Businessman Robert Tsao (曹興誠) recently donated NT$600 million (US$19.42 million) to the Kuma Academy, a grassroots organization that aims to educate and train civil defense volunteers. In light of recent geopolitical developments in East Asia, calls to action have generally been met with great enthusiasm from civilians.
Several approaches to incorporating civilians into defense have emerged, ranging from teaching first-aid to training a quasi-militia within the confines of Taiwanese gun laws. Nevertheless, most of these approaches have little to no official government backing.
How should the government capitalize on this surge of enthusiasm?
Britain’s effective employment of civilian volunteers in the Home Guard and the Air Raid Precautions (later known as the Civil Defence Service) during World War II can offer invaluable historical lessons to Taiwan regarding the possible challenges and advantages of forming such organizations. This article’s arguments are built upon the research provided in historian Stephen Cullen’s book In Search of the Real Dad’s Army: The Home Guard and the Defence of the United Kingdom, 1940–1944.
The surprisingly fast pace of the Wehrmacht’s advance in France, Belgium and the Netherlands was the backdrop to the formation of the Home Guard. British military planners feared that German paratroopers, who had proved themselves as a potent fighting force on the European continent, could potentially overrun the defenses of an already weakened British army.
On May 14, 1940, then-British secretary of state for war Anthony Eden announced the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers, later known as the Home Guard; 250,000 men registered within 24 hours of Eden’s announcement.
Initially, the ad hoc nature of such an organization meant that early volunteer units were poorly equipped and trained. Furthermore, the roles these volunteers would play in a possible invasion were not immediately apparent to military planners. There was an overlap with the roles already filled by the police, who were employed in guarding vulnerable points against sabotage.
Nevertheless, military planners eventually decided that the volunteers would observe and report possible enemy movements, guard locations of tactical or industrial importance, stand at anti-aircraft posts and offer resistance to slow enemy advances. Furthermore, as the German bombing campaign — the Blitz — over Britain began, the volunteers also took part in capturing downed German airmen. The military also created special auxiliary units that could operate independently to target enemy logistics in rear-occupied areas if an invasion were to take place.
The paranoia of enemy fifth columnists operating in Britain, combined with the lack of proper training and discipline, resulted in friendly fire incidents initiated by these armed volunteers. Such incidents demonstrate the importance of proper training, including identification of friend or foe, prior to deploying armed civilian volunteers.
Nevertheless, the deployment of Home Guard units freed up military service members to be deployed to other offensive campaigns, such as north Africa. From 1941 onward, the 1 million members of the Home Guard gradually took over the defense of Britain, also getting better equipment and training.
Another challenge was the legality of such a civilian force during war. German authorities threatened to treat captured Home Guard members as they had francs-tireurs — irregular military formations deployed by France. The War Cabinet decided that those not involved in the military or the Home Guard would not be authorized to use lethal weapons. The government had to draw a distinction between regular civilians and the members of the Home Guard.
By 1942, the War Cabinet explicitly encouraged cooperation between the Home Guard and the Air Raid Precautions. Eventually, many members of the Home Guard also held civil defense duties. This cooperation was essential in limiting the civilian and infrastructure damage inflicted by German bombers.
Britain did not have much time to organize the Home Guard prior to the Blitz. Taiwan, on the other hand, still has precious time to organize and train civilian volunteers. If efforts only begin when the conflict starts, there will likely be significant obstacles in organizing and delivering arms and supplies to volunteers. After formation, a “Taiwanese home guard” would also need significant time to mature with training.
Most importantly, a potential Taiwanese home guard would need to be institutionalized and legitimized to provide the volunteers with the rights of lawful combatants during a conflict.
This process would include providing standardized uniforms to volunteers.
Maintaining a large standing army is an expensive undertaking. In the long run, the costs of a large standing army will outweigh the short-term defense benefits. Creating a Taiwanese home guard will only incur a small fraction of the personnel cost compared with maintaining a large standing army while still offering sufficient asymmetrical warfare capabilities.
If organized properly, home guard units can boost national morale and the will to resist occupation. In the short term, it might be difficult to garner enough political will for such radical structural change, so the government should start small by first incorporating trained civilian volunteers from the Kuma Academy and other civilian groups into Taiwan’s official civil defense apparatus.
Linus Chiou studies physics and history at the University of Virginia.
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