Britain’s secret resistance plans

The story is incomplete, such was the secrecy, but the evidence is clear: the British authorities were preparing for a brutal underground war in the event of German invasion and occupation in 1940. Andrew Chatterton reports on the latest research.

Ask most people for their impression of Britain in the summer of 1940 and it would be of a country on its knees, an army without equipment, a militia of old men with pitchforks, and a population waiting for the inevitable invasion.

The reality was very different. True, there was a lack of equipment and the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers; soon to become the Home Guard) was in the early stages, but there was a huge amount of activity at the highest levels to prepare the country for invasion. These preparations included setting up resistance forces – in advance of any invasion, and in the utmost secrecy.

The Spetisbury Patrol in Dorset a rare contemporary photograph of an Auxiliary Patrol. Much remains unknown about Churchill’s top-secret underground army.
The Spetisbury Patrol in Dorset a rare contemporary photograph of an Auxiliary Patrol. Much remains unknown about Churchill’s top-secret underground army.

Sabotage and guerrilla warfare

In the days following Dunkirk, plans were put in place to organise guerrilla units that would disrupt an invading army as much as possible. The units, given the purposely ambiguous name of ‘Auxiliary Units’, were designed to carry out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

Lieutenant-General Andrew Thorne, commander of XII Corps (based in Kent and Sussex) had seen the need for such a force, and, after a meeting with Eden and discussion with Churchill, he was given the go-ahead to start prototype Patrols.

These were organised by Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond) in Kent under Military Research (Intelligence) and named the XII Corps Observation Unit. Fleming recruited local farmers and those who knew the countryside intimately, and provided them with weapons and explosives with the aim of doing as much damage as possible to invading forces.

At the same time, and coincidentally, Lieutenant-Colonel Laurence Grand was putting together a similar force as part of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), Section D. His Home Defence Scheme was supplying volunteers with weapons and explosives to do a similar job.

It was decided to combine the two forces into one, under MR(I). Colonel Colin Gubbins was appointed to command. Gubbins’ role was to extend this prototype force to each of the vulnerable counties in England, Scotland, and Wales. Eventually, around 4,500 men would be recruited, from the Outer Hebrides to the tips of Cornwall and south Wales. Each man had to sign the Official Secrets Act and was trained to the highest standards in sabotage, silent killing, explosives, and ‘dirty fighting’.

Left, Captain Peter Fleming, one of the founding fathers of the Auxiliary Units. (The elder brother of Ian Fleming, in later life he described himself as ‘James Bond’s uncle’.) Right, Colonel Colin Gubbins, the first commander of the Auxiliary Units, and later head of the Special Operations Executive.

Bases and Patrols

The Auxiliers’ role, when the Germans entered their area, was to disappear into their secret underground bunkers (Operational Bases, or OBs), from which, mainly at night, they would emerge to cause as much disruption to the invading force as possible. The aim was 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.

They were not expected to get into a running battle with the invading army. They were highly trained silent killers. Stealth was their method, but if a sentry blocked their way to the target, they were trained to dispatch them quickly.

Some Auxiliers were also armed with sniper rifles and were prepared to take out high-ranking German officials and even British collaborators.

Each Patrol was made up of six to eight men, with enough stored rations for a fortnight. The personnel were men in reserved occupations, including farmers, farm workers, gamekeepers, miners, quarrymen, and even poachers – those who had intimate knowledge of their local surroundings.

Initially, the Patrols dug their own OBs, but these were usually not very successful. Later, Royal Engineers were sent out to construct them.

Most had a disguised vertical entrance shaft (often with a hatch that was opened using a counterweight mechanism). As well as bunks and tables, the OB would often have an Elsan toilet, storage facilities, a water tank, and sometimes cooking facilities (with the smoke dispersed above the treeline through a hollow tree to reduce the likelihood of discovery).

Short life

These Operational Patrols were not designed to be active for any length of time. The two-week food supply indicates their life-expectancy. Indeed, one Auxilier, William Ratford from the village of Bentley in Suffolk, said, ‘Perhaps we would have been heroes for a bit. But it would have been suicide, I should think.’

So, while these Patrols were some of the first ever resistance forces to be set up in advance of an enemy invasion, they were designed for the early stages of a campaign, not for sustained resistance. This was a key difference from resistance forces in Occupied Europe.Churchill took a close interest in the Auxiliary Units, which meant that Patrols received the very latest equipment (certainly before the LDV/Home Guard and often before the Regular Army). In a note to the Secretary of State for War on 25 September 1940, Churchill said:

I have been following with much interest the growth and development of the new guerrilla formations… known as ‘Auxiliary Units’. From what I hear these units are being organised with thoroughness and imagination, and should, in the event of an invasion, prove a useful addition to the Regular forces.

