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 HOME GUARD MEMORIES AND INFORMATION - DEVONSHIRE

MR WALTER DENSLOW
and
THE AXE VALLEY AUXILIARY UNIT

 

 

At the same time as the Home Guard was being formed throughout the country in the summer of 1940, another service was being created, intended to operate mainly in vulnerable coastal areas to a depth of some 30 miles from the sea. This was a highly secret, resistance operation with the vague title of "Auxiliary Units". Its function was to provide small bodies of men specially selected and trained whose role, in the event of invasion, would be to act offensively on the flanks and in the rear of enemy troops where their main targets would be vehicles, ammunition dumps, small enemy posts and stragglers. These activities would involve the use of a variety of weaponry including explosives, knives, sniping rifles and other firearms. A further function was to provide a system of intelligence concerning enemy activity behind the latter's own lines. Each unit would be unknown to its neighbour.

Each Auxiliary Unit comprised less than a dozen men. As the area of operation was normally rural, they were selected from the local farming and gamekeeping fraternity: men who knew the lie of their land intimately. They were all youngish men and extremely fit. They operated out of a secret base, usually a buried structure deep in a wood and virtually invisible. Their life expectancy, in the event of an invasion, would be counted in days.

The Auxiliary Units were totally separate from the Home Guard. Some of their members might have started service in the Home Guard and they all might have worn Home Guard uniforms. But that was a smokescreen: they were a wholly independent "secret army", a term which was only applied to them much later. Their existence and activities were so secret that there was little public awareness for many decades after the end of the war. The members were subject to the Official Secret Act and took that obligation very seriously, never mentioning to family or friends anything about their activities and responsibilities. Many took their secret to the grave. But fortunately for future historians, over the years the facts started to emerge and a few of the surviving members became willing to talk of their experience. So now we can learn more about how these brave men operated and how they felt about their heavy responsibility.

One such member was Mr Walter Denslow. He belonged to an Auxiliary Unit whose area of responsibility was the Axe Valley in East Devonshire, including towns and villages such as Axmouth, Beer, Colyford, Colyton and Seaton. In 2007, when he was 92 years of age, Mr Dellow was interviewed at his home in Axmouth by members of the History Department of Colyton Grammar School. This is a transcript of that interview.

 

Interviewers (Mr. Andrew Gregson and Miss Chris Pickersgill):

Walter, you were in the Home Guard and were in this local area. That means that you had been here for a long time, does it? You really know the area extremely well!

Walter Denslow:

That's right - we did. Yes, oh yes. All the way round and we were working on the land, you see, and we knew everywhere. And, then we had to find a cave to operate from, called OB we called it.

What does that stand for, OB?

Operation Base.

Right! OK.

And then, we went, and then the army offered us a Nissen Hut and we put that underground after weeks of labour with two trapdoors, one for escape and one for entry. We camouflaged it and, and when we left the trapdoor, we covered it with leaves and put a tree over it. A branch of a tree over it.

And that was every time you left, was it?

Every time we left, yes.

So would you have been living there permanently once the Nissen hut had been buried?

Yes. When we got it all ready, we stayed nights in it, and went from there and done patrols throughout the covers, you know, in the Woods and that.

Which woods would these be?

Well there's Morganhayes Cover and Wicksin Cover, that's two and in fact, we went anywhere really.

How big an area would it be?

Well, it was miles I suppose really.

Miles!

Yes. We could travel 5 to 6 miles a night, like easily.

Yes, how long? Would you have started work at 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock or..............?

Well particularly, we started in the evening doing patrols, you
know, and when it was dark, of course, we finished work early on the farms, and then we had to go on these patrols. And then, they brought us some ammunition and guns and taught us how to shoot and we had to be very efficient at that, and we practised and practised and practised, because they told us that we had to be accurate enough with a gun to hit a man's eye at fifty yards, because if you done that he would die without alarming the rest of the sentries. And, of course, we did get very professional at it.

What sort of guns did you have?

We had Sten guns.

Can you tell me about a Sten gun?

Well, Sten guns are an automatic gun, with rapid fire, and quite a
simple gun. They invented it during the war I think.

Was it easy to carry around with you?

Yes, we used to carry that sometimes, but chiefly, we had rifles. We
had a 303 rifle, a .22 rifle and a revolver. A Smith and Weston .38 Revolver.

