This article was written by Derek Matthews for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter
In the autumn of 1940, as part of the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry, my Artillery Regiment moved to Buckinghamshire and we were billeted in Amersham Old Town. Many of us slept on straw-filled paliasses in Badminton Court, a part of the former brewery, and till today I can show the room in Badminton Court where I shovelled coal for our cook-house. Under the trees in Rectory Wood we parked our twenty-four 25 pounder guns with their ammunition trailers and the quods in which we travelled, together with the huge amount of vehicles needed for an artillery regiment.
France had been lost; Dunkirk had occurred; the ‘Battle of Britain’ had been won. Churchill decided to send us, one of the few armed defenders in the British Isles to another theatre of war. We never doubted that we would succeed in overcoming the enemy. Before we knew it ourselves, everyone in Amersham told us “You are going to the Middle East!” Our morale was high, and Amersham was optimistic. We were living in the present and enjoying it. There were, and still are, nine pubs, some of which had been coaching inns in the 18th century. Most were only beer houses without spirits licences, but that did not worry us; we could only afford mild and bitter.
The 17th century Market Hall standing at the end of the wide High Street, forming one side of Market Square, was opened for us to be issued with tropical kit, khaki shorts and slacks, and sun helmets. There was no secrecy, except that no one apparently knew which part of the Middle East we would arrive in.
In our year-long training from the first days of the war, we had seen much of the best of English traditional architecture and life. Old Amersham was a fitting conclusion to our sojourn, with its famous High Street, Market Square and historic associations, being one of the best reminders for us of so much that was worth fighting for in that war. My vivid memories include wandering along the High Street and the Crescent, which was then free of traffic and parked cars, permitting the war time bus services that were then running to turn round. Herds of cows were driven from Mantles Green Farm, along Mill Lane and up Cherry Lane to other pastures. I stood by the street wall of ‘The Firs’ (now known as ‘Piers Place’) looking across at the magnificent ‘Benskins’ board on the side of the “Eagle“, not knowing that one day I would buy the stable block and coach house of ‘The Firs’ to convert it into my house. A feature in our lives was the “Bath Parade” when owners of houses in Longfield Drive, Devonshire Avenue, Chesham Bois and others gave us the use of their bathrooms with hot water and soap.
Amersham Hospital was fully functioning. Some nurses were living in a tent in the grounds behind the Friends’ Meeting House in Whielden Street. With two other of my gunner comrades, meeting three nurses whilst walking near the church, we were invited hospitably into their abode. In our spare time, it was possible to get a lift to High Wycombe and to visit a barber there for a ‘short back and sides’. On Tuesday 24th September 1940 being no. 927946 Gunner Matthews D. in E Troop, I was on fatigues cleaning out the stream behind Badminton Court. We had time off after 3 o’clock so I walked up the High Wycombe Road and thumbed a lift to High Wycombe, where I had family connections who had served in China, Malaya and Nigeria. There was public transport available back to Amersham, the 10.15 p.m. bus ran from Frogmoor, even in wartime.
We expected daily to hear orders that we were to move from Amersham. Having been volunteers at the outbreak of war, now were we no longer an under-strength peace-time Territorial unit manned by part-timers working in the professions in London, but a so-far unblooded combat force. We had been brought up to strength with the addition of conscripts, and a few full-timers who had served in the Indian Army and other regulars. One of my fellow gunners, a small miner from South Wales who had not been taught to write, asked me to write a letter for him to his mother to be posted before we left.
All the regimental guns and vehicles vanished from Rectory Wood, later to be reunited with us in Egypt, as part of the 5th Indian Division, going to the Sudan to liberate Ethiopia, which was then the colony of Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana) We were to aid in the return of Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne. After that we were to be the original “desert rats” in the Western Desert and at the siege of Tobruk.
So on a dark night we shouldered our kit in the Old Town and marched up to Amersham Station, where a blacked-out train with dim lights awaited, to take us to Liverpool, and sail in a ship fast enough to outwit the U-boats. We sailed without convoy protection from the Navy except a destroyer escort in the worst of the danger area. There was only one torpedo which missed hitting us near Freetown. The Mediterranean (“Bomb Alley”) was closed, so our voyage was six weeks round the Cape and to Suez.
Amersham had played an affectionate and key role, remaining in our thoughts of the beautiful English countryside where we had been spending our year getting equipped and trained. We believed it was all very much worth fighting for. So Amersham remained in our thoughts. encouraging us when (in my case) E. Troop became, in the Sudan and Eritrea, the mobile artillery part of “Gazelle Force”, the fast reconnaissance unit commanded by Colonel Messervy, who said to us on the outskirts of Kassala “Bummon!” which we did together with Skinner’s Horse, the crack Indian motorized cavalry unit and with the Sudan Defence Force, as well as others, to open up the attach on “Africa Orientale Italiana”; using the 25-pounders which had also been at home in Rectory Wood.