This article was written by Christine Standring for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.
In April 2004 the Society experimented with a different style of meeting, inviting a group of speakers and then members to share their memories of the second World War and its aftermath. From the early arrival of members and a considerable number of non-members, even the topic must have encouraged attendance, as the provision of a glass of wine beforehand was not well publicised. Lively conversation was soon well under way to a background of familiar tunes, in particular the voice of Vera Lynn and ‘Blue skies over the white cliffs of Dover’, with a few photographs and historic items from the Museum on display.
Sir John Johnson opened the evening briefly with the programme of speakers and we then heard the ringing tones of Winston Churchill in one of his most famous speeches to Parliament on June 18th 1940 and broadcast all over the world. The Battle of Britain had been won at great cost, and the prospect of the battle for Europe, starting with France loomed. Would we be moving to the broad sunlit uplands of freedom or would the world sink into the abyss of a dark age? Who could not be moved as he closed with those famous words ‘If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say “This was their finest hour” ‘’?
Our first speaker, Pat Dancer, lived in Gerrards Cross before war broke out and as a schoolgirl, like so many wanted to do her bit – gaining her school certificate and a commercial skill before joining the WRENS. She moved from a sheltered home life into training in naval discipline and traditions at Mill Hill, which began with scrubbing floors at 5 a.m. She showed us her photograph at the time and described her naval uniform, from the serge skirt and jacket, to the little round hat. Disappointed not to be a boats crew WREN, she trained as a secretary and was drafted to Stanmore, soon to find out that she was going to be part of the team decoding the German secret messages, known as the Enigma code. It was impressed on everyone that their work was extremely secret and they could not describe what they did to anyone, husband, family or friends, and indeed she had felt shocked when the work on the Enigma code was the subject of a television programme fifty years later!
For two and a half years, some five hundred WRENS worked flat out to break the code at the various outstations in North Buckinghamshire, often unaware of the impact of their work. Just occasionally, as during the Battle of the Atlantic, they realised that their work had had an impact on the threat of disaster to merchant and naval shipping. The work proceeded under the hand of Alan Turing and professors from Oxford and Cambridge, using eight enormous machines, with three or four banks of revolving drums – indeed early computers – assessing the possible permutations and possibilities of the encoding. They were very noisy indeed, placed on concrete floors in dark rooms with tiny windows, the staff working eight-hour watches, with a 36 hour pass after one week of days, one of lates and one of nights. Neighbours were surprised to see her home again so regularly and must have wondered how this was achieved, but still her work was kept a secret.
After the war, she was somewhat sad to still be a ‘dry land WREN’, but found herself happily ensconced in a Chatham vicarage overlooking Short’s flying boats in harbour. She helped to run the demob scheme and medical department, where every sailor had their pre-discharge medical examination, kitted out with a ‘civvy’ suit and set up to leave the service; this was a happy time, treated with great respect by everyone and sharing their tots of rum – the ‘neaters’ and ‘sippers’ at the mid-day ceremony, despite having to use a white china cup! At this time she wrote a glossary of naval terms, which her husband much later felt to reflect her innocence in these happy years. However, she had much enjoyed her part in seeing the men come in as sailors and then face new lives as civilians.
We then heard from Reg Renshaw, who said that it should really be his father who spoke and could have best described the part played by the Sycamore Club in servicemen’s lives; he himself had been in the western desert at the time and not in the Sycamore Club, a servicemen’s canteen at the rear of the Free Church in Amersham, The corrugated iron hall opened in October 1921, came from Halton Camp, purchased from an Open Air Mission for £250 (including furniture). Before the war it had many uses from religious meetings, stage performances and as a gymnastics club, and at one end there were two full sized billiard tables. Between 1940 and 1946 it opened as a canteen for servicemen between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. staffed by a team of volunteers for each day, serving tea, cakes and sandwiches, beans on toast and welsh rarebit, despite rationing difficulties. It was good to see the photograph of Reg’s father surrounded by his teams of lady helpers and to spot one or two familiar faces in their younger days and to think of buying a cup of tea for 2d. or beans on toast for 6d!
