Play tells story of secret war on the home front
PUBLISHED: 08:26 04 April 2012
Eastern Angles altest production goes back to the dark days of 1940 and asks: ‘What if the Germans had invaded?’ ANDREW CLARKE spoke to writer Ivan Cutting and director Naomi Jones about the planned war on the home front.
In the desperate summer of 1940, Britain’s future was balanced on a knife edge. We look back now and hear the echo of Winston Churchill’s famous words telling us that this was our “finest hour” but what if everything turned out differently?
What if the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk ended in disaster? What if the Battle of Britain ended with the shattered remains of the RAF lying smoking on the runway?
These were real possibilities. Head of fighter command Sir Hugh Dowding admitted that had Goering continued to bomb his airfields then he would not have had anywhere to land his aircraft — they would have had to put down in fields or crash into the sea.
With the RAF destroyed and the bulk of the British army languishing in German prisoner-of-war camps nothing would have prevented the German army from crossing the channel and marching into Britain at the same time that they occupied the Channel Islands.
Looking at photographs of life in Jersey under occupation is a rather chilling experience. Police officers talking to a German officer or giving directions to offduty soldiers seem strange but the scene of a German marching band parading in front of Lloyd’s Bank is unnervingly surreal.
The incongruity of these scenes is what makes them so alarming and the perfect illustration for Eastern Angles latest production Private Resistance — a ‘what if’ play, based on real plans and personal testimony, highlighting Churchill’s plans to undermine the Nazi forces of occupation.
The material for the play, written by Eastern Angles founder Ivan Cutting, came to light when he was researching a previous war-time drama On The Home Front.
Ivan said: “I was talking to this chap who I thought served in The Home Guard and he said: ‘No I was with this extra special group called the auxiliary unit and we dug this underground bunker and were supposed to go down there when the Germans invaded and come up and fight behind enemy lines.
“At the time it felt quite extraordinary and I have had that ringing around in my brain for the last 20 years. I have always felt that we should do something more about that and we have finally got the opportunity.”
He said that Private Resistance is a fictional story but is based on fact — on the evidence provided by those original interviews and by talking to local historians and museums that preserve much of our wartime heritage.
Director Naomi Jones, who staged Eastern Angles production of Return to Akenfield in 2010, said researching the era for the play has brought home to her just how real the threat of invasion was and the desperate need everyone had to do something to fight back.
“I was amazed at just how specific people’s plans were if the Germans had invaded. They even had pre-determined plans of action — that this group of people were going to meet at this place, at this time and were going to do that.
“Much of that direct action would have been suicide missions or would have provoked very severe reprisals. They were grand gestures. But, the war office wanted a more subtle, more sustained campaign which is why they set about creating auxiliary units.”
She explained that key individuals were approached by the war office and told to set about creating small, resourceful guerilla units who could co-ordinate resistance and create chaos behind enemy lines once Britain was under occupation.
“Before I started working on this my perception of Britain’s home front resistance was pretty much based on Dad’s Army. I imagined all we could have fielded was old soldiers from the First World War armed with shotguns, pitch forks and bread knives.
“But, in actual fact, we had something very secret, quite devious and literally underground waiting to surprise the invading forces.”
She said that, in contrast with local Home Guard platoons, the auxiliary units were quite well equipped, having stocks of explosives and bomb-making material. They were also given training in guerilla warfare – learning to move and to kill swiftly and silently.
Norfolk and Suffolk, it seems, both had several of these units. Ivan added that secrecy was the key to their survival and the locals took their vow of silence seriously – many refusing to talk about the existence of these units even after the end of the war.
“One of the interesting aspects about the auxiliary units was that one sleeper cell did not know of the existence of any other units. That way the whole organisation could not be compromised.
“One man was recruited and given the task of recruiting another five or six individuals for that unit. They were trained in the use of sticky bombs and how to kill someone silently. Some of them were in the home guard but then dropped out which did create some resentment in the local villages.”
In the play the person tasked with recruiting the auxiliary unit is a former Mayor who served in the First World War who cannot fight because of injuries sustained in the previous conflict. “This gives him the opportunity to do his bit, to contribute to the war effort.
“In our play Major Tom is asked to form an auxiliary unit. He contacts a gamekeeper called Frank. Gamekeepers were very good because they knew the lay of the land and had access to weapons. Frank also fought in the First World War and therefore has knowledge of combat and it is Frank who then selects six other members.
“Outside the unit no-one knows who they are and what they are up to. Even wives were kept in the dark. The idea was that the fewer the people who could be pressured to talk the better.”
As with any good drama the focus of the story is firmly fixed on the people and how they interact with one another. The action in Private Resistance takes place over several years and shows how the stresses and strains take their toll on individuals. It also explores how the strong, resilient people, sometimes turn out to be the ones you least suspect.
Ivan said: “It’s about how the war brought together all these disparate groups of people. It’s that combination of the right characters, the place and the opportunity. Also there is threat because Private Resistance works as a
‘What If…’ scenario.
“We have assumed that the Germans have taken control of the countryside and we look at how the individuals would have coped. What form would the resistance would have taken?”
■ Private Resistance, Maddermarket Theatre, April 5, £12 (£10 cons), 01603 620917, www.maddermarket.co.uk