Nazi Submarine commander: "your name also will go in my book! What is it?
Mainwaring: "Don't tell him Pike!"
Nazi Submarine commander: "So? It's Pike!...You are in the book!”
So, was life in the LDV a ‘game’ or was there a much darker aspect to this organisation?
My Grandfather was a fire watcher living in Brixton, South London, during the 1940s. My Grandmother would tell us how he would leave our house every evening, often with an old bucket, a stirrup-pump and a tin helmet to watch for incendiary bombs and attempt to extinguish them before they got out control.
As children, we would go into fits of laughter as she would describe packing him off with a bottle of cold tea and a couple of cigarettes for his break. He would have been considered too old for active service, but in 1940 the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers) was formed initially to guard the five thousand miles of the British coastline. They were soon to become known to all as the "Home Guard".
These volunteers were at first armed with whatever they could lay their hands on, and in the early days an armband and broom handle, with or without a kitchen knife attached, was used for rifle drill. Later, all the men were equipped with uniform, rifle and pack… Dad’s Army was born.
In a desperate rescue attempt, the Royal Navy put Operation Dynamo into action. Many considered that, even if successful, the lifting of troops off the beaches at Dunkirk would be able to save only a small number. What happened next, however, is history, with more than 330,000 British and French troops evacuated from the beaches by a flotilla of large and small craft, fishing boats and pleasure craft.
Churchill had already proposed to the Ministry of War that an underground army with the capability of sabotaging any occupying forces be formed and trained in all forms of espionage with special attention to the assassination of any persons thought likely to be sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Covert preparations had been going on for some months prior to the Dunkirk evacuation, and members of the Home Guard had been secretly identified and approached to volunteer for a top secret organisation, known vaguely as Auxiliary Units, a name unlikely to raise too much attention. All members would be expected to sign the Official Secrets Act and were sworn to total secrecy. None of their family members were to have the slightest idea of the job they were engaged in, and it was made clear to each recruit that there was every likelihood their chance of survival was slim with a life expectancy of less than two weeks.
The new recruits, many of which were farmers or even gamekeepers and poachers, went through a rigorous course of weapon training, bomb making, sabotage, hand to hand combat, and radio communications, as well as being taught to live off the land. This was why familiarity of the local landscape was so important. Eventually, some 3000 men were ready to go to ground, mainly along the coastline but also across the country, and emerge at dark to carry out attacks and acts of sabotage against enemy targets. They were not expected to confront enemy forces of strength in the open; however, smaller groups could be targeted and in case of capture each unit member was supplied with cyanide capsules…clearly they were fully aware of what awaited them in these circumstances.
Well-equipped secret bunkers were dug in hidden areas across southern England. Many were made to look like a small rough dugout , others were counter sprung with tree trunks or branches, but all would have secret entrances to the main larger hideout, and the Auxiliary Units were supplied with the best equipment available, in fact they were the first troops to be supplied with the new plastic explosives, pen detonators and the first to be given Thompson machine guns. There was a story that the ministry official who vetted volunteers in one area was the first name on their assignation list should the Germans invade. The reasoning was simple: in the event of him falling into enemy hands, he was in possession of the location of the underground bunkers and unit personnel (this was too great a risk to the operation).
In the event of a German invasion, these ‘Auxiliary units’ would leave their homes to join their units with the likelihood of never returning to their loved ones. The secrecy of the whole operation was so successful that little was known about it for decades after the end of the War, a tribute to all involved.
When you remember the men who made up these units would have been too young, too old, or working in reserved occupations, many of them having been chided by their neighbours for not joining the armed forces in active service, it is a remarkable story of remarkable men.
Winston Churchill, one of the world’s great orators, addressed the British public following the retreat from the Dunkirk beaches in a defiant speech that has become one of the most quoted of all time, effectively turning what was a defeat into a morale boosting exercise. He claimed that “We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills...” Churchill knew that this was no idle boast; the Auxiliary Units were ready to fight back as soon as the enemy began the invasion.
Thankfully, the invasion never came, and the allies went on finally to defeat Hitler’s Nazi regime in Europe and North Africa and these Auxiliary Units were never called upon to make the final sacrifice. What is clear, however, is that they were ready and willing to do so.
In the 1960s, more of this magnificent story came to light, and it remains a tribute to all those involved that so little was known about the formation of “Britain's Secret Army”. It is only in recent years that the men who made up this operation have received the recognition they so richly deserve by being included in the Remembrance Parade at the Cenotaph in London.
In Oct 2013, two nondescript manuals sold at an Eastbourne auction house, which appeared to be an old 1937 calendar and a countryman's diary from a company called "Highworth fertilizer", were found to be disguised bomb manuals from one of the Auxiliary Units… they sold for £2000 each.
Now their story can be told, and a remarkable story it is too, with many books being written on the subject.