Site Records

SiteName: Firle Patrol (Auxiliary Units)

Firle Plantation
East Sussex
OS Grid Ref: TQ474062

Sub Brit site visit November 1997

[Source: Stewart Angell]

One of Britain's best-kept secrets of World War II was the Home Guard Auxiliary Units, which used the status of the Home Guard as a cover for their real activities.

In May 1940, Colonel Colin Gubbins formed a tightly structured resistance that was to be supplied with the best weapons available and with modern plastic explosives. He names them the Auxiliary Units, a deliberately nondescript title. Everything about the Auxiliary Units was to be kept highly secret.

Gubbins knew he needed local men to form the small patrols in each area, men who could be trusted and who had a good knowledge of their surroundings. He decided it would be best to obtain his resistance men from the Home Guard. Contrary to popular belief (mainly due to the BBC series 'Dad's Army'), the Home Guard was not totally made up of bungling old men. Many younger men who were in reserved occupations joined their ranks. This is not to say that every member of the Auxiliary Units was originally in the regular Home Guard. Potential members were always vetted by the local police before they were allowed to join. All the men had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and, on joining the Auxiliary Units, were issued with Home Guard uniforms bearing the number of their battalion. These battalions were: 201st in Scotland; 202nd in Northern England; and 203rd in Southern England. None of these battalions ever had official recognition, which meant they were not covered by the Geneva Convention. If the men were captured, they would have been shot.

When a patrol was formed, it had to have its own underground hideout. This was known as an Operational Base or OB The hideouts were to be used in the event of an invasion. They were well-hidden and purpose-built to house the patrol along with the necessary food, water, ammunition and explosives. In Sussex there were 23 patrols with 139 men, the smallest consisted of four men and the largest eight.

Each patrol had an underground hideout, the operational base (OB) and in many cases an underground observation (OP) post or lookout was also sited close by. Both the OB and OP were extremely well hidden, usually in woodland or thick undergrowth.

Photo: The Anderson Shelter extension
Photo by Nick Catford

The Firle Patrol was the smallest patrol in Sussex, having only four members. The Patrol Leader was Bill Webber, a market gardener from Firle. The other patrol members were Tom Smith, another market gardener, Jack Cornwall, a painter and John Pilbeam, a farmhand. The latter two men both worked on the Firle Estate.

Former patrol leader Bill Webber looks down the emergency exit - Photo by Stewart Angell

All the men were originally in the Home Guard until Bill Webber was approached by Captain Gwynn with a view to his joining the Auxiliary Units and forming the Firle Patrol. They all did their basic training at Coleshill and trained locally in association with the neighbouring Bishopstone Patrol.

The patrol's hideout was sited south of the village of Firle, on the Downs, within a wood called the Firle Plantation. It was built by the Royal Engineers.

The construction was of wood and galvanised steel sheeting. The whole of the inside surface was lined with cork to try and combat any condensation.

The entrance hatch was opened by lifting a small tree trunk which was attached to it. The earth on top of the hatch was kept in place by netting which had moss and leaves intertwined in it to disguise its existence.

Plan of the Firle hideout
Redrawn from an original drawing by Stewart Angell

The hideout contained three bunks at one end with a stove. Food, ammunition and explosives took up most of the remaining area. Water was stored in a galvanised tank. An extension was later added to the hideout in the form of an Anderson shelter, along with an emergency exit.

The chalk spoil created from this excavation was spread under the trees in the lower part of the plantation.

Twenty yards north of the hideout the patrol had a small underground store which contained extra food and ammunition. To the south there was an underground lookout, connected to the hideout via a direct telephone line. It only had enough room for one man inside it, and overlooked the main trackway through the upper part of the plantation.

Bill Webber (left) & Tom Smith

Patrol Leader Bill Webber and Tom Smith are the only surviving members of the patrol. They both recalled using the hideout as part of their training and many nights they walked from Firle to Bishopstone to join their neighbouring patrol in training exercises.

Photo:The emergency escape shaft
Photo by Nick Catford

Due to the discovery and ransacking of the hideout by Canadian soldiers, on several occasions, in 1942, this OB was abandoned. The patrol then shared the Bishopstone OB from August, 1942.

Bill Webber recalled the time the patrol followed the River Cuckmere from its haven at Exceat all the way to Heathfield. They had to cross the river at various points during the journey. On another occasion he took a high-ranking officer, based at Coleshill, from their hideout at Firle over the Downs to Bishopstone, using only a prismatic compass and the stars to guide them

The main chamber of the Firle hideout has collapsed and the only evidence is a depression in the ground and some corrugated sheeting marking the site of the entrance shaft. The Anderson Shelter extension is accessible either by crawling in through the connecting tunnel between the extension and the main chamber or by decending the emergency escape shaft which is tight. The underground store 20 yards to the north is also still extant.

The Firle hideout

The underground store

To read Bill Webber's diary click here

Further information:

[Source: Stewart Angell]

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