PUBLISHED: 18:07 01 October 2012 | UPDATED: 21:58 20 February 2013
The National Trust village of Coleshill hosted a nostalgic 1940s weekend on September 15 and 16, as well as opening Coleshill Underground, a replica of a clandestine wartime resistance base
The secret army
The National Trust village of Coleshill hosted a nostalgic 1940s weekend on September 15 and 16, 2012, as well as opening Coleshill Underground, a replica of a clandestine wartime resistance base. Katie Jarvis went to find out more about this sleepy Oxfordshire villages vital role in training Churchills secret army
Its January 1941 and a young stranger walks nervously into the post office at Highworth, where the village postmistress, Mabel Stranks, looks searchingly at him over her black-rimmed spectacles. Judging by his accent, hes rarely left his Yorkshire homeland before. Hes clearly a country boy; looks as if hes caught and skinned a fair few rabbits in his time. In his broad, barely-understandable accent, he haltingly asks for a hapenny stamp, maybe to send a postcard back home; but he offers a half-crown in payment. So Mrs Stranks makes her way into the back to look for change.
Or so it seems.
In fact, the charade conceals a far more interesting truth. For the lad has been recruited on a mission so sensitive, he cant breathe a word even to his young family. As far as they are concerned, he might be off with some floosy, making hay while his peers so bravely fight on the battlefields abroad.
As for Mrs Stranks, she picks up a heavy receiver and connects to a secret number; intelligence need to know that their latest recruit has arrived. This inoffensive, middle-aged woman was part of a war effort so potentially deadly its said that Hitler himself ordered she be shot once the Nazis reached the coveted British shores.
The melodies of birdsong weave through the woods at Coleshill, where the beech trees link strong limbs to form a twisted ceiling; where the rough floor is laid with a thick-pile carpet of violet-sweet bluebells each spring. Thousands of years ago, a tribal people settled here, making pots whose shattered fragments still corrugate the ground. The River Cole, dappling through the floodplains, was harnessed by later generations to grind corn in the watermill. And, in the 17th century, an elegantly simple country house took shape, in the Inigo Jones mould, with a curving flight of steps to the grand front door. In short, herein lies quintessential England.
But there are odd connections afoot. For something strange links this Cotswold paradise to a barren land 3,500 miles away. To the desolate foothills of Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda plot and train. To insurgents in Iraq. Even to Northern Ireland when the IRA were at their murderous peak.
For as you lower your head from that birdsong to ensure you dont trip on a root, you notice odd structures amongst the ferns and fallen leaves: a deep hole - man-made, not wild-animal in origin; a concrete base surely where a hut once stood. And, if youre very observant, a covered manhole in the middle of nowhere.
Coleshill, an archetypal English estate, hides secrets. More than 70 years ago, this was where Churchills secret army was trained: an army of gamekeepers, farmers, poachers; men of the soil; men who knew their own patch of England like they knew their own mothers. Men, sworn to utter silence about their mission: to murder, maim, destroy and disrupt the minute the shadow of German invaders cast a pall on the shorelines of Britain. Men whose pattern of small-cell operation was so cleverly thought out in this Oxfordshire spot that the IRA, al-Qaeda, and probably every underground movement thats operated since, have adopted its organisational structure.
Liza Dibble is community learning officer for the Buscot and Coleshill Estates now owned by the National Trust. This was the guard house, she tells me, as we make our way up one of Coleshill villages quiet lanes. Indeed, there it still stands, a remnant of Britain at war, a breeze-block, black-painted structure, banked by woods, where guards once keenly observed anyone who came past.
Surely, I say, staring at this grim edifice, surely the villagers must have suspected something was going on?
Yes, but I dont think they knew what, she replies. They probably thought it was something to do with the Home Guard. I guess they knew better than to ask.
It was in the summer of 1940 that the newly-appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill proposed the idea of a secret resistance movement, which would spring into action in the event of a German invasion: blowing up railway lines and bridges, sabotaging communications, assassinating Nazi officers. The evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, with the resultant losses of ammunition, vehicles and other equipment, had left Britain almost defenceless; yet the German advance through France continued, relentless.
So Churchill and his cabinet formulated a plan for a guerrilla network known as the Auxiliary Units, who would operate in seven-to-10-man cells from hidden underground bases around the country. That structure meant that, in the event of any man being caught, he would only know the identity of a handful of others.
