Britain’s Secret Defences: Civilian Saboteurs, Spies and Assassins during the Second World War

  • Published

Britain’s Secret Defences: Civilian Saboteurs, Spies and Assassins during the Second World War by Andrew Chatterton. Casemate Publishers, 2022, 205 pp.

Andrew Chatterton’s Britain’s Secret Defences is a historical account of Britain’s secret plans for the recruitment and training of civilians to counter an anticipated German invasion during World War II. Chatterton, a World War II historian, wrote this book after 12 years of researching the most clandestine British efforts of that period. This book fills a gap in the historical literature on Britain’s anti-invasion efforts during the war by adding the largely unknown story of a secret civilian force.

Britain’s Secret Defences describes how the British government recruited, trained, and equipped civilians to spy on the enemy, spoil invasion attempts, and execute a post-defeat insurgency as an organized resistance. Chatterton has collected compelling stories of the people who were involved in these secret operations, and he also provides archaeological and archival research to accompany their stories. Chatterton’s narrative challenges conventional perspectives on Britain’s post-occupation plans, offering new insights into this historical episode. Since there was never an invasion, the civilian programs were never used as intended, and the two chapters that detail their eventual irrelevance fail to provide significant insights to the historical record.

This book is divided into three parts, each of which narrates the history of a different secret civilian defense program. Part 1 is about civilian saboteurs. Chapters 1 through 3 offer insightful stories of civilians who trained to be saboteurs during an invasion. Chapter 4 is an account of how British leadership did not close the civilian saboteur program when it no longer had a purpose; the program continued even though the threat of an invasion had become unlikely, and the program changed/deteriorated in response to the lack of a mission. Chapter 5 tells how the program’s ideas were used elsewhere with other unofficial groups and individuals. Instead of secret patrols, however, civilians were used for covert missions akin to modern-day special forces missions.

Part 2 is about civilian spies. Chapter 6 tells the story of civilians training to assist the military as an anti-invasion intelligence network, including housewives, teenagers, clergy, and even dogs, using dead-drop letters, wireless sets, and secret bunkers. Chapter 7 is about the logistics required to operate a civilian force with circumstances that were different than a traditional military intelligence network. Like their saboteur counterparts, the civilian spies were never put to use because Germany never invaded England. Similar to Chapter 4, Chapter 8 is an uninspiring account of how the civilian spy program fell into decline and eventually dissolved when the invasion never happened.

Part 3 is about civilians who trained in both sabotage and spy craft to be ready to serve as underground resistance after a successful German invasion and the defeat of the British military. Chapter 9 details how they were trained as saboteurs and spies like those civilians described earlier, but the group in Part 3 had orders to wait until after the invasion and a British military defeat to then begin their work and carry out an insurgency-type resistance.

Chatterton effectively demonstrates that Britain creatively prepared for an invasion based on what they saw during the fall of France, British civilians willfully accepted secret responsibilities to resist a German invasion, and the British government provided these civilians with significant training and resources. In addition to the body of literature on Britain’s use of its military and its Home Guard—an armed, uniformed civilian militia—for its defense, Chatterton’s narrative changes the conventional understanding of Britain’s foresight, resolve, ingenuity, and ruthlessness, revising the common perception that British resistance preparations were poorly planned, last-minute, and weak.

One of the work’s limitations is its relative paucity of resources; however, this is no fault of the author. By the time the secret programs were declassified, many of the people who were involved had already died without telling their stories, so Chatterton was limited in his sources. Despite this, he has compiled an impressive collection of primary sources from interviews and testimonies, archival records, and secondary (corroborating) literature.

Perhaps the greatest limitation is that Chatterton does not discuss the ethical implications of the British using civilians in spy and sabotage roles, although he does assert that the civilian participants and their families would have been hunted and killed for doing this. Instead, Chatterton acknowledges his bias that he is proud of Britain’s reputation for standing alone and strong in the face of German conquest, and this pride is seen throughout the work.

Britain’s Secret Defences challenges the narrative that England was woefully unprepared to resist a German invasion after Dunkirk and the fall of France in 1940. It provides intriguing insight into how Britain was willing to use nonmilitary means to resist German aggression—organizing civilians into a covert force for military intelligence, designing spy and saboteur operations, and training them to be an insurgency—all prepared and in place prior to an invasion and occupation. Chatterton describes the personalities that came up with the innovative ideas for clandestine civilian operations and how they made things happen despite significant obstacles and incredible uncertainty. He states that had Britain’s military failed to stop Germany, these trained civilian guerillas would have been able to wreak havoc to thwart an invasion attempt or would have proved to be a formidable force of opposition during a German occupation.

Granted, it might be optimistic of him to assert that these unproven civilians would have had more success than the rest of Europe, which failed to thwart German invasions in their countries. Britain’s civilian operatives did receive weapons training and were told to be ruthless. Decades later they shared their stories of how brutal they would have been if the invasion had happened and they were called upon to serve. Still, they were never given the opportunity to actually prove that they could perform well under hostile conditions.

This book offers a new piece of history that revises the conventional understanding of Britain’s national will and home defense efforts during World War II to include governmental efforts to give civilians tremendous defense responsibilities. Britain’s Secret Defences is worth reading for those who want to expand their understanding of World War II history to include Britain’s use of civilians in clandestine combat roles. Military leaders and their civilian oversight may also find this book interesting because it illustrates how British leaders modified their political-military efforts during a time of great uncertainty and limited options.

Colonel Robert W. Sturgill Jr., USAF, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."