Churchill's British Resistance - The Auxiliary Units


Training the Auxiliary Units

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The Garth Birthplace of the Auxiliary Units

GHQ Coleshill

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Training Papers used and tests undertaken Auxiliary Command Chart


Other training took place at regional Headquarters. Please see each county for this.


The aim of the guerrilla must be to develop their inherent advantages so as to nullify those of the enemy. The principles of this type of warfare are therefore:-

(a) Surprise first and foremost, by finding out the enemy's plans and concealing your own intentions and movements.

(b) Never undertake an operation unless certain of success owing to careful planning and good information. Break off the action when it becomes too risky to continue.

(c) Ensure that a secure line of retreat is always available.

(d) Choose areas and localities for action where your mobility will be superior to that of the enemy, owing to better knowledge of the country, lighter equipment, etc.

(e) Confine all movements as much as possible to the hours of darkness.

(f) Never engage in a pitched battle unless in overwhelming strength and thus sure of success.

(g) Avoid being pinned down in a battle by the enemy's superior forces or armament; break off the action before such a situation can develop.

(h) Retain the initiative at all costs by redoubling activities when the enemy commences counter-measures,

(i) When the time for action comes, act with the greatest boldness and audacity. The partisan's motto is

Valiant but Vigilant

These nine points of the guerrilla's creed were laid down by Colin Gubbins in his MI(R) publication 'The Art of Guerrilla Warfare' - one of the three booklets for which he was responsible to the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Although regarded as 'Most Secret', they are not visibly marked with any security classification.

The fountainhead for his guerrillas was Auxiliary Units' Headquarters, originally at 7, Whitehall Place in London. Although centrally situated for the "War Office, it was not equipped for operational training either in size or location, and he soon organised a conspiracy of Lords to find something more suitable.

Coleshill HouseWith his usual impeccable touch, Gubbins despatched a selected officer from his Staff - Captain (later Major) The Honourable Michael T Henderson, 16/5th Lancers, the younger brother of Lord Farringdon - to trawl for somewhere suitable in the centre of England. It was not an immensely difficult business because the noble Lord's neighbour in Wiltshire was the Seventh Earl of Radnor, who owned one of England's great country buildings - Coleshill House, a 17th Century Palladian mansion and extensive estate, created by the amateur architect Sir Roger Pratt - apparently with a hint or two from Inigo Jones - as well as nearby Longford Castle. These certainly kept him off any housing waiting-lists and, as he preferred life in the Castle, the only occupants at Coleshill were the sisters, Mary and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie and their dogs.

A financial accommodation was reached with the War Office and, at the arrival of Auxunits in the summer of 1940, the Pleydell-Bouverie's contribution to the war effort was an unpremeditated change in lifestyle.

The conspiracy of Lords was consolidated when Lord Glanusk became Commanding Officer in 1942, with Lord Delamere his appointed second-in-Command and Transport Officer. In support, were a number of officers with double-barrelled names.

Initially intended as a training HQ, administration was moved down to the country too after 'blitz' damage in Whitehall. Coleshill House, near the town of Highworth and less than ten miles from the railway station at Swindon, was in most respects an ideal location, remote from the point of likely enemy invasion and with plenty of space for operational training. The postal address - GHQ Auxiliary Units, c/o GPO Highworth - is immediately recognisable to any 'warrior' - of whatever station - as well as any interested historian or researcher.

The plan was to develop the estate as a training area for Auxiliers. Dummy tanks and aircraft, damaged beyond repair, and enemy transport - some real, others simulated - were dispersed in the grounds and a massive collection of firearms assembled, a number of which were German, as well as booby traps and explosives. Demonstration OBs were dug - one is still there. Classes were prepared in close combat, map reading, stealth, night cross-country movement, the use of firearms and grenades, and camouflage. In due course, competitions were prepared. At first, officers responsible for training had to commute from London for the weekend - the only time their students, the Auxiliers, could conveniently absent themselves from work. It is generally accepted that Coleshill was a quiet place during the week and seriously noisy at weekends. By the end of 1940 the whole Auxunit HQ War Establishment had settled at 'GPO Highworth'.

All this required officers to supervise the administration and organise a training programme, and other ranks - men for transport and engineering and women as secretaries, cooks, clerks and orderlies - to provide routine spadework-and-support services. Officers were in the big house and other ranks at first lived and worked in, and over, stables and outbuildings. Later they moved into newly erected Nissen Huts, a disappointment for the rats which had plagued the stables. The soldiers, however - previously without heating - saw it as a definite improvement in lifestyle.

