Churchill's British Resistance - The Auxiliary Units

 

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 ‘One of the most haunting films I've seen all year’
Dylan Jones / GQ

“A haunting, elegant film about love, loss and what we'll do to survive.”
**** Empire

“…a poignant tale of isolation and the strength of the human spirit…”
 **** MovieScope

Starring Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen

Based on the critically acclaimed debut novel by Owen Sheers

D-Day has failed, Britain is under Nazi occupation.

Sarah Lewis, a 26-year-old farmer’s wife, awakes one morning to find that her husband has disappeared along with all the men in the valley. Assuming they have joined the Resistance, the women of this tiny community pull together, taking on the running of the farms, and wait, desperate for news. A German patrol arrives in the valley, the purpose of its mission a mystery. When a severe winter forces the two groups into co-operation, Sarah begins an acquaintance with the patrol’s commanding officer, Albrecht. Cut off from the surrounding war, the lines between collaboration, duty, occupation and survival become blurred.

RESISTANCE features sensational lead performances from British rising star Andrea Riseborough (Brighton Rock, Made In Dagenham) and Tom Wlaschia (Enemy At The Gates, Valkyrie, Brideshead Revisited), and co-stars Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Damned United). RESISTANCE is the feature film directorial debut of Amit Gupta, and is based on the critically acclaimed novel by Owen Sheers.

CART were advisers on the Auxiliary ellements in this film.

See a review on the film here

 

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Auxiliers about to be shot.

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You can see more on the film including behind the scenes pictures on Facebook here or on IMDB

READ MORE ABOUT WELSH AUXILIARY UNITS HERE

           

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A WRITER’S THOUGHTS by OWEN SHEERS
(This piece originally appeared as the afterword in Owen Sheers’ novel on which RESISTANCE is based.)

This novel is counterfactual, a work of fiction set in an alternative recent history. The seeds of the fictional past I’ve imagined, however, are sown in what was, at one point in time, an all too possible future.

I first heard about the plans for a British resistance organisation one summer when I was working for a builder in the Llanthony Valley. We were taking the stone tiles off a barn, loading them onto a trailer behind a tractor, driving them through the valley then fitting them to the roof of a new conversion. It was hot, repetitive work, but over those weeks, between the lifting, loading and unloading, our conversations had the space and time to range and wander freely. One day Charles, the builder, told me how during the war some farmers in the area had been given caches of arms which they’d hidden in underground bunkers in the hills. Should the order have come, these farmers were to leave their homes and wives and take to the Black Mountains to resist the occupying German army. It was a seductive tale and from all the stories told over those summer weeks, it was this one that lived with me as others fell away over the following years.

I was reminded of Charles’ story on the morning of September 11th 2001 when I heard a radio interview on the ‘Today’ programme. Papers had recently come to light detailing the real plans that had lain behind his tale of farmers as a resistance force in waiting. The presenter, Sue McGregor, was interviewing George Vater. As a young man farming near Abergavenny during the war George had been recruited into the ‘Auxiliary Units Special Duties Section’, a network of farmers, vicars and other local people trained and prepared to run messages and spy on an occupying German force. At the end of the interview Sue McGregor said, ‘So you have no doubt had their been an invasion you would have repelled the lot of them?’ ‘No,’ George replied, releasing laughter from the studio. After a slight pause he continued, speaking clearly and steadily, his words cutting through, then silencing the laughter. ‘I’m very sorry to say, no. We were told that perhaps we would work for fourteen days, and that was our full lifetime I presume.’

I knew George Vater. His family farmed near my parent’s house in Llanddewi Rhydderch. They also ran the local school mini-bus service. For seven years I was picked up at the bottom of our lane by one of George’s sons or daughters, and sometimes even by his wife or George himself. For the last four of those seven years George’s grandson sat on the bus beside me.

George’s reply at the end of that radio interview haunted me for many years after I heard it. Eventually, together with the story Charles had told me, the idea of a British resistance organisation and what they’d been expected to do in the event of a German invasion got the better of me. So last year I went to visit George at his family farm in Llanddewi.

