How American Volunteers Armed British Civilians In World War 2

ErikBrown For American Committee For Defense of British Homes November 1940 — Wikimedia Commons
“July 22, 1941
Your gift of a Springfield Rifle has been issued to my Home Guard Company, and I wish to express to you my sincere appreciation of this most friendly gesture to our country. You may be sure that your rifle will be in good hands if the Hun invades this country, and I hope it will account for more than one of them. My company operates near the site of the Battle of Hastings, and is therefore in a likely invasion area in this war as it was in 1066. Good care will be taken of your rifle, and every endeavour made to return it to you after the war.
Grateful thanks,
Yours Sincerely
J.H. Keeling, Major 22nd Sussex (Battle) Bn. Home Guard”
— Philbrick, Stephanie. ““The American Committee for the Defense of British Homes”.” Maine History 42, 2 (2005): 93–96.

America has a partial memory of World War II as a whole. Our eyes usually envision from the attack on Pearl Harbor onwards. However, the war went on for years before that. In fact, Great Britain had to be concerned with possible German invasion forces crossing the English Channel and how to defend their home island.

In the early months of 1940, the war looked bleak for England. In April, the Germans had invaded Norway. By May, France took a turn for the worse, and British troops were looking for an evacuation route from the Continent. According to S. P. MacKenzie’s book, The Home Guard: A Military and Political History, the British public began to get nervous.

While the government debated about whether to set up a home defense force, civilians started doing it themselves. This pushed England to officially develop a Home Guard or Local Defense Volunteers (LDV). On May 14, the Secretary of War made a radio address calling for volunteers.

However, manpower wasn’t exactly an issue. The Home Guard soon found they were limited on weapons. In fact, many of these soldiers had no firearms to defend the areas they guarded. Out of desperation members of the British government thought it would be a good idea to give the local defense forces medieval-style pikes to hold off the possible Nazi invasion.

As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well with the Home Guard, many of whom were World War I veterans familiar with modern war. During a meeting of the English House of Commons, Sir Henry Fildes summed up their feelings. During a speech he roasted the Under Secretary of War, Lord Croft for the stupidity of the gesture.

“It is notorious that the equipment of the Home Guard is entirely inadequate. I can present to…the Joint Under-Secretary a few lines for his notebook: Here lies a man who fought the Hun; He had a pike, the Hun had a gun; When his time comes to go aloft, Whom must he blame — the Hun or Page Croft?”

However, the plight of the English volunteers didn’t go unnoticed across the Atlantic. Another set of volunteers sprang into action to help. A group called the American Committee for the Defense of British Homes decided to take up a collection. They scoured the nation for guns American citizens would willingly donate to the English Home Guard.

Across the nation, ads appeared in newspapers asking for citizens to lend a hand — or more appropriately arms.

The Collection Effort
Cutting (far left) Zoological Expedition In Ethiopia (1927) — The Field Museum Library, Wikimedia Commons

Led by the explorer, philanthropist, and prominent New Yorker Charles Suydam Cutting, The American Committee for the Defense of British Homes began their collection. Ads like the following began appearing in newspapers across the United States.

“Danger of invasion continues in England. British civilians, for the most part, face this danger without weapons for the protection of their homes. Householders urgently ask weapons with which to defend their homes in Sudbury, Cromer, Ely and Evesham — English cities comparable in size to Victoria.”
Victoria Advocate, Victoria Texas November 12,1940

The Scarsdale Inquirer also posted an article in the same month explaining to its readers people in Westchester, New York, donated 59 weapons and encouraging them to do the same. Cutting explained the guns need not be military issue, anything would be welcome for use against “marauders” by English townspeople.

The Victoria Advocate pointed out that Morristown, NJ donated 15 weapons, and Greenwich, Connecticut another 18. Likewise, articles appeared far and wide asking for and pointing out donations by local American cities and towns to help the British Home Guard in defending their island.

Stephanie Philbrick from the Maine Historical Society explains everyone from private citizens to organizations such as banks and prisons donated weapons, watches, binoculars, and other equipment. It was eventually shipped to the national office in New York City, which acquired an export license to ship the equipment to England.

Philbrick explains by January of 1941 the Committee shipped 194 cases worth of material to England. The equipment included:

  • 1,810 guns
  • 1,573 revolvers
  • 846 binoculars
  • Almost 200,000 rounds of ammo
  • Almost 2,000 steel helmets

Obviously, the collection was small compared to supplies eventually sent by the American government. However, it’s amazing when considering this effort was thrown together by volunteers in a relatively short time.

They not only collected weapons and supplies in a time of economic hardship but gained appropriate licenses to send the supplies across the ocean in a time of war when America was technically not involved in the hostilities.

The Ultimate Gift
John Hession’s Springfield 1903 Rifle — National Firearms Museum

In The Lord of the Rings, one ring rules all others. Similarly in the collection effort, one gun stood above the rest. It was a Springfield Model of 1903 with the serial number 264631. As Frank Miniter in his article in the American Rifleman points out, it was truly special.

The gun belonged to Major John W. Hession. He likely purchased it in 1906 and by 1908 brought it to England clinching an Olympic win. A year later Hession used the rifle to set a world record, making 67 consecutive bullseyes at 800 yards. In 1925 he hit 102 in a row at another competition with the same gun.

When the Major heard about England’s predicament, he decided to make a point and gave the rifle to the Committee to be sent to England. As legend has it, he had two plates put on the gun before he let it go. One explained the feats the gun had achieved. The second plate humbly asked for its return once its service was complete.

It currently resides in the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia. However, it’s much more than a museum piece. Imagine doing something like this in your own life for someone you never met before. Would you be willing to give up one of your most prized possessions to a faceless stranger in a time of conflict?

A Symbol Of The Time
First Manned Local Defense Volunteers (LDV) post in central London (1940) — Wikimedia Commons

In a Depression era time, many Americans did just this. They not only gave up weapons, watches, and binoculars, but also money to ship these items to New York. In the end, the numbers donated may not have changed the tide of a world war.

However, the thank you letters sent across the Atlantic from British Home Guard soldiers say something different. Stephanie Philbrick and the Maine Historical Society have a collection of them. Major Keeling’s letter is only one.

The notes are short and heartwarming. Moreover, the people who received the items weren’t faceless; they were English citizens with names and families. The letters showed a common humanity and cause.

Soon enough, Americans would be sacrificing for their own war effort against a common enemy. The shipments of equipment were eventually followed by soldiers who launched from that same island onto the European mainland.

They fortunately didn’t have to carry pikes with them along the way

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