Operational Bases (OB's) of the Auxiliary
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The video above is an edited clip
from the excellent Reader's Digest DVD called 'The Secrets of Underground Britain - WARTIME SECRETS'.
This clip features Aux expert and
author John Warwicker in the mock up OB at Parham. The full extract from the
film can be seen here.
THE AUXILIARY UNITS
© Heritage Trust
Officially they were known as 'operational bases'. The word 'hideout', the officers who ran
the Resistance soon decided, suggested a more passive purpose than that for which these bases had been constructed,
and if overheard by the Germans or their friends, would not alert them to their intended use.
Auxiliary Units hideouts were supposed to be merely the places to which Resistance men could
withdraw to eat, sleep and lie low. However, some of the first hideouts in Kent appear to have been built with sieges in mind, for they had their own
early-warning outposts several hundred yards away, connected to them by hidden telephone wires. And several of the
hideouts in Kent were, like the one entered through the sheep trough, built primarily as lookout points.
By the end Of 1940 about 300 hideouts were already in use around the country, and another 61
were ready by the spring of 1941. There were some 534 by the end of that year, and although no later figures are
available, upwards of a thousand existed at the time that the Auxiliary Units patrols were disbanded. No two were
identical, but most were eventually made large enough to house six or seven men in reasonable comfort, although
many at first were little more than fox-holes with log roofs, so badly ventilated that candles sputtered from lack
of oxygen and the men who tried sleeping in them all night awoke with headaches. Each hideout was eventually fitted
with bunks, cooking stoves, Tilley lamps and other comforts provided by the Army, and each was stocked with food
and water-in some cases sufficient to sustain a patrol for as long as a month. Wherever dampness was a problem the
tinned foods were frequently replaced so that there was never a chance of besieged Auxiliary Units patrols being
finished off by food poisoning. Most hideouts had plenty of room for the patrols' arms, ammunition and sabotage
material, but in some areas subsidiary hides were dug near by to hold these and additional stores of food. Many of
the hideouts eventually had chemical lavatories, and a few even had running water and some rudimentary form of
drainage. The hideouts were so well concealed that anyone walking over them would not notice that the ground
beneath their feet had been hollowed out, or that it was unusual in any way. And of course the hideouts had to be
made impossible to detect from the air.
Undoubtedly the greatest problem was that of digging the hideouts without anyone noticing-not
even the members of neighbouring Resistance patrols. In most of the coastal areas the first hideouts had to be dug
by the Resistance men themselves, stumbling around late at night and in total darkness. Incredibly, they usually
managed to finish the job unnoticed, but anyone who happened across a half-completed hideout had to be fobbed off
with some sort of story that would put an end to questions. The usual cover story was that the hole was being dug
for the storage of emergency food supplies for a secret government department'- a story that did not make much
sense at the time but did stop people asking questions and usually stopped them talking. Speculation about the
'food stores' still continues in some areas of Britain today, and there are dark rumours about how 'They' were
going to look after themselves all right.
Another major problem which faced the men who built the hideouts was that of disposing of the
subsoil which they had brought up. Carting this away in the dark was no easy task, especially when one
remembers that a cubic foot of earth weighs just over a hundred pounds, and the average Resistance hideout in
Britain was about twenty feet long, at least ten feet wide, and always high enough for its occupants to stand
erect in it.
Many of the methods which were worked out for scattering the spoil in Kent was taken up in other counties, but each new hideout presented new
problems. Sometimes the men simply scooped away topsoil in a wood, replaced it with the spoil from their hideout,
covered this with the original topsoil and laboriously replanted all the undergrowth. In Devon and Cornwall they
some- times carried out the spoil a bucketful at a time and poured it into streams. At Wickhambreaux in Kent. near the mouth of the River Stour, earth from an Auxiliary Units
patrol's hideout was moved across the river on an aerial ropeway and added to a fill that had been begun by the
Kent River board as an anti-flood barrier long before Auxiliary Units people appeared on the scene. Not far away,
in Stocking Wood, near Baddlesmere, about three miles south of Faversham, the chalky sub-soil was so hard to hide
that Norman Field hit on a particularly ingenious solution to the problem. He
told his men to put the subsoil in a natural hole in the wood, and he used a camouflet set to mine it. He then
placed a line of the sets across the wood and, the next time German bombers flew over, detonated all the charges.
What followed looked and sounded like a stick of bombs exploding, and no one questioned the appearance of the
chalky craters in the wood.
When Captain Field decided to place an underground observation
post on the bare crest of Charing Hill, at a point that could be seen from all directions, he had to solve both the
problems of surreptitious digging and soil disposal. After giving the matter a lot of thought he and his men
borrowed an anti-aircraft gun, placed it on the spot they had picked for their observation post. and then started
filling sandbags to shield it, using for this the earth that they scooped from around the base of the gun. Then,
shielded from view by the sandbags, they finished digging the observation post and camouflaging its entrance. For
several weeks they manned the gun, and then an Army truck came to tow it away and to cart off the sandbags. This in
itself was not unusual, for the guns were often moved from one place to another. All that remained on Charing Hill
was a perfectly concealed hideout.