And so began a recruitment drive. Its true that many men were already away fighting; but there remained those in reserved occupations, among who were farmers and other agricultural workers, struggling to keep the nation fed. They knew the land like the back of their hands the shortcuts, the hidden copses, the natural lairs and defences; they could live in the wild; they knew life and death, if only through the butchering of animals. They wanted to do something to defend the land they worked and loved with an inborn passion; in short, they were ideal. It would start with a tap on the shoulder and a clandestine question: Would you like to join something more exciting than the Home Guard? These men often teenagers would have to sign the Official Secrets Act before learning more.
It was to Coleshill that they would be sent to train for their thankless, dangerous job. Official calculations reveal that, in the event of an invasion, their average lifespan would have been two weeks. Liza has copies of instruction manuals, showing them how to kill a German soldier with their bare hands. There are notes on security, Remember to be especially careful when you have had one or two drinks; when talking to your wife or your girlfriend. That secrecy held; in fact, the sting in the tail is that many died in old age without their secrets ever passing their lips. To the outside world, they remained farmworkers who had avoided the war.
Over 3,000 men from all over the country were trained at Coleshill, from 1941 when the units were founded, until November 1944 when they were finally disbanded. After their welcome at the post office by the discreet Mrs Stranks, they would be ferried to Coleshill House (accidentally destroyed by fire in the 1950s), which had been commandeered in the war effort. The place was ideal: isolated, away from city bombs, surrounded by trees, and owned by two elderly spinsters who had decamped to a far room with their dogs. When the war was over, one of them, Mollie PlaydellBouverie, summed it all up: All this was going on underneath our noses and we didnt have the slightest idea of it, she said.
Liza takes me further into the wood, past the outlines of hut bases where radio sets would have been quietly assembled for intelligence use overseas, until we come to a slight clearing marked only by a solitary manhole. When she lifts the lid, I see a rusty ladder descending into darkness. This is where the men would have been trained in small units deep under the earth. Once inside, I find myself in a comfortless empty and confined space dug out of the woods. There are brackets on the wall where folding beds hung, a gutter for drainage, a ventilation shaft, room for a small table. Its humbling to think that, in these dull surroundings, men and boys were solemnly pledging to give their lives, without any blaze of glory, in the event of an invasion.
Liza shows me the patrol leaders course they would have followed. It includes a bare two-hour Lecture on Explosives and two further hours of Weapon Training. Other subjects include Daylight Reconnaissance and Camouflage and Elementary Drill. So just a couple of hours of learning to kill before, in theory, you might face the real thing. These men would then take their newly-honed skills back to their home counties where they would recruit their own small cell and create their own underground base.
As we walk back to the National Trusts estate office, I see the farmland that would have been used to practise night-time stealth movements, when the raw recruits learnt to flee like ghosts across the fields. Nowadays, their ghosts linger in the form of trees bearing plaques to some of those who did die for their country. Of course, the auxiliaries were never deployed: the invasion never happened, thank God. But some of those young men went on to join other elite organisations such as the SAS. One plaque is dedicated to Henry Pascoe. In 1944, he was parachuted behind enemy lines to meet with the French Resistance in Operation Bulbasket. But something went horribly wrong; he and his comrades were captured by German troops and executed by lethal injection. Henry died aged 28.
Its the kind of story Liza tells the hundreds of schoolchildren who visit every year. Pretending to be spies is fun; listening to such bravery is serious. The kids do both with understanding and enthusiasm.
The underground base is delicate now, some 70 years on. But thanks to Heritage Lottery Funding, the National Trust is opening a replica this month, which members of the public can visit. It will be identical to the original and only a brief trek away. There was a grand opening on the estate on September 15 and 16 with a family weekend street party, swing bands, drill practice, talks, re-enactments and food.
Such frivolity is a far cry from the solemnity with which these men pledged to give their lives, unsung, unthanked, unacknowledged by most of the world. But no doubt, theyd approve. After all, a longing for others to enjoy freedom, celebration and peaceful fun were the very reasons why they quietly responded to that furtive tap on the shoulder all those decades ago.
- Coleshill Underground, a nostalgic 1940s weekend family street-party with swing bands, food and war-time re-enactments at the National Trust village of Coleshill SN6 7PT (just off the B4019 between Faringdon and Highworth), took place on September 15-16, 2012,www.nationaltrust.org.uk/buscot-coleshill-estates
- For more information on the work of the Auxiliary Units at Coleshill, visit www.coleshillhouse.com