Malcolm Atkin  Military Research

Immediately after the war in 1945 there was a brief flurry of publicity that identified the Auxiliary Units (both operational patrols and the SDB) as a clandestine force.  Stories of the  European resistance and partisan armies  had already become current in the press and the terminology of these was naturally seized upon by newspapers as a shortcut means of describing the British organisation.


A brief account of the Auxiliary Units was even published in the service newspaper Sunday SEAC on 15 April 1945, describing ‘an elaborately organized maquis’.  The Times obtained a copy the stand-down letter to the SDB and an account was published on 12 April 1945 under the heading ‘Britain’s Secret “Underground” – Invasion Spy Force Stood Down’.  A month later, on 14 June, the Western Morning News ran a story on the ‘British Maquis’, describing the work of both the Operational Patrols and the SDB.  The Auxiliary Units then dropped out of sight. Meanwhile, SIS  created one key plank in the legend of the intelligence network of the Auxiliary Units, the SDB, by destroying all of its TRD sets as part of a wider programme of destroying as many other wartime clandestine wireless sets as it could find.  The TRD sets were not necessarily singled out for any super-secret feature (indeed they were not terribly effective as a spy set)  but rather  they were easier to locate in the UK than the others which were scattered throughout Europe. Nonetheless the legend grew that the sets  were so revolutionary that they had to be specially destroyed.  By 1944, 40% of the sets used by the SDB were actually the notoriously noisy, and now redundant, WS17 sets.


The Auxiliary Units reappeared  in a 1952 article in The Spectator by Peter Fleming on the XII Corps Observation Unit, to be followed by a broader discussion of the Auxiliary Units in his 1957 Invasion 1940.  In the latter he describes the ‘stay-behind’ parties of XII Corps ‘or, as it would have later been called, a maquis or resistance movement’. Interestingly he went on to describe the Auxiliary Units as  'secret at any rate in intention' (my emphasis).   Here was an early clue that the Auxiliary Units were not necessarily, in practice,  the top secret organisation of modern legend.  Indeed, the names of the volunteers had been openly posted on some Home Guard notice boards with Part II Orders.


By now, the country was in the grip of the Cold War and writers, such as Fleming and Sweet-Escott, were finding that official restrictions were being placed on anything connected with British intelligence during the Second World War. Bickham Sweet-Escott's memoir on work with Section D and SOE, written in 1954, had its publication delayed until 1965 - but only with the removal of all direct references to SIS.  The Auxiliary Units were now also a particularly sensitive subject as plans were underway to re-introduce them on a European scale as what became known as the 'Gladios'.  They were once again a 'live' secret.


It was David Lampe’s pioneering publication of The Last Ditch in 1968 that broke down the barriers.  Clearly influenced by Fleming’s wording in 1957, he repeatedly described the Auxiliary Units as the 'British resistance organisation' and set the tone for the focus on secrecy and their irregular existence that has been followed thereafter.  He also provided the basis for the dismissal of the Section D operations as being chaotic and ineffective, with the examples that were provided for him then repeated, seemingly without question,  in subsequent histories of SOE.  At the same time the hugely popular TV series Dad's Army provided a good reason for veterans to wish to distance themselves from the bumbling impression of the Home Guard that it created.  This remained a concern into the late 1990s.


As early as 1957, Peter Fleming had  warned on the risks of distorting the history of the Second World War  by  over-reliance on oral history of veterans.  He wrote in the Foreward to Invasion 1940.


Yet legend plays a large part in their memories of that tense and strangely exhilarating summer, and their experiences, like those of early childhood, are sharply rather than accurately etched upon their minds. The stories they tell of the period have become better, but not more veracious, with the passage of time. Rumours are remembered as facts, and – particularly since anti-invasion precautions continued in force for several years after the Germans had renounced their project – the sequence of events is blurred.  


If that was true in 1957 - how more dangerous it could be thirty years later when veterans of the Auxiliary Units finally began to tell their story. This is not to deny the value of oral history, and the perceptions of those who took part in conflict have their own value.  But such accounts need to be tested against the official documentation - difficult if this is destroyed or suppressed.  


No source mentioned to Lampe the second SIS organisation in this story - Section VII - (the first tantalizing reference was not until Keith Jeffrey's MI6 of 2010), but no-one in the cold war Ministry of Defence had any interest in correcting such mistakes. SIS had no wish to make any comment that would draw attention to their own wartime operations and the increasing focus given to the Auxiliary Units served them well in diverting popular attention from their own existence. The latter was not officially acknowledged until 1992 and the policy of SIS is still that it will not comment upon the work, or even existence, of past agents of the Second World War unless this is already in the public domain.  As the cold war intensified during the 1960s, there was an evident concern that a good idea, used once, might be useful again in the future and so best to keep it a secret!  At the time of the publication of Lampe’s The Last Ditch, the SIS were helping to train members of a European  anti-communist network clearly based upon the wartime Auxiliary Units and the SAS were training to go to ground  in North Germany come any Soviet invasion -  using a version of the Auxiliary Unit-type operational bases. Unfortunately some units of the 'Gladios' went rogue and conducted their own terror campaign, heightening official paranoia about their wartime antecedents.