Sitting in his living room, surrounded by cuttings, maps and photographs, George told me how, in the summer of 1940, he’d been approached by a man calling himself ‘Tommy Atkins’. He explained how Atkins had given him a sheet of German insignia to learn and told me about what would have been expected of him as a member of Atkins’ Special Duties Section. George also told me where I could still find the locations of several Auxiliary Unit ‘Operational Bunkers’ in the surrounding area, and showed me this photograph of the inaugural meeting of the Monmouthshire Auxiliary Units Association, taken after the war in December 1945.

George and the men in this photograph never had to put their training into practice as part of a British resistance force, nor did they have to test whether their forecasted life expectancy of two weeks was accurate. My conversation with George did, however, enable me to imagine a world in which the plans for such an organisation had to be realised. I’d hoped that George would be able to read the novel I eventually wrote partly inspired by his experiences, but unfortunately I’m writing this on the morning of George’s funeral. I’m immensely grateful to him for sparking my imagination and for being so generous with his memories. But above all, I am grateful to George and the thousands of others like him, for being willing, more than 60 years ago, to risk everything in the event of a German invasion, despite overwhelming odds and almost certain death.

There were, of course, many other influences upon this novel, and among them are some more seeds of fact that may be of interest. The Mappa Mundi really was removed from Hereford Cathedral and, after a stint in the cellars of Hampton Court, kept in a coal mine in Bradford-on-Avon for the duration of the war. The poet and artist David Jones, meanwhile, did live in Eric Gill’s artistic community at Capel-Y-Fin between the years of 1924 and 1928. Similarly, both Von Brauchitsch’s ‘Proclomation to the People of England’ and the ‘Guide on How Troops are to Behave in England’ are taken from a real series of Most Secret draft orders and decrees issued to senior Wehrmacht officers in September 1940.

While these notes of fact, and others, have been woven into this novel, apart from Upper Blaen and The Court, the positions, names and number of houses in the Olchon valley, along with the characters living in them have all been imagined. To borrow from Laurence Durrell’s note upon the city in The Alexandria Quartet, only the valley is real.
 

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE FICTION:
(The following article by Owen Sheers originally appeared in The Guardian.)

BRITAIN’S INSURGENTS – THE HEROES THAT NEVER WERE
‘You see, it looks like any old tin of tobacco, left on the side of the road, say. But if you open it, well, there’s a little surprise ain’t there!’ Ivan Potter, 83 years old and immaculately dressed in a blue blazer and grey slacks, was showing me the kind of improvised explosive device he’d have used if Britain had been invaded by Germany during WWII. ‘See this brass rod hanging in the ring of wire? Well, when you pick it up, this swings and connects and…Boom! Have a man’s hands off with that you would. Maybe an arm if you were lucky!’

Before he could talk me through the other weapons arranged over the table Ivan was called away for a photograph with his fellow Auxiliary Unit veterans. Taking his place in the line, he straightened his back and smiled into the camera. The men and women posing around him were also in their 80s and, like Ivan, as surviving members of Britain’s secret resistance army, heroes that never were. Had a German occupation been sucessful, of course, then this same group of pensioners could have been something else altogether. Under the International Conventions of the day they may even have been considered war criminals, illegal combatants; Britain’s last surviving insurgents.

I first heard about the plans for a British resistance organisation one summer when I was working for a builder in the Llanthony Valley in South Wales. There were lots of stories told that Summer. Some of them were true, others weren’t. I’d always assumed the one about farmers being armed and taking to the hills in the event of a German invasion, to be one of the ones that wasn’t true; an exaggerated local rumour. I discovered I was wrong when many years later I heard George Vater, a farmer I’d known since I was a child, interviewed on radio 4’s Today programme. After more than 50 years silence George was finally talking about how, at the age of 17, he’d been recruited into the ‘Special Duties Section’ of a British resistance organisation called the Auxiliary Units. ‘So you have no doubt,’ the presenter had said to George. ‘Had there been an invasion, you would have repelled the lot of them?’ ‘No,’ George had replied. ‘I’m very sorry to say no. We were told that perhaps we would work for fourteen days, and that was our full lifetime I presume.’

