Malcolm Atkin  Military Research

Organisation of 'British Resistance' in WW2

A range of secret organisations were created that each had their own particular task following invasion and into any period of enemy occupation.  None of these was  named by contemporaries as the 'British Resistance Organisation'. The latter is a modern, and  misdirected, convenience that has distorted an objective history of the subject.  The nearest equivalent, organised within Section VII of SIS, was never given a name at all! These bodies had no unified structure, partly from reasons of security but also due to inter-departmental rivalry within government - particularly between the War Office and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6).  The latter had also established a pattern, pre-war with the Z and 22000 Organisations, and in 1940 in its plans to create a resistance organisation in Norway, that there should be overlays of intelligence networks. In the Norwegian model, there was to be one organisation responsible for short term sabotage and a second organisation - kept seperate and secret - that would prepare for long term resistance.  This was the model then followed in Britain.


Information on many aspects remains vague and speculative.  In many cases the volunteers were never told for whom they worked and some tasks may have been allocated on a purely individual basis. In these fraught times,  organisations such as the SIS Home Defence Scheme and the Auxiliary Units were created in a rush, not to say panic, with little thought for long-term structure.  As a consequence their character and structure changed considerably over their lifespan.  This makes it dangerous to generalise  over the period 1940-44.


The main organisations are described below in order of their initial deployment.


SIS Section VII Resistance Organisation

Formed around February / March 1940 in utmost secrecy even within SIS, and sited within their accountancy branch (Section VII) for cover. Based upon SIS experience in creating a spy network in Eire.  The wireless network was fully mobilised in June 1940, with probable links to the Special Communications Units of SIS. The priority was in gathering intelligence but the organisation also maintained a separate  sabotage / assassination wing.  Described as being fully operational by October 1940, the Section VII organisation remained active until at least 1943, during which time its intelligence wing assisted MI5 in hunting down enemy spy rings.  The sabotage wing included the recruitment of Home Guard and regular army personnel who were trained in improvised weapons that could be replicated after occupation. These men were told to return to their units and keep such training secret until it was needed. Teenage volunteers were warned to hide duing the actual invasion in order to avoid conscription under martial law. In the event of invasion, volunteers were instructed to only commence operations after occupation.  Unlike the Auxiliary Units, this was a countrywide organisation.   This was the 'real' British Resistance.


SIS cells are documented in Norfolk, Suffolk, Sussex, Isle of Wight, Somerset, Cornwall and Devon.  Oral testimony includes other cells in Worcester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester.  There is anecdotal evidence for arms caches in Snowdonia and possible archaeological evidence for a later war  arms cache from Mellor, near Stockport.  This included a Thompson M1A1 sub-machine gun dating to 1942 or later (and a model not used by either the Auxiliary Units or Home Guard).  See HERE for details.  Some of the most intense research on the Auxiliary Units has been carried out in a number of these areas and the previous failure to identify the existence of such networks is a measure of their secrecy.  It is, however, now possible to re-interpret some evidence of what was previously automatically assumed to be Auxiliary Unit activity as being that of the SIS Section VII organisation (e.g. see Freethy, Ron, Lancashire 1939 - 1945: The Secret War, Chapter 11).


SIS Section D Home Defence Scheme

Launched somewhat chaotically in May 1940 by Laurence Grand, and led by Viscount Bearsted, as a knee-jerk  resonse to the fall of Franc but based upon a methodology derived from experience in Poland, Norway and France. The War Office feared its development as an SIS private army and this led directly to the creation of the rival Auxiliary Units. Likewise SIS HQ feared that the Section D operation was uncontrollable under Grand, and risked the security of its deep cover Section VII operation. By July,  the HDS was focussing on a resistance role to activate once the new Auxiliary Units had been destroyed. The War Office finally managed to close down the HDS operational wing in August 1940,  although SIS discretely transferred some of its intelligence officers to the new Auxiliary Unit organisation in order to protect its own interests. The intelligence wing of the Home Defence Scheme was transferred en bloc to the Auxiliary Units by Bearsted, and formed the basis of the Special Duties Branch of the latter, but continued to be managed by SIS  until the end of 1940.


Home Guard industrial sabotage units 

The direct role of the Home Guard in secret warfare is often overlooked. One of the  duties of top secret Home Guard units working in local factories was to ensure the disabling of industrial machinery and fuel supplies.  The intention was to deny the Nazis the use of such facilities but to ensure that the British could quickly put them back into service after a successful counterattack. This was especially important with regard to fuel supplies.  In France, German tanks had literally filled up at local petrol pumps because no-one had given the order to destroy them.  But equally, if there was to be a successful counter-attack, British vehicles would need continued access to fuel. So simply destroying fuel stocks was a poor option. To this end, small teams of Home Guard  would dismantle key parts of machinery at the point that the Nazis were about to overrun an area, as well as removing blueprints etc. Only the members of the team would know the location of the hiding places. The lengths that the Gestapo would go to identify the members of such teams as the  'Pump Disrupton Squads', and their families, can only be imagined.


