The summer of 1940 marked some of the darkest days in British history. The BEF had been successfully evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, but arrived back on the shores of Britain without the majority of its equipment and weapons. The victorious German army stood just across the Channel, waiting, it seemed, for the right time to invade. In these desperate days Prime Minister Churchill instigated the founding of a highly secret organisation, explains the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART), as they research the secretive Auxiliary Units.
Urged by Churchill, Colonel Colin Gubbins (who later joined SOE) founded the force with a like-minded group of officers in the summer of 1940. Gubbins had fought in Norway with the precursor units to the Commandos and had utilised guerilla tactics in the interwar Allied interventions in the Russian Civil War. The force was formed from civilian volunteers outside the ages for call up to the regular forces or were in reserved occupations. They would be the vanguard of resistance in the event of a successful German invasion and occupation.
The volunteers were trained at Coleshill House, which was requisitioned as the unit’s headquarters, with around 3,500 men signing up. They were organised into self-sufficient and autonomous cells, hidden in the event in a network of well-concealed operational bases, or OBs, that stretched the length and breadth of Britain. Such was the secrecy associated with the force that all of them signed the Official Secrets Act, not telling their closest families and friends what they were up to. Their role, once the invading forces has reached their part of the country, was to disappear to the underground bases scattered across the British countryside.
Each patrol, made up of 6-8 men, would wait for the German Army to pass by and come out, mainly at night, to take out strategic targets such as ammunition and fuel dumps, transport links, and airfields. They would also attempt to assassinate high ranking German officers and even collaborators. Essentially, they were trained to cause as much disruption as possible to give the British Army time to recover and counterattack.
This of course would have come at a cost, and these volunteers had a life expectancy of around two weeks. The volunteers were often farmers or farm workers, or gamekeepers, who knew the local countryside intimately and could live off the land if necessary. They were well-trained and often received the most up-to-date equipment, and were expected to take their own lives to avoid capture.
The Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team was set up by and is run by volunteers, and they have tasked themselves with uncovering more information about this remarkable group of people. Over the years they have discovered the sites of previously unknown OBs (sometimes discovered still intact), spoken to veterans, and gained first official recognition of any kind by campaigning and securing a place in the Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph March for Auxiliary Units veterans and their relatives.
So far, 2018 has already proven to be an important year for CART. The group has achieved much, including the discovery of three Auxiliary Unit operational bases, one OB was discovered in Alton Pancras in Somerset, and two more were found in Dorset, near Whitchurch Canonicorum and Child Okeford. They also plan to send a researcher to the Shetland Islands to investigate the possibilities that patrols and OBs were established there.
However, CART is looking for new information and leads associated to the Auxiliary Units and their OBs. The original official history, produced by Major N.V. Oxenden in 1944, has long been missing, and little evidence of patrols in the Shetlands exists. Also sought is evidence of patrols and confirm the location of a number of OBs across the South West of England and in Hampshire (in particular in the Southwick, Hartling, and Langrish areas).
CART is also interested in any information from those who remember relatives mentioning or undertaking ‘secret Home Guard work’ during the Second World War, especially when the individuals concerned did not receive the Defence Medal. They also want to hear from anyone who may have inadvertently uncovered an OB while playing as a child, or when working on the land.
Coleshill House, the headquarters and training centre for the Auxiliary Units, is now a National Trust site and is now open to the public for one day a month during the summer. The house runs tours showcasing the secret wartime history of the house, and features a replica OB.