Auxiliary Units

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The Auxiliary Units or GHQ Auxiliary Units were specially trained, highly secret units created by the United Kingdom government during the Second World War, with the aim of using irregular warfare to help combat any invasion of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany, which the Germans codenamed Operation Sea Lion. With the advantage of having witnessed the rapid fall of several continental nations, the United Kingdom was the only country during the war that was able to create a multi-layered guerrilla in anticipation of an invasion. The Auxiliary Units would fight as uniformed guerrillas during the military campaign. In the event of an invasion, all Auxillary units would disappear into their operational bases; and would not maintain contact with local Home Guard commanders, who should indeed be wholly unaware of their existence. Hence, although the Auxiliaries were Home Guard volunteers and wore Home Guard uniforms, they would not participate in the conventional phase of their town's defence; but would be activated once the local Home Guard defence had been ended, to inflict maximum mayhem and disruption over a further, necessarily brief but violent, period. They were not envisaged as a continuing resistance force against long-term occupation.

Service in the Auxiliary Units was expected to be highly dangerous, with a projected life expectancy of just 12 days for its members; along with orders to either shoot each other or use explosives to kill themselves if capture by an enemy force seemed likely.[1]

Urged on by the War Office, Prime Minister Winston Churchill initiated the Auxiliary Units[2] in the early summer of 1940. This was to counter the civilian Home Defence Scheme already established by SIS (MI6), but outside War Office control. The Auxiliary Units answered to GHQ Home Forces, but were legally an integral part of the Home Guard.

Churchill appointed Colonel Colin Gubbins to found the Auxiliary Units. Gubbins, a regular British Army soldier, had acquired considerable experience and expertise in guerrilla warfare during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1919 and in the Irish War of Independence of 1919–1921. Most recently, he had returned from Norway, where he headed the Independent Companies, the predecessors of the British Commandos. In November 1940 Gubbins moved to the Special Operations Executive (SOE).[3]

In modern times, the Auxiliary Units have sometimes, misleadingly, been referred to as the "British Resistance Organisation".[4] This is a title was never used by the organization officially, but reflects a subsequent misunderstanding of what their role might have been. Colloquially, members of the Auxiliary Units were referred to as “scallywags”, and their activities as “scallywagging”.[5][6]


Gubbins used several officers who had served with the Independent Companies in Norway, plus others he had known there. Units were localised on a county structure, as they would probably be fragmented and isolated from each other. They were distributed around the coast rather than being country-wide, with priority being given to the counties most at risk from enemy invasion, the two most vulnerable being Kent and Sussex in south east England. The two best known officers from this period were Captain Peter Fleming of the Grenadier Guards and Captain Mike Calvert of the Royal Engineers.

Operational Patrols[edit]

Operational base, reconstruction at Parham Airfield Museum.
Auxiliary Units, Operational Base, emergency exit

Operational Patrols consisted of between four and eight men, often farmers or landowners. They were usually recruited from the most able members of the Home Guard, possessed excellent local knowledge and were able to live off the land. Gamekeepers and even poachers were particularly valued.[7] They were always intended to fight in Home Guard uniform and from 1942 the men were badged to Home Guard battalions 201 (Scotland), 202 (northern England), or 203 (southern England).[dubious ]

Around 3,500 men were trained on weekend courses at Coleshill House near Highworth, Wiltshire, in the arts of guerrilla warfare including assassination, unarmed combat, demolition and sabotage.

Each Patrol was a self-contained cell, expected to be self-sufficient and operationally autonomous in the case of invasion, generally operating within a 15-mile radius. They were provided with elaborately concealed underground Operational Bases (OB),[8][9] usually built by the Royal Engineers in a local woodland, with a camouflaged entrance and emergency escape tunnel. It is thought that 400 to 500 such OBs were constructed.[citation needed]

Some Patrols had an additional concealed Observation Post and/or underground ammunition store. Patrols were provided with a selection of the latest weapons including a silenced pistol or Sten gun and Fairbairn-Sykes "commando" knives, quantities of plastic explosive, incendiary devices, and food to last for two weeks. Members anticipated being shot if they were captured, and were expected to shoot themselves first rather than be taken alive.[citation needed]

The mission of the units was to attack invading forces from behind their own lines while conventional forces fell back to prepared defences. Aircraft, fuel dumps, railway lines, and depots were high on the list of targets, as would be the assassination of senior German officers and any local collaborators.[citation needed] Patrols secretly reconnoitred local country houses, which might be used by German officers, and prepared lists of suspected fifth columnists as early targets for killing.

Although the Auxiliary units would fight in Home Guard uniform, their operations would otherwise clearly be irregular combatants under the Geneva Conventions; they and their weapons would be concealed, they would not under be the control of the local Home Guard commander, and in combat they would not be constrained by the 'rules of war'. General Home Guard units were instructed to fight on and not to surrender; but it was expected that nevertheless, once their ammunition was exhausted, they would have to give themselves up to capture. Which was seen as creating an opportunity for a hidden Auxiliary unit in the locality to kill as many Germans as possible, just when they might be considering themselves as victors.

Special Duty Sections and Signals[edit]

Separate from the Auxiliary Units' Operational Patrols was the Special Duty Branch,[10] originally recruited by SIS and carefully vetted and selected from the local civilian population. This group acted as "eyes and ears" and would report back to military intelligence any information they heard from 'careless talk' or from watching troop movements and supply routes. It was supported by a signals network of hidden, short-range, wireless sets around the coast. The structure allowed no means of passing on such information to the Operational Patrols.

