Auxunits in Northumberland

Newcastle Evening Chronicle April 1968

Evening Chronicle logo

24th April 1968

A film star, a mining town banker and a group of miners—time the early 1940’s, it was an oddly assorted group but then, they were odd. Britain lay under the threat of Invasion and rumours flew. The gently sloping beaches of Northumberland were ideal landing places for invaders. The flat plateau beyond—open, lightly hedged and exposed—formed perfect tank territory. Thus it was that Anthony Quayle, the actor, then a resistance leader, arranged an exercise for a Bedlington Patrol. He would leave his staff car on a lonely road and the patrol of miners, led by banker Mr. Robert Hall, must regard it as a German tank in "laager". High on the moors, west of Morpeth, Captain Quayle, an artillery officer chosen to direct the North-East resistance after service in Gibraltar, told his driver to pull up by the side of the road. He told him "We’ll have a smoke" and stepped out. The wind whipped off the fells, knifed edged, carrying flurries of snow. Capt. Quayle buttoned his overcoat to the neck. Chatting with the driver, shielding the cigarette in cupped hands and blowing in them occasionally for warmth, he moved 20 yards from his parked Humber. "I wanted to see how the patrol operated. I kept my eyes on the car and if I was thinking of anything else it was simply how damnably cold it was" he said. Finally, with two hours gone and no sign of movement, he told the driver: "We’ve had enough—the miners must have been told to work an extra shift". He walked back to the Humber—Staff car such was the importance of his job that only Quayle and a general had this type of staff car—and opened the door. "Inside, a couple of them were smoking a cigarette, warm and comfortable. Another emerged from under the car and said he had planted the bomb. Then the rest of them rose from the roadside with guns pointed at me. "Those chaps had been watching me for two hours—ever since we arrived" he said. Quayle had been made a victim of his own training methods in silent infiltration and even today he is amazed at how easily those miners from Stobswood adapted themselves to the techniques of silent warfare. "That patrol was a tough lot and their leader, I might add, would have proved an extremely violent man to the Germans". There were other incidents. The more difficult the task, the more cunning the patrols proved." One of the most amazing things I learned in Northumberland was just how valuable darkness was in this type of warfare. "We taught the men that darkness was their friend and the axiom was constantly proved correct in exercises with regular troops". It was another patrol of miners involved in an incident which Quayle claimed was" the nearest he came to being shot in the entire war". It was arranged for the patrol to test the defences of the 51st Highland Division headquarters in Middleton Hall, two miles north of Belford, near the A1.

The weather, this time was more kind. It was sometime after 1 a.m. when the patrol rendezvoused at the high wall surrounding the house. Inside, there was silence. Each man knew his task and they slid off, faces blackened, into the grounds. What happened not only proved the Scots HQ. was vulnerable-it also tested their patience. Amazingly, the patrol infiltrated the entire building, they planted "timepencils—a thunderflash type instrument—under the beds of the sleeping troops. They crept into the guard-house unseen and left more "pencils" as an abrupt "awakener" for the recumbent guard. Under each vehicle they planted pseudo-limpet bombs. "I cannot recall if on this occasion they even used plastic explosives. It would have been very dangerous, of course, but those lads were capable of that kind of trick. The place was really badly protected" said Quayle. Tasks completed, the patrol slipped back and returned to their homes. Quayle and a demolitions expert, decided to stay and watch the "fun" "We were hiding in a clump of rhododendron bushes when the first of the detonators went off in the grounds. Then there were flashes and bangs inside the building, and the place erupted. "Angry Scots were running all over the place. Then suddenly it ceased to be funny when I heard a voice shout: ’Find ‘em and shoot the B------------"I could hear bayonets being fixed and rifle bolts snicking and we just froze in the bush. Once again, however, darkness proved a friend. We didn’t budge an inch for two hours and, when things quietened down we moved hell for leather over the wall and home". "It was a close thing, but we had, in effect blown the headquarters from the face of the map". Quayle arrived in the North East because he heard the auxiliary units were "doing something unusual". Some ground work had already been done by another officer, a Major George McNichol, but it was Quayle who formed most of the patrols, arranged sites for underground "hides" recruited leaders and formulated exercises to test efficiency. The miners he recalled were "merciless men" in those tension full days. "At first I thought they would be beaten by countrymen in fieldcraft, but how wrong I was proved" he said. He remembers his stay in the North-East with affection and made friends with whom he still corresponds.

They include the Robinson family of Seahouses. "There was a whole tribe of them involved in it". They were busy days—and even busier nights. His recruitment policy was simple. He would pop into country pubs and in conversation tried to establish who were noted poachers—all were likely candidates. He then discovered the names of gamekeepers or "good countrymen" and conducted guarded interviews to establish their character and suitability for underground fighting. Patrols, he found were self-perpetuating. Admission was by personal introduction only. "Had the worst happened, these chaps would have relied on each other for their lives. They had not to crack under pressure or persuasion. "They had to live together for days or weeks at a time in the hideouts. One ‘wrong’ man would have created tension". His headquarters were in a gamekeepers cottage, where an adjacent building was ideal for storage of explosives. He could not recall its exact location but inquiries have proved that it was a cottage which still stands near Shielow Castle.

"I know it was just perfect, it was off the main road in the middle of a thick forest" Quayle recalled. His association as leader of Northumbrian resistance continued throughout the vital "invasion threat" year of 1941.Later he moved to Gibraltar and took part in the planning for "Operation Torch".

He saw war planning in the highest echelons and became acquainted with Churchill and Eisenhower. Quayle today (1968) a quietly spoken man with a love of the sea and "just being alone" recalled himself in the war years as a man with a quest for "doing something different". He was he felt "totally removed from the kind of role I seemed to playing in film—that of the stiff-upper lip type officer". He added "I liked to be responsible for my own actions. That’s why I volunteered for the Northumberland job". The experience he gained of secret warfare on the moors of Northumberland stayed with him when he later "opted out of staff work for something more challenging". He joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was dropped into Albania with a double brief: To spy on the Germans and "make a nuisance of myself". It was a miserable business, really. But what knowledge I gained in Northumberland certainly came in handy" he said. For Anthony Quayle, the end of the war brought a resumption of his acting career and stardom with—oddly enough-the role of saboteur in "The Guns of Naverone" and a British officer in "The Battle of the River Plate". He was in a relaxed mood, wearing blue jeans and a sweater and basking in the sunshine of the garden behind his home in Pelham Crescent, South-Kensington." The war certainly changed me" he said: "But I remember with a great deal of affection the men and the people of the North-East". "It was a wonderful place and I always felt very much at home there. I have a very warm feeling for the North-East—a rugged place with rugged, hardy people. A place with space to move and breathe. "It’s a damn sight better, in fact, than the South".

Capt. Anthony Quayle

Top

Next / Previous

Back to Auxunit News

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

ã Newcastle Chronicle & Journal Limited