John Newth, with the help of Ken Williams, tells the story of seven brave Dorset men
Published in November ’09
May 1940. France has fallen and the invasion of Britain is regarded as a certainty. Ideas for defiant defence are being hatched everywhere, not least in the fertile mind of Winston Churchill, who has been Prime Minister for less than a month. One of his ideas is for a ‘stay behind’ army of guerrilla units, whose role will be to go into hiding as the Germans advance and then operate behind the lines to cause as much damage as possible to the enemy’s arteries of communication and supply.
Churchill enlisted Colin Gubbins, who had led the forerunners of the Commandos in the battle for Norway and would later direct SOE, to establish such a force. Gubbins’s network of ‘Intelligence Officers’ set up fighting patrols of six to eight men, led by a sergeant, throughout the country but especially in coastal areas and especially in the South. The ideal recruits, who were mostly found in the ranks of the fledgling Home Guard, were men in reserved occupations who knew their local area intimately and were physically fit. It followed that a high proportion of them were farmworkers, foresters, gamekeepers – and poachers.
While the Home Guard were struggling to obtain one Lee-Enfield rifle and five rounds of ammunition to share between a platoon, the ‘Auxiliary Units’, as these secret groups were called, were amply provided with small arms, explosives, sniping rifles and Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knives. Each unit was also supplied with a base, often built by members of the Royal Engineers or Pioneer Corps who were brought to the site by night from elsewhere in the country, so that they could never identify exactly where they had been working.
A base was typically in deep woodland, far from any public road. It usually consisted of an underground construction of concrete blocks or brick with a corrugated iron roof. Every base was different, but it might be divided into two, with a living area which also served as storage for the deadly tools of the resistance fighter’s trade, and a sleeping area with hammocks arranged in the shape of a star, the foot ends being tied to a pole in the centre. Its entrance and escape tunnel would be heavily camouflaged. Fifty yards or more away would be a one-man bunker equipped with a telephone that enabled the unit to receive orders and pass on intelligence.
Even as early as May 1940, the Nazis’ willingness to use civilians to their evil ends was well known. The activities of the Auxiliary Units would surely have led to reprisals against the civilian population and this consequence was discussed at as high a level as the War Cabinet. What was even more obvious was that serving in an Auxiliary Unit that had been overrun by the Germans’ advance could only be a suicide mission. The greater success a unit enjoyed, the greater would be the enemy’s efforts to destroy it: its extinction could only be a matter of time. The ordinary Englishmen (and a few Englishwomen) who joined the units were surely aware of this, and their courage is something at which later generations can only wonder and be humble.
Much of the information on the Auxiliary Units has still never been released by the authorities, so it is impossible to say how many there were in Dorset. There were at least two on the Isle of Purbeck, one based in Norden Wood on the north side of Knowle Hill, roughly halfway along a line drawn from East Creech to Norden Farm. Ken Williams of Corfe Castle has researched and produced a book on this unit, whose members were typical of the Dorset men who were willing to sacrifice themselves in and for the countryside they knew so well.
The sergeant was Fred Simpson (Ken Williams’s brother-in-law), who at that time was employed as a farmworker by Jack Baggs of Wareham. He had been one of the first to join the Church Knowle platoon of the Home Guard. Like most of the ‘Auxiliers’, he was recruited from the ranks of the Home Guard which also provided useful cover. After the war he became a farmer in his own right,farming at Claywell and Goathorn Farms, near the Purbeck shore of Poole Harbour.
His second-in-command, Doug Green, was born and bred in Church Knowle and worked for his uncle, Fred Stockley, on his farm at Bucknowle, just outside the village. Les Green, Doug’s cousin, was also a Church Knowle man and worked in the clay mines: a Purbeck man through and through. Another clay worker was Eli Kitkat, who worked for Pike Fayle and would often be seen driving the clay train across the Norden crossing on the Wareham to Corfe Castle road. Also from Church Knowle and also a clay worker (although he later worked for the Rempstone Estate) was Wilf Stockley. The unit was completed by two brothers, Harold and Jack Hatchard. They were born at Eight Houses at Furzebrook and later moved to the Old School House at Norden.
Like members of the other Dorset units, these seven Purbeck men underwent most of their training at Duntish Court, a now-demolished country house at Buckland Newton. Here they were trained in what were to become thought of as commando techniques: killing with a knife or by breaking a man’s spine, the use of explosives and such guerrilla tactics as stretching a piano wire across a road to bring off an enemy despatch rider. Bringing him off was easy: the clever part was angling the wire so that the body ended up in the ditch, where it could be more easily disposed of.
Absolute secrecy was integral to the Auxiliary Units’ work and the families of the Creech/Norden unit were given no idea of where their sons and brothers had gone or what they were doing when they disappeared for days at a time. They had all signed the Official Secrets Act and not for another thirty years was Fred Simpson willing to talk about his wartime role. Later in his life he was prepared to show favoured people the operational base beneath Knowle Hill, and they have recounted how this eighty-year-old would become noticeably more alert and on edge as he approached the bunker: an ingrained response from sixty years earlier.
Fred would tell the story of how he and Doug received a crate of a dozen phosphorus grenades and were ordered to store them under water. The ground around their base had a high water-table, so it was no trouble to dig a hole to hide the crate. Unfortunately, they forgot to mark the spot and although they tried many times after the war, they never managed to locate the grenades – so somewhere under that patch of Purbeck heath lurks a lethal reminder of those desperate days. Another reminder came when someone showed Fred some capsules they had found. He immediately recognised them as the cyanide pills that were issued to all members of the Auxiliary Units so that they should not reveal under interrogation the location of their base.
As the invasion threat receded, the Auxiliary Units’ role changed and they found themselves fulfilling rather more mundane tasks like guarding Ulwell radar station, RAF Warmwell or the cordite factory at Holton Heath. Eventually, with the end of the war in sight, came the order to stand down. No public recognition was possible because of the secret nature of their duties – they were actually funded not by the War Office but by MI5 – and many Auxiliaries were not even awarded the Defence Medal, which was given to almost anyone who did anything towards the war effort in 1939-45.
At least Sergeant Fred Simpson and his men of the Creech/Norden unit are being remembered thanks to the efforts of Ken Williams and the Corfe Castle branch of the Royal British Legion. They have applied to Purbeck DC to erect a memorial to those seven brave Dorset men. The chosen location is by the entrance to Kilwood Nature Reserve, just south of the junction of the lane through East Creech with the road that runs south from Furzebrook to Cocknowle. This is the closest point on a public road to the unit’s operational base. It is hoped that the memorial might be put in place during this month of remembrance, November 2009.
The memorial will be of rough-hewn Purbeck stone, donated by a local quarry-owner, and will be inscribed with the Auxiliaries’ badge, together with the names of the seven members of the unit. The rest of the proposed inscription reads: ‘May they rest in peace in the land they were prepared to defend when it was in mortal danger.’ The courage that those seven Purbeck men showed, like others throughout Dorset and the rest of the country, deserves no less an epitaph.