This text has been taken from the first print of Resisting the Nazi Invader by Arthur Ward. It is reproduced by kind permission of the author.
"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."
Churchill to Eden, 25 September 1940
As soon as it became apparent to Churchill that Hitler might launch an invasion of Britain after Dunkirk - 'that the man was going to try', as the Premier put it - urgent thought had to be given to every aspect of home defence. Any effort that could reinforce the spartan regular resources available was worthy of serious consideration. If a stay-behind resistance force, that would slow down advancing enemy troops and grant the regular army time to mount a counter-attack, was to be created, what form should it take? Were there any existing organisations or types of irregular warfare on which it could be based?
Although Britain was the first country in modern times to organise an underground resistance movement in advance of invasion and enemy occupation, the idea of irregular resistance was not new. Tacitus highlighted the difficulties that faced Julius Caesar's armies as they invaded England:
The troops, besides being ignorant of the locality, had their hands full; weighted with a mass of heavy armour, they had to jump from their ships, stand firm in the surf, and right at the same time. But the enemy knew their ground, they could fire their weapons boldly from dry land. They watched the men disembark in small parties, moved down, attacked them as they straggled through the surf, and surrounded them with superior numbers while others opened fire on the exposed flanks of the isolated units.
More recently, the Boer Commandos taught the British the value of units that operated behind the enemy's frontline and were able to melt into their surroundings after they had attacked. Indeed, in the dark days following Dunkirk, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke RE, a South African who had been weaned on the exploits of the Boer Commandos, and was now on Sir John Dill's staff (CIGS immediately before Alan Brooke) had written a paper for Churchill and the War Cabinet in which he recommended the adoption of Boer tactics. T.E. Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia') also had a profound influence on British military strategists. From 1916 his command of King Feisal's Arab levies, the irregular supplement to General Allenby's troops during the campaign against the Turkish occupation of Arabia, culminated in the triumphal Allied entry to Damascus in 1918. Lawrence showed that properly led, lightly armed troops, fighting for a cause they passionately believed in, were more than a match for an invader unfamiliar with the territory of the battlefield .In his seminal Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence said that initially Feisal's '...only effective tactics against the enemy had been to chase in suddenly upon their rear by fast mounted charges, and many camels had been killed, or wounded or worn out in these expensive measures.' As Lawrence evolved new methods of irregular warfare he found that, 'The Arab's physical perfection let them lie relaxed to the stony ground like lizards, moulding themselves to its roughness in corpse-like abandon ... the smaller the unit the better its performance ... three or four Arabs in their hills would stop a dozen Turks.' The activities of T.E. Lawrence were to have a profound influence on many of the British soldiers engaged in the formation of the Auxiliaries. Indeed some had actually met him or knew many of the artists and writers that tended towards a similar view and understanding of the changing nature of warfare in the modern world.
Not surprisingly it was the oriental mind that first committed to paper such theorising about balance and proportion. In around 500 BC in his Art of War the Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu precisely summed up the principles of what would ultimately be known as irregular warfare. He wrote: 'Now all war is based on deception. Move when it is advantageous, and create changes in the situation by dispersal and concentration of forces.' By 1940 Sun Tzu's theories had found a new audience in Britain.
The Germans were not without their theorists either. Soldiers of the Oberkommando des Heere (OKH) who stepped ashore or landed by parachute in Britain in 1940 would have no doubt been familiar with the writings of an illustrious predecessor of their own. He also argued that even when outnumbered the defender often had the advantage. In On War, written in 1832, Karl von Clausewitz, Marshal Blucher's Prussian adviser during the Napoleonic wars, noted a warning to invading armies: 'Countless minor incidents - the kind you can never really foresee - combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.' His thoughts served as encouragement to outnumbered defenders, for he argued that they were capable of sowing mayhem and disillusionment among the larger armies of their opponents: 'So long as a unit fights cheerfully, with spirit and elan, great strength will rarely be needed, but once conditions become difficult ... things no longer run like a well-oiled machine.'
Events nearer to home also served to show the British how ineffective 'foreign' regular forces were when pitted against irregulars fighting for a cause in their own country. Sinn Fein's leader, Michael Collins, the 'Big Fellow' as he was known to his supporters, ran rings around the British army in the south of Ireland from the Eastern uprising of 1916, when he was a member of the underground Irish Republican Brotherhood. Later, when he was director of intelligence within the IRA, his spy network proved to be far superior to that organised from London. His ruthless determination to end British sovereignty in Ireland eventually led to a treaty with Britain in 1921 and the establishment of the Irish Free State.
On 29 June, Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, visited XII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Andrew Thorne, and was so alarmed by what he considered to be a reckless lack of heavy weaponry - 'no anti-tank regiment nor anti-tank gun in the whole of the Corps area' - that he reported the situation to Churchill. On 30 June, Thorne was ordered by Churchill to come to lunch at Chequers where he pointed out the very vulnerable position XII Corps was in. Covering Kent, Sussex and parts of Hampshire and Surrey and responsible for the entire coastal strip from Greenwich to Hayling Island, XII Corps consisted of only one fully trained division, the 3rd, which was due to be sent to Northern Ireland. Churchill said he was not confident British troops could adequately defend all the English beaches and pointed out 'that a river line has never proved a real obstacle to an enemy'. Perhaps, after surveying just exactly what weapons the British, Commonwealth and Continental troops (who had escaped from France with the BEF) could realistically bring to bear against the invader, Churchill's famous exhortation for all citizens to fight on the beaches if necessary, was not political rhetoric after all.
Although no detailed record of the lunch at Chequers was kept, in The Fringes of Power, Sir John Colville, Churchill's Private Secretary who was present at the meeting, noted: Thorne thinks 80,000 men will be landed on the beaches between Thanet and Pevensey (which is Thorne's area); Winston is less pessimistic and thinks the Navy will have much to say to this. W. is not sanguine about our ability to hold the whole expanse of beaches and points out that a river line has never proved a real obstacle to an enemy ... Thorne, who was military attaché in Berlin, is convinced that the Germans, acting according to their rule, will concentrate all their forces against one place, even if they make feints elsewhere. Following the meeting, Churchill ordered that the 3rd Division should remain under Thorne's command, and the next day he instructed General Ismay (the Prime Minister's representative on the Chiefs of Staff Committee) to evaluate the practicality of 'drenching' the invasion beaches with mustard gas. The premier had told Thorne 'I have no scruples, except not to do anything dishonourable.'
The lunch at Chequers was to have even more far-reaching effects, for it revived an idea that General Thorne had first considered years before the formation of a 'stay behind' guerrilla resistance force in Britain.
When Thorne had been British military attaché in Berlin in the mid 1930s, he had been impressed by the existence of a peasant militia which had, since the time of Frederick the Great, promised, as a condition of their tenancy, to muster when ordered, in order to defend their landlord's estates. They were not expected to count for much in direct combat with a superior invader, but since they had intimate knowledge of their terrain, and had stockpiled secret arms caches, they were reckoned to present an obstacle out of all proportion to their strength.
After meeting Churchill, Thorne got in touch with General Ismay. He raised his idea for a covert resistance force based on the kind of thing he had witnessed in prewar Germany and was told that a young officer who worked within military intelligence would come and see him to discuss matters further. The officer Ismay had in mind was none other than Peter Fleming, the traveller, author, special correspondent for The Times and brother of James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming.
Peter Fleming worked for M.I.(R) (Military Intelligence (Research)), a semi-secret department within the War Office. Back in May, John Colville had noted in his diary, Awoke thinking unaccountably of Peter Fleming's book Flying Visit and daydreaming of what would happen if we captured Goering during one of his alleged flights over London.' It is a nice coincidence that Fleming had written a novel about a Nazi invasion of Britain, an area in which he was later to become so intimately involved.
