Notes on Admiralty Patrols by R.W Bennet

 

Bob Millard received the following letter while researching the Admiralty Patrols.

Nov. 16th.

 

Dear Mr. Millard.

 

It was very pleasant to receive a letter from another fellow member of the aux units. I am answering right away as I have to go away tomorrow for a few days. 

I think the enclosed copy of a letter which I wrote to Mr. Carroll will answer most of your questions. I have gone through my file on this and cannot find anywhere that I said our group photo man taken in 1941. I didn't keep a copy of the first letter (hand written) which accompanied the photographs but I remember that I asked him to correct a mistake in one of the names, and I also told him that the two B.E.M.s had been awarded for rescue work during the Baedecker raid on Bath in 1941. Perhaps this to where he got the date from.

My memories are getting a little hazy but the O.B. above the Warminster Road was that of our No. 3 Patrol and that on Lansdown was No. 2 patrol. I cannot remember the location of the others. That in Prior Park was my own No.4. How did you come to hear of it? Quite late in the war we were discovered by two enterprising pupils of Prior Park School who seeing all our tinned stores thought they had stumbled on a black market cache and reported their find to their head master who reported us in turn to the owner of the property who in turn called in the police. We found ourselves on a raft of charges from simple trespass, alterations to property without permission, damage to property, theft of timber (from his stables) and heaven knows what else. Our I.O. came up from Taunton and put it alright. The old Gentleman was a retired Lt. Colonel and when he was put into the picture gave us his blessing and carte blanche to help ourselves to anything in the stables which we needed. 

And we thought we had disguised the O.B. so well. It was fortunate that our ammo and explosives were all stored in a separate dump against that very happening. As the risk of invasion was considered to be more or less over by then we did not have to find another location. 

A little while before my revived interest in our wartime experiences I had attended a seminar of the Gibraltar Heritage Society and one of the papers read was by an army officer stationed on the Rock (too young to have served in that conflict) and who had heard a persistent rumour that somewhere in a sea cave had been what we know to he an O.B. He had devoted his spare time to searching for it and thought he had discovered it. I listened with some interest and then forgot all about it until I was contacted by Arthur Gabbitas and realised that what he had discovered was in fact an O.B. of the Auxiliary Unit Signals. Did you know that such a group was operating alongside of us in those days? I didn't until just now. 

Must sign off now. Forgive my poor typing. It's easier on by arthritic wrists than writing.

 

Sincerely.

 

Dear Mr. Carroll,

 

I am glad you found the photographs interesting and likely to be of some use. In answer to your two queries, 1 would suggest that the title 'Secret Army' is a little bit dramatic. Secret we certainly were: an army we were not, Our organisation was too loose for that description. The phosphorous bombs 1 will explain later.

To start, after the fall of France Britain found herself on her own and facing the threat of invasion. An Invasion fleet was being assembled at the Channel ports and in spite of continuous harassment by the Navy it was felt that it would soon be our turn. That of course, was why the Home Guard was formed. Called at first 'Local Defence Volunteers' later renamed by Churchill, Home Guard, they were armed with a funny assortment of weapons and their only uniform was an arm band bearing the letters L.D.V. (Forgive me if your researches have already told you this,) When Hitler heard about this he accused us of being 'francs tireurs' not being in uniform, so the authorities put us into khaki without further delay and formed us into battalions of our county regiments. In my case this was the Somerset Light Infantry as I was working in a department of the Admiralty in Bath. As their various depts. were scattered around the area the Admiralty formed their own battalion divided into companies to guard each respective premises. We had a big advantage in the early days because we were all armed with rifles drawn from Naval Stores, and also there were quite a few retired service men there to give instruction to the tyros. 

This was in early summer 1940. I'm getting a little hazy on dates but 1 think it was August or September that our outfit was formed under conditions of great secrecy. We were detached from our battalions and took our orders directly from home forces H.Q. Although we still had the Home Guard flash on our shoulders the battalion number was removed and only the Som. flash remained in our case. The same conditions applied to the various other groups being formed around the country. 

The organisation was thus:‑ Every county with a coastline around Britain was divided into areas of roughly two miles diameter with one patrol responsible for each, The patrol consisted of a sergeant, a lance corporal and five privates. 

A number of patrols,in our case six, were formed into groups under a captain and a lieutenant. The personnel were recruited for the most part from farmers, game‑keepers, poachers and others who would know their own territory thoroughly and were used to moving around it at night. Certain others like ourselves who had specialised technical qualifications. When the invasion took place, we were to go to ground and hide until the enemy had passed over and then come out behind them do such havoc to their vehicles and installations as we could, operating of course at night and without getting caught. It was emphasised that we were to avoid combat. Our function was to stay alive. We would be no use dead. 

Our initial training which took place in local quarries was in the handling of explosives gelignite, plastic explosive fuses and detonators. Our rifles were withdrawn and we were each given a Colt revolver with one Tommy Gun per patrol. (This was later replaced with a Sten Gun much to our chagrin) These items were a gift from the New York Police Department. Remember this was before America had entered the War.

