The British Resistance Archive website at www.staybehinds.com is maintained by the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) to share their research about the Auxiliary Units of the Second World War, sometimes known as Churchill’s Secret Army, a sabotage organisation set up in 1940 in the case of a German invasion of Britain. During the war, Britain was the only country that could create such a resistance movement in advance of an invasion. The units were so secret that information only emerged in the late 1960s thanks to researchers such as David Lampe and his book ‘The Last Ditch’ (available on Amazon).
Who were The Auxiliary Units?
The innocuously named Auxiliary Units (aka or GHQ Auxiliary Units) were a secret defence resource in World War II. The secrecy surrounding the insurgent squads meant that members had no military status, no uniforms, and very few official records of their activities are known to the outside world.
Members of the Auxiliary Units were required to sign documents under the Official Secrets Act. Service in the Auxiliary Units was expected to be highly dangerous, with a projected life expectancy of just twelve days for its members.
Operational Patrols consisted of between four and eight men, often farmers or landowners, many of whom had little or no prior military service. These civilian volunteers were often outside the ages for call up to the regular forces or were in reserved occupations. They were usually recruited from the most able members of the Home Guard, possessed excellent local knowledge and were able to live off the land. Gamekeepers and even poachers were particularly valued.
Sir Winston Churchill, whose idea it was to create the Auxiliary Units
Picture Credit: “DSC_2904-8 sir Winston Churchill – macro photography” by Filip Patock is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
The Auxiliary Units or GHQ Auxiliary Units were specially-trained, highly-secret quasi-military units created by the British government during World War II to use irregular warfare in response to a possible invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany. Having witnessed the rapid fall of several Continental European nations, Britain was the only country during the war that was able to create a multilayered guerrilla force in anticipation of an invasion – the Auxiliary Units would fight as uniformed guerrillas during the military campaign. In the event of an invasion, all Auxiliary Units would disappear into their operational bases and would not maintain contact with local Home Guard commanders, who were to be wholly unaware of their existence.
Although the Auxiliaries were Home Guard volunteers and wore Home Guard uniforms, they would not participate in the conventional phase of their town’s defence but would be activated once the local Home Guard defence had been ended and would inflict maximum mayhem and disruption over a further brief but violent period.
Each Auxiliary Unit Patrol was a self-contained cell, expected to be self-sufficient and operationally autonomous in the case of invasion, generally operating within a 15-mile radius. They were provided with elaborately concealed underground Operational Bases (OB), usually built by the Royal Engineers in local woodlands, with a camouflaged entrance and emergency escape tunnel. It is thought that as many as 400 to 500 such OBs were constructed in England, Wales and Scotland. The Auxiliary Units were kept in being long after any immediate German threat had passed, and it was only in November 1944 that they were finally stood down.
Members were offered no recognition, were entitled to none of the medals or awards that other home forces such as the Home Guard received. Members of the Auxiliary Units were expected to undertake extensive levels of training, to then return home with little sleep and carry on with their war-critical day-time job.
It was not until the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) successfully lobbied for veterans and relatives to participate in the annual Cenotaph Remembrance Sunday March-Past in 2013 that there was any form of official recognition of the enormous sacrifice they were willing to make in the country’s darkest hours.
Mission and Training
Around 3,500 men were trained for the Auxiliary Units. Weekend training courses were held at Coleshill House, near Highworth, Wiltshire, in the art of guerrilla warfare, including assassination, silent killing, explosives, unarmed combat, demolition and sabotage.
The mission of the units was to attack invading forces from behind their own lines while conventional forces fell back to prepared defences. Aircraft, fuel dumps, railway lines, and depots were high on the list of targets, as would be the assassination of senior German officers and any local collaborators. Patrols secretly reconnoitred local country houses, which might be used by German officers, and prepared lists of suspected fifth columnists as early targets for killing.
Winston Churchill initiated the units, sometimes referred to as a part of the British Resistance Organisation, in the early summer of 1940 and appointed Colonel Colin Gubbins to run them. The Auxiliary Units answered to GHQ Home Forces but were organised as if part of the local Home Guard.
Special Duty Sections and Signals
Separate from the Auxiliary Units’ Operational Patrols was the Special Duty Branch, originally recruited by SIS and carefully vetted and selected from the local civilian population. It acted as “eyes and ears” and would report back to military intelligence any information that it heard from ‘careless talk’ or from watching troop movements and supply routes. It was supported by a signals network of hidden, short-range, wireless sets around the coast
The Special Duties Sections were recruited mainly from the civilian population, with around 4,000 members. They had been trained to identify vehicles, high-ranking officers and military units, gather intelligence and leave reports in dead letter drops. The reports would be collected by runners and taken to one of over 200 secret radio transmitters operated by trained civilian signals staff. The civilian personnel operated as ‘Intelligence Gatherers’ and operated the OUT Station radios. ATS subalterns or Royal Signals personnel operated the Special Duties IN-Stations and Zero Stations.