Previously a regular Guards officer, Fleming was still on the army reserve list. Well-travelled, well-educated and self-confident ex-soldiers of his calibre are always in short supply, but they are of special importance during times of mobilisation. Following the success of his most recent work, News From Tartary, which documented Fleming's experiences on his 3,500 mile trek between Peking and Kashmir, where he saw the Red Armies, making legendary night marches, sustaining defeat only in the columns of the press', he was considered to be something of an expert an both China and unconventional warfare. Living rough wasn't a problem for him either: his acclaimed Brazilian Adventure testified to his exploits in the inhospitable surroundings of the Amazon jungle.
In 1939 Fleming had written Notes on the Possibilities of British Military Action in China for M.I.(R), into which he and others had been covertly recruited in 1938. M.I.(R) considered Fleming to be the best candidate to establish a British guerrilla unit, in particular one that would be comprised of men who could live off the land. So in a secluded farmhouse called The Garth in Bilting, Kent, Fleming set up the first regional training centre for a new, British, 'stay-behind' force. This, the first Auxiliary Unit', was known by the cover name 'XII Corps Observation Unit'.
It would be useful to consider some of the background details of the intelligence world, including M.I.(R)'s involvement in irregular warfare, before we look at the Auxiliary Units' in sharper focus. It is also important to take into account the sense of paranoia that swept through Britain's High Command in June 1940, as things went equally badly wrong for the BEF in France. Britain's erroneous belief that a subversive Fifth Column in civilian clothes somehow conspired in the downfall of Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries and France is the final ingredient in this unfolding tale.
Peter Fleming's M.I.(R) was merely one of the many departments within Britain's intelligence community in 1940. British secret intelligence for both the Government and the military had long experience of covert operations. M.I.6 had, for example, existed since 1909. Although by 1940 the Security Service (M.I.5) and the Special Intelligence Service (M.I.6) were numbered among other departments within the Directorate of Military Intelligence (D.M.I.), in reality M.I.5 reported to the Home Office and M.I.6 to the Foreign Office. M.I.6 gathered intelligence which had a bearing on Britain's international relations and it included sections from the army, navy and air force. The Foreign Office paid M.I.6's bills and took political responsibility for it on condition that it passed on any political intelligence, employed its own staff and was physically distinct from the FO's own administration. The FO equally expected the D.M.I. to keep out of politics M.I.5, the Secret Service, took care of domestic intelligence gathering - in fact, anything up to five miles from Britain's coast.
The D.M.I. had expanded greatly since the outbreak of war in 1939. Previously it had been under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall, who was Director of both 'Operations' and 'Intelligence' at the War Office ('D.M.O. & I.'). On the outbreak of war the directorate was split into two distinct parts, one for Operations, the other for Intelligence. Pownall's fast-ascending career continued on the up and up when he left the D.M.I. to become Chief of Staff of the BEF in September 1939. Pownall's deputy, Major General F.C. Beaumont-Nesbitt became the new Director of Military Intelligence. Between 1936 and 1938 he had been British military attaché in Paris and so had wide experience of the intrigues within European politics. Upon his return to Britain in 1938 - the year of the Munich crisis when many observers thought war with Germany would break out - Beaumont-Nesbitt put his important position within the intelligence community to good use. He was convinced, as many were, that war with Hitler was inevitable.
In The Inner Circle, Joan Bright Astley - that rare thing in the late 1930s, a female executive assistant within the British intelligence community - recalls Beaumont- Nesbitt combing the army reserve lists for executives, writers, explorers, linguists and experts on foreign countries who might be put to good use within military intelligence should war come. 'He was determined to be ready with the right replacements,' she wrote, 'in his bearing a typical Guards officer, in his actions perspicacious,' she further recalled. It was from this initial selection that men of the resourcefulness of Peter Fleming and the Arctic explorer Martin Lindsay (about whom we will hear later) were recruited. After a series of informal discussions the recruits engaged in some after-hours training and were indoctrinated into the dark arts of military intelligence
Department 'E.U.', Section 'D' and M.I.(R) were the three departments that were most actively dedicated to methods of actually 'fighting' an enemy both physically and by employing economic sanctions or propaganda (M.I.5 & M.I.6 were principally engaged in covert surveillance and intelligence gathering). After Hitler's Anschluss' with Austria in 1938, the Government decided to encourage the Foreign Office to set up a semi-secret department designed to subvert, via propaganda, the morale of the Third Reich's military machine. The new department, formed by Lord Hankey, employed Sir Campbell Stuart, a former editor of The Times, as its first chief. It was originally called G.S.. after its boss. Soon it became known as department E.H., after its HQ, Electra House, on the Thames within the City of London.
Major Laurence Grand RE had set up Section 'D' of the S.I.S. within the Foreign Office. This was a unit established to investigate unconventional ways to fight an enemy and was principally concerned with sabotage (Grand had fought with Lawrence of Arabia and actually won the DFC when an airman in the RFC!). Grand's Section 'D' was encouraged to determine the best ways of attacking a potential enemy 'by means other than the operation of military forces'. Section 'D' helped to invent plastic explosives and made the best time-fuses available. It liaised directly with yet another secret agency - G.S.(R).
General Staff (Research) was a section of the war office set up in 1937 by the Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Ronald Adam. After Munich G.S.(R) was asked to investigate fighting Germany by three methods: Royal Navy blockade; RAF bombing, and - until the regular army could be brought up to strength - well planned irregular or guerrilla warfare. Essentially G.S.(R) was a kind of 'think-tank' that enabled bright young officers to spend a year investigating modern topics that had relevance to the new army. Reports were prepared for such diverse departments as the Army's Medical and Education services. In 1938 Holland was appointed to study the techniques of guerrilla warfare that Britain might employ in the support of the many resistance movements that were bound to spring up in Eastern Europe should Hitler's expected quest for 'Lebensraum' in Russia result in the Nazi occupation of the region. At that stage, such were official sensitivities about any suggestion of British militarism, that no mention was ever made of a future regular army commitment to forthcoming European conflicts that did not directly threaten the defence of the realm. As Britain's Military Intelligence Directorate was expanded in the spring of 1939, G.S.(R) changed its name to 'Military Intelligence (Research)'. Interestingly, in November 1918, in the wake of the Russian revolution, a different organisation within the D.M.I. called M.I.(R) already existed. However, that M.I.(R) dealt with intelligence gathered from Eastern Europe (specifically Russia), Central Asia and the Far East.
In 1939 M.I.(R) was, like Section 'D', commanded by a Royal Engineer, Colonel J.F.C. Holland. Holland's M.I.(R) had been busy developing weapons that might be useful for guerrillas righting behind enemy lines. M.I.(R) created many novel things, including the 'Blacker Bombard', a close combat anti-tank mortar invented by an ex-Indian Army gunner, L.V.S. Blacker, who had also experienced close combat with the Bolsheviks at Archangel. At the war's beginning 'M.I.(R) mostly concerned itself with mines and anti-tank weapons. In 1939 an M.I.(R) notification said, 'If guerrilla warfare is co-ordinated and also related to main operations it should, in favourable circumstances, cause such a diversion of enemy strength as eventually to present decisive opportunities to the main forces.' M.I.(R)'s involvement with guerrilla warfare, and its special weapons development work, would create equipment that was ultimately to supplement the Home Guard's arsenal. Holland had also started up a variety of secret sections - one of them, M.I.9, the Escape Service, had developed magnetic escape compasses for shot-down pilots that were fashioned into trouser fly-buttons for concealment. During the 1930s Holland had made a study of Boer tactics and the methods used by guerrillas during the Spanish civil war, Sino-Japanese conflict and Ireland's 'Troubles'.