This perhaps gives a realistic view of the role of the Auxiliary Units – to deliver a short, sharp shock behind the advancing invading army, one that gave the Regular forces time to regroup and counter-attack.

There is little doubt that the Auxiliary Units would have been an effective force for a short time during the initial stages of an invasion. This seems to have been the view of everyone involved in the formation and training of the Units.

‘Unofficial’ Auxiliary Units

But there was something else afoot.

In the Shetlands, for example, there is evidence of an ‘unofficial’ group of Patrols on the islands. It appears, once again, to have been the work of Lieutenant-General Andrew Thorne, who was GOC Scotland between May 1941 and April 1945.

While there were a number of Patrols in Scotland that were ‘regular’ Auxiliary Units linked with the HQ at Coleshill House near Swindon, there are none documented in the Shetlands. However, there is at least one OB-like structure in the islands, and increasing evidence is emerging for Patrols of men, not associated with the Home Guard, being trained in sabotage and guerrilla warfare. It looks like Thorne set up the Shetlands Patrols within the broad framework of the Auxiliary Units, but that they were never formally incorporated as part of the group.

Thorne appointed a Lieutenant Iredale (an ex-Auxiliary Units regular training officer, later to join the SAS) to set up such Patrols in the Shetlands. One curious story is told in David Lampe’s book The Last Ditch (the first published on the Auxiliary Units, in 1968).

A Shetland Island shepherd had spotted a German U-boat regularly appearing in a cove to recharge. Word soon got back to HQ Scottish Command and Iredale was tasked with attempting to destroy it.

Trained in explosives at Coleshill House, he was taken to the cove when the U-boat was spotted. He stripped off, strapped on a heavy limpet mine, and swam up to the U-boat without making a sound.

He is reported to have successfully placed the mine on the submarine, just below the waterline. Immediately before dawn, the U-boat submerged and departed. It was never seen again.

Image: National Trust A reconstruction drawing of an excavated Auxiliary Unit Operational Base. Many were hidden in woodland.

German naval historians doubt the story, as they do not believe that a U-boat crew would have risked emerging and recharging on the enemy coastline. However, officers that Lampe spoke to who were at Coleshill House at the time insist that the attack took place.

Home Guard ‘Shock Squads’

In other parts of the country, there were units of men who had very similar roles to the Auxiliary Units and those in the Shetlands, but were not under MR(I) or Coleshill House. These were given the name Home Guard ‘Shock Squads’.

It appears these Squads were made up of the younger members of the Home Guard, and were secretly recruited from their regular battalions. Their role appears to have been similar to that of the Auxiliary Units. They were trained in ‘dirty tricks’ and guerrilla warfare, with some appearing to have had underground bases much like the Auxiliary Unit OBs.

Whether these, like those in the Shetlands, came about as a result of ex-Auxiliary Unit officers wanting to replicate unofficially such a force, or whether some Home Guards, wanting to do more than simply guard bridges, took the initiative, is hard to tell.

Destined for a short life? The expectation was that Auxiliers would fight briefly behind enemy lines in support of continuing conventional operations centred in unoccupied parts of Britain. Here is the Warsash Hook Patrol in Hampshire, with [inset] an AU lapel badge.

In his book on the Leicestershire Home Guard (To the Last Round), Austin Ruddy has found evidence of such Shock Squads in the Leicestershire area. One veteran who agreed to speak was Allan Hopcraft, recruited into the mysterious Shock Squads in 1941:

When invasion came we’d carry on at work until we got the message from our sergeant or officer. We’d then all go and do whatever we were supposed to do. There was talk about secret message holes but it never really got down to that. I don’t think we had a radio; it was all word of mouth. We’d go on operations in civilian clothes. At night, you had your face blacked, that was all. We knew it was against the Geneva Convention, but we weren’t worried.

He also spoke about ‘stashes’ of rifles and ammunition stored in various houses in the area. It is clear that, although Hopcraft had never heard of the Auxiliary Units or Coleshill House, his role was very similar.

