An improvised pike issued in the earliest days of the later Home Guard is to go on display at the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset.
The pike was issued to none other than tank specialist and maverick pioneer Percy Hobart, the man responsible for the employment of the so-called ‘Funnies’, a series of innovative tanks developed by Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division.
However, prior to this, Hobart was a difficult man. Despite his success in transforming the way British forces used armour in the desert, the prickly and quirky Major-General was retired in 1940. He then joined his Local Defence Volunteer (the forerunner to the Home Guard) detachment as a Lance Corporal.
Although some Home Guard units—especially in likely invasion hotspots—were equipped relatively quickly, in many others the supply of arms was much slower. Pikes such as Hobart’s, one of 250,000 ordered when the need for weapons was most pressing, were thought to have begun to be widely distributed to depots from 1942.
However, it appears some Home Guard units may have received theirs much earlier, as the Tank Museum’s example is engraved with: “Pike as issued to L/Cpl. P.C.S. Hobart, Home Guard, Deddington by Lord Croft, Under Secretary of State for War, in 1940. For repelling the invasion of Great Britain.”
Improvised weapons were commonly introduced into Home Guard units, with many such as the Smith Gun, the Blacker Bombard, and the Northover Projector mass-produced in desperation, each with varying degrees of success and viability. Among these acquisitions were pikes, a weapon that was effectively obsolete more than 150 years prior, and very much out of place in a conflict where concentrated armour and air power had proved decisive.
However, this evocative weapon of necessity was nevertheless part of this scramble to re-arm post Dunkirk, and the irony of such a weapon being issued to one of Britain’s foremost proponents of armoured warfare is somewhat ironic.
In addition to Croft’s design, similar weapons were improvised by other units, such as the polearms developed by men working at Manchester Collieries Ltd, who formed the 55th (County of Lancashire) Battalion of the Home Guard. However, here there was method in the apparent madness, as these weapons were designed for training purposes, included carved hand grips, and were made to be as light and sharp as possible for use in bayonet fighting drill.
Fortunately, Croft’s pikes were not tested in battle, and by early 1941 Hobart had been plucked from the Home Guard by Winston Churchill and was in command of the newly founded 11th Armoured Division. From here, he would go on to make a real difference to the prosecution of the war.
Not only was the 11th a well trained unit, Hobart was later tasked with the founding of 79th Armoured Division, and helped to develop the myriad tanks needed to help breach the Atlantic Wall. The innovative array of specialised vehicles, such as flame-throwing Churchills and amphibious Shermans proved decisive on D-Day and beyond. In addition, the variety of engineering vehicles based tanks such as the Centaur and Churchill and including dozers, bridgelayers and others offered a huge tactical advantage. Modern vehicles with those same roles continue to be used today.
Croft’s pikes, however, have a less glorious legacy. In one of the earliest mentions of the weapons in parliament, Winston Churchill stated in December 1941: “Although we have a good many million rifles in this country, we have not got rifles for all.
“We have several million men who will fight to the death if this country is invaded but for whom we have not been able to manufacture the necessary number of rifles… Therefore we supplement them with machine guns, tommy guns, pistols, grenades and bombards, and, when other things fail, we do not hesitate to place in the citizen’s hands a pike or a mace, pending further developments. (HC Deb 02 December 1941 vol 376 cc1009-95)
Despite this endorsement, the pikes were frequently the subject of ridicule and concern. In a later debate, Flt Lt Henry Raikes, MP for Essex South Eastern, stated: “I appreciate that a pike is better than nothing, but I hope the Secretary of State will satisfy himself that there is, and can be, no need in the event of invasion from above for men to be called upon, instead of using rifles and submachine guns, to use pikes.” (HC Deb 22 January 1942 vol 377 cc464-532)
In the House of Lords, criticism prompted Lord Croft himself to defend the pikes. On 4 February 1942 the Duke of Sutherland quipped: “I know the men are splendid, but you cannot fight against a Tommy gun with a claymore or pike.”
In response to this and other comments, Croft suggested the pikes were for use in urban areas where the use of rifles would be limited. He envisaged bombing parties lobbing grenades at close quarters, covered by guardsmen equipped with firearms, and pikemen ready to close and press the attack, stating: “I would rather have trained bombers for fighting in urban areas, and if a bombing attack could be swiftly followed up by cold steel, it would be most effective.
“If I were a bomber in such a formation—and I think I have thrown most types of bombs that have been used in the Army—I should like to have a pike in order to follow up my bombing attack, especially at night. It is a most effective and silent weapon.” (HL Deb 04 February 1942 vol 121 cc680-710)
He failed to convince many. In that same chamber on 17 March 1942 the Earl of Mansfield stated: “Well, the Home Guard are much interested in the arrival of these pikes, though their interest has perhaps not taken quite such a favourable line as those who provided the pikes had anticipated.
“I think that Home Guards throughout the country are waiting rather anxiously to ascertain whether they are going to be supplied with any other mediaeval knick-knacks of a similar sort, because, frankly, the Home Guard honestly regard these pikes as little less than an insult.” (HL Deb: 17 March 1942, vol.122 cc.270-300)