Saturday, 15 December 2018

Churchill's Secret Army - The Auxiliary and Special Duty Units in East Devon in WWII

An active Auxiliary Unit from the Hampshire area, well armed for their particular role and pictured completely against secrecy regulations and their own security should the Germans have invaded and acquired such a picture.

I had been aware of special operations stay-behind units that operated in Britain during WWII but had never really taken my interest much further than reading the odd article about them or seeing the occasional news item on local television.

Thus when the opportunity came up to attend a village hall presentation by Andrew Chatterton, and his team from C.A.R.T. (Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team) at Newton Poppleford here in East Devon and just up the road from my home town of Exmouth I was really interested to learn more about this highly trained clandestine military unit.

In the dark days of 1939 and 1940 Britain faced the Nazi threat with ever decreasing allies as one by one friendly countries in Europe were overcome by the German military machine.

Eventually the country stood alone facing the serious threat of invasion itself but with the advantage of having seen what had happened in the countries of its former allies and given an opportunity to make preparations should the worse happen and German troops land on the shores of Britain.

Perhaps inspired by a Prime Minister who actively encouraged their development, or a situation that demanded different ways to hit back at an all conquering land power such as Nazi Germany, the country became a leader in setting up special elite military units for raiding and commando type activities and under the guidance of a certain Captain Peter Fleming, Mike Calvert, Royal Engineers and detachments from the Lovat Scouts, the first units of what would become Britain's resistance army was trained in Kent as early as June 1939 and setting the pattern of seven man guerrilla patrols trained in all manners of sabotage and to operate behind the lines of an invading army

Captain Peter Fleming
Fleming, the brother of Ian the author of a certain Commander James Bond in post war years had already gained experience operating against the Germans in the invasion of Norway.

Fleming's new command was further bolstered by the appointment of Colonel Colin Gubbins by Churchill in July 1940 to command the auxiliary units, a very experienced officer in clandestine operations from conflicts ranging from his service in Ireland in the 1920's to the Russian Civil War and like Fleming service in Norway, thus the Auxiliaries were a consolidated part of British anti-invasion plans under two very effective leaders.

The units were trained at General Headquarters, Coleshill near Swindon in Wiltshire and as well as training the auxiliary personnel they also oversaw the training of the members of the Special Duty Units consisting of ATS wireless operators and members of the community, such as vicars, doctors and even girl guides, recruited to spy on German activities, and trained to identify key German personnel and units for forwarding the information on to the British regular forces via the wireless operator networks. Interestingly and for greater security, although both part of the Auxiliary Units neither the patrol members or the special duty personnel were made aware of the other and operated quite independently from each other.

The training centre at Coleshill would eventually train up a force of 3500 personnel operating around the country unknown to their friends or families and ready to perform their specific roles on the event of a German invasion.

Captain Edmundson Intelligence Officer and recruiter for East Devon, centre, front row

The units themselves were, as mentioned, formed in 'patrols' of six to eight men recruited locally for their knowledge of the area and skills they already possessed that would make it easier for them to live off the land undetected behind enemy lines. The recruitment or Intelligence Officer for East Devon was Captain J.W. Stuart Edmundson seen in the picture above.

Captain S.G. Woods, commanding 6 Group, East Devon, front row second from the right of picture

There were thirty-two patrols established in East Devon, Number 6 Group commanded by Captain S. G. Woods and as at Newton Poppleford and nearby Farringdon, they were based just inland from the coast operating, when the time came, from secretly dug and prepared underground hides, known as 'operational bases'.

These bases were somewhat unique in design but had aspects common to all of them such as a disguised entrance, an escape tunnel, a chemical toilet and a blast wall between the entrance and the living quarters to protect the occupants from a German grenade attack should the enemy discover the entrance.

Many were constructed during the early part of the war by Royal Engineers brought in from other areas of the country to ensure the secrecy of the location after they were built.

An Auxiliary Operational Base, courtesy of CART

The lifting of the official secrets restriction on these units in 1998 has revealed the names and addresses of the men in the operating areas allowing a picture of where likely bases were established and revealing that the men would have likely known each other hailing from farmers and farm workers to gamekeepers and poachers, all with a good knowledge of the local landscape and how to live off it

In the event of invasion and the church bells ringing, the men dressed as members of the local Home Guard were to leave their homes and families and make their way undetected to their operational bases where they would disappear and prepare to liquidate certain members of the local community prior to the Germans arriving.

