Tawstock Auxiliary Unit Patrol
This page was last updated on 1/2/16
Thank you for selecting information on the Tawstock Auxiliary Unit and Operational Base. The info and images below have been supplied by CART's Devon CIO
Nina Hannaford & Somerset Aux Researcher Chris Perry.
From the very first meeting in Whitehall in July 1940 the Intelligence Officer for Devon and Cornwall (named Auxiliary Units SW Area) was Captain (later Major)
J W Stuart Edmundson an officer in the Royal Engineers. He liaised with the regular army and received supplies and
equipment and formed all the Patrols. He was assisted by Lieutenant (later Captain) John “Jack” Dingley who became
IO for Cornwall in 1943.
In November 1943 Devon and Cornwall were separated and Edmundson was succeeded in Devon by Major W W “Bill” Harston who would remain in command until near stand
down. At the end of Harston's command he would cover “No 4 Region” being the whole of the South West and South
The IOs were being withdrawn from around August 1944 leaving the Area and Group Commanders.
After 1941 a “grouping” system was developed where various patrols within a demographic area would regularly
train together under more local command.
Group 1 consisted of Tawstock, Bideford (East the Water), Torrington, Braunton and Snapper patrols and the Area and Group Commander was Captain Gerald W Slee living in Barnstaple.
Thought to be late July 1940.
The men all lived in the area to the south and west of Barnstaple.
Sergeant Henry “H.S” Joyce of Roundswell
Corporal Joshua “Jo” Downing of Horwood
Richard “Dick” Downing of Hele Manor
George John Shapland of New Bridge
Edward “Bob” Shapland discharged to HM Forces 16th April 1943
Stanley Becklake of Bickington
Albert “Bert” Verney of Overton
Gerald A Stanbury of Horsewell
The Operational Base was in Big Straypark Plantation (also known as “Tawstock Wood”) to the South of Tawstock. This is on PRIVATE LAND and was accessed with the kind permission of the owner.
The patrol made use of a small hollow or quarry to build an OB shaped like a quarter ball.
A small quarry in “Tawstock Wood”
It is unknown at present the exact location in the wood.
The straight, open side was the front of the base where the entrance shaft was built. The front side was then built up with earth, bushes and dead pieces of trees and a large amount of moss. This was then sloped to match the bank on either side.
The trap door leading to the underground base was impossible to see because of its carpet of leaves and moss glued to the door.
Inside a wooden seat was built around the circular side with 3ft boards nailed to the framework. Around the back and above and behind the seat was panelled. Behind the panelling were different compartments for storing equipment and explosives. Water and food was stored under the seating.
One panel of boards could be removed to reveal the entrance to the escape tunnel. The escape tunnel was 3ft wide and 4ft high and ran 25 yards to another hollow in the ground where at the end was another trap door. This door could only be opened from inside. Outside, like the entrance, it was covered with moss and dead brushwood.
Plan of the Operational Base originally drawn by Bert Verney
What was hoped to be a safety chamber was built half way down the escape tunnel. The base itself was booby trapped with triggering wires in the safety chamber. It had two doors, one in main base and one in the safety chamber, which could be closed allowing the main blast of the booby trap to go straight down the escape tunnel. Two doors would help to protect the men from blast.
Sketch of OB Design – Chris Perry.
There were 6 booby traps outside the OB, placed just below the ground, which could be set off at a push of a button. Anyone within 30 yards would be lucky to not be killed.
It is unclear what the OB was constructed of.
Other physical remains nearby: Bert Verney recalled there were 3 other hide-holes in the area where one could hide but store only a few supplies. He did not state if these are within the same wood or just in the local area. Something is rumoured to have been at Hollamore Clump but at present this cannot be confirmed.
Many Auxiliers from North Devon have recounted the story of a practice raid on RAF Chivenor (now Royal Marines Base Chivenor) with all North Devon Patrols seeming to take part.
The base was well defended from the land side but the river side was wide open, so Tawstock Patrol arrived by boat, having drifted in on the tide up the River Taw from Instow a mile or so down stream. They marked each and every plane with a chalk swastika, and the tide having turned, they drifted back undetected.
Other Patrols were said to have handed themselves in, while others by-passed defences by pretending to be regular Home Guards defending the site.
Pill Box at entrance to RMB Chivenor.
RMB Chivenor from the South bank.
All the other North Devon Patrols were involved in this raid and all had different targets on the base. Where the utcome is known all were successful.
The RAF base had been provided with security from both the regular army troops and also members of local Home Guard Battalions.
RAF Chivenor (Copyright IWM and E C Kidd)
A wartime aerial view of RAF Chivenor next to the Rivers Taw and Caen.
Note the attempt to camouflage the airfield and runway as hedged fields in an attempt to defend it from air attack.
Although defenders were warned of an impending “attack”, Barnstaple railway station also saw “terrible damage to all of the engines and much of the rolling stock” according to Bert Verney. Chalk swastikas were again used to symbolise the damage they could have caused to the rail links.
Hartland Point The modern CAA radar near Hartland Point is situated above Barley Bay.
