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History of the Buscot and Coleshill Estates

A pair of ornately decorated stone gateposts topped with a pair of stone urns at Coleshill Park in Oxfordshire
The gateposts at Coleshill Park | © National Trust Images/John Miller

During the Second World War, Coleshill House was the underground headquarters of Winston Churchill’s British Resistance Organisation. This was a band of men from all over the country trained and ready to lead the fightback if Germany invaded Great Britain. Sworn to secrecy, and leading double lives revealed not even to their closest family, they were known as the Auxiliers. Discover more about this history.

Who were the Auxiliers?

When war broke out in 1939, most fit and able men were called up for active duty. However, some made contributions to the war effort that were never revealed, as they trained in complete secrecy to become members of the British Resistance Organisation – or Auxiliary Unit – also known as the Auxiliers.

Before the war

In peacetime, the Auxiliers were farmers, mechanics, gamekeepers, butchers, labourers or miners and were specially selected for their fitness, character and bravery.

Over 3,000 men passed through Coleshill to become Auxiliers. Their method of training – in small cells of six people, completely isolated from other groups – has been viewed as the blueprint for how covert operations are planned today.

An interior image of the Coleshill Guard House in Oxfordshire with plain bare white walls showing a single inscription saying 'Ready to serve if allowed'
An interior image of the Coleshill Guard House | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Coleshill House joins the war effort

Unknown to the villagers who lived nearby, Coleshill House was requisitioned as the top-secret training headquarters for the British Resistance, or Auxiliary Unit.

Coleshill was chosen as the unit’s GHQ after the bombing of its original offices in Whitehall. Major Michael T Henderson, who oversaw the Home Guard, was given the task of finding a central, secluded site with good transport links for the Auxiliers.

Why was Coleshill chosen?

Henderson’s brother, who lived on the nearby Buscot Estate, recommended Coleshill House. The building’s position – shielded from the main road behind two high walls – along with its 48 rooms and the fact that its only residents were two sisters, made it the ideal location.

Creating the secret underground bases

An important part of the Auxiliers' training was learning to create their own hidden underground shelters, known as Operational Bases. Some were built in existing structures, such as ice houses, disused mines or cellars but most required a lot of covert digging, with disposing of the soil unnoticed one of the trickiest challenges.

Inside the underground bases

Inside, there was space for simple bunks, a small kitchen, a toilet, food and weapons. Self-closing inner doors prevented light from getting out, and there was often an alternative escape route in case of detection.

The original model for the perfect Operational Base is still here in Coleshill – although in a fragile state – complete with blast walls in case of grenades, and an underground corrugated chamber.

Escape route

The escape route into the nearby ha-ha – a recessed landscaping feature – has now collapsed but the remains of the old stove pipe, hidden in the trunk of a tree, can still be seen.

Coleshill has a more robust working replica of the Operational Base, reconstructed with the help of the Heritage Lottery Funding, a team of archaeologists and experts and volunteers.

A quotation on a wall at Coleshill Guard House in Oxfordshire saying 'Who did their stuff unseen'
A quotation on a wall at Coleshill Guard House | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Training for German invasion

Auxiliers had to prepare for the brutal things they might be forced to do in the event of a German invasion. They were trained in the tactics of one-to-one combat: how to stab from behind with a knife, garrotte with cheese wire, fight hand-to-hand and use guns, grenades and plastic explosives.

The art of sabotage

They were also taught the art of sabotage: tracking and killing silently, blowing up bridges and destroying vehicles, mapping houses and booby-trapping buildings. This was all learned within the walls of Coleshill, without anyone ever knowing they were there.

Commemorating Coleshill's Auxiliers

On the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Auxiliary Unit, Coleshill held a weekend of commemorative events, including the unveiling of the reconstructed Operational Base.

This excerpt from the documentary ‘Sons of the Soil’ hears from Liza Dibble, Volunteer at Buscot and Coleshill Estates, about the events and the history that they commemorate.

It also features surviving Auxiliers and their relatives, many of whom knew nothing of the secret double lives they had lived until decades after the war.

Was there an Auxilier in your family?

The British Resistance Archive is run by the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART), a non-profit organisation whose volunteers carry out and publish research on the Auxiliers.

It includes a searchable archive of those who served in the Unit, so you can find out whether someone close to you was involved.

A view of the sunrise taken through some green foliage across fields at Badbury Clump on the Buscot and Coleshill Estate in Oxfordshire

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