Soldiers or Civilians
Home Guard take over guard duty at Buckingham Palace from Grenadier Guards, May 1941.
The Citizen Soldiers of the Home Guard and Auxiliary Units
The history of the Home Guard and the Auxiliary Units has tended to be written from the 'bottom-up' using the post-war perspective of veterans. This is obviously of historic importance but it does not necessarily give an accurate picture of the strategic or tactical importance of the organisations. It is important to understand the place in society of the Home Guard and Auxiliary Units from the perspective of the government and military establishment of the day, who were fighting a total war - but still struggled to maintain the traditional separation of legal combatant and civilian non-combatant. A major imperative in the formation of the Home Guard and Auxiliary Units was to maintain this distinction between soldier and civilian.
The rights of citizens to defend their own country had been hotly debated during the discussions leading to the 1907 Hague Convention. Whilst large states contended that lawful combatant status should only be given to members of recognised armed forces, smaller countries wanted to protect the right of a general population to defend itself against an invader. Article 1 of the Hague Convention eventually provided four criteria for lawful combatant status:
to be commanded by a person responsible for their subordinates
to have a recognised emblem that was recognisable at a distance
to carry arms openly
to conduct their operations according to the laws and customs of war
In a concession to the smaller states, Article 2 also allowed the concept of the levee en masse for populations who spontaneously took up arms but carried them openly and obeyed the laws of war, but this was open to wide interpretation. Compliance with the Hague Convention remained a key consideration of the British government in 1940 – although they were much more cavalier in encouraging foreigners to take up arms in a resistance against the Nazis. A consequence was that at the Nuremburg War Trials the Allies maintained a conservative line about what constituted being a ‘lawful combatant’. The partisans of Yugoslavia and Greece, despite being allies and supported by British military missions, were consequently acknowledged as being francs-tireur. The court agreed that the Nazis were legally entitled to have executed them – which they had done in their thousands – but were, however, found guilty of doing so in a summary fashion without any form of judicial process.
In March 1940, the GOC, General Kirke, ordered a review of lessons from the First World War equivalent to the Home Guard – the Volunteer Training Corps (VTC). Kirke then began to establish the broadest outline of a plan for a new local defence force that was legal and could take action ‘before civilian residents on the East Coast took the law into their own hands and formed their own private defence bands’. The separation of civilian and military responsibilities in society was a key driver in the creation of the force. When the LDV (later the Home Guard) was formed, the men who volunteered in the first days and weeks following Eden’s broadcast on 14 May 1940 probably thought very little about the legality of their actions, but the exact legal status of the LDV had, nevertheless, been the subject of hectic meetings. The Treasury took the view that they should be regarded as civilians but Eden was emphatic that they should be organised as uniformed soldiers, legally able to bear arms, and it was his view that prevailed. Logically, one might have supposed that they would have followed the end of war precedent of the VTC when they were designated as volunteer battalions of their county regiment but the financial and administrative implications of this is what the Treasury were trying to avoid. While arguments rumbled on as to their precise role and whether all should be armed, the absolute priority of government in May 1940 was consequently to provide some sort of uniform to prevent the volunteers being classed as francs-tireur or terrorists. The legal position was given in Defence (Local Defence Volunteers) Regulations, 17 May 1940. In order to give them protection under international law: 'Members of the Local Defence Volunteers shall be members of the armed forces of the Crown and every such member shall, notwithstanding that he may hold any rank or commission in any other of His Majesty's forces, be subject to military law as a soldier.'
The LDV was consequently included in the terms of the Army Act. The position of the Ulster Defence Volunteers (UDV) raised on 28 May as the Local Defence Volunteer Section of the Special Constabulary (the ‘B Specials’) of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was more complicated. Although entitled to bear arms as part of the RUC, the latter remained a civil power and the UDV (unlike their counterparts in the rest of the UK) therefore did not have combatant status. Government legal advice in 1940 was that military status could be given, without the need for formal attestation, at the point that they were called upon to resist invasion but they would not thereafter be able to revert to the civil role of special constables. The legal dispute as to whether this would bring the volunteers within the bounds of the Hague Convention rumbled on until 1942 when a system of formal attestation was introduced. This all highlights the special position of the LDV/Home Guard in the eyes of the law.
The LDV/Home Guard were therefore given a legal status that distinguished them from the general populace. At the War Cabinet meeting of 8 July, Eden supported the belief of C-in-C Home Forces, General Ironside, that fighting should be restricted to the regular forces and Local Defence Volunteers in a firm rebuttal of the concept of civilian combatants. The distinction was then made clear in the public information leaflet Stay Where You Are which stated 'Civilians who try to join in the fight are more likely to get in the way than to help. The defeat of an enemy attack is the task of the armed forces which include the Home Guard, so if you wish to fight enrol in the Home Guard'.