Somewhat controversially, patrols were issued sealed lists of names of people that had to be killed before the Germans arrived to prevent them either revealing the presence of the patrol members under torture or to remove likely known collaborators, thus local police commanders and even the East Devon Commander, Captain Woods would have been at risk from these men, and research has revealed that an elderly couple living close to a patrol base in Cornwall were to be killed immediately following a German invasion just in case they had observed patrol members previously moving about in the area.

The small East Devon village of Newton Poppleford in relation to the coast and nearby Exeter. Another patrol was operating at nearby Farringdon.

The bases were established in areas where they would often have commanding views of the local countryside together with nearby observation posts where likely routes of enemy troop movements could be monitored and decisions made to attack railways, bridges and airfields.

The units were highly trained in close combat and sabotage, possessing the latest and best small arms suitable for their work together with vast amounts of explosives, commercial and the latest plastics, and ammunition, both of which would have been stored in separate caches away from their bases.

Interestingly the patrols were only issued rations to last two weeks indicating the likely life-expectancy of these units once they drew attention to themselves through their activities to the occupying German units.

In addition each man was issued enough tablets to either treat the pain of wounds received or to end themselves and avoid capture, and a jar of rum for each patrol to be used as required on active service or returned sealed at the end of the war but very often done so containing liquid that certainly wasn't rum!

The entrance to the Newton Poppleford Operational Base on Aylesbeare Common, East Devon

As I know from my own parents, the WWII generation believed in keeping official secrets long past any threat to the country even if they had been revealed, and so it was not until 1968 that the first knowledge of the Auxiliaries came into the public realm.

However many former members have since passed away taking their secret role during the war with them to the grave and thus much information about the various patrols operating around the country and the specific members who served with them is still to be uncovered, particularly when it comes to finding where the Operational Bases were built together with their associated observation posts.

The Newton Poppleford base seen in the pictures shown at our presentation is a rare survivor although in a poor state of conservation and showing signs of having been used as a rubbish dump by somebody.

The picture below shows that the patrol seem to have started to work on constructing an escape tunnel but had given up the job, perhaps due to the ground being two hard to dig through and thus trusting to not being discovered.

Aylesbeare Common in relation to the village of Newton Poppleford where the Operational Base was uncovered by CART

The Hare and Hounds Pub still very much in business was the signal and communication base for radio operators with the local Special Duty Unit.

The members of CART came together in 2009 with many of their number made up of family members of former auxiliary service personnel and are dedicated to get greater recognition for this elite organisation that in the end was not called on to serve in the role for which they were trained and prepared to sell their lives dearly for.

That said many members of the Auxiliary Patrols were able to make use of their skills with later service in the SAS operating in North West Europe following D Day and to aid the resistance forces in occupied countries to support the allied armies in ejecting the German occupiers.

The work of CART has started to shed even greater light on the Auxiliaries across the country but much still needs to be revealed and even in my own local, the operational bases at nearby Axminster, Seaton and Beer still remained to be discovered and the active personnel in the various patrols identified with certainty to allow their service to be recognised by the nation.

With the passing of the generation that served we are now left with us 'baby-boomers' who might recall as children playing in a hideout we discovered hidden away on a nearby piece of common land or someone who works in the countryside who knows where one of these likely historical sites can be found and CART would very much like to hear from you if that is the case so they can investigate further and hopefully update the record.

If this post has fired the imagination from a wargaming perspective or from an historical one and a keeness to support the work of CART then you can get more information from their web site in the link below which has some excellent background information and from where CART kindly gave me permission to select some of the pictures for this post.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Mr Steve & JJ's Three Castles Walk, Part Two

The Great Hall of Grosmont Castle, the third castle visited on our walk, on day two

On the second day of our Three Castles walk we awoke to find the weather carrying on as the day before with bright blue skies and a crispness to the early autumn air - see the link below if you would like to read part one of this post first.

Map of our Three Castles route showing Llangattock Lingoed, top left, our overnight stop, and the three castles, together with the Glyndwr battle sites of Campston Hill 1404 and Grosmont 1405.

