By Jim Dyer
First published in the Western Mail on 11th February 1988
© Jim Dyer 2012
September 1940. the Nazis were smashing their way across Europe; the evacuation of our troops from the sand dunes of Dunkirk shocked the nation a few months before, the blitz of London had begun and the Battle of Britain was in full swing. The conquering German forces already occupied France and the Channel Islands and few would deny that a full-scale invasion of Britain was very near.
All the signs were there and Winston Churchill, Prime Minister for only a few short months, issued the instruction for the secret army to be on full alert. The task of causing havoc to the enemy if they came fell on a small band of several thousand anonymous men who had been hand-picked and secretly trained for their daunting duties, operating in small cells throughout the country.
One such loyal subversive was Alex Knight, now a sprightly 84 year-old who still helps out now and then at his local petrol station in Bassaleg, a rural, but expanding community in west Gwent. Castleton born Alex Knight has travelled the world, encompassing many adventures , but has an impressive and detailed knowledge of the hinterland between Newport and Cardiff where he lived until 1928. Undoubtedly, this expertise played a major part in his recruitment into the secret army group.
He was only a lad of 11 when World War 1 broke out, but he remembers clearly his rural boyhood days and the gentry who lived there – Sir John Bainham, Sir Henry Webb, and the ship owning Radcliffe family.
His father was head clerk with the Great Western Railway, Cardiff, where Alex was to work as a fitter. After, he obtained a job as a chauffeur to Sir Foster-Steadman, the agent to Lord Tredegar, who lived at Lower Machen. Behind the wheel of his shiny Sunbeam, Hodgkiss or Morris Round Nose, he motored the roads of the country attending to the needs of Her Ladyship or taking his master to official functions. Unwittingly, he was building up considerable information about the nation's road system and communications as he drove to north Wales, to Southampton to collect dignitaries from the great trans-Atlantic liners, or simple visits to South Wales businessmen and landowners.
By the time World War 2 arrived Alex had a fitter's job with the Northern Aluminium Company, Rogerstone, and had settled with wife Helen and three offspring at Bassaleg.
This occupation gave him his 'Yellow Ticket', releasing him from military service, but in 1940 as the threat of Hitler invading increased, there was soon to be a more dangerous task for him. He was approached in late 1940 via the Home Guard at Castleton and explained the role of the Secret Army.
'We were trained as saboteurs, and I suppose we were the forerunners of the SAS. We were skilled in the use of weapons and explosives, and to kill without compunction. If the enemy had overrun the country it was our job to carry out guerilla warfare. We learned to move around unseen day and night, and to live on whatever we could find in the most hostile territory. We were experts in self-defence and could make use of the natural features of the land, pouncing where required and vanish swiftly.'
Many of the recruits came from the Home Guard or Local Civil Defence Volunteers and they were forbidden to tell anyone about their roles, not even close relatives. On a given signal, say the ringing of a church bell, they would disappear to their specified hiding places, usually underground in woods and copses. Their uniform was unmarked and if called upon they would use their deadly skills to obstruct the enemy's occupation plans.
Even now some 40 years later, little is known of their activities and Alex too is loathe to reveal his secret hideout in the dense woods surrounding Bassaleg, though readily admits their existence. As the war progressed and the allied forces began to gain the upper-hand, so the skills of the Secret Army were put to other uses in carrying-out clandestine operations, training troops and keeping an eye on out for infiltrators.
In one such exercise they pitched a mock battle along the sandy beaches of Tenby against Canadian troops using real ammunition and placing timing charges on trucks. Alex told me, 'In 1943 we were taken to Hereford where we pretended to be paratroopers and the object was to show that that the town could be taken. Well, it could and we took the Americans by surprise. We used real explosives and a few were injured on both sides.'
Together with his friend Campbell, Alex was assigned to a unit policing the Isle of Wight where the danger of German U-Boats surfacing and sending crews inland for sabotage was ever-present.
Loaded with Mills bombs and explosives they would occasionally patrol further afield, always in twos. On their first night they had a close shave as a 'doodlebug' exploded nearby blowing-up an anti-aircraft unit. But, they never forgot their initial training and that determination was still with them. Alex said, 'We never walked the same ground twice and we crept like animals to avoid secret watchers. we had orders to shoot and ask no questions.'
It was not until late 1944 that Churchill's Secret Army were told to stand down and even then their role was clouded in secrecy. No public recognition was possible for the men who would have fought on, with or without orders, if the Nazis had invaded.
Alex Knight stood down too, and returned briefly to Gwent, but the taste for adventure was now firmly fixed wihin him. There was still much excitement left in the war-ravaged world and it was Africa for Alex Knight where he was to be caught-up in a different type of war – a war of bloody political change during the ;'fifties and 'sixties for independence from British rule.
First published in Western Mail on 11th February 1988