AUXILIARY UNITS WEAPONS
Auxiliary Unit Weapons - the mythology
A great deal of mythology surrounds the issue of weapons to the Auxiliary Units. Whilst it is true that they might well have been supplied with the ‘best’ weapons that could be afforded for them at the time, this is a relative term and also does not automatically equate to being the ‘first’ to receive them. It is salutary to realise that in June and July 1940 their only weapon was a poor quality sheath knife. In August each patrol started to receive two P17 rifles - which all recognised as being unsuitable for their role (and which some did not receive until October). Their famous pistols did not arrive until September, along with the cumbersome Browning Automatic Rifle. They did not receive the Thompson sub-machine gun and the famous Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife until later in 1941. If this does not match the modern legend we must remember that their first CO, Colin Gubbins, admitted they would have justified their existence in 1940 ‘based heavily on the fact that they were costing the country nothing either in man-power or in weapons.’ At some point soon after their formation there was even a War Office ban on the distribution of arms to the Auxiliary Units which was not lifted until early September 1940. What mattered in 1940 was not an array of weapons but simply the best explosives to allow them to destroy at least their primary target. Otherwise they were not expected to live long enough to justify any great expense.
Nonetheless, it has been assumed in the past that almost any weapon issued to the Auxiliary Units came with some form of special significance. This is a tradition stemming from David Lampe’s ground-breaking, but flawed, The Last Ditch (1968) which maintained ‘GHQ having agreed that the Auxiliary Units organisation must have priority in all things, many weapons turned up at Coleshill long before the more conventional forces saw them’ (p.75). This does not match the fact that in the Summer of 1940 there had been a 'ban' on the supply of arms to the Auxiliary Units which was only lifted in September when the progress report of 4 September announced 'the distribution of arms has been held up pending decisions of policy on a high level'. A number of the myths originated because Lampe was unaware of the secret activity abroad and in Britain of Section D during 1939 and 1940. However, some of his sources knew very well that some of the claims were incorrect, particularly the former CO of the Auxiliary Units, Colin Gubbins. As examples Lampe lists plastic explosive, time pencils, Thompson sub-machine guns, PIAT anti-tank guns, phosphorous grenades, mines disguised as coal and manure, No.8 ‘castrator’ switch (pp.75-78) and the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife. He also created the myth pf the 'sinister' .22 rifle, making extravagant claims over its use as a sniper rifle. Such claims have been steadily discredited by the subsequent release of original official documents but, as with so many other aspects of Auxiliary Units history, the mythology has become deep-rooted and continue to be repeated in 2022 both in print and over the internet.
In fact, analysis suggests that most weapons were received by the Auxiliary Units around the same time as the Home Guard or even later. Some items had indeed not yet been widely used by 'conventional forces' (i.e. plastic explosives and time pencils) but they had already been widely distributed to irregular forces abroad by Section D. There is scope for some confusion because some weapons were held at Auxiliary Units HQ for demonstration purposes before a general distribution (as also occurred in the Home Guard training schools). The main exceptions to issues above and beyond what the rest of the Home Guard received (see HERE for the relationship of the Auxiliary Units to the Home Guard) are the issue of revolvers, but even here there was a delay until late August / September 1940), the quirky issue of the .22 calibre 'silenced' rifle from April 1942 and the 1944 No.77 smoke grenade. Their weapons were, however, secondary to their explosives and incendiaries with which they would complete their sabotage missions. It was only after 4 September 1940 and the lifting on a ban on supply that distribution of BARs, pistols, grenades and AW Bombs finally got underway . The main distribution was therefore after the invasion warning alert CROMWELL was issued on 7 September (which fortunately turned out to be a false alarm). But their firearms were merely to get them to – and hopefully safely from – their target so they could cause as much damage during their expected short span of survival and were not, therefore, worth a huge investment. It was only from 1941 they began to be equipped for longer-term survival and it is ironic that their weaponry improved in an inverse proportion to how likely it was that they would be called upon to go into action!
There is a human element in this confusion. Much of the early research on the Auxiliary Units and Home Guard was based on oral history. Through these there has been a tendency to over- emphasise any delays in supplying the Home Guard with weapons, in part because the veterans were pleased to emphasise the sacrifice they were prepared to make in the early days of the LDV/Home Guard. At the same time there has been a tendency to overplay the nature of the equipment supplied to the Auxiliary Units where the veterans wished to express their special status and distinction from the general Home Guard. Over the passage of time memories have become hazy on matters of timescale and the issue of weapons has tended to merge into a single event rather than being spread over a number of years. Many of the Auxiliary Units recollections came from men who had joined from 1942 onwards but this has not always been made clear. Some of the difficulties are revealed in the account of Auxiliary Bob Millward, given in 2008 for the Bath Blitz Memorial Project. He remembered: ‘Considering the state of the armed forces following Dunkirk, we were very quickly and very well equipped. I can't say how soon it was, but it was in a matter of a month or so, were issued with a Smith & Wesson .38 pistol and holster, and a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, the same type that was issued to the Commandos’. In fact, pistols were not issued until September 1940 and the FS knife did not arrive until mid-1941. Similarly, Geoff Devereux from the Worcestershire Auxiliary Units was very confident in claiming he was given his FS knife on a specific visit to Coleshill yet this was actually in October 1940 - well before they were actually produced.
The weapons they did not receive! There was no attempt to supply the Auxiliary Units with the silenced Sten Gun, despite its availability from late 1942.
As interesting a topic is the weapons that the Auxiliary Units did not get. Given their focus on silent attack and the modern interest surrounding their .22 silenced rifles, the lack of silenced pistols and the silenced Sten gun as used by SOE and other special forces suggests a silenced weapon was never a priority, with a continuing preference for the knife. By 1939, both the long- and short-barrelled .22 calibre Colt Woodman pistols were commercially-available with a Parker-Hale suppressor. From 1942 SOE began issuing the successful High Standard Model B (developed by OSS into the Hi-Standard HDM, which continued in use by the CIA into the 1990s). SOE also used the Webley Scott 1908 .32 calibre automatic, fitted with a commercial Parker Hale MM2 silencer. Such pistols would have been far more effective than a rifle for short range assassination, if this had indeed been considered a core element of their role. Silenced MkII Sten guns were also available from Autumn 1942, at the same time that the Auxiliary Units were receiving considerable numbers of the Mk.II and Mk.III Sten gun.
In a search for a viable role after the threat of invasion decreased the Operational Patrols, like the wider Home Guard, shifted their focus towards an anti-raiding role and became more heavily armed for a less covert reconnaissance role and the potential to become involved in a firefight – something their earlier training (and the weaponry that accompanied it) had tried to avoid. The change is seen in the increased allocation of the Sten gun. Training Officer Nigel Oxenden was cynical about the re-tasking, describing the rumours of raids as ‘a wonderful tonic for fading enthusiasm in the ranks’. He went on ‘Sceptics wondered whether it was ever intended as anything more. The effects, with careful nursing lasted for the next two years’.
None of the above is intended to take away from the role or bravery of men who had made the decision that, if necessary, they would disappear from their family and fight on for as long as they were able and without knowing what the fate of their family and neighbours might have been. It is, however, necessary to strip away the mythology that has accumulated over the decades so as to present an objective history of the Auxiliary Units and place them in their proper strategic context within the defence of Britain during World War Two.
Summaries of the weaponry, set within their broader context, is contained in the following pages, arranged in blocks according to the approximate date of issue.