Malcolm Atkin Military Research
GHQ AUXILIARY UNITS
Over the past 70 years a wide range of myths have grown up around the Auxiliary Units and these have become fossilised in the historical record. Such myths have taken on an emotional attachment, difficult to cast aside and endlessly repeated over the internet, where accounts are often 'cut and pasted' from one account to the next and old, undated, texts are assumed to be up to date. The development of the Auxiliary Units mythology is discussed HERE.
The Auxiliary Units are popularly labelled as the 'British Resistance Organisation' or a 'last ditch' movement. Never described as such at the time, virtually any modern media story will automatically describe them as such and it has become an advertising and marketing label that's been difficult to abandon. This is a fundamentally flawed concept – which is not to downplay in any way the contribution to defending the country that its volunteers were prepared to make. One problem is that there are three stories to be told of the Auxiliary Units history - the official view of their role, what the Intelligence Officers told their men, and how this was interpreted by the volunteers. Before the release of primary documents from The National Archives, early researchers were perhaps too ready to accept the vision of local volunteers, who themselves were influenced by the post-war rash of books and stories highlighting the work of the continental resistance organisations. Some veterans may also have still been smarting over suspicion from wartime neighbours that they had not been 'doing their bit' and the continuing lack of official recognition. Fundamentally, a distinction must be made between organisations designed to operate in a military capacity during an active anti-invasion campaign and those who would mount resistance after occupation. This distinction was explained in Fighting Nazi Occupation (2015), where the history of the Auxiliary Units is presented in detail, and was a theme returned to in To The Last Man (2019) and Pioneers of Irregular Warfare ( 2021).
Justifiable pride in what the volunteers were prepared to do in the case of invasion has led to over-ready acceptance of some claims made for the organisation at a time when little was known of its history. They were falsely claimed to have received a wealth of arms ahead of any other body in the country. This is considered in a series of pages under Auxiliary Unit weapons. They were not, for example, the first British units to receive the Thompson sub-machine gun (some had been issued to the BEF in January 1940). This myth stems from David Lampe's The Last Ditch (1968). As this book had a number of senior Auxiliary Units officers, including Colin Gubbins, as sources this begs the question of how and why such claims arose! After the war, both volunteers and some of the Intelligence Officers did, at times, play up to the contemporary fascination of the popular press with the French resistance (whose story was being carefully re-worked by the French government), in a nationalist attempt to provide a British equivalent. Sometimes the Auxiliary Units are even claimed to be the first 'resistance' movement that was created before a Nazi invasion of that country. This blinkered perspective ignores the much earlier plans for Czech and Polish resistance, which provided inspirations for Section D of SIS and MI(R) as well as the operations of SIS in Belgium and Norway. D for Destruction: forerunner of SOE (2017) showed how the 'blueprint' for the multi-layered British resistance and guerrilla system relied heavily on precedents set in Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as planning for the occupation of, among other countries, Norway and Greece.
To create the image of civilian resistance fighters on the European model, one Auxiliary Units Intelligence Officer exaggerated in maintaining he had never trained his men in uniform (choosing not to regard the standard Home Guard denim overalls as ‘uniform’). The romantic notion that the Auxiliary Units were 'civilians', in contravention of government policy, has been accepted almost without question. Similarly, in an interview with the BBC, Major Peter Forbes, Auxiliary Units Intelligence Officer in the Border region, tried to create an atmosphere of specific jeopardy for a post-war audience. Having explained the role of the Auxiliary Units in mounting night-time raids, he maintained '[What] we didn't realise at that time early in the war, was that the Germans would have taken hostages in the villages and shot people and how members of the patrols would have dealt with that, I don't know, if their wives and children were being rounded up and shot. We didn't seem to think about it at the time’ (Parham Airfield Museum Newsletter, Winter 2021, p.15). Yet this was not a threat that would be directed specifically at the Auxiliary Units. Every member of the Home Guard would have been well aware of the Nazi threat to regard them as members of a terrorist organisation - something they appear to have casually ignored. But in the chaos of a fast moving blitzkrieg campaign, the men of the Auxiliary Units would have been dead or captured before the Nazis were able to organise any campaign of reprisal against identified family members. At most risk in this respect were probably the families of the other Home Guard teams responsible for hiding key parts of industrial machinery from the enemy. The real risk of mass reprisals may have come later from the activities of the men and women of the SIS resistance organisation, who were ordered to remain ‘quiescent’ during the actual invasion in order to protect their organisation for longer-term intelligence-based operations.
