Planning for a British Resistance
in the Second World War
Fighting Nazi Occupation provides the first comprehensive account of the complex and layered plans for irregular warfare to counter a Nazi occupation, and the plans for resistance if those plans failed.
Fighting Nazi Occupation makes an important distinctuion between military formations that would fight as commandos or guerrillas during the anti-invasion campaign and civilians who would mount a resistance after military operations had ceased and the country was under enemy occupation.
In recent years, 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, romanticised, myth. Fact and fiction has merged in what is a justifiable pride in the work of these men and women. Confusion has been increased by most modern accounts have been written 'bottom up', relying heavily on the testimony of local volunteers who were not necessarily given an accurate rationale for their work. In some cases there has also been a deliberate attempt to distance the memory of their service from that of the Home Guard and play up the drama of the Auxiliary Units, as a consequence of the distorted impression presented by the popular Dad's Army TV series.
The distinction between military commandos and a resistance organisation is more than semantics and was of fundamental importance to military thinking in 1940. As a signatory to the 1907 Hague Convention, Britain was committed to fighting a war using men who would fight in uniform and carry weapons openly. The Auxiliary Units were under the control of the War Office and were expected to follow these rules. Indeed they were specifically instructed not to be organised as a resistance. General Paget (Chief of Staff, Home Forces) forcefully made the point that the Auxiliary Units operations were not 'sabotage' (which was interpreted as having an underhand quality) but instead the acts of demolition on airfields etc were to be considered as normal military operations. It is the use of the underground 'hides' or Operational Bases in this role that have provided the Auxiliary Units with their mystique. These were not an original part of Auxiliary Unit methodology but were a practical means of buying them a few extra days of survival in the war zone.
The Auxiliary Units were not, therefore, designed for a 'last ditch' stand - but rather to support the operations of a still functioning British field army. Such operations just happened to be carried out at night in a secretive fashion! They were considered no different to similar operations which were intended to be carried out by regular troops from XII Corps Observation Unit, the Independent Companies or later Commandos Later in the war, the SAS took this methodology to the ultimate conclusion and mounted long-term operations from hidden bases, in uniform, far behind enemy lines. As such we would call them commandos but not dream of regarding them as a 'resistance' organisation.
By contrast, a 'resistance' organisation is a body that maintains opposition to an enemy after an organised defence has ceased and the territory is under enemy occupation. This was the responsibility of SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) rather than the War Office. In line with their repeated advice to European governments, they planned a layered approach to fighting Nazi occupation in Britain. In March 1940 Section VII of SIS began quietly putting its sabotage and intelligence agents in place across the country, ready to report to any future government-in-exile! This was a deep cover resistance that was shrouded in the utmost secrecy and continued in existence for most of the war. Agents would remain in their local communities and do nothing to excite attention during the actual invasion period, only commencing operations after the Nazis had taken control. In May 1940 Section D of SIS, in a response to the imminent fall of France, also began implementing the Home Defence Scheme. Originally, its cells of six civilian guerrillas, armed with a pistol and knife and a range of incendiary devices, were intended to work alongside the army and create short term disruption behind enemy lines. Later their rationale was explained as remaining hidden until the Auxiliary Units were destroyed and then to continue their work. Not expecting to be re-supplied from any official source, their explosives were those that could be easily concealed as household items. The fundamental principle remained that any such short term activities would not compromise the existence of the long term SIS resistance organisation.
Some elements in the rushed Home Defence Scheme were chaotic and were seized upon by the War Office in order to quash what was seen at the time as an attempt to create an SIS private army. The Auxiliary Units offered the government a more respectable military alternative to the Home Defence Scheme, but the very fact that contemporaries accepted the harsh fact that the life expectancy of the Auxiliary Units was only two weeks denies any long term value as a 'resistance' organisation. Once they had withdrawn to their operational bases the Operational Patrols had divorced themselves from the local community and it would be difficult for them to be re-absorbed under the gaze of the Gestapo. The intelligence arm of the Auxiliary Units - the Special Duties Branch - was directly inherited from SIS Section D and continued to be managed by them during 1940 but had a more complicated role. It was again primarily intended to act during an invasion in the short term only, as an early warning system to the army for enemy troop movements, supplementary to the work of the GHQ Reconnaissance Unit (Phantom'). Its longer term, and arguably more important, role was as an eavesdropping body, contributing to internal security.
For a summary of the organisations involved in the plans to fight Nazi occupation see HERE.
For a discussion of the mythology of the Auxiliary Units, see HERE.
For a series of quotes from the original participants on the role of the Aux. Units, see HERE.