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Preparing for British Resistance in WW2

A range of secret organisations were created that each had their own particular task following invasion.  None of these was  named by contemporaries as the 'British Resistance Organisation'. The latter is a modern, and  misdirected, convenience that has distorted an objective history of the subject and which now survives only through an emotional reluctance to discard the trope. 

These bodies had no unified structure, partly from reasons of security but also due to inter-departmental rivalry between the War Office and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6).  The latter had also established a policy that there should be overlays of intelligence networks, with one organisation responsible for short term sabotage and a second organisation - kept separate and secret - that would plays no part in the invasion phase but would prepare for long term resistance following any occupation.  This was a principle that was maintained into NATO's planning to counter any Soviet invasion of Western Europe during the Cold War.  
Information on many aspects remains  speculative, not least because of the security blanket meant to conceal the influence of SIS across many areas of the resistance planning. The importance of SIS in this respect has been far greater than has been previously acknowledged, extending across all of the organisations discussed below.  In many cases the volunteers were never told for whom they worked and some tasks may have been allocated on a purely individual basis. 

In recent years, the operational patrols of the  Auxiliary Units of the War Office have been popularly labelled as the 'British Resistance Organisation'. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of their role and has  created a modern myth.   Fact and fiction has merged. The War Office were not in the business of creating resistance organisations and for  some generals, the whole concept  smacked of defeatism.  Instead, the War office focussed on the immediate aim of defeating a Nazi invasion.

By contrast, the brief of SIS was to plan for operations after any long-term occupation of the country and they argued for a layered system, designed to conceal the existence and security of a long-term resistance organisation.  The operational patrols of Auxiliary Units proved to be  a useful diversion from this aspect of the secret war. The Special Duties branch of the Auxiliary Units, which was  created and originally controlled by SIS,  has more claim to the name 'resistance', at least in intention. But, whilst impractical in resisting any German invader, its most important function came to be (as with the SIS Section VII organisation) the monitoring  the British populace and troops as pat of the security system of MI5 and Military Intelligence .

The main organisations are described below in order of their initial deployment.


Formed around February / March 1940 in utmost secrecy even within SIS, and given cover  within their accountancy branch (Section VII). Based upon SIS experience in creating a spy network in Eire.  The wireless network was fully mobilised in June 1940, with probable links to the Special Communications Units of SIS. The priority was in gathering intelligence but the organisation also maintained a separate  sabotage / assassination wing.  Described as being fully operational by October 1940, the Section VII organisation remained active until at least 1944, during which time its intelligence wing assisted MI5 in hunting down enemy spy rings.  The sabotage wing included the recruitment of Home Guard and regular army personnel who were trained in improvised weapons that could be replicated after occupation. These men were told to return to their units and keep such training secret until it was needed. Teenage volunteers were warned to hide during the actual invasion in order to avoid conscription under martial law. Crucially the event of invasion, volunteers were instructed to only commence operations after occupation.  Unlike the Auxiliary Units, this was a countrywide organisation.   This was the 'real' British Resistance.


SIS cells are documented in Norfolk, Suffolk, Sussex, Isle of Wight, Somerset, Cornwall and Devon.  Oral testimony includes other cells in Derbyshire, Worcester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester.   Some of the most intense research on the Auxiliary Units has been carried out in a number of these areas and the previous failure to identify the existence of such networks is a measure of their secrecy.  It is, however, now possible to re-interpret some evidence of what was previously automatically assumed to be Auxiliary Unit activity as being that of the SIS Section VII organisation (e.g. see Freethy, Ron, Lancashire 1939 - 1945: The Secret War, Chapter 11).


Launched in a rush in May 1940 by Laurence Grand and led by Viscount Bearsted as a knee-jerk  resonse to the fall of France, but based upon a methodology derived from experience in Poland, Norway and France. Although SIS had made plans for a long term resistance in Britain, no preparations had been made for a guerrilla force to support a military campaign to oppose invasion. A network of cells and supply dumps was rapidly created across the country. The War office gleefully seized on a small number of security breaches but never acknowledged the scale of the mobilisation that had been achieved.  The War Office feared the development of the HDS as an SIS private army and this led directly to the creation of the military Auxiliary Units, based around the Home Guard. As an attempted  compromise, by July, the HDS was focussing on a resistance role to activate once the new Auxiliary Units had been destroyed but this risked bringing it into competition with Section VII. The War Office finally managed to close down the HDS operational wing in August 1940, although SIS discretely transferred some of its intelligence officers and 'Key Men' of Section D to the new Auxiliary Unit organisation in order to quietly provide oversight. The intelligence wing of the Home Defence Scheme was transferred en bloc to the Auxiliary Units by Bearsted and he continued to manage it with his SIS officers as  the basis of the Special Duties Branch of the Auxiliary Units,until the end of 1940 and even then, its CO was a former SIS officer.

