Civilian Saboteurs, Spies and Assassins

If the Germans had invaded, what would have been Britain’s civilian resistance during the Second World War?
German soldiers in Jersey
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Ask a member of the public about their impression of Britain’s civilian defences during the Second World War the answer is likely to include old men with pitchforks lining the cliffs. Dad’s Army has had a huge influence, as has the ‘mis-memory’ of some veterans and the ‘weird’ pride the country has taken in the perceived bumbling incompetency that now surrounds much of the perception of our civilian forces, particularly in 1940.

This narrative is not reflective of reality. There were thousands of civilian volunteers (men, women and in some cases, children), the length of the country ready to make the ultimate sacrifice had the Germans come. Their roles were twofold. One represented a suicidal effort from highly trained, highly motivated civilians to hold up any German invasion and quickly pass on information about their progress. If the worst happened and Britain was defeated militarily another group would act as a resistance force against the occupying Germans. These were not the civilians we have in our minds when we think about Britain’s civilian defences during the Second World War. This was not Dad’s Army but some of the most remarkable men, women and teenagers whose true role during the war remains largely unknown.

Auxiliary Units

The first group were the Auxiliary Units. Made up of men in reserved occupations such as farmers, farm workers, estate workers, gamekeepers, and miners, their role was to disappear to secret underground bunkers and in Patrols of 6-8 men, come out at night and cause as much chaos as possible to the invading army’s supply chain. They were very well equipped with the latest weapons and explosives but only had a life expectancy of two weeks. Most signed the Official Secrets Act, meaning that most relatives have no idea what their family member was actually up to during the war. We believe that there were around 6,500 during the course of the war.

Special Duties Branch

Another group was the Special Duties Branch. This was made up of the elderly, mothers, doctors, vicars, teenagers – anyone who could stand on the street without attracting the attention of the invading army. They were to take down notes on the Germans passing through (insignia, regiment, weapons, numbers, vehicles, direction of travel), and pass these notes on via dead-letter drops and runners. The last runner in the line passed the note onto a civilian wireless operator who then passed the info onto ATS women in bunkers like those inhabited by the members of the Auxiliary Units. This info was then passed on to the local command or GHQ. Again, these civilians all signed the Official Secrets Act and we believe that there were around 4,000 countrywide.

Section VII

The final group was run by SIS (MI6) and called Section VII. Whilst the Auxiliary Units and SDB were anti-invasion groups, Section VII civilian cells were to only become active after the Germans had defeated Britain militarily and occupied the country. These ‘cells’ were often made up of family members, women and teenagers as young as 13 or 14. Their role was to make life as difficult as possible for the occupying forces by destroying infrastructure and railways, assassinating German officials and British collaborators and collecting information on the occupying forces and passing it on via wireless sets to an unoccupied bit of the country or even a British government in Exile. There is increasing evidence that pre-prepared escape lines for fugitives of the occupation were also set up. Again, these groups all signed the OSA and most died without saying a word.

It is clear then that there is so much more to consider when we think about Britain’s civilian defences during the Second World War. The Home Guard would have played an important role (and would have been more effective than most people give them credit for), but the Germans would also have encountered during the invasion period, thousands of guerrillas and saboteurs, coming out at night to hit their supply chain and spies the length of the country passing on information about their every move. Even if the worst happened, and Britain was defeated militarily then the occupying forces would have faced an organised and pre-prepared civilian resistance force. There would have been an impact on the local population, but these unrecognised, brave civilians understood the bigger picture, if Britain fell, or did not fight then that was the end of Western democracy in Europe.

Andrew Chatterton is the author of Britain’s Secret Defences: Civilian Saboteurs, Spies and Assassins in the Second World War, published by Casemate.