Though over 10 miles away for Tawstock Patrol, Bert recalled travelling by lorry to a training raid on Hartland Point Radar Station followed by a later raid on the hutments at Northam Burrows.
Hartland Point was a Naval VHF intercept station for the 'Y service'. Jointly operated by the Army, Royal Navy, RAF, Foreign Office, Metropolitan Police and the GPO, 'Y service' was a feeder service for the Enigma operation at Bletchley Park.
Subsequently it became a 'Chain Home Low' radar station. This system was set up in 1940, and the local station was on Northam Burrows, but additional coastal stations were needed to boost coverage at low-level. These had a dual function of plotting surface shipping and low-flying aircraft.
RAF Northam was a chain home air-defence radar station that operated between February or March 1941 and 1945, although by that date the site's domestic accommodation was probably being used for personnel stationed at RAF Hartland Point.
It was located on Northam Burrows and adjacent land, with a domestic complex and orderly room (administration) on the south-west edge of the site, on land now occupied by housing.
1946 RAF aerial photographs shows four steel transmitter masts, two wooden receiver towers and a number of transmitter and receiver blocks, with spinal access road and perimeter fencing.
They are considered the best preserved radar remains in Devon.
Britain from Above
Northam Burrows in 1947 still showing the towers of the radar station on the right edge of the Burrows. RAF Chivenor is further up the River Taw on the north bank near the first bend in the River Taw.
A night raid took place at Fremington House and camp, which from 1943 to 1945 was an American training camp and post D-Day rehabilitation hospital.
On the departure of the US troops it became a British School of Combined Operations HQ.
Stevenstone House before its decline.
Bert recalled another group raid on Stevenson House, St Giles in the Wood, near Torrington. Barely habitable after parts were sold for building materials in the 1930s, it was used to billet men from Warwickshire Regiment and later American Forces.
A exercise by the regular forces to defend against an “attack”on a gun emplacement at Instow was thrown into chaos by the Patrol.
Unnoticed, Bert slipped in with some “prisoners” taken captive and when taken into the base let off a large “thunder flash”.
“In reality I would have perished with the rest but the gun emplacement would have been blown up” explained Bert.
Other targets would have included booby-trapped roads and bridges and transport in general.
In his memoirs Bert Verney recalled he trained with 4 patrols in the area; Torrington, Braunton, what he calls Snapper and his, at “Tawstock Woods” (note no mention of Bideford). Although they trained together they were not allowed to visit each others bases so if captured, secrecy was not compromised.
Marksmanship was taught on an ingenious course constricted by the Tawstock Patrol. A dry gully in the woods had been adapted so that as the trainee advanced along it, targets would pop out from behind trees and bushes, actuated by string and controlled by the sergeant behind him. This gave a limited time to react and fire.
The gully runs for around 325 yards on a gradual incline between Big Straypark Plantation and Straypark Wood.
The gully in “Tawstock Wood” used as a marksmanship course.
The following report of a shooting competition between the local (Railway) Home Guard and the “203rd Battalion” appeared in the North Devon Journal 22nd December 1942.
Bert Verney remembers 1 Browning Automatic Rifle, 8 Sten Guns, 8 Colt Revolvers and a wicked dagger.
1 hundredweight of high explosive, No 36 Mills hand grenades, plenty of ammunition for weapons, enough food for a month and many cans of water.
It is assumed that the Patrol would have access to the “standard” Auxiliary weapons
and explosives along with regular equipment seen here.
They were all taught unarmed combat and became expert in explosives, setting booby-traps and blowing stuff up. After stand down Bert remembered “some almighty bangs post war as we were ordered to destroy our stores.”
Bert remembered having a phial of poison containing Potassium Cyanide for if captured or if someone from the village was held captive. These were not standard issue.
Captain Gerald Slee 1954
Group Captain “Gerry” Slee lived in Union Terrace, Barnstaple but is work address as director of E. W. S. Bartletts, a timber merchants at Nutaberry Works, Bideford is also recorded.
His family remember him as a calm, firm and capable man who never spoke of his war time role.
Both Captain Slee and Sergeant Joyce were guest speakers in a BBC radio series “Country Magazine” in 1948 proving their knowledge of the countryside was well recognised.
Sergeant Henry S Joyce was a retired bank manager and a farmers son. The Patrol had great confidence in his leadership as a man you could trust and he had a vast knowledge of the countryside and its ways. A very fit man for his age which Bert remembered as 68, 10 years older than he was.
Known as Harry to family or “H.S” to everyone else he wanted to be a farmer from an early age. His mother thought that wasn't good enough for him, so he was forced into employment in a bank, against his will. He became a manager of the National Provincial in Barnstaple and apparently was quite good at it. Never enjoying the work, but staying with the bank until he retired, one of his last postings before retirement being in Ashburton where a few years later the HQ of SW Auxiliary Units was right next door.
He was good at swimming, and at one time instructed the Plymouth police in lifesaving. He was also a excellent singer with the Barnstaple Male Voice Choir.
“H.S” loved the countryside, and became quite well known in England as an angler and writer on rural topics. Known as a rural eccentric and multi-talented character he was a very observant naturalist, his refrigerator often full of “interesting specimens”.
