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Chuchill's Army

A World War II Operational Base.
Evidence of the deployment of Churchill’s Secret Army in Thursford.

My thanks go to Rosemary Nolan, the current owner of the land on which the base was constructed. Paul Buckenham, Rosemary’s gardener, was also very knowledgeable about the site and showed me round in July 2013. All photographs used in this article are my own and now reside in the Thursford Archive. Coleshill House in Parham, Suffolk has a museum dedicated to the British Resistance Organisation, including information on the Secret Intelligence Service (S.I.S.). The Secret Army, known also as ‘The Auxiliaries’, are now part of the S.I.S. contribution to War against the Nazis.  Coleshill House museum has a web site for those wishing further reading.
(www.coleshillhouse.com or
www.coleshillhouse.com/thursford-auxiliary-unit-and-operational-base.php. for photographs of the Thursford Operational Base)

Interest in The Auxiliaries began, only recently, because their existence had been classified, ‘Most Secret’; renamed today as Top Secret. The files were released to the National Archive only in 2002. Particular interest today centres round attempts to recognise and celebrate the part played by men prepared to subject themselves to spending weeks underground in, frankly, awful conditions. Created in 1940 in response to threats from Adolf Hitler, the Auxiliaries were disbanded in 1944 when the War was almost won and the threat no longer real.

Operational Bases or ‘O.B.’s’, as the Auxiliaries called them, open up yet another tale of human commitment in wartime. The S.I.S. is better known for the exploits at Bletchley Park where German Intelligence was miraculously decoded. O.B.’s were an essential component in, as I shall explain, an untypical style of warfare classified as Most Secret. Much of the detail about the Auxiliaries was withheld even from Parliament. Indeed, the whole idea of ‘guerrilla-style tactics’ and ‘dirty tricks’ were debated in Parliament and thought to be ‘not very British’. We were, and still are, very middle-class in such matters. Anyone knowledgeable about the Auxiliaries in 1940, and it would only have been the Home Guard, were sworn to absolute secrecy. So, it was not until 2002 that any of this came to the National Archive permitting further research. Today, many people finding these underground shelters, think that they have stumbled upon a bomb shelter or maybe a fruit store.
Before describing what we have In Thursford, two historical events occurred, that are of great importance to this story.

  1. In 1940 Adolf Hitler, finally gave Göring the chance to use the Luftwaffe to bomb the U.K. into submission. Both thought Britain to be weak militarily (thanks in part to Lord Chamberlain’s attempts to offer a dove of peace). Hitler needed his ground war machine to smash an old enemy, the Soviet Union. However he accepted that he didn’t want this island used as a base for future resistance. So he gave approval to an aircraft bombardment of Britain.
  2. Churchill, the then Prime Minister and orchestrator of the Secret Army initiative, gave a famous speech to Parliament in June 1940. It was his famous “We will fight them in the streets ….. We will never surrender” speech. Today, it gives a clue as to his state of mind in 1940. The British have always been defiant about being conquered and here, perhaps, is a clue to what Churchill really thought.

British warfare, historically, has always been like theatre, with conventional tactics and rules of engagement agreed by those on both sides, as long as they accepted them, of course. As long as a soldier was in uniform and carried a military I.D. he could expect a fair, humane treatment by his enemy if captured. Churchill was about to suggest an extreme departure from conventional warfare with dirty tricks and guerrilla-style tactics employed. Certainly his ideas were unconventional and bordered on unacceptable to some at Westminster. As a result, the preparations had to be “Top Secret”. How his ideas were employed is a remarkable story but Churchill made it clear that the Auxiliaries were this country’s last line of defence of liberty and our way of life. The S.I.S. had a special section called ‘Section D’. It was recognised amongst S.I.S. staff but very maverick, deploying some very unusual, and at times, creative methods in an attempt fool and disrupt our enemies.  Often on the brink of legality, D, as it was known, masterminded Churchill’s ideas.

They were remarkable in their simplicity. Men from civilian backgrounds would be recruited and trained in hand-to-hand fighting, assassination, sabotage methods and competence with explosives. They would have priority access to hand weapons designed for use at night behind enemy lines. To conceal themselves in daytime they would live for weeks on end underground in special Operational Bases and would come above ground under cover of night when enemy equipment was heard overhead to destroy fuel and weapons dumps and assassinate the enemy. They were trained at Coleshill House in Parham, now the Museum of the British Resistance Organisation. To begin with they had no uniforms and would, therefore, not have the protection of any gentleman’s agreement on prisoner rights. Their life expectancy was, as a result, not great. Women were not recruited as it was thought impractical to have swarthy men buried in such close confinement for long periods, with all the complications of toilet arrangements and lack of privacy.

30 Regional Officers of the S.I.S. travelled around Britain looking for likely loyal and patriotic men. Many came from the ranks of the Home Guard. Some had already served in the Great War. However, civilians not in service were also approached, including the clergy, gamekeepers and farmers, indeed anyone with a good local knowledge of the area they were to cover. A code of secrecy was key to this ever-expanding group of patriots. The Operational Bases were located 20 miles in land from beaches thought to be likely landing spots for sea-borne attack. Kent, Sussex, Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk were high on the priority list.  The map shows, however, that most of Southern and Eastern England was considered at risk.

map
Lying NNE-SSW, the bricked up SSW end of this corrugated ‘Nissen hut- type structure’ would incorporate escape tubes which also acted as storage for explosives, detonators  and guns.  At Thursford, such a tube runs under the brick-built garden-wall out to Icehouse Plantation. At the NNE end is a brick-built ‘chimney’ to allow access and exit.Ventilation shafts rise up to the surface. The whole structure sits on a sound improvised base.

