Churchill's British Resistance - The Special Duties Branch

 

The career of Junior Commander (205716) Barbara M. Culleton TD - ATS Officer in Auxiliary Units (Signals)

By CART Member Bill Ashby and Barbara Culleton

Barbara CulletonAt the age of 15 Barbara Culleton arrived in London on her own and found digs and secretarial work. It was 1933 and in Germany Adolf Hitler was coming to power.
 
War clouds were gathering. On the 9th September 1938 the Women’s Branch of the British Army the ‘Auxiliary Territorial Service’ was formed. Within two months Barbara had enlisted into Princess Louise Kensington Regiment as a volunteer (as ATS privates were then called).

The day before war was declared she was embodied into the Army and was posted to the War Station Railway Training Centre at Longmore and remembers having to help put rolling stock back on the tracks.

It was in July 1941 while she was at her next posting to 12 Field Training Regiment RA at Bordon that she was first interviewed and told that she had been selected to become an officer. She was reluctant and turned it down until at a further interview she was asked to consider being involved in training for 'urgent, very secret and possibly dangerous' work. Thinking that it sounded exciting she agreed. Final selection depended on the results of voice tests carried out using a simple R/T set, put together by Royal Corps of Signals personnel and selected Radio Hams.

Then came a period of more detailed training, still at a secret location 'somewhere in Essex', including maintenance of the sets; deciphering/enciphering codes and the use of a rifle and pistol (although these were not issued).

This was followed by a shortened Course at No.1 ATS OCTU, Edinburgh where she gained her Commission. The date 7 September 1941. An immediate posting to Auxiliary Units – Special Duties Section with the rank of 2nd Subaltern followed.

Headquarters, Auxiliary Units, was at Coleshill House, near Highworth, Wiltshire as Administrative Assistant to Senior Commander Beatrice Temple.

Hannington Hall Old

The SDS were billeted at nearby Hannington Hall, owned by the Fry family, together with Major Maurice Petherick and Captain Charles Randell.

Auxiliary Units turned out to be Britain’s (Very) Secret Resistance Organisation which was in the process of recruiting small patrols of civilians to be based in underground ‘hides’ around the coastal areas where the Germans might invade and become saboteurs and resist the enemy .

 

The SDS (Special Duties Section) mirrored the patrol set up but was the signals element responsible for passing the secret messages from ‘spies’ left behind enemy lines, up through the chain of command. The set up was so secret that nobody knew of his neighbouring unit.

For the first few months Barbara did not spend much time at HQ but was on her own travelling throughout the country inspecting the control stations as they were constructed and equipped.

 

The audio clip above was taken from 'Sons of the Soil' by Emma Colman. The full audio can be heard here.

The signals control stations were also underground bunkers and were to be manned by ATS Officers or Royal Signals other ranks equipped with radios.

Local requirements varied from area to area but Control Stations were set up initially by 1/2 operators. Although the main task was to link up 6/8 Out-stations, watches were programmed to listen out for broadcasts by suspect Agents. Any contact had to be reported immediately to the G2 Intelligence at the Area Headquarters. At NO time was Morse Code used.

ATS BadgeInitially most ATS (Signals) Officers were accommodated, with board, in civilian billets - selected by the local Police; attached to the nearest Area Headquarters for administrative purposes; dependent on the Royal Corps of Signals personnel for providing transport to and from billets to sites and for technical assistance at the 'secret' locations. They were allowed to wear their Corps badges and the 'flashes' of the Area Headquarters.

As soon as a complete network was fully operational it was a case of packing one's bags and being transported to another area, often at the opposite end of the country, to carry out the same procedure all over again. The station left would then be taken over by permanent operators.

Security at all times and everywhere was very tightly observed. No indication was ever given as to numbers of personnel involved; numbers and/or locations of stations. Only as much information as was needed to be known was given out at any one time and certainly, nothing about the existence of the Patrols section of Auxiliary Units. If their identity was ever questioned, officially (e.g. by Military Police) a War Office telephone number was given to each Officer from which further information could be obtained.

Senior Commander Beatrice Temple also travelled widely and so Barbara returned to Hannington Hall to cover for her while she was away. Eventually the threat of invasion subsided and she admits the work became somewhat boring.

S/C Temple was able to arrange a posting for her to Combined Operations at the War Office in London. She should have joined a WRAF, and Wren officer working in the ‘most secret’ registry but they failed to materialise so once again found that she was on her own. She describes Lord Louis Mountbatten who had the office across the passage from hers, as a real poppet. One day while in the corridor she attempted to double lock her door but with arms full of mail bound for Churchill and the War Cabinet, she managed to drop the lot. At that very moment Lord Louis and his ADC came out of his office and all three ended up on the floor laughing and picked it up.