M.I.(R) essentially undertook 'uniformed' activities and its personnel were nominally part of the British armed services and could expect the protection under law of a regular soldier. Section 'D' was involved primarily in undercover endeavours - the 'sleuth' work of popular fiction. The Government would never acknowledge the activities of its spies and saboteurs and if they were caught they could expect no official protection. The fact that three distinct organisations - E.H., Section 'D' and M.I.(R) - were doing such similar work appears confusing now and in 1939 it seemed no less of a muddle. Indeed as early as March 1939, the GIGS, Lord Gort, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, and an unnamed official from the S.I.S. first considered the integration of the three organisations into a single department, which, as we shall see, eventually became the famous SOE. However, the outbreak of hostilities with Germany six months later temporarily relegated the subject to the back burner.
By 1940 Britain possessed a complete armoury of departments capable of adapting the machinery of state - in all its aspects - to counter the new kind of warfare that harnessed political and economic rather than purely military techniques. Furthermore, the idea of employing 'economic warfare' (reducing the enemy's morale) was given official credence on 3 September 1939, the day Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, with the formation of a Government department: the Ministry of Economic Warfare (MEW).
One of M.I.(R)'s personnel was Colin Gubbins. In the spring of 1939 he worked on Guerrilla Field Service Regulations, which Lord Gort had asked Holland's department to prepare that April. Gubbins wrote three booklets:The Partisan Leader's Handbook, The Art of Guerrilla Warfare, and How To Use High Explosives. In July 1939 Gubbins was told that on mobilisation he was to be the senior staff officer (GSO 1) to the British military mission in Poland and would be in overall control of the large M.I.(R) contingent there.
After the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939 there was widespread sympathy and admiration in Britain for the beleaguered Finns. France had even considered the possibility of a massive pincer movement against the Soviet Union using French forces that would be sent to Finland and those in Syria, commanded by General Weygand. This two-pronged assault would attack Baku on the Caspian in the south - seizing the Soviet oil fields there - and threaten Moscow in the north. The French argued that a decisive operation in the Caspian and Black Seas would sever Germany's petroleum supplies and paralyse the economy of its Soviet ally. French politics was sharply polarised between left and right - the far left forbidding war with the Soviets (the Second International had expressly forbidden French Communists from fighting Soviet Russia) and the far right clamouring for a war which they thought would end the 'communist menace' once and for all. Many in France considered Russia a more suitable enemy than Germany. However, the extravagant plan to assault Soviet forces was shelved when it was realised that it risked bringing Germany and Russia even closer together. For the time being at least Russia was not directly in Anglo-French sights. The British War Cabinet had drawn up less ambitious plans to aid the Finns. Some M.I.(R) officers had observed how the white-clad Finnish troops had staged successful guerrilla operations against the Soviets. Colonel Holland was even given permission to send an M.I.(R) ski team to Finland. That country's successes, even though few in number and with troops that lacked most of the essential equipment for tackling modern armies, made a great impression on M.I.(R)'s observers. Finnish tactics were even carefully noted by the officers of the invading Soviet armies. One, Vyaschlev Oreshin, attached to the Red Army's propaganda brigade wrote, 'The men have lain in the snow for three days and didn't dare lift their heads. The butchers are accustomed to fire carefully at our troops from the side of the road.' As soon as Finland surrendered on 12 March 1940, any thoughts of commencing a second front and picking a fight with another enemy disappeared. However, the skills of the Finnish irregulars were not forgotten by the observers from M.I.(R). On 11 April 1940, British troops commanded by General P.J. Macksey set sail for Norway and a combination of British, French, Polish and Norwegian forces attempted to eject the Germans from Narvik - Norway's only all-weather port.
Despite successful action from the Royal Navy between 10-13 April, from an Allied point of view the operation went disastrously wrong.
Britain's Norwegian Expeditionary Force was supplemented by 'Independent Companies', fighters trained in a new kind of irregular warfare, an idea of M.I.(R)'s. In December 1939 Churchill, one of the few 'hawks' in Chamberlain's War Cabinet, declared to his colleagues, 'If land operations become necessary, it would be perfectly feasible to land British and French troops in Norway.' In March 1940, M.I.(R) was asked to evaluate plans for an amphibious raid on Norway and in April 1940, after the German invasion, Colonel Holland, who had already been studying the possibility of M.I.(R) involvement there, withdrew Gubbins (by now a Lieutenant-Colonel) from Paris and asked him to select and prepare assault troops for amphibious raids in support of the Anglo-French expedition.
Inverailort in Scotland's Western Highlands was chosen as the training base for this new force, code-named 'Scissorforce'. Each Independent Company comprised 270 other ranks and was led by twenty officers. Most of its personnel were recruited from the Territorial Army. A single company employed experts from army Signals and the Royal Engineers and was divided into three platoons which were each made up of three sections. Independent Companies were lightly armed but they did possess some Bren guns, mortars and one of the new Boys anti-tank rifles. Crucially, considering Gubbins' later activities, each Independent Company included a small nucleus of linguists who could encourage the local population to resist the German invasion. The first Independent Company - No. 1 - set sail on 1 May 1940 for its objective, Mo-i-Rana. 'Mo' was a strategically important town and harbour situated at the end of a typically rocky fjord south of Narvik where Norway's waist tapers most and the Swedish border is closest. Gubbins' men were all trained in guerrilla warfare and the first five companies were to be reinforced by other Independent Companies that were then in training, the plan being for them to link up with the retreating Norwegian Army and threaten the German garrison. Colonel Holland had sent some M.I.(R) officers to Norway prior to the German invasion. One of them, Peter Fleming, was later to be even more closely linked to Gubbins. At the Norwegian port of Namsos, Fleming came into contact with another 'personality' embroiled in the Norwegian campaign who knew Gubbins of old. He was the famous and strikingly charismatic General Adrian Carton de Wiart VC who had been Head of the British Military mission in Poland. Gubbins had been de Wiart's senior staff officer in Warsaw during the German blitzkrieg. In his autobiography 'Happy Odyssey' de Wiart recounts how he and Gubbins narrowly escaped Poland before Hitler's armies completely overran the country. After he had returned to Britain, de Wiart was again contacted by the War Office. 'It dawned on me the reason might be Norway, especially as I had never been there and knew nothing about it,' he recalled.
Carton de Wiart took up command of the Central Norwegian Expeditionary Force (code-named Mauriceforce) on 14 April. He had assembled a unit that comprised British territorials and French Chasseurs Alpins that were largely unfamiliar to him and he was told to organise a landing at the minor harbours of Namsos and Aalsund and then press on to Trondheim far to the south of Narvik. After his Sunderland flying boat was shot down on its approach to Namsos, de Wiart was taken on board a nearby British destroyer where he met M.I.(R)'s Peter Fleming and Martin Lindsay (famous for his exploration of the Arctic). In his autobiography de Wiart recalled the two M.I.(R) officers: 'Captain Martin Lindsay, explorer and traveller, picked up the bits where Peter Fleming left off. Whoever may have been responsible for sending them, I thank him now, for there and then I appropriated them and a better pair never existed.' Fleming, de Wiart said, 'from being an adventurer and writer turned himself into general factotum number one. Peter Fleming managed to find us good billets in Namsos and a motor car with a driver.' Carton de Wiart made an equally strong impression with Fleming who described the old warrior as having ,only one eye, only one arm, and - rather more surprisingly - only one Victoria Cross.'
Originally it was intended that de Wiart's Mauriceforce, by landing at Namsos, would co-operate in a pincer movement with another British unit, General Paget's 'Sickleforce' which landed far to the south at Andalsnesand. The two pincers were then supposed to out-flank the German garrison at Trondheim in between. But, despite over-optimistic expectations from London, notably from Churchill, the attempt failed and de Wiart's men were withdrawn on 2 May 1940.