Right! And so you were trained in what circumstances you would need to use
(Walter - That's right!) which weapon.

But the object of the whole thing, you see, was to - if the Germans
invaded us, which was expected at that time, we had to let them pass over us, and we had to go to the OB, let them pass over us, and come up behind, in the night and destroy all the things we could. Tanks etc.

So you were expecting a land invasion at that time rather than coming over by air.

Oh absolutely, yes!

So where did you expect them to land if you thought they would be
gone past during Morganhayes Cover?

Well, on the shores, all up through. There was patrols from, almost
from, Lands End right to Dover you see. Patrols of seven men.

Did you suggest that you were doing a day's work first, on the farm
and then you were up all night?

Yes, yes.

And how many days a week, or how many nights a week, would you be patrolling?

We would be patrolling about twice a week.

So, would this be the exact sort of uniform that the Home Guard
would have been wearing? There's nothing to distinguish............

Ah no, there wasn't much difference in the uniform. I was just thinking of all the army uniform I had. And, of course, we had the revolvers, you can see there, one revolver there, see? Ah yes, yes. Three left-hand ones from America.

Left-hand ones?

Yes, see, it's on the left. They never had any right-hand ones.

So you are right-handed, are you?

Yes.

And was it difficult to use as a result?

We used to carry them behind and then you could take them, like that.

Right! So why did the Americans make all left-handed ones, or were these the surplus ones?

They couldn't supply us with, not the Americans couldn't, not all of us, not with right-handed ones, because we don't carry guns in this country, but the Americans got a lot, and they sent over those, because they were left-hand ones and they didn't use them so much.

Right, O.K. So, presumably, this special unit had been formed in 1940, had it? Do you remember when it was first formed?

It says on that -1 think it does, doesn't it? July, 1940. Yes, that's what I thought, yes.

And that's when you first started it?

To '44. Yes, well then, of course, they started training us with explosives, and to make bombs, and told us where to put them on the tanks and the tracks of the tank. Not on the tank itself, because, if you ruin the track of a tank it's useless.
So, you expected to find the Germans in the middle of the night, without them seeing you hopefully, and sort of booby-trap their tanks.
Yeh. We had to get into their supplies, and we practised going into the British camps overnight. We went into the Beer Head one, Long-tailed Titmouse, the head one there, and we had to get in and out without being caught. We had rockets to put time pencils on. Time Pencils, I don't know whether you know about that?

No, I don't!

Shall I explain it?

Yes please.

Well Time Pencil is - there was five different colours on the Time Pencils, and that means five different times, that they would go off. The first one was a half an hour, and so on, right up to 4 hours. And how it worked - if you'd like me to explain the Time Pencils, shall I?

Yes please.

Well, one end, you pushed the safety fuse in, a spark would set it off. And the top end, there was a fluid in the top end of the Time Pencil, and when you squeezed that it ate through a little wire that held on the spring. The spring and plunger went down, knocked the cap, set fire to the safety fuse and, I suppose, a detonator and then explosive.

And what was the purpose of these?

Well, if we got into the camp of the Germans you see, we could put these down, put the Time Pencils going, and be well away, before they went off.

Right!

You see, if we had a long way to go we'd have a longer time on the time pencils. So......

And how much damage would it do?

Oh well, it depends how much gelignite you put in it. We had loads of them, we had enough in the OB to blow up Beer.

Oh. I see!

Yes. We could put bundles of it in and connect it up you see, and we used detonators about that long, as big as a pencil and you pushed it into the explosive with the safety shears, and that would set the explosive off. And, so that's how we were taught to do the explosive. And we had to practice getting in the camps and out again and without being caught. We were caught once along Beer Head.

So the English in the camp didn't know when you were coming? It was a.......

They didn't know we were coming, no! They didn't know, and we got in Long-tailed Titmouse and out again, and nobody knew, until the rockets went off. And nobody caught.

That must have been a shock for the people there?

Yes, but they caught us out at Beer Head.

And so, how did you try and approach the camps? Were you crawling on all-fours?

On all-fours, yes, quietly.

Or, on your stomach?

