John Warwicker: Churchill’s Underground Army

Cover of Churchill's Underground Army by John Warwicker

In order to stay behind, we needed somewhere to stay: and by sucking up to the Sappers we had already brought into being what might very loosely be called a network of subterranean hide-outs in which not only the striking force—[myself] and about fifteen other idiots—but our far-flung, hand-picked collaborators in the Home Guard, would bide their time before emerging to wreak, in a variety of ill-defined ways, havoc among the invaders.

Peter Fleming, The Spectator 8 July 1966

That’s Peter Fleming, elder brother of the James Bond creator Ian, writing about his role in the creation of what would become the secret Auxiliary Units of wartime Britain—a resistance organization established in 1940 in anticipation of a German invasion of the British Isles.

I first found out about the Auxiliary Units in an episode of Rob Bell’s excellent television documentary series The Buildings That Fought Hitler, which explores the Second World War infrastructure that still litters the British countryside. I knew about the coastal defences and stop-lines, the radar stations and underground factories, but I’d never heard of the Auxiliary Units and their elaborate and secret underground “hideaways” (officially, Operational Bases). So Bell’s programme inspired me to track down a book devoted to their history. John Warwicker’s Churchill’s Underground Army (2013) appears to be a successor to a previous work on the same topic, With Britain In Mortal Danger (2005), which he edited.

I can’t tell you much about John Warwicker. I suspect he’s not the British graphic designer of the same name, but wonder if he might be the man who commanded the Special Branch protection team at 10 Downing Street during the 1970s, who published a memoir in 2015. Certainly the Warwicker of Churchill’s Underground Army seems to be very much acquainted with firearms, explosives and terrorist tactics.

The Auxiliary Units originated when, after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the prospect of a German invasion of Britain could not be discounted, and thoughts began to turn to how Britain might continue the war even under German occupation. Plans were quickly drawn up for the recruitment, training and equipping of a network of secret civilian resistance groups, originally called the Home Defence Organization, and formed under the auspices of Section D, the Secret Intelligence Service’s “dirty tricks” department. Such civilian resistance fighters would have no protection under the Hague Conventions, and in the event of capture would most likely be interrogated and executed.

Warwicker steers us initially through the complex and ever-shifting organizational structure of the Auxiliary Units—so complex, in fact, that ex-members of these Units (styled “Auxiliers”), have scant idea of who was actually in charge. This was, of course, important—ideally Auxiliers knew only the members of their own unit, and the “Intelligence Officer” responsible for their recruitment and orders, because the less about the organization they knew, the less they could betray under interrogation. They were also required to keep their true roles secret from family and friends, and many were given cover stories involving attachment to the Home Guard, to account for their repeated absences for training.

The Auxiliers were necessarily recruited from professions exempt from conscription—someone eligible for military service who was not visibly in service would immediately arouse suspicion and comment in the local community, a real risk to the security of the whole enterprise. Certain occupations were favoured: quarrymen and miners, for knowledge of explosives; gamekeepers for their knowledge of firearms and the local landscape … and the occasional poachers, too, who had a grasp of the importance of silence and stealth.

A chapter on Operational Bases describes the underground hideaways constructed by the Auxiliers. Initially informal, unventilated, prone to flooding and occasionally discovered by small boys, these soon become more standardized structures, equipped with elaborate counterbalanced trapdoors cover by a metal tray full of soil and turf that blended in to the local vegetation. An Auxilier wanting to gain access would alert those underground by dropping a marble down a fake mouse-hole near the trapdoor. This rolled down a buried section of gas-pipe and then clonked noisily into a biscuit tin inside the hideaway. Because of the independent operation of each Unit, and the secrecy surrounding Base locations, there is no record of where all these hideaways were built. Some are probably still out there, unvisited for seven decades.

Auxiliers were trained in “thuggery” (close-quarters combat) by Brigadier Geoffrey Beyts, using fighting techniques developed by William “Dangerous Dan” Fairbairn and Eric “Bill” Sykes, who had developed their techniques while serving with the Shanghai police, and who went on to develop the Fairbairn-Sykes Command Knife.

The sabotage and booby-trap techniques taught to the Auxiliers were collectively referred to as “scallywagging”, and Warwicker’s chapter on this topic is full of grim but fascinating detail. Scallywagging involved, among other things, a positive shed-load of explosives. Warwicker recounts the story of the Auxilier who, twenty years after the war, eventually breached the Official Secrets Act and phoned the police to report that he had 14,000 rounds of ammunition and a half-ton of explosives hidden in his milking shed, but it seemed likely that the Army had forgotten they needed to come and collect it.

Eventually, as the threat of invasion receded and the Army massed for the Invasion of France, many of the Auxiliers found themselves conscripted—some going on to serve with the Special Operations Executive.

The Auxiliers signed up for what would, for many, have been a suicide mission if a German occupation had every occurred. They also maintained a list of local people that they would be tasked with killing at the start of any German invasion, as potential collaborators or as risks to the security of the Auxiliary Units. Warwicker quotes one Auxilier on this topic:

If we had received an order to kill a collaborator, would we have done so without compunction? Yes! Without compunction.

In other words, the Auxiliers signed up for a ghastly job that was very likely to end in their own deaths—but the secrecy surrounding their existence means that they have received scant recognition in the years since the war ended.