Both this diagram and the one below are taken from ‘Churchill’s Underground Army’ with the kind permission of the book publisher.

In all, about 6,000 men were recruited and trained. About 1,000 bases were established, but some were later abandoned due to problems with design or flooding of the Bases. Here in Thursford, the original base was built in Thursford Wood. After serious flooding inside the base it was relocated to its current site. At any one time in England 3,500 men were on Auxiliary duty. A design for an Operational Base was shown to the recruits whilst at training at Coleshill House. The final design, however, would take account of the terrain and the availability of materials. The OB at Thursford seems to agree closely with the original design model and is therefore of particular interest.
.......................diagarm
When the Auxiliaries were disbanded in 1944 most of the OB’s remained. They were simply bricked up and forgotten about. However, soil erosion has revealed some of them, as in the case here.

In the end, the Auxiliaries were never needed ‘in anger’. The story of the men, however, and their courage is now being revealed for the first time and a number of books have recently been written on the subject. The hardship they endured for those four years is beyond belief. Many of these men are dead now, making it harder to honour them. I have two possible local names; Jeremy Norman and John George Seamen. George was leader of Baconsthorpe Patrol but he died in June 2011. This kind of information shows how important the preservation of these Bases is to the families of the 6,000 men involved. Their families mostly knew nothing of their husband’s involvement in wartime. They probably thought they were on Home Guard duties.

The Operational Base in Thursford.


.
Some of these photos were used in the September edition of Thursford Parish Council’s newsletter ‘The Tablet’. Here, I include a few more to show attempts to hide the Base from sight.


Above: Destined to be an Operational Base, the chamber was equipped with escape tunnels to allow emergency exits and storage. One ran underground beneath this wall and out in to a woodland Plantation.
Below: A second tunnel ran out in to cover, now flooded. Use of bushes, trees and vegetation like this was key to the camouflage techniques employed.

Operational Bases were placed beneath shrubbery or trees where the entrance/exits could be concealed. Holes were dug, concrete or railway sleepers formed a footing and the corrugated iron structure sat on top. Sandy soil was less likely to cause flooding and was a favoured soil type. The structure appears to resemble a military ‘Nissen hut’ in design and familiar sights during the Great War and W.W. II in Britain. Woodlands were favoured sites to facilitate the camouflaging of entrances, exits and ventilation tubes. Once constructed below soil level, the whole thing was buried with the spoil and the ground made to look natural. One story tells of a ventilation tube passing inside the decayed interior of a living oak tree. In fact all the design features were cunningly conceived. The use of candles and paraffin heating in the confined space underground created condensation that became a serious problem, adding to any flooding from the surrounding soil. The inside of the structure was painted white with rust-preventing whitewash. The paint even contained particles of coke and other imaginative materials to try and absorb this condensation. It has to be said that many of these bases flooded to some degree, giving us even more regard for the men who endured this incarceration.

The photographs show the two ends of the Thursford OB but not the inventive escape tubes, also built of corrugated iron or wood. A man had to crawl along these to escape capture should the Base be discovered. There is evidence of such tunnels at Thursford but the openings, some distance from the base, are now either flooded or collapsed. One such tube runs along the garden wall, under which the base is built and exits 100yds away in Icehouse Plantation.  A modern ditch has revealed this opening. I am told that these tubes were useful places to store food and ordinance. The main entrance was down a vertical shaft that can clearly be seen in the photographs. A wooden ladder was constructed to permit entry & exit. Trap doors were employed to conceal all the openings. Furniture needed, like tables, chairs and bunks(for about 5-7 men at any one time) were often made by the men themselves. Bunks used wooden slats or covered with chicken wire.


The Future.

I have been told that the Land Owner plans, in future, to restore Thursford’s O.B. and open it for inspection. In the meantime there is cause for concern about the site as the men using the from 1940-1944 had guns, explosives and detonators on site. The existence of such ordinance needs to be checked before anyone should inspect the site closely. The site will be an additional means of closure for any families that might now know the truth about a family-member’s involvement and as such the site is important.

I hope this article both informs and develops a further interest in to this aspect of World War II.

References and acknowledgements:
There are a number of books on sale at www. amazon.com but the one I have bought, from which the two diagrams are taken, is
‘Churchill’s Underground Army’ by John Warwicker and published by Pen and Sword Books Ltd. A copy of this book is now in the Archive along with the photographs used in this report. I was delighted with John’s interest in the fact that we were about to report on this local discovery, and I offer him my sincere thanks for granting permission to use the two diagrams from his book.
No specific reference is made in John’s book to the Base at Thursford, but the book does provide a thorough insight in to the reasons why it is here.
The Museum at Coleshill House in Suffolk is a great place to start any research. Their web site is www.coleshillhouse.com.
Amazon has a number of book titles that have only recently been published on this intriguing and little known aspect of the last World War.

Nigel Jenkinson
Thursford Village Archive.

Email : n.jenkinson741@btinternet.com