Oh yes, you couldn't go upright, you had to go on all-fours, just crawl and choose the darkest spots like, behind the place. But it was very nerve-racking. But the most difficult job I had to do, they picked us up one night in army trucks, we didn't know where we was going like. They took us down to a place called Thorverton I believe it was. Do you know Thorverton?

Yes, I used to go to Thorverton.

There was a hall there, and seven patrols met there, and when we got there, they gave us a map. And on the map, there was just North, South, East and West and just a red dot, and in the middle of the night we had to find that dot. Strange country, black. It was very different. I had to lead Branscombe patrol, not on my own, and I led it where I thought I found it, but they only had about half of us found our targets.

And this was, just again, as practice?

Practice, see.

So you would expect to be given pretty accurate information about where the German camp was that you were aiming for?

That's right. 'Twas a British camp and we had to make out it was a definite German camp, and there was a deep river there and this Commando chap, he said, "you stay here", he said, "I'll swim across". And in the dark of the night, he entered this black river. And we got in and put the flash there and the time pencil and we got about 200 or 300 yards away, when it went off. That woke them up. They were big solid thunder flashes, about this big around you know.

I am quite surprised that the assumption was, that the Germans would stop at night. I would have thought that they would be keeping going at night under cover of darkness.

Well, I suppose they had to have camps where the head ones were operating from, didn't they? I should think so.
Any rate, that's what we had to do, and well then they took us on a bomb-throwing excursion. Four different kinds of bombs I threw. One was a sticky bomb. It had metal casing. We pulled up the casing, pulled out the pin and when you lobbed it onto whatever it was, a tank or anything, it would stick there until it went off. About four seconds. The other, was a flask, just like an ordinary fireman flask, and you threw that one, and that exploded on contact. And then, there was another one, the Mills bomb. The ordinary Mills bomb (like a hand grenade). But the one I didn't like was what they call the AW bomb.

I've heard of those. I haven't heard of the Mills bomb.

It's a fire bomb, and if you smash it, it would come flames everywhere it landed, and you couldn't put it out you see. Water wouldn't put it out or anything.

So what was it?

It was the interior of the bomb that was rubber solution, Benzine and phosphorus and the only way to stop it from burning was to bury it. Keep air from it. But you come up the next day and pull back the earth and it would burst into flames again. And it would burn under water just the same. If it splashed on you, it would run right through you. An awful bomb that.

And you were practising with them live, were you?

Oh yes, practice and practice and practice again, throwing them over a mound about twelve feet high. Well, one of the chaps was nervous, and live bombs, you know, real live ones, and instead of going over the top, it landed nearly to the top, and rolled right back amongst us. We had another accident. You know the Colyford bridge here, well, there's a dyke either side of that, and we had to come down through that dyke. And down through it was trip wire for the explosives and if we hit the trip wire, it went off.

And who had put the trip wire there?

Well they, the army done it before.

The Army. And had they told you or not even mentioned it?

No, no, they didn't tell us about it you see. And, we had to find it out ourself. Of course, in real action you would have to do these things you see. And we cut down through, and several went off, but when one went off, we jumped to it, what had happened, you see, what they had done, and we felt for them with our hands, down in the mud. And, of course, we were black and blue and mud all over. We got down to the bridge and we had to climb that bridge from the water's edge, up over the top, without any help.

No ropes, nothing?

Nothing at all. One man would go like this, and another man went on the top, and another one on the top, and another one on the top again, until they reached the top.

What sort of exercise was this a part of?

Well, I suppose it was to get us used to any sort of obstacles, you know, trained, trained for anything like. That was the object of it, I suppose.

Right.

You know, we went on a lot of those excursions, at various times over the 4 years.

So, was the training as intensive throughout the whole of the 4 year period or.............

Yes. In fact, it got, it got more difficult as the years went by. It started lightly and then they taught us how to set booby bombs, and anything like that, and they put men all around the field, to test our fieldcraft. They hid them, half hid them, at a distance of like 200 or 300 yards, and we had to find them with our eyesight to train us to pick out these unusual objects, you see. Oh, 'tis very nerve-racking, but I don't know why, but I seemed to half enjoy it......... There were times when we went on all these excursions at night, we blew up things with bombs we made ourselves, you know with gelignite, and that.

So did you feel seven men was about the right number of men? I mean, it seems very few, if you're thinking about trying to take out a German base.

