Friday, August 15, 2014
In a quiet copse, two miles outside Newton Poppleford, lies a clue to one of the best kept secrets in the British military.
Down a muddy track and buried some eight feet underground is a World War Two bunker.
It’s empty now, but in 1940 it would have been packed with explosives, ammunition and provisions.
That’s because in the event of a German invasion, this is where a group of highly trained men from the covert Auxiliary Units would have launched their resistance.
I’d come to the bunker – or operational base (OB) – with Tom Sykes and Nina Hannaford from the British Resistance Archive to learn more about the men of this secretive force, who thankfully were never called on to wage the guerrilla war they were trained for.
In the face of a very real threat of invasion from Nazi Germany in 1940, Churchill ordered a clandestine civilian force be formed, with the sole task of resisting the occupation that would follow.
The men of the Auxiliary Units – or Auxiliers – would have been selected for their local knowledge.
People like farmers, gamekeepers and poachers, who could live off the land and knew every shortcut and hiding place.
After signing the Official Secrets Act, they were ‘assigned’ to local Home Guard units, issued with the uniform as a cover story and expected to keep their role secret - even from their closest family.
Recruits were formed into cells – or operational patrols – of seven or eight men, who received training in stealth and sabotage and were first in line for the latest weaponry and kit.
Their orders were to emerge from their OB at night to destroy supply dumps, block roads and assassinate German officers.
“If they derailed a train in a compact area, it could take weeks before it was cleared and cause massive disruption,” explained Nina. “Just look at what happened at Dawlish when the train line shut – it caused chaos.”
The OB is accessed down a narrow shaft which would have been completely hidden from view by a camouflaged hatch.
Once inside, any noise from the surface is barely audible and, in the near darkness, the base, which is no more than 15 feet long and eight feet high, would have been quite claustrophobic.
Nina explained that unusually, the Newton Poppleford OB didn’t have an escape tunnel, although it appeared that the men had started to dig one before blocking it up.
She said: “Possibly the ground was too solid for them to dig through.
“It probably wouldn’t have been much use if the Germans had found the OB anyway.
“The escape tunnels in other bases were probably more of a morale booster than anything else.
“The thing they were probably most worried about was sniffer dogs, because if they were tracked back to the OB they would have been in real trouble.
“They had no chance really – they probably had two weeks at the most if the Germans had invaded.”
And their actions, although vital to the resistance effort, could have had serious consequences for the local population.
“There could have been reprisals,” added Nina. “If a bridge was blown up or a road blocked, the Germans would have started asking questions in nearby villages.
“They could have shot anyone they suspected of being part of the resistance or helping them, and it could have easily been family or friends of the Auxiliers.”
The Auxiliary Units were formally stood down in November 1944 and, thanks to their specialist training, many of the men made ideal candidates for the newly formed Special Air Service.
But because of the secrecy of their work, they received no formal recognition when the war ended, apart from an inconspicuous lapel badge.
“As far as their families and friends were concerned, they were in the Home Guard,” said Nina. “Local people might have looked at them after the war and thought ‘you didn’t do much’.
“It’s a shame because when the Home Guard had the official stand down marches after the war, the Auxiliers had nothing.”
In his official stand down letter, commander of the Auxiliary Units, Colonel F W R Douglas, told his men: “In view of the fact that your lives depended on secrecy, no public recognition will be possible.
“But those in the most responsible positions at General Headquarters, Home Forces, know what was done; and what would have been done had you been called upon.
“It will not be forgotten.”
The Newton Poppleford base is just one of 32 OBs concealed in woodland across Devon, with other sites in East Devon thought to be hidden near Aylesbeare and Sidbury.
And although Tom and Nina know most of the names of local Auxiliers and where they lived, the exact location of many of the OBs remain a mystery.
Tom said: “We have most of the pieces of the puzzle, we just can’t put them all together yet.”
“We can but guess by their addresses where the rough patrol locations were,” added Nina.
The pair are keen to hear from families of men identified as Auxiliers, to answer any questions about what their relatives did during the war and to improve their knowledge of the units in the area.
Nina can be contacted on 01803 852977, and more information on the Auxiliers is available at the British Resistance Archive website - www.coleshillhouse.com