Brit comedy Dad’s Army is out to own today, based on the classic BBC sitcom. While the source material is seen as cosy and nostalgic, it was nevertheless based on real events: the formation and activities of the Home Guard, whose members were charged with defending the country while our boys were overseas during the Second World War. The film and series got great mileage out of the scenario, but what was it really like to have that level of responsibility…?
THN had the privilege of speaking to Peter Blackburn, who served his country as part of the Home Guard in the village of Pulham Market, Norfolk and is the group’s sole survivor. This fascinating slice of living history is required reading for fans of the franchise and everyone else, who owe a debt of gratitude for the sacrifices made during these turbulent times…
THN: What was your day to day routine at the Home Guard?
Peter Blackburn: Well I was just an ordinary Private. I joined up when I was seventeen in May 1943. I couldn’t when I was sixteen, I had to be seventeen. My father had a farm and I was the farm boy. We met on Sundays, sometimes during the week but mostly on Sundays, apart from during the Harvest Time. Otherwise every Sunday throughout the year.
Tell me about the resources you had there. Did you have to make do in some cases?
In the days before I was in they had no guns or anything. Most people in the countryside had a gun, which they used to take on duty. Those that didn’t have a gun took a pitchfork. But when I came in, on my very first day, they gave me a uniform, and my .303 rifle. Wow! That really was something. To me, who loved shooting… I was always busy shooting rabbits and all sorts of things… that was up my street.
Based on your experiences, how accurate is Dad’s Army?
(Laughs) It was a hell of a time. Things did happen which were a bit Dad’s Army-ish. There was a sandpit in the village for many years, about twenty feet deep. As there was a driveway running up to it we used to stand on it and shoot at targets in the base of the pit. We went up there regularly to do that because we were being trained to use machine guns and so on. Anyway, just south of the pit there was an area where one of the farmers had some poultry, he had two or three poultry huts down there. Every Sunday morning he’d go and see to his poultry, and on this particular morning another lot of Home Guard – not Pulham Market! – were there shooting. And Fred was in his hut giving food to the hens. He walked out of the hut and suddenly there was a bang! He looked round and saw a dead hen. What had happened was one of the men had shot clean over the top of the pit, the bullet had gone through the hut and Fred had come out seconds before. Now in 2016 that would be headline news, but not then.
Another occasion was toward the end of my Home Guard time. We had some smoke bombs left over, so we lined them all up at the base of the sandpit and we were really enjoying ourselves setting them off, and there were these massive amounts of smoke coming out. Then down came the village fire engine, tearing down wondering where the fire was! When they saw what it was, they weren’t best pleased.
There were elements of truth about Dad’s Army, but really they were making a show and that’s what they’re supposed to do. We had men in our Home Guard who were ex-military, they’d been in the First World War. We weren’t getting away with just anything. Like most military men they were very particular, so we had to tow the line. We had to march properly and would soon get ticked off if we didn’t. We had to do things the Army way!
The thing the new movie does which the TV show doesn’t is expand the female side of the war effort. Did you have some strong women when you were in the Home Guard?
(Laughs) No we didn’t. We didn’t really have any. You see the women were doing their bit, the older women of the WVS and all sorts of other things, the hospital situation… they were doing other things. But the film brought in an extra perspective, though I’m sure it didn’t happen quite like that with us. A lot of our Home Guard were ex-World War One and they didn’t stand for too much nonsense.
What did you make of the film?
Of course I’ve been brought up for many years with the old Dad’s Army, and I love it. I think it’s brilliant. I made my mind up that the film can never be as good as the old version. Nothing can be up to that. I had to watch it twice to see what it was all about, because I didn’t know what to expect the first time really. In actual fact I did warm to it. As to whether it was like what we did in the Home Guard… no, it was completely different! But I thought the actors and everyone associated with it did a wonderful job. It’s good entertainment.
How worried were you that the Nazis were going to invade?
That was almost certain. Almost. We were sure they were coming in, because we didn’t know – we know a lot more now than we did then – that Hitler had got all the boats ready for an invasion. He was ready to invade this country after we were pushed out of Dunkirk. He didn’t realize… the weird thing is the Battle of Britain started, and the Germans thought we didn’t have much of an air force, and they were astonished when they found we were doing what we were doing. Hitler then thought our resources were more than he anticipated and he couldn’t invade… well he could have done. Hitler made a very big mistake, thank goodness. If he’d come, we could not have stopped him. They could have walked onto the East Coast as they liked. Would I be here now? No. I can assure you I wouldn’t be hitting my ninetieth year if he’d invaded. The possibility was very real. Very real.
Were you scared?
We were never scared. We didn’t realize the significance. Now I know what was going on I think we ought to have been. We went on to find out about the concentration camps and so on. Of course you’d be scared of that. But back then we had no idea. We had bombing nearby, one bomb landed within three hundred yards of where I’m sitting, we had bombs the other side of the village… various things happened and that brought it home to us. But we were never scared.
With thanks to Dr. Wendy Palace.
Dad’s Army is available today to own on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Universal Pictures UK.
Want to know more about what it was like in the Home Guard? Take a look at this short film about the men of Thornton in Yorkshire:
And here’s the trailer for the movie!