On the 14th May 1940, the British Government announced the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers. By the summer of 1940 nearly 1.5 million men had volunteered to serve. The force was later renamed the Home Guard in July 1940 but remained under-equipped throughout the summer of 1940. Many of the newly raised militia units had just ‘LDV’ arm bands, some civilian firearms and improvised weapons, as uniforms and service weapons were in short supply.
I recently came across a really interesting piece of footage showing a Hampshire Home Guard unit training with an ‘incendiary weapon’. With few heavy weapons available during 1940, some Home Guard units improvised. This remarkable original colour footage appears to show a reasonably effective incendiary weapon of some sort. But beyond what we can see we know very little about the weapon.
The footage shows a battery of five launchers, each seemingly with a 3 man crew. One man aiming, another loading and another firing. The footage is undated but from their arm bands we can see that the men are Home Guard so definitely post July 1940. The men also appear to be quite well equipped with caps, denim trousers and blouses and belts. No webbing is seen but we can potentially date the footage to between late 1940 and mid-1941.
The incendiary weapon itself is extremely intriguing! I haven’t seen a similar weapon before and I couldn’t find any direct reference to it in the available original documents, newspapers or photos. The footage comes from the Wessex Film and Sound Archive, it is described as showing Home Guard men from Swanmore, a rural village in Hampshire, demonstrating the weapons. Before the incendiary weapon is demonstrated we see a company sized force of Home Guard parading, without rifles or other equipment, and then a single Home Guard member demonstrates loading an SMLE. From the footage we can get an idea of how the weapon would have worked.
The men run to the launchers, which appear to be made of wooden boards. Beneath them are rifle stock shaped pieces which the man at the rear seems to shoulder – probably to aim the weapon. The other two crew members kneel either side of the launcher. The footage then cuts away to another angle from the other side and shows one of the kneeling men hitting the rear of the projectile with a hammer. Then with a flash and puff of smoke the projectile launches forward. The man who aimed the weapon appears to have moved away, out of shot. Frustratingly the footage is a bit underexposed and quite dark so we can see too much more detail but we can see that the chap with the hammer is definitely hitting the rear of what looks like a length cylinder. The cylinder shoots to the rear while a projectile fires forward and the launcher’s crew look downrange.
We then get footage showing what seem to be a series of impacts, likely from the projectile’s fired by the launchers. Then we get another clip of the men running to man the launchers and some more shots of the incendiary weapons exploding. From the available footage its pretty difficult to theorise how the launchers work. They appear to be using an almost proto-recoilless rifle-like principle with the launch cylinder shooting backwards and the projectile leaving the cylinder and firing towards the target. The crew member with a hammer may be hitting a percussion cap to detonate some black powder which projects the incendiary bomb. This system may have been developed to remove the need for a fixed, pressure bearing barrel. Making the weapon much simpler to manufacture.
The footage doesn’t give us too much indication of the range of the weapon but it’s distant enough that the men firing the weapon don’t appear to recoil when the projectile hits the target. The incendiary effect downrange is actually quite impressive and a battery of five of the launchers would have been an impressive sight and perhaps quite useful as a road ambush weapon which was something the Home Guard focused heavily on at the time.
It wasn’t until later in 1941 that sub-artillery like the Smith Gun, Northover Projector and the Blacker Bombard began to enter service with the Home Guard. Until then some of the units took it upon themselves to create their own weapons, improvising contraptions like the one featured in this video.
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Home Guard and home-movies in Swanmore, Wessex Film and Sound Archive via the BFI, (source)
Britain’s Final Defence: Arming the Home Guard, 1940-1944, D. Clarke (2016)