Although the principle of individual self-defence was accepted, there was no suggestion of arms being indiscriminately provided to make it more effective and Beating the Invader (May 1941) advised that if fighting broke out in the neighbourhood the population should ‘Keep indoors or in your shelter until the battle is over’. John Langdon-Davies explained the legal position to his readership later in 1942: 'the laws of war, which must be obeyed by every British subject, whether or not they are obeyed by the Nazis, do not permit of civilians offering armed resistance, unless they are organised in a regular corps and wear a recognisable uniform. That is why people, who would otherwise be civilians, have to join the Home Guard and receive uniform'. This would also apply to the Auxiliary Units (see below).
In 1942, with the introduction of conscription to the Home Guard, its status as part of the armed forces of the crown' was repeated in Regulations for the Home Guard, 1942 but amplified 'The members of the Home Guard are unpaid. They are not, however, required to give whole-time service or to live away from home, except when mustered by reason of an actual or apprehended invasion.' This statement gives a clue as to the confusion regarding the status of both Home Guard and Auxiliary Units. Both were an army-in-waiting who would go about their normal business whilst training (much as did the peacetime Territorial Army). But at the time of any invasion, they would become full-time soldiers, subject to all military discipline. Both Home Guard general service battalions and the men of the Auxiliary Units Operational Branch would receive a payment of £7 on mustering as compensation for lost of earnings and/or purchase food for two weeks (the expected length of the invasion campaign). Our modern impression has been shaped by the fact that, thankfully, this never happened.
The legal military status of the Home Guard caused a complication with the enthusiastic American Committee for the Defence of British Homes (ACDBH) whose campaign to collect weaponry for Britain (ostensibly for the defence of civilian homes) had caused consternation with the British government. To comply with US law they repeatedly said that the arms were being collected for civilian use. But in 1941 the story unravelled when the ACDBH asked to formally make contact with a delegation of the Home Guard Directorate, which they learned was to go to the USA to advise on the possible establishment of a US Home Guard. The Foreign Office patiently pointed out that the Home Guard would have to be received as part of the British armed forces and any joint appearance with the ACDBH might lead to questions over the legality of the latter’s campaign. The Foreign Office wrote in September 1941: Sir F. Stewart is beginning to be rather worried about the competence and reliability of the Macneil of Barra, who is showing signs of panic at the prospect that the fact that the Home Guard is definitely a military body may now be revealed in the US.
The LDV/Home Guard were, therefore, legally a formal part of the armed forces of the crown, with a defining element being their uniform. In its earliest days this constituted only an armband but quickly included the right to wear the jealously-protected county regimental cap badge (something it took the First World War VTC years to achieve). Other regimental distinctions were also worn, such as the white lanyard of Royal Artillery by those Home Guard serving with Anti-Aircraft Command. The 35th London (Civil Service) Home Guard, badged as Kings Royal Rifle Corps, were permitted to wear that regiment’s black lanyard. But this was a part-time army and military law only applied when they were on duty (as it does with the modern Reserves). Their status would however be regularised when fully mobilised upon invasion. They were indeed a ‘citizen army’ but if called into action they would be legally considered as soldiers. Until then, they were paid a subsistence allowance for periods spent on duty. As formally part of the Home Guard, the same legal principles applied to the Auxiliary Units, with a clear distinction being drawn between them and the civilian Home Defence Scheme of SIS Section D.
Even if the legal position of the Home Guard as soldiers was quite clear (and the volunteers came to take pride in what became a high degree of professionalism as they took over duties from regular troops, eventually forming the core of Home Forces) at the same time they also clung fiercely to the notion of a citizen army. Socialist Tom Wintringham would even try to tie them back to the romantic tradition of an egalitarian Anglo-Saxon Fyrd. Both during and after the war they became a very visual expression of what became collectively-known as the 'Dunkirk spirit' with the nation standing united against all odds. The volunteers in 1940, unaware of the angst that this was causing in government, had probably thought little of their precise legal status. All they wanted was a gun with which to defend their country but the numbers recruited into the Home Guard far exceeded all expectations and created a whole host of problems. With numbers exceeding that of the whole peace-time army, it was a volunteer army of voters who potentially had created a new political power block. For a brief period there were even wild fears they could form the core of a socialist revolution. These were independently-minded men for whom military discipline did not sit easy - rejecting the notion of 'square-bashing' drill that was at the heart of conventional military training. They were not afraid to break the chain of command and complain directly to the press, their MP or to the Prime Minister. On 12 August 1940, General Pownall, Inspector-General of the LDV, complained 'The HG are voters first and soldiers afterwards … What they think they need, if they say so loudly enough, they will get'. It was a view later echoed by General Pile, the CO of AA Command, who ruefully noted ‘The Home Guards were quite uninhibited by thoughts of going through the usual military channels. Their complaints went straight to Parliament or the local Press, and the first I would hear of it would be either in reading my morning paper or in receiving a disapproving letter from above.’ Their volunteer status was a source of great pride and the TAA claimed in July 1940 that ‘the LDV is a citizen force organised on the same principles of equality of service and status as other volunteer services’. But they were steadily integrated into the military establishment and the introduction of conscription in 1942 was greatly resented and led to many resignations on principle, using the argument that they were ‘the biggest, toughest, civilian army in history’ (Salute the Home Guard, Save for Victory Appeal, July 1943).
