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 Staplefield Patrol consisted of seven members. Unfortunately, only four members names are known. The Patrol Leader was Frank Baker, a farmer at Home Farm, Staplefield, who later went on to become the Mayor of Brighton. The other members were close friends and associates of his. They were Cecil Mills, a gamekeeper and bailiff, who lived in Handcross; Les Moore, a milkman from Handcross; and Gerald Cummings, a cattle farmer in Bolney. Nora Mills, wife of ex-patrol member Cecil Mills, recalled how her husband had kept his involvement in the Auxiliary Units secret while the patrol was operational. She knew he was training with explosives, but thought he was part of the regular Home Guard. After the War he explained what he had been doing.
The patrol’s hideout was sited in Foxashes Wood, between Ansty and Bolney, near to the A272 road. It was built by local Canadian soldiers. They were used because it was known that they would be moving to another area after finishing the hideout, taking knowledge of its whereabouts with them, thus helping the site to remain secret. Frank Baker’s youngest son David showed the author the exact location of the hideout. On entering the structure it soon became apparent that this was the best preserved example in Sussex, with the original bunk beds, shelving, a table and even coat hooks still in place.
The hideout was constructed on a solid concrete base with one foot six inches high brick built sidewalls. These low brick walls support the corrugated iron that is arched across to form the roof of the hideout. The only entrance to the hideout was beneath an earth covered wooden hatch. When lifted this revealed a brick built shaft with a ladder made up of scaffolding poles set into the brickwork. Beyond this two internal walls, both with locking doors, separate the main chamber of the hideout from the entrance shaft, at the eastern end, and the 75 feet long emergency exit tunnel at the western end.
The main chamber contained the bunk beds and storage space for essential equipment along with an ingeniously designed drop-leaf table. One leg sat on the concrete floor while the other leg was made to be about a foot longer and supported the whole table by locating in a purpose-built socket in the floor. The three feet wide emergency exit tunnel ran out into the bank of a nearby pond. Its end also being concealed by an earth covered wooden hatch. Ventilation was provided by a network of four inch diameter glazed drainage pipes that came to the surface within the surrounding undergrowth. Although the hideout was built by Canadian soldiers it was the job of the men in the West Sussex Scout Patrol to camouflage its existence. Former member Sidney Gaston recalls back-filling soil over the hideout, taking great care to conceal the air vents. Some of these had clay moulded around the end of the pipes to make them look like rabbit holes. The men placed rabbit droppings around the holes for extra effect. As a finishing touch small trees, bushes and general undergrowth was replanted over the top of the hideout.
In November 1994 the Staplefield Patrol’s hideout reached celebrity status when it was seen by millions of viewers on ‘Schofields Quest’ as part of the author’s appeal for information concerning the Auxiliary Units in Sussex.