It has been described as one of the war’s best-kept and most enduring secrets. Indeed, only over the course of the past few decades, as details of the organisation have appeared in print, have some members of Britain’s Auxiliary Units begun to speak openly about the existence of this élite guerrilla force which was established in the coastal counties of Britain.
To describe these Auxiliary Units as the Home Guard’s ‘Secret Army’, a title that has been freely applied to them over the years not only in press reports and radio and television documentaries but also by many former members themselves, is actually to misrepresent their position. Without a doubt, hand picked members of the Home Guard were invited to join this underground – literally so in many cases, as will be seen – movement. However, it would be more accurate to say that the Auxiliary Units capitalised on the existence of the Home Guard, using it as a highly effective smokescreen for their own secret activities, and that as time went on their ranks comprised many men – and women too – who had no connection whatsoever with the Home Guard. Nevertheless, the joint histories of the Home Guard and the Auxiliary Units are so closely intertwined in the public imagination that an account of this so-called ‘British Resistance’ movement has a valid place here.
A letter sent to Prime Minister Churchill from the offices of the War Cabinet at the beginning of August 1940 explains the purpose of the Auxiliary Units (a title that was deliberately kept vague for the sake of secrecy). ‘These Auxiliary Units,’ it read, ‘are being formed with two objectives: a) They are intended to provide, within the framework of the Home Guard organisation, small bodies of men especially selected and trained, whose role it will be to act offensively on the flanks and in the rear of any enemy troops who may obtain a foothold in this country. Their action will particularly be directed against tanks and lorries . . . ammunition dumps, small enemy posts and stragglers. Their activities will also include sniping. b) The other function of the Auxiliary Units is to provide a system of intelligence, whereby the Regular Forces in the field can be kept informed of what is happening behind enemy lines. . . .’ Among other things, the letter went on to explain that each unit would usually comprise less than a dozen men, most of whom would be recruited from among the farming and game-keeping fraternity, together with others who were well acquainted with the local countryside in which they would be operating; that, in addition to the provision of weapons and explosive devices, they would be equipped with wireless and field telephone apparatus to assist with their intelligence work, and that each unit would be accommodated in specially prepared and concealed hideouts (known as ‘operational bases’ or OBs) where reserves of food and water, weapons and ammunition could all be safely stored for long periods if it proved to be necessary. The location of each hideout was to be – and, as it turned out in many cases, would remain for years – a matter of the greatest secrecy. ‘All the activities of these Auxiliary Units,’ the letter pointed out, ‘are under the direct supervision of Colonel Colin Gubbins, who himself is on the GHQ Staff of Home Forces, and are planned and carried out in the closest collaboration with the military authorities in the areas concerned.’
That some confusion arose over the separate identities of the Home Guard and the Auxiliary Units is quite understandable. (In fact, the letter referred to above goes on to describe Auxiliary Units as ‘this new branch of the Home Guard’). Members of the so-called ‘Secret Army’, whether actually serving in the Home Guard or not, were recruited into three specially formed battalions ostensibly of the Home Guard – the 201st in Scotland, the 202nd in the north of England and the 203rd in the south of England – and they were also issued with Home Guard uniforms to wear. But, as David Lampe pointed out in The Last Ditch (1969), his meticulously researched account of Auxiliary Units, none of these battalions (which were all attached to GHQ Home Forces) actually appeared in the Home Guard’s own official records, such was the high degree of secrecy which surrounded their very existence.
It was the assumption that German forces would invade this country by sea rather than by air that led to the Auxiliary Units being placed in locations around Britain’s coastline. As David Lampe explains, the first units were set up in those areas of the country considered most vulnerable to enemy invasion: Kent and Sussex, East Anglia and around the coastlines of Devon and Cornwall. ‘Eventually,’ Lampe continues, ‘there were Auxiliary Units patrols covering an almost unbroken thirty-mile coastal belt extending from Cape Wrath in the north-west of Scotland around the country clockwise to central Wales, but North Wales and the north-west coasts of England and Scotland were left undefended because the Germans would almost certainly have ruled out these areas as landing places. No attempt was ever made by Auxiliary Units to set up an organisation in Northern Ireland.’