Civilians or soldiers? It would depend heavily on who was asked, what issue had raised the question at the time - and which answer seemed most useful! Ultimately, however, the original founding principle of the LDV was that it was formed to clearly define a militia that was distinct from the civilian population; to counter demands to arm the general populace and prevent the threat of unregulated bands of armed civilians roaming the countryside. A fundamental point was that this volunteer army had to be constituted as a formal part of the armed forces of the crown in order to give the volunteers legal protection against being considered terrorists or francs-tireur by the Nazis. The most poignant visible expression of this separation between Home Guard and the general civilian population is that those Home Guard who were killed on duty (over 1,200) were awarded official Commonwealth War Graves. Reflecting the complexity of their station, the were classed post-war by the CWGC as 'UK Civilian Auxiliary' but their gravestones were proudly inscribed with the badge of their county regiment.
The relationship of the Auxiliary Units to the Home Guard and the military status of the Auxiliary Units in their own right has been contentious. As already noted above, the distinction between a military and civilian organisation was at the heart of defence planning in 1940. The War Office had a very clear vision of the difference between a military guerrilla and a civilian saboteur that in wars over the succeeding decades has come to appear more blurred to modern eyes. On 8 July (after the formation of the Auxiliary Units) the Secretary of State for War, firmly stated in the War Cabinet: It is the view of the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, with which I am in agreement, that actual fighting should be restricted to the military and Local Defence Volunteers, and that no civilian who is not a member of these forces should be authorised to use lethal weapons. At the time, the civilian Home Defence Scheme of Section D, SIS was mobilising across the country, to the horror of the War Office. At the end of July it was finally agreed ‘the risk of reprisals incurred by allowing civilians to engage in sabotage activities was too great’ (wartime history of Section D, 1941) and it was replaced by the military Auxiliary Units. It was therefore necessary that the men of the Operational Branch of the Auxiliary Units be enrolled in the LDV / Home Guard.
It was not within the remit of the War Office to create secret civilian guerrilla or resistance organisations. To maintain that the operational branch of the Auxiliary Units were 'civilian' is to ignore their fundamental raison d'etre - which was to provide a military alternative to the civilian Home Defence Scheme of Section D, SIS. At the start of the Second World War the illegal use of civilian fighters was firmly the responsibility of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS aka MI6) - an organisation that did not officially exist - in a division of responsibility that was codified in the spheres of influence of Section D of SIS and MI(R) of the War Office. This was a division that was at the heart of the creation of SOE in 1940, which agreed that responsibility for civilian irregular warfare abroad should be placed in hands beyond the War Office. This distinction between military and civilian is also clear in a chart prepared by the Director of Combined Operations on 6 July (after the establishment of the Auxiliary Units), which still showed Section D, not the Auxiliary Units, as being responsible for the ‘Organisation of civil resistance and sabotage in the UK’. But the relationship between the Auxiliary Units and the general service battalions of the Home Guard was undoubtedly muddled, stemming from the initial confusion as to its purpose, with the original 2ic, Peter Wilkinson explaining ‘nobody could quite make up their minds whether we were trying to set up something for immediate action against the Germans in the event of an invasion. Or, whether we were trying also to set up a nucleus of a British Secret Army.’ This was a conflict between the philosophy of the War Office and SIS and it was the former that prevailed. The CO, Colin Gubbins, was himself unsure how to proceed, leading to a number of rapid changes in the first few weeks.
The link with the Home Guard was established from the very foundation of the Auxiliary Units and at the highest possible level when Churchill and the War Cabinet, on 17 June 1940 agreed in their secret minutes ‘Steps were also being taken to organise sections of Storm Troopers on a full-time basis, as part of the LDV's. Tough and determined characters would be selected' (my emphasis in this and following quotations). It should be said that this was NOT Churchill's personal initiative and therefore the popular label of 'Churchill's Secret Army' is a misnomer. As a secret document, there was no point in dissembling if their relationship to the Home Guard was only a 'cover'.
Extract from the secret Cabinet Minutes, 17 June 1940 announcing the formation of the Auxiliary Units 'as part of the LDVs' (TNA CAB 65/7/17).
