The History of the Auxiliary Units & British Resistance Movement

Auxiliary Units HistoryBritish Resistance Archive

On 2 July 1940 Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet stated that:-

“The regular defences require supplementing with guerrilla type troops, who will allow themselves to be overrun and who thereafter will be responsible for hitting the enemy in the comparatively soft spots behind zones of concentrated attack”  

Winston Churchill to Anthony Eden, 25th September 1940 stated:

“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”.

Following the evacuation of British Army (BEF) land troops from Dunkirk, it became obvious that Britain had been rendered almost defenceless. This was due to the heavy losses of ammunition, artillery vehicles and equipment seized by the Germans. Given the rapid advances of the Germans through France, it became abundantly clear that Great Britain was under great threat of invasion. Hasty plans were therefore drawn up to resist any such attack.

The British High Command quickly analysed enemy’s tactics, appreciating that the only way to overcome them was to deny mobility of the attacker and to disrupt his vital supply lines.

The guerrilla type troops Churchill described became known as the GHQ Auxiliary Units or British Resistance Organisation. Colonel Colin McVean Gubbins (Commanding Officer Royal Artillery), was selected to establish a network of civilian saboteurs to attack invading German forces from behind their lines.

Auxiliers taking our a railway line

Image copyright to Steve Bulmer

The Auxiliary Units were the first such organisation of its kind in existence in Europe. The formation of the units was executed using utmost secrecy. This secrecy would be fiercely protected during the existence of the Units and after stand down in 1944. It was not until David Lampe finally published his book ‘The Last Ditch’ in the 1960’s that the true structure and objectives of the Auxiliary Units were finally realised.

In July 1940 Gubbins recruited about a dozen regional Captains as Intelligence Officers who would form the backbone of the newly created Auxiliary Units. Their mission was to find 30 or so reliable men and issue them with an assortment of explosives, weapons and vital supplies. These men became known as ‘dump owners’. The IO’s were to help the ‘dump owners’ to form cells of 5 or 6 men, to train them in the use of weapons and to provide the cells with some form of hideout. The high command HQ was located at Coleshill House near Swindon and this is where intensive training was undertaken.

The Auxiliary Units were specially trained highly secret units created with the aim of resisting the expected invasion of the British Isles by Nazi Germany during World War II. Having had the advantage of seeing the fall of several Continental nations, Britain was the only country during the war that was able to create such a resistance movement in advance of an invasion.

Gubbins was a regular Army soldier, but due to the nature of Britain’s imperial experience, he had acquired considerable experience and expertise in guerrilla warfare. Most recently, he had returned from Norway, where he headed the Independent Companies, the predecessors of the Commandos. Subsequently, he would move to Special Operations Executive (SOE) and make it an effective military, or para-military organisation.

Gubbins used several officers who had just been stood down from the Independent Companies in Norway, plus others he had known in Norway. Units were localised with a county structure, as they would probably be fragmented and isolated from each other. Priority was given to the counties most at risk from enemy invasion, the two most vulnerable being Kent and Sussex. The two best known officers from this period were:

  * Capt. Peter Fleming of the Grenadier Guards.

  * Capt. Mike Calvert of the Royal Engineers.

Peter Fleming came from a famous banking family, though as his younger brother would later write, none of this money seemed to have filtered their way. This required both brothers to earn a living and both became writers. Before the war, Peter was perhaps the better known writer, but after the war his brother’s career took off. The brother was, of course, Ian Fleming. Mike Calvert had recently served in the 5th Battalion of the Scots Guards, the famous Phoney Fifth, which had been formed to fight as a ski-troops in Finland. It became famous for having a couple of hundred officers masquerading in the ranks, presumably because, in the pre-war era, only officer-types would have been able to afford to learn to ski. A company of real Scots Guardsmen had the deep joy of performing any duties requiring the attention of proper soldiers. Both of these men were too valuable to stay long, once the immediate threat of invasion was over, and both later served in Burma, Fleming in deception work, Calvert in the Chindits.

Auxiliary Re-Enactors at a house (Copyright N. Marshall)

The ‘combat units’ were the Operational Patrols, but these were supported by Special Duty Sections, from the local civilian population. This group acted as the spotters for the action teams. In addition, a signals structure would attempt to link the isolated bands into a national network that could act in concert, on behalf of a British government-in-exile and its representatives still in the British Isles.