Reg read to us some of the letters the founder, Mr. A.J. Nunn, had written to his volunteers, sending Christmas greetings from ‘the Sycamore family’ for Christmas 1943, thanking them for all their help and inviting them to the celebrations in the Dance Hall and the Sycamore Club on Christmas day. In 1944, Mr. Nunn reported the success of the Sycamore Club in rivalling the attractions of the local public houses due to their loyalty and hard work. He took 3d. as the average transaction across the counter, and dividing up the takings, showed that they had served 271,000 in the first year, 455,000 in the second year, 714,000 in the third year and in the fourth year 1,155,117 customers. Reg returned from his long service with the 51st Highland Division in the desert to celebrate at the Sycamore Club the ‘Task Finished Festival’ and described the celebratory menu and a performance by the Sycamore Serenaders.
Deidre Arthur moved forward with a bundle of pink silk to place on the table before her and she revealed the exciting life of a young girl swept up in the wake of the war effort, but a life of hard work and great fun. Her first realisation of the reality of war was of men arriving in small boats on the Dorset coast from Dunkirk. At eighteen and a half she found herself called up and working as a cook in an Oxford hospital canteen. (She was delighted to recount that when she left it took eight American sergeants to do her job, wasting so much of the previous ingredients brought across the Atlantic at such a high price.) At the orthopaedic hospital she worked a 70 hour week, with two days off a month, providing breakfasts for 100 staff and supper for 350 people. The staff had two hours off in the middle of the day and received an annual salary of £75 for this very arduous work (which included lifting 10 gallon milk churns!).
However, she found the energy for a good social life, returning after hours on her bike, being given succour of a baked potato and mub of strong tea by a one-legged stoker before squeezing in through the barred windows to her dormitory. At home, her father, an Oxford academic, boarded out evacuees from the East End, and she would return to find paliasses in the hall and large tea urns in the kitchen. There were dances every Tuesday evening for Officers on leave who stayed in one of the Colleges. Giles Addington organised it all, Lady Buchan had them for tea and graduates of Robert Schumann entertained them.
Deirdre was released from service aged 24 in May 1946, and set off to marry a Canadian squadron leader she had met locally. She set sail on the last Queen Elizabeth sailing before she became a civilian vessel, with other fiancées, GI brides and wounded servicemen, saying farewell to war and its deprivations, but also to its comradeship and good times. Deirde rounded off her talk by displaying with obvious pride and pleasure the trousseau she had made herself. Like many others, she had been unable to buy what she would have liked limited by the availability of clothing coupons, and had used parachute silk to produce a delightful pink lace-trimmed nightdress, full underskirt and panties.
Richard Hardy described the key part railways had played both in his own life and in that of countries such as England and Germany in prosecuting their war effort. He remembered fondly as a boy taking up his position at the end of Amersham station, hiding from the eagle eye of Mr. Taylor the stationmaster (a power in the land) under a cloud of steam and hoping to catch a footplate ride.
He described a footplate journey in early 1940 at the invitation of a Neasden driver from Marylebone to Aylesbury, in pitch darkness showing only oil lights for identification purposes, describing the expertise of the driver and fireman who knew every corner, bridge and signal en route. What a thrill to fly through Wendover at 75 m.p.h. even if he had to catch the last Met home to the relief of his mother!
His starting point was the Doncaster locomotive works as an apprentice, a hard life working with an erector who swore at him all the time, ending the day with a wash in a bucket of paraffin and a walk home in his overalls. From there he moved into the engine sheds, coping with breakdowns and derailments, for the princely sum of £5-0-9d. for a 95 hour week. By 1945, when he left Doncaster, he had completed 60,000 miles on the footplate.
In another part of the country, Peter Leder was able to describe his experiences as a member of the Home Guard in Birmingham. In 1940, the Germans were having great success, running over all of Europe and many were in fear of their parachutists and fifth-columnists. In the maze of factories, railway lines, canals and canal feeders, their activities could be a serious threat to Birmingham’s well-being, and the Home Guard took their work very seriously. On the 17th May 1940, (a week after the invasion of France) Neville Chamberlain announced the setting up of local defence volunteer groups, as there had been in the previous war, drawing members for all types of work and of all ages. Their commander did, however, much resemble Captain Mainwearing of the television series with an exaggerated importance of himself; when he fell into the cut, no-one could be sure whether it was an accident or whether he was pushed.