The Royal Navy's massive bombardment of Narvik on 3 June, which did terrible damage to her Norwegian allies, heralded Britain's retreat and the last British troops left Norway on 7 June. About the only consolation for the British from their operation in Norway was the fact that the German navy was devastated. Three German cruisers and ten destroyers were eliminated from the Kriegsmarine's fleet. A further two cruisers and its precious battleship, Scharnhorst, were temporarily put out of action.
At this time Holland's idea of an organisation that combined E.H., Section 'D' and M.I.(R) was revived and he and Beaumont-Nesbitt re-proposed their earlier scheme to Churchill. By now, however, their idea came into conflict with political necessity. Only the next month the Special Operations Executive (SOE) would be born. Control was to be taken away from the DMI, i.e. out of military hands, and given to politicians at the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Though he didn't then know it Gubbins was to play a major part in SOE and his Independent Companies were to form the model for a new 'special forces' unit - Britain's Commandos.
With the Independent Companies the expertise of M.I.(R) had been finally put to the test and Major Gubbins had come to the fore. A regular gunner, born in 1896 in Japan, where his father was a diplomat, he had previously been on the staff of General Ironside (Britain's future Commander-in-Chief Home Forces) during the Archangel expedition of 1919. In 1919 Ironside, aged thirty-eight, was already a Brigadier General (Staff and consequently closely involved with military intelligence. At Archangel Britain attempted to prevent the supplies it had sent to Tsarist White Russian forces from failing into the hands of the Bolsheviks who had made a separate peace with Germany. In 1921, in the Irish Free State, Gubbins was engaged against the IRA during the Irish Civil War. Both these experiences were to prove salutary for him. Before the war Gubbins had been employed as an expert on irregular warfare. With Millis Jefferis - M.I.(R)'s explosives expert who had helped to develop Churchill's 'Sticky Bomb' - he co-wrote How to Use High Explosives. All of the booklets were translated into foreign languages that included Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, Norwegian and even Chinese but they were never published in England.
The contingency planning of the Director of Military Intelligence, Beaumont-Nesbitt, and the staff of M.I.(R) and Section 'D' was soon put to good use on a new venture. Directly the Norwegian episode began to go wrong for the Allies, Whitehall began to seriously worry about the possibility of a dramatic reversal for the BEF in France and a subsequent German invasion of the United Kingdom. Although M.I.(R) was most suited to the study of guerrilla tactics, Laurence Grand's Section 'D' was asked to investigate. However, his department simply succeeded in creating suspicion as they went about building 'secret' arms caches up and down the country. Complaints about Section 'D's actions had even reached General Ironside who immediately decided that such activities must be co-ordinated by the military. So M.I.(R) was the ideal choice and Gubbins and Holland took over to sort it all out.
As soon as Gubbins had returned from Norway, Holland immediately decided to see if he and his staff could do better. After the successful deployment of his Independent Companies, Gubbins could have been justified in expecting a field command, perhaps a Brigade. But his recent experiences and his earlier relationship with Ironside at Archangel in 1919 drew him like a magnet to more irregular activity and he approached his new task with gusto. Gubbins was chosen to establish in Britain a kind of warfare he had attempted to develop in Poland before being thwarted by the speed of the Nazis' blitzkrieg - the 'stay-behind' forces.
Gubbins was, perhaps, better qualified for this work than Grand for the following reasons: first he had the benefit of his M.I.(R) experience - he had written several authoritative handbooks about explosives and guerrilla activity and was considered an expert on unorthodox warfare. Second, because of the exemplary manner with which he led the Independent Companies in Norway, his qualities of leadership and his ability to motivate men who were expected to fight in the open and in extreme conditions were second to none. Third, it was recognised that the new resistance organisation was beyond the capabilities of Section 'D' and M.I.(R) (the latter was stretched to the full as the demands of the real, as opposed to the phoney, war created an ever growing requirement for new and obscure guerrilla weapons and ingenious escape and evasion devices). The new organisation would need the full resources of Britain's military and as such would come within the aegis of GHQ Home Forces commanded by General Edmund Ironside whom Gubbins had served under during the British expedition to Archangel in 1919. Gubbins could not have been better qualified.
Intelligence suggested that, although the Germans might supplement their invasion attempt by the use of airborne forces, the main assault would be seaborne and might occur anywhere in the approximately 300 miles between the Norfolk and Hampshire coasts. Gubbins, however, felt that the entire British coastline stretching from southern Wales eastwards round to Scotland was vulnerable and he deployed Auxiliary Unit patrols throughout this region accordingly. He concentrated the best of his units in southern England on the seaward side of the GHO Line. In this way Auxiliary Units could be put to good use scouting and spotting areas the Nazis might use to expand a particular bridgehead as they began their inland push. Auxiliary Unit sabotage missions would have had the effect of slowing down this build-up, buying time for Ironside's GHQ reserve to reach peak efficiency, and be deployed directly against the most threatened area.
As Gubbins formed the Auxiliary Units' he drew his own personnel around him, notably his chief of staff at M.I.(R), Peter Wilkinson. The name Auxiliary was chosen because it was thought a suitably nondescript term that was unlikely to arouse unnecessary attention. Gubbins ran the Auxiliaries - or Auxunits, as they were called by those in the know - from June through to November 1940, when he was given military command of Hugh Dalton's SOE, the organisation chosen, in Churchill's words, to 'Set Europe Ablaze!'. Gubbins joined SOE, after leaving the Auxiliary Units in October 1940 and in 1943 he became its executive director.
Joan Bright Astley, originally with Section 'D', remembered Gubbins as 'quiet mannered, quiet spoken, energetic, efficient and charming. A "still waters running deep" sort of man, he had just enough of the buccaneer in him to make lesser men underrate his gifts of leadership, courage and integrity. He was a man- at-arms, a campaigner, the fires banked up inside him as glowing as those round which his Celtic ancestors had gathered between forays for glen and brae.'
Interestingly, Dalton had met Gubbins over dinner at the Polish embassy in Paris exactly a year previously. In The Fateful Years, Dalton recalls their first meeting. Gubbins was a 'most intelligent British soldier' he thought. 'He enjoyed life to the full; he never forgot a face or a name, and he had a gift for inspiring confidence in those working under him. He was a born leader of men.' When Dalton was later considering a military commander for SOE he said of Gubbins, 'I had a hard fight for his body against the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces' (Alan Brooke). However, with all his previous experience, Gubbins was clearly the only man who could manage an organisation which Dalton said should be 'comparable to the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland, to the Chinese guerrillas now operating against Japan, to the Spanish Irregulars who played a notable part in Wellington's campaign or - one might as well admit it - to the organisations which the Nazis themselves have developed so remarkably in almost every country in the world.' It was the 'Spanish Irregulars', as Dalton called them, who gave us the word 'guerrilla' - meaning 'little war' in Spanish.
Sir Peter Wilkinson first worked with Gubbins in central Europe. He became Gubbins' personal military assistant and was later to be key to the formation of the Auxiliary Units: 'I was a Captain just before the war; I was quite a senior officer. I had worked in M.I. 3 (a) in the War Office in 1938 long before I joined M.I.(R); and sent off to Czechoslovakia [Prague] as a language officer during the Czech crisis. I was a first class interpreter in Czech.' Of Gubbins, he says: 'He struck me as better dressed than most. He was a small wiry little Scotsman. His size gave him a tenacity of purpose which short people often have. He would have made a good scrum-half. He was a man of great integrity though he was not much liked by his contemporaries for some reason; they thought him a little pushy and ambitious - which he was ... Although he was distrusted in the army this was absolutely groundless. He was an immensely humane character. He was the least personally ambitious man I have ever known. He was dedicated to his duty and was compelled by it to stay with SOE, thereby throwing away his regular career. Gubbins simply straightened his back and soldiered on and got on with it.'