During June and July 1940, when Britain's defences were at their weakest, it would have been the HDS that formed Britain's main guerrilla force (with the Auxiliary Units not being properly organised until late August).


The direct role of the Home Guard in secret warfare is often overlooked. One of the  duties of top secret Home Guard units working in local factories was to ensure the disabling of industrial machinery and fuel supplies.  The intention was to deny the Nazis the use of such facilities but to ensure that the British could quickly put them back into service after a successful counterattack. This was especially important with regard to fuel supplies.  In France, German tanks had literally filled up at local petrol pumps because no-one had given the order to destroy them.  But equally, if there was to be a successful counter-attack, British vehicles would need continued access to fuel. So simply destroying fuel stocks was a poor option. To this end, small teams of Home Guard  would dismantle key parts of machinery at the point that the Nazis were about to overrun an area, as well as removing blueprints etc. Only the members of the team would know the location of the hiding places. The lengths that the Gestapo would go to identify the members of such teams as the  'Pump Disrupton Squads', and their families, can only be imagined.


Prototype of the Auxiliary Units, formed in Kent and Sussex by General Thorne and Captain Peter Fleming of MI(R) in early June 1940, with a wireless network provided by SIS. Named after the WW1 Lovat Scouts recce teams.  Some of the officers were probably  trained at the Osterley Home Guard School.  Based around regular army battle patrols, supported by Home Guard patrols.  It could operate at a more strategic level than the Auxiliary Units, due to its direct relationship to the Corps command structure.  The Auxiliary Units did not achieve this until 1942.


Although 'secret' organisations are fascinating, it must be remembered that in the event of invasion, GHQ needed rapid, reliable information that that in 1940 the HDS and Auxiliary Units simply could not provide (and was beyond the remit of Section VII).


In 1940 the primary responsibility for battlefield intelligence-gathering in the case of invasion was the responsibility of No.1 GHQ Reconnaissannce Unit, code name 'Phantom'. This had been formed in October 1939 (as the No.3 British Air Mission / No.11 Hopkinson Mission) under Lt Col. Hopkinson and its heavily-armed patrols, equipped with wireless sets and reporting directly back to GHQ had performed well. In June it was reconstituted in Britain with an establishment of HQ (at Lechlade, Glos, later Richmond Park, London), Intelligence section and three reconnaissance groups, each of four patrols. The patrols were equipped with motor cycles, a motor cycle combination and a wireless-equipped scout car. Their task was to criss-cross enemy lines with experienced troops trained to recognise enemy formations, skilled w/t operators and linguists who could listen in to enemy radio transmissions.  Each patrol reported back to a group HQ by dispatch rider or wireless, with their coded messages also received by Corps and armoured division HQs. The high powered wireless sets of group HQ then transmitted directly to GHQ (with pigeons as a back-up!).  They also worked closely with SIS Communications Units. 'Phantom' immediately began an assessment of potential invasion beaches and landing zones, keeping a daily log of weather conditions on the coast and providing potential local landing scenarios. By September 1940 they had four reconnaissance groups, covering the South-East, East Anglia, Yorkshire and a reserve in Gloucestershire (also covering Wales). By contrast, it might be pointed out that the intelligence systems being developed by the Home Defence Scheme and Auxiliary Units in 1940 appears amateurish in comparison, with minimally-trained agents who had to rely on 'runners' to try to pass through enemy lines and no wireless communications. Any intelligence they gathered was likely to be out of date before it was received at Corps level. In February 1941 it was re-named again as  GHQ Liaison Regiment. 

It is often stated that the GHQ Auxiliary Units were the first British unit to receive the Thompson sub-machine gun. In fact, a small number were supplied to the BEF in December 1939 and were issued to the 'Phantom' patrols in the following month.  In June 1940  each of their scout cars carried a Thompson and 500 rounds of ammunition. Other than a small number of samples reputedly given to Gubbins, the Auxiliary Units did not officially receive their first Thompsons until after May 1941 (later than  they began to be distributed to the Home Guard) and it was August before it was included in their training instructions. 


