The Darkest Days of World War II
An article written by Alison Bailey for Bucks Free Press
Today I thought I would share with you one the most poignant stories from Amersham’s wartime history and how previous residents came through the darkest of times. Whilst Amersham Museum is closed, and we have had to cancel our Amersham in 1945 VE Day exhibition, you can read more stories from this period on our website amershammuseum.org.
Our area was a real haven for the many displaced families fleeing the Blitz in London. Unfortunately moving here didn’t meant that they escaped the bombs entirely. In 1940 a stick of six bombs was dropped on Bois Lane, damaging houses, the post office at Anne’s Corner and the stained glass in St Leonard’s Church. Luckily there were no casualties apart from a goat in the garden of L’Enchantresse! Sadly, in July 1944 there was a more deadly attack when a V1 rocket, a flying bomb, exploded in Chestnut Lane, causing widespread damage to the area. There were 17 injured and three dead.
Around 200 people were involved in the rescue with teams forming chains to pick through the debris. Red Leys was demolished on impact, three further properties had to be demolished and some 300 other properties suffered damage.
A little girl was one of the three dead, killed in her crib in Northcott, a bungalow attached to Red Leys. 18-month-old Christina Hanbury-Sparrow’s parents had only moved to Chesham Bois just before her birth. Her mother Amelie was German and her father, Alan had been a highly decorated soldier serving in France during WWI and in North Persia later. Both divorced, the couple met when Amelie was visiting relatives in England in 1936, just after Lieutenant Colonel Hanbury Sparrow DSO MC had retired from the British Army. Alan said he fell in love with her “alert green eyes and quick wit”. The couple lived in Hamburg with Amelie’s two children from her previous marriage. Her son, Juergen, later described those years in Hamburg as the happiest of his life.
Amelie’s first husband, a colonel in the German army, had nothing to do with the children following their divorce in 1933. However, as war approached, he now demanded custody to protect his career. He had already been called in by military command to deny that his ex-wife was Jewish (she had a Jewish maternal grandmother) but her marriage to an English Army officer was considered a step too far.
Amelie lost the court case; Juergen, 9 and Gisela, 13 were sent away and forbidden any further contact with their mother. It was no longer safe for the Hanbury-Sparrows to stay in Germany and they left for America. But when Amelie fell pregnant in 1942 she convinced her husband that they should move back to the UK: “Now it was overwhelmingly clear to us that we simply had to find a way of getting back, for we belonged to Europe and Europe’s fate was our fate. Alan English, I German and our child American that didn’t seem right.”
They took a passage on a small freighter, the Menelaus, carrying war supplies at the height of the U-Boat battle of the summer of 1942, just after America had joined the war. Their ship was part of a convoy of several small vessels and two torpedo-boats. three freighters were sunk in the convoy, but the Menelaus kept going until Liverpool.
Christina Hanbury Sparrow was born that December in Chesham Bois and tragically killed there just 18 months later. The following year news reached Amelie that her eldest daughter Gisela had been killed in the bombing of Dresden. At Christina’s tiny grave in St Leonard’s churchyard her memorial stone is engraved in memory “of our beloved baby girl Christina and in loving memory of her half-sister Gisela, 19.” The Tenor Bell in St Leonard’s Church is inscribed Christina and Gisela 1947 and was presented by the family to replace the cracked Tenor Bell which is in the museum garden today.
The Hanbury-Sparrows were taken in by their neighbours and close friends, the Crovos and whilst living at their house Elengeni, they adopted baby twins, Angela and Andrew. As the war finished Lt. Col. Hanbury-Sparrow was posted to Germany in charge of Agriculture at the British Control Commission and here he learnt that both Juergen and Amelie’s mother had survived. Amelie and the twins joined him in Berlin for six years before returning to Amersham.
Amelie’s eldest son, Juergen Corleis, became a distinguished journalist, foreign correspondent and documentary maker. His 1985 documentary on the Holocaust is a permanent feature at the Bergen-Belsen memorial, and has been seen by millions of visitors. In 1969 Amelie and Alan followed the twins to Australia where Juergen also joined them. They both passed away in New South Wales, Australia at the age of 98 and 90 after a happy new life there.
With many thanks to Angela Laughton in Australia for the photos