Auxunits in Northumberland

Newcastle Evening Chronicle April 1968

The following series of articles were inspired by the recent publication of The Last Ditch. They cover the activities of Northumberland units and their most famous Intelligence Officer, Capt. Anthony Quayle.

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23rd April 1968

The year 1940 was the year of the long, hot summer, when hay lay crisped in the fields, suntanned troops dug in along the Northumbrian coastline to await invasion and white vapour trails in blue skies charted Battle of Britain dog-fights. Odd things happened that year. Countrymen shaded their eyes against the heat shimmer to watch long convoys of tanks and lorries snake over moorland roads. In Northumberland and Durham country pubs echoed the accents of kilted Highland Light Infantrymen stationed near Belford or the softer tones of Somerset men, sipping watery wartime beer in the Blue Bell after long spells of duty in pillboxes dotted above the dunes at Seahouses. The North-East was a scene of frenetic, incessant activity. Country homes were vacated, gamekeepers cottages were acquired in "the national interest" and everywhere there were troops. During that hot summer, when the breeze turned of the sea to gust through blacked out overheated rooms, explosions were heard along the coastal strip. It was unpatriotic to ask questions. "Military Exercises" decided the pit-row housewives, the pensioner firewatchers and ARP personnel, ready with sand buckets and hosepipe to douse flare or firebomb dropped by the enemy. It was a correct guess-but only now, after 20 years silence has the amazing truth emerged...Many of those explosions followed "exercises" carried out by an elite body of North-East men, chosen for their special qualities to carry on the fight for Britain when other regular troops had failed. They were the last line of British defence. They were resistance fighters, pledged under the "Official Secrets Act" never to reveal their purpose. They consisted of farmers, businessmen, miners, gamekeepers and in one case a man described as "the best poacher in the North". They were trained at a secret HQ. in the South of England in the art of killing silently by knife or karate blow...They were armed with the latest weapons—long before other crack troops such as commandos, marines and parachutists In secret underground vaults they cached sufficient explosives to demolish every bridge and "key structure" in the North East. On exercises, their cunning and infiltration methods were proved unbeatable. Theoretically, they "blew up" almost every major command HQ in the North-East—facing regular troops with loaded rifles who were mostly unaware of the exercise. They were led for over one year by Anthony Quayle, the actor, who at his London home last week gave this tribute. "They were some of the grandest fellows it has been my privilege to lead, I never met a more enthusiastic bunch of chaps. If the Germans had landed in the North-East hell would have erupted beneath them and I mean ‘beneath’. The idea was to have underground hide-outs and allow the Germans to sweep over us. We would then have popped up behind them to give them a touch of the jitters. We had no official motto—we didn’t even wear official uniform-but un-officially the motto was "Terror by night".

Who were these freedom fighters? Where are they today and how effective would they have been after a German Invasion?? Much information was given in a recently published book "The Last Ditch" by David Lampe. But the bulk of the North-East story emerged after talks with regional leaders of the underground resistance movement. In spite of natural reticence—due to the secrecy pledge—the truth was unfolded. The resistance men never had an official uniform but for security reasons they donned Home Guard when necessary. So secret was their purpose that records at War Office level are almost non-existent. Group photographs from the war years were banned in case they fell into enemy hands. On an official level they were dubbed "Auxiliary Units" but they were rarely named on documents. Copies of only one document survive in the North East today as proof of their existence—a letter of thanks from the late King George VI. And their numbers were substantially more than the 60 attributed to Northumberland and Durham in a personal diary by a former leader, published by Mr. Lampe in "The Last Ditch". Recruitment was by word of mouth and personal recommendation but unit commanders had wide powers of conscription. Miners and countrymen were the ‘backbone’ of the patrol—but requests for men serving in any unit, home or abroad, were immediately met by the authorities. Each group was responsible for ‘Terrorist resistance’ activities over 200 square miles of territory and underground hideouts were strategically placed for potential ‘nuisance value’ and cover. One -behind the Blue Bell Inn, Belford was constructed without the knowledge of the Inn staff. "I was here all the time and never knew that until you told me" said waitress Mrs. Ella Currin. Significantly, the highly trained resistance men of Northumberland and Durham were assigned one of the War’s biggest tasks—the protection of the Royal family at Balmoral. One group leader proudly boasts of grouse shooting with the late King and can recall personal chats with the then princesses. Today he farms 1,000 acres of prosperous Tweedside farmland with only a wartime photograph of himself and the Royal Family—to recall the honour. His patrol was effective too. One of the King’s aides was kept in the ‘cooler’ for a night by stern faced miners because he forgot the password. Anthony Quayle recalled last week that one of the most notable characters under his command in 1940 was a one-armed man from "a long line of mole catchers"—a longer line than the Duke of Northumberland by whom he was employed. He was called Peter Robson and his knowledge of the countryside astounded me. He had a hook on his belt to pull out grenade pins and he was an expert marksman. "He handled a gun as though it was an extension of his arm and I recall that he led me over the moors and through dense forest to show me a piece of moss that was unique in Britain." He hadn’t been to the spot for a long time but he led me almost straight to it. The moss was about the size of a cup of tea". He did not know where Mr. Robson lived but inquiries have now revealed that he died some years ago. His story would have been "worth telling" said Mr. Quayle. The story of the resistance men has its sombre aspects. One freedom fighter died after "action" and has remained unlauded until now except by wartime colleagues. His name: James Robinson, one of three members of the same family, all of whom served with auxiliary units. He died after an exercise when explosives were used to blast rock in a quarry. "The explosion had settled and he moved forward to examine the result. A lot of rock crumbled down and he died later in hospital" said a friend.

Guerrilla activities were not confined to open country .The rich coal fields areas—plum captures for German occupation forces—would have been the scene of intense "underground" activities. Trained bands of miners awaited the day when German forces marched into the streets of Bedlington and Ashington. One group from Stobswood are remembered even today as the "Death or Glory boys". One recalled how eyes popped in a public house when a "Glory Boy" walked in with hand grenades dangling from his belt, 45 Colt revolvers strapped on each leg and a sub machine gun over his shoulder. "They would" said Anthony Quayle, "have caused the Germans quite a bit of bother, those lads. But resistance leaders, their lips now unsealed after almost 30 years, can recount far more remarkable stories of their North-East exploits.....

Resistance mementoes



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Text supplied by Mr. Charles Richards from original articles in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle

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