Within the Auxiliary Units Sir Peter Wilkinson and Bill Beyts were effectively jointly second-in-command to Gubbins. Beyts, late of the 6th Rajputana Rifles and one of the Indian Army officers in charge of training attached to the Independent Companies in Norway, continued to take care of the training of Auxunit personnel. On the other hand, Wilkinson, who had gained wide experience of intelligence work within the War Office and anyway was already a trained Intelligence Officer, looked after the organisation of the new underground army. Wilkinson took care of the organisation's ongoing strategic planning - what he calls 'the vision thing'.
Shortly before the war, in an attempt at co-ordination, Section 'D' and M.I.(R) held classes in guerrilla warfare at the St Ermin's Hotel, Westminster. 'They were set up by M.I.(R) after consultation with Section 'D'. At that time both departments were working closely together and sharing offices in Caxton Street,' Sir Peter Wilkinson told me. It was considered to be impossible to secure funds for a section of the War Office to specialise in what would have been almost illegal activities until the war actually broke out. So, as a result, M.I.(R) clubbed together, with the official approval of the CIGS, with Section 'D', which was a section of M.I.6. They had two or three courses during the summer of 1939, the first of which I attended was held in the Caxton Hall in Westminster. I suppose there were about fifty people present of whom only about three or four were regular serving officers. The rest were representatives of firms that were operating in Europe, particularly eastern Europe, such as Shell, Courtaulds and the big accountancy firms. It was a very superficial course; they were just instructed in elementary demolitions and shown some of the devices that were then still in prototype form. They also had elementary radio communications explained to them, including the use, which was novel at that time, of the Ionosphere as a means of reflecting radio waves. So that you could send a message from Poland to London and it would jump Germany using high-frequency crystals.
Both GS(R) (General Staff research, as M.I.(R) was originally known and Section 'D' worked together in Caxton Street and were secretly funded from the Foreign Office.
'Just on the eve of the outbreak of war, in late August , it was finally agreed to come out of the closet and M.I.(R) moved into the main War Office building and became formally and publicly acknowledged as a part of the General Staff, whereas Section 'D' expanded itself but remained in Caxton Street,' Sir Peter told me. 'The broad division between them was that Section 'D' was to carry out unacknowledgeable activities, many of which they were to carry out in peacetime in south eastern Europe, and certainly making plans for sabotage and subversion in the event of the outbreak of war. M.I.(R), on the other hand, was essentially looking after paramilitary guerrilla operations but was not actually directly 'involved in sabotage or subversion as such; though obviously there were smudgy edges to both activities. Both M.I.(R) and Section 'D' had their own workshops for making devices and the M.I.(R) ones were more obviously paramilitary - for de-railing trains and blowing holes in oil-tankers, things like that. Section 'D' had similar expertise but for more clandestine operations.'
The Auxunits were trained to blow things up in the UK so that they weren't actually destroyed and could be re-used. I asked Sir Peter if the things M.I.(R) and Section 'D' were trained to do in eastern Europe were of a similar nature? 'We did not really get as far as the niceties of that - all we did was try to train a few chaps to blow up a bloody bridge!'
By 1940 and the establishment of the Auxiliary Units under the control of GHQ Home Forces, Peter Wilkinson was entrusted with setting up the national organisation that Colin Gubbins was to manage: 'First of all we had Peter Fleming, who was already in the woods between here [Charing] and Canterbury. It was decided that his organisation was as good a model as any other.' Peter Wilkinson had known Peter Fleming long before the writer and adventurer was selected to set up the first covert resistance patrol in Kent. 'Peter Fleming and I shared an office in M.I. (R),' Sir Peter told me. 'He was eight or nine years older than me and one of my schoolboy heroes. I absolutely worshipped him. A very clever man. He turned me from being a very raw schoolboy into a civilised creature in about six months!'
Kent was considered the likeliest invasion area. The second most likely was East Anglia, and here Captain Andrew Croft (the holder of the Polar Medal for Arctic exploration who had served with Gubbins in Norway) was invited to set up a similar organisation. In Sussex, Captain John Gwynn the owner of extensive land around Lewes and Arundel, was asked to do likewise. By the end of August 1940 the Auxiliary Unit organisation stretched as far north as Brechin on Scotland's cast coast, south to Land's End and north of the Bristol Channel as far as Pembroke Dock.
To give some idea of the routine of the time Sir Peter told me: 'My office day started at nine o'clock. I would have gone in and read the intelligence reports about the invasion barges massing at Boulogne, Calais and Nieuport, for example, and assessed what was happening. Most of my time was spent scrounging arms from anywhere, as there were so few about. Springfield rifles were the making of the Auxunits - the army couldn't use them as they fired rimless .300 cartridges not .303 which was the standard British army round.' Otherwise he was taken up with obtaining PHE (Plastic High Explosive), which the Auxunits had in advance of the regular army; pacifying a Corps or Divisional commander who had found an Auxunit operating on his patch; and rounding off the day with an explosives demonstration, before embarking on a night exercise in which he would teach skills such as setting up an ambush.
On one occasion, Auxunit Patrols invaded the lawn of Montgomery's V Corps HQ at Steyning, Sussex in July 1940. 'He was furious! We put time pencils into his lawn, which exploded during his morning meeting. He had no sense of humour whatever and he didn't enjoy that one little bit.'
Another soldier who was involved in the early days of Auxiliary Units was Colonel Norman Field, who took over from Peter Fleming. Colonel Field's story presents another valuable insight into the forgotten army that flourished so briefly during Britain's darkest hour: 'The Auxiliary Units would not have arrested invasion but they would have made life difficult for the invader. As far as I was concerned we didn't knit together with anybody, we were completely independent and we were to do just what we could do. It was left up to us. It was not all that secure when it was formed. It couldn't be, because it had to be done with enormous speed and a tremendous hurry. To train the number of people who had to be trained it was necessary to get them to come to some sort of central point and so there was a great deal of mixing of one lot with another lot which, from a security aspect, was undesirable. But if it hadn't have happened we would never have got them trained. There used to be a lot of getting together at Bilting, at The Garth, on Saturdays and Sundays when they all came in from the Sussex border to North Foreland.
'I got involved because I knew Peter Wilkinson. He was a subaltern in my regiment. On 1 September (1939), the day the Germans went into Poland, he was removed from us very quickly - he disappeared and that was it. I went to war with my battalion as signals officer. I came back after being adjutant for some months during all the blitzkrieg in France where I was mildly wounded on the evacuation beaches.'
While recuperating in Somerset after Dunkirk, Field was visited by Peter Wilkinson: 'We had a cup of tea and nattered for a while. As he was leaving I chanced my arm and asked if he thought there would be an opening within the area I assumed he was involved with and, if so, could he bear me in mind. I told him that I would like a chance of getting my own back in a way I hadn't been able to do so far. Especially on that beach. It was like being a sheep in a pen - you could do absolutely nothing about it. You couldn't use your wits, nothing.
'Being Peter Wilkinson and being a perfect diplomat he didn't bat an eyelid, he just took it in. He didn't comment on it at all. Well, "no harm done" I thought, even though nothing appeared to have registered. A week later I received a telegram telling me to go for an interview at Highworth, for what I didn't know but I guessed it had something to do with him.
'I went to Highworth and I was interviewed in the kitchen there by Gubbins. I didn't know who he was. I knew he was the head of the organisation, but I didn't even know what that was. He was in civilian clothes and I thought he might be a civilian. He didn't grill me very much but told me roughly what was involved and asked me if I thought I could do it. I told him I thought so. I explained I was still a Second Lieutenant and medically classified as unfit for service. "Leave that to me!" he said. Within a week a special medical board in Taunton had upgraded me and I reported to Coleshill as a Captain.'