XII Corps Observation Unit

Prototype of the Auxiliary Units, formed in Kent and Sussex by General Thorne and Captain Peter Fleming in early June 1940, with a wireless network provided by SIS. Named after the WW1 Lovat Scouts recce teams.  Some of the officers were probably  trained at the Osterley Home Guard School.  Based around regular army battle patrols, supported by Home Guard patrols.  It could operate at a more strategic level than the Auxiliary Units, due to its direct relationship to the Corps command structure.  The Auxiliary Units did not achieve this until 1942.


No.1 GHQ Reconnaissance  Unit ('Phantom')

Following its success in providing battlefield intelligence to the BEF, the army 'Phantom' intelligence units immediately deployed around the coast of Britain following the Dunkirk evacuation.  Phantom units assesed potential invasion beaches and their heavily-armed, mobile, patrols - staffed by intelligence officers, linguists and skilled signallers - roamed up and down the coast, in constant wireless contact with GHQ. This was the first unit in the British army to be issued with Thompson sub-machine guns. Their London HQ was also co-located with an SIS Special Communications Unit; this provided the potential to quickly distribute intelligence from the Section VII network. In October, GHQ formally recognised the significant contribution that Phantom had made in providing a system for providing battlefield intelligence in the event of an invasion.


In action, they would have criss-crossed the enemy front line, reporting troop movements and listening into enemy wireless traffic.  Their role was, therefore, directly comparable to the SDB - although with the advantage of flexible wireless communications (and pigeons!).


GHQ Auxiliary Units

The army response to the creation of the SIS Home Defence Scheme, based  upon the latter and the local experiment of the XII Corps Observation Unit.  With no clear brief, it had hesitant beginnings and did not begin to properly mobilise until mid-July 1940, remaining an essentially coastal organisation.  The Auxiliary Units  were originally intended by Colin Gubbins to serve  as an advisory body to the creation of small commando teams directly managed by the  LDV (see HERE). Their main role was to be as guides to regular army commando units who would be slipped behind enemy lines. Unfortunately there were not the resources at the time to expand the existing 'Independent Companies' to provide the army commando units, and so the Auxiliary Units quickly took on a life of their own, organising their own Home Guard commando force, with a small regular army element of Scout Sections.  The instructions were to operate on the flanks and to the rear of an invading army during an active military campaign, but the lifespan of the teams was assumed to be not more than two weeks. They would fight in uniform and under military discipline as part of the organised military response to invasion. Longer-term civilian resistance was in the hands of SIS.  The lack of wireless communications greatly limited their strategic role after the destruction of their designated primary targets. Nonetheless, the ability to delay enemy movements even by just a few hours was considered critical in the 1940 anti-invasion planning.


The nature of the Auxiliary Units changed considerably from 1941 as it became more clearly absorbed by regular army structures.  The Auxiliary Units survived until 1944 and the disbanding of the Home Guard, largely due to a promise that its Home Guard volunteers would not be returned to general  duties.  


Immediately after the war, in 1945, the famous red and blue shield lapel badge was produced, reputably by SIS.  It featured the numerals of the three GHQ reserve battalions which were used as identification on the later Auxiliary Unit uniforms.  The badge was not issued - but had to be purchsed by veterans for 6d! [NB fake cloth versions of this badge, stitched to battledress cloth have now appeared on ebay.  There is no evidence that such a badge was worn during their WW2 service]


The Special Duties Branch was effectively a separate organisation, formed out of the Home Defence Scheme and continuing to be managed by SIS until the end of 1940. Crucially, the SDB had no means of passing on intelligence to the Operational Patrols which greatly limited its potential.  It would have had a limited role in providing battlefield intelligence to army HQs.  In 1940 it had no wireless system and from 1941 the wireless network based upon the TRD set was so rigid, and so dependent on regular army support, that it is likely that the network would have collapsed in a matter of days. Nonetheless, the wireless operators could have provided valuable information on troop movements in the crucial early hours of invasion. Its primary role was probably as an internal security organisation - spying on neighbours and local troops  to report potential collaborators and any instances of 'loose talk'.  This is the contribution singled out for praise at its stand-down in 1944. The local OUT stations were operated by civilians but the control IN stations had Royal Signals or ATS operators from Auxiliary Units (Signals). Royal Signals 'other ranks' were increasingly used - as  being cheaper than ATS officers!  The Royal Signals personnel were also responsible for the arduous task of maintaining the wireless sets.  


Contrary to modern mythology, the Auxiliary Units were never intended to as a resistance organisation.  See HERE for further discussion of this point.


Osterley Home Guard Guerrilla Training School

The unofficial guerrilla  training school established by Tom Wintringham and a number of ex-International Brigade veterans in July 1940  is often considered something of an aberration, shunned by official circles.  In the summer of 1940, however, it trained more guerrillas than the Auxiliary Units and there is a suspicion that, whilst MI5 were deeply suspicious of its communistic leanings,  SIS saw the school as a useul source of future partisans and may have provided some assistance in methodology.  Its instructions  to discard uniforms, blend back into the community and organise secret cells of 2-3 men is more akin to SIS than to War Office methodology.  See HERE for further details.


The Home Guard in general was greatly influenced by the teachings of Osterley. Although its primary role was seen as static defence to the 'last man and last round', it also maintained a more mobile harassng role as the circumstances allowed.  To the frustration of the War Office, such operations acquired the label of 'guerrillas' and the term itself was banned from use in the Home Guard during  1942/3!

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Lincolnshire Home Guard Operational Orders 1942