Exhibit of the Week: Preparing public for a German invasion

The 'Spot at Sight' charts in the Scarborough Collections.
The 'Spot at Sight' charts in the Scarborough Collections.

The artist is unknown, but the clarity and style of these images makes them a design classic – various websites sell framed reproductions as art prints to this day.

The ‘Spot at Sight’ charts were printed by a London company, J Weiner Ltd, for His Majesty’s Stationery Office and the Ministry of Information in the early 1940s, and were part of this country’s preparations against a possible German invasion in World War II.

The two charts enabled people on these shores to identify German parachutists, soldiers, airmen and sailors should they stumble across them on home turf – which is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

The threat of invasion was very real, and in the early 1940s, civilian invasion committees were formed to work with the military, and information was given to the civilian population on what to do if an invasion did occur.

And, of course, on May 14, 1940, the Local Defence Volunteers was formed, comprising men either too old (over the age of 40), too young (under 18) or too infirm to serve in the regular forces, plus those in protected trades, such as railway and dockworkers, miners, farmers, agricultural workers, schoolteachers and doctors, which were exempt from conscription.

By the end of July 1.5 million men had volunteered for the LDV, a huge figure that reveals the seriousness with which ordinary people took the threat of invasion that extraordinary summer.

On July 23, during a radio broadcast, Prime Minister Winston Churchill came up with an alternative name, which stuck – the Home Guard.

The Home Guard came to be fondly known as Dad’s Army, best remembered by us now as the subject of the popular 60s and 70s TV comedy series.

But far from being the bumbling outfit portrayed in that series, the Home Guard had a crucial role to play as a secondary defence force in case of invasion by Germany or its allies. Their instructions were to try and slow down the advance of the enemy, even if only by a few hours in order to give the regular forces time to regroup.

The Home Guard continued to patrol vulnerable coastal areas of the UK and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores until late 1944.

And it’s worth remembering that many of the older members had already experienced warfare in the raw during World War I, and were highly effective soldiers. As such, the Home Guard was given a number of secret roles, including as sabotage units with orders to disable factories and petrol installations following invasion.

Members were also recruited into the commando teams of the Auxiliary Units, a secretive force of highly trained guerrilla units which would act in support of the regular army during any military campaign to resist invasion.

A fascinating docu-drama shown just before Christmas (We’re Doomed!, still available on iPlayer and well worth a watch, if only to see the wonderful John Sessions as Arthur Lowe) revealed that Dad’s Army was very nearly called The Fighting Tigers, and that the BBC upper echelons were concerned that it was too soon after the war to make a comedy about it. Those of us born in the 60s can easily forget that the conflict had ended only 15 years before that decade started and was still very fresh in many people’s minds.

And, of course, the old favourite hits the big screen this month – the movie of Dad’s Army was filmed in Bridlington, Scarborough and elsewhere in East and North Yorkshire, and received its regional premiere in Bridlington last night. You can also catch it at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from February 22 to March 3.

The ‘Spot at Sight’ charts are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.

For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.