OLD AMERSHAM and 30 COMMANDO HQ
by Tony Westhead, 1st September 2020
Amersham’s Coldmoreham Farm was the base used by 30 Assault Unit, the combined Royal Navy/Royal Marines unit deployed to seize Axis secrets and weapons it was the brainchild of Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, it was founded as a Field Intelligence Unit in the autumn of 1942.
One day in August the doorbell rang. I answered it to find two ladies outside. As I did not recognise either of them, I asked if I could help? One spoke up and said “Can I say something?” . I told her to say whatever she wanted thinking that she probably wanted directions to the hospital or help with a car tyre puncture or breakdown.
She said “My father lived here with 30 Commando “ and burst into tears.
I invited her inside and listened to her story. Her name is Hilary Toyn nee Belcher. Her father was Captain Thomas Eaton Belcher of 30 Commando who was stationed in Coldmoreham in 1942. She obtained this from letters written home to his wife. She still possessed his military uniform.
Sadly, he had been killed in action aged 27 in Greece in 1942. I presume that she must have been still a small child at the time of his death.
I was able to tell her what little I knew about 30 Commando which was a relatively small unit of very brave men later called 30 ( Commando) Assault Unit which functioned during WW2 between 1942-46. Their insignia was “Attain by Surprise “They included some colourful characters . One notable individual was Johnny Ramensky a Lithuanian descended safe- cracker from Scotland who was sent to the Unit to blow up safes. A notable commander was Lieutenant Commander Quinton,Theodore Petroe Molesworth Riley !
Apparently, they spent their time in Amersham in what was known as Coldmoreham Farm being trained in forcing entry to buildings, unarmed combat and the handling of explosives. The late Gerry Dyche told me he could remember hearing the bangs they made. The officers lived in Coldmoreham House and the other ranks were billeted elsewhere down the High Street.
Amersham’s James Bond Connection
The Unit was the brainchild of Ian Fleming of James Bond fame and their nickname was Ian Fleming’s” Red Indians”. Ian Fleming was 34, a Lieutenant Commander in the RNVR based in the Admiralty working in naval intelligence under Admiral Godfrey.
As for the Ian Fleming / James Bond angle, it is widely believed that Bond is modelled on Lieutenant Commander Patrick Dalzel-Job who was a Commando said to know no fear who could ski backwards ! He was nearly court martialed for disobeying an order but saved the lives of thousands of Norwegian civilians and was awarded a medal by the King of Norway. However, there were other possible officers who may have contributed to the Bond persona including Ian Fleming himself with his womanising and liking for gambling and alcohol.
The unit composed of about 120 men was tasked to move ahead of advancing Allied forces or to undertake covert infiltrations into enemy territory by land, sea or air, to capture much needed intelligence, in the form of codes, documents, equipment or enemy personnel.
The Unit was initially deployed for the first time during the Dieppe Raid in August 1942 in an unsuccessful secret attempt to capture an Enigma machine.
They then took part in the Operation Torch landings in November 1942. They landed to the West of Algiers on 8th November By the next day all the battle orders for the German and Italian fleets, current code books and other documents had all been sent back to London.
The Unit went on to serve in the Greek Islands, Norway Sicily, Italy and Corsica.
30 Assault Unit were involved in things like the recovery of enigma machines, the sabotage of V1 doodlebugs and the arrest of significant figures like Admiral Doenitz.
M in the Bond films may have been based on Admiral Godfrey who was Fleming’s immediate superior at the Admiralty and head of Naval Intelligence. It was Godfrey who gave the green light for Ian Fleming to set up 30 Commando. I think the relevant Fleming Memorandum is available in national Archives. The number 30 was his Secretary’s room number and she may have contributed to the Miss Moneypenny character. Ian Fleming’s Secretary was Miss Margaret Priestley a History Don from Leeds University. She is said to have played a big part in setting up 30 Commando.
In June 1944 they took part in the Normandy landings having moved their HQ from Old Amersham to Littlehampton on the South coast. By May 1945 they had captured the German Naval Base at Bremen Germany. A field team of 30 Assault unit took the surrender of Werner Von Braun and Walter Dornberger in Bavaria.
It is thought that Ian Fleming often used to stop off in Amersham quite often en route to Bletchley Park.- perhaps to wave them off on their missions.
The Unit was disbanded in 1946. However, in 2013 the Unit ‘s successor organisation 30 Commando Information Exploitation Group was granted the Freedom of Littlehampton in honour of the original Unit being stationed in the Town during the Second World War. Some mementoes can be seen in the Littlehampton Museum.
Casino Royale this was based on the Casino in Estoril Portugal which Ian Fleming is known to have visited during the war when Portugal was neutral and Lisbon full of spies.
Anyone interested in learning more might like to read “Ian Fleming’s Commandos “by Nicholas Rankin published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2011.
More information is also now available in the Public Records office in Kew Reference ADM 223/214
There is also an obituary of Troop Sgt major John Brereton of 30AU who died in June 2011 aged 91. Amersham is mentioned twice as being the location where he trained as a Commando in an intelligence Unit.
History of Combined Operations confirms Amersham as the HQ of 30 Assault Unit