In their first iteration during July 1940, strategically the role of the Auxiliary Units was to extend the existing roles of the Home Guard in harrying the enemy advance and to guide regular commandos in a more covert and organised form. In this they were to be managed directly by the local LDV, with the Auxiliary Units Intelligence officers acting primarily as advisors. On 5 July 1940, the CO, Colin Gubbins sent out a letter to LDV Area Commanders to advise them of the existence of the new organisation. He explained that the intention was for small teams which would ‘take action against the flanks and rear of such forces as may obtain a temporary footing in this country'. He went on 'The personnel will consist of existing LDV volunteers and others who will be enrolled therein for the purpose.’ From the start, therefore, the fundamental link with the LDV or as it became from 22 July, the Home Guard was made explicit at the highest levels of government. Crucially, the operational responsibility for these teams ‘will be decided between the local military commander and the LDV commander’. Once this link was established (before any question of possible use of the Home Guard as a 'cover-up') it could not easily be reversed and the relationship between Auxiliary Units and Home Guard had to be managed thereafter.
Having subsequently decided to take on a more direct management role, the status of the Auxiliary Units was described in an official statement in July 1940: 'The object of the Auxiliary Units, Home Forces, on the fighting side, is to build up, within the general body of the Home Guards, a series of small local units whose role is to work offensively on the flanks and in the rear of any German troops who may obtain a temporary foothold in this country'. The War Office consistently stressed that a pre-requisite of membership of the new Auxiliary Units was enrolment in the LDV / Home Guard to maintain their legality as guerrilla fighters. The instructions to Auxiliary Units Intelligence Officers on 27 July 1940 makes this clear: 'Auxiliary Units will be created within existing LDV units. Suitable men you have found not in LDV should be brought into it'. Consequently, the Auxiliary Units were expected to fight in uniform. Lieutenant-General Bernard Paget, at the time Chief of Staff, Home Forces, explained a few days later on 30 July to Duncan Sandys of the new Ministry of Defence: ‘These men, being members of the Home Guard, will of course fight in uniform . . . being a uniformed and properly organised body, its members are in no way violating ‘international law’ even if fighting behind the advanced elements of the invading forces, where units of regular troops will also be fighting…’ . This letter was a horrified effort to deny that the new Auxiliary Units were in any way comparable to the civilian saboteurs of SIS. The references to uniform are explicit even though, in the first few months, bottlenecks in the supply chain limited the availability of the denim overalls that were the Home Guard uniform until the issue of battledress in 1941. In the meantime, the earliest 'uniform' for many Home Guard and Auxiliaries alike was a simple armband. This was enough to satisfy the bare requirement of The Hague Convention. The same problem had been faced in the First World War when armbands had be issued to the Volunteer Training Corps, when concern to establish the legal status of the armband was so great that they were given the formal status of legal documents to to signed out and returned when service ended. A progress report to the Prime Minister of 4 September 1940 expressed specific concern that no extra uniforms had been provided to the Auxiliary Units other than those brought over by men who had joined from the Home Guard. Those that were recruited directly and then enrolled in the Home Guard would still have been wearing the simple armband.
‘These men, being members of the Home Guard, will of course fight in uniform'.
Letter of Lt General Paget, Chief of Staff, Home Forces to Duncan Sandys, Ministry of Defence, 30 July 1940. (TNA CAB 120/241)
Sandys, in turn, explained to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill in a report of 8 August 1940: 'They are intended to provide, within the framework of the Home Guard organisation, small bodies of men specially selected and trained, whose role will be to act offensively on the flanks and in the rear of any enemy troops who may obtain a foothold in this country ….' Such stress on the link to the Home Guard and their uniform is important not least because at this stage the intention of Gubbins, fresh from command of the Independent Companies, was to develop them so that 'the sections can be organised into platoons, and the platoons into something in the nature of Independent Companies of Home Guards'. The lack of resources combined with the improving military situation meant that this plan was never realised but it is a clear indication of the mindset of the Auxiliary Units CO and the War Office when he was establishing the organisation. In these founding documents there is no hint of the post-war 'cover story' hypothesis.
Only as members of the Home Guard were the Auxiliers entitled to wear the county regimental cap badge on their uniforms. It should be remembered that under the Uniforms Act 1894. it was illegal 'for any person not serving in Her Majesty’s Military Forces to wear without His Majesty’s permission the uniform of any of those forces, or any dress having the appearance or bearing any of the regimental or other distinctive marks of any such uniform.’ The repeated concern to protect the legal status of the Auxiliary Units is in sharp contrast to Tom Wintringham's teaching to his guerrilla warfare students at Osterley - where, if overrun, he exhorted them to bury their uniforms and rifles, blend back into the community and fight on in teams of two or three with pistols and grenades. In late July it was finally agreed that the Auxiliary Units should absorb the Section D Home Defence Scheme and the explanation provided by Section D emphasises the clear distinction made at the time between civilian HDS and military Auxiliary Units stressing it was now believed by the government that ‘the risk of reprisals incurred by allowing civilians to engage in sabotage activities was too great.’
