The Secret War: Resistance in Britain During the Second World War

Britain’s war against Germany and her allies in the Second World War (1939-1945) was not confined to the battlefields, war in the air or actions at sea. A clandestine war was also being waged far away from the front line, here in Britain.

In the event of a German invasion of Britain, covert volunteer resistance forces, or Auxiliary Units, were instructed in guerrilla warfare.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruited secret agents, including exiles from Occupied Europe, training them in reconnaissance, espionage and sabotage, prior to parachuting behind enemy lines to work with resistance movements.

The Political Warfare Executive trained teams of radio operators to broadcast demoralising ‘black’ propaganda to Germany.

Britain’s Resistance Army

Auxiliary Units

Following the evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk (26 May-4 June 1940) and the rapid advance of enemy troops through France, it was clear that Britain was militarily weak and vulnerable to German invasion (Hitler’s planned Operation Sealion).

Coleshill House, Oxfordshire. The house burned down 24 September 1952, only the gate piers remain. Listed Grade I © Historic England Archive CC002305.

To combat the threat, the SOE established secret Auxiliary Units whose self-sufficient patrols of six to eight men (Auxiliers) were primed to attack invading German troops from behind their lines.

These heavily armed volunteer civilians, often farmers or landowners with good local knowledge, were trained in guerrilla warfare at Coleshill House. Around 3,500 recruits were trained here in sabotage, close combat and assassination.

Across the country, up to 1,000 hidden Operational Bases were constructed to accommodate a patrol and their weapons. More specialised bunkers, such as the scheduled Hare Warren Control Station, Wiltshire, concealed secret wireless stations.

Village Postmistress With a Secret Mission

Mabel Anne Stranks. Courtesy of her family.

Mabel Anne Stranks was the Postmistress of Highworth, a village two miles from Coleshill House.

Mrs Stranks played an essential official role with the Auxiliary Units by security checking all trainees. Arriving in Highworth, they were told to report to her and give a password, then wait while she telephoned the house and confirmed their ID.

Mabel Anne Stranks memorial plaque, Highworth, Wiltshire © Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team.

Special Operations Executive

Secret agent training: Audley End House

Audley End House, Essex, where SOE secret agents were trained during the Second World War. Listed Grade I and in the care of English Heritage © Historic England Archive PLB/N071142

The SOE was established in July 1940 at the instigation of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze.’

SOE agents were specialists in sabotage and subversion in enemy territory: many were serving soldiers, including those from occupied Europe, but others were civilians from all walks of life.

Women were recruited, with some joining the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) as cover for their real role.

Colonel, later Major General, Colin Gubbins

The SOE head of training and operations was Colonel Colin Gubbins, a former commando and veteran of irregular warfare in Ireland and Russia. 

Gubbins later became head of the SOE, responsible for coordinating resistance movements worldwide and for setting up the clandestine Auxiliary Units in Britain. 

He requisitioned anonymous-seeming country houses, from southern England to Scotland, for the secret training of agents.

Polish soldiers disembarking at the front entrance of Audley End House. From the collection of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust – London. FOT/9364

Audley End House was known as Special Training School 43 (STS 43) or Station 43. Many nationalities trained here, eventually exclusively Polish Forces who arrived April 1942.

They were known as the Cichociemni (the Silent and Unseen) and were elite paratroopers of the Polish Army in exile.

Agents had to be in peak condition, so fitness training continued in parallel with undercover training. An assault course was set up in the grounds. From the collection of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust – London. FOT/9163.

The training at Audley End was gruelling, covering the essential skills agents would need once they had parachuted into occupied Poland.

It included close combat, use of weapons, silent killing, sabotage, setting booby-traps, forgery, robbery, picking locks, micro-photography, wireless operation.

