Gathering Nuts in May

“Here we go gathering nuts in May”

Thinking of the month, this childhood song came to mind. However, the words seem rather odd, so I appealed to the great oracle Google who advised that it was probably originally “gathering knots in May”, as at one time children gathered knots of flowers on May Day.

I was about to carry on with a whimsical article, when I noticed a piece in the Bridport News of February 19th, that the last “Secret Army” patrol man had died aged 102.

George Raymond of Beaminster was a farmer who had served in Churchill’s secret army, known as Auxiliary Units from 1940. His unit, the Meerhay Patrol, trained on Hewstock Farm, Beaminster, owned by the Raymond brothers.

Further training was at the local HQ at Duntish Court, Melcombe Bingham, with revolvers, sleeping rough and silent despatch of sentries. George said they were trained to blow up strategic targets like Beaminster Tunnel, and Mapperton House, using explosives wrapped around petrol tanks, in the event of an invasion.

Bob Pearson told the story in an article “Guerrillas in the Beaminster Woods” in a publication Remembering World War II from Bridport Heritage Forum in 2005. This booklet has a photograph of the inside of their secret base.

The guerrillas were drawn from men with an intimate knowledge of their locality so that they could move around secretly at night. The Beaminster unit of six men was led by Sergeant John Wakely, of Cherry Cott Farm. First they reported to the Highworth postmistress with a password, before she  telephoned military headquarters to collect them. Then they were vetted at Coleshill House, near Highworth in Wiltshire.

Members of the Auxiliary Unit wore Home Guard uniform, with a badge carrying number 203, for Southern Counties. They were issued with a fighting knife, a revolver, explosives, timers and detonators. Other members of the unit were Ernest Raymond, Frank Ivory, Douglas Perkins, all from Beaminster and Stanley Bale from Axnoller. Their first Operational Base (OB) was an old lime kiln in Stintsford Lane, Beaminster. Subsequently Royal Engineers constructed an underground chamber, its entrance hidden by bushes, with a vent for fresh air which was also an escape route. This chamber was like an underground Nissen hut, of corrugated steel. There was a locked compartment for operational stores and rations for 14 days, the expected operational life.

In the event of German occupation, the units were expected to cause as much disruption as possible, but if caught they were to identify themselves as Home Guard, not as Auxiliaries. The Auxiliaries were disbanded in 1944 and required to hand in most of their equipment and sworn to secrecy. George Raymond recalled that there were similar patrols at Symondsbury, Whitchurch Canonicorum and Shipton Gorge. In 2006 Bridport History Society received several reports of these other local bases.  Helen Doble had a cutting from the Dorset Echo of April 27, 1999 about one at Quarr Lane Farm, Chideock. It was discovered when Jasper Mowatt, aged three, fell into it.

Richard Shute of Chideock had been transferred from the Home Guard to the Auxiliaries and said the bunker entrance was a trapdoor in the cowshed. Others in his unit were Sgt. Jack Wills, Cpl. Jack Bonfield, William Wescott and Mr. Hussey. Richard Shute’s daughter, Mrs. Linda Coombes, had a typed flimsy paper stating “Pte. R S Shute is employed on special duties and therefore supplied with Supplementary Petrol Coupons. Any enquiries to be referred to Duntish Court, GHQ Home Forces.”

A similar paper was from the Group Commander, Little Pitt, Whitchurch Canonicorum. Finally a letter from Col. W R Douglas, Commander Aux. Units, dated 7th July 1944, marked “Secret” stated that the War Office had decided to “stand down” the units, “as the war is going well”. Two other letters of 18th and 30th July 1944, one signed by General Sir Howard Franklyn, C-in-C GHQ Home Forces, said that reports from the Special Units had proved invaluable. “All ranks are aware of the secret nature of their duties. For that reason it has not been possible for them to receive publicity, nor will it be possible even now”. — “Your lives depended on secrecy, so no public recognition will be possible”.

John Lipscombe referred to a Somerset Archaeological Society booklet of 2000, which described an OB about two miles south west of Chard, on Bewley Down. This was beneath a pair of earth closet “privies” which had been modified so that a steel framework carrying one wooden seat, bucket, etc., could be raised to reveal the access to the base.

Elizabeth Gale wrote that as a teenager she often walked her dogs around Burton Bradstock and Shipton Gorge and discovered a purpose built tunnel in Cathole Wood, on the outskirts of Shipton Gorge. The entrance was almost overgrown, but steps led down about ten feet into an empty chamber, about six feet square. Later she met a man who said he had been a member of the special unit which met there.

Rodney Legg in The Book of Bridport said that 32 underground hideouts were built around Dorset. He also includes a photograph of one, probably that near Chideock.

I hope you agree that we should remember these wartime volunteers, and leave “nuts in May” for another time.

Bridport History Society meeting on 12th May at 2.30pm will learn about “Powerstock—A Dorset Parish Remembers” from Richard Connaughton and Friends in Bridport United Church Main Hall. All welcome, visitors fee £2.50.

Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 456876.