Resistance men for various reasons did not always dig their own hideouts. In several areas
they were dug for them by members of Royal Engineer tunnelling companies or simply by ordinary sapper soldiers, and
the men in the patrols dug only the entrance tunnels. When the hideouts were dug for the patrols by the soldiers
who had been sent from Coleshill to train them, these troops made
the entrances, too, and the men who were to use the hideouts were taken into their vicinities and told to find
them. This they never did.
In at least one instance civilian labour had to be contracted to produce some hideouts. This
happened on the Romney Marsh, where the hideouts were sited below
sea-level and only experts could do the sort of concreting that would result in water-tight construction. In those
days navvies in provincial areas were rarely transported great distances to their work, but the ones who built the
hideouts on the Romney Marsh were brought in from the other side of Kent-and were never given the time to learn
their way around the area, so that probably they would not have been able to find their ways back to the hideouts
Flooding was a problem in other places as well. On the Essex Marshes, just west of the
Blackwater, several patrols each dug and provisioned four successive hideouts, each time hoping that they had at
last beaten the problem of flooding, and each time finding that they had not.
Not all the hideouts were fresh excavations. One of Peter Fleming's best was an enlarged badger sett on the edge of a chalk pit at Challock,
seven miles south of Faversham, Kent, and another had been the cellars of Evington Manor, at Hastingleigh, near
Wye, long before destroyed by fire. The members of one of Reginald Sennitt’s patrols on the Essex Marshes who
suffered repeated floodings finally recalled that an isolated farmhouse on high ground in the area had a cellar
which had been scaled off from the house itself for many years. And so instead of digging themselves yet another
hideout, the patrol's members tunnelled from a briar bush several hundred yards from the house into the cellar
which, as they had hoped, was completely dry. At no time did the two elderly women who lived in the house have
any idea of what was going on down below.
The so-called smugglers' caves along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall were
unacceptable as hideouts because they were so well known and were always, even during the war, likely to be visited
by tourists. Certainly the Germans would have had no trouble pinpointing them. However, on the Isle of Thanet in
Kent the tunnels and underground rooms believed to have been carved in the chalk in the heyday of smuggling are
less well known, and the Thanet Resistance group headed by a Manston Grove farmer, Norman Steed, turned several of
the excavations into excellent hideouts. When he discovered an old tunnel that reached from the edge of Manston
Aerodrome (at that time one of Britain's most important RAF advance fighter stations), right under the runways, he
called in his Intelligence Officer to explore it with him. Fifty yards along the tunnel they came to a fall that
blocked it completely, and the officer decided to send in a team of sappers to dig it out. Cleared, the tunnel
would provide Resistance saboteurs with a perfect way in and out of the aerodrome. How- ever, before the sappers
began their work a stray German bomb landed in the middle of the airfield; the only damage it caused was to block
the tunnel permanently.
In Wales abandoned coal mines, forgotten even
by most of the miners, were turned into excellent hideouts. The Welsh Resistance men, although friendly enough with
the English and Scots they met at Coleshill, were reluctant to show their hideouts to Intelligence Officers from
the headquarters, and they would not unless flatly ordered to do so. Yet these Welshmen were certainly not all
recluses; one had been a rugby international and had been capped for Wales about fifteen times, another had been
champion grenade thrower of the BEF in the First World War, and yet another had won the Victoria Cross in that war.
But the Welsh, like the Resistance men on the Isle of Wight, hated sharing their deepest secrets with
Mine workings were also used as hideouts by
patrols in other parts of the country-coal mines in the North-cast and, in Cornwall, abandoned tin mines nearly a
quarter of a mile deep and in constant danger of caving in because their timbers were rotting, and in which echoed
the angry roar of subterranean streams.
In both Cornwall and Scotland, old ice
houses and ice pits were taken over and made habitable hideouts, and in the north of Scotland several
2,000-year-old Pictish dwellings were used. Known only to the shepherds, each of these underground dome- shaped
rooms had to be entered through a hole in its top which was covered with a weathered stone. All these dwellings
needed was a good sweeping, and after the war they were simply abandoned.
One of the most spectacular hideouts built in Kent by Peter Fleming was intended not as a base for a single patrol but was to be a collecting point
for stray Resistance men on the run. It contained food, water and sleeping accommodation for about 120 people.
Nor was the sheet bulk of this hideout its only unique feature. Fleming had discovered a boat-shaped depression
in King's Wood, in a cleft in the hills above The Garth, about sixty feet long,
thirty feet wide and thirty deep. Local people told him that this hole had been dug during the First World War
as a landing place for an airship. Whether or not this was true, Fleming reasoned that the last place the
Germans would look for a secret hole in the earth was underneath a well-known one. He therefore had the bottom
scooped out of the airship hole, built a shelter in it, and the earth was replaced.