Appropriately, given the clandestine and essentially rural nature of the Auxiliary Units’ activities, the Headquarters of this organisation was to be found not as one might expect in London, close to the seat of government, but at Coleshill House, a country mansion set in its own secluded and extensive grounds between Faringdon and Highworth to the north-east of Swindon. The seventeenth-century house (‘. . . one of the most perfect houses in England’, according to an old guide issued by the National Trust, who now own the land on which it stood) was designed by Inigo Jones. Sadly the property can no longer be seen as it was destroyed by a fire in the 1950s; a blaze that was apparently caused by a painter’s unattended blowlamp being left turned on. Owing to Coleshill’s wartime connection with the Auxiliary Units, however, it is perhaps inevitable that conspiracy theories abound concerning its untimely end.
Anyone travelling to Coleshill House, whether for training purposes or on some other Auxiliary Units business, soon discovered that it was not simply a matter of turning up on the front doorstep of this impressive mansion and announcing their arrival; there was a convoluted but highy effective security procedure to be negotiated first, one that could almost have been lifted straight from the pages of a John Buchan novel. Having been instructed to report to ‘GHQ Auxiliary Units, c/o Highworth, Wilts.’, visitors found themselves being received at the local post office by none other than the postmistress herself, Mrs Mabel Stranks. Another in a long and distinguished line of the war’s self-effacing and unsung heroes, Mrs Stranks played a small part in the affairs of the Auxiliary Units which even today is not entirely clear, beyond the fact that she served in some way as a one-woman reception committee or ‘vetting agent’ for visitors and potential recruits arriving at Highworth; and acted in this capacity on behalf of the commanders of the ‘Secret Army’, who were lodged nearby at Coleshill House. David Lampe explains how, when visitors presented themselves at the post office in Highworth, Mrs Stranks ‘. . . would ask to see proof of their identity and would leave them. A few minutes later she would return and say simply ‘Somebody’s coming to fetch you.’ After that she would go on about her business and refuse to answer any questions. Soon either a civilian car or a military vehicle with a red and white plate bearing the GHQ Home Forces identification number 490 would turn up to take the new arrivals to the headquarters.’
In June 2000, the Western Daily Press reported that Highworth was hoping to officially honour its former postmistress by erecting a plaque in her memory outside the old post office. The unveiling ceremony was performed in October 2001. By the time of her death in 1971, Mrs Stranks had apparently divulged few details of her highly sensitive wartime role either to friends or members of her family. However, in the same newspaper report a former member of the Auxiliary Units who had been ‘vetted’ by the postmistress said that had she been captured by the enemy, ‘. . . I think she would have been tortured, because she knew everything about the “Secret Army”.’
It is impossible to emphasise enough – or exaggerate – the degree of secrecy which surrounded the existence of the Auxiliary Units. The men who made up the organisation in the field – women were also recruited, mainly to operate the Resistance wireless network – consisted of small scattered cells, each of which was to a large extent unaware of the existence or location of other similar units, even though they were all engaged in the same pursuit. Politicans, (beyond Churchill and a few other very senior figures), the military and Home Guard hierarchy were all kept firmly in the dark. It was hardly surprising that, in this ‘cloak and dagger’ atmosphere, the men themselves divulged nothing of this ‘other’ life to their wives, families and friends. Even when the Auxiliary Units handbook on sabotage techniques was issued for use by members in 1942 (it was actually distributed on a very limited basis to patrol leaders and, it is said, this was one of the few instances when anything relating to the existence or work of the ‘Secret Army’ was put into print), it was disguised as ‘The Countryman’s Diary – 1939’, and bore the following announcement on its cover:
Do their stuff unseen
Until you see
With the compliments of
Highworth & Co.
You will find the name Highworth
Wherever quick results
Although this would have seemed like a straightforward advertisement to the layman, members of the Auxiliary Units would have been able to read between the lines with ease.
When, in 1994, a commemorative luncheon was held at the Church Hall, Coleshill, for surviving members of the Auxiliary Units, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Secret Army’s’ disbandment, ‘Highworth Fertilisers do their stuff unseen’ was written across the official invitation.
Frederick Simpson was recruited as a member of the Auxiliary Units on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, and he has written a vivid account of his time spent with the ‘Secret Army’. Initially, he had enrolled as a member of his local Home Guard, serving as a despatch rider and using his own motorbike, ‘. . . but I soon became bored with it, and when a call came for volunteers for a dangerous job I, together with three others, stepped forward and, with two or three from a neighbouring village, we were taken out of the Home Guard and formed into a patrol of seven men – all poachers, gamekeepers, farm or country men. We were given uniforms and denim overalls, and a shoulder tape with the words “Auxiliary Regiment” with a patch below numbered “203”. All square bashing stopped and, after signing the Official Secrets Act, we became guerrillas.
