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The Secret Army

June 1940.

France had fallen. The British expeditionary force was being ravaged at Dunkirk. It seemed likely that Adolf Hitler would invade Britain.

Winston Churchill had only been Prime Minister for a few weeks, but as part of his measures against invasion, he came up with the idea of a secret organisation that would remain in England. If an invasion happened, this organisation would disappear into a series of clandestine, prepared and stocked operational bases (or O.Bs, for short) and wait for the invading army to march over the top of them… then the organisation would pop up behind the enemy lines and do everything in their power to sabotage the invasion.

The leader of this secret army was an officer called Colin McVean Gubbins. He had experience of, and had studied, irregular warfare (later on, he became head of the Special Operations Executive, S.O.E). The secret army was named Auxiliary Units. This was shortened to Auxunits, then A.U.s.

The man picked in July 1940 to set up the Lincolnshire A.U.s was Captain Donald Hamilton-Hill, a Scottish Officer of the Queen’s own Cameron Highlanders. He picked men to be group leaders. In the case of Boston and its district, group leaders included W. E. Greenwood and L.I. Clark (an engineer for the Black Sluice Drainage Board). The patrol leaders would then recruit 6 to 8 men, approach them quietly and ask them if they were prepared to take on a special duty. If the men said yes, they were told of the Official Secrets Act, or sworn to secrecy. Captain Humber-Hill set up approximately 30 patrols from the Humber to the Wash before he left in 1941 to join the Special Operations Executive. Each patrol had its own hidden operational base.

These patrols were made up of men who knew their own territory, knew how to live off the land and had freedom to move, e.g. farmers, farm labourers, poachers, reserved occupations, or those subjected to the Essential Works Order. The men selected couldn’t even tell their wives about it. The men were trained to use firearms, explosives, silent killing, and sabotage. A pistol was issued to each man at a time when pistols were in scant supply among the regular armed forces. The A.U.s were given priority access to all sorts of ordnance. As well as pistols, some were given tommy guns or sten-guns, a fairbarn syke dagger, and hand grenades. Some patrols had a .22 sniper rifle for killing enemy and tracker dogs, gelignite, plastic explosives, time pencil detonators, fast and slow-burning fuse pressure switches, trip switches and a highly-adhesive anti-tank sticky bomb which was supposed to be placed by hand on its target. The Boston 4A patrol also had a rubber dinghy and a rope ladder (because of their closeness to the dock and the river Haven), home-made coshes, knuckledusters, garrottes, and Molotov cocktails.

The members of the A.U.s worked their day jobs and trained during the night and at weekends. Training in the usage of military hardware was given by a regular army patrol called Scout Sections, supplied by the Lincolnshire Regiment and lead by Lieutenant Eric Dring.

Patrols near Boston were at Swineshead, Kirton, and Butterwick. All of these had their own operational bases in countryside locations. However, the Boston patrol was uncommon because it was in an urban environment, which made movement at night dangerous.

The headmaster of Butterwick School, Captain W. Greenwood, was the Group 4 leader of four patrols in Butterwick, Boston, and Old Leake. Boston had two patrols (4A and 4C). 4A operated east of the Haven, and 4C was to the west.

The last known survivor of the Boston 4A patrol was Frank Bell from Wyberton. He was called into the regular army in 1942.

The first O.B. of the 4A was on St. John’s road, near the dock entrance, in a cul-de-sac of disused cottages. It was disguised as a mound of rubble. A construction worker was killed during the erection of the O.B. Because of the inquest’s secret nature it isn’t known whether the worker was in the military or a civilian. The second O.B. was in Bath Gardens.

It is believed that the A.U.s were recruited from the Home Guard, but that wasn’t the case for patrol 4A. Some of them became A.R.P. wardens later on, and Home Guard uniforms were given to them with Home Guard shoulder flashes, a forage cap, a cap badge, and black gaiters (but not boots), but they couldn’t wear the uniforms as people would ask them why they hadn’t been on parade. The only official Auxunits badge was a small red and blue shield marked with “201, 202, 20” which were the 3 designated areas of the UK.

Original members of 4A included Newton (the leader), Bell, Sargeant, Kenrick, Hayes, and Townsend. Apart from Bell, at least one other man was called into the regular army and replaced by someone else.

If an invasion had happened, the church bells all over England would have rung and the code word “Cromwell” would have been sent to all services and authorities for various procedures to be started. (In September 1940, “Cromwell” was activated, but it was a false alarm, though a bridge was mysteriously blown up.) Then the Auxunits men would have left their homes and gone underground, and come up behind the enemy to carry out pre-planned operations and create mayhem.

At the start, the separate patrols would act independently, then as the organisation developed, there would have been group coordination. Most patrols received a sealed envelope containing a list of potential collaborators.

The A.U.s were stood down in 1944. The men went back to their day jobs, though some were called into the army. The men had been promised a Defence Medal, but they didn’t receive any.. At last, in 1998, if any man could prove he had served in the Auxunits he could claim his medal, but by then many of the men had died, taking their secret with them.

About 300 ex-Auxunits from across the country joined the S.A.S (at least two of these men were from Boston) and other Special Forces.

There is a museum dedicated to the Secret Army at Parham in Suffolk. There is also a mock-up of an old O.B. at Tattershall Thorpe Museum near Woodhall Spa. Donald Hamilton-Hill gave a chapter about his time in Lincolnshire in his book “S.O.E. Assignment.” Other books about the Auxunits include “Churchill’s Secret Army” by John Warricker and “The Last Ditch” by David Lampe.

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