Nazis Versus the Boy Scout on Roller Skates
Ted Jefferies was 13 years old—and part of Winston Churchill’s secret army
In 1940, Ted Jefferies was a 13-year-old British lad who wanted to do his bit for king and country in World War II.
As a Boy Scout, Jefferies could have contented himself with an ordinary role such as collecting scrap metal or growing extra food in a garden.
Instead, he became a secret messenger for the British guerrilla fighters who would have harassed German occupiers, killed collaborators and offered a last-ditch defense if the Third Reich had invaded England as Adolf Hitler had originally planned.
Armed only with a Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger and shod in roller skates for speed, he actually delivered classified messages for the training center that prepared the volunteer units for the fateful day … should it come.
And in doing all this, Jefferies put to good use traditional Scouting skills, skills taught in a movement founded by a British war hero and former spy who transferred military methods and tactics for crack reconnaissance patrols to a boys’ organization that emphasized patriotism and preparedness.
Jefferies died in 2014. There’s not much public info about how he got recruited or who recruited him—an all-too-common situation historians work hard to remedy as members of a little-known World War II covert force die of old age.
“All of those who volunteered signed the Official Secrets Act and told no one of their involvement, not even close family members,” Andrew Chatterton, a spokesman for the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team, said in a written statement.
“Most never revealed their participation even after the war, taking their secrets to the grave,” Chatterton added.
Ironically, Jefferies was too young to sign the secrecy document, which serves as reminder that British subjects who reveal national security information can face stiff fines and jail terms. In lieu of the Official Secrets Act, he promised on his Scout Oath not to reveal his involvement with the resistance forces known as Auxiliary Units.
The Auxiliary Units were groups of civilian volunteers who would have formed the resistance had the Germans invaded Great Britain, according to Tom Sykes, founder of the British Resistance Archive at Coleshill, the location of the former British training base for the “stay behind” units.
The units were made up of men unable to serve in regular forces due to age or war-work restrictions. Each had intimate knowledge of the local countryside.
Volunteers were often farmers and farm workers, gamekeepers and hunters. The units were the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then prime minister of Great Britain, who ordered specialists in guerrilla warfare to train members in demolitions, the use of small arms such as the Sten gun and silent killing with weapons like the commando dagger and a suppressed .22-caliber sniping rifle.
“They were small groups of highly trained, well-armed men who in the event of invasion would disappear to their operational bases hidden beneath the British countryside,” Sykes told War Is Boring.
“Their aim was to disrupt the German advance: Blow up ammo dumps, railway lines, bridges and destroy as many supplies as possible basically to buy us and our allies time.”
It was essentially a suicide mission, with each patrol member having a life expectancy of about two weeks. If Germany had mounted Operation Sea Lion, the plan for an amphibious landing on the southern English coastline in 1940, Auxiliary Units would expect no resupply or additional support.
There is also no historical evidence that the United States would have supported a British resistance movement.
However, in 1940 Jefferies was soon supporting day-to-day training and learning how to carry secret messages for the Coleshill staff. They offered him a bicycle, but Jefferies said he preferred his roller skates—and he used them so often that Coleshill ordered new skate wheels from the United States to keep the young resistance member on the road.
The Coleshill staff also gave him his own commando dagger with an antler handle that helped disguise the purpose of the blade.
He even participated in training missions such as the time when an Auxiliary Unit trainee on a bicycle road into town and started to ask pointed questions about local buildings and history.
“Despite the fact I was just a lad, I wore identifying emblems, or articles, known only to members of the secret army,” Jefferies wrote in a brief narrative that he prepared for the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team.
“The man on the bicycle was able to recognize me as an active member by my Boy Scout belt and a badge I wore on the lapel of my coat. Unlike the usual plain leather belts worn by scouts, mine was of a woven leather braid and ‘quietly’ distinctive. These items, along with the coded passwords, were essential for the continued safe existence of the secret army.”
If all of this seems like an astounding set of responsibilities for a child, keep several things in mind.
First, the British were fighting for their lives. By 1940, they were the last country in Europe fighting Nazi Germany—at that point, Germany and the Soviet Union were still paying lip service to their Non-Aggression Pact.
Also, the British Scouting program of the 1930s and ’40s placed enormous emphasis on teaching boys at an early age self-reliance, patriotism and outdoor skills such as codes and signaling, observation, sketching improvised maps, tracking, land navigation and “roughing it.”
In fact, the founder of Scouting was Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, better known as “B-P.” He was a career army officer and hero of the Boer War who adapted his military reconnaissance handbook Aids to Scouting for NCOs and Men into the more child-friendly Boy Scout Handbook.
B-P had performed espionage missions during his career. “A good spy—no matter which country he serves—is of necessity a brave and valuable fellow,” he said. Coleshill staff believed the Germans would dismiss Jefferies as a threat because of his age and his status as a Scout.
And although Britain was never invaded, many Scouts the same age as Jefferies living in European countries under Nazi occupation participated as members of their nation’s resistance movement.
“The work done by Scouts in the underground movement could never have been carried out with the same dispatch and efficiency had it not been for their Scout training,” Hilary St. George Saunders wrote in The Left Handshake: The Boy Scout Movement during the War, 1939–1945.
“Their indifference to hardship, or their toleration of it, can only be described as phenomenal,” St. George Saunders continued. “Above all, their training taught them to rely on their own brains and not to wait for orders which might never come.”
Jefferies served with the Auxiliary Units as the “Boy Scout with a secret” throughout World War II. Finally old enough for military service, after the war, he joined the Royal Air Force, where his duties included courier work for Churchill.
He married, had children and served as the adult leader of a British Boy Scout troop from 1952 to 1969. But he kept his secrets until only very late in life.
At heart, he was still the young Scout who took seriously the motto “Be Prepared.”