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 Iden Patrol was the most easterly Patrol in East Sussex. The Patrol had six members when it was first formed. However, after a year, one of its members (Frank Reeve, a farmer at Lea Farm, Iden) was called up into the army and was not replaced. The Patrol Leader was John Winter, a farmer at Saltbarn Farm, Playden. The other members of the Patrol were Jack Matthews, a farmer at Leasam Farm, Iden, Jack Goodwin, the owner of an agricultural engineering firm in Rye, Walter Dawes, a farm worker, and Bill Bailey, a commercial artist who worked for newspapers and also undertook Royal commissions. He lived nearby in Beckley.
Localised training took place three or four times a week and mainly involved the patrol practicing with various explosives on tree stumps and disused rabbit warrens.
The patrol’s hideout was sited in Norland Wood, 500 yards east of Peasmarsh Church. It was built by the Royal Engineers. Construction would have been difficult as it was positioned near the bottom of a steep slope, next to a stream. The problem of transporting materials to the site must have been formidable, let alone the actual building work. The hideout had a similar design to the Ditchling and Staplefield Patrol’s OBs and was basically an underground Nissan hut.
Entrance was gained by pulling a concealed cable release. This let an earth-covered wooden hatch lift up slightly, so someone could get their fingers underneath it. The hatch had about four inches of soil on top of it, and a counterbalance weight was required to assist in lifting it. Once opened a brick built shaft with a ladder led down into the hideout.
At the other end of the hideout was an emergency exit in the form of a two foot eight inch concrete tunnel. It was thirty feet in length and terminated in the bank of the stream. This too had an earth-covered wooden hatch but had no cable release. If used it would have been pushed open from the inside.
The hideout contained bunk beds, ammunition, explosives, food, water, a cooking stove and an Elsan chemical toilet.
After the war the earth cover and corrugated metal roof was removed but the brick end walls, main entrance shaft and the concrete emergency escape tunnel can still be seen set into the steep bank in Norland Wood. The chamber is now partially filled with soil.
The patrol visited the hideout every weekend but, unlike other patrols, they never stayed overnight as part of their training. Former patrol member, Jack Matthews, recalled some of the targets the patrol would have attempted to sabotage in the event of an invasion. These included the railway line at Rye and the two main roads running out of Rye to Ashford and Folkestone. He also remembered their patrol, along with several adjacent patrols, going to a meeting at Catsfield. There a high ranking officer explained how volunteers were needed to be parachuted into France as part of a pre-invasion plan for the Normandy Landings. All the men put their names forward.