As more documents concerning the Auxiliary Units trickled into the National Archives, or were selectively released to researchers by the Foreign Office SOE Advisor, many of the assumptions made by Lampe could be shown to be  incorrect. But the aura  of the Auxiliary Units as a ‘resistance’ organisation, seemed unstoppable.  A lack of detailed references in many published works meant that scrutiny was difficult and received wisdom was  passed from one publication to another, which have generally tended to view the Auxiliary Units in isolation rather than as part of the wider anti-invasion planning. The pioneer national historian in this field,  John Warwicker,  fought against the tide but his fundamental statement in Churchill's Underground Army on the nature of the organisation was resolutely ignored in favour of a more simple marketing sound-bite  referring to 'resistance'.


'It was never intended that the Auxiliers were to compare with the men and women of the European resistance movements…[they] were seen only as a short-term, expendable, harassing force intended  - with the blessing of the British High Command – to be of some useful influence in local battles.' (Warwicker 2008, p.83)


The modern failure to properly recognise the character of the Auxiliary Units  caused exasperation to the original second-in command, Peter Wilkinson.  He wrote ‘any suggestion that Auxiliary Units could have provided a framework for long term underground resistance is, in my opinion, absurd’.   In an interview with Arthur Ward (for Churchill's Secret Defence Army)  the latter could report 'Sir Peter told it like it was, obviously irritated by the myth of a secret society of ninja-like assassins that was becoming an accepted part of  Aux Unit folklore.' (Ward 2013, p.xxii).  Ward has his own explanation for  the popularity of the term:


The term BRO [British Resistance Organisation] is frequently used today, I think principally because it conjures up a 007 stereotype beloved of so many ‘secret war’ enthusiasts.  (Ward 2013, p.xii)


Arthur Ward is a researcher for CART, founded by marketing manager Tom Sykes, and CART itself  still clings resolutely to the term BRO and the old tropes. Today (2016), press reports will almost invariably repeat the most common myths.  They will parrot the claim that the Auxiliary Units were  'The British Resistance Organisation'.  They will assume that the Special Duties Branch could pass on battlefield intelligence to the Operational Patrols as an integrated intelligence organisation. The 'Dad's Army' TV series will be used amost as a historic source rather than recognising it as a (very good) comedy series.  The constant repetition of such misconceptions risks a proper assessment of the role of the Auxiliary Units in WW2.  A wholly worthy admiration for the bravery of the men and women of the Auxiliary Units has, at times, led to an uncritcal hero-worship  of the organisation. Hero-worship then leads to a defensive attitude to writing history. One review of Fighting Nazi Occupation took exception to the fact that it had dared to repeat the contemporary opinion of a senior officer of the Auxiliary Units that one of the later  Intelligence Officers was 'very ineffectual' - a statement curiously omitted from a  2014 study of the officer's career with SDB. Yet this was illustrative of a wider change, as officers fit for front-line service were transferred out of the organisation.  In July 1944 the CO of the Auxiliary Units wrote of  the culling of his Intelligence Officers: 'Regarding officers for retention I have not suggested anything of very high grade - either mentally or physically - there are no pocket  Napoleons'.  In December 2016, references  to the research contained in Fighting Nazi Occupation and other supporting evidence (from two separate contributors) were deleted from the text of the Auxiliary Units page of Wikipedia by an un-identified contributor on the  grounds that it was 'incorrect' and the concept of 'British Resistance Organization' was reinstated.  No evidence or scholarly argument was provided to justify this sweeping opinion, but clearly some personal, media or commercial interest had been offended.


As new documentary evidence becomes availably from The National Archives it is important to continually challenge old ideas in order to build up an objective history based upon fact rather than media hype or emotion.  Not to do so risks myths become engrained in the popular consciousness  as it has for aspects of the history of the First World War.  


Eagle-eyed readers will note that the front cover of Fighting Nazi Occupation, a book that spends a considerable amount of space arguing the case that the Auxiliary Units were not a resistance organisation,  does itself focus on Auxiliary Unit images on its front cover.  This was deliberately designed as an artistic representation of the overall design for clandestine warfare in Britain, with the Auxiliary Units being the 'public' face of clandestine warfare  -  with more anonymous  images relating to SIS lurking on the rear cover.  Both elements were important in Britain's strategy to fight against Nazi occupation using unconventional warfare, and together they represent a  chilling insight into the  ruthlessness that would have been deployed to achieve final victory. 

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The Legend of the Auxiliary Units (cont.)

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