Poacher turned guerrilla

Rumours in other parts of the country also point to units having been set up outside the control of MR(I) and Coleshill House. Ron Freethy discusses Auxiliary Units in his Lancashire: the secret war, but there is no evidence for official Auxiliary Units in the county. Like Ruddy, Freethy found men willing to talk about their roles, and he claims to have seen OB-like structures in Lancashire and the Lake District.

One Lancashire veteran, Will Renson, described why he had been chosen, in a way that sounds very similar to the recruitment pattern for the Auxiliary Units:

I have been poaching since I was ten and could trap rabbits, tickle trout, and net salmon without any problem. It was fun working in a team with John Brocklebank, the gamekeeper, who had taken me to court on several occasions but he never had enough evidence to jail me. It was the local magistrate and landowner, who been a captain in the First World War, who recruited us both.

These units were highly secret, although it appears their recruits did not sign the Official Secrets Act (as the Auxiliary Units did). Although it is unclear just how these units were formed, or by whom, the similarity in terms of recruitment and role points to some influence from men with experience in the Auxiliary Units.

The unofficial and secret nature of these units means that they were not documented in any way. Even the Auxiliary Units had men listed across the country. Not so the Home Guard Shock Squads. They remain a real enigma: a lingering secret of Britain’s wartime home defences.

Civilian spies and ‘Secret Sweeties’

While the Auxiliary Units and the ‘unofficial’ Shock Squads were designed for the initial stages of any invasion, there were also plans to prepare for a period of occupation.

At about the same time as the Operational Patrols were being organised, a separate group was being set up named the Special Duties (SD) Branch.

This was made up of civilian volunteers, in the most threatened coastal areas of Britain, who were trained, in the event of a German occupation, to act as spies and to report on German activities in the occupied areas.

The spies were people who would not look out of place walking around a village or town, so doctors, vicars, publicans, and sometimes teenagers were recruited and taught how to identify German units, vehicles, and weapons.

These spies would write their reports and deposit them in dead-letter drops. These would then be collected by runners and passed through a network, eventually to be delivered to secret wireless stations (called ‘OUT stations’), where more civilian volunteers would transmit the report to military-manned ‘IN stations’ outside the occupied area.

These IN stations were often manned by women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS, seconded to the Royal Signals). They seem to have been given the decidedly un-PC nickname of ‘Secret Sweeties’. They were responsible for radioing the reports through to the Regular Army.

The IN stations were often in bunkers, similar in design to the Auxiliary Units’ OBs. The civilian OUT station radio sets were placed in sometimes obscure places, often depending on the livelihood of the radio operator. Anything from pub attics and church pulpits to chicken sheds and even a bunker underneath an outside toilet are known to have been used to house such sets.

Recruitment of civilians was along the same lines as for Operational Patrols, with individuals being approached by officers. One civilian observer, Ursula Pennell, from near the village of Cley on the North Norfolk coast, remembered being approached by a ‘charming young officer’ who described a network of people ‘three miles apart and about three miles from the coast who would stay put if the Germans came’. Would she be interested?

Once she had accepted, the officer

explained what I had to do and he told me the names of my contacts. It was a schoolmaster, at the village school in Weybourne, to the east… He was my contact there. The other was a retired schoolmistress at Blakeney… If the Germans came, I had to gather every information I possibly could. I was given leaflets with the badges and uniforms, and those things I had to learn and was told I must never lose them. I kept them in one of my purses or stuck them in my bra wherever I went. I had instructions to destroy them when the Germans came.

Parallel undergrounds

Rather bizarrely, there was no link between the SD and the Operational Patrols, despite the likelihood that SD intelligence would have been of huge importance to the Patrols. The levels of secrecy were so high that military effectiveness was undermined.

Reconstruction of an Operational Base at Parham Airfield’s Museum of the British Resistance Organisation.

This secrecy even extended to the radio sets used by SD. The TRD set, as it was known, was of a highly specialised nature and considered such a secret that at stand-down all sets were collected and apparently destroyed.

There are only very isolated cases where Operational Patrols and SD came into contact. On one occasion, while on patrol, Auxilier George ‘Clive’ Gascoyne came across what he recognised as the entrance to an OB.

Knowing that it was far too near his own Patrol’s OB to be that of another Patrol, he was curious. Entering down the ladder of the vertical entrance shaft, he was confronted at the bottom by ATS member Airlie Campbell, who was pointing a pistol at his head.

Quite willing to shoot any unexpected intruder, especially one armed as Gascoyne would have been, Campbell listened to his explanation and, although having no idea what the Operational Patrols were – just as Gascoyne knew nothing of SD – they came to the decision that each could be trusted. Despite the bunkers being in relatively close proximity, neither had known of the other’s existence.