All the factories set up their own little platoons, albeit at first with no uniforms, no weapons and no overall organisation, but nevertheless they went out on patrol around the surrounding area. After Dunkirk, Winston Churchill altered the name to the Home Guard and by reorganisation formed the factory units into a battalion, affiliated to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment Command for the defence of Birmingham.
Working by day in a research laboratory and rising through the ranks to become an Intelligence Officer, Peter also had to attend training courses not only about the make-up of the German army units, but also unarmed combat, self-defence, how to strangle an opponent with a piece of wire, stalking a suspect and spotting booby traps. To this day, Peter clearly recollects frequent night duties and on cold winter mornings, walking two miles to his lodging (no car and no petrol), feeling cold, tired, hungry and fed up, facing a day’s work in the laboratory on armour-plating for fighting vehicles.
At this point, Sir John thanked all the speakers for their reminiscences and for a short time, several members added their memories to the collection. Gay Hoing brought forward some precious postcards from her father, serving in France as a despatch rider, suffering severe injuries after falling from his bike into a booby trapped, bracken-covered pit. She recounted the many unlikely decisions and coincidences which had brought him safely home to England after having been left for dead. The censor’s stamp explains the simplicity of the messages to his daughter from ‘somewhere in France’,
Michael Brooks then told us of his time in the Training Corps, where they slept in the boat house, patrolling the Thames from Abingdon northwards, briefed to shoot anyone coming down in a parachute before they hit the ground with the five rounds which had been issued. Later, when he went to Oxford, he was on fire watch, sleeping in a garage next to Mansfield College.
Anthony Knight was an evacuee whose entire family came out from London to Amersham by train in 1940, just as the blitz was getting under way. They lived in Whielden Street in what was once the workhouse and he recalled exchanging salutes with soldiers on Rectory Hill and visiting a ‘downed’ aircraft near the London Road. He also recalled being saved from drowning by soldiers learning to cross the Misbourne in full military kit. His sister’s letter to her father recorded that Amersham had raised enough to pay for a Spitfire, three tanks and a submarine. We heard with amusement of the poster showing a house with a thatched roof exhorting readers to ‘Save your house from Hitler’.
Geoff Sherlock remembered how as a boy living near the High Wycombe to Frogmoor viaduct (once two), he always awoke when trains stopped rather than when they passed He tracked some of the changes in the rest of Amersham – the allotments in Dovecote car park, Highfield Close and Woodside close. Where Laura Ashley is situated, there was a wooden Synagogue; many Jewish people came out and bought houses that had not been selling, such as the new houses around Highfield Close, but they returned to London after the war. Halstan’s the music publishers also came out to Amersham to save their factory from the bombings and they have stayed. All the woods were full of Nissan huts, for the army and for displaced persons, such as the Polish people, many of whom settled locally, leading to the development of the Polish community we know today.
Jenepher Newell reported that her family used to open their home in Devonshire Avenue for solders billeted locally to enjoy a bath. She recalled the searchlight battery situated at Coleshill, hearing the aeroplanes throbbing overhead and the dropping of a flying bomb in the woods near Hervines Park. It had been their practice to drop the odd spare bomb, one night aiming for the railway line between Missenden and Amersham, missing by only 50 yds.
Sir John rounded off the evening, thanking everyone who had spoken and apologising that there had been insufficient time for all those who wanted to contribute. He remembered as a boy the day when Monty visited the school, wearing the usual two badges on his black beret, speaking in a high-pitched squeaky voice, and recalled Churchill’s description of Monty, ‘In battle, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable.’
Listen to Gerald Lee talking in 2004 to Diana Goodbody about the Italian POWs at Mantles Green Farm at the end of School Lane
(See also Bob Stonell’s recollections)