The Caithness Secret Army in World War II

Geoff Leet

First published in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin 2005. Reproduced by kind permission of the author.


Seeing the WW2 Secret Army hide below Glengolly aroused my curiosity. When Andy Guttridge obtained three undated lists of the names of volunteers from the National Archive at Kew I realised that the names might lead to the other hides and to further information. I sorted the lists down to the 82 names in Caithness and looked in the phone book for the 82 names, and also for the surname at the same address to find family members. All this produced very little because the Secret Army really had kept the secrets, even from members of the family.

On 6-2-04 the John O'Groats Journal published my list of 82 names, dates of birth, and addresses. This produced a splendid response from readers. I have been able to contact four survivors from the 82 Caithness names I published, but many members of the families, and some who were small boys at the time, have been able to help. From the 12 hides, there are still traces of 8, we know the position of 2 that have been eliminated, but Dunnet and Wick hides are still secret. The hide locations have been passed to Historic Scotland. My conclusions were later published in the Groat and were similar to the following:
"Auxiliary Units" were set up in 1940 all around the coast (except opposite the Irish Sea which was guarded by mine fields), and got first choice of available weapons and priorities. In the event of invasion, groups of 6 men would descend into each underground hide and emerge at night to attack the enemy by blowing up bridges and supply dumps.

The Auxiliary Units really were secret, and the name "Secret Army" was only invented post-war. The men were called Auxiliary Volunteers; the Army Officers who organised them were called Information Officers, and their manual was disguised as "The Countryman's Diary". Even the men's families did not know where the hides were, and the men did not know the location of adjacent hides. They were recruited, after security clearance, by picking a Sergeant who would then suggest the other five. This resulted in some groups, like Thurso, picking young men who were soon called up; others used all WW1 veterans. The security check was by the police but even they did not know what the men would do.
Many of the men were veterans of the First World War, some were in essential occupations. Some were too young to be called up in 1940, but were called up later: a few of these were returned to the Auxiliary Units a week or so after the call-up. The training was in explosives, weapons, undetected movement at night, and sometimes in unarmed combat. The uniforms were Home Guard with, in Scotland, "201 Battalion" shoulder badges; elsewhere 202 or 203 Battalion badges were used.

The 201BN News
The Secret Army even had a magazine! It had 3 pages stapled together, the cover blue, with patriotic articles, a military quiz, jokes, promotions (and one demotion!), but giving no clue to the purpose of the organisation. The copies I have seen were found with the explosives mentioned below.

The Men's Accounts
Mr William Gunn of Hoy was born in 1921 and joined the Home Guard. Finding this to be too tame he joined the Auxiliary Unit at Bulliemore below Weydale. They trained locally with pistols, Sten Guns, and explosives. One night practice was to creep up on Dunnet Head without being seen by sentries and to mark a target with chalk. They lived in the hide like rabbits. William did not know the location of the adjacent hides at Glengolly or Dunnet. He recalls a final party at the Pentland Hotel.

Also at Bulliemore was William Allan of Cairnfield, now 83. He remembers training and instruction coming from the Cameron Highlanders at Halkirk, who also dug the hide. One demonstration involved the detonation of three land mines in a quarry that blew out windows 200 yds away and deafened William. The explosives were of Gelignite 808, that smelt of marzipan and plastic. The late Willy Manson kept the material in his house rather than the hide, and some was found six years ago - the Army Bomb Squad had to be called.

The function of the Auxiliary Units was demolition, not information gathering, so they had no radio. They were to avoid fire fights if possible.

William Allan and one other man was sent to Coleshill House near Swindon, the HQ, for training in unarmed combat and knife attack, and had to stand all the way back in the Jellico Express.
At the John O'Groats hide was Sandy Manson who recalls the Tommy gun, a Ross rifle, revolvers, and "Molotov Cocktails", bottles with petrol and a wick for throwing at tanks. Sandy later served on Russian convoys.