The Polish SOE War Memorial, Audley End House. The inscription reads: ‘Between 1942 and 1944 Polish members of the Special Operations Executive trained in this house for missions in their homeland. This memorial commemorates those who parachuted into enemy occupied Poland and gave their lives for the freedom of this and their own country.’ Listed Grade II © Historic England Archive PLB/K030323

The fuselage of a Halifax bomber was placed at height in the Stable Yard for trainees to jump out of and practice landing. For a time, a German Panzer (a tank) was present to familiarise trainees with enemy equipment.

Specialists within the house created false documents, authentic Polish clothes and cover stories.

Detail of the Polish Memorial Urn commemorating Polish members of the WWII Special Operations Executive © Wayne Cocroft

By the time Station 43 closed in December 1944, 606 secret agents had trained there. The memorial at Audley End commemorates them, including the 108 who lost their lives during the war.

Secret Agent Training: Dunham House

Dunham House, Bowdon, Cheshire, now converted into private flats © Bowdon History Society

Another requisitioned country house was Dunham House (STS 51a), where secret agents were billeted in preparation for learning how to parachute into enemy territory.

Courses were run at nearby RAF Ringway (now Manchester Airport), then called No 1 Parachute Training School.

Trainees first practised jumping from tethered balloons, then from aircraft in daylight and darkness. An estimated 7,000 agents trained at the aerodrome during the war.

Female SOE Secret Agents

Violette Szabo GC (1921-1945) © IWM HU16541.

Among the Dunham House SOE trainees were two female agents.

Violette Szabo, who spoke fluent French, undertook two missions in 1944, parachuting into Occupied France to contact and work with local French Resistance groups.

Szabo flew out from RAF Tempsford on her two missions. The secret aerodrome’s role was to drop supplies and agents, many of them women, into Occupied Europe for the SOE. Gibraltar Farm was where they were kitted out immediately prior to their flight.

Gibraltar Farm barn, Bedfordshire, on the edge of former RAF Tempsford. The barn is now a memorial: part of the inscription on an attached board reads: ‘Erected to commemorate the brave deeds of the men and women of every nationality who flew from this wartime airfield to the forces of the resistance in France, Norway, Holland, and other countries during the years 1942 to 1945…’ Listed Grade II © Peter Skynner

During her second mission in June 1944, Szabo was captured by German forces. She was brutally interrogated and tortured, before being deported to Germany where she was executed at Ravensbrück, an all-female concentration camp February 1945. She was 23.

Szabo was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian honour, awarded for ‘acts of the greatest heroism, or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger.’

Odette Sansom GC, aka Odette Churchill (1912-1995) © IWM HU3213

Born in France in 1912, Odette Sansom was living in Somerset with three young children when she joined the SOE. After training as an agent, she landed in France in October 1942, making contact with a resistance group run by another SOE agent, Peter Churchill.

They were betrayed and arrested. Despite Odette suffering barbaric torture by the Gestapo, she revealed nothing. She was condemned to death and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp July 1944, enduring solitary confinement in the dark for over three months.

Despite this, she survived, returning to England after the war where she was awarded the George Cross in 1946 for refusing to betray her fellow agents under torture.

Celebrated SOE Operations

The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich’s damaged Mercedes in which he was attacked in Prague by Czechoslovak SOE paratroopers, June 1942, during Operation Anthropoid. German Federal Archives.

Jan Kubiš and Josef Bublík were two of the more than 4,000 members of the Free Czechoslovak Army based in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire following the German invasion of their homeland 15 March 1939.

Trained as secret agents by the SOE in Britain, they parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia and assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the overall head of security in Nazi Germany and principal architect of plans for the extermination of Jews in Europe. He was ambushed and critically wounded in a grenade and gun attack, dying in hospital on 4 June 1942.

© David Dixon

The parachute-shaped Free Czechoslavak Army Memorial Fountain, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire includes the agents’ names, along with five others. They are commemorated as heroes in Czechoslovakia today and this memorial is Listed at Grade II .