Stableyard at ColeshillLife in the big house was no less hearty at times. Eric Gray, who served at Coleshill for two years as an RASC technical and mechanical clerk, remembers just one telephone - Highworth 85 - until Auxunits (Signals) built an adequate network. He is pretty sure too that there was no electricity at first until a supply was installed through temporary cables suspended in passages and the main rooms. Heating was negligible and not in any sense coordinated. The water supply was pumped from a main reservoir, more than thirty feet below ground, under a series of cellars and tunnels. This, and the ancient appliance -man-handled and pumped by half a dozen men either side of a master lever - was the only protection against fire hazards. Eric was not surprised that shortage of water was still a major factor when this otherwise magnificent building - then in the ownership of millionaire Mr Ernest Cook, one of the partners of the well known travel agents, was finally burned to the ground in September 1952.

 Water pump Coleshill

Water Pump, Coleshill Estate, Oxfordshire. (© Copyright Brian Robert Marshall and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

This pump has long been disused for its original purpose.

However, during the second world war it served as a disguise for a secret entrance to an underground bunker used by the Auxiliary Units that would have acted as a resistance movement against German invaders, had there been any. The buildings beyond were used as offices during the war by the controllers of the national headquarters of the Auxiliary Units.

The training rationale was described by Nigel Oxenden:

'COURSES. With the idea of standardising the teaching, and at the same time building up everywhere a personal contact with headquarters, it was decided to hold four weekend courses. Coleshill House was considered suitable; the servants' hall aiul kitchen were taken over as a mess, and lofts over the stables as billets for (visiting) officers and men. The HQ staff came down on Fridays from Whitehall Place, laid on the programme and catering, and returned to London on Sunday evening. The first course was held on August 22nd 1940; the series of four stretched to one hundred, with surprisingly little deviation from the original programme.

'...The first effect of instructing the auxiliers, was to clarify the ideas of the instructors...'

Auxiliers, with emphasis on Patrol Leaders first, were selected to attend a Coleshill course as soon as administratively possible. Some made several visits and a few never got there at all. A number were able to travel by car, if the IO could wangle a few petrol coupons for them, and first reported to Highworth Post Office, a security cut-out to identify visitors - whose intention was reported to 'Highworth 85' by telephone -before they were guided on to the main house.

But the vast majority came by train to Swindon. From there they were brought directly to Coleshill in RASC transport -usually a three-ton truck - marked with the GHQ Home Forces insignia, an Heraldic Lion Rampant, and the unit identification number 490. If there was a yellow blob on the bonnet it was, like the tops of pillar boxes, intended to change colour when poison gas was detected.

Highworth Post OfficeHighworth Post Office still receives frenetic cover in daily newspapers as the clearing house for all visitors to Coleshill, and postmistress Mrs Mabel Stranks role, useful though it undoubtedly was, overstated.  She and her staff were well known to the regular other ranks at Coleshill.

The late Kenneth E Burnell volunteered for unspecified 'secret duties' directly after training at Aldershot, and before a regimental posting - with no idea what he was volunteering for. He served at Coleshill for two years from November 1940, first arriving by train at Swindon:

'The RTO (Rail Transport Office) there had us transported to GPO Highworth. The Postmistress, Mrs M A Stranks, got on the phone and a car soon arrived and we got to Coleshill. Until then we just had no idea as to our destination!

'(Later) I had to stay the night at the PO at Highworth in case an urgent phone call came through from the War Office. Mrs Stranks said she would be awake on duty all night and let me go to sleep in the bed upstairs after a very nice supper. Even brought me tea in bed in the morning!'

Eric Gray recalls:
'Her post office was merely an accommodation address for Coleshill House and her only involvement was to contact Auxunits by telephone whenever anyone arrived asking for them. In any event, this was usually delegated to one of her two charming lady assistants. I often spoke to them over the telephone but unfortunately I have forgotten their names. They used to allow Corporal Johnny Banks and myself to leave our cycles at the Post Office for safety whenever we went to the dance at the local school. Mrs Stranks I remember as a shadowy figure in the background...'

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The main remit for Auxunits' HQ was to teach the nine points of the guerrillas' creed to the men in the sharp end, those civilians in the operational patrols, and the Scout Sections of regulars; and to provide refresher courses for Intelligence Officers. Instruction started from a zero base point - it had never been attempted before. Moreover, it had to happen in a hurry - 'the Germans were coming'.

This required permanent staff. By 1943, Auxiliary Units' HQ War Establishment totalled ninety-seven personnel. Ten officers included two Royal Engineers responsible for OB design and construction - for both Patrols and Special Duties Section -and to 'teach bangs'. The eighty-seven NCOs and other ranks listed a musketry instructor, carpenters and bricklayers, four officers' mess staff, drivers and motor cyclists, ATS switchboard operators, quartermasters and clerks.