‘We were then told what was expected of us. We were to hide when the Germans invaded and come up behind their lines to play “merry hell” with them. This involved blowing up petrol dumps, laying mines and booby traps across roads and paths, cutting railway lines, blowing down trees across roads. . . . To do this we first of all had to dig an underground hideout. Our first one in dense forest very quickly collapsed, but we dug another one. I made some hurdles from hazel backed with bracken as it was very sandy soil. Five of us spent two days and nights in this one to test the air, and we found it foul. We cooked meals on a primus stove – just boiled potatoes and eggs mainly, and nothing fried because the smell of frying could be detected on the surface some way away. . . . [Later], it was decided to do things properly and troops from the Pioneer Corps were sent in to build us a bunker….[It] consisted of two rooms built of concrete blocks and curved steel sheets. The first room was for living and storage and the second, connected by a small passage set at an angle so that any grenade or other explosion would not affect both rooms, was for sleeping. Here we had naval hammocks erected star fashion . . . and at one end of this sleeping area we had a bolt hole to the surface, the main entrance being via a secret trap door on which was planted grass, ferns and small trees for camouflage. To enter from outside, one had to look for a cotton reel hidden in a clump of bushes. On pulling this a steel wire raised the trap door just a little so that it could then be swivelled round on its support exposing a shaft with a ladder. This entrance to the first room was still blocked by a heavy wooden door on rollers which could only be opened from the inside…. This would have given us a chance to escape through the bolt hole if beseiged. . . .
‘The stores to be kept were ammunition, explosives, a certain amount of food and a gallon of rum in a stone jar. At the end of the war all these were collected by the Ordnance Corps, but one of the patrols had drilled a hole in the bottom of their jar and drunk the rum. [Owing to the extreme circumstances in which members of the Auxiliary Units would have gone into action, the issue of rum was intended strictly for emergency use only !]. They then filled up the hole with cement but, like fools, we allowed our rum to be returned. . . .
‘The first personal weapon issued to me was a Stanley kitchen knife, and I attended a course on how to apprehend the enemy using the knife. Later on we were given Browning automatics, Colt revolvers (later changed to Smith & Wessons), SAS-type daggers [no doubt the Fairbairn Commando dagger, which was issued to everyone in Auxiliary Units], Thompson sub-machine guns, .303 rifles (later changed to Sten guns) and .22 sniper rifles with telescopic sights and a silencer. These were some of our weapons, but the “tools” for the job were mainly explosives, [including] gelignite, blasting gelatine, phosphorous grenades, etc. . . .
‘We were sent to various army training depots: one locally at Duntish Court and another at Swindon [probably Coleshill House]…. Nobody, not even our parents, knew what we were doing and we kept our silence. . . . We had no disbandment parade, as did the Home Guard, at the end of the war; we just gave up our supplies, though we kept our greatcoats and two pairs of boots. . . . Later came a letter of thanks from the War Office, and after one reunion dinner we ceased to be. The Royal Engineers blew up our bunker….
‘One thing which we were proud of was being chosen on D-Day to guard one of the very few radar and wireless stations working at that time, which was in the Purbeck Hills and buried underground…. Our instructions were to meet at Wareham . . . [and] we were picked up in army lorries and taken to the hills above Swanage, under both canvas and army orders.’
Here is a brief extract relating to that occasion, taken from Mr Simpson’s diary of events in June 1944:
meet at Wareham, army lorries to Knitson Farm
transferred to hilltop to guard installations, tents erected, camouflage nets on everything. RAF Regiment and guard dogs on all day, Auxiliary Units at night. Tea at 5.30.
Next morning assembling equipment, laying tripwires and booby traps on all approach paths and gaps, leaving pins in.
Mounted guard after pulling out all safety pins. 3 sentry posts, triangular setting, arms: two Tommy guns, one Sten, all loaded. Changed posts clockwise every hour – crawling. Warned to expect paratroops or sea-transported saboteurs. Challenge anyone walking, shoot to kill any person crawling, fire at any suspicious movement.
Cold lying on ground, no cover, high wind, one walking challenge, else OK. Planes all night, flares over sea and French coast. Heavy gunfire or bombs over channel. Two hospital ships coming back all lit up with red cross. Off duty at 2 a.m., second guard arrives…. ’
‘I don’t know what would have happened if the Germans had invaded,’ reflects Mr Simpson. ‘The worst of it was knowing that our families, if not dead, would have been in enemy hands and liable to be shot if we started anything. . . . To know that we would not last long after our first attack did not bother us; I am sure we would have fulfilled our purpose, which was to hinder the enemy as far as we could, and though we had no cyanide capsules we had at no time to let ourselves be captured, alive or injured, thereby being tortured to reveal our base or companions. Knowing now the methods used by the German forces, I can see what decisions we as a unit, and for that matter the whole structure of Auxiliary Units, would have to make. The joke was “keep the last bullet for yourself”! . . . But, nevertheless, if we could keep a small section or even a battalion of the enemy occupied for a time, they would not be available to face our main defence. . . .’