Norman Field took over from Peter Fleming at The Garth during a single weekend. 'Peter Fleming was a very agreeable man,' he told me. 'He had a brilliant brain, was a quick thinker and a wit with a keen sense of humour.' Norman Field knew very little about the organisation ('XII Corps Observation Unit') that Fleming had built. His office was simply one room containing two barrack tables. One of them was his office desk, the other was a 'mess dining table' occupied, on his arrival, by a prostrate German pilot, recently shot down. There were two barrack chairs. That was all . . . 'Considering the time he had it was amazing what he had achieved,' Norman Field told me. 'He had to move very fast. He had to get his friends around him to give him a hand. His brother brought a platoon of the Lovat Scouts down. He had to requisition vehicles from here there and everywhere, obtain explosives and, more importantly, go and see people in authority whose word he could trust to discuss recruiting leaders. He did all this, but there was very little record of anything. It was done in a hell of a rush. If, for example, after acquiring a suitable recruit, something like an obscure cellar existed in the area, material was just dumped there. The construction of a suitable base would follow. In one instance in Tenterden some material was left in a dried-up water course. Fine, unless it rained.'
General Thorne, the commander of XII Corps, in whose area Fleming's XII Corps Observation Unit operated, was an old friend of Fleming's. Thorne's air-liaison officer, Squadron Leader Lawrence Irving (grandson of the great actor, Henry) was another of Fleming's friends. Irving suggested to Fleming that he needed a radio set and arranged to supply an RAF cipher expert and a radio operator. They had little idea who they were transmitting to, but assumed it was RAF Uxbridge! Fleming had simply told Field 'We've got these people here arranged by Lawrence Irving. You needn't be bothered with them. They send their pay through. If you have any problem with them, get in touch with Lawrence.'
'In those days you didn't ask questions,' said Field. 'Everyone knew their place and you assumed that everyone who was in a place was there for a good reason. It didn't do to ask why.' To this day Colonel Field has no idea what the radio experts actually did. But given that Irving was in the confidence of the corps commander, General Thorne, he assumed their secret purpose was for the common good. 'I would never take a unit like that, with two extraneous people, now!'
Local British army establishments were, after due warning, used as training targets. 'There was a divisional HQ nearby at Wye - barbed wire, sentries and all that. We gave notice of various nights when we might break in and place detonators. It was necessary to forewarn them to reduce the likelihood of us being shot. Even so there was still a risk of that.' When asked if it was easy to break into such establishments Colonel Field replied, 'Yes. If you have a perimeter of perhaps a quarter mile protected only by layers and layers of barbed wire and some thirty men acting as sentries who can't be in every place at once.
So, where they are not and there is only barbed wire there it was not difficult to crawl through. The barbed wire was simply propped up with foot-long forked sticks so that you could crawl underneath. Not all the training took place at night. To help get the effect of night during daylight we had night goggles for those taking part. Those who were not involved were able to watch clearly to see what happened. It was quite an instructive technique.'
General Thorne was succeeded as Commander of XII Corps by General Montgomery. The latter invited Captain Field to show him something of Auxunits. The story of what happened next was first told in David Lampe's book The Last Ditch. Some fifteen years later it was exaggerated of all proportion by the Evening Standard under the headlines 'Junior Officer Hoodwinks Monty'.
What actually happened was that they near Lenham where Field took Montgomery to a roadside spinney: 'He did not believe that, within two or three yards of him, were six men with loads of explosives. This did excite him a bit. He was obviously very impressed. He asked me if Winston had been down to see these places. I said no, he hadn't. He answered, "Well I often see him. I would like to bring to see this. He would be delighted," or something along those lines.'
Field then took him to the brink of Charing Hill, where they sat on a fake sheep trough. The bottom of the trough slid sideways to give access to an underground Observation Post from which the outside world was viewed through rabbit holes in a steep bank. There was just sufficient space for two persons.
In fact, Monty, who was sitting beside me must have cottoned on as soon as he me fiddling with a nail which I was pulling out of a board to enable it to slide open. I lowered myself in and then he came down and had a look around.'
Charing Hill is in a position to view the convergence of two very major routes to London. It is the hub of a wheel: an ideal place for enemy dumps and depots to be set up.
Montgomery must have been impressed with Field as he invited him to his HQ prior to attending Staff College. This effectively ended his career in Auxunits.
Peter Fleming and Norman Field met up again in Kent in 1965. After their meeting Field received a postcard from Fleming advising him to see the article by 'Strix', alias Fleming, in the next edition of the Spectator. Using the letter 'N' to identify man Field, Fleming wrote about their walk through the downland within which they had created and concealed their hasty anti-invasion measures.
On a day-to-day basis Gubbins ran the units from its HQ at No. 7 Whitehall. In the earliest days of Auxunits new recruits were trained in sabotage and guerrilla warfare techniques in the homes of Intelligence Officers but very soon a secret training establishment, Coleshill House near Swindon, became the national college for Auxiliaries. Coleshill was a grand Inigo Jones building near the town of Highworth in Wiltshire. In 1940 the fine Palladian manor house was the home of the Earl of Radnor's family the Pleydell-Bouveries. Here recruits to the Auxunits learnt all the dark arts of guerrilla warfare.
Coleshill wasn't a 'James Bond style' secret agent training facility comprised of small groups learning unarmed combat or stealthy killing on the lawns of a grand country house. According to Colonel Field it was, apart from an occasional explosion, all very quiet. I never went there on a course, only for the interview and a weekend's series of lectures for Intelligence Officers in a big hall room. Beddington- Behrens, who was in charge of the administration set-up there, gave some of them. They were simply designed to keep us informed about developments and to knit us together. In addition there were training courses for Patrol members.'
Incidentally, Edward Beddington-Behrens did not only look after supplies at Coleshill. Apparently he told his colleagues there that he was a highly paid company director in peace-time. They assumed that he made regular nightly journeys by car to London because he was intent on keeping an eye on his business activities there. In fact he was helping ARP Rescue teams in London's East End pull survivors from the debris of the blitz!
Gubbins was in the unique position of being able to use General Ironside's name to unlock the doors of. military bureaucracy, thus by-passing the usual army red-tape and procuring weapons directly from GHQ Home Forces stores. Churchill and General Ironside were kept informed about its progress by confidential weekly minutes. In 1966, within the HMSO's official History of the Second World War, M.R.D. Foot wrote of Gubbins: 'Through the months of worst disaster, through the fog of battle, through all the complexities of a large, confused, impromptu organisation, he pursued steadily the course that he and Holland had dreamed of long ago in Dublin, and had worked out. together months before the war.'
Hitler's armies were barely thirty miles away across the English Channel. Now they had the tactical benefit of French air bases to operate from. It was widely believed that an invasion would follow shortly, either in July or August. Therefore Auxiliary Unit recruits were mostly drawn from the ranks of the Home Guard, often men in reserved occupations who had joined up immediately they heard Eden's radio broadcast on 14 May calling for recruits to the Local Defence Volunteers, a clear indication that they were patriotic and prepared to 'do their bit'. Recruits were issued with Home Guard uniforms and told that they had joined one of the three battalions that had been established to provide cover for the entire nation. Patrol leaders were given the rank of sergeant and were selected by 'Intelligence Officers'. Contrary to popular belief, however, not all Auxunit recruits were gathered from the ranks of the Home Guard. A special forces organisation such as this needed skilled and fit technicians, so many volunteers were drafted from the ranks of the regular army and told they were being sent to a special, secret scout reconnaissance unit that was being formed as an anti-invasion measure. Overall in excess of 100 army officers and some six hundred other ranks spent time in the classrooms of Coleshill House. Some made repeated visits to the house, perhaps to learn a new technique or to enrol for a specialist explosives course. Throughout the life of the Auxiliary Units organisation more than five thousand recruits spent time studying at Coleshill.