Following a hearty cooked breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and lashings of hot tea we were more than ready to start our adventure which would see us changing from foot power to combustion engine power as the principle mode of transport.

However before setting off from our very comfortable accommodation in beautiful Llangattock Lingoed, we decided to go and check out the very interesting eight-hundred years old, Grade 1 listed, St Cadoc's Church, next door to the rectory where we were staying, which boasts some amazing finds as well as being a charming country village church.

Among the treasures within are examples of early 16th century pews and a very unusual 17th century parish 'bier' which is dated to 1711 and was used for conducting burials before the use of coffins when the body would have been wrapped in a shroud and placed on the bier over which a wooden frame was placed, called a 'hearse' over which was draped a black cloth, called a pall.

The bearer party would then carry the deceased from their home to the church in a procession lead by the parson and sexton for a requiem Mass and burial service. The bier, hearse and pall were then stored for the next burial.

It would seem that the parish continued its burials in this traditional way up to as recently as 1878 when records show that this particular pall was retired from service.

St George slaying the dragon from the early 15th century

However perhaps the most amazing thing to see at St Cadoc's are the early 15th century wall paintings with the principle example showing St George slaying the dragon and thought to be a possible interpretation of the defeat of Owain Glyndwr by the English at the battles of Campston Hill in 1404 and at Grosmont in 1405, the latter being part of our journey planned that day.

An illustration showing how the bier and hearse was used for carrying the deceased person to the chuch

The Parish bier seen behind the ornately carved 16th C pews

After enjoying the history of St Cadoc's it was time to find the cars and load up our luggage to head off to our next venue, the last castle in our three castles tour, Grosmont Castle.

Grosmont is thought to have been built soon after the Norman invasion guarding the route from Hereford into Wales and is the third castle we visited that formed part of the Three Castles Lordship established under King Stephen following a Welsh revolt in 1135.

Hubert de Burgh was given the castle in 1201 by King John and rebuilt it from its original wooden structure into one of stone, beginning with the grand hall and on regaining the castle in 1219 adding the gate house, towers and curtain wall as illustrated in the ground plan below, also showing the later additions.

My impression of the castle is one that sits in between the more modest structure of Skenfrith castle and the mighty military base of White castle.

Its situation is alongside the village of Grosmont and several earthworks in the open area in front of the gate house are indication of some of the original stable buildings that occupied an outer ward which has been lost and built over just leaving the ruins of the inner ward today.

Grosmont was the scene of a couple of actions on the Welsh Marches with a Royal army camped outside its walls attacked at night by the rebellious Richard Marshal, Earl of Pembroke in 1233 which saw King Henry III's army beaten and driven off although the rebels failed to take the castle itself.

Owain Glyndwr pictured by Brian Palmer at the Battle of Pilleth in 1402, but that could easily look like Grosmont burning in the background.

The second occasion was during the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr as mentioned in the piece above looking at the wall paintings at St Cadoc's Church, which saw Prince Hal, Prince of Wales, the future King Henry V direct an army from Hereford under John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury to intercept a rebel army under one of Glyndwr's captains, Rhys Gethin commanding a force of about 8,000 men, besieging Grosmont after burning and ravaging the village. The Royal army defeated the rebels inflicting an estimated 800 to 1000 casualties but leaving the poor villagers of Grosmont destitute with about 100 properties burned.

Battle of Grosmont - 1405

John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury

The letter, the single primary source for the Battle of Grosmont, sent by the young Prince Henry to his father, Henry IV (r 1399-1413) dated Wednesday 11 March, 1405, and was written in French, the language of the Royal Court at that time.

'My most redoubted and most sovereign Lord and Father in the most humble manner that in my heart I can devise I recommend to your royal Majesty, humbly requesting your gracious blessing. My most redoubted and most sovereign Lord and Father, I sincerely pray that God will graciously show his miraculous aid toward you in all places; praised be he in all his works; for on Wednesday the eleventh of the present month of March your rebels of the parts of Glamorgan, Morgannok, Usk, Netherwent, and Overwent, assembled to the number of eight thousand men according to their own account. 

