Dis­cover the covert Aux­il­iary Units formed to carry out guer­rilla mis­sions


1940 marked some of the dark­est days in Bri­tish his­tory. By the height of the sum­mer, most of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force (BEF) had been suc­cess­fully evac­u­ated from Dunkirk, but ar­rived back home with­out the ma­jor­ity of its equip­ment and weapons. Mean­while, the Ger­man army stood just across the Chan­nel, poised to in­vade. Al­though the gen­eral per­cep­tion is that the coun­try was on its knees, it was dur­ing these des­per­ate days that a highly se­cret guer­rilla force was in­sti­gated; one de­signed to ‘stay be­hind’ and cause as much chaos as pos­si­ble, de­lay­ing any in­vad­ing army.

Se­cret be­gin­nings in Kent

By June, Peter Flem­ing, the brother of Ian Flem­ing (the cre­ator of James Bond), was busy or­gan­is­ing a group of civil­ian vol­un­teers in Kent, named the XII Corps Ob­ser­va­tion Unit. This be­came the pro­to­type for the Aux­il­iary Units. Flem­ing was the per­fect fit for or­gan­is­ing such a force. A dash­ing for­mer Guards of­fi­cer, he was a pre-war ex­plorer and had au­thored books on his trav­els in China and the jun­gles of Brazil. He worked for Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence (Re­search) and was im­me­di­ately set the task of gath­er­ing lo­cal civil­ian vol­un­teers and train­ing them in ex­plo­sives and sab­o­tage.

Flem­ing had quickly iden­ti­fied and or­gan­ised a num­ber of men into ef­fec­tive out­fits, ready to cause as much dis­rup­tion to the in­vad­ing Ger­man army as pos­si­ble. He col­lected stores of equip­ment and ex­plo­sives, built rudi­men­tary un­der­ground dug-outs for the vol­un­teers and had iden­ti­fied tar­gets to be de­stroyed upon in­va­sion. It be­came clear that these Pa­trols could make a real im­pact and the de­ci­sion was made by Churchill to repli­cate Pa­trols in coun­ties that had been iden­ti­fied as most vul­ner­a­ble to in­va­sion.

The Aux­il­iary Units grow

An­other man, who like Flem­ing did not fit into the tra­di­tional mould of a Bri­tish

Army of­fi­cer, was given the re­spon­si­bil­ity of ex­tend­ing these Pa­trols through­out the coun­try. Colonel Colin Gub­bins had served in France and Bel­gium as a gun­ner, dur­ing the First World War. Af­ter re­cov­er­ing from a war in­jury he was sent to Rus­sia as part of the Al­lied in­ter­ven­tion dur­ing the Rus­sian Civil War in 1919. In the 1920s he fought in Ire­land against the IRA, spent time in In­dia, and led the In­de­pen­dent Com­pa­nies that had fought in Nor­way in early 1940. All of this meant he had learnt the ef­fec­tive­ness of ir­reg­u­lar war­fare. He had also writ­ten three book­lets: The Par­ti­san Leader’s Hand­book, The Art Of Guer­rilla War­fare and How To Use High Ex­plo­sives, and so was a nat­u­ral choice to lead such a force.

Time was of the essence, so Gub­bins re­cruited like-minded of­fi­cers through the ‘old boys net­work’. Many of these men had also served with him in the In­de­pen­dent Com­pa­nies in Nor­way. They were des­ig­nated as In­tel­li­gent

Of­fi­cers (IOS) and sent across the

coun­try to iden­tify key ar­eas and Pa­trol lead­ers, of­ten from the ranks of the newly es­tab­lished Lo­cal De­fence Vol­un­teers (LDV).

In the short and only of­fi­cial his­tory to be writ­ten about the Aux­il­iary Units, Ma­jor Nigel Ox­en­den said this of the re­cruit­ing process, “IOS au­to­mat­i­cally looked for game-keeper or poacher types of re­cruits, as be­ing al­ready trained in ev­ery­thing but ex­plo­sives. If these men were also last war veter­ans, so much the bet­ter, they were prob­a­bly steady, and well aware of their own lim­i­ta­tions.”

When a mys­te­ri­ous man came to the door of Wil­liam Sage Rat­ford in the vil­lage of Bent­ley in Suf­folk he was told that he was look­ing for “game­keep­ers, poach­ers and bur­glars to form this group”. Clearly, not your typ­i­cal Bri­tish Army re­cruit­ment.

