After the Nazi war machine – the Blitzkrieg – steamrollered through the Low Countries and France in May 1940, some 338,000 trapped Allied troops were evacuated across the Channel in the “Miracle of Dunkirk”. The threat of an invasion of England became very real, and here is the mostly untold story of the highly secretive defence network set up in readiness by the British government.
As the book makes plain, this was no “Dad’s Army”/Home Guard-like affair involving comical characters charging around with pitchforks. Although the networks were made up of civilian volunteers, they were often ruthless people, highly trained in sabotage and guerilla warfare, for which they would emerge from hidden underground bunkers. Any German occupation would be monitored by swathes of spies who would pass on details via runners, wireless operators and Auxiliary Territorial Service women.
Assassins too in a length-of-the-country network in which capable hands included the likes of vicars and doctors. As we read, Britain had the world’s largest navy and merchant navy, a huge empire and immense global reach, but its army was small and had been defeated and humiliated in France, its weapons and equipment left on the sands of Dunkirk. Now, the asset-rich island nation felt weakened, exposed and very vulnerable.
Britain, then, became the only country in World War Two to prepare a secret guerilla and resistance movement before any enemy invasion had actually happened. These were the Auxiliary Units, as they were deliberately vaguely called, an organisation so hush-hush that all participants had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and many of them never told anyone of their role, not even their closest family and friends. Many took their commitment to keeping quiet to their graves.
The name Auxiliary Units covered a multiple of possible uses and, if overheard by the enemy, would not arouse immediate suspicion. The units had to be set up quickly to be effective against an invasion, and the embryonic guerrilla cells were run by Intelligence Officers often recruited through the “old boys” network.
The usual recruitment red tape was thrown out the window and a nationwide search was on for thousands of people with adventurous natures and who who knew their local forests, woods, mines, old closed shafts, hills, moors, glens. The secrecy meant patrol leaders tended to enrol relatives, close colleagues or friends of friends and trusted contacts.
They all had to have a determination to fight using whatever tactics would cause the most chaos, no matter the consequences to themselves. “Dirty tricks” were acceptable in alternative ways of fighting. The ability to travel silently at night across fields, ditches and rivers would be a big advantage over invaders who were in a strange country.
Farmers, farm hands, gamekeepers and estate workers were valuable for knowing the lie of the land, and some gamekeepers recuited poachers, the latter being able to handle weapons, set booby traps and live off a land they perhaps knew better than the gamekeepers. By the end of the 1940s thousands of men were being trained in unarmed combat, explosives, sabotage, guerrilla warfare and silent killing, with the expectation that their role would probably end ultimately in their own death.
They became some of the most highly trained troops in the country, adept at killing with a knife, using grenades, knowing where to put explosives on German aircraft and tanks, and living underground. They were certainly much better trained than the Home Guard, and, often, the Regular Army too.
Some patrols were reportedly given envelopes that were to be unopened unless the Germans came. These contained names of British targets, Nazi sympathisers and potential traitors, to be assassinated immediately. The sheer ruthlessness extended to the Auxiliary Units themselves. If a patrol member was injured on a mission and could not get back to base, probably an underground bunker, the other members were obliged to shoot him. The belief was that if the casualty fell into enemy hands, the Germans would only torture and shoot him anyway.
The units were well provided with weapons and explosives with the aim of doing as much damage as possible to invading forces. If the Germans entered their area, they were to disappear into their bunkers and emerge mainly at night to destroy ammunition and fuel dumps, trains and railways, planes and airfields, bridges and roads, convoys – anything that might create mayhem and gain time for Regular forces to regroup and prepare a conventional counter-attack.
Author Andrew Chatterton is described as a Second World War historian and Public Relations professional. His role as a volunteer Press Officer for the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART), a volunteer group that researches, documents and records the goings-on of the units, led to his fascination with the subject. CART maintains the British Resistance Archive where the story of some of the civilian volunteers is kept and its website is www.staybehinds.com.
Coleshill House in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire, now demolished after a fire) was where the Auxiliary Units established their headquarters and training centre, and it features among the previously unpublished photographs of men and women operatives, cramped bunkers, weapons and equipment, letters, disguised training pamphlets and so on. The weapons include sub-machine guns, fighting knives, knuckledusters and a garrote.
Chatterton did 12 years of research and is being credited with filling a hole in the history of the war with his untold story. Apart from his own work, he draws on a brief unpublished pamphlet containing an official history about the units written by Major Nigel Oxenden in 1944 and another book, “Last Ditch” by David Lampe, published in 1968. There is one museum dedicated to the units, in Parham, Suffolk, which opened in 1997.
Fortunately for Britain, but perhaps unfortunately for the book, the Luftwaffe was defeated in the Battle of Britain in the second half of 1940, Germany invaded the USSR instead in June 1941 and Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, altering the course of the war. Realistically, by 1941 the threat of an all-out invasion of Britain had passed. The justification for keeping the Auxiliary Units going was becoming increasingly harder. The Nazis were only ever able to occupy Britain’s Channel Islands (the subject of other books) for most of the war from June 1940 until liberation in May 1945. Despite Chatterton’s dedication, the fascinating events he describes tend to fizzle out somewhat.
The secrecy of the Auxuiliary Units meant they received no public recognition. The Home Guard members received the Defence Medal while the units got a letter of thanks and a small lapel badge before disappearing back to “normal” life. A recently discovered document sent to group commanders in East Anglia, and presumably the rest of the country, noted: “As there are no Army funds from which the cost [of the badges] can be met it will be necessary to make a charge of 6d each.” Today, at least, the badges are worth a small fortune.