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 resisting any eventual occupation of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany, after a planned invasion 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 such a resistance movement in anticipation of an invasion.

Winston Churchill (prime minister from 10 May 1940) initiated the units, sometimes referred to as a part of the British Resistance Organisation, in the early summer of 1940. He appointed Colonel Colin Gubbins to found them. The Auxiliary Units answered to GHQ Home Forces, but were organised as if part of the local Home Guard.

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 Anglo-Irish War 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 would move to the Special Operations Executive (SOE).[1]


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. Priority was 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.

Calvert had recently served in the 5th Battalion, Scots Guards, which had been formed to fight as a ski-troop in Finland. Both of these men were too valuable to stay long, once the immediate threat of invasion was over.[citation needed]

Operational Patrols[edit]

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, and possessed excellent local knowledge and were able to live off the land.[citation needed] As cover, the men were allocated to Home Guard battalions 201 (Scotland), 202 (northern England), or 203 (southern England) and were provided with Home Guard uniforms, though they were not actually Home Guard units.[citation needed]

Around 3,500 such 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. Recruits for Coleshill reported to the Highworth post office, from where the postmistress, Mabel Stranks, arranged for their collection.[citation needed]

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 a concealed underground Operational Base (OB), 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]

A 2011 Cranfield University PhD on the 'Home Guard' by Dale Clarke has a chapter on the weapons and explosives used by them, includes several pictures of knives in particular.[2]

The mission of the units was to attack invading forces from behind their own lines while conventional forces fell back to the last-ditch GHQ Line. Aircraft, fuel dumps, railway lines, and depots were high on the list of targets, as were senior German officers.[citation needed] Patrols secretly reconnoitred local country houses, which might be used by German officers, in preparation.

Special Duty Sections and Signals[edit]

The Auxiliary Units' Operational Patrols were supported by the Special Duty Branch,[3] carefully vetted and selected from the local civilian population. This group acted as "eyes and ears" and would report back to GHQ Reserve Home Forces any information they heard from 'careless talk' or from watching troop movements and supply routes. A course of action then would be given by various means to the Operational Patrols and carried out under the hours of darkness. In addition, a signals structure would attempt to link the isolated bands 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.

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.

Later history[edit]

The Auxiliary Units were kept in being long after any immediate Nazi threat had passed and were stood down only in 1944. 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.

The units' existence did not generally become known by the public until the 1990s, though a book on the subject was published in 1968.

Dale Clarke in his PhD lists the explosives found when five posts in Essex were finally handed over in 1964. He concludes the British railway network was a prime target:

  • 14,738 rounds of ammunition for pistols, rifles and submachine guns, including a quantity of incendiary rounds
  • 1,205lbs of gelignite, of Nobel 808 and of plastic explosive, most of it in a safe enough condition to take away
  • 3,742ft delayed action fuse
  • 930ft instantaneous safety fuse
  • 250ft detonating cord
  • 1,447 time pencils
  • 1,207 L-delay switches [a later form of time pencil which, instead of relying on acid, is triggered by induced metal fatigue]
  • 1,271 detonators of various types
  • 719 push, pull and pressure-release booby-trap switches
  • 314 paraffin bombs and 340 igniters for these bombs and for the safety fuses
  • 131 fog signals
  • 121 smoke bombs
  • 212 thunderflashes
  • 571 primers
  • 36 1lb slabs of gun cotton
  • 4 hand-grenades
  • 10 phosphorus grenades
  • 33 time-pencils with booby trap switches attached to made-up charges

Cultural references[edit]

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

The Auxiliary Units feature in two UK films that imagine what would have happened if Germany had successfully invaded Britain: the 1966 film It Happened Here and the 2011 film Resistance based on Owen Sheers' first novel, Resistance.

The Auxiliary Units feature in the BBC programme Wartime Farm.

See also[edit]


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. 

External links[edit]