The Future of History

Saturday, 14 January 2012

War in the Borders

It's one of the last great secrets of World War II - how did Britain plan to deal with a German invasion?

The answer, at least in part, was by establishing a secret army in the aftermath of the evacuation of Dunkirk.  All over the country, individuals were surreptitiously recruited.  They were not allowed to discuss their recruitment or special training with anyone.  Most of them were intimately familiar with the land - farmers, gamekeepers and the like.  Many were already in the Home Guard.  Their extra training happened alongside their working lives and their Home Guard duties.

They became the ultra-secret Home Guard Auxiliary Units.  If the Germans had invaded, these men would have disappeared into their secret hideouts where weapons and explosives were already stockpiled.  Their task was to cause as much damage and disruption to the invasion force as possible.

Their life expectancy in the wake of an invasion was estimated at about two weeks.  Anyone who gave the game away would have to be killed.

Thankfully, the Auxiliers were never called upon to go underground and make use of their silent killing techniques and their demolition expertise.  They were not officially recognised for the sacrifices they had been prepared to make.  Many of them lived out the rest of their lives without ever mentioning the special duties they had been trained to carry out in the event of an invasion.

The first I heard about them was a few years ago when my wife's uncle had a phonecall from a historian who was researching the Home Guard Auxiliary patrols in Worcestershire.  Lo and behold, Uncle John's father had been an Auxilier (there was a photo of an ammunition dump on the family farm), as had several of the old boys of the village.  None of them had ever spoken about it.

Last week, I spoke to Tom Sykes,who founded the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART), a group of volunteers dedicated to discovering and publishing what they can about the Home Guard Auxiliaries.  As part of my research for a potential short film about the Auxiliers, he sent me a book which CART published last year.

Gone to Ground was written by Bill Watson, who grew up in the town of Duns in the Berwickshire region of the Scottish Borders.  As a teenager, Bill was recruited and became part of the Duns Patrol of the Home Guard Auxiliary.  In 1942 he joined the Scots Guards and was captured by the Germans in 1943.  He spent much of the rest of his life as a police officer in the Edinburgh and Borders region.  Bill died in 2004.

His semi-autobiographical novel is a fictional account of a German invasion of Britain.  His leading character, Bob Wilson, starts out as a seventeen year old who joins the Duns Patrol.  Unable to tell his parents or girlfriend what he is doing every night, he undergoes intensive training and then - when the Germans invade - he goes to ground with the rest of his six-man unit.

In all fairness, Bill Watson was not really a novelist.  And yet, the very artlessness of his writing helps to make Gone to Ground a fascinating and enjoyable read.  Bill had evidently spent a great deal of time imagining what a Nazi invasion of Britain would have been like.  He does nothing to downplay the horrors.  His training meant that he had a rare insight into the type of activities that he and his fellow Auxiliers would have been expected to undertake.  But for every German soldier killed by the 'Six Free Men', as the Duns Patrol like to call themselves, the occupying army takes a hideous form of revenge.  The local population are taken hostage.  Women are raped.  Men are tortured.  Every time the Duns Patrol strikes, a few of their friends and neighbours are executed.

Details of Bill's book, and the work of CART, can be found here:

Of course, all this has very little to do with Arthur.  But then, as I was reading the book I kept reminding myself that Arthur had fought in the Scottish Borders.  Among his enemies - and perhaps the greatest of those enemies - were those Germanic invaders, the Angles, who gave rise to a country called England and a language called English.

Bill Watson belonged to an extremely ancient tradition: those young men of Lothian who were ready to defend with their lives their British-held territory.  Arthur might have had to make do without explosives and machine guns, and maybe the Angles did not parachute in, but the battles that Bill Watson had trained for, and which he later imagined, were just the latest in a long line of skirmishes and actions which have taken place in the Scottish Borders over the years.

There have been plenty of battles across Britain, but historically-speaking few parts of the country have been as wartorn as the Borders and central belt of Scotland.  Had he been called on to disappear into the hills, emerging only to cause havoc for the invaders, Bill Watson and his team would have joined that long, long line of men who have battled for British freedom in the uplands of southern Scotland.

Bill vividly imagined what the effects of an invasion might have been.  Enslavement, rape, torture, execution, collaboration, resentment, resistance ... war is ever the same.  The freedom he fought for was much the same freedom as that which Arthur and his warriors fought for in that same part of the world.

If you buy a copy of Bill's Gone to Ground, 15% of the price is donated to the British Red Cross.  So please do so, if only to remember those who - like Arthur and his men before them - were ready to lay down their lives in the defence of freedom and Britain. 

Men like Bill Watson.  RIP.

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