A couple of years after that interview I went to talk to George about his time training as a messenger for the Special Duties Section. Obviously George never had to put that training into practice but the issues and dilemmas he would have faced if he had fascinated me. Eventually that conversation with George sowed the seeds for my first novel, Resistance. By setting the story in an imaginary WWII, this novel allowed me to unravel the issues and dilemmas George never had to confront; to dramatise them and follow their threads through the landscape of a fictional history.

The publication of a book can be like throwing a pebble into a lake. Ripples expand outwards and eventually, on making contact, send other ripples back in return. For me, with the publication of Resistance, this meant making contact with the men and women who, at one point in time, could all too easily have inhabited the facts of my fiction. After keeping their oaths of secrecy for over 50 years, these veterans had begun to speak out about their involvement in the Auxiliary Units: the purposefully bland title given to the government funded network of WWII resistance cells. In speaking of their experiences they had unlocked a piece of long-obscured history. The details of the Auxiliary Units, still not officially recognised by the MOD and the British Government, had been kept largely in the shadows. But now, with the memories of the men and women who would have served in those units, some light was finally being shed upon them. A museum was established, a comprehensive study written (With Britain in Mortal Danger by John Warwicker), a website built (www.auxunits.org) and, as I discovered on receiving an invitation, reunions of the surviving veterans organised.

The Auxiliary Units reunion was held as part of a larger celebration of 1940’s military vehicles and memorabilia at Framlingham Airfield, a former USAAF base in Suffolk. The Museum of the British Resistance Organisation is situated on the same airfield. Carl, the museum’s curator showed me around. ‘See those two?’ he said, pointing to two men in a black and white photograph of an Auxiliary Unit patrol. ‘That’s Perry and Herman Kindred. This airfield was on their farm. When their sons and nephews found out they’d been Auxiliers, they gave us the land for this museum.’

The museum’s main exhibit is a reconstruction of an Auxiliary Unit underground operational base, complete with Sten guns hanging on the bunks and shadowy mannequins wearing balaclavas and camouflage paint. The rest of the museum is devoted to displaying Auxiliary Unit artefacts. Home made explosive devices like Ivan’s tobacco tin, sabotage pamphlets disguised as ‘The Countryman’s Diary’, photographs, maps and what would have been the general tools of an Auxilier’s trade: ear and eye stabbing blades, pencil and timer switches, knuckledusters, coshes and a ‘Welrod’ silent pistol.

‘See him, there, sitting between them?’ Carl pointed to a third man in the black and white photograph. ‘Well, if the invasion had come Herman was going to garrotte him. He was their group leader, but he also drank a lot and was the only one who knew all the locations of the patrols. So Herman would have had to do it, see?’

Outside the museum Framlingham Airfield had been taken back to 1944. A parked convoy of vintage tanks, trucks and Jeeps snaked along the farm road; US bomber pilots, their caps at a jaunty angle sauntered between the stalls of military memorabilia, while couples in full 1940’s dress danced to the tunes of a recreated US forces radio station. In this recreated version of WWII the threat of invasion is almost nil. Britain, with the support of the rest of the free world is about to take on the might of the German army. Victory is just around the corner.

Inside the museum, however, a very different period of WWII was being remembered; an earlier, darker period out of which the Auxiliary Units were born. In here it was 1940/41 and Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany, forcing her authorities to adapt and invent for the worst of possibilities: an invasion and occupation that would set into motion a hidden chain of both the bravest and harshest of acts from her civilian population. Like garrotting your friend, shooting collaborating neighbours and (under direct order from Churchill) continuing with acts of sabotage regardless of the reprisals they provoked.

