Malcolm Atkin  Military Research

Commandos v 'Resistance'

Fighting Nazi Occupation makes a strong distinction between military formations that would fight as hidden commandos or short-term guerrillas during the anti-invasion campaign and civilians who would mount a resistance after military operations had ceased and the country was under enemy occupation.


The distinction is more than modern semantics but was of fundamental importance to military thinking in 1940. As a signatory to the 1907 Hague Convention, Britian was committed to fighting a war using men who would fight in uniform, carry weapons openly and who would abide by the accepted rules of war.  The Auxiliary Units were under the control of the War Office and were expected to follow these rules.  Otherwise the Government and General Staff risked being held up as war criminals! This position was agreed by the War Cabinet on 8 July 1940 when Churchill supported a memorandum from General Ironside (C-in-C Home Forces and Anthony Eden (Minister for War)   that combat would be restricted to the uniformed armed forces, including the LDV / Home Guard.  In 1940 this affected not only the Operational Patrols but also affected the War Office attitude to the civilian Special Duties Branch.  It is noteworthy that GHQ accorded special value to the regular army GHQ 'Phantom' Unit in providing battlefield intelligence.  In 1940 GHQ seemed somewhat confused and bewildered by the existence  of the civilian Special Duties Branch, which it had inherited almost accidentally from SIS.  In these circumstance, it is not surpising that control of the new SOE was given to a civilian agency - and that its operations were widely despised by the War Office.


As an organisation that did not officially exist, the Secret Intelligence Service did not feel bound by such rules and the government could, if necessary,  disown their plans. Lord Halifax admitted that he preferred not to know what they were planning and despite his support of Ironside at the War Cabinet,  Churchill had already approved the mobilisation of the civilian saboteurs of the Home Defence Scheme!  As for Section D of SIS itself, their officers were   described as being without morals or scruples!  The agents of the Home Defence Scheme and Section VII were preparing to fight as non-uniformed civilians after the British govenment and military had collapsed. This was quite different to the planned operations of the Auxiliary Units. They were also prepared to preach the value of mutilating dead German soldiers in order to terrorise their compatriots (something that the SIS officers who became Intelligence Officers in the Auxiliary Units  passed on to their new volunteers).  


The latter stages of the First World War had seen the first signs of what would be developed by the Nazis as 'blitzkrieg' or 'lightning strike'.  This abandoned the concept of the  formal 'front line' of a battlefield by using a fast-moving column, supported by air power, to strike deep into enemy territory  in order to break up and surround enemy formations. Another fear was the possibility of airborne landings in rear areas to capture airfields and other strategic points.  Tom Wintringham (Deadlock War:1940) was one of those who argued that this meant that military strategy would now increasingly rely on small units of troops operating with great independence on the flanks and rear of any advancing enemy column, being prepared to bend to overwhelming force and let the enmy pass over them before mounting a counter-attack. General Paget (Chief of Staff, Home Forces) forcefully made the point that the operations which would be undertaken by the Auxiliary Units were not, therefore, 'sabotage' which was interpreted as having an underhand quality but instead the acts of demolition and attacks on airfields etc were to be considered as normal military operations.  The Auxiliary Units were not, therefore, designed for a 'last ditch' stand - but rather to support the operations of a still functioning British field army. This became part of the core strategy to meet invasion by  General Thorne's XII Corps.  Such operations just happened to be carried out at night in a secretive fashion!  They were considered no different to similar operations which were intended to be carried out by regular troops from XII Corps Observation Unit, the Independent Companies or later Commandos  Later in the war, the SAS took this methodology to the ultimate conclusion and  mounted long-term operations from hidden bases, in uniform, far behind enemy lines.  As such we would call them commandos but not dream of regarding them as a 'resistance' organisation.  


It is the use of the underground 'hides' or Operational Bases that have provided the Auxiliary Units with their mystique.  These were not an original part of Auxiliary Unit methodology but were a practical means of buying them a few extra days of survival in the war zone. We must  remember that the Home Guard who manned anti-tank islands, fougasse fire traps or planned to ambush Nazi tanks with petrol bombs probably had an even shorter life expectancy after invasion.


By contrast, a 'resistance' organisation is interpreted as a body that maintains opposition to an enemy after an organised  defence has ceased and the territory is under enemy occupation.  This distinction was  used in March 1940 by Lord Hankey in his review of SIS to define the respective roles in organising clandestine warfare between the latter and  MIR in the War Office (who represented the case for the Auxiliary Units to the Chiefs of Staff).  Section VII of SIS immediately used the Hankey Report to begin quietly  putting its agents in place across the country, ready to report to any government-in-exile!   This distinction was subsequently used by Section D in May to justify its plans to develop the Home Defence Scheme independently of the War Office - arguing that it was designed to come into action only when War Office control had ceased and the army - which included the later Auxiliary Units - had been ordered to surrender    The very fact that contempraries accepted the harsh fact that the life expectancy of the Auxiliary Units was only two weeks rules them out of any consideration of having long term value as a 'resistance' organisation.  Once they had withdrawn to their operational bases they had divorced themselves from the local community and it would be difficult for them to be re-absorbed under the gaze of the Gestapo.  In sharp contrast, the SIS plan was for agents to remain in their local communities and do nothing to excite attention during the actual invasion period.  They would only commence operations after the Nazis had taken control. This methodology was closely followed at the Osterley Home Guard Training School where Wintringham argued that his Home Guard guerrillas should discard their uniforms, blend back into the community and fight on in cells of just  two or three men in utmost secrecy.  This was preaching the essence of 'resistance' and it is hard to escape the conclusion that, at the minimum, Section D had dropped some clear hints as to the methodology that Osterley should be using.    

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

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