It was not the role of the War Office to create resistance organisations and the founders of the Auxiliary Units, Colin Gubbins and Peter Wilkinson (see HERE), were both clear that the organisation was only intended as a short-term expedient to hinder the movement of the invasion army away from the coast (it was not a national organisation). The operational patrols of the Auxiliary Units were a military expedient to operate as uniformed commandos within what was anticipated to be a month-long campaign, rather than an attempt to create an organised resistance organisation to operate under enemy occupation. Gubbins concluded that the Auxiliary Units were 'designed, trained and prepared for a particular and imminent crisis: that was their specialist role.’ He added, ‘We were expendable. We were a bonus, that’s all.’ Peter Fleming of XII Corps Observation Unit concluded that their life expectancy would be around 48 hours.
After the initial fear of invasion in 1940 dissipated and British resources in conventional warfare began to improve, there were soon suggestions of of disbanding the Auxiliary Units and the Operational Patrols survived largely through bureaucratic inertia - as the War Office did not know what to do with the volunteers, who had been promised that they would not be returned to normal Home Guard duties. As their anti-invasion role dissipated, the interest of the men was maintained by delivery of an increasing range of weaponry, which reassured them of their status. Thus the main order for the famous .22 sniper rifles with silencers and telescopic sights - in themselves of limited usefulness as a sniper rifle - were only issued from April 1942. At the time, the war was still not going well for the allies but the main threat of invasion had passed and US forces were now pouring into the country to already prepare for the invasion of Europe. Similarly it was only in 1942 the the decision was made to build underground hides for the Special Duties Branch IN Stations.
The Special Duties Branch (SDB), although formally part of the Auxiliary Units structure was in practice a completely separate organisation. It derived from the intelligence network of Section D's Home Defence Scheme which Gubbins was obliged to take over without any real idea of how to use it and he reluctantly continued to rely on SIS expertise. Whilst SIS had its own intelligence network, linked by wireless (Section VII), it maintained a strong interest in the development of the SDB (not least to ensure its own organisation was not compromised) and the Auxiliary Units HQ had little part in how any gathered intelligence was utilised. In 1940 the c.1,000 civilian agents of the SDB, despite the romance of their 'dead letter drops' and messages concealed in tennis balls or hollowed-out keys etc, could have only provided a limited service in passing back intelligence on a fast-moving German invasion. It relied on 'runners' passing through enemy lines and although this was standard methodology for intelligence-gathering in settled conditions, it was a process likely to be easily overtaken by a fast-moving 'blitzkrieg' in which armoured columns would quickly advance and then turn in a hook to cut off defending forces, who would consequently have to be always ready for a swift withdrawal. In such circumstances, even if a 'runner' could beat the speed of the enemy advance - how would they know where to deliver their message? Any message that was delivered was likely to be too out-of-date to be of use. For the future, Gubbins pinned his hopes on being able to create army Scout patrols that had standard wireless sets if not the SIS long-range sets as supplied to the XII Corps Observation Unit and Section VII. Meanwhile, the army would have relied on the forward wireless cars (and even pigeons) of the 'Phantom' units of GHQ Liaison Regiment, who shadowed the enemy and whose operators were skilled German-speaking specialists able to listen in to enemy wireless traffic.