The man responsible for sowing the seeds of such long-buried intentions was Colonel Colin McVean Gubbins of Military Intelligence (Research). Although there were other fledgling attempts to form ‘stay behind’ units, it was Gubbins who recruited the first 12 Intelligence Officers ordered to recruit, train and establish cells of men across Britain, thereby creating the blueprint for Auxiliary Units. Major Nigel Oxenden, one of those original Intelligence Officers, recorded what was expected of him in a 1944 pamphlet, Auxiliary Units, History and Achievement:

‘The mission was to find reliable men, about thirty each, to leave them a ‘dump’ of assorted explosives and incendiaries, to help these ‘dump-owners’ to form their cells of five desperate men, to train them in the use of weapons that were as new to them as their trainees, and to provide the cells with some kind of ‘hideout.’

Gubbins had cut his teeth serving in Ireland during ‘The Troubles’. It was there he’d experienced first hand the success of the irregular Irish Volunteers led by Michael Collins. Others on Gubbins’s staff had been similarly impressed by the irregular tactics used by their opposition in the Boer war and the recent fighting in India. With the orders given to those original 12 Intelligence Officers, Britain, it seemed, was turning to the very lessons she’d learnt from those who’d already fought so successfully against her. The Auxiliary Units would not be regular army patrols. They would have none of the identifying features of a conventional force; no pay or Paybook, no officers serving alongside them and, initially, no uniform. They would not be soldiers, but rather highly trained civilians ordered by their government to harass an occupying force from behind the lines, even after an official surrender. This had never been done before. Resistance movements had grown organically under occupation, but never had a government established a pre-organised guerrilla network. Gubbins and the men his Intelligence Officers were about to recruit were launching themselves into uncharted and, possibly, illegal waters.

Beyond the thread of connection via Gubbins’ 12 Intelligence Officers, the patrols established over that Summer of 1940 were to be remarkably autonomous. It was this autonomy, the flexibility of the patrols to shape themselves and take on regional characteristics, that coloured many of my conversations with the Auxiliary Unit veterans at Framlingham. The recruitment of the ‘five desperate men’ for example, was left entirely to the patrol leaders, and often followed (again like Michael Collins’ Irish Volunteers) the connections of existing networks of family and friends.

Roy Coleman from Port Talbot in South Wales was 17 when he joined his local home guard. A few weeks later his old scout master Wally Thomas approached him. ‘We’ve got a special gang,’ Wally told Roy. ‘A special gang with special jobs to do. I’ve got your friend David Maybury with me. He’s my corporal. Do you want to come and join us?’

For others recruitment was a case of keeping it in the family. When Trevor Miners’s brother left the Auxiliary units to join the regular army, Trevor was approached to take his place in the Perranporth patrol in Cornwall. He was just 16. I wondered if it was a heavy responsibility to bear for someone so young? ‘I suppose it was,’ Trevor told me, apparently genuinely surprised at the thought. ‘Although it was very exciting, being such a young boy and then the next thing to be armed with a .38 Smith and Weston and to be firing a Sten gun. A very good gun on automatic, the Sten…’

Listening to the veterans at Framlingham was like being taken on an aural tour of Britain. From Roy’s deep, musical South Walian to Ivan’s rich Suffolk vowels and Trevor’s lively Cornish; all around me in the ‘Auxiliary Unit’s Rest Area’ a montage of voices from the regions were exchanging greetings and reminiscing. Dorset, Scotland, Home Counties, Kent, Sussex. These were the voices and accents of the men who would have fulfilled Churchill’s promise to ‘fight in the fields and in the streets.’ They were the voices of rural men, from the countryside of Britain, not her cities.

This regional quality was to be one of the Auxiliary Units’ most important assets. The intimacy bred of small, rural communities informed the selection of the patrols. The men chosen, meanwhile, came ready-imprinted with a privileged knowledge of their landscapes and operating areas (gamekeepers and poachers were particularly popular recruits). This local knowledge was fortified again by night exercises, a staple of Auxiliary Unit training, until the patrols could move throughout their ‘patches’ under the cover of darkness without torches or lights, practicing their ‘silent walking’ in newly issued rubber-soled boots.