Some tales attach to the Auxiliary Units, of varying degrees of credibility. Members were supposedly vetted by a senior local police chief who was allegedly, according to sealed orders given to the Operational Patrols to be opened only in case of invasion, to be assassinated to prevent the membership of the Auxiliary Units being revealed.

The Auxiliary Units were kept in being long after any immediate Nazi threat had passed and were only stood down only in 1944. Several of the members of this generation were thus released to join the Special Air Service Regiments, which were recruiting hard, in readiness for their role during the forthcoming invasion. Many men saw action in the vicious campaign in France in late 1944.

The units’ existence did not generally become known by the public until the 1990s, though a book on the subject was published in 1968.

Special Duty Sections – See more on the SDS Here

The Special Duty Sections were largely recruited from the civilian population, with around 4,000 members. They had been trained to identify vehicles, high-ranking officers and military units, and were to gather intelligence and leave reports in dead letter drops. The reports would be collected by runners and taken to one of over 200 secret radio transmitters operated by trained civilian Signals staff.
Operational Patrols

Operational Patrols consisted of between 4 and 8 men, often farmers or landowners and usually recruited from the most able members of the Home Guard, who also needed an excellent local knowledge and the ability to live off the land. As cover, the men were allocated to “Home Guard” battalions 201 (Scotland), 202 (northern England), or 203 (southern England) and provided with Home Guard uniforms, though they were not actually Home Guard units.

Around 3,500 such men were trained on weekend courses at Coleshill House near Highworth, Wiltshire, in the arts of guerrilla warfare including assassination, unarmed combat, demolition and sabotage. Recruits for Coleshill reported to the Highworth post office, from where the postmistress Mabel Stranks arranged for their collection.

Each Patrol was a self-contained cell, expected to be self-sufficient and operationally autonomous in the case of invasion, generally operating within a 15-mile radius. They were provided with a concealed undergroundOperational Base (OB), usually built by the Royal Engineers in a local woodland, with a camouflaged entrance and emergency escape tunnel; it is thought that 400 to 500 such OBs were constructed. Some Patrols had an additional concealed Observation Post. Patrols were also provided with a selection of the latestweapons including a silenced pistol or Sten and Fairbairn-Sykes “commando” knives, quantities of plastic explosive, incendiary devices, and food to last for two weeks. It was not expected that they would survive for longer. Members anticipated being shot if they were captured, and were expected to shoot themselves first rather than be taken alive.

The mission of the units was to attack invading forces from behind their own lines while conventional forces fell back to the last-ditch GHQ Line. Aircraft, fuel dumps, railway lines, and depots were high on the list of targets, as were senior German officers. Patrols secretly reconnoitred local country houses, which might be used by German officers, in preparation.

Stand Down

In April 1945, when the war in Europe was drawing to a close, the War Office announced to the Press that a Resistance organisation had existed in Britain since 1940, and Sir Harold Franklyn’s message of thanks to the men and women who would have been the Auxiliary Units Special Duties Section’s spies was published in The Times on Saturday, 14 April 1945:

I realise that every member of the organisation from the first invasion days beginning in 1940 voluntarily undertook a hazardous role which required both skill and courage well knowing that the very nature of their work would allow of no public recognition. This organisation, founded on the keenness and patriotism of selected civilians of all grades, has been in a position, through its constant and thorough training, to furnish accurate information of raids or invasion instantly to military headquarters throughout the country. See the full letter below.

Franklyn's Auxiliary Letter

Times Newspaper article

Times Newspaper article 2

The Times, Saturday, Apr 14, 1945; pg. 8; Issue 50117; col A
Britain’s Secret “Underground” Invasion Spy Force Stood Down

The Times, Monday, Jul 09, 1945; pg. 2; Issue 50189; col E
Disbanding Of G.H.Q., Home Forces

Both articles are published with full written persmission of The Times Newspaper, London.

The Times pointed out that the organisation was so secret that most of the members did not know one another, that it came into being before France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark or Norway had Resistance organisations of their own-and that the whole thing was run by ‘300 specially picked officers of the Army Special Duties Branch’.

The popular Fleet Street newspapers also carried the story, and their reporters embellished it, among other things claiming that the Resistance was really a skeleton force that was intended to raise little private armies all over the country, and that its weapons even included 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns.

Stand Down text taken from The Last Ditch by David Lampe, Cassell (1968)

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