The role of the operational patrols of GHQ Auxiliary Units was as a short-term commando force to operate (in uniform) behind enemy lines in the first few days following invasion.  They evolved out of  the XII Corps Observation Unit as a War Office response to the SIS Home Defence Scheme.  With no clear brief, it had hesitant beginnings and did not begin to properly mobilise until mid-July 1940, remaining an essentially coastal organisation.  The Auxiliary Units  were originally intended by Colin Gubbins to serve  as an advisory body to the creation of small commando teams directly managed by the  LDV (see HERE). They were not, therefore 'civilian' in the legal sense or in comparison to the civilian HDS - but were constituted as part of the 'Armed Forces of the Crown'. Their main role was to be as guides to regular army commando units who would be slipped behind enemy lines. Unfortunately there were not the resources at the time to expand the existing 'Independent Companies' to provide the army commando units, and so the Auxiliary Units quickly took on a life of their own, organising their own Home Guard commando force, with a small regular army element of Scout Sections.  The instructions were to operate on the flanks and to the rear of an invading army during an active military campaign, thereby extending the official harassing role of the rest of the Home Guard, but the lifespan of the teams was assumed to be not more than two weeks. They would fight in uniform and under military discipline as part of the organised military response to invasion. Longer-term civilian resistance was in the hands of SIS but the latter still maintained an interest in the Operational Patrols of the Auxiliary Units - providing Intelligence Officers in key regions and  'Key Men' from Section D who later became Group Commanders.  This was a participation that Gubbins never chose to acknowledge. Section D also continued to provide most of the supplies for the Auxiliary Units during 1940. The lack of wireless communications greatly limited the strategic role of the Operational Patrols after the destruction of their designated primary targets. Nonetheless, the ability to delay enemy movements even by just a few hours was considered critical in the 1940 anti-invasion planning. The nature of the Auxiliary Units changed considerably from 1941 as it became more clearly absorbed by regular army structures.  The Auxiliary Units survived until 1944 and the disbanding of the Home Guard, largely due to a promise that its Home Guard volunteers would not be returned to general  duties.  

The intelligence wing of the Auxiliary Units - the Special Duties Branch -  was directly inherited from the Home Defence Scheme of SIS, whose officers continued to manage it during 1940 when its c.1,000 agents did have some claim to an intended 'resistance' function in collecting intelligence on any German invasion. However,  at the time it had no effective mechanism for passing on this intelligence and remained under-developed.  The Special Duties Branch effectively remained a separate organisation and the Auxiliary Units HQ were never quite sure of its role. From 1941 it developed  a  wireless network based on the novel  TRD set, whose system of voice transmission made it suitable for rapid civilian use without the need for extensive training. The local OUT stations were operated by civilians but the control IN stations had Royal Signals or ATS operators from Auxiliary Units (Signals).  The network was also dependent on a continuing Royal Signals  support to ensure its directional aerials maintained a link to the IN station, which were based at army HQs (until 1942 in surface huts vulnerable to dive bombing). As the IN Stations  were  expected to move with army HQs during a rapid blitzkrieg, it is likely that the OUT Stations would quickly become out of touch, with the network collapsing in a matter of days. Nonetheless, the network could have provided  an important, albeit brief, notification that the enemy blitzkrieg had penetrated a locality. The Special Duties Branch proved to be most important  as an internal security body. Although the wireless network became redundant, as the threat of invasion decreased  its growing number of agents (over 3,000 in 1944) assisted MI5 and Military Intelligence in eavesdropping on the loyalty of the British populace and any loose tongues in the troops massing for D Day. This was the main contribution of the Auxiliary Units singled out for praise at its stand-down in 1944.

See HERE for further discussion of the mythology of the Auxiliary Units and HERE for a series of quotes from the original participants, explaining their purpose


The unofficial guerrilla  training school established by Tom Wintringham and a number of ex-International Brigade veterans in July 1940  is often considered something of an aberration, shunned by official circles.  In the summer of 1940, however, it trained more guerrillas than the Auxiliary Units and there is a suspicion that, whilst MI5 were deeply suspicious of its communistic leanings,  SIS saw the school as a useul source of future partisans and may have provided some assistance in methodology.  Its instructions  to discard uniforms, blend back into the community and organise secret cells of 2-3 men is more akin to SIS than to War Office methodology.  See HERE for further details.


The Home Guard in general was greatly influenced by the teachings of Osterley. Although its primary role was seen as static defence to the 'last man and last round', it also maintained a more mobile harassng role as the circumstances allowed.  To the frustration of the War Office, such operations acquired the label of 'guerrillas' and the term itself was banned from use in the Home Guard during  1942/3!

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