Also at John O'Groats was Frank W. Sutherland who remembers weekend training at Little Ferry and, for unarmed combat, Blairmore House at Glass near Huntly. Frank had the Tommy gun and, on a night exercise with the Home Guard, an "enemy" sentry stepped on the magazine of the Tommy gun without discovering him. Frank had many kinds of detonator including pencil ones with different time delays. At Little Ferry he had to attack a "German Tank" which turned out to be a defunct Austin 7, bought earlier as a runner in John O'Groats. The training manual, issued 1942, was disguised by the title "The Countryman's Diary" and carried an advertisement for "HIGHWORTHS FERTILISERS, do their stuff unseen until you see results!" The Auxiliary Units were known as the Hush-Hush in John O'Groats and in some other places. The hide was south east of John O' Groats among peat banks, and on one morning when Frank had slept there he lifted the hatch to see a man cutting peat nearby, unaware of the hide. Frank recalls the jokes in the 201 BN NEWS.

Although they were outside Caithness I also include two men from the Bettyhill hide: John (Jock) Mackay described their objective as destroying road bridges, and recalled an Army bus collecting them with men from Reay and Thurso and driving them to Langwell, for instructions from both Seaforths and Cameron Highlanders. This was on Sundays, 7am to midnight. Jock mentioned the usual weapons but also large knives.

Also at Bettyhill was Richard McNichol, now in Golspie, who recalls training at Kilgraston Road, Edinburgh, as well as at Langwell. Their hide was inside ancient Cairn Coull on a ridge above the Skelpick road, built with timber and new corrugated iron, covered with boulders, and with an 80 yard escape tunnel. They built the bunks themselves and slept there sometimes. I could find no trace of the hide.

The Caithness Hides
Listed clockwise around the coast, with a map reference using 8 figures where a GPS was used, 6 figures otherwise. Hides were built from 1940 onwards and in late 1941 the Intelligence Officer of the Northern Area, Captain A.G.Fiddes-Watt (Artist & Osteopath!), reported that he had 15 hides built, 3 being built, and that he sought 9 more.

REAY, NC94176393
West of the village there is a large lay-by on the inland side of the road opposite an old quarry. Just on the Reay side of the lay-by is a tractor track running inland. Follow this 525 yds to large cut stones that lie on the heather to the left of the track. The hide is 220 yds to the left of the track, set in a hollow, and is 3.5M square and 2.2M tall. Made of timber and corrugated iron, a stone ramp conceals the downhill side and a ventilation pipe can still be seen.

SKIALL, ND019678
Just NW of the Loch of Skiall, now a marsh, is a low ridge with a small quarry that slopes to the Forse windmills. Set in the base of the quarry is the hide, still with the corrugated iron, but partly covered by a dump. A local lad spied on the site and knew them as the "suicide squad".

THURSO near Glengolly, ND 109 662
Between the railway and the high bank of the flood plain of the River Thurso, where a stream from "Derwent" cuts a slight valley, is a patch of gorse concealing the hide. This is made of arched corrugated iron like a massive Anderson shelter, and had a wail and door on the south side, and an escape tunnel into the slight valley. Various lads found their way into the hide and remember wooden benches and a few .303 cartridges with blue dots believed to indicate tracer, and the "door that slid out on rails".

BULLEIMORE, ND141641 approximately
This farm is beside the Thurso-Watten road below Weydale. The hide was in a well-drained field and has since been ploughed over. The weapons and explosives were stored in the farmhouse and some were discovered long afterwards so the Bomb Disposal Unit had to be called. Two copies of the "201 BN News" were found with the explosives.

DUNNET, ND 222 697 approximately
The forest car park adjoins a wall running inland and two locals believed the hide to lie 350yds up the wall and some distance west into the Dunnet Links. Mr J.Calder had an Austin 12 (perhaps being restored at Halkirk?) that he used to take the men to Langwell for training. A niece of volunteer D.Calder, Mrs Campbell, recalls at 10 years old cycling around collecting the other volunteers when word arrived from Langwell, and hearing that the hide had "sea shells on the floor". We failed to locate the hide or the seashells.

JOHN O'GROATS, ND391719 approximately
This hide was in a peat bank SW of the village, but was removed by later peat cutting. Of corrugated
iron construction, it had a wooden floor, bunks, and a long escape tunnel.

