The search is on for Churchill’s secret army in East Devon

The Bewley Down privy which concealed a wartime radio station

The Bewley Down privy which concealed a wartime radio station - Credit: Archant

The summer of 1940 marked some of the darkest days in British history.

The British army had been successfully evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, but arrived back on the shores of Britain without a majority of its equipment and weapons. The victorious and all conquering German army stood just across the Channel, waiting, it seemed, for the right time to invade.

In these desperate days Churchill instigated a highly secret organisation, the Auxiliary Units that in the event of a successful German invasion would have made up the British resistance. This force was made up of civilian volunteers who were outside the ages for call up to the regular forces or were in reserved occupations.

They were recruited the length of the country with around 3,500 signing up. Such was the secrecy associated with the force that all of them signed the Official Secrets Act, not telling their closest families and friends what they were up to.

Their role, once the invading forces had reached their part of the country was to literally disappear to their operational bases (OBs) that were dug underground across the British countryside. Each unit (made up of five to six men) would wait for the German army to pass over them and come out, mainly at night, to take out strategically important targets, ammunition and fuel dumps, transport links, assassinate high ranking German officers and even British collaborators. Essentially they were trained to cause as much disruption as possible to give the regular army time to recover and counter-attack.

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This of course would have come at a cost, and these volunteers had a life expectancy of around two weeks. The volunteers were often farmers or farm workers who knew the local countryside intimately and could live off the land if necessary. They were highly trained and often received the most up-to-date equipment before the regular army.

Devon, had a large number of such patrols and East Devon in particular seems to have a large concentration of patrols and operational bases. Patrols and OBs have been found near Newton Poppleford, Branscombe and Farringdon, but now there is further evidence of other patrols in and around Bovey, Whitford, Seaton, Sidbury, Beer and Axminster.

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Now a group of volunteer researchers with the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) are now looking for any information the public might have about patrols in this area as Nina Hannaford, CART’s Devon researcher explains.

“We have evidence of volunteers in a number of areas of East Devon but don’t know much more than their names. It would be great to hear from people who might suspect their relative was involved, anyone who might know the location of an operational base in one of these areas, or anyone who has any information at all.

“We have found the possible remains of an OB of the Sidbury patrol near the Whitecross/East Hill Strip area for example, anyone who can come forward with any information on that would be fantastic.”

To see the list of names for East Devon, click here

Anyone with any information should contact Nina Hannaford at further information can be found at

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