Hidden away under 'Notes' at the end of the Establishments were seven officers and sixty-nine NCOs and other ranks, including 41 signalmen - 'additional personnel allowed for the special duties branch 'to be filled as and when required'. Some lived at Coleshill - others were privately billeted in areas. These specialists were responsible, through their own Auxunit (Signals) OC, to nearby Hannington Hall (HQ of Auxunits Special Duties Section), and the purpose will be explained ir following chapters. For the moment, it is enough to describe their work as very specially secret with some of them, frorr 1942, assembling secret radios in huts at Coleshill, after moving from Bachelor's Hall at Hundon in Suffolk.

Finally, the 'Notes' referred to fifty-six 'subalterns anc second subalterns', and their support staff - equally secret Control Station operators for ATS (Auxiliary Units) radio communications network.

Hannington HallHannington Hall was under the supervision of Major Maurice Petherick and Senior Commander Beatrice Temple -in their respective roles as head of Auxunits' Special Duties Section and overlady of the ATS - both of whom were regularly in conference at Coleshill, although representing absolutely distinct and separate parts of the complete Auxiliary Units organisation (these are also detailed in later chapters). From 1942, after this very close affiliation with Britain's Secret Services, Hannington Hall became an ATTERY' for ATS personnel, with daily motor transport provided for those working at Coleshill.

The support staff of all ranks at Coleshill were back-ups for the instructors, the men who had to put the guerrilla's creed into practice. The musketry instructor, with varieties of arcane weaponry, operated from a firing range in a quarry half a mile away from the main house. Lectures were given in the old servants' hall, and demonstrations in the estate grounds included those important 'bangs' which guaranteed Auxiliers' interest - grenade throwing and firing explosives. Practical exercises were set up on subjects such as camouflage, stealth, night movement and Close Combat. This training is still fresh in the memories of many Auxiliers. As usual, there is some conflict of evidence.

There are, for example, indications that Major 'Dan' Fairbairn himself  was in charge. Others, downgrading the importance of Close Combat, remember training under regular army Physical training Instructors. Knife fighting was reported to be under the command of Captain (later Major) W W ('Bill') Harston - whose first official post was 'transport officer'. Other indisputable evidence points to instruction from a five feet, two-inch Scots sergeant-major, specially released for the purpose from Barlinnie Jail in Glasgow, and yet more eyewitnesses attest to CQC instruction from a Russian - a gifted knife fighter!

Taking out a Nazi

Image copyright to Steve Bulmer


Auxiliary Units were given high priority in the provision of patrol weapons and explosive devices. Personal weapons were, with some exceptions, intended for defence rather than offence, as in no way was it proposed that they should fight pitched battles with superior forces but rather should avoid direct confrontation, killing only when necessary to achieve surprise or to effect material damage on the enemy's supply lines or stores. Explosives were to be the main offensive weapons of the Auxiliary Units, whose role was to attack the enemy's stores, transport and communications rather than his ground troops. But given the right sort of combustible target, a properly placed incendiary could do as much, if not more, damage to an enemy's stores and supplies as an explosive, and the Auxiliary Units were supplied with a variety of equipment for this purpose, which could be used, either on its own or in conjunction with explosives for greater effect. Every Auxiliary received training in the basic principles of making and using explosive and incendiary devices. 

Thus patrols and individual Auxiliaries were sent to Coleshill for training in the use of explosives, sabotage, booby-traps and unarmed combat. Instruction in the latter was based on a book by W.E. Fairburn, designer of the Fairburn dagger (Field Service Fighting Knife). Having been a policeman in the seamier areas of Shanghai, Fairburn could write with authority on all the dirty tricks that could be employed in close combat, as well as on the art of silent killing. How well patrols had learned their training was thoroughly tested, often with patrols competing against each other.  These tests were a combination of tests of knowledge and tests of effectiveness. See what was involved with the tests here.

Initial training-in all the preceding weapons and equipment was given, either at Coleshill House or locally, by the Regular Army support troops, and such knowledge was passed on, largely by word of mouth, and in the interests of security, no written training manuals were prepared.

Gutter FightingAt Coleshill, Major Harston, a former preparatory school-master, held classes in silent killing.  He made his new pupils pretend to be German centuries, and he then demonstrated how they could be approached silently and stabbed before they had time to cry out.

Unarmed training showing Attacks, Defences and Releases; Frontal Holds; Wrist Releases; Arm Locks and Breaks; The Cross Buttock throw; Waist Holds; Strangleholds; Sentry Stalking; Ground Holds.

A right-handed attacker would first place his left hand over the face of the enemy, thumb upward round the nose, and the two lower fingers holding the mouth closed from under the chin. When dealing with a sentry, he expected to kill in almost total silence - and completely so if he kept strictly to his rules of training.

The course went into detail on the value of the edge of a steel helmet, heel or toecaps - even just a matchbox - as aids to defence or attack.

The objectives were limb breaks, dislocation and wounds, or complete disablement of an enemy soldier.

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