‘We knew every tree in every village,’ Ivan told me proudly. Roy meanwhile, was adamant that it was local knowledge that would have bought them the necessary time to carry out their sabotage. ‘We knew those mountains like no-one else. All the short-cuts, all the mines. A stranger up there at night or day – they wouldn’t have known where the hell they were.’

Although the structure of Auxiliary Units was necessarily loose, consisting of scattered, autonomous cells, there were two crucial fixed points within the organisation; physically in the Auxiliary Unit’s HQ at Coleshill House near Highworth, and ideologically in the nature of the sabotage in which the patrols were trained there.

Coleshill was where the patrol leaders and their men went on weekend courses to learn Gubbins’s Nine Points of the Guerrilla’s Creed. The country house provided a focal point where common theories and skills of operation could be learnt and taken back to the regional patrols. Speaking with the Veterans at Framlingham it was clear that regardless of differences in landscape, targets and threats, Coleshill instilled a shared methodology in all Auxiliers. Go to ground, wait for the invaders to pass, then conduct sabotage with minimum risk of contact with the enemy. When hitting tanks or machinery, always destroy the same part to reduce the enemy’s supply stocks. ‘We’d get the rear axle on the tanks, every time’ Trevor Miner’s confirmed. Their job was to unpick the structural fabric of the enemy’s war machine.
‘It was nearly all sabotage work,’ Ivan told me. ‘Putting sugar and chemicals in petrol tanks, derailing trains, blowing bridges. If the enemy had to be killed, it had to be done silently.’
Collaborators or anyone threatening the security of the patrol were to be dealt with swiftly. For many years Herman Kindred claimed the rifle with telescopic sights his patrol kept in their bunker was for shooting ‘bunnies.’ Eventually, when pressed, he admitted that part of their duties was to be ‘selective executions’. As with so much else to do with Auxiliary Units, the extent of these ‘duties’ depended upon the individual decisions of patrol leaders or the commanding Intelligence Officer. For some, the ideology was to be taken to the extreme. When Isle of Wight Auxilier Jim Caws was interviewed for John Warwicker’s With Britain in Mortal Danger, he outlined the plans of his own patrol:

‘We could either sort of tear them to bits to start with or shoot them first then tear them to bits…We would make a mess of them then leave them at the side of the road to deter other people…I don’t think I could have done it actually. I don’t see the point of that. You might just as well shoot the bloke and call it that.’

What the individual Auxiliers could and couldn’t have done had they gone into action was a question that increasingly intrigued me the more time I spent with the veterans at Framlingham. At one point in the afternoon a re-enactment society from Doncaster staged an Auxiliary Unit ambush on a German roadblock. Watching this re-enactment, which actually had nothing ‘re-’ about it, proved to be a strange experience of temporal distortion. To stand between Roy and Trevor as the Doncaster society enacted what they had both been trained to do, but which they had, in fact, never done. This still didn’t stop Roy and Trevor from commenting on the Doncaster boys’ performance. ‘He’d have been shot forty times by now, lighting the fuse like that!’ Roy exclaimed. ‘Oh, you don’t want to hold the Sten by the magazine!’ Trevor muttered on the other side of me, shaking his head and frowning. A vintage Hellcat tank trundled past and Roy leaned in conspiratorially, ‘Couple of sticky bombs on the sprocket an’ ‘e’s gone.’

As the Doncaster society packed away their smoke bombs and thanked the crowd for watching, I asked Trevor and Roy how they thought their own patrols would have measured up if what we’d just seen had been a true, and not a ‘what if?’ re-enactment.

‘We could have initially caused problems to start,’ Roy said. ‘But they’d have soon snuffed us out and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The only thing that might have, was if we’d blown a bridge or tunnel in our area. They’d have had a bloody hard time fixing it. It’s so mountainous, see?’

For Trevor it was a question of trees. ‘I think our life expectancy would have been very short. The patrol would have been quite successful for a week or two, but we wouldn’t have got away with it much longer because there’s no forests, no trees down in Cornwall you see. They cut all the trees down in the 18th century for fuel for the mines.’