The level of se­cu­rity sur­round­ing the for­ma­tion of the Aux­il­iary Units was huge. Den­nis Blanchard in Be­wholme, York­shire, re­mem­bers be­ing asked by an of­fi­cer whether he would be will­ing to “do a lit­tle job?”.

When Den­nis asked for more de­tails he was told he couldn’t be told any more but it would in­volve “in­ten­sive train­ing of a se­cret and dan­ger­ous na­ture”. An­other Aux­il­iary, Regi­nald Clut­ter­ham, was a farm worker in Ashill, Nor­folk – shortly af­ter join­ing the LDV, he was ap­proached by a man and asked

“… if I would like to do some­thing more in­ter­est­ing than the Home Guard. Ap­par­ently,

I had been ob­served for a month to see what sort of peo­ple I mixed with and what we talked about. If I wanted to join this spe­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion I was told that I would have to sign the Of­fi­cial Se­crets Act”.

Af­ter these Pa­trol lead­ers were iden­ti­fied and re­cruited, it was up to them to form their own Pa­trol of trusted men and be­gin to or­gan­ise them­selves into an ef­fec­tive sab­o­tage unit. Pa­trol lead­ers tended to re­cruit col­leagues, friends and rel­a­tives, and even en­e­mies, with some Pa­trols be­ing made up of both game­keep­ers and poach­ers. Each Pa­trol was made up of five to eight men who lived within close prox­im­ity to one an­other.

By Septem­ber 1940, huge progress had been made. In a note to the Sec­re­tary of State for War on 25 Septem­ber, Churchill said, “I have been fol­low­ing with much in­ter­est the growth and de­vel­op­ment of the new guer­rilla for­ma­tions … known as ‘Aux­il­iary Units’. From what I hear these units are be­ing or­gan­ised with thor­ough­ness and imag­i­na­tion, and should, in the event of in­va­sion, prove a use­ful ad­di­tion to the reg­u­lar forces.” Even­tu­ally more than 3,500 men were re­cruited the length of Bri­tain, from the Outer He­brides to the tip of Corn­wall.

‘Thug­gery’ – role of the Aux­il­iaries

It was Gub­bins who first fully sketched out what role the Aux­il­iary Units (a de­lib­er­ately non­de­script name de­signed to throw the en­emy off the scent) should play in the event of a Ger­man in­va­sion.

When the Ger­mans came, the Aux­il­iaries were to sim­ply dis­ap­pear, and be­cause they had signed the Of­fi­cial Se­crets Act, they could tell no-one, not even their clos­est fam­ily, where they were go­ing or what they were up to. The sig­nif­i­cance of this should not be un­der­stated. These men would be leav­ing their fam­i­lies at an in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous time. It was a huge sac­ri­fice, but one it seems, that every Aux­il­iary was will­ing to make to help pro­tect the coun­try.

Their role was not to take on the in­vad­ing army in a di­rect fight. Mostly op­er­at­ing at night, they were to de­stroy am­mu­ni­tion and fuel dumps, trans­port, air­craft, bridges, rail­ways, any­thing that slowed down the


Ger­man ad­vance and gave the reg­u­lar army time to re­group and counter-at­tack.

Any di­rect con­tact with the en­emy would be in the course of gain­ing en­try to a tar­get. Aux­il­iaries were trained in silent killing and other ways of deal­ing with sen­tries, util­is­ing the Fair­bairn-sykes fight­ing knife and other ‘thug­gery’ meth­ods in­clud­ing un­armed com­bat and tar­get­ing ‘vul­ner­a­ble’ ar­eas of the hu­man body. Some Aux­il­iaries re­ported that they were told to dis­mem­ber the bod­ies of en­emy sen­tries to put the ‘fear of God’ into other en­emy sol­diers, a tac­tic used by guer­rilla fight­ers through­out his­tory.

Each Pa­trol was given enough ra­tions to last ap­prox­i­mately 11-14 days, af­ter this they were ex­pected to live off the land. Real­is­ti­cally the ra­tions rep­re­sented their likely life ex­pectancy. This was very much con­sid­ered a sui­cide mis­sion and the mem­bers of each Pa­trol re­alised that. Wil­liam Rat­ford said, “Per­haps we would have been he­roes for a bit. But it would have been sui­ci­dal, I should think.”