SOE sabotage in Norway

Vemork hydro-electric plant, Rjukan, Norway, 2008 © Efarestv

During the Second World War, the Allies knew that the Germans were developing nuclear technology. They needed to destroy the Nazi-controlled heavy water plants in Norway that were essential to the German nuclear programme. The key facility was the heavily fortified Vemork, built pre-war in a remote area of Norway, and the world’s first site to mass produce heavy water.

The SOE recruited young Norwegians and put them through extreme training, much of it in the wilds of Scotland.

A first attempt at destroying Vemork in October 1942 had failed, but on the night of 27-28 February, 1943 eight Norwegian SOE commandos parachuted into the barren frozen landscape, travelling on skis to their target.

After climbing a 500 foot cliff to reach the plant, the saboteurs, who had detailed secret intelligence of the facility, infiltrated the plant and blew it up, delaying Nazi development of the atomic bomb.

Norwegian Chapel, St Mary-le-Bow © Andy Scott

The church of St Mary-le-Bow was designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London (1666).

It was heavily bombed during the Second World War, but later restored and now includes a memorial to the Norwegian Resistance.

Part of the inscription on the accompanying wall plaque reads: ‘This place… is sacred to the memory of the Norwegians who died in resistance to the tyranny of Nazism…The bronze relief by Ragnhild Butenscho was given by the people of Norway for whom the sound of Bow Bells broadcast throughout Europe was a symbol of hope during the Nazi occupation.’

‘The sound of Bow Bells’ refers to the church bells of St Mary-le-Bow, a recording of which was used by the BBC World Service, which also had a role in broadcasting coded messages to the resistance in occupied countries.

The Norwegian memorial plaque © Charlotte Goodhart

Black Propoganda

Sefton (Denis) Delmer, Daily Express journalist, recruited by the Political Warfare Executive © German Federal Archive.

Black propaganda, better known as psychological warfare, was a new concept developed by Sefton Delmer, former head of the Daily Express’s Berlin bureau during the rise of the Nazi party. The aim was to spread false information among Germany’s civilians and military, causing confusion and tensions, and undermining morale.

The Political Warfare Executive’s Milton Bryan Studio, Bedfordshire, opened 1943. Listed Grade II © jayembee

From August 1941 until the end of the war, propaganda in Britain was controlled by the secret Political Warfare Executive. Its purpose-built studios had the technology to create fake ‘German’ radio stations that offered the immediacy and apparent authenticity of live broadcasts.

One such station was Soldatensender Calais, which broadcast jazz interspersed with up-to-date news, whilst presenting events as negatively as possible.

The studio employed a multi-national, multi-lingual team of refugees and prisoners-of-war from Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to broadcast the propaganda. An intelligence section also edited a daily newspaper aimed at German troops stationed in France.

The Aspidistra generator building today, Crowborough, Sussex © Historic England Archive BB99/05332

Broadcasts were sent down a dedicated landline to the world’s most powerful transmitter, the newly constructed revolutionary ‘Aspidistra’ – named after the popular wartime Gracie Fields’ song ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World.

Example of propaganda that aimed to cause panic and fear among the German population.

During Allied bombing raids on Germany, the military switched off their transmitters to avoid the masts being used as navigational aids.

Aspidistra would immediately begin transmitting demoralising propaganda on the same frequency (known as an intrusion operation), making it appear genuinely German.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Header image: Polish elite forces in training at Audley End House, Essex. From the collection of the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust – London. FOT/9238.

Further Reading

6 responses to The Secret War: Resistance in Britain During the Second World War

  1. DEnnis says:

    Thanks for an excellent and interesting article.

  2. Mr Barry Wendon says:

    Thanks for a Excellent Interesting article. Moore on SOE

  3. Edward Hill says:

    Very intresting and informative about the war years, and you can see how it’s being used in today world.

  4. Richard Owen says:

    Thanks for refreshing my memory of the SOE. I cannot begin to imagine the courage of Violette and Odette.

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