Auxiliary Units: Britain’s Resistance Network during WW2.

Documentary 2008

I found the interviews of former members of the Auxiliary informative but have mixed feelings about the dramatic reconstructions although these were based on events in occupied Europe and would have occurred in the UK if Germany had successfully invaded.

The Night Pilot Who Helped the French Resistance.

No. 161 Special Duties Squadron

Hugh Verity was a night fighter pilot until 1942 when he volunteered for RAF special duties and became involved in one of the most extraordinary and effective operations of the secret war – flying from England’s Sussex coast in a single-engine Lysander aircraft and landing in German occupied France delivering and collecting SOE, SIS agents and members of the French Resistance. This Timeline production examines these moonlight missions between 1941 to 1944.

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Dutch Resistance 1941-43: SOE’s Greatest Disaster in occupied Europe

Englandspiel Monument (the fall of Icarus) in the Hague Netherlands

In 1941 the Dutch (D) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under Major Bingham started sending trained agents to the Netherlands by parachute and like other country sections their role was to recruit resisters from the civilian population before providing training, arms and directing their resistance activities to support the Allied strategy.  

Among the first agents to arrive was saboteur Thijs Taconnis and a wireless operator named Hurbert Lauwers, but as they climbed into the converted Halifax bomber at RAF Tempsford D Section was unaware the underground network they were sent to join had been infiltrated by a double agent and both were quickly captured along with Lauwers’s wireless and personal codes.   

Lauwers was forced to contact London under German supervision but included within the body of the message prearranged codes indicating he had been captured and his wireless was under German control. To his great surprise and frustration his warning codes were either overlooked or ignored and London ask for the coordinates of a DZ (drop zone) for the arrival of a new agent. This was the start of the ‘Englandspiel’ (England Game) under Abwehr Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.

Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.

For around 18 months the Dutch Section was happy with the news coming from the Netherlands: they had 62 underground networks consisting of around 420 Dutch civilians who were being trained to fight the occupying forces and at the request of these ‘networks’ the RAF dropped a large quantity of weapons, sabotage stores and money to finance their operations.

D Section was oblivious to the fact most of the resistance was in hiding: The Gestapo and Abwehr were attempting to track them down, there were mass arrests and German security forces knew everything about their network.

Leo Marks, Head of SOE Codes and Ciphers

The first person in London to suspect there were serious problems in the Netherlands was SOE’s head of codes and ciphers, 22-year-old Leo Marks, who suddenly realised what had been worrying him for some time about the Dutch radio traffic, Marks later explained:

“What I discovered was we had never received an indecipherable message from Holland due to mistakes in coding…”

Wireless operators were always under immense pressure: they had to send their message as quickly as possible to avoid wireless detection teams finding their location and under these stressful conditions it was considered inevitable an operator would make several mistakes in their coding; but his concerns were rejected by the Dutch Section which continued to send agents, weapons and sabotage stores by parachute.  

After bringing his concerns to the attention of Brigadier Nicholls, the head of the signals section, Marks was asked to provide proof of his suspicions because the Dutch Section claimed they had ways of checking on their agents and were adamant there were no issues. Marks then sent an indecipherable message to Holland- one which could only be broken by a trained code breaker; a genuine agent would ask for the message to be repeated but this did not happen, Marks explained:

 “The fact that they didn’t say repeat that message immediately which they would do if they ever got an indecipherable message from London, which was very rare, told me beyond doubt the Dutch agents had been captured. There was no other conceivable explanation…”

The wireless operators in England were also concerned about the sending style of the agents under their charge and suspected they were receiving wireless traffic from German operators, but the Dutch Section rejected their concerns.

German agents always signed off with the letters HH (Heil Hitler) so Marks sent a false message to the Netherlands and signed off with HH and back came the instantaneous response HH. Marks then knew there was a German operator at the other end.

Fourteen of the known agents delivered to the Gestapo by parachute.

Although the wireless channel was eventually closed whilst the damage was being assessed it was not until SOE agents Peter Diepenbroek and Johan Ubbink escaped from a prison camp in August 1943 that the full damage due to the ‘English Game’ started to be realised. Over a period of 18-months German operators had used 18 captured wireless sets and codes to create a ‘mousetrap’ in which 56 agents were parachuted to waiting members of the Gestapo, 11 RAF aircraft were shot down whilst delivering weapons and supplies to a resistance network controlled by the Germans but there are no figures regarding the fate of a conservative estimate of 420 civilians engaged in resistance.  