Other units were also clear about the pedigree of the Auxiliary Units. In August 1940, Gubbins managed to beg a small temporary training staff from Southern Command. Brigadier Richie of HQ Southern Command asked for help from 3rd Division to provide a small temporary training staff for the Auxiliary Units, explaining: 'There exists an organisation, in reality a part of the H.G.s, [Home Guard] which works under one Brigadier GUBBINS and whose role is highly secret'. But already some disillusionment was beginning to set in. Although referred to in the August 1940 progress report of the Auxiliary Units, it was only possible to recruit army Scout Patrols on the model of XII Corps Observation Unit in November. These were themselves a down-sizing from the original concept of attached commando units. This delay in introducing a regular army element was probably behind the comment of 2ic Auxiliary Units, Peter Wilkinson, that by mid-August the Auxiliary Units had become ‘virtually a guerrilla branch of the Home Guard’.
Shoulder flash of 202 Reserve Battalion of the Home Guard -a designation of the Auxiliary Units from 1942.
The administrative details of the Auxiliary Units were explained in a letter of 20 January 1941 from the Director General of the Home Guard to the Territorial Army Associations who managed the Home Guard regarding ‘the control of Auxiliary Units of Home Guard known as “Scout Patrols” or “Observation Units”’. The letter stated that the men were to be formally enrolled into the Home Guard, with their enrolment form ‘endorsed to show membership of Auxiliary Units’. Further explanation was provided in a letter of April 1941 from the War Office to the local Territorial Army Associations that managed the Home Guard and who sometimes found themselves holding the supplies of weapons for the Auxiliary Units. ‘Approval has been given for the enrolment of selected men into special patrols of Auxiliary Units, the personnel of which is mainly drawn from the Home Guard. Individual selection is made of the men required. They retain their Home Guard status and operate in their home localities but come under the control of Headquarters, Auxiliary Units’. This statement is particularly important today as it confirms the entitlement of Auxiliers to combine their Home Guard and Auxiliary Units service towards the award of the Defence Medal.
'They retain their Home Guard status' (letter of Director General of Home Guard to GOC Home Forces, 9 April 1941: TNA WO 199/3251). A key statement that shows Home Guard service should contribute towards entitlement of Auxiliers to Defence Medal.
Martin Hooton was Patrol Sergeant for the Hereford Patrol, Auxiliary Units. Following instructions from the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Intelligence Officer (Major Bucknell), in 1946 he successfully applied for the Defence Medal for himself and the rest of his parol.
Officers were commissioned into the Home Guard and carried Military Identity Cards identifying themselves as such. The details of the patrols were posted locally in Home Guard battalion Part II Orders. Unfortunately these sources are still not generally accessible and so the level of detail that they contain regarding the Auxiliary Units has gone largely un-noticed. From 1 September 1942, as both a belated attempt to increase security at a local level and to regularise their structure, the patrols were removed from the local Home Guard battalion structure to be administered by three regional TAAs (Inverness, York and Reading). All Home Guard and Auxiliers had their civilian ID Cards embossed with the War Office stamp and the inked in name of their issuing Home Guard battalion. To avoid the ID Cards of Auxiliers exciting curiosity by being identified by the names of non-local TAAs, from October the Auxiliary Units were titled as GHQ reserve battalions of the Home Guard. In effect they were now organised as an echo of an army Independent Brigade. Inverness TAA managed 201 Battalion covered Scotland and Northumberland; York TAA managed 202 Battalion from Yorkshire to the Severn-Thames line; and Reading TAA managed 203 Battalion for the Southern and South-East commands. It is only then that details of the patrols stopped being posted locally on Battalion noticeboards within Part II Orders. Transfers to the 'reserve battalion' continued to be noted in Home Guard Battalion Part II Orders. In 1941 the names of the commanders of XII Corps Observation Unit were published in the Home Guard List for South East Command. It is ironic that although the HDO and the SDB of the Auxiliary Units in 1940 were taught to identify enemy troops by their badges, after October 1943 the Auxiliary Units were given distinctive shoulder flashes of the 201, 201 or 203 'reserve battalions' that identified them in small rural areas as something special. These were worn with the standard Home Guard shoulder title and county patch. Although no doubt exciting local curiosity, the saving grace was that the 1940s British public were used to 'not ask questions'!
