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Civilians of the Czech Resistance, Prague Rising,  1945

Photo: Profimedia

Did Britain create the first pre-invasion Guerrilla and Resistance Organisation in WW2?


A new book in 2022  opens with the bold statement  ‘It’s really quite remarkable to think that Britain was the only country in the Second World War to prepare a secret guerrilla and resistance movement before any enemy invasion had actually taken place.’ (Foreword by James Holland in Andrew Chatterton, Britain’s Secret Defences: civilian saboteurs, spies and assassins during the Second World War, 2022).   

Is  this true or nationalistic hyperbole?  It revives a statement made In 1968 by David Lampe in The Last Ditch that has influenced accounts of the Auxiliary Units thereafter. This was a pioneering study but included many wild claims which for decades were accepted without question. These include now disproven claims about the priority given to Auxiliary Units weaponry (such as the Thompson sub-machine gun and Time Pencils) and also maintained ‘none of the other countries that the Germans had invaded in Western Europe had been seeded with such Resistance cells’ (p.152). The book could not, at that time, be tested against documentary evidence, but Lampe’s account was given authenticity by the fact that his sources included several former senior officers of the Auxiliary Units, including their first CO, Colin Gubbins. Unfortunately Gubbins, and many former colleagues, was still deeply resentful over his treatment by SIS, with their long running conflict having eventually led to him being retired on a colonel’s pension. This coloured their accounts. As a key source of both Auxiliary Units and SOE early histories Gubbins gave as little credit to SIS as possible and this included both the Section  D Home Defence Scheme in Britain and the pre-SOE efforts of SIS to organise resistance across Europe, whilst boosting his own contribution.

Lampe was not aware in 1968  that there were other elements to the clandestine plans to  resist a German invasion and for decades the history of the Auxiliary Units was shoehorned to fit a pre-perceived role of a British Resistance as a version of European resistance movements. Modern writers have avoided the simple fact that it was not within the remit of the War Office to create civilian resistance movements. The distinction between the War Office responsibility for military irregular warfare and that of SIS for civilian operations (which eventually led to the formation of SOE) was codified at the start of WW2.  Instead, the operational branch of the Auxiliary Units were expected to fight as uniformed Home Guard, designed for short term guerrilla warfare and very different from the classic European civilian resistance movements (see accompanying illustrations compared to photographs of the Auxiliary Units). With the War Office and government  firmly opposed to the use of armed civilians, the existence of a true civilian resistance network remained a closely-guarded secret within Section VII of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS - aka MI6).  


Contrary to the claim made in the  Foreword in Britain's Secret Defences, the first detailed account of Section VII was  published in 2015 in Fighting Nazi Occupation, where a clear distinction was made between Britain's short-term guerrilla forces and a long-term resistance, rather than the existing assumption of a single 'British Resistance Organisation'. This followed the wartime philosophy of SIS that there should be a separation of function between sacrificial short-term guerrilla forces that would oppose an initial invasion  and a longer term resistance that would remain 'quiescent' during the military conflict and only begin work during a phase of occupation. 

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Officers and NCOs of Worcestershire Auxiliary Units, 1944. Uniforms, badges of rank and unit identification badges.  Are they presenting themselves as civilians or soldiers?  Compare with pictures of European resistance fighters on this page.

Civilian partisans of the Molotov brigade, Russia, 1943.

The long-term resistance planned by SIS as Section VII , formed in Spring 1940 was indeed innovative but even this had parallels in the  Czech networks created before its invasion. SIS established the cadre of a nationwide deep-cover organisation linked by wireless and, although envisaged as primarily intelligence-gathering also had a sabotage function which grew after its probable absorption of the HDS from July 1940. There would deliberately be no link between this and the guerrilla organisations designed to oppose the actual invasion.


Britain was certainly not ‘the first’ to create a shorter term guerrilla organisation before that country's invasion and its plans relied heavily on foreign experience. Rather than a triumph of British forethought, this  is rather  a story of missed opportunities and rushed expediency. Even as the Munich crisis developed in 1938, the head of Section D of SIS, Laurence Grand, made a  visit to the Skoda armaments works in Czechoslovakia  to discuss with Czech intelligence their plans for a future sabotage network. By the time of the German invasion, the Czechs had created a disciplined and well-armed  network based on small cells of three persons. As later in Britain, there was also a separately-managed  intelligence network.  By July 1940 Grand regarded the Czech resistance as being the best organised in Europe,  linked by wireless to the exiled  Czech General Staff in Paris. Section D had also worked closely  with the Slovene guerrilla movement based in  Yugoslavia and who had a long history of resistance in Italy and Austria. Section D had been working with them since 1939 on sabotage of German and Austrian economic targets across the Balkans. They then formed part of  the Yugoslav resistance after that country's invasion.

