It was probably Major Henderson who devised the extra layer of security that became the ‘Gateway’ to Coleshill. Mabel Stranks the Post Mistress at Highworth Post Office was approached and agreed to act as the first point of contact for visiting training course attendees. Highworth Station was at the end of the branch line from Swindon and 3 miles from Coleshill. Mabel Stranks was the Highworth Post Mistress, a widow and the dependable face of village life who sorted the stamps and telegrams for over 25 years. During WW2 however she became an essential part of the Auxiliary Units by security checking all trainees. Mabel vetted approximately 5,000 Auxiliers before sending them on to their secret training at Coleshill House, Mabel played a significant part of the highly-secret campaign from 1940 to 1944. Although Mabel Stranks was not a member of Auxiliary Units and not on Hitler’s Gestapo arrest list she was in a vulnerable position if the Germans had landed, as an Auxilier caught by the enemy might, under interrogation, have revealed her existence and whereabouts.
The Highworth Post Office was aptly renamed the 'Auxiliary Gateway'. Senior staff knew that their entire operation would be compromised if anyone found out what was going on at Coleshill House. They needed complete secrecy and a different address. And this is where the trustworthy and unassuming Mabel Stranks came in. The Post Office was a perfect 'go-between' with strangers visiting all the time and the Post Mistress known for her unassuming nature and discretion. The official address of the Auxiliary Gateway therefore became GHQ Auxiliary Units, c/o General Post Office, Highworth, Wiltshire and became the first port of call for all personnel visiting the Coleshill HQ.
When they arrived, they would ask for Mrs Mabel Stranks, give a password and be told to wait. Mabel would then go into her office and make a series of phone calls (very often making visitors wait for hours). A car would then arrive and those 'screened' as official by Mrs Stranks driven to Coleshill House by the most indirect route. After arriving at Coleshill they were then trained to do everything from blowing up bridges to silent killing. They were even taught how to booby trap the grand country houses that the German heirachy would no doubt have taken over had they invaded. The story even goes that when Field Marshall Montgomery arrived he too was asked to wait in his car while Mrs Stranks checked his credentials ! The bravery of Mrs Stranks cannot be underestimated when one considers that the life expectancy of any of those involved in the Coleshill operation was just 14 days, and that she herself was all too aware of the reprisals that had been meted out by the Germans to the French resistance fighters.
In fact, what is equally remarkable is she never accepted recognition for her part in this secret operation and never spoke of her experiences before her death in 1971 at the age of 88, three years after her involvement was brought to light in the book 'The Last Ditch'. Following the book's publication she was asked to take part in a documentary about Auxiliary Units but declined. As one of her six grandsons, Brennan Stranks, said during the unveiling of the plaque on what was the Post Office, 'My grandmother never said a word to me about it. We only know from what different people have told us over the years'. So, although it took over 60 years to recognise the contribution made by Mrs Mabel Stranks there is now a lasting memorial to an extraordinary lady and the 5000 brave men and women whose first contact with the 'Auxiliary Units' was the 'Auxiliary Gateway' at Highworth Post Office.
|Unit or location||Role||Posted from||until|
|Highworth Post Office, the Auxiliary Gateway||Coleshill Staff||1940||1944|
The Stranks family