In the early days some Intelligence Officers, like Peter Fleming, were recruited from the ranks of M.I.(R). They were not purely involved in recruiting and training but actually established and led volunteer units as well. Not surprisingly, farmers and landowners, who knew their local landscape intimately, were considered a premium. Often farmers were chosen as Patrol leaders and asked to select recruits from their own labouring work force to staff their Patrols. Farmers were not only best placed to know the capabilities of their own workers, they were also able to select the best man for the job. Sometimes this would be the one who was the best mechanic. At a time when motor vehicles were still a novelty outside towns, it was often only farmers and their labourers who had the mechanical knowledge (garnered from the essential maintenance of tractors and power-threshers) to maintain and, of more use to a resistance force, damage motor vehicles. Furthermore, at a time of extreme fuel rationing, farmers could be uniquely sure of extra coupons. Villagers would think nothing of tractors or farm lorries trundling back and forth, especially if they were driven by men familiar to them. This last point was important: the main advantage that a resistance force has is that it is defending its own territory. House-holders were unlikely to spurn a late-night tap at the door from a face they recognised, and farm workers would be best able to negotiate the landscape at night from their secret hideouts buried deep in the countryside.
The Patrols were generally formed of six-man teams. Their hides, or Operational-Bases (OBs), were obviously situated in the most inaccessible locations, or those that enemy troops would be unlikely or unprepared to investigate too closely. Suitable locations included excavations within muddy river banks or deep within inaccessible bramble-strewn woods. To this day the original model - the pattern for the perfect OB - still exists in the grounds of Coleshill House, in a thicket a little distance from where Coleshill House once stood. It is complete in every detail: a vertical entrance shaft with a rebated blast wall at the bottom; kitchen area; 'Elsan' cubicle; and space for six bunks (the remnants of which still survive) in the arched corrugated-iron main chamber. The only major difference from OBs in the field is where there would normally have been an entrance to the escape tunnel, there is a large walk-in entrance instead. This was presumably fashioned to allow plenty of room for students to observe the entire living chamber without having to resort to commando techniques every time they chose to enter it. This OB also benefits from the addition of substantial concrete re-enforcements, a luxury that certainly wouldn't have been the norm in 1940 but was probably added as the invasion crisis passed but while Auxunits were still in existence. An interesting detail which still survives is the vertical chimney-flue exit, which passed through a dummy tree trunk that had been cemented in place above the roof.
Although the main house at Coleshill was consumed by fire soon after the war, the stables block and out-buildings that once housed the administrative buildings survive as a kind of decaying time-capsule untouched (save for a collection of architectural relics salvaged from the main house) since the Auxunits moved out in 1944. Doors marked 'Camp Commandant' and 'R.E. Office' are the only surviving proof that the stables and workshops that are now home to tenant craftsmen and administered by the National Trust were once part of the busy encampment of Britain's secret army.
Secrecy was such that new recruits did not report directly to Coleshill House. Rather, after being instructed to report to 'GPO Highworth', Auxiliary Unit volunteers turned up at Coleshill House's local post office, which was only minutes from the grounds of the mansion. After being given the once-over by the post-mistress they awaited their unit transport to come down from Coleshill to collect them. They generally stayed at Coleshill for a long weekend of training. Unarmed combat was taught to them by W.E. Fairbairn who, until 1940, was the commander of the famous Shanghai police Riot Squads (which he founded). He was expert in every known method of attack and defence'. He was also one half of the duo that invented the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife - the lethal dagger with which all Auxiliaries were equipped and which later became the unofficial emblem of the Commandos and SAS. In his book All-In Fighting (richly illustrated with line drawings depicting unarmed Tommies tackling close-cropped and thuggish German 'soldaten') Fairbairn described throws, blows with the side of the hand, thumb holds and exotica such as the 'Sentry Hold', 'Japanese Strangle' and 'Drawing the Smatchet' (a fearsome looking broad-bladed knife). He even recommended ways of attacking an opponent with a matchbox by swiftly jabbing it at your opponent's jaw - 'the odds of knocking your opponent unconscious by this method are at least two to one.' Fairbairn even argued 'Most lion-tamers consider a small chair to be sufficient to keep a lion from attacking them. Should you be so fortunate as to have a chair handy when your opponent is attacking you with a knife, seize the chair …rush at him, jabbing one or more of the legs of the chair into his body.' Comical as some of this might sound the pages of All-In Fighting are filled with bloodthirsty images and advice for recruits who would have had to employ these measures if they ever came to grips with the invader.
Auxunit veteran Eric Johnston was thirty-two in 1940. In a reserved occupation as a farmer (Boreham Farm in Sussex) he had enlisted in the LDV immediately following Anthony Eden's broadcast in May 1940. 'I've always been very active,' he told me (indeed he stroked a winning team at Henley in 1934) 'and I wanted to do anything I could for the country. When I was approached about this [Aux-Units] I felt that it was something that I could certainly do very well and combine it with my job. At that time we definitely thought there would be an invasion. Let's face it, during the retreat from Dunkirk every small boat from around here was out just trying to pick people up.'
Recruited by the local Intelligence Officer Captain Gwynn (of 'raid on Montgomery's lawn' fame!), Eric Johnston joined Peter Wilcox's Ashburnham Patrol. Peter Wilcox was the manager of nearby Hooe Farm. After being shown the Official Secrets Act, Eric Johnston was told 'If anything happened to us we would be absolutely on our own.' Eric Johnston and his colleagues in the Ashburnham Patrol were responsible for the coastal area that included Battle Abbey, the site of the most famous enemy invasion of Britain.
Eric Johnston remembers that Auxiliary Unit personnel 'were all people with confidence who wouldn't get upset in an emergency and could cope with problems at critical moments,' he told me. 'There was no pay whatsoever. Both Wilcox and I were in the regular HG, in different sections, from different villages. When we left the HG we simply said we had been seconded for other purposes … but we always felt there was a little bit of bitterness about it. Nobody knew exactly what we were doing.'
Eric Johnston had first met Colin Gubbins at Coleshill: 'He was quite an outstanding character. I was very impressed with him as a leader of men. When we got there for a long weekend course, he came along and had drinks with us. We had a bit of a drinking session that night before we started work and so he got to know us quite well. You felt that after only a few minutes you had known him for some time. He was a very good listener. I felt he summed each of us up very quickly. We were intensively trained the whole time in unarmed combat, explosives, field training and night training - under live fire. An ex all-in wrestler taught us unarmed combat. As it was really Churchill's idea to set us up, we got plastic explosives before the regular army.'
When asked if there was ever any friction between the War Office and M.I.(R), Eric Johnston told me that Gubbins was in the fortunate position of being able to go direct to Churchill. In fact Auxunits were under the direct control of Ironside's GHQ Home Forces. 'Gubbins backed us up to the "enth" degree,' he told me. During their time at Coleshill each Patrol was judged on its performance. 'Whilst on competitive exercise at the end of our training at Coleshill we had to drop one man who was an initial member of our party because he was quite useless with both the rifle and revolver and he was totally unable to use grenades or bombs,' Eric Johnston told me. 'In fact he damn nearly blew us all up; we were in a slit trench and we had to throw a "Sticky Bomb" at something and he only popped it just outside the trench - with the rest of us still inside! We all got out very, very smartly. We had to let him go, which was a shame as he was marvellous across country, as an observer and face-to-face - that sort of thing. Our Patrol had a rifle and a Sten Gun and we each had either a Colt or a Webley [pistol]. I had a Colt.'