Tellingly, service in the operational branch of the Auxiliary Units counted towards overall service in the Home Guard. This was included as such in their Home Guard Stand Down Certificate and was used to calculate entitlement to the Defence Medal (which required 1080 days service overall). Members of the Special Duties Branch of the Auxiliary Units did not qualify for the Defence Medal ... because unlike the operational patrols, they were classed as civilian in a role analogous to Section VII of SIS and therefore unable to receive public acknowledgement. In the face of all of this evidence it is hard to maintain the romantic myth that there was no connection between the Home Guard and the operational branch of the Auxiliary Units or indeed that the latter were 'civilian'.
Home Guard enrolment form for George Dalley showing endorse-ments for his promotions within the Auxiliary Units and part of the calculations for length of Home Guard service that included his time in the Auxiliary Units.
Until September 1942 these records were maintained at first Company then Battalion level. This This meaning that details of the Auxiliary Units were not secret within the local Home Guard.
Part II Orders for 7th Worcs (Malvern) battalion, Home Guard for 22 October 1941.
Explicitly identifies the Auxiliary Units patrol as 'attached to' the Home Guard battalion.
Auxiliers were were entered onto Home Guard enrolment forms and their details, including patrol structure, were published in Battalion Part II Orders until September 1942.
Part II Orders for 7th Worcs (Malvern) Home Guard battalion for 18 November 1941.
This includes details of transfers in and out of Knightwick Auxiliary Units patrol, alongside other movements within the battalion.
On 17 May 1944 the War Office recommended the withdrawal of all regular army personnel from the Auxiliary Units. Some Auxiliary Units Intelligence Officers had already been recruited from the Home Guard and it was decided that, if it survived, the organisation would be reorganised on a purely Home Guard basis - reverting to the situation when the Auxiliary Units were founded in July 1940. However, on 5 June the final decision was made to disband the Auxiliary Units. The civilian Special Duties Branch (the separate intelligence wing of the Auxiliary Units) was disbanded in July 1944 but the Operational Branch would stagger on until November specifically so that it could be stood-down with the rest of the Home Guard.
The official position is therefore clear – the operational branch of the Auxiliary Units was part of the armed forces of the crown and the volunteers were uniformed members of the Home Guard, holding military ranks. As Col. Lord Fortesque of Southern Command explained on 28 September 1940, they were ‘certain secret patrols of the Home Guard' who would be ‘operationally separate from the remainder of the Home Guard’ but by implication structurally part of it. Operational control was with Auxiliary Units HQ at Coleshill but they administered them on behalf of GHQ as HQ troops who from 1942 were classed as three reserve battalions of the Home Guard. A parallel in the regular army would be the Independent Brigades, also of three battalions, whose units came under direct Corps control rather than that of a local battalion or division. Comparison might also be drawn with the Special Services Brigades of the commandos, which grouped together individual Commando.
The change in role from 1942 to becoming a reconnaissance unit expected to work with the local Home Guard brought them into closer operational contact, holding joint exercises. On 15 May 1944 the CO of the Banff Home Guard in Scotland called for greater liaison at all levels between the Auxiliary Units and the Home Guard and referred back to a previous instruction of around May 1943. The reason behind this concern is clear from a circular order distributed to Home Guard battalion COs, a few days after D-Day in June 1944, at a time when there was considered a serious risk of German 'spoiling' raids. This explained that 'one of the operational roles to be fulfilled by troops of 201 (GHQ Reserve) Bn will be to act as scout patrols and observers'. It went on to explain they were to 'pass on any information they thus acquire to XXXBn Home Guard Sub Unit Commanders, who will be responsible for the transmission of such information to their headquarters.' Here is clear evidence of a practical operational link between Home Guard and the Auxiliary Units (although the latter still firmly maintained their independence from local Home Guard command), which would have required close cooperation in establishing rendezvous points and recognition procedures. The instruction also highlights the continuing weakness of the Auxiliary Units patrols in not having their own wireless communication. The correspondence consequently suggests that, in some areas at least (and as also suggested by references in Part II Orders), knowledge of the scope and purpose of the Units was known within the Home Guard down to at least the level of Company Commander. In this later period, Major Malcolm Hancock, who joined the Auxiliary Units as Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General in late 1943, responsible for the supplying the Operational Branch and and who commanded the Auxiliary Units patrols on their deployment to the Isle of Wight from May to June 1944, explained in a 1984 interview: 'Now the men who would do this [carry out sabotage] would be local Home Guard forces in any of these areas. And all these Home Guard units are instructed and trained by us in the use of explosives with which they hope to cause a considerable amount of damage amongst ammunition dumps or units of the enemy which had landed in England’.
After the war, before official documentary evidence was released to the public, any connection to the Home Guard began to be hotly denied by local veterans who had cherished their independence from normal Home Guard duties at the time and who were encouraged to see themselves as an equivalent to the now famous civilian European resistance movements, whilst also seeking to distance themselves from the comedic image of the Home Guard as portrayed in the TV series Dad's Army. The 'Home Guard as cover' interpretation was now born and became firmly established in the popular psyche, accepted without question by early researchers! This was also their time to to be finally justly proud of their service after criticism during the war years from their neighbours that, because of their hidden role and protection from conscription until February 1943, they had not been 'pulling their weight'.
