The story of the Home Guard is truly fascinating, and it's why - in addition to great writing and superb acting - Dad's Army became such an enduringly popular sitcom. The notion of ordinary people, not able to take part in active military service for whatever reasons, banding together to defend Britain against a feared and formidable invading force, is intensely appealing. The story of the Home Guard tells us a lot about human nature.
My father was in the Home Guard. He was a young man when the Second World War began, but he wasn't able to follow his older brother into the Services because he had a "reserved occupation" as a draughtsman, and became involved in work on the Mulberry Harbours. When I was small, he told me a lot of funny stories about his time in the Home Guard, and I'm sorry that I can't remember them. He had a gift for storytelling, and I wish he'd applied it to writing fiction, but he didn't think that writers were people like us. When the first episode of Dad's Army was shown, naturally we watched it, and became instantly hooked. He was a big fan of the show, though in his sardonic way, he suggested that the reality was even crazier than the fiction.
All this explains why I was delighted when Seona Ford presented me with a copy of Night Exercise, a 1942 novel by John Rhode, which centres around Home Guard activity in a rural community. The book was called Dead of Night in the US; perhaps the American publishers feared that readers would get the wrong idea of what the book was about. The first part of the book, in fact, gives a detailed (and, by Rhode's standards, absolutely gripping) account of a Home Guard exercise overseen by a Major Ledbury. The detail is very convincing, and I feel sure Rhode must have based it on Home Guard activities he was involved with; Ledbury seems rather like a self-portrait.
Ledbury is plagued by a visiting senior officer, Chalgrove, who is so obnoxious that it is soon clear that he is destined to be murdered. And he does go missing after the exercise - but what, in fact, has really happened to him? Is he dead, or has he vanished for reasons of his own? This is an unusual Rhode book in that Dr Priestley doesn't appear. And indeed, the detective element of the story is pretty slight. If you're after an elaborate whodunit, you'd better look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a highly credible, contemporary snapshot of life in the Home Guard at a time when British people were at risk of conquest by the Nazis, you couldn't do much better than read this one.