After the war Freyer, head of the German wireless section for western Europe, said:

“The transmitter of a group of agents is always a mailbox where everything goes in and out. And connected to the mailbox there is always the leadership of the organisation, and so, if we had the transmitter, then either the boss to operate it or via his right-hand man and via him we got further and further into the organisation. This explains why we invested so much effort into radio direction finding.”  He also went on to say, “some wireless operators were totally overwhelmed when they were discovered. The arrested men reacted in very different ways. Some were sort of composed, some knew their future and came to terms with it, and in one case we once arrested a man, and there was a big bang, he had soiled himself, we could smell it.”  

There was no mention of the wireless operators, men and women, tortured by the Gestapo for their codes and their subsequent executions.   

Irena Sendler: Rescuing Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto

Irena Sendler

Irena Stanislawa Sendler was a Catholic nurse and a prominent member of a Polish resistance network dedicated to rescuing Jews after German forces occupied Poland in 1939.

Although the punishment for helping Jews was the death penalty this did not deter Irena and members of her network from providing Jewish families with food, new identity papers with Christian names and helping them relocate to areas where they were unknown by the German authorities, but the greatest dangers she faced was during her work inside the notorious Warsaw Ghetto.

Thought to have been taken in the Warsaw Ghetto

After becoming aware the German authorities were concerned typhoid might spread beyond the ghetto Irena used her official papers identifying her as a nurse to frequently enter the ghetto to check for typhoid and other infectious diseases. After obtaining permission from parents she used many innovative methods to rescue children including escaping through sewer pipes and putting young children inside suitcases which were on trollies. It is believed Irena Stanislawa was personally responsible for rescuing around 400 children.   

Once the children reached safety they were given Christian names which were supported by identity papers and were housed with adopted families who agreed to trace their parents after the war, but it was later discovered few parents survived the concentration camps.

On 18 October 1943 Irena was arrested by the Gestapo; over a period of several days she was tortured but refused to provide useful information, Irena was then transferred to Pawiaki Prison where the torture continued. After the Gestapo found they could not break her, and it became clear their prisoner was prepared to die rather than betray the children or members of her network Irena was sentence to death.  

There is scant information regarding her escape, however, it is known before she was due to be executed a member of her network bribed her guards and because the Gestapo later displayed posters in public places announcing her execution as a deterrent against assisting Jews suggests her escape was well planned.  

After hiding for several weeks Irena was provided with new identity papers in the name of Irena Sendlerowa and then continued her escape work under a new cover story.

Irena Sendler 2005

It is believed her underground network rescued around 2,500 children but the number of Jewish families saved by Irena and other members of her network is unknown.  

On 12 May 2008 Irena Sendler died in Warsaw and few were aware of her wartime connection with the Polish Resistance.

Double Agent Victoire: Mathilde Carre and the Interallie Network.

Mathilde Carre

In the autumn of 1940 a French citizen named Mathilde Carre (aka Cat, Victoire and Le Chatte) was recruited by Roman Czerniawski, a Polish air force officer who escaped from Toulouse and formed a resistance network called Interallie which mainly consisted of Poles living near Paris. Due to its members not being trained in clandestine warfare the network was not secure and was easily infiltrated by the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) under Hugo Bleicher who was responsible for crushing resistance and it was not long before Carre and a small number of other members were arrested.    

Hugo Bleicher

In return for her freedom along with financial incentives Carre agreed to work for Bleicher as a double agent and later admitted to pointing out around sixty of her former comrades who were arrested by the Abwehr. As they were political prisoners they were handed to the Gestapo and it is not known how many were tortured and later executed. After proving herself to be a loyal and useful agent Bleicher had another mission for her in the Paris area.

After the Abwehr arrested an SOE wireless operator Bleicher was aware there was a British controlled underground network in or near Paris which needed to maintain wireless contact with London, and Carre was told to find the network and then infiltrate it.

Carre had to convince the leader, who was still to be identified, she was working for a Polish resistance group before many of its members were arrested. She was not present when the Germans swooped on their safehouse and their wireless operator was still in contact with London from a safehouse outside Paris.  

Pierre de Vomecourt head of SOE Circuit AUTOGIRO

How she contacted the leader of AUTOGIRO circuit, SOE agent Pierre de Vomecourt, is complicated and beyond the scope of this article, but after gaining his confidence she offered to pass messages to London through the Polish wireless link and de Vomecourt gave her messages requesting arms, explosives and money. This was an Abwehr deception: after the Polish wireless operator had been captured along with his personal code’s messages being received in London were from a German operator ‘playing back’ his wireless.