The main  influence  in creating Britain’s guerrilla movement (that first became the SIS Section D Home Defence Scheme and then the War Office Auxiliary Units) were the plans made by Polish Intelligence to meet the anticipated German invasion. In May 1939 Colin Gubbins, recently recruited to MI(R),  visited Poland where he reported  a  ‘natural aptitude of the Polish people, both men and women,  for guerrilla activities of all kinds, fostered by the national spirit during a century of oppression by Russia and Germany.’ Polish Intelligence  had just begun to  put in place their scheme  for guerrilla warfare and on 24 July  Major Charaskiewicz, the head of the new  Polish guerrilla organisation, met MI(R) and Section D in London. Charaskiewicz explained his methodology of creating  small patrols of 3 – 7 men along the Polish – German border, organised in groups of 7 – 25 patrols; they would allow their location to be overrun and would then carry out their pre-designated sabotage. Weapons and explosives had already been cached for their use.  There was a parallel organisation of larger partisan bands of up to 15 men, who would carry out raids across the Polish – Slovakian frontiers and behind German lines. 800 men, so far, had been put through a week-long training course. It may be noted that this early Polish guerrilla organisation did not survive the enemy blitzkrieg - the Auxiliary Units were similarly not expected to survive an invasion of Britain. 

Although the meeting with Charaskiewicz in July 1939 may have eventually inspired Laurence Grand  in creating the Home Defence Scheme and Colin Gubbins in his eventual   plan for the Auxiliary Units, nothing ws actually organised until May 1940. Ignoring its own exhortations for other countries to pro-actively plan for guerrilla warfare, and with the plans for the Section VII resistance known only to a handful within SIS, most of  the British establishment shared the complacency of other Western European countries as regards the possibility of invasion. Norway was invaded in April 1940 and whilst Section D had already played a role in the creation of at least one  resistance group there (a shadowy group raised in late 1939 around Bergen and which probably became the Branengruppe), their coordination would take time. The invasion of the Low Countries and France in May sparked panic. SIS had reactivated First World War intelligence networks in Belgium as early as September 1939 and supplied new wireless sets, but it was not until late May that, working ahead of the advancing German army,  Section D and its counterparts in Belgium, Holland and France began to  establish explosives dumps and provide rushed training to  future saboteurs. It was too little, too late, but the first iteration of a guerrilla organisation in Britain was part of that same phase of panic rather than any carefully considered preparation of a guerrilla movement.


Any assessment on how prepared Britain might be for guerrilla warfare would then very much depend on when that might have happened - making difficult a direct comparison with the situation with other countries who were actually invaded in May 1940. The Chiefs of Staff regarded June 1940  as being the most dangerous period but at that point Britain’s readiness for guerrilla warfare was minimal.  It is to the credit of Laurence Grand that, while he waited  for the War Office to take action he quickly formed the civilian Home Defence Scheme and began organising cells and distributing arms dumps across the country. At perhaps the time of greatest danger of invasion it would have been a miscellany  XII Corps Observation Unit in the south east,  Grand’s rushed, sometimes chaotic, organisation over the rest of the country and the students of Tom Wintringham's Home Guard School at Osterley that would provide the basis for guerrilla warfare in Britain. Significantly, the emphasis in the HDS was on providing materials that could, if necessary, be easily concealed or replenished after occupation rather than relying on service supplies (as in the Auxiliary Units).

Britain's  preparations  evolved  from 1940 to 1942. It is  often forgotten that the Auxiliary Units were not a national organisation but were essentially a coastal operation to support  the army oppose the initial landings by interrupting lines of communication and supply - different from the earlier nationwide concepts of the SIS Home Defence Scheme and Section VII. There is a temptation to believe that well-armed Auxiliary Units appeared fully-formed in June 1940 with its later system of 8-man patrols in hidden operational bases and a separate  intelligence wing linked with short-range wireless. This assumption was encouraged by such statements from the first CO, Colin Gubbins when, after the war he explained ‘Time was the essence … at the shortest we had six weeks before a full scale invasion could be launched ; if we were lucky we might have until October.’ Rather than an immediate whirlwind of activity, it actually took until mid-August 1940 for the system of hidden patrols to be decided upon and only after that did significant weaponry  begin to be supplied. Until then Gubbins, despite his reputation as a guerrilla ‘expert’, had struggled to find an effective methodology. In the earliest iteration the Auxiliary Units were  intended primarily as guides to the original army commando units - the Independent Companies. The Auxiliary Units, however, provided a cheaper alternative - although the attached army Scout Sections (which did not appear until November) may well have been considered the key strategic element. A major problem with the Home Guard-based patrols was that they never had a wireless connection to army commands and could not be re-tasked to meet the changing strategic needs. The intelligence wing of the Special Duties Branch had no link to the operation patrols and did not get its wireless sets until 1941 –  even then there is doubt that the technology of the network would have survived more than a few days of the blitzkrieg. In 1940 the crude system of 'runners' passing intelligence on military movements through enemy lines envisaged for both the HDS and SDB was impractical in the fast-moving blitzkrieg. Instead it was the modern, wireless-equipped, 'Phantom units' of the army  would instead have had the prime responsibility for collecting battlefield intelligence. It was not  until 1942 that the structured SDB system was fully complete and by then the chances of it realistically being used in an invasion had passed.  


