AUX. UNITS WEAPONS - 1940

The system of 8-man patrols operating from buried ‘operational bases’ was not introduced until mid-August.  The first iteration placed the men under the responsibility of local LDV commanders who would consequently have been responsible for their supply. Until late May 1941 local Territorial Army Associations (TAAs), who were responsible for the administration of the Home Guard within their counties, held  the supplies of clothing, arms, ammunition and equipment for Auxiliary Units. Only from late May 1941 was the responsibility for holding supplies formally transferred to the local HQs of the Auxiliary Units.

Auxiliary Units manual Countryman's Diary (1944) showing 'Unit Charge' comprising 8oz gelignite with plastic explosive primer and two No.10 time pencils.

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Plastic Explosive

The most urgent weapon for the Auxiliary Units was explosives, the most modern of which at the time was plastic explosives.  Lampe therefore naturally assumed the Auxiliary Units must have been the first to receive this. Technically, the  first commercial plastic-type  explosive was Nobel 808, invented in 1875. But from 1939 scientists of Section D and Woolwich Arsenal were working on an improvement better suited for demolition – more stable, better mouldable and easier to attach  to a target,  faster and even more powerful. It also did not give the user a dreadful headache! When used as a primer with gelignite, the end explosion was four times more powerful and this cost-effective way of using the new explosive was used  in the early years of the war when supplies were limited. This improvement was known to the military  as   ‘plastic H.E.’ or  PE2. Section D supplied its agents in Sweden with  small quantities of  the  explosive in  November 1939.  In May 1940,  730lb were hidden in a cache in Norway, 129lb were left with the Dutch resistance and 1,107lb in secret French arms dumps.  

 

The  threat of invasion to Britain in  late May caused a rapid increase in production and most  of the  existing stocks at that time were then supplied to the Auxiliary Units. It is this shift in priorities that was the origin  of the legend that they received the first supplies of plastic explosives.  By  25 August  Section D Technical Section at Aston House claim to have had supplied 7,200lb of plastic explosives to the Auxiliary Units but there is a caveat in  that ‘Auxiliary Units’ in the official record might have been a loose term to also conceal supply of  the   SIS organisations which officially did not exist. At this stage it was still a tool for clandestine warfare and it does not appear that the new  plastic explosive had yet been supplied to the army (although notice of its distribution had been  first given  in June 1939). Curiously, Oxenden maintains that by the Summer of 1941 plastic explosive was no longer used by the Auxiliary Units, replaced entirely by the less satisfactory Nobel 808-type gelignite (Oxenden 1944, p.10), although its us was still copied from earlier manuals  into the Auxiliary Units manual Countryman’s Diary 1939, published in 1944. This change  may reflect a recognition that the explosives were increasingly unlikely to be used in action and could be better deployed elsewhere.

 

Concealed Explosives 

The use of explosives disguised as coal was yet another of Lampe’s  claims for the Auxiliary Units.  These, along with explosives disguised as animal dung and  iron ore was an early piece of research carried out by Section D at its research laboratories in Aston House. The ‘Brown Book’ of Section D distributed  from late 1939 refers to pieces of coal or logs of wood.  

 

In October 1939, Section  D considered using ‘exploding iron ore’ to sabotage the loading facilities at Oxelösund and the ore transport system in Sweden. In June 1940 Section D and MI(R) established a joint store in Alexandria with six tons of ‘toys’   including Section D plastic explosives designed to look like camel droppings. In September 1940 Section D officer Geoffrey Frodsham  had  a stock of ‘explosive coal’ in his  room in Zagreb intended to sabotage railway engines. With this long history and Section D organising sabotage across Scandinavia and the Balkans, there is no reason to suggest that such booby traps were first used by the Auxiliary Units.   They were, however, included in their first supply packs.   Oxenden explained: ‘The first dumps, afterwards called ‘packs’, and finally Aux Units, were contained in cardboard boxes that disintegrated if buried or left out in the rain,  and included, besides 10lbs of Plastic Explosive and a mass of feeble and uncertain incendiaries, a hollow bronze casting of a lump of coal that could  hold two ounces of H.E. and a detonator’. 

 

 

Switch, No.8  Anti-Personnel

Designed in spring 1940 as a simple anti-personnel device that could be carried by all troops.  A short spring-loaded tube with a pressure-sensitive trigger  fired a modified .303 rifle cartridge (with a pointed steel bullet).  With the tube buried in the ground, the tip of the bullet lay half an inch above the ground and when trodden upon would release the compression spring and striker.  The short delay in firing gave it the nickname ‘the debollicker’ or ‘castrator’.  1,439,450 were produced at a cost of 2s each plus 1s for the cartridge.  This  may be the device referred to in some Auxiliary Units lists as the ‘Autumn Crocus’ but there is no  particular evidence for Lampe’s statement  that they received it before anyone else.