And they went on the same Wednesday, in the morning, and burnt a part of your town of Grosmont within your Lordship of Monmouth and Jennoia. Presently out were my well-beloved cousin the Lord Talbot and the small body of my household, and with them joined your faithful and valiant knights Sir William Newport and John Greindre, the which formed but a small power in the whole: but true it is indeed that Victory is not in the multitude of people, and this was well proved there, but in the power of God. 

And there, by the aid of the blessed Trinity, your people gained the field and vanquished all the said rebels, and slew of them by fair account in the field, by the time of their return from the pursuit, some say eight hundred others a thousand, being questioned upon pain of death: nevertheless whether it were one or the other I will not contend. 

And to inform you fully of all that has been done, I send you a person worthy of credit therein my faithful servant the bearer of this letter who was at the engagement and performed his duty well, as he has always done. And such amends has God ordained you for the burning of four houses in your aforesaid town: and of prisoners were none taken except one, a great chieftain among them, whom I would have sent to you but that he is not yet able to ride at ease. 

And concerning the governance which I propose to make after thus, may it please your Highness to give confident credence to the bearer of these in that he will lay before your Highness on my part. 

And I pray God to keep you always in joy and honour, and to grant me shortly to comfort you with other good news.

Written at Hereford the said Wednesday at night.
Your most humble and obedient son HENRY'

As we walked around the ruins of Grosmont, I couldn't help thinking that Glyndwrs rebellion would make an excellent backdrop for a series of games using the Perry Agincourt range of figures and their marvelous plastics perhaps using  Lion Rampant to run the games with.

The remains of the south west tower

The ruins of this pretty castle reveal a building that transitioned from a purely military role into what must have been a very comfortable set of apartments surrounded as it later was by a deer park and gardens.

The great hall

From the top of the curtain wall you get a good view of the surrounding countryside and the now very much recovered village of Grosmont since it was visited by Glyndwr's army in the 15th century.

Pretty Grosmont village seen from the curtain wall between the south west and west tower

The great hall viewed from the top of the curtain wall

The tall chimneys at Grosmont indicate its conversion from simply being a fortification to a manor house 

A very pleasant seat within a window overlooking the courtyard

After enjoying the delight that is Grosmont Castle we then headed off to see another much larger example of this type of fortification, namely Raglan Castle just down the road, north of the village of Raglan.

I was really keen to get some time to visit Raglan Castle during our two days as I mentioned the place in my write up of Chester's role in the English Civil War during Carolyn's and my visit there earlier in the summer.

Plan of the castle by Augustus Pugin (A -Great Tower, B - Moat, C - Gate House and Bridge, D - Closet Tower, E  - Pitched Stone Court, F - Office Wing, G - Pantry, H - Kitchen, I - Parlour, J - Hall, K - Buttery, L - Long Gallery, M - Fountain Court, N - Apartments, O - South Gate and Bridge, P - Moat Walk

The battered Great Tower with its front wall long gone overlooks the moat walk 

Raglan Castle is another of the Welsh border, post Norman invasion fortifications, in this case granted to William FitzObern, Lord of Breteuil a relative and magnate of King William and it is thought that a motte and bailey defence was the first incarnation built on the site with remains of possibly the first ditch around the bailey since discovered.

A view of the moat walk from the outer wall

The castle was held and developed over two hundred years from the late 12th century by the Bloet family who gradually developed it and the neighbouring manor to include a significant partly enclosed deer park.

The remains of the late medieval Raglan Castle seen today were begun by the forbears of the Herbert family in the mid 15th century, who rose in power and influence to become one of the great Welsh families culminating in the rise of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke and major Yorkist supporter during the Wars of the Roses; and a great rival to Richard Neville the 16th Earl of Warwick ending up executed in 1469 along with his brother Richard by Warwick following the Battle of Edgecote Moor after Warwick's defection to the Lancastrians.

By the end of the 15th century the castle passed by marriage into the hands of another of the great noble families, the Somersets after the bastard son of the 3rd Duke of Somerset, Charles married Elizabeth Herbert.

The Somerset's prospered under the Tudor regimes of Henry VII and VIII even acquiring roofing lead for Raglan from the ruins of Tintern Abbey after the dissolution of the monasteries and controlling not just Raglan but another nearby great castle at Chepstow.

