Churchill's British Resistance - The Special Duties Branch


Special Duties Branch

Please Note: Known under the names Special Duties Branch (On most official war records), Special Duties Organisation (On some WW2 documents) and Special Duties Section or SDS (a post war phrase).

This page was last updated at 6:19am on 27/9/13


Operating in the same areas as the Auxiliary Units (AU) operational patrols but completely separate and unknown to them was the AU Special Duties Branch, with its network of civilian observers and the secret wireless networks, set up and operated by officers and other ranks of AU Signals (recruited from the Royal Corps of Signals) and by subalterns recruited mainly from the ranks of ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). With 30 IN-stations (staffed by AU Signals or AU ATS), 125 OUT-stations (staffed by civilians) and 78 SUB-outstations, the total number of civilians involved in this intelligence-gathering organisation amounted to at least 3,250.

Signals map

Special Duties Branch wireless network (part)
Area 15 IN-Station. Manned by AU Signals
 OUT-stations and SUB-outstations. Manned by civilians, maintained by AU Signals

In preparation for the use of the wireless networks, Intelligence officers had been vetting civilians along the coast for their suitability as observers (basically spies) and clandestine wireless operators, the former to supply information to OUT-stations and the latter to transmit information they had received from a courier to IN-stations farther inland. All these civilian observers had to be capable of operating under enemy occupation. They were chosen from all walks of life: doctors, vicars, farmers, shopkeepers, housewives, and, at Ringwood in Hampshire, a barmaid. They had no uniform and would undoubtedly have been shot as spies if caught. A large number of these observers would have been engaged in gathering information of enemy activity. 'Dead-letter boxes' were set up in birds' nests, chicken houses, in hollows in trees, empty cans and drain pipes, etc., for depositing their messages, which, in due course were collected by runners (couriers) who would carry them, frequently concealed in split tennis balls, to an OUT-station. The OUT-station operator would code the messages and transmit them to his/her local IN-station at a pre-arranged time, where another operator would then decode and pass on any messages to their Intelligence officer based at the nearest Army HQ.

The civilian-run OUT-stations were concealed in various ways. Some were in attics (Rene's secret wireless in Granny's bedroom in the TV farce 'Allo 'Allo was true in Britain!), sheds, barns, dugouts, and other ingenious hides. One was at the top of the mausoleum 'folly' in Brocklesby Park in Lincolnshire and a chicken farmer near Axminster entered his dugout by lifting the complete wooden seat, together with bucket and contents, of his outside privy. Swivelling a wooden beam revealed the small radio compartment. His runners would swing aside a tree-stump to reveal a hole into which they dropped a split tennis ball containing messages, which would then run down into the dugout – without the runner being aware of the OUT-station’s location as all he would ever see would be a hole in the ground.

Wakehurst Special Duties Bunker

Beatrice TempleTowards the end of 1941, Beatrice Temple (see left), niece of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, was appointed Senior Commander of AU ATS, and she soon began recruiting young women, many already serving in the ATS, to work as IN-station operators. Unaware of the work involved, 93 women were initially invited to volunteer for a “special and possibly dangerous” assignment. Major Temple often conducted the interviews which, for the successful candidates would lead to voice tests, in the public lounge of Harrods in Knightsbridge. Having passed their voice test, conducted at Bachelor’s Hall, Hundon, Suffolk, 43 women were eventually chosen for training in the use of wireless sets, and each one was given officer status. The AU ATS wireless operators were then allocated to three-women units and posted to work in one of the IN-stations, all of which were situated in close vicinity to divisional/corps or area HQs. AU ATS officers and subalterns were accommodated in approved civilian billets, but they relied on Royal Signals for transport, at least until most of them had been issued with bicycles during 1942.

The first IN-stations (also referred to as Control stations or Zero stations) were small buildings designed to look like Meteorological huts, frequently with meteorological charts on the walls and other paraphernalia on display. Each IN-station covered an area about the size of a county. They served from five to ten OUT-stations and were manned either by a team of three AU signallers or by three ATS subalterns. Listening watches were programmed throughout the day. No instructions were given in writing except for the changes in the code used, which was never in Morse. The code was written on special 'digestible' paper, which had to be chewed and swallowed. As with all parts of the organisation, security was so tight that only the Intelligence officer and his AU Signals sergeant in charge of the area knew all of their local network’s locations.