The siting and construction of suitable hideouts called for reserves of much ingenuity around the country. David Lampe records how long abandoned tin mines in Cornwall and disused coal mines in Wales and the north-east of England were found to be highly suitable for the Auxiliary Units’ purpose, as were ancient Pictish dwellings in the north of Scotland and – at the other end of Britain – tunnels and underground rooms that had been excavated in the chalk on the Isle of Thanet when smuggling was rife in that area.
Ed Maltby served with the Auxiliary Units around the village of Bubwith in the former East Riding of Yorkshire, but his patrol was unable to construct a suitable hideout below ground, although the men devised a highly ingenious alternative. ‘It was impossible to go underground due to the high water-table. Our first hideout was established in a stable on a nearby farm. It was a long stable and a wall was constructed across the far end from the door, making the interior of the building seem shorter than it actually was. The entrance was a section of wall which sprang back when pressed in the right place, but it was found that anyone entering the stable could hear voices in the hideout and so we had to abandon it and start again.
‘There was an old windmill and miller’s house lying between two of our villages and the house was long uninhabited. A small Nissen hut was constructed in this house and passages built as entries. These passages were about three feet high and the same width. The house was then collapsed on to the hideout and a dummy bomb crater made at the side. Entry was obtained by crawling under the ruin and again pushing a certain section of the wall to gain admittance. There was an emergency exit at the other end of the hideout which led into a grassy field where, by sliding back two bolts from inside the tunnel, a trap door would swing down. From outside, the door appeared to be just a part of the grass covering the field.’
Only the young and the very fit were recruited and trained for service in the patrols of the Auxiliary Units, and the average age of members was estimated at under thirty years. The task for which they were being prepared, to spring into action behind enemy lines in the event of an invasion, was a ruthless one. The code by which these men would have been forced to live in order to preserve the secrecy of their existence was no less brutal. F.D. Chisholm, who served with a patrol in North Yorkshire, explains: ‘We had to take no prisoners nor be taken prisoner, and the sad thing was that if one of our number were wounded in action and unable to escape or walk, we would have had to kill him by using a length of wire that we each carried. We could not afford to leave anybody behind, and we had to be cruel to be kind. The Germans would have tortured him and put him to death anyway. Not even my own mother knew what I was doing, neither did my brothers and sisters nor my girlfriend who I later married. I knew that there were other young men doing the same thing as myself, but for safety’s sake we were never given any information. . . .’
The Auxiliary Units were stood down at the same time as the Home Guard. All members received a letter dated 30 November 1944, signed by their Commander at that time, Colonel Frank Douglas, informing them that their services were no longer required. ‘I realise what joining the Auxiliary Units has meant to you’, it read. ‘. . . You were invited to do a job which would require more skill and coolness, more hard work and danger, than was demanded of any other voluntary organisation. In the event of “Action Stations” being ordered you knew well the kind of life you were in for. But that was in order; you were picked men and others, including myself, knew that you would continue to fight whatever the conditions, with, or if necessary without, orders. It now falls to me to tell you that your work has been appreciated and well carried out and that your contract, for the moment, is at an end. I am grateful to you for the way you have trained in the last four years. So is the Regular Army. It was due to you that more divisions left this country to fight the battle of France; and it was due to your reputation for skill and determination that extra risk was taken – sucessfully as it turned out – in the defence arrangements of this country during that vital period. I congratulate you on this reputation and thank you for this voluntary effort. In view of the fact that your lives depended on secrecy, no public recognition will be possible. But those in the responsible positions at General Headquarters, Home Forces, know what was done and what would have been done had you been called upon. . . . It will not be forgotten.’
Indeed, those who served in the Auxiliary Units were not forgotten; it was simply that their existence was unknown to the public at large. Bound by the Official Secrets Act, former members held their silence long after the war had ended, and many years were to elapse before information about this underground British Resistance entered the public domain. Old habits die hard and, although now released from the embargo placed upon them by the country’s wartime security regulations, even today many of those surviving members who served in the ‘Secret Army’ speak with obvious reluctance about their experiences with this élite guerrilla force.