In addition to the standard army equipment issued to the Home Guard we received extras like denims, ground sheets. camouflage paint and. most important, rubber boots so that we could move around at night in complete silence. As time went on we were given other items but certain things we were told to acquire ourselves by any means, honest or dishonest. Soon under wartime conditions all private motoring was stopped and special permits known as 'G' Licences were necessary if on official business one wanted to buy petrol. Here again we were privileged as our training required us to travel to various army depots. Each patrol had its own car. Cars of course were a drug on the market and we obtained from a local farmer a 'Standard 9' for £25 and a gallon of black market petrol. 

H.Q. set up a training school at a large country house In Wiltshire. I've forgotten the name of it, and here we received instruction in things like map reading, camouflage, weapons handling, night movements, etc. Most importantly we were told that each patrol would have to dig its own underground hide-out, called operational base or O.B. and were shown how to do it. While attending a weekend course there, at our last lecture the Colonel told us that the news had just arrived that Hitler had invaded Russia. This would be in May 1941. He said that Intelligence gave the Germans three weeks to conquer Russia (how wrong they were) and then it would be our turn. 

Back home the next eighteen months or so were spent in frantic activity. At least once a week we carried out night exercises. Generally these consisted of one patrol setting up a supposed enemy tank lager protected with sentries and booby traps and giving us the map reference and then the remainder of us would endeavour to get in and destroy it with dummy charges. Other nights we prepared our O.B.s. My patrol was very lucky in this because in our area was a mansion surrounded by a considerable estate (Now National Trust property) and in the middle of a plantation was a disused icebox which once stored the food for the house. You entered by a tunnel some four feet high stone lined cut into the hillside and this led into an underground chamber roughly eight feet in diameter and possibly twelve feet deep, We first had to completely conceal the main entrance and then dig two escape tunnels in case of surprise. We floored this with wooden floors and built in bunks and shelves. Wood of course was impossible to obtain because of the war and quite literally we stole what we needed. We didn't call it stealing. It was 'acquiring'. We also 'acquired’ oil lamps to work by. H.Q. gave us some three months of tinned rations which we stored there. Our explosives and ammunition were stored quite a bit away in steel and concrete bunkers built by the army. Our fellow patrols were not so lucky as we and had to dig their O.B.s. from scratch. Fortunately the local terrain is very hilly so they did not have to dig vertically as some had to in other parts of the country. 

The matter of secrecy was an obsession. It was dinned into us that we told nobody of our duties, training or organisation above all our own wives or families as the Gestapo would have no hesitation in torturing them to get information about us. 

One of our very early night operations, and one which we particularly enjoyed was carried out in conjunction with other local groups and a section of the cadet force of one of the neighbouring public schools. I suppose some eighty to one hundred of us all together. The purpose was to test the defences of a local RAF Station. As far an they were concerned it was a complete fiasco. Their sentries were posted at all the most obvious approaches and it was easy to elude them. All of us detailed to do so got In and plastered aircraft with "Destroyed" notices. and two adventurous youngsters actually hold the station commander at gunpoint in his own office, which was certainly not in their remit. There was a big row about it and as a result all the poor airmen had their leave jammed for a fortnight. The local Home Guard, who of course were completely innocent couldn't enter any of the pubs in uniform for quite a while afterwards. Coincidentally a rather wore physical raid was carried out by a group of American volunteers working in London on an airfield just outside. While our do was kept quiet theirs was not and as a result there were questions asked and these led to the speedy formation of the RAF Regiment whose specific purpose was to defend airfields. 

As time went on our night training got more sophisticated and we grew more and more ingenious in setting up targets to test each other's skills. One such was a disused water mill on an island in the River Avon. We solved the problem with a long and very heavy plank but I don't think we would have got away with it had the defenders' attention not been distracted by one patrol who roped themselves together and were discovered actually crawling along the top of the weir, A rather cold and wet approach. 

Another target was a bridge over the Kennet‑ Avon canal. Easy to defend but very difficult to attack. I thought I had solved the problem by approaching it by water in a canoe. I should have checked my craft first. Too late I discovered it to be mode of metal. The canal which had been neglected for years before the war was full of debris so that I bumped from one obstruction to another sounding like a Salvation Army big drum. 

Perhaps the most amusing and somewhat embarrassing occasion was when I was leading my patrol in the shadow of a hedge through a field of curious cows. The ladies ambled over and kept in step beside us to see what we were up to. It was only too obvious they would give us away so the only thing was retreat and approach from another direction. 

