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AUXILIARY  UNITS  WEAPONS 
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Auxiliary Unit Weapons - the mythology

 

A great deal of mythology surrounds the issue of weapons to the Auxiliary Units.  Whilst it is true is that they might well have been supplied with the ‘best’ weapons available to them at the time, this is a relative term does not automatically equate to being the ‘first’ to receive them. 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).  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, as his sources knew very well that some of the claims were incorrect (particularly the former CO of the Auxiliary Units, Colin Gubbins), the conclusion must be that there was some deliberate dissembling of the facts.  As examples he lists plastic explosive, time pencils, Thompson sub-machine guns, PIAT anti-tank guns, No.77 phosphorous grenades, mines disguised as coal and manure,  No.8 ‘castrator’ switch (pp.75-78).  Such claims have been steadily discredited by the subsequent release of  original official documents but the mythology has become almost unassailable. It has continued into  the 2022 book, Britain’s Secret Defences which, as well as repeating the long-disproved myth of the Thompson sub-machine gun,  has  somewhat inexplicably added P17 rifles, BAR and the ‘Winchester rifle (in various models)’ (p.61).

 

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. This factor has been intensified because many of the Auxiliary Units recollections came from men who had joined from 1942 onwards and their weaponry then was very different from that supplied in 1940. 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 Fairburn fighting knife, the same type that was issued to the Commandos’. In fact, pistols were not issued until August 1940 and the FS knife did not arrive until mid-1941.  

 

The main distinguishing personal weapons of the Auxiliary Unit’s status were a pistol and knife (the precedent set by the Home Defence Scheme of Section D, SIS) – appropriately small and easily concealed - but almost everything else was issued on a par with the Home Guard, or was even later.  All their weapons were subservient to their explosives and associated booby trap devices with which they would complete their sabotage missions.  Their weapons 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. Their first CO, Colin Gubbins,  admitted they would have justified their existence ‘based heavily on the fact that they were costing the country nothing either in man-power or in weapons.’  

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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 these 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). The National Army Museum also has a  Webley Scott 1908 .32 calibre  automatic, fitted  with a commercial Parker Hale MM2 silencer, that had been used by SOE. 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 sen in the increased allocation of the Sten gun. 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 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.

  • Plastic Explosives

  • Concealed Mines

  • Switch No.8

  • No.10 Time Pencils

  • P17 Rifle

  • Browning Automatic Rifle

  • Fighting Knives

  • Handguns

  • No.76 (SIP) grenade

  • Truncheons and Coshes

  • No.74 ST Grenade (Sticky bomb)

  • Thompson sub-machine gun

  • Sten gun

  • Silenced .22 rifles

  • No.77 Grenade

  • ? Welrod

These pages are under construction.  Any specific information on the date of issue of the weapons gratefully received - but please avoid sources such as 'I read somewhere ...' or the simple 'You are wrong', without further explanation!