On the face of it, it’s difficult to see why the existence of the Auxiliers should have been kept secret for so long—knowledge of their prior existence seems hardly a risk to national security. Warwicker ends the book with his own speculation on what might have made the Auxiliers fall into the category of “state secret”—one involves the infamous Operation Basalt Commando raid on Sark; the other buys wholeheartedly into the conspiracy theories that swirl around Rudolph Hess’s bizarre flight to Scotland in 1941.

I enjoyed reading this. The personalities involved in establishing “irregular warfare” are fascinating, and the British seem to have had a curiously early aptitude for dirty tricks. Warwicker’s narrative ranges widely, full of drama abroad and ingenuity at home. As well as having an insight into a part of Britain’s wartime history that has gone largely unrecognized, I now know a great deal more about rivalry between intelligence services, handling plastic explosives, covert radio transmission, and the design of “dead drops” for secret messages. So that’s bound to be useful, sometime.

8 thoughts on “John Warwicker: Churchill’s Underground Army”

  1. I have seen some of that Dan Snow series but not the one about the Auxiliary Units.

    What is annoying me is that I am sure that I have seen these units covered before and that they were also called something like ‘the stay behinds’. I can distinctly remember ‘some TV Presenter’ climbing down into one of the mini bases. But I can’t find any details of a previous show about them. It is now becoming a puzzlement.

  2. Rob Bell rather than Dan Snow–two bisyllabic television presenters with contracted first names, surnames that are also the names of objects, and overlapping areas of interest. I bet they get addressed by each other’s names fairly frequently.
    “Stay-Behinds” is certainly a common phrase applied to the various units described by Warwicker. It’s even the URL of the British Resistance Archive: https://www.staybehinds.com/

  3. Good afternoon Dr. Grant. I hope your Sunday finds you well.

    So Doc, you know as a Yank I find Brits thinking 14,000 rounds of ammunition as a lot rather…cute.

    Five friends and myself can burn through that much ammo in a long weekend of plinking and target shooting. I’ve personally shot through more than 3000 rounds of .22 LR and 700 rounds of .45 ACP in the same weekend, by myself.

    After fifty odd years I’m fairly good at it I must say. I almost never use the sights anymore, especially with pistols.

    (An no, I personally prefer not to kill things that woke up this morning, the same as I did. Haven’t for decades. As in I feel bad fishing for goodness sakes! After raising various species of catfish over the decades and realizing how intelligent and aware they really are it got harder and harder to do. And that’s just fish!)

  4. Shame you couldn’t have come round to collect, really. To judge from the mix of Winchesters and Thompson submachine guns issued to the Auxiliers, there would have been a goodly proportion of 0.22 LR and 0.45 ACP in the farmer’s embarrassing pile.

  5. Grant, for some reason I am unable to respond to your reply to me or make a general response. But I can reply to my own post. This seems to happen occasionally and I am not sure if the problem, if there is one, is at your or my end.

    Anyway silly of me to mix the names up. My claim is that because I was checking to see if Dan Snow had done a show about these people I had his name on my mind – pretty poor excuse of course. I did actually have a look at the British Resistance Archive to see if they mentioned the show I claim to have seen but no luck.

  6. Hmm. I see the problem. There’s no dialogue box coming up when I attempt to reply to your post, and that also makes the general reply box disappear. Doing a page refresh gets me the general box back, which is what I’m using now; and I see that your reply has appeared in the general reply sequence, too, rather than as a reply to your own post.

    Sigh. Something is messing with the Jetpack comments options. It might take a while to figure out what, unfortunately.

  7. Yikes Doc!

    I thought my anemia was coming back on me. And me being between primary care physicians at the moment. After I posted this I went to my long neglected armory and much to my dismay I realized I couldn’t shoulder my smallest shotgun! Couldn’t pick it up much higher than my navel.

    And it’s a sawn-off! Eight years ago I was firing it one handed. Including both barrels at once. 12 gauge, but it only chambers 2.5 inch shells and not the 3 inch magnums, so it wasn’t a problem

    So I went to see the interim doctor, a pleasant young man freshly cleared for independent operations to discuss my recent energy budget issues that seem to be coming to a new peak. You know, fresh eyes on the problem and all.

    Stupid fresh eyes.

    We interviewed and he saw that while my count was low my hemoglobin levels were more than adequate and that I shouldn’t be worried about it.

    We interviewed some more and I saw he was growing concerned about something and started “circling the questions”. I recognize that as trouble and answered as honest as I could each time. Then came the jab and judge section of the appointment and he got so alarmed he went and got his boss.

    I always hate it when they do that.

    And this time there was an awkward reunion as his boss was my former primary physician before the last one! She kept smiling, glad to see me, then frowning at the diagnostics as they reproduced them.

    Seems my energy issues aren’t related to anemia. I seem to be developing congestive heart failure. (Which is a relief. I was tired of dealing with the anemia. The damn iron pills kept playing hell with my gut biome.)

    Oddly enough I had a cardiac stress test six weeks ago, and passed with flying colors. My radical friends are blaming the Covid vaccine, the second dose of which I had a week after the cardiac stress test. Wish me luck while we sort this out Doc.

    But don’t worry too hard though Doc. Survival of the improbable has been a long family trait going back to the 1600’s, hence the official dit name of “LaChance”.

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