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Churchill's secret army in Coleshill

Inside Out's Josie D'Arby talks to Keith Blaxhall, National Trust Area Head Warden in a bunker at Coleshill

Have you heard of the civilians, some just teenagers, kitted out with hundreds of pounds of explosive during World War II?

A suicide squad with top secret underground bases?

A roller-skating scout, Ted Jefferies from Highworth, who carried messages too secret to be told over the telephone, armed with a fighting knife?

Hidden away in the countryside near Swindon, thousands of civilians were trained to form a lethal army of guerilla fighters ready to thwart any German invasion.

All these stories and more are bound up in Coleshill, an estate in the Cotswolds that was the secret HQ of Britain's guerrilla army during WWII.

The Coleshill site has kept its secrets well and only now are the amazing stories of the bravery of the people involved beginning to emerge

Coleshill House (photo courtesy of the Highworth Historical Society)
Coleshill House

Now, Keith Blaxhall, the National Trust's Head Warden at Coleshill House is hoping to make a museum in the old guardhouse, to tell the secret history of its James Bond-style past.

In 1940, after the massive Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill was convinced that it was only a matter of time before Hitler's army crossed the English Channel.

The army was exhausted and demoralised and he knew he needed another arm of defence. So, he set up a secret army, deceptively called the Auxiliary Unit, made up of cells which would operate independently and sabotage German infrastructure when they invaded.

There was no way these men could hold back an invading army, but they could cause serious logistical damage until other countries came to our aid.

The HQ at Coleshill House was where these men came for their training. It was a large estate belonging to an associate of one of the founding officers. It was perfectly secluded, safe from bombing raids, while in easy reach of London.

Mabel Stranks

Every weekend, men from all over the country would arrive on trains before going to Highworth Post Office. The postmistress, Mabel Stranks, was a 'cut out' point. Everyone apart from very senior intelligence officers would have to report to her.

It was only after a prearranged conversation and examination of documents that she would make a phone call to the HQ for a truck to pick the men up.

Rumour has it she once made Field Marshal Montgomery wait for a while. It is also said she was on a hit-list drawn up by Hitler.

Inside Out
Inside Out's Josie D'Arby experienced a similar training course at Coleshill

The journey to Coleshill was a roundabout one, to ensure that the recruits would never be able to find their way back.

When they got there it was an exhausting programme of training in explosives, shooting, knifing, and silent combat.

The men would go back home expected to prepare for invasion. They were listening out for the church bells that would announce the Nazis had landed. If they heard them, they were to flee to their own bunkers and wait until the invaders had come.

Then, they were to come up behind enemy lines and blow up railway lines, tanks, ammunition stores, and take out any German sentry in the way. Shockingly, the Auxiliers were told not to expect to live longer than 15 days.

That didn't stop them signing up with enthusiasm. There was a feeling that it was life or death, and anything they could do to protect their country was worth it.

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