In 1938, with the increasing threat of Germany's militancy, the idea was conceived by a major in the Foreign Office of organising some form of resistance by civilians in the event of invasion. Although no funds were made available he and another officer created several subsections in a secret department to enlarge the project, one section investigating the development of weapons suitable for use by guerrilla fighters. Early in 1939 the department was transferred to the Military Intelligence Directorate and renamed Military Intelligence (Research) - MI(R).

Sentry removal (IWM) (25168 bytes)By mid-1939 a Major Gubbins, who had studied guerrilla warfare, began to select British civilians for training but was then posted to Poland and MI(R) continued with the expansion of a guerrilla force under the original officer. After the outbreak of war explosives and other stores were dumped around Britain but with no co-ordination, hopefully to be used by any persons willing to carry out sabotage behind the German occupation. When Gubbins, now a colonel, returned after the withdrawal from Norway, he immediately began the formation of an underground army under the direct aegis of the Commander-in-Chief at GHQ Home Forces, Field-Marshal Ironside. Winston Churchill expressed great interest and the plan prompted his "We will fight them on the beaches" speech.

Auxiliary Units, the cover name given to the organisation, comprised two parts. The first consisted of specially selected civilians with a good knowledge of their local area and physically capable of living rough and fighting and harassing enemy forces. The other part consisted of local wireless networks operated by Royal Corps of Signals personnel with outstations near the coast, each having a civilian operator. A system of spies and runners would supply information of enemy activity to these operators for relaying to the Signals control stations who would in turn transmit the information to the Area HQs attached to Brigade/Corps of the conventional forces. Each control station had from five to ten outstations, Southern England having a larger number as the more likely area to be invaded.

In June 1940 the selection and training of the patrol members began in earnest. Gubbins appointed Col. Andrew Croft, his Intelligence Officer in the Norwegian campaign, as operational and training officer and by the following November Croft had trained 24 seven- or eight-man groups in Essex and Suffolk. Croft then opted to return to Commando units. Brigadier Gubbins had by then made his HQ and training centre at Coleshill House, a Palladian mansion owned by the Pleydell-Bouveries, about 10 miles from Swindon, with large parklands and woods very suitable for guerrilla training.

Every Thursday evening large numbers of patrol members would arrive, accommodated in the large stable block, to spend the next two days receiving instruction in the use of modern explosives and weapons and unarmed combat during the day, while at night they were transported several miles into the surrounding countryside and required to find their way back in the dark (in the light summer evenings they wore dark eyeshields), marking tanks and planes hidden in the woods as destroyed, avoiding tripwires and patrolling sentries. Auxiliary Units received priority, even over the Commandos, with the issue of plastic explosive and delayed-action chemically-activated time pencils, ideal for silent booby-traps. They were the first troops to be issued with stick pencils, a simple mine stuck in the ground and known later by Eighth Army soldiers as 'castrators', tyre-bursting mines, phosphorous hand grenades, Piat anti-tank guns, and Thompson sub-machine-guns imported from the United States. Each member was issued with a Fairbairn Commando dagger, having received instruction in silent killing, where German sentries could be approached silently and stabbed before they had time to warn others. Pistols and rubber truncheons also formed part of their equipment and they wore thick rubber-soled boots, later used by the Commandos. In some units certain members were issued with a special .22 rifle fitted with a telescopic sight and silencer, capable of firing high-velocity bullets which could kill a man a mile away. It never became general issue, however, lacking the sturdiness of army rifles.

Moving in cover (IWM) (17441 bytes)Returning to their local areas, the patrols continued their training several nights a week, often to the chagrin of regular forces. One patrol breached the security of an airfield, marking several Spitfires as destroyed. In a planned exercise on a military HQ another patrol commandeered a baker's van, entered the main building, leaving evidence of the raid, the army commander describing the tactics as unfair, having expected an attack by conventional forces. This exercise highlighted the probability of German parachute troops destroying command HQs and security was tightened accordingly.

Although not in the official Home Guard, the patrols were formed into three special Home Guard battalions as a cover - 201 for Scotland, 202 for Northern England, and 203 for Southern England. In some cases it was noticed that these men were not taking part in normal Home Guard exercises and, sworn to secrecy and unable to explain their absence at night, they came under suspicion of being engaged in nefarious or extra-marital activities! The patrols’ area of activity extended from the north of Scotland down the east coast and round to the south of Wales. About 3,500 men were trained at Coleshill and, with a number trained locally, a total of nearly 5,000 well-trained and armed men awaited a German invasion.

Arthur Gabbitas

Reproduced with kind permission of his family
Images courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

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