BRITAIN'S SECRET ARMY
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
“THESE MEN WOULD BE LEAVING THEIR FAMILIES AT AN INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS TIME. IT WAS A HUGE SACRIFICE”
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
“THE KEY TO THEIR SUCCESS WAS SILENCE. THEIR OBJECTIVE WAS TO DESTROY THEIR TARGET, NOT TO GET INTO A RUNNING BATTLE WITH THE ENEMY”
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