According to de Vomecourt he and a resistance contact began to suspect Carre after several requests for arms and sabotage stores never arrived, they also found inconsistencies in her back story and after being confronted she broke down and told them everything.   

Mathilde Carre. Date and location unknown

After de Vomecourt discussed the precarious situation with two other SOE agents it was decided not to kill her because everyone she was known to have contacted would be arrested and a number of ideas were discussed before eventually agreeing to use the Abwehr wireless link to their advantage.  

After Carre agreed to work for the British she was told to tell Bleicher London wanted her to go to England to be trained and also needed her to advise a British General who would be in France for a few hours to brief the heads of all the underground networks. London had already been informed of the plan through another SOE wireless operator in southern France who had a secure link to London and the wireless station in England was already sending messages to the Abwehr supporting the deception. As her reports were supported by wireless traffic from London Bleicher and his superiors could not miss the opportunity to capture a British General, the heads of the underground networks and also have an agent in London.

Unaware London was playing them at their own game the Abwehr supported her extraction from the southern coast of France by ordering their patrol vessels to remain in port and under German surveillance Carre and de Vomecourt were observed boarding a Motor Torpedo Boat bound for England.

When she arrived in England Carre was interrogated by SOE and MI5 and they gained valuable information about Abwehr counter resistance strategies and her intelligence also helped MI5 during their ‘Operation Double Cross’ which consisted of German double-agents in England passing false information to Germany. The German wireless link continued to be used for several weeks to send false information to mask the location of SOE clandestine circuits.

Mathilde Carre during her trial in France.

After France was liberated Carre was deported to France where she was tried for treason and received the death sentence. Three months later the sentence was commuted to 20 years, but she was released in 1954 after serving 12 years.

In 1959 she published her version of accounts which was revised in 1975 and entitled m’appelait La Chatte {My name was La Chatte} in which she protested her innocence although there was sufficient evidence to the contrary. Carre died in Paris on 30 May 2007.

19 January 1915: The first aerial bombardment of civilian targets

The German blitz on cities during the Battle of Britain is well documented but the first aerial bombardment of Britain took place 25 years previously and was the first ‘modern’ military attack which breeched the traditional boundary between soldiers on the battlefield by targeting civilians.

On the morning of 19 January 1915 two Zeppelins, L3 and L4, took off from their base in Hamburg and headed towards Yorkshire in northern England but due to bad weather over Norfolk L3 turned towards Great Yarmouth and L4 headed towards Kings Lynn.

Whilst flying over what newspapers called “the working-class district of St Peters Plain in Great Yarmouth,” L3 dropped its bombs and two civilians were killed:  Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old shoemaker, became the first British civilian to be killed during a German air raid and the subsequent enquiry said he was standing on the street when the bombs were dropped.  Martha Taylor, 72, was the next to be killed after her home was hit and the area was extensively damaged.

Martha Taylor and Samuel Smith

Meanwhile, whilst L3 was bombing St Peters Plain L4 was dropping incendiary bombs over Sheringham, Brancaster, Dersingham, Grimston before arriving over Kings Lynn at 10.50 pm where it released its bombs.

There was no air raid warning before 26-year-old Alice Gazeley whose husband had been killed three months earlier whilst fighting in France, and Percy Goate aged 14 were killed in their homes.

The mother of Percy Goate later told the inquest, “I saw a bomb drop through the skylight and strike the pillow where Percy was lying… I tried to wake him but he was dead… The house fell in. I don’t remember anymore”

St Peters Plain

13 others were also injured during this raid which was the start of a twelve-month bombing campaign mainly against civilian targets consisting of 52 raids across the country.

On 13 June 1917 during a daylight raid a bomb hit Upper North Street School in Poplar London. The school building was full of children when a bomb fell through the roof, crashed through the top floor classroom which was being used by girls, then crashed through the second floor which was a boy’s classroom before exploding on the ground floor which was a classroom full of infants.   

Eighteen children were killed, sixteen of which were aged between 4 and six and 15 children who could not be identified were later buried in a mass grave at the East End Cemetery, the other three had private graves and national newspapers called the German Air Force the baby killers.

During 1917, 163 civilians were killed and 432 injured

According to official statistics this first strategic bombing campaign caused 5,000 civilian casualties of which1, 413 were killed.

