The British Resistance

Newsletter 5 – 2005
Roger Stanton

A number of years ago I came across, by chance, information on what was a British Resistance organisation, set up to counter the anticipated ‘Operation Sea Lion’ – the German invasion of Great Britain.

Adolf Hitler was very concerned that the majority of his army were non-swimmers and, as most had never travelled on a ship before, he expected over half his invasion force to be suffering from sea sickness on landing – if they made it that far.

He decided on three operational objectives:

  • The taking of the Channel Ports between Bognor and Deal.
  • Moving inland to a line between Southampton and the Thames Estuary.
  • At a later date, advancing to take territory between the Seven Estuary and the Blackwater Estuary north of the Essex Marshes.

He was very reluctant at this stage to continue northwards as he expected to be opposed throughout the mountain areas by ‘wild terrorist bands’. Had he been successful, to quote Sir Winston Churchill, ‘Western Europe would have entered a dark age’. However, one thing was certain, a plan was already in place to oppose him!

By September 1940 British, and many Allied troops, had been withdrawn from mainland Europe (early June 1940). In September, the Battle of Britain was about to be fought in the skies over southern Britain. The British Army was mainly overseas in the Middle and Far East, and the soldiers who returned to Great Britain after Dunkirk, did so without their vehicles, weapons and stores. It is believed that only a lightly armed division remained in the country made up mainly of Territorial soldiers. The returning soldiers did, however, bolster the country’s defences by nearly 35 Divisions. They had few heavy weapons, and museums around the country were asked to provide weaponry. On 14 May 1940, Anthony Eden had broadcast to the Nation requesting all men between the ages of seventeen and sixty five to volunteer for a new unit for Home-Defence – called the Home-Guard. Other organisations and plans were working away in secret to ensure that the invasion of Great Britain would not be easy. Should an invasion take place, plans were made for one hundred men of the Queen’s Company, The Grenadier Guards, to take the Royal family to Scotland, and then to continue by ship to Canada. The King was to remain in England, and would be head of the British Resistance; he was given small arms training. Winston Churchill was to be his second in command. It is believed that both men carried 9mm pistols in the dark days of 1940. Other plans were also afoot, all road and direction signs were removed or altered. One report indicated that pipe lines had been laid miles out into the channel, from Shell refineries, to enable the channel to be flooded with oil and set alight once an invasion fleet had reached mid-channel. Later these pipe lines were to be used to feed the Mulberry harbours on the French coast after D-Day. Church bells now lay silent, to be rung only in the event of an invasion, indicated by the code word ‘CROMWELL’. In the event of invasion there would have been nowhere to go. No escape lines to freedom. No help from anyone. We, together with our friends from occupied Europe who had made it to England and turned England into a mini- Europe, especially London, would have been fighting with our backs to the wall.

During the summer of 1939, a Major Gubbins, an irregular soldier who was later to work for SOE as so many other British Resistance members did, had written a training manual on Guerrilla Warfare, explosives and demolitions. He had also gathered around him like-minded people who recruited carefully selected individuals, including Boy Scouts, wild fowlers, fishermen, gamekeepers, poachers, good shots, mountaineers, explorers, farmers, farm labourers, and people with radio knowledge. The plan was to create Resistance cells and stay behind parties throughout the British Isles from Lands End to John O’Groats in Scotland. Should an invasion take place, the stay-behind parties would be hidden, and once the enemy had passed through their positions, would attack the enemy from the rear as guerrilla fighters, then melt into the night. It is thought that the ‘Auxiliary Units ‘as they were known, would have success in their own areas, especially the mountain regions of England, Scotland, and Wales – the rugged North York Moors, and similar areas in the south such as Dartmoor and the New Forest areas. The difficulty would have been long term re-supply. Throughout the southern counties of England, even today, the country rambler could easily stumble across old hide areas that were to be used by these Auxiliary Units once the code word ‘Cromwell’ had been sent out.

Members of the Auxiliary Units were given operational jobs in their own areas. They were taught demolitions, sabotage and movement by night, small arms, sniping and, most importantly, they were operating in familiar territory. The participants were mainly countrymen who knew how to live off the land and survive. Hides containing ammunition, grenades, and explosives were hidden in underground bunkers. The members continued with their daily life as much as possible and trained mainly at night. The Royal Signals provided much of the radio equipment and, near hide areas, they had cut channels in the bark of high trees then, at night, fitted the antenna into the height of the tree. Many of the radio operators had been asked to volunteer for ‘Special Duties’, and the ladies applying had to travel to Harrods, at Knightsbridge, for their interviews. Many operators were recruited from the ATS, and FANY. All members of the Auxiliary Units were fully aware that once they received the code word ‘Cromwell’ their chances of seeing their families again, and also reaching old age were very slim.

By early 1942, it was appearing less likely that ‘Operation Sea Lion’ would take place. Many key members of the Auxiliary Units were now moving to other Special Units, and most saw service with the SOE, SAS, and Airborne Forces. In late 1944, the Auxiliary units started to stand down. The ‘Dead-letter box’ for the British Resistance at the Post Office in Highworth Village, Wiltshire, reverted to a normal Post Office, and the elderly Post Mistress, Mrs A Stranks, returned to her normal peacetime role. The main training centre and Headquarters of the British Resistance was in the large nineteenth century manor, Coleshill House, near Swindon.

Mysteriously, Coleshill House was destroyed by fire at the end of the war, and many British Resistance records were lost. The organisation received hardly any recognition at the end of the war, too many other things were happening. The members did not officially exist. No medals were awarded. They were all sworn to secrecy. Very few British Resistance records are available for inspection today. What is known, is that the British Resistance Group was organised before an occupation, before even Resistance groups were organised on mainland Europe. The organisation was so secret that members only knew their own cells, and had a system of ‘cut-outs’ and ‘dead letter boxes’ to connect to other cells. Organised and ran by the Army Special Duties Section, the Auxiliary Units went to ground in 1945 as quietly as they had arrived.