita Sackville-West and the politician Harold Nicolson, for example, apparently talked about the ‘bare bodkin’ – a lethal dose – which they intended to use to avoid the possibility of torture in the event of capture by the Germans.
Both were members of the ‘Bloomsbury set’. The current BBC-2 TV drama Life in Squares, which is exploring the complex sexual and other relationships within this elite circle of artists, writers and thinkers, has reminded me that there were mixed responses by intellectuals to the possibility of German occupation in that long, hot summer of 1940, ranging from (in some cases) fairly open enthusiasm, through to resigned apathy and, in other cases, outright defiance.
Suicide as an option was not just an idea voiced by members of privileged circles. There is also interesting evidence from the ground-breaking Mass Observation studies (set up for the collection of information on everyday life in Britain) that some female factory workers were thinking of taking their own lives (and those of their children) if Hitler’s troops had appeared on the streets.
Another response, of course, was for people to express their open defiance by joining the newly-formed Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), known later as the ‘Home Guard’. But did you know that women were not allowed to join the LDV? In fact, officially, women in Britain were unable to sign up to the Home Guard until 1943.
In 1940, however, despite the official government rules, especially with widespread fears about sabotage by ‘Fifth Columnists’ and some quite wild rumours about German parachutists dropping out of the skies, many women were still determined to defend their homes and workplaces, using violence if necessary. One strategy to subvert the official discrimination against women was to form Women’s Home Defence groups. In essence, these groups were female private armies, often with their own uniforms. Members of such groups would train in unarmed combat and receive arms-training from experienced markswomen.
Despite some important work by the historian and writer Midge Gillies (Waiting for Hitler: Voices from Britain on the Brink of Invasion, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006), the topic remains surprisingly under-researched by historians. In my own investigations of ‘Fifth Column’ fears at local level, I sometimes came across intriguing indications of the unofficial extent of the women’s defence network.
One group – one of the earliest to be established – was the ‘Amazon Defence Corps’, which was set up in London. The title was clearly chosen to tap into cultural myths about the strong fighting women of ancient legend. Very little research has been conducted on the group, but one member in 1940 was Marjorie Foster who, ten years previously, had become the first woman to win the King’s prize for shooting.
Another similar group, called the ‘Much Marcle Watchers’, was set up by Lady Helene Gleichen (a grand-niece of Queen Victoria), on her country estate near Much Marcle, in Herefordshire. According to Gillies and some other available but limited information, the ‘Much Marcle Watchers’ were mainly recruited from Lady Gleichen’s staff and tenants at her large stately home, and the 80 or so members wore armbands with the words ‘Much Marcle Watcher’ on them. Gleichen, who had served in the Red Cross in Italy and France during the First World War, also played an active part in training her small ‘army’, with evening lectures on military tactics and shooting. There is also some tantalising evidence of other women’s home defence activities occurring elsewhere in England, sometimes through the (still male-dominated) Parish Invasion Committees.
Some while later, a more organised – but still unofficial – strategy was adopted by women, when Dr. Edith Summerskill, Labour MP for Fulham West, founded the ‘Women’s Home Defence Force’ (WHD) in December, 1941, and various WHD groups formed across the country. No uniform was worn, but an enamel WHD badge was issued and women members underwent weapons training. Indeed, Summerskill was nicknamed ‘Flossie Bang Bang’ by some bemused observers. Interestingly, the Imperial War Museum in London has some examples of the badge worn by this network of groups.
In 1943, when the government finally relented and allowed female involvement in the Home Guard, it was still on the understanding that women’s participation would be confined to ‘traditional’ female support roles, and not as combatants. Why am I not surprised?
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University
You can read an article on this fascinating topic by Midge Gillies at: