Updated: Nov 22
In this month of remembrance, it is easy to remember those whose great feats of bravery and valour are well documented or honour those dwindling number of veterans whose proud chests display an array of medals, but I want this month to pay tribute to a group of men and women whose wartime service in the most part was not recognised during their lifetimes and is still shrouded in much mystery and incorrect understanding today. I want to pay tribute to those who served in the Auxiliary Units.
At the end of June 1940 with Britain facing imminent invasion Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned to a secret 1938 War Department report that spoke of creating a resistance movement in Britain. On July 2nd he got the War Cabinet to agree that “The regular defences require supplementing with guerilla type troops, who will allow themselves to be overrun and who thereafter will be responsible for hitting the enemy in the comparatively soft spots behind zones of concentrated attack.” The War Cabinet agreed fearing moves that would otherwise have seen civilians armed to fight the Germans.
The man to which the army turned to create such a force was A/Brig Colin Gubbins who had distinguished himself in the Norway Campaign. He had a background in military intelligence and had experienced ‘irregular warfare’ in Russia and Ireland and had been part of the intelligence mission in 1939 to the Czechs and the Poles. Gubbins recruited a dozen Intelligence Officers to cover the localities most threatened by invasion. One was Mike Calvert of the Royal Engineers also recently
returned from Norway. Another was travel writer and Guards Officer Peter Fleming who’d seen action in Norway with the Independent Companies.
In Cornwall, a Royal Engineers TA Officer Captain Joshua W Stuart Edmundson was chosen as the Intelligence Officer. He was working on the Axminster – Bridgewater Stop Line when he got the call to attend a meeting on July 13 th 1940 where he was chosen to set up the Auxiliary Units in the south-west. Edmundson, aged 45, lived in Plymouth and had worked for a fertiliser company in Devon before the war, was married to Iris Norrington and their son Will had been born in 1939. In May 1940
Edmundson had set up a production line in Molotov Cocktails for the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers) at Fort Austin, Plymouth and travelled the region to instruct the LDV on their use. He made his first visit to Cornwall in his new role on July 14 th making contact with people suitable to ‘own’ an arms cache and he would then help them recruit another four or five men to form an operational unit.
The unit’s role in the event of an invasion was to go underground to perform three key tasks:
Provide intelligence from behind the lines to the British Army
Harass and keep the enemy occupied by acts of sabotage
Neutralise anyone considered a threat, such as those who, either willingly or under torture, might supply information to the enemy.
In Cornwall, Edmundson set up the first Auxiliary Units in arcs either side of the Bodmin Stop Line. Two of these were either side of the A30 main road to the west of the military town of Bodmin. One was in the workings of the Tungsten Mine on Castle an Dinas and the other was on the opposite hill above St Dennis. The group established an Operational Base amongst the clay workings off the road between Nanpean and St Dennis. Its site was never revealed although I have consistently had one location suggested to me since the early 1980s. Little remains at the site apart from a few old rails that could have been used to support the roof (as was done elsewhere in several other Cornish OB’s such as the one that has survived almost intact at St Issey). Modern public road widening and the building of a clay road has removed a hedge and altered the look of the site so it is difficult to be 100% certain but it currently remains the most likely spot. Nearby they would have had an arms cache which would have contained over half a ton of high explosive, various fuses, switches, grenades and bombs. Auxiliary Units received weapons and ammunition ahead of the regular army in 1940.
There were eight known members of the St Dennis Auxiliary Unit. These were Sgt William Percy Magor, Harry Estlick, Johnny Bunt, Sydney Willcox, John Dunstan, Eric Trethewey, John T Kessell and Percy Nobes.
The Unit was led by Sgt Magor (spelt Meagor in some sources). He was 55 in 1940 and was a carpenter. He and his wife also ran a Girls’ Training Corps in the village during the war. Its corporal was John Claude Dunstan who came from a musical family with John and his three brothers all playing in the St Dennis Band. The family were well known in the village as Dunstan’s was the general store. John died in 1981 before the story of the Auxiliary Units was told.
After the war, Eric Trethewey ran a concrete block business at Parkandillick. He died in August 1994 aged 86. Another family who had a shop in the village were the Kessells. John Kessell died in May 1971 long before his wartime service was given any public recognition. He was aged 70.
Henry Symons Estlick, known as Harry, was the son of Samuel Henry and Margaret Estlick. His father was the village chemist. Harry, a keen sportsman, moved away, married, had a son Graham in 1937, and then came back to St Dennis to take over the family chemist shop in 1940. Within a couple of months, he was in a Home Guard uniform having been recruited into the Auxiliary Unit. Harry died in June 1990 aged 85. Percy Nobes left the Unit and is classed as being returned to the Home Guard in
1942. Little is known of the other members of the Unit and any information or photographs would be gratefully received.
The Unit was expected to have an operational range of about ten to twelve miles. Amongst the Unit’s targets were the St Dennis to Burngullow branch line – Dombellick and Treviscoe bridges being two priorities – and the Par to Newquay railway line. Other targets included the A30 which was likely to have plenty of German military vehicles moving along it, the electricity sub-station at Fraddon which appears on the German invasion maps, and the Bodmin Beam Wireless transmitter station at Innes Downs which was Britain’s wireless link to Canada and North America.
The Unit had obviously recruited men with a range of skills such as the carpentry of Sgt Magor, the building skills of Eric Trethewey and the knowledge of chemicals in Harry Estlick. Most of the men seem to be in their 40s so were not likely to be taken by conscription for service in the armed forces. They were also men who knew the local area and the local population well. Their service is likely to have been kept secret from their families who thought their disappearing regularly and especially at night was part of their patrolling with the Home Guard. They would have travelled to Coleshill House in Berkshire, the headquarters of the Auxiliary Units, for a weekend of training. They would have also been frequent visitors to the Porthpean House, home of Falmouth and Penryn MP Maurice Petherick, who was also the Commanding Officer of the Special Duties Branch of the Auxiliary Units, and would have received training from Captain Robin Williams.
Few of the men who served in Cornwall’s Auxiliary Units lived long enough to see their story told or receive public recognition for their wartime service. They were never put to the test as, apart from the Channel Islands, Britain was never invaded, but their bravery is never in doubt as their devotion to duty, to secrecy and a willingness to fight to defend the ideals of freedom and democracy in the face
of a ferocious enemy they carried to their graves. Many of their families only discovered what they had signed up for after their death. The life expectancy of an Auxiliary Unit was ten to twelve days. Thus it is right and fitting that these men are remembered and honoured. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
To find out more on Cornwall’s Auxiliary Units read my two historical novels as they are featured in the adventures of Major Isaac Trevennel who works for MI (R) the body that oversaw the setting up of the groups. Details of the groups either side of the Bodmin Stop Line are included in my series of YouTube videos on the Bodmin Stop Line. Further information can also be found on the excellent website of CART – the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team – that I have helped in the past with their
research into several of the Cornish units and for whom I located the Operational Base of the Grampound Unit.