 

No.10 Time Pencils and tin.

In this early pattern, the time delay was denoted by coloured bands. Red = 0.5hrs and White = 1.5hrs.

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No.10 Time Pencils

In June 1939 Section D developed the No.10 Time Pencil.   The time pencil comprised a 5.75 in long  tube made in three sections of copper, aluminium and brass, with a detonator attached over one end. A thin wire held back a spring-loaded steel striker. A glass ampoule containing an aqueous solution of copper chloride (developed by Bailey) would be broken by squeezing the copper barrel and would dissolve the wire at a set rate, determined by the concentration of the acid, and release the striker which would in turn ignite a detonator and set off the main charge. To avoid failure, the advice was to use them in pairs. Some of the   prototypes were given to the Poles and their copies then brought back by Gubbins, leading to some confusing accounts of their origin. They were sent to Finland during the winter war in 1939 and   to Section D contacts across Poland, Scandinavia and the Balkans. Some   were left with the Dutch resistance in May 1940 and were   hidden in arms caches left in France in late  May 1940. Some were even delivered to Germany. Johannes Jahn was an ITF member in Germany who was recruited to Section D in January 1940 for sabotage in Germany.   Section D supplied him with time pencils, incendiary bombs, cigarette time delay fuses and potassium chlorate and in April he used them to derail a goods train between Aachen and Cologne. Time pencils were also used in the first sabotage expedition to Norway in May 1940 and 500 then left in a hidden arms cache..  

 

As with plastic explosives, under the seemingly imminent threat of invasion,  production increased dramatically and distribution  shifted  to supply forces in Britain with a stated supply of  67,400 to the Auxiliary Units  by  25 August. The use of ‘Auxiliary Units’ may be a cover to conceal the supply of the top secret SIS Home Defence Scheme and the Section VII resistance but it is still likely that the Auxiliary Units received the bulk  of supply  as they were designed work with military stores and explosives, whereas it was stressed that the SIS organisations had to be ready to operate without outside support (so there was an emphasis on incendiary devices able to be renewed after occupation).  By the end of 1940 over a million Over No.10 Time Pencils had been  produced.

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The .300 calibre P17 (M1917) rifle became the weapon of the Home Guard and two were also provided for each patrol.  It is differentiated from the otherwise identical .303 calibre  P14 by the red band painted on forestock.

M1917 (P17) Rifle 

The M1917 (known in Home Guard service as the P17) was a US modification in .300 calibre   of the British .303calibre Pattern 1914  (P14) rifle (listed officially  in British Service as Rifle No. 3). It was  accurate but heavy and, had a 5 round magazine (as did most contemporary rifles)  as compared to the 10 round magazine of the British SMLE. It was the main rifle of US forces during the First World War but was then replaced by the Garand. Even so, some US artillery units in the Tunisian campaign used the P17 and it continued to be issued to rear echelon troops throughout the war. 

 

In June 1940  an order was placed with the US government  for 500,000  M1917 (P17) rifles, specifically  for the Home Guard in order to relieve pressure on the limited number of British .303 calibre rifles. It  became their iconic weapon.  Special trains were used to distribute the first consignment of 12,000 carried on  SS Eastern Prince around the country on 8 July 1940. By the end of July 500,000 had arrived in the country and by February 1941   733,710 P17 rifles had been distributed to the Home Guard.   

 

Two  P17 rifles were  issued to each Auxiliary Units  patrol,  although the exact date of their arrival  is unclear.  To prevent delay, the first shipments to the Home Guard were still covered in the protective  cosmoline. In later shipments the rifles were cleaned centrally before distribution. As no Auxiliary Units veteran has mentioned cleaning off the heavy cosmoline grease it may be presumed they arrived in Auxiliary Units service sometime in August or later, after the introduction of the patrol system. Samson Patrol was the first patrol formed in Worcestershire, but did not receive their P17 rifles until October. Their reasoning behind the rifles was a mystery but it was probably felt they needed some type of firearm and the rifle was still seen as the mark of a soldier.  Training Officer Nigel Oxenden commented : ‘American rifles, on a scale of two per patrol, were an early issue, nobody quite knew why, and this item was never afterwards changed.’   The rifles only became useful and ‘came into their own’ (Oxenden)  from the summer of 1942, when the Auxiliary Units had the less covert mission as a reconnaissance force against the threat of German commando raids but even now this threat was made by an increase in the issue of  the readily--available Sten gun.

