Malcolm Atkin Military Research
AUX. UNITS WEAPONS 1942
By 1942 the threat of invasion was rapidly diminishing and, in searching for a new purpose to prevent disbandment, the Auxiliary Units were now tasked with acting as reconnaissance patrols to the Home Guard in hunting down potential ‘spoiling raids’ by German raiders. They were ill-prepared for this very different role from that originally envisaged role, lacking the fundamental requirement of wireless sets to communicate intelligence of enemy movements back to army commands. Morale was beginning to suffer in the Auxiliary Units as they sensed a drift of purpose. One way of compensating for that was to issue new weapons that seemed to recognise their special status.
Sten Mk II (bottom) and the simplified Mk III (top). Both versions were issued to the Home Guard and Auxiliary Units.
The Sten gun (named after the initials of the inventors Shepherd and Turpin plus EN for England - not Enfield as another myth persists), firing a 9mm round from a 32 round magazine, cost just £3 compared to the price of $225 paid for each US Thompson sub-machine gun. It was a simple blowback design, weighing just 6.5lb and at one point a single factory was producing 20,000 per week. Despite its reputation for misfires (largely due to faults in the magazines or poor handling) and accidental discharges, the Sten became the standard sub-machine gun of the British army and an iconic weapon of European resistance movements. An early myth was that it was specifically designed for the Home Guard – possibly because the crudity of what was nicknamed the ‘Plumber’s Nightmare’ (some made by Lines Bros – the Triang toy company), seemed to be the vein of the rushed designs of sub-artillery that became particularly associated with the Home Guard.
The issue of the Sten gun to the Home Guard from March 1942, just a few months after its first issue to the regular army, was taken as a final sign of the acceptance of the Home Guard by the military establishment. Eventually distribution reached a ratio of one per six men. The Auxiliary Units were only later progressively issued with the Sten gun as their Thompsons were withdrawn. The Home Guard and Auxiliary Units were issued with both the Mk II version and the simplified Mk III, which could be produced from just five man-hours of work and comprised only 47 different parts.
The Auxiliary Units did not receive any of the silenced Mk 2 Sten guns.
Silenced .22 Rifles
In June 1940 there were over 7,000 .22 calibre rifles privately owned by Home Guard members. During the Second World War the War Office purchased thousands of .22 calibre rifles to use as short range training rifles for the forces, including the Home Guard. These avoided the use of expensive .303 or .300 ammunition whilst providing experience in a bolt action in rifle as used on service rifles. They came from the stocks of British gun dealers, from the USA through the Lend-Lease scheme or by direct purchase from the US manufacturers. In all, 47,400 .22 calibre rifles of all models were successfully shipped to the British Empire (excluding Canada) between 1941 and 1945 under the Lend Lease Act of March 1941 alone.
Both scopes and sound moderators ('silencers') were commercially available pre-war and examples of both on 22 rifles are found within the Home Guard ('silencers' being used to reduce noise in indoor ranges). But by the end of 1941, with over 874,000 .300 and .303 calibre service rifles now in the hands of the Home Guard, together with over 26,000 sub-machine guns and 43,000 machine guns, the significance of the .22 calibre rifle in the Home Guard armoury had massively diminished and only 2,541 .22 calibre rifles were now tallied in their monthly returns. In 1940 the Auxiliary Units similarly unofficially acquired some .22 rifles with scopes and sound moderators yet it was only in March 1942 that the Auxiliary Units were officially issued with what has become one of their most iconic, if deeply misunderstood, weapons. In fact there was not an official issue of 'silenced' .22 rifles until 1942 and they were not included in the lists of recommended weapons to take on a patrol. They were, however, described by Lampe in 1968 as a ‘sinister’ assassination weapon capable of killing a man over a range of a mile. The myth of the one mile range derived from the warning on the packs of supersonic cartridges that they were ‘dangerous to one mile’. This was, however, only their maximum duration in flight (and only sub-sonic round could be used with a sound moderator). Not realising that the .22 rifle only officially issued in1942, Lampe also tried to link them to an August 1940 statement of intent that their role would including sniping (something for which only the Scout Patrols ended up being properly equipped). The accurate range of a .22 rifle was actually just 100 yards and the Auxiliers were tested in competitions at only 20 yards.