The introduction of an SDB wireless network in 1941, modelled on the clusters of Royal Observer Corps posts reporting to a group HQ by landline telephone, but based on the VHF TRD set, was an attempt to overcome the difficulty of passing back intelligence on an advancing army, but the technology was flawed. It relied on very directional aerials and the continued support of the Royal Signals to connect to surface IN Stations attached to army HQs - that were likely to move out of signal range in the face of an enemy advance. There was no means of continuing this system after the army had retreated or, worse, had been defeated. The TRD has acquired the legend of being super-secure but its signals (although not the messages) were detectable to the enemy as long as they were monitoring the VHF band. It was only in 1942 that the IN Stations were provided with more secure underground hides but by this time the threat of invasion had largely passed. By now the real purpose of the SDB was to assist Military Intelligence and MI5 in monitoring loose talk in the local population and particularly among troops relaxing in local pubs or with local girls. This explains why, as the threat of invasion decreased, the number of agents increased to over 3,000 in 1944. It is a moot point as to whether the wireless network was then retained largely out of an inertia similar to that with the operational patrols, with the agents (a large number of whom had been recruited from the SIS Home Defence Scheme) leaving their messages in 'dead letter drops', for collection by Field Security or MI5 officers (Auxiliary Units HQ had little part in this process). The wireless network only found its purpose as part of the general wireless traffic deception prior to D Day, when all wireless traffic in Britain carried out coordinated periods of intense activity (including broadcasting nonsense messages) and radio silence, to confuse the Germans when the real invasion occurred. The picture is complicated by the possibility that some cells, initially identified as being part of the SDB, but using a technology beyond the latter's capability, might actually have been part of Section VII.
Much of the modern romance surrounding the Auxiliary Units focus on their use of secret underground 'hides' or 'operational bases' or the intrigue of dead letter drops hidden in gate hinges etc. These provide an element of fascinating mystery that have distorted an objective analysis of the role and significance of the Auxiliary Units. Yet, despite their carefully- constructed secret trap doors and escape tunnels, post-war exercises in Germany in 1973 (involving 23 SAS) suggested that their hides could have been be located in less than an hour by sniffer dogs (see HERE).
The Auxiliary Units were not the 'last ditch' of Britain's defence by the simple fact that they were intended to support a still active British field army - buying valuable time for the latter to regroup and, in General Thorne's view at least, to cover the flanks of a British counter-attack. Their potential as a resistance organisation was discussed - and dismissed - at the time as not being the task of the War Office. Instead, the most significant contribution of the Auxiliary Units may well have been the internal security role provided by the later period SDB. The actual British Resistance, organised by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS aka MI6) was organised on a very different basis but has remained largely unknown (see HERE).
Wireless sets used by GHQ Auxiliary Units. and related clandestine wireless sets.
The CART website, in the process of re-building, is an excellent resource for researching individual patrols of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Branch.
SEE ALSO ...
FIGHTING NAZI OCCUPATION: BRITISH RESISTANCE IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Ground-breaking study of the complex network of secret organisations designed to combat any Nazi invasion of Britain The book contains the most detailed modern analysis of the organisation and purpose of the GHQ Auxiliary Units and their Special Duties Branch, based on newly-released documents in The National Archives.
Published in 2015 by Pen & Sword
SECTION D FOR DESTRUCTION: FORERUNNER OF SOE
Chapter Ten examines the relationship of the Section D 'Home Defence Scheme' to the formation and early development of the Auxiliary Units.
Published in 2017 by Pen & Sword
TO THE LAST MAN: THE HOME GUARD IN WAR AND POPULAR CULTURE
Chapter Four - 'The Secret Home Guard' builds on 'Myth and Reality' in discussing the real role of the Auxiliary Units Operational patrols and their relationship to the Home Guard.
Published in 2019 by Pen & Sword
PIONEERS OF IRREGULAR WARFARE:
SECRETS OF THE MILITARY INTELLIGENCE RESEARCH DEPARTMENT
IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Contains a new appraisal of the role of MI(R) and Colin Gubbins in the confused formation of the Auxiliary Units.
Published in 2021 by Pen & Sword