 

Even the P17 could not escape the mythology that has surrounded most aspects if the Auxiliary Units. Bob Millard recounted in 2008 to the Bath Blitz Memorial Project  that his patrol had two P17 rifles ‘which we scrounged, or won, from the Home Guard. I don't know whether they knew they had disappeared or not but they turned up in the patrol’. There is no reason to suppose this legend was correct but in view of recent claims, it may be noted that Millard believed these rifles were obtained from the Home Guard.

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Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).  The first automatic weapon supplied to the Auxiliary Units and the main light machine gun of the Home Guard

M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle 

Along with the P17 rifle, the first shipments of arms to the Home Guard included the .300 calibre Browning Automatic rifle – a cross between a light machine gun and a rifle with a 20 round magazine. This became the first automatic support  weapon to be supplies to the Auxiliary Units. The BAR,  with a history going back to the First World War, only became  a standard issue to US forces  in 1938 as a light machine gun.  In effect it was the rough equivalent of the British Bren gun. 25,000 BARs were included in the June 1940  contract between the USA and Britain and it became the standard light machine gun of the Home Guard.   It is hard to see how the Auxiliary Units can, as Chatterton has claimed in 2022,  have received it before the Home Guard.  

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Types of fighting knife issued to the Auxiliary Units

Rodgers commercial sheath knife (1940)

2nd pattern Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife (1941)

3rd pattern Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife (1943)

Fighting Knives

Knives were the obvious choice in the primary task of the Auxiliary Units patrols in creeping silently onto a target, with the possibility of having to eliminate sentries. A specialist fighting knife  was not in the tradition of the British army, although in the First World War many soldiers had become accomplished in making their own ‘trench knife’ from discarded bayonets  or even broken swords.  At the start of the Second World War many of these still survived  as souvenirs.  Many  Home Guard  enthusiastically continued the tradition and made their own knives or simply  bought a stout sheath knife from a local gun shop. In 1940 at  the Osterley Home Guard training school and in the publications of Wintringham, Levy and Langdon-Davies, the Home Guard were exhorted to equip themselves with a long slender fighting knife and many answered the call, buying up and converting the surplus bayonets that were still on public sale.  

 

Initially, the Auxiliers also had to find their own knives although some Intelligence officers may have made their own arrangements, buying up stocks of cheap sheath knives from local retailers. One Dorset Auxilier was even issued with a Stanley kitchen knife!  The first knives officially supplied by the War Office did not arrive until the end of August. These were the the cheapest sheath knives they could find. This was the Joseph Rodgers  knife with a flimsy-looking  5.6 inch clipped blade,  jigged bone scale handle and a cast alloy guard. This was a widely-available type, marketed by the Army and Navy Stores and reputedly already provided to local patrols by an Intelligence Officer in the South West. The first contract with Joseph Rodgers for 300 knives was not placed until 20 August.  This was followed on 14 September 1940 with a  contract to provide 1,000 more hunting knives specifying  for ‘Aux Units’.  A further order for 1,100 of the same knife was made on 6 November. 2,400 of these knives were therefore supplied by the end of 1940, enough for  the current strength of Auxiliers. Far from the trope of Gubbins' 'blank cheque' to supply the Auxiliary Units, these knives retailed in 1939-40  for just  3/6d and were bought by the War Office for a contract price of 2/10d each. By comparison, a good quality 4.5 inch Rodgers sheath knife retailed for 9/6d and an order for 1,500 hunting knives from Wilkinson Sword on 14 November 1940 for SOE / commandos was priced at 13/6d each.​ 

 

In 1940, the Auxiliary Units were perhaps not thought likely to survive long enough to make any more substantial investment worthwhile and it is quite likely that the earlier Home Defence Scheme was issued with the same type of knife. As the risk of invasion lessened, however, ironically their equipment improved! From mid-1941 the Auxiliary Units began to be issued with the iconic Fairbairn Sykes fighting knife, which soon became iconic of commando and airborne forces (although in action many men  preferred the more rugged and multi-functional commercially-available alternatives). Even now, some Auxiliers were asked to buy their own at a price of 13/6d! It is not generally appreciated that the FS knife went on public sale from June 1942 and, unsurprisingly, many regular troops and the  Home Guard (especially their commando units) soon began to equip themselves with this or one of  the wide  range of alternatives which quickly emerged. Consequently, the discovery of a fighting knife in the attic of a deceased relative does not necessarily mean they had served in one of the special forces, although many an old soldier might have woven a story of derring-do around them.

