Researchers uncover Branscombe’s ‘secret war’

Phil Selway, from an interview with the Herald on the 60th anniversary of VE Day in 2005. Phil Selway, from an interview with the Herald on the 60th anniversary of VE Day in 2005.

Sunday, July 27, 2014
1:00 PM

Researchers have uncovered the secret stories of the fearless Branscombe villagers who would have fought off German invaders during World War Two.

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Sergeant Morgan Selley, from an interview with the Herald on the 60th anniversary of VE Day in 2005.Sergeant Morgan Selley, from an interview with the Herald on the 60th anniversary of VE Day in 2005.

The team behind the British Resistance Archive has been researching the role of the Auxiliary Units, small groups of civilians recruited to cause havoc until the regular forces launched a counterattack.

They were formed after the evacuation of British forces from France in 1940, when Britain was facing the full onslaught of a previously undefeated German military machine.

Churchill gave the authority for a select number of specialist officers to start scouting the country for appropriate volunteers – mainly men whose jobs were considered too important for the war effort to be called up.

Each group was made up of those that had an unsurpassed knowledge of their local area, such as farmers, poachers or gamekeepers.

Trained to the highest standards and often receiving the latest equipment before the regulars, in the event of an invasion these men were to go to their operational bases, hidden underground throughout the British countryside, wait for the enemy to pass over them and then come out at night attacking strategic Nazi targets, hitting the supply chain and transport and ‘dealing with collaborators’.

The secrecy of the group’s mission meant that they could tell no one of their actions, not even their closest family and friends, and all had to sign the Official Secrets Act.

The life expectancy of these volunteers was just two weeks after the invasion had started.

Despite this remarkable dedication to their country most have gone to their grave keeping their secrets.

Devon of course was considered to be a key target for any invading force having a huge coastline.

The number of Auxiliary Patrols that are believed to have existed in this part of the world backs this up, with some nine patrols just in East Devon.

One of these was based at Branscombe.

The patrol’s operational base (OB) was located in Castle Down wood, and like so many of the bases around the UK it remains in existence.

The patrol was made up of farm workers, a carpenter and a gardener all from local area.

After the invasion the patrol would have entered the OB and come out, mainly at night, to do their work.

Potential targets would have included RAF Branscombe Chain Home Radar at Kings Down Tail, blocking the roads coming up from the beach at Branscombe Mouth, which would have slowed supply routes, a munitions factory and possibly individuals such as Lucy Temple Cotton who lived in the area and who was a known associate of British Fascist Oswald Mosely.

The British Resistance Archive’s County Information Officer for Devon, Nina Hannaford said: “This is a great example of the extraordinarily brave individuals who were willing to sacrifice everything for their country.

“Devon’s huge coastal line meant that it was a vulnerable area of the country and to have so many patrols in this one, comparatively small area is telling.

“The men of the Branscombe patrol would have carried on with their reserved occupation all the while training at any spare moment and preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the country in its hour of need.

“Their families would not have known what they were up to and had the invasion come they would have only known that their loved ones had simply disappeared.

“Many of the Auxiliers took their secret to the grave, taking their signature on the Official Secrets Act so seriously, and therefore not getting the recognition they so richly deserved.

“The work we undertake here at the British Resistance Archive I hope goes someway to rectifying that.”

Nina’s research was greatly assisted by the members of the Branscombe Project, a group set up in 1994 by locals aiming to record Branscombe’s past.

As, sadly, all the members of the unit have now passed away, the interviews the Branscombe Project members undertook were really useful.

A history of Branscombe’s wartime activities, including the Auxiliary Unit can be found in Sue Dymond’s book Branscombe’s War 1939-1945, which was published as part of the project.

The members of Branscombe’s unit were Sergeant Basil ‘Dick’ Tedbury, who left the area and was listed as ‘untraceable’ in October 1944, Sergeant Morgan Selley, a farmer who succeeded Tedbury, Philip Selway, another farmer, farm workers Walter Hutchings, Arthur Irish and Francis “Frank” Coles, who also worked as a trapper, gardener Edward Collins and Stanley Dunn, a carpenter.

The Branscombe patrol was part of a group led by a Captain SB Wood, who also had volunteers in Sidbury, Beer, Newton Poppleford, Bovey, Axminster, Aylesbeare, Whitford and Seaton.

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