The reputation of the Auxiliary Units .22 rifles was enhanced by the publication of a supposed illustration from an OSS manual showing a Winchester 74 with No.42 scope and sound moderator described as being used by SOE and linking them also to the Auxiliary Units Unfortunately this illustration was a modern construct and no evidence has been found for this particular rifle’s use in OSS or SOE. Neither OSS or SOE used .22 rifles as a sniper rifle but rather (as did the Auxiliary Units) to shoot ‘for the pot’.
If a .22 rifle was to be used as a sniper rifle on a mission, it was vital to engage the target at as short a range as possible, as a guaranteed kill with a head shot on a human, so immediate that they could not cry out a warning, had many variables including range and angle. The best chance with a bolt action rifle was a shot through the eye socket. A semi-automatic rifle (such as the Winchester 74) offered the alternative of a ‘double tap’ to the heart – presupposing the target was not wearing a heavy greatcoat and other equipment. Auxiliary Units patrols were expected to operate silently at night. In these conditions, the suppressed .22 calibre rifles could not guarantee a quick, silent, kill on a human wearing a steel helmet and wrapped in a thick greatcoat, who might not be directly facing the shooter. The firm advice from SOE on the use of its .22 pistols for assassination was that they should be pressed against the skull of the target. It is important to realise that the contemporary sound moderator was not a true 'silencer' of movie legend. At best, the ‘silenced’ rifle might be able to confuse the enemy as to where the shots might be coming from, with the sound masked or bounced around by solid objects. The use of such a rifle as an assassination weapon on a sabotage mission would therefore have been a last resort only if an attacker could not get close enough to use the more reliable knife or garrotte. Auxilier Bob Millward was realistic about their chances of success with a .22 calibre rifle. 'Two of us were rifle club members so 100 yds with target sights was standard. Rabbits at 75 yds with a scope was also a familiar shot. However, these were shots taken at leisure and under no stress. We practised in a quarry at about 100 yards and with a scope I could make a head shot in twilight conditions BUT no stress, a still target and a comfortable firing position. A sentry is not going to be standing in the open with the moon behind him'. They would have been more use against targets such as guard or search dogs and consequently some Auxiliers carried one while on duty at the Observation Posts that guarded their buried Operational Bases.
Some of the thousands of .22 rifles purchased by the Ministry of Supply as training rifles had been delivered with scopes but there was no general use for these in the forces. The Auxiliary Units were one potential way of finding a use at a time when morale was suffering and a new weapon that had an echo of a military sniper might provide a boost. In March 1942 Parker Hale were therefore contracted to fit 'silencers' to 600 .22 rifles already supplied to Auxiliary Units HQ but not yet delivered to the patrols. Some of these were already been factory-fitted with scopes, although Training Officer considered these unnecessary and unreliable. These rifles were a miscellany of Remington snd Winchester models, suggesting there was no serious intent to find the best model sniper work. The only specific model referenced in surviving documents is the Winchester 69 – which might therefore be taken as being a standard. A small number were given the semi-automatic Winchester 74 'cobbled up' with a No.42 artillery scope but this lacked any means of accurate correction. Meanwhile the army Scout Patrols of the Auxiliary Units had been equipped with the standard .303 sniper rifle with scope but no 'silencer'.
Such rifles had a practical use in 'shooting for the pot' which both allowed the men to supplement the wartime food ration and practice their stalking skills but in 1942 any serious intent for the rifle as an assassination weapon must be doubted. If all the stories of their assassination role were to be believed, the Auxiliary Units would have wiped out a significant proportion of the local police and army commands (including their own Intelligence Officers) and caused massive panic over the presence of 'fifth columnists' in the process! The patrols already had better options available to them to reliably silence a sentry at close range. Silenced weapons were never a priority. There is no evidence of any earlier interest in the supply of readily-available silenced weapons such as the .22 Colt Woodman or Hi-Standard pistols, the .32 silenced Webley Scott 1908 pistol or now the silenced 9mm Sten gun. Although in 1944 Training Officer Nigel Oxenden recommended the new silenced Welrod as the only weapon the patrols needed to carry, there is no evidence that this was implemented before the Auxiliary Units were disbanded.