In the summer of 1940 the Nazi machine appeared invincible. Britain stood alone as the only free country in Western Europe fighting back against Germany, and all the signs suggested that Hitler intended to launch his invasion soon. The country’s leaders knew that Britain would likely fall in the event of a well-coordinated attack, but they were determined that if she fell she would go down swinging. Now was the time to formulate an audacious contingency plan… while they still could.
As ‘Operation Sea Lion’ by Peter Fleming explains, the prospect of a life under German rule was not an attractive one. The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the High Command of the German Army, created an ominous document, dated September 9 1940, entitled ‘Orders concerning the origination and function of Military Government in England’. It ruled that all able-bodied men aged 17-45 would be dispatched to Europe to fight for Germany immediately, outlined plans to seize food, vehicles, minerals, precious stones, animal skins and timber (leaving the population with few goods to call their own), and suggested that the welfare of the people would only be considered “in so far as they contribute directly or indirectly towards the maintenance of law and order and the securing of the country’s labour for the requirements of the German troops and the German war economy”. Once the Germans settled in, resistance would not be tolerated. The plan states, “Law and order will be established. Administrative measures will not violate international law unless the enemy has given cause for reprisals… armed insurgents of either sex will be dealt with with the utmost severity.”
So, if there was to be resistance it would have to be planned in secret and conducted quickly, aiming for maximum impact, by small groups of extremely well organised patriots who were willing to take the ultimate risk for their country. It had been on the government’s mind since the evacuation of Dunkirk that invasion was a real possibility, and unlike the leaders of France and the other occupied nations of Europe they had time to reflect, strategize and prepare. France and Norway in particular had excellent resistance networks, which had been cooperating more and more closely with Britain in recent months (in July 1940 the Special Operations Executive was formally launched and began sending agents to help these groups to ‘set Europe ablaze’), so they had some idea of the sort of challenges a British resistance network would face, how they might operate and what types of interference would make life especially difficult for the Germans. They also knew that it took time for such a group to find recruits, build connections and a skillset, and put its plans into action. Why not lay the groundwork early, so that the sabotage could begin the second the invaders landed?
They could not, of course, know exactly where Hitler’s fist would strike first, but had a shrewd idea that it would be along the east coast nearest to France, around Kent, Sussex and Surrey. Certainly, according to Fleming’s ‘Operation Sea Lion’, General Andrew Thorne, the commander of XII Corps, the Home Force unit assigned to guard this section of coastline, thought so. He felt his unit would struggle to hold the invaders for long, and surmised that any interference which could delay the Germans’ attack would increase their chances of successfully repelling it. General Thorne therefore approached the government to ask that ‘stay behind’ groups be organised among the civilians of the county. Already interested in the concept, and keen to support any plan that might delay a march on London, the Home Office assigned Peter Fleming himself to make the necessary preparations. Other commanders soon clamoured for their own underground support organisations, and, with the help of a made-up quote from an imaginary Chinese General, saying, “A guerrilla without a base is no better than a desperate straggler”, the organisers for the first group succeeded in convincing the government that it was worth constructing purpose-built hideouts that would allow a sustained sabotage campaign against the invaders rather than a one-off and soon combated smash-and-run attack (on such strange tales is history built!).
Major General Colin Gubbins, later to lead the SOE, was appointed to take charge of Britain’s underground army, dubbed (purposely vaguely) the ‘Auxiliary Units’. He had been the organiser of the 'Independent Companies', the fore-runner of the British Commandoes, in Norway and had written the government’s own pamphlet on ‘The Art of Guerrilla Warfare’, so was well qualified for the job. As Des Turner’s ‘SOE’s Secret Weapon Centre: Station 12’ explains, he decided that every part of the British coast must have a resistance network nearby to assist the Home Guard. Cells were soon organised from Pembrokeshire round to Land’s End, Dover, John O’Groats and Dumfriesshire. Headquarters were set up at Coleshill House near Swindon, and later Melville House near Ladybank, Fife, and these doubled as training centres.
Specially selected recruits – usually middle-aged ex-army men who were considered too old to go to war, but still badly wanted to do their bit for their country – were trained in the use of plastic and other explosives and where to set them on various vehicles to inflict the most damage, how to make their own explosives when supplies ran low, the setting of booby traps, how to destroy petrol dumps, the use of various weapons, hand-to-hand combat and the art of silent killing with the double-edged Fairbairn-Sykes Commando knife. They would be formed into small units of one officer, a ‘striking force’ of 12 soldiers commanded by a subaltern, and as wireless technology grew more advanced and could reach an appropriate range, two wireless operators. This main cell would then be supported by a group of carefully vetted locals, the Special Duties Section, who would carry messages and provide intelligence. Secrecy was of course key, as the less the people of the counties knew about these operations, the less vulnerable they would be to pressing by the Germans to give information. It was only years after the war was over that most people even heard of these units.
Weapons dumps, packed at Aston House, the headquarters of the SOE, were buried for the use of these groups if the invasion came. These would typically contain the afore-mentioned plastic explosives, Thompson sub-machine guns, sticky bombs, anti-tank weapons, tyre bursters, stick pencils that would fire vertically when stepped on, sniper rifles with silencers and the Commando knives. They were hidden near the around 500 hideouts prepared for the use of the Auxiliary Units, stocked with rations, blankets, wireless sets and stores. Sometimes they were secret rooms concealed in stately homes and known only to the owners, sometimes specially adapted air-raid shelters, but most often dugouts concealed in woodland scrubland, created by the excellent Royal Engineers and equipped with bunks and proper ventilation. When the Home Guard moved inland, the Auxiliary Units would retreat to their hidey-holes and wait for the advancing Germans to pass before starting their campaign of harassment. When things got hot, they would hide again.
In the event, the expected invasion never materialised. Despite electrifying the country by first sending the Luftwaffe to soften them up in August, then spies to reconnoitre the country in early September, and even publicly pledging to mount an invasion, readying his navy and warning senior figures to await the word to start the attack (originally planned for 15th August, then moved to 15th September, then postponed until the 21st), Hitler never did give Operation Sealion the go-ahead. Perhaps the RAF’s staunch defence of the island threw him, as he needed control of the skies to be sure the plan would succeed; perhaps the heavy bombing of German soil by British planes unnerved him, or his respect for Britain in general and the British navy in particular made him slow off the mark. Whatever the reason, Hitler hesitated, and the moment was lost. Winter storms came, and by spring 1941 his eyes had turned to the USSR instead of the UK.
This is just as well, since even Peter Churchill admits that there was only so much the Auxiliary Units would have been able to achieve. Britain was too small to provide many hiding places, many of the holes would have been exposed to aerial reconnaissance once the leaves fell, and the German retribution on the country for the attacks was likely to have been terrible. Still, the units would have inspired a captive public and potentially have been able to pass critical information to allies such as the United States. Regardless of how effective the units would have been, each person involved with them showed nerves of steel. Insubordination of this sort in occupied countries was punished in just one way at that time: by death.
Was your relative an officer in the Home Guard, and potentially involved with training or supporting this risky venture? Perhaps they were impassioned enough to have been part of the unit itself. There’s just one way to find out – search our archives today to see if their name comes up as part of our exclusively transcribed ‘Home Guard Officer Lists 1939-45’ and ‘Home Guard Auxiliary Units 1939-45’ collections.