From some time in 1942 onwards, dugouts were being constructed which were intended to be used in the event of an invasion. As they had to be reached quickly, on foot, the dugouts were commonly sited not far from the IN-station hut, which continued to serve for everyday use. Units of the Royal Engineers, who were unaware of their intended use, constructed the IN-station dugouts. They consisted of an entrance chamber accessed by a hidden trap door and a straight-down ladder and appeared to be complete, but a cleverly concealed door led to the wireless room. At the far end was another door, well sealed against fumes, leading to the generator room where batteries were charged. In the far wall there was an escape tunnel extending some distance away from the dugout. The dugouts were equipped with stores to last for a month, and with cooking, sleeping and toilet facilities. Most of the IN-station dugouts were built to the same design and they were very cleverly hidden. One was built under the vegetable garden of a manor house at Winchester, where a cold frame could be slid to one side to reveal a ladder leading down to the dugout. Another at Hume Castle was under the ruins, the aerials concealed in the ramparts, and at Buckland St Mary, near Taunton, the dugout was in the rim of an old Roman defence work at the end of the Blackdown Hills, forming part of a farm where the signallers were billeted with the farmer and his wife.

A good example of one of these dugouts can be seen here

Aerial running up the tree at the Shipley Zero Station

All the IN-stations required copper-wire dipole aerials 7ft. 9in. wide (3ft. 10in. each side) with Belling Lee 80-ohm flat twin down-leads. Where possible these were strung in the highest trees, for good transmission, and away from prying eyes. The down-leads were buried behind the bark, sometimes requiring imaginative camouflage. A transmission distance of up to 30 miles was expected but this was extended in many areas when sited on high ground and sometimes with the addition of an 8ft reflector. A good example of this was at Abergavenny where the IN-station was on the Blorenge Hills, now the site of a large TV mast and within a few yards of the memorial to the famous show jumper "Foxhunter". The longest operational link was 64 miles.

The wireless networks were set up by AU Signals. Pre-invasion, the AU signallers had a dual role. With one operator manning the set, the other two were required to visit each one of their network’s OUT-stations each week, replacing the batteries with fully-charged ones, checking the equipment, and climbing the trees if necessary to check that the aerials were secure. Taking place in daylight, these maintenance visits required extreme caution in avoiding detection. Having parked the scout-car some distance from the OUT-station, two heavy accumulator batteries and other equipment had to be carried to the site. The entrance could be approached only when safely undetected. Tree maintenance needed especial attention, sometimes taking several hours. On completion, camouflage of the site was paramount, removing any signs of activity. Where wireless sets were kept in private houses, security was again difficult and precautions had to be taken to avoid contact with the military.

Each area was supervised by an Intelligence officer, and the AU Signals officers, each controlling several areas, had drivers, engineers, and carpenters at their disposal. Sergeants were in charge of the local networks and their signalmen, accompanied by an instrument mechanic, would carry out all maintenance work as well as staff some of the IN- stations. The signallers were billeted with civilian families, who were completely unaware of their work, and wartime discipline was well observed by not prying into details. After the war many men maintained contact with their wartime 'mums', remembering how well they had been treated. During their daytime work the signallers obtained their meals locally, sometimes in British Restaurants, the meal-places set up by the government in many towns, and were otherwise left to fend for themselves, being responsible only to their Intelligence officer, who had two or three stations under his supervision. Each day's journey required a transport movement form, conventionally signed by a transport officer, but an NCO or signalman would sign the AU signallers’ forms. Auxiliary Units were directly answerable to GHQ Home Forces and hence avoided contact with conventional forces. This required a particularly resourceful and independently minded breed of soldier. AU Signals eventually numbered 69 men.

In 1942, the AU Signals HQ was moved from Hundon to Coleshill, where construction and improvements of the TRD sets (including the TRM and TRF) continued. At the same time the Special Duties Branch established their HQ at Hannington Hall, owned by the Fry cocoa family, five miles from Coleshill. Here, Major Maurice Petherick recruited additional Intelligence officers to continue the expansion of the spy organisation. Beatrice Temple continued to administer the AU ATS.

With the threat of invasion lifted after the successful establishment of the Normandy landings, AU Signals were disbanded in September 1944, followed by the AU operational patrols’ disbandment in November. After removing all contents, the dugouts were destined to be destroyed although there have been quite a few instances where dugouts that had hastily been established in 1940 were overlooked and the contents, badly deteriorated, has come to light many years afterwards. The property owner has known the IN-station at Winchester for many years although he had been unaware of its purpose, and the Shipley zero station has also been excavated. Both are in good condition, with original construction features intact. Some younger members of AU ops patrols, with their specialised training, enlisted in the SAS and other active units. Older members resumed their normal lifestyle, receiving no public recognition other than a letter from the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, expressing the value to the country of their devotion to duty in facing the dangers of an invasion, and the maintaining of secrecy was a matter of special pride. Signals personnel returned to Catterick in Yorkshire for retraining and allocation to other theatres of war; the Operator Training Battalion retained some as instructors because of the expansion in training required for the final effort against the Germans in Europe and the Japanese in the Far East.

Most of the info on this page has been written by Arthur Gabbitas. It is has been reproduced with kind permission of his family and supplied to CART by Aux Unit News  [Edited by Evelyn Simak]
  Buy your memorial badge here