For a couple of months at the end of 1943 she was seconded to the Civil Affairs Staff College at Wimbledon an organisation making preparations for post war Britain.

In December 1943 she was posted to Monty’s 21st Army Group Headquarters, where she joined the Movement Control Section making plans for D-Day. - studying the tides, moon and turn-around times for landing craft etc.
The Plans complete, she returned to the War office – to an administration post dealing with ATS Officers – compassionate leave, sickness, travel etc

The war over she was released from regular service – the date 1:1:1946. In September of the following year she was back in the Territorial Army with 916 (mixed) Transport Company RASC TA as a subaltern.

Join the ATS  

Women had served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service on an emergency engagement until 1949. On the 1 February the Women’s service became a part of the Regular & Territorial Army with the title Women’s Royal Army Corps. On the 3rd May 1955 Captain Barbara Culleton WRAC was awarded the Territorial Decoration for serving her Country. Brigadier E.R. Caffyn pinned on her medal and whispered “my wife told me to be careful where you pin it!” which is why the photo has her smiling.

She continued to serve until 12 December 1968 when she reached the upper age limit and so had to leave. Barbara Culleton had served her Country for 30 years.

Culleton BM

Auxiliary Units (Signals) A.T.S - In Her Own Words

Enrolment in the Auxiliary Territorial Service was for me on 11.11.38 and little did I imagine that by June 1941, a recommendation would be made for me to be called before a Cadet Board. However, three weeks later, I was interviewed again and told that volunteers were urgently required for very secret and possibly dangerous work and that selection would mainly depend on the result of a voice test. This to be carried out at a secret location, “somewhere” in Essex (possibly at Bachelors Hall, Hundon). Then came a period of a technical training (I suspect in the Great Yeldham area); the use of fire-arms, although these were not issued, followed by a two-week Course at No.1 ATS OCTU, Edinburgh and ultimately a posting to Auxiliary Units on 7.9.41.

At the outset it was the general rule that ATS Officers in the Aux Units would be accommodated, with board, in the civilian billets (usually selected by the local Police) – attached to the nearest Area HQ for administration – be dependent on the Royal Corps of Signals personnel for providing transport (usually a 15 cwt truck or a 3 ton lorry) and for them to carry out relevant tasks on site.

In these early days, the stations were all above ground (the “dugouts” came later) in wooded areas alongside fields, within forests, etc, wherever there was adequate cover for a wooden, Nissen or Romilly hut to be sited. An unusual one for me was a summerhouse in the grounds of a stately home in Yorshire (Hickleton Hall). As it happened the Hall was also the location of the Area HQ.

Local requirements varied from area to area so, most probably, did work programmes and the number of personnel involved. As far as is known, most Control Stations were manned initially by a single operator until fully operational and then by 2, 3 or 4 personnel.

Watches were programmed through the day for establishing contact with up to 6/8 outstations. Eventually this link-up would enable secret information to be passed from network to network to the appropriate sources. An additional task was to listen out for broadcasts by suspect agents. Any contact made had to be notified immediately to the Intelligence Section at the local Headquarters. At no time as Morse Code used by Aux Units.

The early versions of the radio sets were particularly sensitive to sunspot and thunderstorm activity, especially so a US Transreceiver, on temporary loan. Together with occasional interference from Tank Unit’s radio, the tasks of a solo operator became somewhat chaotic at times.

As soon as a network was fully operational, it was a case of packing one’s bags and heading for another area, often at the opposite end of the country, to carry out the same procedures as before (this time by Staff car!).

Security at all times and everywhere was very tightly observed. No indication was ever given as to numbers of personnel involved; numbers and / or locations of stations. Only as much information as was needed to be known was given out at any one time. For identification purposes, a War Office telephone number was given to each individual to be revealed if the standard reply to a challenge was not accepted and further confirmation was required.

In early December 1941, I was taken off operational duties and posted to HQ Aux Units, Coleshill House, near Highworth, Wiltshire. I recall the somewhat hairy experience of having to travel several miles in an open sidecare of a vintage M/C, at the crack of dawn, on a sunny but VERY cold day. By the time we reached our destination I was practically frozen to the boards and had to be lifted from the machine! The object of this move was to join Senior Commander Beatrice Temple as her Administrative Assistant. We were billeted and worked at Hannington Hall (a few miles down the road from Coleshill House), together with Major Maurice Petherick and Captain Charles Randell. Each of us had duties up at Coleshill as well.

A posting order came through for me in May 1942, just as the role of all Auxiliary Units ATS personnel was about to be greatly extended, still under the command of Senor Commander Temple.

There may be other ex-members of the Auxiliary Units who could tell and maybe would like to tell a different story. This account, however, relates to the experiences , as memory serves, of just one of the “pilot” Officers who helped to set up Radio Control Stations in several areas across the country, between June ad December 1941.

Barbara M Culleton