Back at the ‘Auxiliary Units Rest Area’, Ivan was more confident. ‘Successful? Yes, very, very, ’cause we had the main Ipswich to London railway line passing us didn’t we? All you had to do was pull out the keys on the main line, on the outside of the curve, loosen the bolts and the speed of the train would roll it over the embankment. Wouldn’t even need any explosives!’
But what about them as individuals? Could they, as 16 and 17 year olds have carried out the duties expected of them? To this the answers were unanimous and so enthusiastic as to be tinged with disappointment at the fact the occupation never happened.

‘I was waiting for the buggers to invade!’ Ivan said. ‘At that age you’re mad for anything aren’t you? I was 17 ¼ when I was shown our bunker. Well we were tin gods really. I thought it was wonderful!’

‘It was a game for us,’ Roy agreed. ‘We were doing our bit and were allowed to do more than our bit because we had these special duties. Never had any doubt.’

Listening to Roy and Ivan it was impossible not to think about the young suicide bombers, insurgents, British and US soldiers fighting in Iraq. As is the case in war, the exploitation of the blind willingness of youth was, it seems,, to have been one of the Auxiliary Units most lethal weapons.

Would they, though, have had any qualms about killing their own people? About carrying out an order to shoot someone they knew well?
Ivan shook his head. ‘It wouldn’t have been shoot ’em, it would’ve been garrotte ’em.’
Trevor took a little longer to answer and I wondered if he was doubting his younger self. ‘I suppose I would,’ he said eventually. ‘Because it was war time. I would have done the best I could anyway, because I’m quite contentious with what I do. I suppose that’s easy to say now though, and I you can never really know can you?’
What about the other end of the Auxiliary equation, I wondered? Not the enemy they would have had to face, but the families they would have had to leave, suddenly and without explanation. Could they have done that? Just disappeared into the night?

On this point Trevor was more confident again. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, nodding and smiling. ‘I’d have just said sorry Mum and Dad, I’m going to be off now. The Germans have arrived and I’ve been told to go somewhere.’

INDIVIDUAL PORTRAITS

Roy Coleman – 84, Porthcawl Patrol, South Wales
Roy was a collier and a messenger boy for the ARP before he was recruited into the Auxiliary Units from the Home Guard. For the rest of his war Roy kept up his work in the mines, his Home Guard service, and his Auxiliary duties. ‘It was nothing to come home late, get changed and go back out for work. We had two Home Guard uniforms, one with the local badge and another with the Auxiliary Units badge.’

The Porthcawl patrol often trained in the dunes on the beach, although their night training came to an end when the number of couples in the dunes made it impossible to operate. From then on they trained in the dunes during the day, wearing dark glasses.

The patrol didn’t have a specially built bunker. In the event of an invasion they were expected to return to their homes after their sabotage operations. Throughout the war, and for over fifty years after, Roy kept his involvement with the Auxiliary Units totally secret. ‘During the war I got married and moved out of my parent’s house. A week later my mother found a wooden box under my bed. She got my younger brother to take it to Wally Thomas, my old scout master, as she thought he’d know what to do with it. She never knew what that box contained - a Thompson sub-machine gun and 3,000 rounds of ammunition.’

Ivan Potter – 83 ½ Felsted Patrol, Suffolk
There were five other men with Ivan in his Felstead Patrol in Suffolk, all under 25 and unmarried. As a worker at a crane factory Ivan’s reserved occupation meant he was exempt from regular army service. Like many patrols the Felsted patrol used the Home Guard as a cover; ‘When we paraded with the Home Guard they thought we was just a ‘back up’ group. They had no idea we had a bunker in the woods and were being trained as a proper guerrilla operation should the enemy attack.’

