Untold tale of county’s underground saboteurs

The patrol members of Four Group, after the war, at a pub in Morpeth.
The patrol members of Four Group, after the war, at a pub in Morpeth.

A fascinating new book has revealed the little-known history of the clandestine groups of saboteurs established across Northumberland during the Second World War.

In the summer of 1940, with the threat of Nazi invasion looming, plans were being laid for a force that would emerge from underground bases to carry out acts of sabotage and espionage behind the enemy lines as they moved inland.

Inside one of Four Group's operational bases (OBs).

Inside one of Four Group's operational bases (OBs).

This last-ditch line of defence – what would have become the British Resistance – were known as the Auxiliary Units (AUs) and in Northumberland alone, there were more than 20.

Kept secret for many years, some information has now been published, but a new book, Most Secret – Uncovering the Story of Northumberland’s Underground Resistance – the Auxiliary Units of WW2, reveals details about what happened in Northumberland.

It is thanks to the efforts of four men: Stephen Lewins, from Morpeth; Bill Ricalton, who drew on his experience as a youngster during the war in Longhorsley; Phil Rowett, from Berwick; and Ian Hall, from Alnwick, whose Wanney Books imprint has published Most Secret.

It all started when a number of Army captains were appointed as field commanders with the title of Intelligence Officer (IO) and tasked with travelling round the country and recruiting suitable men to work in six or seven-man patrols.

Those selected tended to come from two main backgrounds; miners and quarry workers, due to their expertise with explosives, and farm workers, gamekeepers (and poachers!), because of their knowledge of the land.

The first IO for Northumberland was Captain John ‘Hamish’ Watt-Torrance and the first leader he recruited was Lambert Carmichael, a farmer from Scremerston.

Along with Joseph ‘Peter’ Robinson and Lee Riley, he formed the core of the organisation in north Northumberland and this burgeoning organisation held its first meetings at a farm near Elford and a safe house in Seahouses.

Carmichael also proposed his brother Alan, who farmed at Todburn, and he went on to build the Longhorsley and Netherwitton patrols.

The Auxiliary Units’ underground bases were called Operational Bases (OBs).

The usual OB was built underground and located near a stream with a nine-metre-by-three-metre, semi-circular main chamber. At one end was a shaft leading to the surface, while there was also an escape tunnel, which would exit at some distance from the OB.

As well as the sabotage units of the AUs, there were also separate espionage units set up whose role would be to collect intelligence from behind enemy lines.

Known as the Special Duties Section, they operated totally separate from the Operational Patrols, with separate IOs, but, according to the authors, there is even less information about them in the public domain than the other units.

All they know about Northumberland is that there was an Out Station at Longhorsley and a Zero Station north of Alnwick.

‘The Out Station was a clandestine radio transmitter, operated by local people. They would then communicate to a Control Station (and then an underground Zero Station once an invasion was imminent’.

At the end of the war, there was no formal recognition of the AUs’ efforts. One letter reproduced in the book says: ‘In view of the fact that your lives depended on secrecy, no public recognition will be possible’.

But this new book goes some way towards expressing our gratitude for the sacrifices these men were prepared to make for their country.

Most Secret, priced at £5.50 with free UK postage and packing, can be ordered online from www.wildsofwanney.co.uk or by post to 15 Fairfields, Alnwick, NE66 1BT.