Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Over 20,000 British civilians served in secret WW2 defence units

More than 20,000 British civilians, including schoolchildren, vicars and housewives, belonged to secret organisations formed to combat a Nazi German invasion or serve as resistance fighters following a successful conquest, a historian has revealed.

The role of the 1.7 million members of the Home Guard in the Second World War is well-known. But Andrew Chatterton says the portrayal of its volunteers in the sitcom Dad’s Army has given rise to a misleading impression that Britain’s civilian defences comprised of “elderly men armed with pitchforks lining the cliffs”.

In a new book drawing on first-hand testimonies and archival discoveries, Chatterton uncovers the scale, sophistication and ruthlessness of Britain’s secret civilian defence forces, which would have served in parallel with Home Guard and regular forces, or after a British defeat.

The Channel Islands were, in the end, the only British territory occupied by German forces during the Second World War after they were demilitarised for strategic reasons. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM HU 1761

The Auxiliary Units, Special Duties Branch and Section VII were three organisations formed to play different, complementary roles had Germany’s planned invasion gone ahead following the Fall of France and the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk in June 1940. Recruits were sworn to secrecy and Chatterton said most people have no idea that German troops faced being tracked by curtain-twitching old ladies and sniped on by schoolboys when they weren’t under attack from guerrillas or conventional forces.

The Auxiliary Units, the founders of which included the soldier, explorer and author Peter Fleming — brother of James Bond author Ian Fleming — were mostly based in coastal counties and recruited from men in reserved occupations who had an intimate knowledge of the land.

These farmers, gamekeepers, miners, quarrymen and the like were exempt from conscription but physically tough and often experienced with guns or explosives. When the Germans entered their districts, they would have hidden in underground bunkers and sallied out by night to attack supply lines and ammunition and fuel dumps, as well as to assassinate German officials and British collaborators.

They even anticipated having to kill innocent civilians to protect their positions and remain effective as guerrillas and saboteurs for as long as possible. Ken Welch, who joined in Cornwall, aged 16, told Chatterton: “There was an old couple living in a little cottage on the road opposite our OB [Operational Base]. They knew something was going on and so they sadly would have to say goodbye if the Germans came . . . I suspect we would have drawn straws to see which one of us would have taken them out.”

Ken Welch joined the Auxiliary Units as a teenager

It was previously estimated that around 3,500 men served in the units, but research by Chatterton and his fellow members of the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team indicates that the real total was about 6,500.

The Special Duties Branch, led by officers from Military Intelligence, also operated in coastal counties but had a very different recruitment base. It was made up of the elderly, teenagers, mothers, vicars, doctors, publicans — anyone who could remain in the town or village and observe the invading army pass through. They would note details of enemy units and movements and pass them, using runners and dead drops, until the information reached civilian wireless operators with sets hidden in locations such as pulpits, privies and pub roofs.

Chatterton said: “These messages were quickly radioed on to ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] girls in secret bunkers like those inhabited by the Auxiliary Units, who would pass it on to GHQ or local command. This was designed to take away the impact of the Blitzkrieg where the German army passed through France and the Low Countries with no one knowing where they would end up next. It would have allowed commanders to make informed, timely decisions about British counterattacks.”

Jill Holman, a teenager from Norfolk whose father was already running a concealed wireless set for the Special Duties Branch, later recalled her recruitment: “Colonel Collins, the local commanding officer, asked my father if he thought I’d fold at the site of a German. My father told him I didn’t fold at anything — horses, bulls and schoolmistresses — so the colonel recruited me. He thought a brat on a horse was unlikely to be suspected of anything. So, I was to ride out and spot choice targets in terms of troops and supply dumps.”

Coastal areas could have been the Germans’ first foothold in an invasion and were heavily defended. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM HU 36228

Chatterton calculates that around 4,000 people served in the Special Duties Branch. Both the Special Duties Branch and the Auxiliary Units were anti-invasion forces and had a life expectancy of only two to three weeks while they slowed a German advance.

The third secret unit, Section VII, had a very different remit resembling that of the French Resistance. Chatterton said: “This was the group recruited and run by SIS (MI6). They were to remain inactive until Britain had been defeated militarily and occupied by the Germans, with the country likely split into occupied and unoccupied zones as in France.

“Made up of civilian cells, often family groups, they were recruited initially in the coastal counties but then throughout the country. Women were trained in combat roles, including learning to use the garrotte, teenage boys were taught by ex-First World War ‘sharpshooters’ how to be snipers to take out members of the occupying forces and collaborators. There were also wireless operators to pass on information about the occupying forces to those in the unoccupied zone, or even a British government in exile.”

“Any invasion or occupation was going to be brutally resisted”

Andrew Chatterton

In Britain’s Secret Defences, his new book, Chatterton describes how Peter Attwater, from Matlock in Derbyshire was a 14-year-old schoolboy, air cadet and messenger for Air Raid Precautions when he was recruited for Section VII by an SIS officer. Attwater described how he was shown his unit’s hidden wireless set — and the revolver and hand grenade stashed alongside it for use in case of discovery — and trained as a courier and observer, familiar with German and Italian uniforms and unit insignia.

Irene Lockley, a Section VII recruit from Yorkshire, during the Second World War

In South Milford in Yorkshire, Irene Lockley said she was about 18 when she and a handful of male relatives were among the locals trained at an old quarry. According to her daughter Jennifer Lockley, they “were taught how to derail trains, how to make Molotov cocktails to throw into enemy tanks and other vehicles, how to garrotte, unarmed combat, recognise aircraft and many other skills related to warfare.”

Jennifer remembers that, in the early 1950s, when an aggressive salesman put his foot in the door to continue his patter, her mother put her unarmed combat training to use to send him summersaulting through the air.

Extrapolating from known Section VII members and their accounts of comrades in their areas, Chatterton estimates that the organisation had over 10,000 members. This would make it the largest of the three secret organisations and put their combined membership at over 20,500 — significantly higher than was previously recognised.

He said most recruits signed the Official Secrets Act and never disclosed their activities even after they were free to do so decades later. As a result, it is likely that tens of thousands of Britons are unaware that civilian relatives volunteered to put their lives on the line and received specialist training. Had they been captured by German forces, they faced interrogation, torture and summary execution and reprisals would have been taken against whole communities.

A Home Guard anti-tank section captures a “Nazi tank”. Andrew Chatterton argues that postwar portrayals of the Home Guard have created a misleading impression of Britain’s civilian defences. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM HU 83770

Nevertheless, Chatterton believes that, in combination with regular forces and the Home Guard, which included battle-hardened First World War veterans, they would have inflicted a great deal of pain on German units. “Any invasion or occupation was going to be brutally resisted,” he said. “And this goes against that perception we have of Corporal Jones and Captain Mainwaring. It’s almost the exact opposite of that. The main takeaway that I’d like people to come away with is a new pride in what we were about in 1940.” 

The photograph at the top of the article is one of the best illustrations of the Auxiliary Units and shows the Warsash Patrol in Hampshire. Photo: British Resistance Archive (colour by RJM)

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