No Pa­trol mem­ber could be caught. If too badly in­jured dur­ing a raid, many Aux­il­iaries re­ported that they would ex­pect to be killed by their fel­low Pa­trol mem­bers, rather than fall into the en­emy’s hands and po­ten­tially give away the lo­ca­tion of the Op­er­a­tional Base un­der tor­ture.

Each Pa­trol also worked in com­plete iso­la­tion. In these early, cru­cial days of the Aux­il­iary Units, Pa­trols in the same county would have no idea of the lo­ca­tion of the Op­er­a­tional Base of the neigh­bour­ing Pa­trol, or in­deed who was in it. The level of se­crecy, es­pe­cially dur­ing 1940, was un­der­stand­ably high.

Into the bunkers

Once the in­va­sion had started, and the en­emy had reached their area, each Pa­trol mem­ber would leave home and head straight to their Op­er­a­tional Base (OB), a se­cret un­der­ground bunker built with heav­ily dis­guised en­trances.

Ini­tially OBS tended to be built by the Pa­trols them­selves. How­ever, un­less the par­tic­u­lar ex­per­tise needed to build such a bunker hap­pened to be within the Pa­trol, these tended to be not hugely suc­cess­ful – with some Pa­trols dis­cov­er­ing the dif­fi­culty of breath­ing un­der­ground with­out ven­ti­la­tion.

Later on, OBS were built by Royal En­gi­neers, brought in from other parts of the coun­try for se­cu­rity rea­sons. These OBS had dis­guised hatches that opened through counter-weight mech­a­nisms that led down into a cham­ber which con­tained bunks, tables, stor­age ar­eas, wa­ter tanks and some­times an El­san chem­i­cal toi­let and cooker (the smoke from the cooker would dis­ap­pear through a pipe and into a hol­low tree on the sur­face so the en­emy saw no sign of it), along with a large amount of ex­plo­sives. There was also an es­cape tun­nel giv­ing the Pa­trol mem­bers a chance to get away if a Ger­man pa­trol dis­cov­ered the OB. The OBS were sim­i­lar in de­sign to Anderson shel­ters and Nis­sen huts, with curved ele­phant iron and con­crete blocks. There was of­ten a blast wall at the bot­tom of the en­trance shaft, in case of a grenade be­ing thrown down the hatch. De­spite the bet­ter de­sign the OBS re­mained pretty grim places to stay. Dark and damp, and when on duty there was the constant threat of be­ing dis­cov­ered and cap­tured or killed.

Many Pa­trols also had an Ob­ser­va­tion Post (OP), near the OB, some­times con­nected by a tele­phone wire (up to half a mile away). The OP was de­signed to al­low one mem­ber of the Pa­trol to mon­i­tor en­emy move­ment and give the rest of the Pa­trol a warn­ing if it looked like they were to be dis­cov­ered. It also meant, that dur­ing the day the Aux­il­iary in the OP could look for po­ten­tial tar­gets in the lo­cal area.

“These men are to have re­volvers”

In Au­gust, Colonel Gub­bins’ weekly re­port to the CIC, which was al­ready read with in­ter­est by the prime min­is­ter, rec­om­mended the is­sue of re­volvers.

Churchill added a note, “These men are to have re­volvers.” Ac­cord­ingly, 400 .32 Colt au­to­mat­ics were dis­trib­uted at once and the next month a 100 per­cent is­sue of .38 re­volvers was made; a re­mark­able achieve­ment when the coun­try was so low on equip­ment and weapons. This was fol­lowed much later by am­mu­ni­tion that fit­ted them. These re­volvers and the Fair­bairn-sykes fight­ing knives were of par­tic­u­lar source of pride to the Aux­il­iaries and built their rep­u­ta­tion of tough­ness, cer­tainly in con­trast to the of­ten ill-equipped Home Guard.

Pa­trols were pri­ori­tised when it came to the weapons. Thompson sub-ma­chine guns and the Brown­ing Au­to­matic Ri­fle were both is­sued in some num­bers as were Sten-guns. Also is­sued was the rather sin­is­ter .22 sniper ri­fle, fit­ted with a pow­er­ful tele­scopic sight and si­lencer. The Aux­il­iaries who re­ceived these were told that they were for snip­ing at high-rank­ing


Ger­man of­fi­cers and for pick­ing off tracker dogs be­fore they came too close. Other Aux­il­iaries have re­ported that they were to use the weapons to as­sas­si­nate Bri­tons that were con­sid­ered col­lab­o­ra­tors.

