The Auxiliary Units Thompsons
Thompson. France.jpg

Not an Aux Unit Thompson - but possibly the earliest photo of a Thompson sub-machine gun in British service!

A Thompson sub-machine gun  in use with the BEF, June 1940. Note the use of a stick magazine rather than the drum magazine that was usually preferred on propaganda photographs.

Photo: Keating. IWM F4833

The Legend of the  Thompson Sub-Machine Gun

in Auxiliary Units Service 



One of the persistent legends of the Auxiliary Units, claimed by both veterans and modern researchers,  is that they were the first unit in the British army to teceive the Thompson sub-machine gun. This has become a key plank in their reputation as a body that received the first and best supplies available because of their special status The Thompson has by now become an iconic weapon of special forces –  recognisable in  the sleeve badge of the commandos.  


At the start of the Second World War The British army had no sub-machine gun. Traditionalists regarded it as a ‘gangster weapon’, earlier used by the IRA and the bolt-action rifle, where every shot was aimed,  was still regarded as the proper weapon of a soldier. Nonetheless, the first sample weapons were supplied to the BEF in December 1939 and were issued to the forward intelligence patrols of the ‘Phantom’ reconnaissance unit (‘Hopkinson Mission’) in January 1940. They were then issued in twos and threes to fighting patrols of other units on at least a temporary basis, including  2 Glosters,  3 Grenadier Guards and 2/5 Leicesters. The photo shows a soldier of the 52nd Lowland Division posing with his new weapon on 13 June 1940, whilst covering the retreat of British troops near Cherbourg. 


When ‘Phantom’  was reconstituted in Britain as GHQ Reconnaissance Unit on 26 June, they had 20 Thompsons and 14,000 rounds of ammunition on their War Establishment, one carried in  each of their  Daimler scout cars. The number increased as the unit itself expanded in readiness to provide crucial  forward intelligence during any invasion. In the meantime, Col. Gubbins, who later commanded the Auxiliary Units,  had successfully negotiated for the allocation of two Thompsons per section for the Independent Companies sent to Norway in April 1940.  The successor to the Independent Companies, the Commandos, used them  on Operation Ambassador -  their raid on Guernsey on 14 July 1940. 


As numbers increased,  plans  for its future distribution might now seem surprising. In December 1940 General Alan Brooke, recognising that any fighting in Britain was likely to be at close quarters, gave  priority to the distribution of Thompsons in Home Forces to the Home Guard, seeking an optimistic allocation of  30,000 Thompsons compared to just 10,000 to the field army (still placing faith in the supremacy of a well-aimed single rifle shot and hoping that this would free up the Ross rifles then in Home Guard to be redistributed to Home Forces). This was around the time a series of propaganda photos were taken of the Home Guard, armed with Thompsons, at Dorking – whetting their appetite!  Such numbers were unachievable and priorities changed,  but the Thompson finally began to be supplied to the Home Guard from March/April 1941.


So what of the Auxiliary Units? They only began to receive the Thompson in May 1941 at the earliest (by which time the Home Guard already had around 4,500) and it then appeared in their August training notes. The significance of the Thompson was not that it was issued 'first' to the Auxiliary Units but the generality of its issue to every patrol, making it roughly equivalent to the issue in an infantry section. Nonetheless,  it was not a primary weapon in the Auxiliary Units arsenal. In moving silently towards their sabotage targets  they could not afford to get into firefights as this would only bring  enemy forces down upon them; their firearms were, therefore, to be used only as a matter of last resort. They were expected to travel light and silently, so some of the weaponry that was initially issued to them – such as the cumbersome Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) or P17 rifle – proved to be totally unsuitable. Even when their new Thompsons arrived, although valuable in providing short-range fire support and a huge status symol to the men, it was considered a luxury by their superiors who declared ‘The tommy gun may be required to cover a withdrawal, but will not always be necessary’ ( Target for Tonight lecture notes 1941: BRO Museum Archive). The Thompson began to be withdrawn from Auxiliary Units from around September 1942 and was progressively replaced by the Sten gun. This was a protracted process and some were still being exchanged in October 1943. Again contrary  to stereotype, the Home Guard had begun the process of conversion to the new weapon a few months earlier than the Auxiliary Units.  The Thompson continued to see service with the Commandos and was widely used in the Middle East and Italian campaigns.


How the Auxiliary Units legend began  - and has continued - in the face of such overwhelming  evidence to the contrary is salutary. It dates back to David Lampe’s seminal, but now recognised as deeply flawed, 1968 publication The Last Ditch. Here he confidently stated ‘GHQ having agreed that the Auxiliary Units  organization must have top priority in all things, many weapons turned up at Coleshill long before the more conventional forces saw them. Even the Commandos queued up behind Auxiliary Units’ (p.75). He then went on to make similarly erroneous claims for their use of plastic explosives and time pencils before claiming ‘The members of the Auxiliary Units patrols were the first Britons to be armed with the Thompson sub-machine guns’ (p.78). Lampe's confidence came from the fact that Colin Gubbins and a number of other senior Auxiliary Units officers  were his sources for The Last Ditch. Gubbins, at least, personally knew of their earlier use in the British army and this makes the flaws in the book particularly troublesome. The legend of the Thompsons gained credence from the first statement of the War Cabinet when they approved the establishment of the Auxiliary Units  on 17 June. It was declared ‘Some of these would be armed with “Tommy’ guns”’.  Early reports to Churchill on 30 July and 9 August  1940 also stated  that the Auxiliary Units planned to issue Tommy Guns - but with the crucial rider 'when they become available'. As far as is known, the only Thompsons received by the Auxiliary Units in 1940 were a private gift of two to Thompson from a friend in the USA.  - but this was an isolated occurrence and their fate is not known. The legend  became received wisdom which blinkered research into the use of the Thompson elsewhere. Some former patrol members even came to believe the story, equally accepting the received wisdom from The Last Ditch and later publications and fitting this into their belief, presumably once encouraged by their Intelligence Officers, that they were receiving the first and best of new equipment as a morale boost to cement their special status as a comfort to the expected short span of survival. One Worcestershire veteran firmly believed they received the Thompson before the commandos  - of which his brother was a member.  The Auxiliary Units certainly received the best equipment that was availalble - but this did not necessarily equate to them having a 'first' priority and does not preclude other organisations also receiving 'the best' as it became available. 


The use of the Thompson sub-machine gun in Auxiliary Units service has become a classic example of the perils of accepting, and repeating, received wisdom which then creates an almost unassailable mythology. The problem is acerbated by the existence on the internet of old texts that are assumed to be up-to-date but continue to give currency to outdated ideas, circulated from one forum to the next. The issue also highlights the dangers of over-reliance on personal veteran testimony taken decades after the fact, especially if they are concerned to establish a particular reputation or after they have read modern works that, to a degree, have told them what they ought to remember!


Fighting Nazi Occupation (2015) marked a significant re-assessment of the the role of the Auxiliary Units within the broader plan of opposing a Nazi invasion during a military campaign. It  also contained the first detailed account of the post-occupation Resistance organisation led by Section VII of SIS ('DB's organisation').