He wrote many books and articles for publications such as “Country Life”, which he illustrated himself with watercolours and pen-and-ink drawings.
His son recalled that he was short listed as the official naturalist for one of Sir Ernest Shackleton's expeditions to the Antarctic but the Bank refused to release him.
He would often be seen riding his “sit-up-and-beg” bicycle in the middle of the road paying no attention to the traffic around him. He wore a tweed hat decorated with fishing flies and many darns. His family complained it looked like it had been run over by a car. The rest of his wardrobe consisted of brown breeches which he darned himself, a darned jacket and thick shooting socks which he also darned.
“Jo” Downing was a farmer, he was plump with a bald head. Reasonably agile, he was a crack shot and a good chap to have around if you were in a tight corner.
He was thought of as a gentleman farmer and locals wondered at his life-style. He was more often seen driving a very smart car, possibly a Rover or a Wolsey, than working on East Barton Farm.
He always had a lady house-keeper or companion living with him.
His brother “Dick” Downing was an expert in explosives. He had been an engineer with Leyland trucks and definitely knew all about explosives which they all benefited from.
Since leaving school, George Shapland and his brother Bob both worked on the Tawstock Court Estate as gamekeeper, under-keeper and gardeners. They were both rather thin, very active and tough with vast knowledge of the woods. Able to make themselves disappear with the stealth they used in dealing with poachers, both were able to look after themselves and could be a handful if needs be. They were both crack shots and an asset to the Unit. In later life one became a farmer, the other a full time gardener.
Owned by The Bourchier Wrey family Tawstock Court itself was let to St Michaels Preparatory School. Moving from Uckfield in Sussex it opened in July 1940.
Stanley Becklake was a full time gardener and was slightly lame due to a accident years before. Some thought he may not have been an asset due to this but Bert considered he could have been a dark horse.
Bert Verney originally joined the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) and remembered their first meeting was on a bit of waste ground at the bottom of Codden Hill with anything they could use as a weapon. “ I shall never forget the weapons on show; hooks, long-handled forks, air guns and poles with knives attached to their ends. I had a shot-gun and six cartridges, so was easily the best armed of the lot.”
At some time in 1941 he was asked to join the Auxiliary Units.
Siblings: Bert, Lilion and Stanley Verney
Bert could improvise well and was determined to do his bit if “Jerry” came. He saw no fear and was fit and full of stamina. According to Sgt. Joyce he was too rash, which Bert admitted.
Bert recalled that due to the introduction of double summer time they were often working in the harvest field until 11.30pm. Hard and tiring work followed by training with the Patrol.
In the summer of 1940 both Bert and his brother Stanley wanted to volunteer to join the RAF. It was only when their medical call up papers arrived that they knew of each others intentions. A long and fierce argument ensued.
Stanley argued he was the eldest so should go. Bert argued he wanted a career in drama and music rather farming, which was Stanley's way of life so Stan was best to stay for the farm. They agreed they could not leave their Father alone.
They decided the only way was to spin coin. Stanley “won” and joined the RAF. Bert resigned to a lifetime of farming rather than drama.
Stanley Verney became a navigator and bomb aimer.
Flying Officer S Verney RAFVR was killed in action September 1943 aged 25.
Memorial seat to Stanley Verney on Codden Hill.
Near to the obelisk which commemorates Caroline Thorpe, wife of former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe.
Bert Verney 1950
Bert Verney looking up Codden Hill
Bert spent 20 years as a J.P, spent time as a special Constable, became Chairman of the Barnstaple NFU and stayed farming at Overton before selling after 69 years.
A friend and neighbour of Bert's, Gerald Stanbury was last to join. He was a farmer, rough and reliable but rash like Bert. He saw no fear and was very fit. Although he joined later he soon picked up explosive skills which would have been his main task. He died in 1964 aged only 40.
All members had vast knowledge of the countryside and could have lived and managed without too much trouble in their OB for many weeks.
They all had special passes to enable them to travel anywhere without questions.
Trig Point on Eastcott Hill
There is a Triangulation Pillar ( “Trigpoint”) on Eastcott Hill, over looking
Woolacombe Sands to the North of Bideford. It carries a plaque dedicated to the Auxiliary Units of the area.
A final parade of the Devonshire Auxiliary Units was held at Exeter Guildhall in November 1944, each Auxilier being given a copy of the Stand Down letter by Col F W R Douglas. Commander.
The late Auxilier Bert Verney from his book “Reflections – A trilogy of memories” ISBN 1 874448 20 5
TNA ref WO 199/3391
Hancock Data held at B.R.A
Land owner Jack Anderton
The memories of the late Auxilier Geoff Bradford
The family of Gerald Slee
A Country Childhood by H.S Joyce. Introduction by Roger Guttridge.
The Book of Bishops Tawton by Amery, Luxford and Sanders.
The Book of Barnstaple - From Coronation to Millennium by Avril Stone
Bideford 500 and Diana Yendell
Dr Will Ward
A and M Passmore – Leaflet SDV347318. Devon HER Subterranea Britannica North Devon Journal.