The Sunderland miner who became Churchill’s ‘secret weapon’

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A Wearside woman’s family tree research has uncovered the top secret role her father played during World War Two.

Miner Jim Jarvis officially served in the Home Guard during the conflict, but behind the scenes he was actually part of a British Resistance organisation known as Auxiliary Units - or ‘Churchill’s secret weapon’.

Jim and Phyllis on June 16, 1979 at their son Alan's wedding

Jim and Phyllis on June 16, 1979 at their son Alan's wedding

“These were highly secret groups and officially didn’t exist. Their aim was to resist occupation of the UK by Nazi Germany at all costs,” said his daughter, Ruth Raine.

“The men were trained to live underground and fight to the death if captured. Each signed the Official Secrets Act and we only found out about dad’s involvement by chance.”

Jim, son of pitman and World War One veteran James Jarvis and his wife Elizabeth, was born in 1919 and lived at 92 Front Street, High Moorsley. After finishing school he joined a gas company.

As the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, however, James forced his son – who was still under 21 – to take a job at the local pit, in the hope a reserved occupation would keep him safe.

All the family are very proud of what he did in the war; I can’t tell you how proud we are that dad was one of Churchill’s secret weapons. One day, hopefully, we will find out more.

“My grandfather had a terrible time in WWI and, although he would never talk about it, he still suffered from nightmares. He was injured in France, but we don’t know how,” said Ruth. “That made him determined to keep my father safe, which is why he made him go down the pit. It wasn’t the job he’d have normally picked for Jim, but he wanted to keep his son out of harm’s way.”

Jim was, however, determined to play his part and on July 8, 1940, signed up for the Home Guard. Three years later, in May 1943, the corporal was recruited into the Hetton-Le-Hole Auxiliary Unit.

The role demanded “more skill, coolness and hard work” than any other voluntary organisation, according to official documents. Recruits also had to be prepared to face “greater dangers” too.

“We used to ask dad what he’d done in the war, but he couldn’t tell us because of the Official Secrets Act. He just used to say he’d been in the Home Guard,” said Ruth.

“But he did say he’d tell us a bit more when he got word from the Ministry of Defence to claim his defence medal at around the age of 65. Unfortunately he died shortly before that letter arrived.

“It was complete chance we found out anything at all. We stumbled across his name while looking for my grandfather’s WWI records, and found dad had been in something called an Auxiliary Unit.”

Little has been written about life in Auxiliary Units, although the general idea was that soldiers based in secret tunnels would form a resistance force in the face of enemy invasion.

Recruits were expected to turn “night into day” while underground; sleeping in daylight and patrolling at night. Many tunnels can still be seen today – including at Houghton.

“The men were told that if there was any chance of being captured they either had to shoot themselves, get someone to shoot them,” said Ruth.

“It is difficult to associate my dad with something like that, as he was such a family man. It is also sadly ironic that instead of keeping his son safe, my grandad put him right in the firing line.”

Jim successfully combined a pit job with his secret life in the Auxiliary Unit; even finding time to marry his sweetheart Phyllis on July 31, 1943 – although he never told her what he did.

“We will never know exactly what dad went through. The secrecy still surrounding the units is such a shame - many people probably have no idea just how brave their relatives were,” said Ruth.

“My dad always said it was the only secret he ever kept from mam. He wanted to tell her, but couldn’t until the Official Secrets Act ran out – but he passed away before that happened.”

The Auxiliary men were finally stood down in late 1944, but Jim remained in the Home Guard until December 1945. He stayed in the mines after the war, working as a shot-firer at Sherburn Hill and Dawdon.

“All the family are very proud of what he did in the war; I can’t tell you how proud we are that dad was one of Churchill’s secret weapons.

“One day, hopefully, we will find out more,” said Ruth.

l More information on the secret units, including ones at Haswell, Hetton and Wheatley Hill, can be found at the website www.coleshillhouse.com