Birch and Layer Breton Home Guard, Essex. Stand-Down photograph 1944.
The photograph includes members of Birch/Layer-de-la-Haye Auxiliary Units patrol, including George Ward, second row, far right, and Bill Abbott, top row far right - wearing their revolvers.
They are clearly presented as being of the same organisation and as soldiers. Certainly it is hard to look at this photograph and conclude there was no connection between the Home Guard and Auxiliary Units
A modern romantic vision of ‘civilian’ Auxiliary Units operating in absolute secrecy and with no connection to the Home Guard (which thereby offers echoes of foreign resistance groups) was never the intention of Gubbins and the War Office and is not supported by the surviving documentary evidence. There was a much more nuanced relationship. Wartime photographs of the Auxiliary Units overwhelmingly show them in the Home Guard uniform that was their proof of legitimacy as armed combatants. The stand-down photograph of Birch and Layer Breton Home Guard in Essex even includes members of their local Auxiliary Units patrol – still wearing their revolvers. Any attempt at secrecy had clearly been abandoned. Nevertheless, some veterans after the war, despite what we can now see as clear official documentary evidence to the contrary, evidenced their distinction from the general service battalions of the Home Guard by saying they never trained in uniform in 1940 and this has been blindly accepted in some modern publications without question. As supposed proof, some veterans said they wore denim jackets and trousers to protect their civilian clothes – ignoring the fact that in 1940 these actually were the uniform of the Home Guard. Moreover, in July 1940 it is quite possible that some Home Guard or Auxiliary Units alike still had no more than their armband as a uniform! The importance of providing uniform for the Auxiliers is confirmed by the fact that August report for the prime Minister on the Auxiliary Units was delayed until 11 September so that arrangements to remedy the uniform deficiency could be resolved. Later the Auxiliary Units were issued with standard battledress with shoulder flashes identifying them as being part of the ‘reserve battalions’ of the Home Guard. Some veterans have said they blackened the buttons of their battledress so they did not shine when in action - therefore pre-supposing they would be wearing uniform on missions! They took particular pride in being issued with standard webbing belts and anklets, in contrast to the leather equipment of the Home Guard, as being a visible indicator of their special status on a par with the regular army.
In post-war accounts, the evidence presented above has either been ignored in favour of a blinkered and more romantic mythology, or explained away as an elaborate cover-up to somehow protect the secrecy of the Auxiliary Units and to give them a legitimacy if captured by the enemy. This ignores the fact that initially the plan was for the Auxiliary Units to be directly managed operationally by the LDV (with the Auxiliary Units Intelligence officers acting only as advisors) and later they worked directly together. Surviving contemporary documents show their relationship with the Home Guard being clearly described at the highest levels of the War Office where there was no reason to dissemble. If this was a deception, it was one of the worst attempts of the Second World War, maintained now only by a modern desire to protect the romantic myth of 'Churchill's Secret Army.' The real cover-up was directed towards the War Office where their argument that they could not reveal their purpose was used as a weapon to protect the organisation from interference. Nigel Oxenden, Auxiliary Units Training Officer and official historian recorded 'a period of organised power, guarded by a security that nobody could get past, however much they might resent it'. He was talking, not of the Gestapo, but of War Office bureaucrats! By contrast, SIS did have operatives and cells within the Home Guard but they were firmly instructed not to reveal any special training or otherwise stand out and their oath of secrecy was resolutely maintained.
Although uniformed, their failure to blend in with the rest of the local Home Guard and the wider community was in direct contravention of the methodology followed by the HDS and Section VII of SIS to successfully ensure secrecy. It screamed 'special duties' and illustrates the reasoning behind the argument of Hugh Dalton that the War Office should not be allowed to control the proposed new SOE. By contrast, Home Guard serving with Section VII were instructed not to do anything that made them stand out. Most of the Auxiliary Units were based in small rural communities where the unusual soon became obvious. Many veterans claimed that not even their wives knew their secret, although one wonders what they thought their husbands were doing, spending nights away from the house! Did they never ask questions? Some Auxiliers socialised at the same pub as the local Home Guard with the latter appearing spik and span after church parade - while they came in with uniforms plastered in mud after a secret training exercise. One patrol from near Morpeth, became known locally as the ‘Death or Glory Boys’, remembered as one member having appeared in the local pub ostentatiously carrying grenades, pistol and sub-machine gun. Elsewhere, others appeared at the local train station on the way to Coleshill toting large US revolvers of which the early Home Guard officers could only dream. If a Home Guardsman was curious then all he had to do was look at the Part II Orders on their Battalion noticeboard where, at least in some counties, they would find a list of patrol members. When battledress was first issued they did not wear the standard Home Guard shoulder titles and thereby stood out - but then from 1942 they equally drew attention with distinctive battalion numerals. They were protected simply by an acceptance of the wartime mantra not to spread 'loose talk' and accept without question that people they knew were doing 'something hush-hush'. But ultimately all this did not matter. As Gubbins had stressed in July 1940, the main necessity was to keep secret the location of their observation bases and their weapons caches. Once they had gone to ground then nothing else would matter as they were not expected to survive more than a few weeks.