Ivan embraced the opportunity to improvise upon their basic supplies, building his own road-side bombs and a ‘carpet-sweeper’ device for blowing up pill boxes. He even provided his patrol with 6 custom-made brass knuckle-dusters with a six inch knife at one end, and a razor blade at the other. ‘That were for cutting the artery here,’ Ivan tells me, drawing his thumbnail down the side of his neck. ‘Quickest way to kill a man, that.’ An army officer was so impressed with Ivan’s invention he bought it off him for 10 bob.

‘Our sergeant, he was the one with the 6 cyanide pills. If we were captured, we’d have taken the pill.’

When I hand Ivan a Fairburn-Sykes fighting knife for his portrait, he automatically holds it in the stabbing position, before smiling into the camera.

Trevor Miners 79, Perranporth Patrol, Cornwall
Trevor was a 16 year old motor mechanic on 2/6 a week when he was approached to join the Perranporth patrol. Like many Auxiliers he attended courses at Coleshill House, reporting to the postmistress at Highworth G.P.O. before being transported to the house itself.

‘We were taught unarmed combat, how to throw grenades and phosphorus bombs. We went on night exercises too. What made them more realistic was that the guards were dressed in German uniforms!’

Back in Perranporth the patrol continued their training by breaking into army camps and radar stations. Their bunker on the grounds of Reed Manor Farm was very well concealed.

‘Once, we got to the bunker at night and had to wait there, lying in the bushes, because a courting couple were on the entrance hatch. If only they’d known eh? Doing their courting over all that explosives! I don’t think the farmer ever knew about the bunker because in 1960 the front wheels of his tractor went into the hole.’

When Trevor sees me looking at one of the Auxiliary Unit knives he comes over to give some advice; ‘Always down or up with that one – never just stab in. Always down or up.’

Barbara Culleton 89, GHQ Auxiliary Units (ATS)
Barbara was already serving in the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service when she was approached to help set up the Special Duties Section radio networks.

‘I was called to see a senior officer in the local command area. She told me the war office urgently wanted volunteers for a secret and dangerous job, and that I should go for it. So I did.’

The job was to travel around the country establishing and testing networks of radio operators. ‘You had to sit there all day sending and receiving messages. Once they were all brought in loudly and clearly, someone else was brought in to operate it and I’d go off and start all over again.’

In between this general work Barbara was also ordered to listen out for enemy agents broadcasting to Berlin.

‘Several times a day we just listened. We were to note times, voice, the language if possible and where it was on the range.’

Did she, I wondered, ever hear an agent broadcasting? ‘Oh yes,’ she says, ‘Very often. Nearly every time.’

Barbara was trained how to use a rifle and a pistol, but was never issued with either. ‘We did have cyanide pills.’ In the event of an invasion she and others like her would be operating the control and out stations, ‘until they got us.’

I ask Barbara what she thinks of the nickname given to the women who did her job; ‘The Secret Sweeties.’ She looks up at me, straight in the eye. ‘Don’t you ever mention that name near me, ’she says. ‘Never. Never heard anything so silly.’ Later I learn that Barbara, who volunteered for SOE duties during the war, had her own nickname; ‘The Battling Bantam.’

Jill Monk, 81, Alysham Special Duties Section, Norfolk

Jill was just 14 when she was asked to join the Special Duties Section in Aylsham, Norfolk. Her father was a local doctor and had already been recruited as an Auxiliary Unit spy and messenger.

‘Colonel Collins, the army organiser for the area asked my father if he thought I’d fold up at the sight of a German. My father told him I didn’t fold up at anything; horses, bulls, schoolmistresses, so the colonel recruited me.’

Jill was asthmatic as a child and spent a lot of time away from school, breaking in horses for local people. ‘Colonel Collins spotted a kid on a horse was unlikely to be suspected of anything. So I was to ride out and spot out any choice targets, in terms of troops or supply dumps.’

Jill had two horses, one chestnut, for riding out during the day, and one black, for night exercises during which she had to keep off the roads and ride cross-country.

‘It was just one big adventure at the time. Then my brother was killed in action flying over Malta and then I began to think more seriously about it and wanted to have a go at the Germans however I could.’

   

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