Geoffrey Bradford, another Auxunit veteran, recalls his initiation to the secret army. His brother Roy, who was adjutant of the Territorial Devonshire Regiment at that time, had been selected as an Intelligence Officer and put in charge of recruiting other Auxiliaries: After initially being stationed in Sussex (because of the Invasion emergency) he was then posted back to Devon because there was a need for Intelligence Officers with local knowledge. By 1943, when I was over sixteen, I was recruited to Auxiliary Units through Roy's good offices. I was enlisted direct - not from the HG, for which I was too young. I was recruited into the Braunton Patrol based about five miles from Barnstaple in Spreacombe Woods close to RAF Chivenor. Apparently we were vetted by the Chief Constable, who should then have arranged for the Special Branch to check us out. But as my father was a local businessman [he was a groceries wholesaler] I would have been OK. Our Captain was the local timber merchant and he had a special petrol ration so he could pick us up in his vehicle. We didn't really mix with the regular Home Guard and tended to see ourselves as the "elite". But they must have wondered what we were up to.'
Though they wore standard 'Devonshire Home Guard' uniforms, each Auxunit member carried a side-arm, which was distinctly unofficial issue! As Geoffrey Bradford says, 'In my case it was a Smith & Wesson .38. We were issued with two kinds of ammunition: lead-headed bullets for practice and high-velocity nickel-jacketed ones for use on operations. We didn't have rifles, other than a single, silenced high-velocity one which wasn't very popular because it had a telescopic sight that soon went out of adjustment. It was to be used for picking off sentries or guard dogs or even, the unspoken thing, collaborators. And given what happened in France, this was probably very likely. Our rifles were fitted with a 'cup-discharger' for firing the Mills grenade, which had a three-second fuse. This wasn't popular because it fired a 'Balastite' cartridge, which was similar to a blank cartridge and made a hell of a mess of the barrel, -which meant a lot of extra cleaning. We each wore the Fairbairn fighting knife buttoned either on the right or left just above the knee. The scabbard had five leather buttonhole tags which could engage any of the buttons on the battle-dress trousers. Weapons were not really for offence - they were for close- quarter defence. In no way were we supposed to engage in any sort of pitched battles! The idea was to ambush and get away quickly.
'We were also issued with 'battledress denims' because a lot of our work was mucky, either crawling through woods or constructing OBs. We wore rubber boots, which were useful for two purposes. First, because of the rubber tongue which sealed the boot, they were waterproof (essential for so much outdoor work in the woods, etc.) and, second, because they were good for creeping around in quietly. We also had a brown or green webbing belt to support a leather pistol holder and either black or brown leather gaiters.' Insignia was minimal, the cap badge being the standard cap badge of the county regiment, as was normal within HG units. Until October 1942 Auxunits wore only Home Guard shoulder titles and stripes for sergeants. They were not allowed to wear the county distinguishing letters or the battalion numerals of local Home Guard units as this was thought likely to encourage more rather than less questioning from the curious. Off-duty, members occasionally sported a small metal lapel badge bearing the numbers of the three Auxunit battalions: 201 (Scotland and the northern counties), 202 (the Midlands) and 203 (London and the southern counties). These numerals were in gold in a cross formation on top of the red and blue GHQ shield. Although clearly not available to the very first Auxunit volunteers, these mementoes are now amongst the rarest pieces of militaria.
'Coleshill mainly consisted of lectures, Principally in unarmed combat based on W.E. Fairbairn's book All-In Fighting. We learnt detailed information about where to stick a knife in. The idea was that you used it from behind. It was a stabbing knife - the blade wasn't all that sharp. You wouldn't take anyone on from the front but hold them around the neck and in up through the ribs. It takes quite a time to die from a knife if you can't get it into the heart. You would have to stab them enough times and hang on there to see what happened. We also learned how to use the 'garrotte', which was better than the dagger for throat-cutting. Rubber truncheons and coshes - some were individually made, of pre-war origin - were also used. Cheese-wires fitted to two simple toggles were popular. But I don't think we were turned into "killing machines", like the US Marines, for example - we were much too 'gentlemanly'. My brother Roy, was even gentler than me. He was the last one you would have thought would have gone into the SAS.' It should be pointed out that by the time Geoffrey Bradford was recruited into Auxunits, Roy was one of the first recruits to 1st SAS, who were then preparing for the 'second front' - the invasion of occupied Europe. Tragically, Roy would not survive the war. Along with an SAS sergeant, a REME fitter and a member of a local French 'Maquis' detachment, he was ambushed in his jeep far behind enemy lines some six weeks after D-Day. Doubtless it was because of Roy Bradford's rapid rise through Auxunits, and then in Britain's 'regular' special forces, that Geoffrey Bradford, still too young to join even the Home Guard, was entrusted with his role as perhaps one of the youngest recruits to Britain's 'secret army'. Geoffrey Bradford made an ideal recruit to an organisation that, though staffed with enough confident 'wily old foxes', needed young and agile volunteers not solely because of the potential for offensive action but as stealthy couriers who could pass on messages to other Auxunit Patrols should 'the balloon go up'.
'During one exercise against the army at RAF Chivenor, our Patrol and several others went up the River Taw, landing at the airport. We laid small charges between the rows of parked aircraft and then retreated and made a false attack on the main gate. We then allowed ourselves to be captured. Whilst we were being 'entertained' in the officers mess and being commiserated with for our failed attack, all the charges went off! On another occasion during a night exercise at a large unoccupied country house which had, I remember, a trout lake, I remember one of our sergeants chucking a hand-grenade in. He stripped off and climbed into the lake to pick up the trout that had been stunned by the grenade. I can see him now, coming out of the lake naked with a couple of trout in his hands!'
Initially Auxunit personnel learnt the tricks of their trade by word of mouth and practical example. When they were first formed, the small number of trained Intelligence Officers handed down the wisdom assembled during the pre-war M.I.(R) and Section 'D' years and that which could be gleaned from the various handbooks that Gubbins had worked on. However, as the immediate invasion crisis passed, the Auxiliary Units continued to expand and in July 1942 the Auxiliary Units received their own training manual. This guide to applied mayhem was a Top-Secret document and, considering that many Auxunit recruits operated under the cover of their reserved agricultural occupations, it was disguised as an agricultural supplies diary - The Countryman's Diary 1939. Its cover read 'Highworth's Fertilisers. Do their stuff unseen until you see RESULTS!' It came with the compliments of Highworth & Co (Highworth, near Swindon, was where Coleshill House was situated) and promised 'You will find the name Highworth wherever quick results are required.' Its forty A5 pages were crowded with the distillation of the previous year's research and exploration. Though Gubbins was now well established at SOE, its pages clearly included examples of the type of sabotage and demolition devices and ambush booby traps that SOE agents used within occupied Europe. Various types of fuses, tube-igniters and detonators were described. Plastic Explosive was 'the finest general purpose explosive in the world' but as it was in short supply The Countryman's Diary warned that it could only be used to prime slower explosives. Within a chapter on 'delay mechanisms', the Time Pencil, the Auxunit and SOE favourite, which 'looks rather like a propelling pencil', was primed by inserting a fuse into the 'spring snout' of the pencil. 'Once it has been taken out the enemy has no way of telling the delay period,' the diary encouraged readers. A chapter included as an aid to calculate the precise amount of gelignite required to destroy a particular target ended, 'If in doubt, double the calculated charge!'
So, in great haste and in the utmost secrecy, in the summer of 1940 Britain established the Auxunits - the world's first resistance organisation ever to be established in advance of an invasion. There was no doubt that its leaders and volunteer recruits had a wide range of effective techniques with which to compromise the Nazi invader. For the moment, however, all eyes were turned skywards. The British people knew that the defence of the United Kingdom was now in the hands of the young pilots of Fighter Command. For it was their job to deny the Luftwaffe the opportunity of air superiority and this was the prerequisite of amphibious invasion. Ironically, the Battle of Britain would be decided above the fields and woods of Southern England in which the Auxunits were preparing their own reception.