On 7 March 1918, 4 houses were destroyed in Warrington Crescent London W9 during which 12 were killed and 33 injured.

RAF Tempsford, Britain’s secret airfield during WW2.

Gibraltar Farm near Sandy Bedfordshire was considered unsuitable for any form of flying because of frequent fog and most of the land being waterlogged but was later considered ideal as a clandestine airfield because German air reconnaissance was liable to reach the same conclusion. To add to the deception lines were painted across the runway which looked like hedgerows from the air, hangers etc looked like rundown farm buildings. The farm became RAF Tempsford and the home of 138 Special Duties squadron which was responsible for transporting and supplying SOE and SIS agents in Europe. Due to the land’s unsuitability crashes were frequent.

Halifax of 138 Squadron cashed on landing due to poor ground conditions.

161 Special Duties Squadron flew single engine Lysander Aircraft and later Hudson’s to transport agents and were responsible for air landings on remote farmland. During the moon period (SD Squadrons needed moonlight to navigate) 161 along with its ground crews were relocated to the fighter station at RAF Tangmere on the south coast. Because this station was almost 200 miles closer to France than Tempsford their aircraft which were also fitted with an extra fuel tank bolted between the undercarriage could fly deeper into France with sufficient fuel to return to Tangmere or divert to another field during an emergency.

Sophie and Hans Scholl: The White Rose Group resisting Hitler

Sophie Scholl

White Rose was a non-violent intellectual resistance group based at the University of Munich. One of its founding members was Hans Scholl and the group was quickly joined by his sister Sophie to support ‘active opposition’ to Hitler and his National Socialist Workers’ Party by widely distributing subversive leaflets throughout Munich, and their resistance activities started on 27 June 1942.

Hans Scholl

Early during her resistance work Sophie Scholl explained her reason for joining was because: “Somebody … had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we do… Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone. An end in terror is preferable to terror without end,” and after being told her actions could lead to her death Sophie simply replied, “I’m aware of that”.

During late 1942 White Rose began mailing leaflets to people throughout Munich and quickly came to the attention of the authorities after around two-hundred leaflets were handed in to the Gestapo.

The opening paragraph of the first leaflet said: “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition to an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain today that every honest German is ashamed of this government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of the shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes infinitely outdistance every human measure reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupt and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principles that which raise him above all God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and they subject it to their own national decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass- then, yes, they deserve their downfall”.

According to the historian Joachim Fest, this was a new development in the struggle against Hitler, “A small group of Munich students were the only protesters who managed to break out of the vicious circle of tactical considerations and other inhibitions. They spoke out vehemently, not only against the regime but also against the moral indolence and numbness of the German people…”

Peter Hoffman, author of the History of German Resistance (1977), said they must have been aware they could not do any significant damage to the regime, but they were prepared to sacrifice themselves in order to register their disapproval of Hitler’s government.

Their second leaflet was published in late June 1942 and attacked the ill-treatment of Jews in Germany and eastern Europe and also stated, “Since the conquest of Poland three-hundred-thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of human history. For Jews too are human beings…”

This leaflet also raised questions about how the German population was responding to the atrocities and said, “Why tell you these things since you are already fully aware of them, or, if not these, then of other equally grave crimes committed by the frightful sub-humanity?… Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race…”

The third leaflet explained the goal of the White Rose was to bring down Hitler and his government and promoted a strategy of passive resistance and, “We want to try and show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of the system”.

The fourth leaflet mentioned the number of German soldiers killed in Russia and Hitler feeding lies and ends by saying, “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

The first draft of the fifth leaflet called for the people to disassociate themselves from National Socialist gangsters and stated a new war of liberation is about to begin. 

The Gestapo later estimated that White Rose distributed over 10,000 subversive leaflets. 

Gestapo photographs taken after their arrest

Sophie and Hans Scholl were later denounced by a woman who has never been identified and after their arrests were interrogated by the Gestapo. The entire legal system under the Third Reich had been purged and all members including defence lawyers had been replaced by party members loyal to Hitler and the ‘legal system’ was used as a tool of oppression. Prior to trial by kangaroo court Sophie Scholl told her lawyer, “If my brother is sentenced to die, you mustn’t let them give me a lighter sentence, for I am as guilty as him”.

During the trial Sophia Scholl was not concerned with the inevitable death sentence and frequently argued with the judge.

Four days after their arrest Sophia and Hans Scholl were beheaded by guillotine at Stadelheim Prison in Munich.