When the enemy passes over

It was May of 1940. Allied troops in France had been driven back to Dunkirk beach, rocking on their heels as they waited to be pushed into the Channel.

From the 2017 Christopher Nolan film "Dunkirk"

Following a heroic rescue by British merchant and hobby sailors, an estimated 340,000 troops were evacuated and transported across the Channel back to England, all in under two weeks.

The German war machine was tearing across the Continent. British officials surmised it was only a matter of time before Hitler set his sights on the island herself. Invasion was imminent, but newly-elected Prime Minister Churchill wasn't the type to take it lying down. He called for a home defense force to protect the country against direct attack.

While men enlisted for the Home Guard—those who were too young, too old, or otherwise unable to join the regular military forces—still others were approached in secret to participate in a guerilla force known as the GHQ Auxiliary Units (AU). Known only to themselves, these independent units were specially trained to mobilize in the event of German invasion, staying behind in underground bunkers while the enemy passed over, and harass the flanks of the convoy to impede their progress.

Auxiliers joking around in training

Had they been mobilized, auxilier life expectancy was estimated at two weeks.

The AU were so secretive that very few members ever admitted to being involved, even after they were disbanded in 1945. Limited records were kept documenting their organization or operations.

But thanks to historians like my friends at Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART), quite of a bit of information has been compiled to allow us a glimpse into the clandestine workings of the AU and the brave men and women who had agreed to stay behind and effectively sacrifice their lives for their country.

Surviving artifacts include the AU training manuals, which were cleverly disguised as outdated pocket calendars and agricultural literature. They could be left in plain sight inside any British home and not look conspicuous to prying eyes. I was able to order a set of reproduction manuals from CART for my own research.

Repro manuals in my very own home!

I can't even tell you how excited I was to receive these in the mail earlier this week, graciously shipped to me all the way from the UK.

I feel like I'm part of a club now!

To the lay person, these manuals are treasure troves of sabotage know-how and are already proving to be an invaluable resource for my upcoming novel.

For instance, if one of my characters is preparing to plant a booby trap on the road to trip up a German convoy, what type of explosive might he use? What will be his fuse and detonator of choice?

Thank you, Calendar 1937.

My main character, Rowena, receives an impromptu introduction to the secret organization. She quickly learns that "partisan bands should be self contained, acting under their own leader's controlling authority . . . and maintaining the loosest organisation compatible with effective action" (from The Art of Guerilla Warfare).

From my manuscript:

“We’re known as the Auxiliary Unit,” he said as they walked slowly in the newly fallen snow. “Each of us was individually recruited by blokes who knew we’d be up for the challenge. There’s no refusing the position once one has been told it exists.”
Harker had a refined manner of speech that made Rowena curious. He stood apart from the other men with their lackadaisical manners and common language. Possibly it was an air of authority he had established in order to gain respect within his unit, but Rowena sensed there was more to it than that. She wondered what he had come from and what sort of person he must be to have garnered selection for a secret military job.
“By day, we work for the Home Guard doing our usual civic duties,” Harker continued. “We don’t speak to one another outside of the base, and we never discuss it. We are the only ones who know it’s there.”
“Are there other bases around here?” asked Rowena. Her head swam and she had to focus very hard to match his pace.
“Perhaps. I suspect there are.” His eyes flitted briefly around the landscape. “We aren’t meant to know of one another.”
“Why not?”
“What’s that?”
Rowena abruptly stumbled over a small stone and pitched forward, landing on her gloved palms which tore against the gravel. Her handbag flew out of her grasp and tumbled across the road. She permitted herself a small cry of frustration as Harker hauled her back onto her feet.
“The medic at HQ will examine you,” he promised. “Let’s just get into town. Here you are—take my arm. We’re already risking being seen together; might as well move as quickly as we can.”
The snow crunched beneath their shoes. It was humiliating having to rely on Harker’s support to stay upright, and Rowena leaned as little as possible on his arm in a passive display of independence. She was still angry with him for pulling his gun on her—twice. She couldn’t allow him to redeem himself with such a small act of gallantry.
“What did you mean by ‘deniability?’” she inquired at length. “About the other bases?”
“Only that we can’t divulge information we don’t have.”
“To civilians?”
“To the Germans.”
“Germans? But why—”
“There’s something you must understand about this position, Miss Todd,” said Harker firmly. “Our mission is to sabotage the German invaders when they come to occupy Britain. We have been trained in explosives, hand-to-hand combat, and other forms of guerilla warfare. We fully intend to use that training against the enemy.”
“Do you really think they will come here?”
“They took over France with very little resistance and forced our troops into the sea. We have to assume that they will try something similar here, and, by God, we must resist them.”

What he doesn't tell Rowena is how her life will be irrevocably changed by their association; how she will come to question everything she ever knew as she becomes more involved with Harker and his men.

Can she trust them? Can they trust her?

Stick around for more sneak peeks into my upcoming book.

Henley headshot_pp.png

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