The massive remains of the Great Tower

It was under the Somersets that Raglan saw its pinnacle and rise as a great family stately manor into the 17th century only to see its eventual ruin and destruction as another one of those 'full stop' moments to the ending of the English Civil War and King Charles I desperate clinging to the divine right of kings.

A view of the bridge linking the Great Tower to the Fountain Court via the Apartments

Raglan was inherited in 1628 by Henry Somerset the 5th Earl of Worcester who together with his son Edward, Lord Herbert, were firmly committed Royalists who on the commencement of war put Raglan into a state of defence against artillery with additional earth ramparts and establishing a powder mill.

The view to the castle green where Charles I enjoyed a game of bowls as his Kingdom fell apart

At a personal cost of £40,000 the castle was garrisoned by 300 men and bolstered by the addition of heavy cannon in the bastions and light cannon in some of the round towers.

The massive flight of stairs rising up from the archway shows what an impressive castle Raglan was and is despite its ruin

Lord Herbert left Raglan to join the Royalist army but his family would continue to be a major contributor to Royalist funds by lending more of his personal wealth and raised loans to the cause in the form of more men and arms seeing the garrison of Raglan increased to 800 men as the war turned against the King and Raglan faced the threat of siege from Parliamentary forces.

Massive fire place in the great hall

King Charles I visited Raglan Castle twice, after the Battle of Naseby

Charles I visited Raglan twice, first in June 1645 following his defeat at the Battle of Naseby where he regrouped the remains of his army before marching to the relief of Chester and later in 1646 where he enjoyed a game of bowls on the castle green.

Mr Steve stands in for Lord Herbert's 'Head of Kitchen'

The Fountain Court where I imagined Charles I reviewing the remains of his forces after Naseby

A massive fire place and ovens to its rear seen in the great kitchen

The writing was on the wall for Raglan Castle as the First Civil War entered its final stages and in June 1646 the Parliamentary army under the command of Colonel Morgan and Sir Trevor Williams arrived before its walls to commence what would be an eleven week siege.

It was easy to imagine wood paneled apartments with large windows and glorious views

In the August General Fairfax arrived to join the besiegers and, reinforced, the Parliamentary army renewed its requests to the garrison to surrender.

These requests refused, the besiegers began to sap forward and construct trenches and emplacements closer to the walls to allow mortars and large guns to play on the defences including large pieces such as 'Roaring Meg', a siege mortar cast that year for the siege of Goodrich Castle, where it can be seen today, with a 15.5 inch diameter barrel and firing a 220 lb hollow ball filled with gunpowder.

Roaring Meg

State rooms and apartments abound in Raglan with impressive views out over the surrounding countryside

The bridge to the Great Tower

The castle wall and interior took a battering from the Parliamentary guns, evidence of which is still clearly visible on the exteriors facing out from the main gate.

Raglan was obviously kitted out with all the latest late 15th century modern conveniences. I wonder where they kept brush and toilet duck?

One of the light cannon ports built into a round tower by Henry Somerset in preparation for the Civil War

The castle finally surrendered on the 19th August and Fairfax ordered the castle to be destroyed but its construction proved a formidable problem and saw only slight damage done to its walls.

Parliamentary guns can be seen firing on Raglan centre top of the picture

The view from the Great Tower provides a great comparison with the illustration above showing the position of one of the Parliamentary batteries firing on the walls

Henry Somerset ended up a prisoner and was taken to Windsor Castle where he later died, and his son Lord Herbert, eventually escaped to France about two years later.

The battle scars inflicted by Parliamentary guns are all to visible on the walls of Raglan

The war wiped out Edward Somerset's income from an estimated £24,000 a year, with the subsequent confiscation of his estates by the  Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and a pension of £3 a week provided for him in its stead.

On the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II returned the Raglan estate to Edward but refused to payback the huge loans made by the Somersets to the Crown.

The war proved too much for Raglan and Somerset, now facing huge costs to rebuild all his holdings, decided to concentrate his remaining wealth on other properties at the expense of Raglan that fell into disrepair and ruin leaving the amazing remains to be seen today.

In Part Three of our two day adventure Mr Steve and I take a look at the Roman veterans town of Caerwent.