The Airship Hole
Any entrance into this hideout through the airship hole itself would have been conspicuous,
especially after 120 people on the run had trampled a fresh path down into it. Fortunately an old footpath
happened to run alongside the hole, about fifteen yards away from its rim. On the edge of this path Fleming
had his men dig a vertical shaft to the depth of the shelter's floor, and a low tunnel was cut between the
two. The trapdoor for this entrance was a tree trunk nearly six feet high and weighing about half a ton. It
was fixed into place so that when 'unlocked' it could be swung aside at the touch of a finger. The underground
counterbalances that supported this lid were later duplicated in several other areas.
Another of Fleming's hideouts on the North Downs in Kent had an even more ingenious method of
approach. Anyone wishing to use it had first to find a marble that was hidden in some leaves neat by. This then had
to be inserted into what appeared to be a mousehole. The marble would roll down a pipe about twelve feet long and
plop into a tin can, a signal to the men inside that they should open the trapdoor. The trap itself was concealed
in the gnarled, ivy-covered roots at the base of an ancient tree.
Another hideout near Woolton in Kent, just south of the junction of the Dover and Folkestone
roads, was built in 1941 by a company of Welsh miners. It was entered through the false bottom of a manger against
the side of a hill. Yet another in Kent was under a brickyard at Lydden, about a mile south of Margate, on a site
now occupied by an industrialised housing estate. It was entered by moving away a section of what appeared to be a
solid wooden wall. But the most common trapdoors on the hideouts were simply oak or elm boxes filled with a
foot-thick layer of earth. Most of these trapdoors had to be lifted out, and to make this easier, many of them were
mounted on steel springs that, when a hidden catch was pushed, raised the tray enough for a man to get his fingers
under its rim. All along the coasts of Britain many hideouts could be entered through what appeared to be cucumber
frames, often with the plants actually growing on the trapdoors. One hideout in Scremerston, in Northumberland, just south of Berwick-on-Tweed, was entered
through a wood- pile; the right twig had simply to be tweaked and an entire section of the pile would slide away.
Peter Fleming's badger sett was entered by lifting the rotting remains of what had been a
farm cart which long ago had lost its wheels. Because the cart body was so heavy, it was mounted on underground
Several of the trapdoors were inadvertently discovered during the war; one of them in a wood
near Great Leighs, Essex, by a courting couple. They suddenly felt the ground begin to move beneath them. When they
found out why, in some alarm they notified the police who in turn notified the Army, and that hide- out was no
Certainly everything possible was done to keep the hideouts inconspicuous. Most were sited in
woods, often where the under- growth looked so dense that even animals could not get through it. Frequently the
trapdoors of the hideouts were at the edges of footpaths, so that as long as the men who used them were careful,
they could remove and replace the trapdoors without ever actually stepping off the paths. To reach a hideout in a
cave in Scotland, on the Bowes-Lyons estates in Berwickshire,
the Resistance men had to scale a sheer cliff overhanging a river, then leap into the cave through a waterfall.
Officers from Coleshill who visited this hideout were given a sumptuous dinner of fresh salmon poached from a
stretch of a river where the fishing rights were owned by the King's brother-in-law.
At Manston, not far from Margate, an Auxiliary Units patrol decided to put its hideout in a
man-made cave, believed to have been scooped out of the chalk in the seventeenth century by members of a religious
order. To make sure that this hideout would not be discovered by the Germans, the Welsh tunnellers who made it went
to the trouble of excavating an entirely new branch off one of the old passages. They concealed the room with a
huge block of chalk that they mounted on rollers.
The Auxiliary Units hideouts were a major preoccupation of the men, and one by one they
solved all the problems of building and maintaining the shelters. Paints were found that would resist condensation,
and efficient ventilating systems, often terminating above ground in tree stumps, were devised. When several senior
officers from Coleshill went to the Lincolnshire fens to inspect patrols there they were invited to stay
for dinner in one of the hideouts. The officers expected a makeshift meal, probably served on packing cases full of
stores, but when they slipped down through the trapdoor they were faced with a long dining table covered with a
crisp damask cloth. The candles were in candelabra, and the cutlery on the table gleamed.
At the end of the war Royal Engineer demolition teams were sent around the country to destroy
all the Auxiliary Units operational bases to keep them from becoming the hideouts of criminals on the run of play
places where small children might easily get hurt. However, a number of the hideouts were not destroyed and,
although most of them have by now caved in, leaving only rain-washed dents in the ground to mark their positions, a
few still survive, mostly on private land where they are unlikely to become a nuisance. Before it is too late ought
not at least one of these be turned into a form of national monument or museum? Historically the operational bases
of the British Resistance are at least as interesting as the Martello towers that line parts of the
Quoted from The Last Ditch, David Lampe 1967, reprinted 2007 by Greenhill
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