As I said earlier on the battalion number had been removed from our uniform and this led inevitably to questions as to who we were and what was our function. Very difficult to answer in view of the emphasis on secrecy. So H.Q. hit on the idea of dividing the whole country into three. Scotland was 201, the Northern half of England 202 and the Southern half was 203. This still created questions but we tried to shrug them off with answers like "Special Duties" or "Communications". We were issued with new flashes with the appropriate number Our lieutenant then (not the one in the photograph) had been in the regular army and rather delighted In laying spiteful little traps for us and in this case managed to issue me with flashes for my patrol and then steal them back hoping to humiliate me at our next parade when No. 4 patrol turned out improperly dressed. However I managed to defeat this by producing my own sets. Borrowing a flash from the sergeant of No. 3 Patrol I made a careful tracing of the numbers and made a lino block. An old khaki shirt supplied the material and before the next parade night my lads had all sewn on flashes indistinguishable from the issued ones. Matching the Ink had been a problem, but I managed this with a mixture of Indian Ink and Cobalt Blue with a filling of ordinary flour to give it body, In the end this proved my undoing. Some months later we had to test our respirators. While the rest of the company entered and left the gas chamber with immaculate uniforms, No 4 Patrol emerged with pale ghosts of their 203 flashes. The gas had bleached out my clever ink. 

Captain Aves said nothing at the time but the next morning in the office I had a phone call asking for an explanation. I could only tell the truth. His reaction was that “He didn't know whether to blow me up for my carelessness or congratulate me on my bloody cheek, but he rather thought that the cheek had won" He must have known the details and soon afterwards an envelope (unaccompanied by any note) turned up in my In tray containing 28 standard 203 flashes. Our "friendly" lieutenant was soon afterwards transferred back to a London office and sergeant Spearman was commissioned in his place. 

It was becoming obvious that with Germany bogged down In Russia, a full scale invasion of Britain was unlikely but there still remained the possibility of Airborne attacks. It was thought therefore that our operations might have to change to a more mobile role carrying out ambushes, etc without losing sight of our primary purpose; night sabotage. Sunday exercises were now more of a commando style, swarming up quarry faces and swinging over ravines. The Army rigged up a quarry in the Mendips with moving silhouettes and after running a fairly severe obstacle race and at the same time using various weapons we ended up; scrambling up cliff and trying to shoot at these targets with shaking hands and all out of breath. We also tried, without much success, to fire our rifles left‑handed. As far as I was concerned the drill I hated was the Mills grenade. As you have a mere five seconds between releasing the pin and the explosion your instinct is to duck as soon to it is thrown, But the Army drill was "Pin out: Throw: Observe: Duck." To make sure a sergeant instructor stood by you and you didn't duck until he yelled. Those three seconds of observing felt like three years. 

Among the new weapons which we received were the Phosphorous bombs. These were a glass container filled with a mixture of petroleum, phosphorous and rubber latex to be thrown against enemy vehicles, On impact the glass broke and exposure to the air made the phosphorous ignite the patrol and the rubber made the whole lot stick to the target. Another version which I don't remember actually having although we were trained in its use was the “sticky bomb". This was very similar except that the mixture was contained in a glass sphere coated on the outside with a horribly sticky goo. 

The whole was contained in a metal casing to he removed immediately before use. The Idea was to get up against an enemy tank, smash it against the side and retreat before it went off. The one thing to remember was to hold the thing well out to one side else it stuck to you instead of the enemy which could be rather embarrassing. As I said, I don't think this was ever actually issued to us. 

The Home Guard itself was getting rather bored with a routine of parades, drills and guard duties with nothing much happening apart from the occasional air raid and somebody had the bright idea of giving them a "battle experience", We had the job of setting up the course for them. A stretch of open country down in the Mendips was chosen and we criss-crossed this with trip wires attached to small explosive charges to make satisfactory bangs, tossed in thunder flashes and other fireworks among then, fired a few live rounds over their heads and a good time generally was had by all. Sergeant Phillips of our group had been a camera man at one of the film studios before being directed to the Admiralty and he filmed the whole thing. Since seeing the "Dad's Army" series on television I have wondered whether this film was used in the final trailer. 

Incidentally you will see from the photograph that both Sergeant Phillips and Private Rees had been awarded the B.E.M. They earned these for rescue work which they did during the "Baedecker" air raids on the city of Bath. 

Reverting to the phosphorous bombs, those tended to deteriorate after a time and hence the need to destroy them. Also the gelignite could begin to break down. We usually blew it up as shown in the other photograph, You could actually burn it by spreading it along a trench and setting fire to it but we preferred the bang. 

Looking back I realise how fortunate we were to never have a serious accident especially considering the stuff we were playing with over those four years or so. It was all jolly good fun but I am profoundly thankful that it never turned out to be real. 

I realise that you are writing a history of the Home Guard, not of our little group, but you are welcome to use what you like of this. I have enjoyed going back in my memory.

 

Yours Sincerely.

 

 

P.S. the enclosed lapel badge was issued to us at the end of the war. I don't know if you would wish to photograph it for the book. I would be grateful if you could return it to me by the beginning of June as it might be useful at a function I am attending in that month.

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