There is a clearly a divergence between what the volunteers believed at the time, what they have come to believe with the passage of time and the official position as confirmed by documentary evidence. Then there is the power of the unquestioning repetition of post-war mythology, fuelled initially by a nationalistic pride and desire to find a native equivalent to the French Resistance or 'Maquis' (unaware that a British resistance really did exist - but deeply hidden as Section VII of SIS). It is only in the last few years that it has begun to be accepted that the Auxiliary Units were not the 'British Resistance Organisation' of the legend popularised by Lampe in 1968. Many long-disproved myths still abound in old internet texts but given credence by repetition in new publications. Further details can be found HERE. A classic example is the enduring myth that the Auxiliary Units received the first Thompson sub machine gun in British service. Contrary evidence was first presented as early as 1982 and has been more recently published, with supporting photographic and documentary evidence, in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Nonetheless, the legend has been confidently repeated as fact as late as 2018 and 2022.
The status of the Auxiliary Units is also part of the wider debate over that of the Home Guard. In the light of the evidence presented above, should the Auxiliary Units be considered part-time soldiers or civilians? Fundamentally, is someone who fights in uniform, with a clear rank structure, organised chain of command to GHQ and under the Army Act, supplied by the War Office, paid compensation for lack of earnings and entitled to a military campaign medal a soldier or civilian? Simply look at any photograph of the Auxiliary Units during the Second World War and ask - are you looking at the image of a soldier or a civilian? Or would anyone be brave enough to tell part-time members of the Territorial 23 SAS, who had civilian jobs but were also tasked during the Cold War with going to ground in North Germany, in hides based on those of the WW2 Auxiliary Units, or the modern territorial SAS who served in Afganistan, that they were not 'proper' soldiers?!
The last word goes to the last CO of the Auxiliary Units, Colonel Douglas, who when trying to argue against the return of the Auxiliers to the Home Guard in June 1944, against earlier assurances to the contrary, argued: ‘For nearly four years Auxiliers, who were hand-picked men, have had rubbed into them that they were part of the regular army and GHQ troops.’
NB. An unintended consequence of the claim of veterans that they had no connection with the Home Guard of Dad's Army reputation and the current romantic vision of them as 'civilian' is that the MoD no longer seems to accept applications from families for a former Auxilier relative to receive the Defence Medal (information from CART). Evidence to counter this new interpretation of policy is being collated and it is hoped that such documents as have been quoted above will help convince the MoD that the veterans, through their families, should receive their proper recognition. See HERE for my submission to the Army Medal Office, which has now been forwarded to the Policy Unit for consideration, whilst CART are compiling a list of rejected applications for medals.
Letter of General Paget to Duncan Sandys,30 July 1940 detailing the Auxiliary Units as 'fighting patrols within the Home Guard'. This was contrasted with the civilian saboteurs of SIS. (TNA CAB 120/241).
Officers and NCOs of Worcestershire Auxiliary Units, 1944. Is the image one of soldiers or civilians?
Compare the photos of the uniformed Auxiliary Units (above) with civilian resistance groups in Europe (below)
Czech Resistance, Prague 1944.
Soviet partisans, 1943.
Fighting Nazi Occupation (2015) presented a radical new assessment of Britain's plans to oppose a Nazi invasion. It remains the most detailed account of the Auxiliary Units, stripping back their mythology to original documentary sources. It also included the first comprehensive (and still the most detailed) study of the secret SIS Section VII resistance.
Section D for Destruction (2017) is the first detailed account of the 'sabotage service' of SIS, including its plans for the guerrilla Home Defence Scheme in Britain. It also explains the division of responsibility between SIS and the War Office in managing irregular warfare.
To the Last Man (2019) is a comprehensive study of the Home Guard and its changing roles. It contains the first detailed account of the work of the American Committee for the Defence of British Homes and its donations of weapons to the British war effort.
Pioneers of Irregular Warfare (2021) is an depth study of the Military Intelligence (Research) department of the War Office. This establishes the broad context for the creation of the Auxiliary Units as a military alternative to the civilian plans of SIS and new insights into the character of its first CO, Colin Gubbins.