A tale of two villages

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Liquid history

Buscot’s history is inextricably linked to its proximity to England’s longest river, the Thames. And the fortunes of this extensive estate have ebbed and flowed, just like the iconic river it straddles.

Step back in time

Dating back to the Domesday Book, the manor of Coleshill has witnessed a vibrant snapshot of English history, from the turbulent Tudors, ambitious Stuarts to visionary Victorians.

Coleshill Mill

Records show a mill at Coleshill dating back to 1086. Owned by the lord of the manor, all his tenants would have been obliged to use it. Last used in the 1920s to mill animal feed, we renovated it in 2005.

Churchill's secret army

A rare photo of the Auxiliary Unit on the steps of Coleshill House © Eric Gray

A rare photo of the Auxiliary Unit on the steps of Coleshill House

What if the Germans had invaded Britain 70 years ago... Imagine life under enemy rule! Who would have co-ordinated the fight back for freedom? Well, wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill imagined just this... setting in motion a hush-hush network of spies and saboteurs, weapons and espionage, where brave men lived a secret life to keep their country safe. And it took place here at Coleshill.

Who were the Auxiliars?

The invisible army who pledged to stay silent  © John Miller

The invisible army who pledged to stay silent

When war broke out in 1939, most fit and able men were called up for active duty. But for some, the war was not to be so straightforward. They were destined to live a completely secret life, as members of the British Resistance or the Auxiliars. In peacetime they might have been farmers, mechanics, gamekeepers, butchers, labourers or miners. They were specially selected, very fit and very brave.

Training model still used today

Bearing Home Guards codes to maintain secrecy, the Auxiliary Unit's badge © Roger D Green

Bearing Home Guards codes to maintain secrecy, the Auxiliary Unit's badge

Unbelievably, over 3,000 men were trained as Auxiliars at Coleshill. And their model of training – using small cells of six people working independently and in complete isolation from other groups - has been described as the precursor of modern-day warfare.

Second World War history walks

Fascinated by the Second World War? Why not visit the original underground training bunker and find out about the extraordinary lives of the Auxiliars during one of our guided Second World War history walks.

Secrets, spies and sabateurs

  • Voices from the past

    Having signed the Official Secrets Act, these brave men never told a soul about their secret lives, not even their nearest and dearest… until now, 70 years later. Listen to reminiscences of life as a saboteur first hand in this award-winning documentary, Sons of the Soil, produced by Emma Coleman.

    You can hear more voices from the past using our wind-up Black Box audio unit at the Guard House at Coleshill.

  • Hidden under evergreen trees, the Guards House at Coleshill © NTPL/John Miller

    The birth of the Auxiliars

    Following France's fall to Germany in 1940 and the humiliating evacuation of Dunkirk, Hitler's Operation Sea Lion, or invasion of Britain, seemed imminent. Visit the Guard House and learn how Churchill's appeal for volunteers saw one and a half million men sign up to the Home Guard. Colonel Gubbins of British Intelligence was tasked with forming a secret army… and so the Auxiliars were born.

  • The House's secluded position and transport links made it a perfect HQ © NTPL/Country Life

    Choosing Coleshill

    Coleshill was chosen as the GHQ after the bombing of the original offices in Whitehall. Major Henderson was given the task of finding a central, secluded site with good transport links. Henderson’s brother, who lived at the nearby Buscot estate, recommended Coleshill House. The house’s very private position, set behind two high walls from the main road, its 48 rooms and only two resident sisters, made it ideal.

  • Auxiliars plot subterfuge in the secret Operational Bunker at Coleshill © NTPL/Bronwen Thomas, National Trust

    Funk holes

    An important part of the Auxiliars' training was learning how to create their own operational base or hide. Some were built in existing ice houses, disused mines or quarries, but others were built underground with a standard elephant shelter design. Furnishings were sparse, with bunks for four men, self-closing inner doors to prevent light escaping, a small kitchen, a toilet, and an escape route in case of detection.

  • The main chamber of the underground bunker is lined with corrugated iron © NTPL/Paul Watson Photography

    The surviving operational base

    The original model for the perfect operational base is still here, complete with blast walls in case of grenades, and an underground corrugated chamber. The escape route into the nearby ha-ha has now collapsed. The remains of the old stove pipe, which was hidden in the trunk of a tree, can still be seen. Recovered secret documents reveal great emphasis was placed on camouflage, door operation and maintenance.

  • The hands-on training of an Auxilier was not for the faint hearted © NTPL/All in Fighting by Major WE Fairbairn Geoffrey

    Brutal tactics

    Auxiliars were trained in the brutal tactics of one-to-one combat (how to stab from behind with a knife, garrotte with fine cheese wire, fight with fists, guns, grenades and plastic explosives). They were also taught the art of sabotage: tracking and silent killing, blowing up bridges and destroying vehicles, mapping houses and booby trapping buildings, all at Coleshill, without anyone ever knowing they were here.

  • Brick by brick: a volunteer helps build the replica bunker © NTPL/Roger D Green

    Commemoration 70 years on

    Thanks to Heritage Lottery Funding, a team of archaeologists, our experts and volunteers are building a new secret bunker at Coleshill in memory of the Unit. In line with the old 1936 Royal Engineer handbook of construction, it will replicate the surviving fragile base. The new bunker will help give a vital insight into the world of the Auxiliars, who had a life expectancy of just 10-14 days in the event of invasion.