A fascinating new book has revealed the little-known history of the clandestine groups of saboteurs established across Northumberland during the Second World War.
In the summer of 1940, with the threat of Nazi invasion looming, plans were being laid for a force that would emerge from underground bases to carry out acts of sabotage and espionage behind the enemy lines as they moved inland.
This last-ditch line of defence – what would have become the British Resistance – were known as the Auxiliary Units (AUs) and in Northumberland alone, there were more than 20.
Kept secret for many years, some information has now been published, but a new book, Most Secret – Uncovering the Story of Northumberland’s Underground Resistance – the Auxiliary Units of WW2, reveals details about what happened in Northumberland.
It is thanks to the efforts of four men: Stephen Lewins, from Morpeth; Bill Ricalton, who drew on his experience as a youngster during the war in Longhorsley; Phil Rowett, from Berwick; and Ian Hall, from Alnwick, whose Wanney Books imprint has published Most Secret.
In the introduction, they write: ‘We hope that, in a small way, we can give some recognition to the brave men and women of Northumberland who volunteered for what was, potentially, the most hazardous work. Though they were never called upon in their role as Auxiliaries, they volunteered with open eyes, knowing that in the event of invasion, their life expectancy would probably be measured in days.
‘That they took on the role, and kept quiet about it for so long after the war, is testament to their courage and loyalty’.
It all started when a number of Army captains were appointed as field commanders with the title of Intelligence Officer (IO) and tasked with travelling round the country and recruiting suitable men to work in six or seven-man patrols.
Those selected tended to come from two main backgrounds; miners and quarry workers, due to their expertise with explosives, and farm workers, gamekeepers (and poachers!), because of their knowledge of the land.
The first IO for Northumberland was Captain John ‘Hamish’ Watt-Torrance and the first leader he recruited was Lambert Carmichael, a farmer from Scremerston.
Along with Joseph ‘Peter’ Robinson and Lee Riley, he formed the core of the organisation in north Northumberland and this burgeoning organisation held its first meetings at a farm near Elford and a safe house in Seahouses.
Carmichael also proposed his brother Alan, who farmed at Todburn, and he went on to build the Longhorsley and Netherwitton patrols.
The Auxiliary Units’ underground bases were called Operational Bases (OBs) and the very first ones were built by the units themselves to no specific design.
However, before long, a standardised version was produced to be used by specialist units of the Royal Engineers for underground bases all over the country.
The usual OB was built underground and located near a stream with a nine-metre-by-three-metre, semi-circular main chamber. At one end was a shaft leading to the surface, while there was also an escape tunnel, which would exit at some distance from the OB.
As well as the sabotage units of the AUs, there were also separate espionage units set up whose role would be to collect intelligence from behind enemy lines.
Known as the Special Duties Section, they operated totally separate from the Operational Patrols, with separate IOs, but, according to the authors, there is even less information about them in the public domain than the other units.
All they know about Northumberland is that there was an Out Station at Longhorsley and a Zero Station north of Alnwick. Their work would involve ‘local people being trained to recognise troop movements and how to report these via a dead-letter drop.
‘The messages would be collected by a ‘runner’ and delivered to the local Out Station, again by dead-letter drop.
‘The Out Station was a clandestine radio transmitter, operated by local people. They would then communicate to a Control Station (and then an underground Zero Station once an invasion was imminent’.
At the end of the war, there was no formal recognition of the AUs’ efforts. One letter reproduced in the book says: ‘In view of the fact that your lives depended on secrecy, no public recognition will be possible’.
But this new book goes some way towards expressing our gratitude for the sacrifices these men were prepared to make for their country.
Most Secret, priced at £5.50 with free UK postage and packing, can be ordered online using PayPal from www.wildsofwanney.co.uk or by getting in touch by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by post to 15 Fairfields, Alnwick, NE66 1BT.