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Two types of handguns issued to the Home Defence Scheme and Auxiliary Units.

Colt 'Official Police' .38 revolver

Colt 1903 .32 automatic

Handguns

In August 1940, Churchill famously wrote a marginal note to one of Gubbins’ weekly reports, 'these men are to have revolvers.' The earlier six-man sabotage teams of the Section D Home Defence Scheme had already been equipped with unattributable .38 Colt revolvers or .32 automatics together with  130 rounds of ammunition. Handguns were issued to the Auxiliary Units from late  August, the first including four hundred .32 Colt automatics. By September a 100% issue of .38 handguns had been made, mainly US Smith & Wesson and Colt revolvers  but also with Colt snd Beretta automatics.  According to Oxenden, the ammunition followed much later. These became the main  defining firearm  that demonstrated the status of the Auxiliary Units to others. Indeed, they had to be dissuaded from openly toting their revolvers on the train to Coleshill training courses as the sight of Home Guard other ranks with revolvers excited obvious intent. Hand guns were in short supply in the early years of the war and the rest of the Home Guard initially relied on those souvenir weapons from the First World War already owned by officers or their families.  There was a consequent underestimate in the original reported numbers because many were nervous of admitting to an unlicensed firearm! The official supply  increased but there was never a general issue to other ranks. It seems likely the Auxiliary Units  shared in the miscellany of handguns that were procured by the government from the stocks of British gun dealers or were sourced by SIS from around the world. This procurement  was continued by SOE  from 1941 onwards.  

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No.76 Self Igniting Phosphorous (SIP) Grenade

No.76 (SIP) grenade

The No.76 Self-Igniting Phosphorus (SIP) grenade was invented by Albright and Wilson Ltd of Oldbury in association with Section D (and are therefore also known as ‘AW bombs’) in a desperate effort to provide an anti-tank grenade in 1940. It is a more sohisticated molotov cocktail, consisting of a half pint capacity glass bottle filled with a white phosphorus / benzene /water mixture. There was also a rubber strip that upon ignition would  make the burning liquid  sticky and more likely to stick to the side of a target. The bottle was then closed with a ‘crown cap’.  The grenade could be thrown by hand or later fired from the Northover Projector.  In June 1940 staff at Section D technical HQ  at  Aston House had taken a trial delivery of 5,000 SIP grenades from Albright and Wilson. They were sufficiently impressed to claim in their July report to have  to have quickly  distributed 4,000 of their stock to the Auxiliary Units HQ. Nonetheless, these seem not have been actually distributed to the patrols until 10 September, possibly due to concern as to where they would be stored and a caution to see how Home Forces would handle the volatile new grenade. Meanwhile,  from mid- July, the SIP grenade had begun to be  distributed to  Home Forces with the priority being frontline army anti-tank  defences and it is important to note that only 25% were allocated to the Home Guard at this time.  Six million SIP grenades were produced by August 1941 but by  then the army had been relieved to find better alternatives as an anti-tank weapon and the SIP grenade was now established  as a primarily Home Guard / Auxiliary Units grenade. 

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WW2 Lead-weighted wooden truncheon, studded with hobnails.

Truncheons  and Coshes

One simple weapon of the Auxiliary Units was a lead-weighted wooden truncheons or rubber cosh. These were another inheritance from the savage trench fighting of the First World War.  For the Auxiliary Units they were an obvious weapon to use in silently eliminating enemy sentries and rubber truncheons had already been issued to cells of the Home Defence Scheme.  Their issue  in 1940 might have been driven by War Office economics as much as utility. Many Home Guard, who knew of their use in WW1 also took the initiative in making such weapons, some studded  with hobnails or nails. In the shortage of weapons within Home Forces they became an official issue and in  July 1941 the War Office circulated designs for cudgels made from 19-inch lengths of gas pipe with industrial gears or sprockets welded to one end, or 15-inch lengths of rubber hose filled with concrete. In September 1941, Home Guard units were  circulated with the offer of a 14-inch lead-weighted rubber truncheon weighing 1.25lb. These are a type previously issued to the HDS and also known to have been used by the  Auxiliary Units. It  would be interesting to know if this was the date of  a general issue  to the Auxiliary Units. The use of these crude weapons  went beyond the Auxiliary Units or Home Guard. General Pile, head of Anti-Aircraft Command admitted that due to the shortage of rifles his men, like the Home Guard, were issued with cudgels and pikes but ‘we were asked to keep quiet about having them too.’