It is unlikely that the wireless network would survive long after invasion and it would not have been possible to link the isolated Operational Patrols into a national network that could act in concert, on behalf of a British government in exile and its representatives still in the United Kingdom. Instead, SIS (MI6) created a separate resistance organisation (Section VII) with powerful wireless sets that was intended to act on a longer-term basis.

The Special Duties Sections were largely recruited from the civilian population, with around 4,000 members. They had been trained to identify vehicles, high-ranking officers and military units, and were to gather intelligence and leave reports in dead letter drops. The reports would be collected by runners and taken to one of over 200 secret radio transmitters operated by trained civilian signals staff. The civilian personnel operated as 'Intelligence Gatherers' and operated the OUT Station radios. ATS subalterns or Royal Signals personnel operated the Special Duties IN-Stations and Zero Stations.

Later history[edit]

The Auxiliary Units were kept in being long after any immediate Nazi threat had passed and were stood down only in November 1944.[7] Several Auxiliary Unit members later joined the Special Air Service. Many men saw action in the campaign in France in late 1944, notably in Operation Houndsworth and Operation Bulbasket.

From 1942, the Operational Patrols of the Auxiliary Units tried to re-invent themselves as an anti-raiding force. This was primarily a device to avoid them being disbanded as the War Office had made a promise that the volunteers would not be returned to normal Home Guard duties. They therefore had to be kept in existence until the general stand-down of the Home Guard. Nonetheless, some units were deployed to the Isle of Wight prior to the D day landings in 1944, in order to help protect the Pluto fuel pipeline from being attacked by German commandos. It was then suggested that the Auxiliary Units should be fully administered by the Home Guard but this was not enacted before the final stand-down in November 1944.[11]

Cultural references[edit]

An Auxiliary Unit arms cache features in the 1985 BBC TV series, Blott on the Landscape.

British partisans feature in two UK films that imagine what would have happened if Germany had successfully invaded Britain: the 1966 film It Happened Here (which simply refers to 'partisans') and the 2011 film Resistance based on Owen Sheers' first novel, Resistance. The partisans in the latter are loosely based upon Auxiliary Units, albeit with considerable artistic licence.

The Auxiliary Units feature in the BBC programme Wartime Farm although there is some confusion between the roles of the Operational Patrols and the Special Duties Branch.

The Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Branch feature heavily in Gordon Stevens' 1991 novel And All the King's Men (ISBN 978-0330315340). The novel examines an alternate history following a successful German invasion of England.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hardman, Robert (25 November 2011). "The British Resistance: The true story of the secret guerilla army of shopkeepers and farmworkers trained to defy the Nazis in a suicidal last stand". Daily Mail. London. Archived from the original on 27 November 2011. Retrieved 29 January 2016. Not only were Auxiliary Units given a life expectancy of 12 days, but they were also under orders not to be captured. If surrounded, they would need to shoot each other or blow themselves up with their own explosives.
  2. ^ Sykes, Tom (28 March 2016). "British Resistance Archive". British Resistance Archive. Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team. Retrieved 28 March 2016.
  3. ^ Lampe (2007), p.113
  4. ^ "The History of the Auxiliary Units & British Resistance Movement". Cole's Hill House. Retrieved 29 January 2016.
  5. ^ Secret army of ‘scallywags’ to sabotage German occupation quoted from The Times, 5 January 2009
  6. ^ The Scallywags on
  7. ^ a b "Trevor Miners, Auxilier - obituary". The Daily Telegraph. London. 8 April 2016. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  8. ^ "Operational Bases (OB's) of the Auxiliary Units". Coleshill House. Retrieved 11 November 2016.
  9. ^ "Hidden tunnels and Britain's secret WW2 resistance army". BBC. 11 November 2016. Retrieved 11 November 2016.
  10. ^ "Special Duties Section". The British Resistance Archive. 2015. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
  11. ^ Atkin, Malcolm (2015). Fighting Nazi Occupation: British Resistance 1939 - 1945. Pen and Sword. p. 158. ISBN 978-1-47383-377-7.

Further reading[edit]

  • Watson, Bill (2011) [2011]. Gone To Ground. Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (Foreword by David Blair). ISBN 1-908374-06-3.
  • Lampe, David (2007) [1968]. The Last Ditch: Britain's Resistance Plans Against the Nazis. Greenhill Books (Foreword by Gary Sheffield). ISBN 1-85367-730-2.
  • Ward, Arthur (1997). Resisting the Nazi Invader. Constable. ISBN 0-09-476750-5.
  • Stewart Angell. The Secret Sussex Resistance. (Middleton Press) ISBN 1-873793-82-0
  • Roger Ford. Fire from the Forest (Orion, 2004), ISBN 0-304-36336-7
  • Donald Brown. Somerset versus Hitler (Countryside Books, 2001) ISBN 1-85306-590-0
  • Warwicker, John (2002). With Britain in Mortal Danger: Britain's Most Secret Army of WWII. Cerberus. ISBN 1-84145-112-6.
  • Warwicker, John (2008). Churchill's Underground Army: A History of the Auxiliary Units in World War II. Frontline Books. ISBN 1-84832-515-0.
  • Sheers, Owen (2008). Resistance. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-22964-6.
  • Atkin, Malcolm (2015). Fighting Nazi Occupation: British Resistance 1939-1945. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. ISBN 978-1-47383-377-7.

External links[edit]