KEISS , ND34796276
Opposite Keiss Mains is a farm road leading straight inland past the fields into a peat bog. About 60 M on and 60 M left are two heather mounds, in one of which can just be discerned the square hollow of the hide with no sign of the corrugated iron.

WICK -----this hide appears to be lost, unless you know differently

A track runs between the area near Borrowston Quarries and Ulbster Mains, and about halfway along, east of the cairn, it snakes down a cutting. At the sharp bend clamber south up a valley for 50 M to find the hide. No corrugated iron is left but the deep hole, 3M x 4M, remains clear, with a stone ramp to conceal the lower side.

LATHERON-FORSE, ND21813363, also ND2047 3570
Two hides here, one in impenetrable gorse on the steep south bank of the Forse River near the
waterfall. The other is inland in a wood near the Corr Cottage. A long east-west wall that divides
the big field containing the "Wag Of Forse" from the reservoir. In the wood, 50 M south of the line
of this wall, and 30 M from the boundary wall lies the clear hole of the hide.
The reason for two hides is not understood; perhaps one became public knowledge so had to be abandoned, or it may have belonged to another organisation.

Directly opposite the gate of Camster Lodge, 44M from the road across a deer fence, half way up the hill just north of an old tree, lies the 3M rough square recess that contained the hide. One chunk of timber remains.

This was up Langwell Water north east of the Iron Bridge. The Sergeant, also Head Gardener, John Murray, blew up unstable explosives in the hide so that almost nothing shows. He also enjoyed setting booby traps in the garden, and wore the Secret Army badge in his lapel. This is a coloured shield 16rnm high with a crown and then number 1, on the next line 202, and 3 on the lowest line. None of the survivors recalled a badge. This hide had communications in the form of a field telephone that used the fence fires as telephone wires. Langwell was the main site for local training. A male-only party at the Portland Arms celebrated disbanding.

LOCH WATTEN, ND244578 approximately
The site, on the north side of the lake and the north side of Ruther or Stoneholm quarry has been covered over by quarry spoil. The Secret Army lists do not mention any men from Watten. One witness remembers the hide being built by the Army using brick and corrugated iron, with a nearby lookout post from timber and corrugated iron. Another witness, when a lad, reached in and pinched tins of condensed milk, so the hide was occupied. This hide may have been for some observer organisation. (The prisoner of war camp was by the village on the south side of Loch Watten.)

The Special Duties Section
This will be news to the surviving volunteers! A witness from Latheron mentioned that his father and the schoolmaster walked out at night for "intelligence gathering", very secret, and after the war ended everything was burned.

Sabotage and spying do not go well together, and doubles the chance of discovery. The Auxiliary Units were purely for sabotage and had no radios, so for spying a totally separate Special Duties Section was established. In 1942 women from the ATS were selected to operate 32 hidden "Controls" on continuous radio watch. One Control was in Elgin. The Controls were linked by radio to hidden Out-Stations each with their own local spy network, using secret "drops" to isolate the spies from the radio operator.

The radios were specially made, simple to use, voice (not Morse code), and used an unusual high frequency not likely to he monitored by the enemy. The spies and radio operators would stay in their normal jobs and knew nothing about the Auxiliary Units. The Watten hide and one of the Latheron-Forse hides might have been Special Duties radio Out-Stations, passing information to Elgin.

My main literary source of information is "The Last Ditch" by David Lampe, Cassell 1968, SEN 304 92519 5, now out of print but available on request from the library, also "Suffolk's Secret Army" by Geoff Dewing, ISBN 0 9526416 1 5. The lists of names came from the National Archive at Kew. The Auxiliary Units have a web site  . A recent TV programme on Channel 5 dramatised the Secret Army in England, showing a hide like the one at Glengolly, but the script missed the total divide between the saboteurs and the spies.
This project shows that interesting research can be carried out without prior knowledge or special skill. The Secret Army work could be repeated for other Counties, but there is a world of different avenues to be explored !

A Map of Hide Locations


Caithness Field Club Bulletin, 2005

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