Aux­il­iaries were also is­sued with closec­om­bat weapons such as gar­rottes, rub­ber trun­cheons, knuckle dusters and knobker­ries. These were the Pa­trols’ pri­mary fight­ing weapons. The key to their suc­cess was si­lence. Their ob­jec­tive was to de­stroy their tar­get, not to get into a run­ning bat­tle with the en­emy.

Along­side close-com­bat weapons, the other prin­ci­ple ma­te­ri­als avail­able to the Pa­trols were the huge num­ber and va­ri­ety of ex­plo­sives. For ex­am­ple, af­ter wait­ing 20 years for the army to come and col­lect the ord­nance his Pa­trols had left be­hind at the end of the war, Cap­tain Reg Sen­net, a group leader of five Pa­trols in Es­sex, even­tu­ally told the po­lice who, in turn called the army. They re­trieved, 1,205lbs of ex­plo­sives, 3,742 feet of de­layed ac­tion fus­ing, 930 feet of safety fuse, 144 time pen­cils, 1,207 L-de­lay switches, 1,271 det­o­na­tors, 719 booby-traps, 314 paraf­fin bombs, 131 fog sig­nals, 121 smoke bombs, 36 slabs of gun­cot­ton and 33 booby-trap switches at­tached to made-up charges.

In ad­di­tion to these ex­plo­sives Pa­trols were is­sued with grenades, in­clud­ing the Mills bomb, the Sticky bomb, Selfig­nit­ing Phos­pho­rous grenades and smoke grenades. It’s clear that the Aux­il­iary

Units were pri­ori­tised over and above the Home Guard and in some cases the reg­u­lar army when it came to re­ceiv­ing newly de­vel­oped weapons and ex­plo­sives. They were heav­ily armed and more im­por­tantly, very highly trained.

Would the Aux­il­iaries have been ef­fec­tive?

While un­doubt­edly Aux­il­iaries had full con­fi­dence in their abil­ity, their weapons and their de­ter­mi­na­tion, the de­bate around how suc­cess­ful they would have been con­tin­ues. If an in­va­sion had come in 1940, and as we saw later in the war, the Ger­mans dealt with any form of re­sis­tance with ut­most bru­tal­ity. How the Pa­trols would have re­acted to their fam­ily and friends be­ing ex­e­cuted as a re­sult of their ac­tions, is dif­fi­cult to say.

Equally, not even the most am­bi­tious

Aux­il­iary could claim that their form of guer­rilla war­fare could have lasted any real length of time. In­evitably, they would have been caught or killed in a raid or the lo­ca­tion of their OB found. The Pa­trols would and could not have acted in a sim­i­lar man­ner to the French Re­sis­tance, where a long-term cam­paign of re­sis­tance to oc­cu­pa­tion was key.

Peter Flem­ing in his book In­va­sion 1940 which came out in 1957, men­tions the Aux­il­iary Units briefly and sums up what he thought their ef­fec­tive­ness might be, “As­sum­ing the Bri­tish re­sis­tance move­ment would have melted away in the white heat of Ger­man ruth­less­ness, it might have struck some use­ful blows; and with a bridge­head un­der heavy counter-at­tack its di­ver­sion­ary ac­tiv­i­ties would have had a value wholly dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the num­ber of guer­ril­las in­volved.”

Never called upon to act in 1940, or through­out the war, many Aux­il­iaries sim­ply went back to their nor­mal lives when stood­down in Novem­ber 1944, with most tak­ing the fact that they were highly trained guer­rilla fight­ers to the grave with them.

A lapel badge is the only pub­lic recog­ni­tion the Aux­il­iary Units re­ceived Ma­jor-gen­eral Sir Colin Gub­bins, Chief of the Bri­tish Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive, or­gan­is­ing covert war­fare dur­ing World War II. Af­ter the war he be­came direc­tor of Grays Car­pets and Tex­tiles Ltd

Warsash/hook Pa­trol Hamp­shire

A Home Guards­man han­dles a Tommy gun dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion at the War Of­fice School in Sur­rey

Sand­ford Levvy Pa­trol Som­er­set in OB

In­tact Op­er­a­tional Base in Devon

A mock up of an Op­er­a­tional Base

A mem­ber of the Bri­tish Home Guard equipped with a re­volver, 21 Septem­ber 1940

RIGHT: A Fair­bairn–sykes fight­ing knife from Fort Wil­liam Mu­seum Sand­ford Levvy Pa­trol Som­er­set train­ing

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