The study of Auxiliary Units history has relied heavily on the reminiscences of surviving veterans, whose chronology of events has sometimes been vague or compressed,  and this has also led to a reluctance to cast aside established romantic myths and make a more objective assessment of the organisation. In 1940, far from the well-equipped and highly-trained saboteurs of rose-tinted legend, equipping and systematic training for the Auxiliary  Units operational patrols did not get properly underway until late August 1940 and was by no means complete by the end of the expected invasion season. Despite the hyperbole, other than the explosives supplied by SIS and pistols, they were equipped much as the rest of  the Home Guard. See HERE for a summary of the chronology of Auxiliary Units weapons supply in their wider context.  They did not receive the P17 rifle, BAR or Thompson before the Home Guard, or the very first plastic explosives and time pencils! One of the reasons for delay is that with an initial expectancy that their life span would be only a few days, it was not considered worth expenditure beyond their explosives and incendiaries for what was essentially considered a suicidal role. There was even a ban on supplying them with expensive arms until the end of August. It was their pistols (typically a .38 calibre US revolver or a .32 automatic) which set them apart as something special but even here, delivery did not commence until September 1940 and the Training Officer Nigel Oxenden later maintained (1944 draft official history)  that the ammunition followed much later. An official issue of knives too only began to arrive from late August and in 1940 were the cheapest sheath knives the War Office could find. The P17 rifles began to be issued from 8 August (although they were immediately considered unsuitable for the role) and some patrols did not receive them until October. The BARs also were not distributed until September.  It is salutary to consider that by the end of September 1940 and the abandonment of German plans for invasion (at least in that year), the Osterley Home Guard School, had trained more prospective guerrillas than did the Auxiliary Units courses at Coleshill (which only began on 22 August). There was also the advantage that some of the Osterley students then went home to establish local training schools and widen the cadre of potential guerrillas. Scottish Intelligence Officer for the Auxiliary Units, Eustace Maxwell, for one, believed the training provided at Osterley was better than that provided at the time for the Auxiliary Units.

The Auxiliary Units were conceived in a time of desperation, as much to counter the threatened usurpation of the battlefield role of the War Office by SIS as anything else. It is telling that, with rapid improvements to the capabilities of the field army and the perceived lessening risk of invasion, the War Office reputedly considered disbanding the Auxiliary Units as early as mid-September 1940 -  in the midst of the Battle of Britain! This was even as glowing reports on their progress were left with the Prime Minister, who was always attracted to novel ventures but then tended to lose interest. They were supposedly saved only by a timely lunch by the ever-charming Gubbins at the Cavalry Club.  But already some disillusionment had set in with the second-in-command, Peter Wilkinson, bemoaning that by mid-August, as the organisation expanded, it became ‘virtually a guerrilla branch of the Home Guard’. Their survival thereafter was a triumph of bureaucratic inertia and the magic of being able to claim that their role was  too secret to be questioned. A new role had to be invented as an anti-raider reconnaissance force.  Gubbins himself admitted 'they would have justified their existence … But my judgement is based heavily on the fact that they were costing the country nothing either in man-power or in weapons’.  Once Gubbins and  Wilkinson left in November 1940, the character of the organisation began to change. Ironically, they became highly-trained for a role that seemed increasingly unlikely. Morale began to suffer and was not helped by a drift away from any expertise in guerrilla warfare by the staff at the Coleshill HQ. Training courses now included kit inspections and drill led by Guards officers, who enjoyed what was reputedly now a fine wine cellar at Coleshill. Meanwhile, Section VII continued to secretly expand across the country as the weapon of last resort, but also hiding an even deeper secret, probably absorbing those HDS cells that had not been taken over by the Auxiliary Unis in coastal areas.  This was the true ‘Last Ditch’ of Lampe’s book title.


Section VII's weapons dumps were maintained into 1944. However,  as part of the original deal made with MI5 to allow them to operate within Britain, they had another secret function and quietly monitored the local populace looking for any evidence of ‘fifth column’ and  reporting ‘loose talk’. The SDB of the Auxiliary Units also shared this delicate internal security role, which was considered by some at the time to be the most important function of the Auxiliary Units and a key reason for its survival - as well as another good reason to keep the secret of their existence! 

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Civilian Polish Resistance fighter with Blyskawica ('Lightning') sub-machine gun. This Polish copy of the Sten gun was made in secret factories during the occupation.   


Fighting Nazi Occupation (2015) provided a ground-breaking, re-appraisal of the Auxiliary Units and was the first detailed account of the SIS Section VII Resistance organisation. This is still the most comprehensive survey of Section VII, including its origins and relationship to MI5.


Section D for Destruction (2017) was the first comprehensive account of the work of  Section D, SIS in supporting early resistance movements across Europe, together with its creation of the 1940 Home Defence Scheme in Britain - the civilian forerunner of the military Auxiliary Units. It also explains the distinction in philosophy between military and civilian irregular warfare as pursued by the War Office and SIS. 

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