Well, no actually, I think it was the other way round, because the more men you've got, the more noise you make you know, whereas one or two can get into a camp and out again, whereas another two or three might make a noise, and I think one or two or three was better than six or seven.

Right! So you broke up into different groups did you?

We went different sides you see, of the camp, and made our own way. In fact, we went in solo as a rule and it was quite nerve-racking, because it was all done by night you see.

Right! So how big an area would the seven of you have been covering. Where would the next special unit have been based?

Well! I suppose it more or less, I should say, was like the boundary of the parish, I should say. On the shore bit, it was only up through the shore mind, it was only about 1800 from Dover down to Lands End. That's all - about 1800 of us.

So, it would have been very much centred on the Axe Valley.

That's right, yes, yes. But it's surprising too, that you can go out on the darkest of nights with no lights, and it's surprising how your eyes get accustomed to the darkness, and you can see quite well after a while, about half an hour.

So how effective do you think your unit would have been, if you had really had to deal with a German camp.

I think, come the end we should have got a few of them, because we were learning quite fast, and knew by the end, in the beginning we were quite amateurish, but in the end, you know, we knew when to move and when not to move and when there, if there was a moon to hug all the shadows and everything like that, you see.

So it was rather ironic that you would have been of more use when there was less likely of an invasion, because the most dangerous time was 1940, wasn't it?

Yes! When they thought they was going to invade you see.

And so what sort of precautions did you have to take in case you were captured by the Germans.

I don't think there was any. No. That was it, when we was captured, I don't think we should last long, because there was soldiers with their tracker dogs and they would have tracked us back with their dogs you see, back to our own base. That's what I think would have happened.

Oh, I see. You would have expected the Germans to come over with their dogs.

Well, I think they would do, yes.

Right! I hadn't considered that at all before now.

I think they would do, because I think they were more or less doing that out in France.

But you wouldn't have been actually in the base very much, in the Nissen hut underground very much at all, would you? If you were going out on training most of the time....

No, that's where we had to go if the Germans invaded, you see. We had to go to the OB right away. And, of course, everything was in the OB. Well, of course, we had food and everything as well there. But, there was a big problem with that because washing up dishes and that. We had a few dishes that water ran outside you see, and you had to camouflage that. It was very difficult, that was.Yes, and we managed it.

Presumably, you had problem with having a toilet as well. It was difficult.

It was. Yes, it was.

So, did you feel quite confident, after all the training that you had had?

Not really, no. To be honest. We had army chaps and that sort of thing, come up from Plymptree, taught us how to fight with knives and one thing and another. 'Tis awful when you come to think back over it, isn't it.

I suppose you've just got to think of it in terms of self defence, haven't you?

Oh that's right, it was................


This is part of the territory over which Walter Denslow and his comrades regularly roamed (a very detailed 1:2500 relief map created by the local Home Guard, once on display in Axmouth Church; it bears the title "Axmouth Platoon Area" and the name of its creator: H.R. Owen, 1943).

In Memory of
Mr. Walter Denslow
and
all his comrades in the Axe Valley Auxiliary Unit

Further information on the Auxiliary Units
- A wealth of information is available online at the excellent Coleshill House/British Resistance Archive website. This includes information on other Devonshire units, details of the weaponry mentioned by Mr. Denslow, training manuals and much more.



- "The Last Ditch", a book by David Lampe (1969)

Acknowledgements:
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Colyton Grammar School in Colyford, East Devon and its Headmaster, Mr. P.W. Evans, for their kindness in permitting this transcript of the 2007 interview with the late Mr. Denslow to be published on this website.
Particular acknowledgement is made to the two members of the School's History Department, Mr. Andrew Gregson and Miss Chris Pickersgill, who had the initiative to arrange and carry out this interview, thereby capturing for posterity an important piece of local and national WW2 history. Staffshomeguard is also grateful to Ms Sandra Parsons, School Secretary; and to the late Mrs Nora Myers of Axmouth, a friend and neighbour of Mr. Denslow, who brought the existence of this document to our attention.

It has not been possible to contact any descendant of Mr. Denslow. If members of his family should in the future see this website page, we hope that they will regard it as a modest and respectful commemoration of Mr. Denslow and the service he rendered to his local area and the nation as a whole over four long years, from July 1940 to December 1944.

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