Malcolm Atkin  Military Research

The Legend of the Auxiliary Units

Over the past 70 years a wide range of myths and legends have grown up around the Auxiliary Units and which have become fossilised in the historical record. The problem is  not least in internet accounts, where descriptions are 'cut and pasted' from one account to the next and original sources are rarely provided.  


The Auxiliary Units are popularly labelled as 'Britain’s Resistance Organisation' or 'last ditch' movement. Virtually any media story will automatically describe them as such. Yet such an attribution is fundamentally flawed – which is not to downplay in any way the  contribution to defending the country in the immediate aftermath of invasion  that its volunteers were prepared to make.   A distinction must be made between organisations designed to operate in a military capacity during an active anti-invasion campaign and those who would mount resistance after occupation.  See HERE for further discussion.


Sometimes the Auxiliary Units are even claimed to be the first 'resistance' movement that was created before a Nazi invasion of that country. This is also a fallacy and ignores the much earlier plans for Czech and Polish resistance that took place well before the invasion of those countries, and which were assisted by the British Section D and MI(R). Current research on Section D, to be published in 2017 (D for Destruction: forerunner of SOE) will show how the 'blueprint' for the multi-layered British resistance and guerrilla system relied heavily on precedents set in Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as planning for the occupation of, amongst others, Norway and Greece.


The founders of the Auxiliary Units, Colin Gubbins and Peter Wilkinson, were both clear that the organisation was only intended as a short-term expedient to hinder the movement of the invasion army (see HERE for a selection of their  statements on the subject). The Auxiliary Units were, therefore, a military expedient to operate as commandos within what was anticipated to be a month-long campaign,  rather than an attempt to create an organised resistance organisation to operate under enemy occupation. Gubbins concluded that the Auxiliary Units were 'designed, trained and prepared for a particular and imminent crisis: that was their specialist role.’ He added, ‘We were expendable. We were a bonus, that’s all.’ They were not, therefore, the 'last ditch' of Britain's defence by the simple fact that they were intended to support a still active British field army - buying valuable time for the latter to regroup and, in General Thorne's view at least,  to cover the flanks of a British counter-attack. .


Their role in relation to any resistance organisation had been discussed at the time, not least because they had been  founded as a response to the rushed efforts of Section D of SIS to create a longer-term civilian resistance organisation.  The latter  were deeply unpopular with the War Office and indeed the rest of SIS – who had already quietly set alternative plans in motion with Section VII.  


Wilkinson  explained the contemporary confusion of purpose between the himself, who favoured the development of a long-term resistance organisation (he having worked previously for SIS) and the War Office and GHQ who only wanted a body for immediate action against the Nazis in the event of an invasion. Wilkinson believed that the Commanding Officer of the Auxiliary Units, Colin Gubbins, fell half way between the two opposing views.  Gubbins was obliged, however,  to follow the War Office line.


Wilkinson’s assessment of the General Staff opinion is confirmed by a letter from General Paget, Chief of Staff to the C-in-C Home Forces. Outraged by reports that Section D of SIS had been recruiting men for the civilian Home Defence Scheme (HDS) and were preparing for guerrilla warfare in areas of occupation, he was keen to stress that the Auxiliary Units Operational Patrols were a military formation, uniformed members of the Home Guard, and had no connection to the ungentlemanly operations of the HDS in trying to create a civilian resistance.


'The object of these fighting patrols is to provide within the general Home Guard organisation small units of men, specially selected and trained, whose role is to act offensively on the flanks and in the rear of any German troops who may obtain a temporary foothold in this country. These men, being members of the Home Guard, will of course fight in uniform.'


It is perhaps not surprising that this official view of their limited scope of operations was not necessarily shared by the volunteers on the ground. Some Intelligence Officers gave encouragement that perhaps the men could survive longer than the couple of weeks anticipated by GHQ and some patrols made plans for this possibility. Nonetheless, the fundamental problem of both the Operational Patrols and the intelligence wing, the Special Duties Branch, was that they had no means of communication once organised military defence of the country had collapsed. In this respect, it should be noted that the wireless network of the SDB relied entirely on the survival of  regional army HQs.  The Auxiliary Units  could not, therefore, continue to operate in any strategic, or co-ordinated, capacity after the collapse of military organisation.  By contrast, it  should be remembered that at this stage in the war SIS were already  distributing clandestine wireless sets in Scandinavia and France for the use of  the infant continental resistance organisations.


Following any occupation, the true British resistance – the wireless-connected SIS Section VII – would come into its own, even taking advantage of the likely focus of the Gestapo in rounding up any surviving Auxiliary Unit members rather than searching for a completely separate organisation.

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©  Copyright  Malcolm Atkin 2015.    Contents not to be copied or otherwise reproduced without permission.

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An abridged version of the on-line article Myth and Reality: the Second World War Auxiliary Units, available to read online, or for download as a pdf, on Academia.edu