Two peaceful, riverside villages between Henley and Marlow have surprising connections with the art of war. Above the village of Medmenham lies a prehistoric hill fort, which, with another at nearby Danesfield, once controlled the river valley below. Parked incongruously in the forecourt of a house in Medmenham’s main street are two naval cannon - see photo - above which the Royal Navy’s Blue Ensign flag flies. They are two of the original seven naval guns dragged 1,500 miles overland by the crew of HMS Powerful in order to relieve the siege of Ladysmith in February 1900. Winston Churchill, acting as a Boer War correspondent, was among the relief force. On their return home, the sailors from the Naval Brigade paraded their guns through London. This led in 1907 to the inter-port field gun competition that was a highlight of the annual Royal Tournament military tattoo for many decades.
|Two of the original seven naval guns used in the siege of Ladysmith|
|Olde Bell Hotel - Hurley|
In Medmenham’s parish churchyard is the grave of Sir Basil Liddell Hart, the war correspondent and military historian whose life was not without controversy. Formerly secret files revealed that MI5 believed Liddell Hart had known all the details of the D-Day landing plans three months before the invasion. On learning this, a furious Winston Churchill had demanded Liddell Hart’s arrest but MI5 instead placed him under careful surveillance.
The nearby Danesfield House, now a luxury hotel, once served as RAF Medmenham. Vital work was carried out at what became the Allied aerial reconnaissance interpretation unit in the Second World War. It was here that the launch sites for the V-rockets were identified, leading to the elimination of the grave threat this advanced weaponry posed at the end of the war. Sarah Churchill, the actress daughter of the wartime Prime Minister, worked here as did Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, son of the USA President. The English actor Sir Dirk Bogarde was another who was stationed here in the war. Winston himself would pay private visits to his daughter and receive first hand briefings at RAF Medmenham.
The village of Hurley, just across the river, was the location for US Naval Intelligence in WWII. Nicholas Straussler, a military engineer, lived in the village and is reputed to have tested early models of the ‘swimming tank’ that went ashore on D-Day in the former Priory’s fish pond and mill stream. President Roosevelt and General Dwight Eisenhower are believed to have stayed during WWII in the medieval Olde Bell hotel - a claimant to being the oldest pub in the country - in the village’s High street. The vast caravan park and bungalows that line the Thames above Hurley arose from those who fled the London Blitz for the safety of the riverside meadows.
These two Thames-side communities, which could have served from their idyllic appearance as wartime Ministry of Information “this is what we are fighting for” propaganda English villages, have links with warfare right across the centuries. In the person of Liddell Hart was someone who was gassed in World War I and who later controversially claimed to have propounded theories which were then used against the Allies during World War II, viz. the practice of Blitzkrieg, lightning attacks dependent on speed and surprise. Two years before the siege of Ladysmith, Winston Churchill, who made secretive visits to the area, had taken part in the last meaningful British cavalry charge at the battle of Omdurman in 1898. When he visited RAF Medmenham four decades later its personnel, his daughter included, were locating the launch sites of Germany’s ‘Doodlebugs’, the earliest type of military cruise missiles.
By Jeff Griffiths
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