The most remarkable part of the story is that Gascoyne and Campbell later married. Such is the way couples meet in wartime!

Airlie Abinda Campbell, one of the SD operatives whose story has been investigated by the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team.
The wedding of Clive Gascoyne and Airlie Campbell. They met during the war when Gascoyne stumbled on another unit’s Operational Base, descended the ladder, and was held at gunpoint by Campbell, who was serving with the SD. The two secret organisations were unknown to each other.

Section VII

Evidence for some layers of defence have only come to light in the last few years.

The SIS, which had initiated the Home Defence Scheme, also set up another organisation designed to stay inactive until the Germans had actually occupied; only then would it come to life. This shadowy organisation was known as Section VII.

According to Malcolm Atkin in Fighting Nazi Occupation: British Resistance 1939-45, the primary role of Section VII was

to collect intelligence, which could be transmitted to any government in exile. There were also a number of sabotage cells (whose arms caches can be dated to as late as 1944) and also ‘lone wolves’ who would carry out individual missions.

It appears that individuals, including teenagers (who were used as couriers, sometimes using their roles as ARP Messengers as cover), were recruited, sworn to secrecy, and trained to act as a true resistance once the occupation had started.

According to Atkin, there is some evidence of cells and individuals across the country, not just in the vulnerable coastal counties. Cells have been documented in Norfolk, Suffolk, Sussex, the Isle of Wight, Somerset, Cornwall, and Devon, as well as in Worcester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Stockport, Manchester, and even Snowdonia.

Section VII looks at first glance to have been a much larger organisation that the Auxiliary Units. More information might come out as the years go by, but from the snippets known, it appears that, while Auxiliary Units and SD were expected to provide immediate resistance during an invasion campaign, Section VII was designed for action only under enemy occupation.

IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were part of the toolkit of Britain’s WWII underground army. Here is some official advice on making alternative use of fertiliser and building your own ‘sticky bomb’.

Industrial saboteurs

There are also stories of individual industrial saboteurs from across the country. Whether these were linked to Section VII or to another organisation is hard to say, but they were focused on post-occupation sabotage, particularly in factories.

Although there were specific factory Home Guard units designed to protect crucial factories from attack, the saboteurs seem to have been trained for a time when the premises were in German hands, not while actual fighting continued.

In the Midlands, at least, there appears to have a been an ‘X Branch’ into which individuals were recruited. Ruddy mentions ‘sabotage key holders’ whose job was to put the plant beyond the use of the Germans. They had no uniform, putting themselves outside the Geneva Convention, but giving them an obvious advantage when blending into an urban environment.

Bernard Lowry and Mick Wilks talk about X Branch in The Mercian Maquis. One anonymous ex-member is quoted discussing his role and specialist training in explosives, booby-traps, and ‘dirty fighting’. He says:

Had there been an invasion, I would have been contacted and told to report to Cockshoot Hill School in Birmingham, the mustering point for other Home Guardsmen, in addition to those in X Branch. There I would be told what I was expected to do and where our underground ammunition and food stores had been established. I was aware that such bunkers existed but not where, as part of the secrecy which surrounded the X Branch organisation.

Section VII and X Branch appear to have been the urban cousins of the countryside-dwelling Auxiliary Units – though they were trained for a period of occupation, not as part of the anti-invasion resistance.

One of Devon’s surviving Operational Bases. Research, historical and archaeological, is ongoing. See ‘Further information’ for how to get involved.

It is clear, then, that Britain was anything but unprepared for a German invasion. After the initial shock of the German advances in France and the evacuation from Dunkirk, those at the highest levels of the intelligence services, the Army, and the Government were organising highly secret groups of civilian volunteers to act behind enemy lines, both during an invasion and under occupation.

Even now, much of this effort remains shrouded in mystery. A fuller picture is emerging, but huge gaps remain; and it seems likely that many secrets will be lost forever with the passing of the 1940 generation.

Andrew Chatterton is Press Officer for the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART). CART is a group of volunteer researchers who look into the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Branch. They help to identify Patrol members, the locations of bunkers, and aim to spread the word of these remarkable civilian volunteers to give them the public recognition they so richly deserve.

All images: CART, unless otherwise stated
Further Information
The CART website can be found at If you have any information about any of the British Resistance units discussed here, please get in touch with CART and share what you know. CART is especially keen to interview veterans and others with first-hand experience to report.