Sussex Patrols and Operational Bases
In Sussex, there were several Patrols. From the start, almost until the end of World War II, the Headquarters for the Auxiliary Units in Sussex was based in Tottington Manor, at Small Dole. The Patrols nearest to where I live were located at Hurstpierpoint, Ditchling and Staplefield.
The members included:
- Company director grocery store
- Market gardener
- Certified accountant
- Builder’s manager and foreman
- Master butcher
- Managing director biscuit factory
Of the above, names I recognise are:
- Percy Charles Tulley (Sergeant), who I think was the Tulley from the Hassocks grocery business called Masters & Tulley. He joined on 16th December 1941, just after my third birthday.
- Walter Thair (Private), who ran the butcher’s business in Hassocks bearing his name. I was a Saturday helper in the early 1950s, making sausages and delivering meat. He joined on 2nd January 1942.
The OB for Hurstpierpoint was sited in a small wood to the north of Wolstonbury Hill, just on the edge of the Downs. It was built by the Royal Engineers, who constructed it out of timber and corrugated iron sheeting. The main chamber has collapsed, but the entrance shaft is still visible although blocked a few feet down.
Part of the Patrol’s local training included mock attacks on nearby Danny House.
The members included:
- Hydraulic engineer
- Chartered electrical engineer (who I think I recall from a time well after World War II was over)
- Farmer, Pig farmer, Farm foreman, Woodman, Farm bailiff, Farm hand, Farm manager and Cowman
- Coal merchant
The OB for Ditchling was sited a half-mile into West Wood beside One Hundred Acre Lane at Wivelsfield Green. The base comprised a floor area 19 feet long by 9 feet wide with offset entrances and exits. There were barrack-type beds and seats for eight men on either side of a central table. The OB was entered via an earth-covered wooden hatch revealing a brick shaft going down 13 feet with a ladder made of scaffold poles set into the brickwork. The OB contained food, ammunition, explosives, bunk beds, a cooking stove, and a chemical toilet.
The members included:
- Farmer, Farm manager, Poultry Farmer, Dairy farmer, Gamekeeper & farm foreman, Dairyman (owner)
- Chartered surveyor
Canadian soldiers built the OB for Staplefield, and the site is now on private land. It was constructed on a solid concrete base with one-foot, six inches high brick-built sidewalls. These low brick walls support the corrugated iron that is arched across to form the roof of the main chamber.
The only entrance was beneath an earth-covered wooden hatch. When lifted, this revealed a brick-built shaft with a ladder made up of scaffolding poles set into the brickwork.
The three-foot-wide emergency exit tunnels ran out into the bank of a nearby pond. The end also was concealed by an earth-covered wooden hatch. Ventilation was provided by a network of four-inch diameter glazed drainage pipes that came to the surface within the surrounding undergrowth.
The Museum of the British Resistance Organisation (BRO), established in August 1997, is dedicated to the men and women of the Auxiliary Units of World War II. The Museum is housed in associated Quonset (Nissen) Huts adjacent to the 390th Bombardment Group Memorial Air Museum Control Tower.
It is the only Museum in the United Kingdom dedicated to all the men and women who served in the various sections of this secret organisation and who would have become the British underground resistance should the threat of invasion have been realised.
Sourced/Excerpted from and Further Reading
- Book: Resisting the Nazi Invader, by Arthur Ward, at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Resisting-Nazi-Invader-Arthur-Ward/dp/0094767505 Published by Constable
- Book: Last Ditch: Britain’s Secret Resistance and the Nazi Invasion Plan, by David Lampe, at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Ditch-Britains-Resistance-Invasion/dp/1848327196/ Published by Skyhorse Publishing
Picture Credit/Attribution: Parham Airfield Museum, Parham Airfield, Suffolk.
Museum of the British Resistance Organisation: Reconstruction of an Auxiliary Unit operational base.
- At: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Ditch-Britains-Resistance-Invasion/dp/1848327196/ ↑
- Source: Historic UK at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Churchills-Secret-Army/ ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_Units ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_Units ↑
- See: https://www.staybehinds.com/special-duties-branch ↑
- SIS is the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service – also known as MI6. See: https://www.sis.gov.uk ↑
- Source: https://www.staybehinds.com/county/sussex ↑
- The Museum is at: Parham Airfield Museum, Parham Airfield, Parham, Framlingham, IP13 9AF, Suffolk ↑
- The 390th Bomb Group flew B-17 Flying Fortresses from Framlingham, Suffolk, between July 1943 and the end of the war in Europe. The Group was engaged in strategic missions until the invasion of Europe when its role became more of a tactical one. ↑
- Source: http://www.parhamairfieldmuseum.co.uk ↑