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.
The Ditchling Patrol was made up of six members. The Patrol Leader was George Thomas, a farmer from Westmeston. At the start of the War he was a first-aider who, in the event of a bombing raid, had to provide a service from Ditchling to Cuckfield. This had to be accomplished with one van and a few helpers. The service was taken over when the Air Raid Precaution Service came into being. George Thomas then joined the Home Guard and was later approached by the Auxiliary Unit’s staff with a view to his becoming the Ditchling Patrol Leader. The Other patrol members were Arthur Sharman, a coalman who was George Thomas' brother-in-law, the brothers Sam and Burt Holmes, both farmers, Harry Woods, a farm manager and Dan Atkins, another local farmer.
The patrol’s hideout was sited in the north Of West Wood, close to Hundred Acre Lane, between Westmeston and Wivelsfield. It was built by the Royal Engineers using bricks, concrete, corrugated iron and wood. It was basically an underground Nissan hut.
The hideout was entered via an earth-covered wooden hatch. This could only be opened by pulling a release wire, which then allowed the hatch to spring up. A counter-balance weight assisted the hatch to move to a fully open position.
This revealed a brick shaft going down 13 feet with a ladder made of scaffold poles set into the brickwork. At the other end of the hideout was the emergency exit consisting of a concrete tunnel 2 feet 8 inches wide and 28 feet long. This terminated in another earth covered wooden hatch that was hinged at the top. It was set at an angle of 45 degrees to emulate the slope onto which it opened out. Ventilation was provided by a network of glazed drainage pipes, four inches in diameter. These came to the surface underneath surrounding ferns and bramble bushes.
The hideout contained food, ammunition, explosives, bunk beds, a cooking stove, and a chemical toilet. Water was stored in two 30 gallon galvanised tanks. The bunk beds, when not in use, could be folded flat against the wall to create more space. A table stood in the centre of the hideout.
Former patrol member Arthur Sharman remembers they tried not to visit the hideout too often, in order to keep its whereabouts secret. Burt Holmes recalls that localised training always took place at night and involved simulated attacks on surrounding military installations. One such attack involved the patrol having to enter a guarded radar station, either Truleigh or Poling, and laying dummy charges at the base of the aerial pylons; this they managed successfully. Another memorable attack took place on Ford Aerodrome where they had to get in and place coloured stickers on various planes to simulate attaching explosives. Some of the patrol were caught and taken to the guardroom. Once inside, the men were treated very roughly, being told to lie face down and not attempt to get up or they would be hit with a rifle butt.
Condensation was a major problem inside the hideout. George Thomas remembers having to get the Royal Engineers back and fit a false ceiling to try to alleviate the condition. He also used silica gel crystals to absorb the moisture. Because of this he used to keep a lot of the patrol’s equipment in his own house. It was only a few years ago that George Thomas finally got rid of the explosives he kept there. He called in the army to assist in this task and they destroyed them harmlessly on his land. George Thomas' favourite explosive charge was a five gallon drum of petrol with a ring of Cordtex and a detonator. This combination gave, as he put it, “a spectacular explosion”.
The patrol’s main target, in the event of an invasion, would have been to blow up the underground fuel tanks on nearby Chailey Airfield.
After the war the hideout was emptied of its contents. Due to the shortage of building material at the time the corrugated iron sheeting that had made up the roof of the hideout was removed and used on George Thomas' farm.
The two brick end walls, access shaft and 28' long concrete escape tunnel can all still be seen.