War and Peace in Medmenham

I recently explored Medmenham, the peaceful village next to two sites on which AiM has worked and whose main street has picture postcard pretty houses. Parked incongruously in the forecourt of one house are two naval cannon – see photo – above which the Blue Ensign flies. A notice explains that 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 Royal Tournament until its demise in 1999 but which has now been revived as part of the Windsor Military Tattoo.

 Two of the original seven naval guns used in the siege of Ladysmith
Two of the original seven naval guns used in the siege of Ladysmith

The Church has a fine bas relief memorial plaque to a parishioner killed defending the beach-head at Dunkirk in 1940. In its churchyard is the grave of another soldier, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, the war correspondent and military historian whose life was not without controversy. Formerly secret files now released revealed MI5 suspicions of leaks of the plans for the D-Day landings, and that Liddell Hart had known all the details three months before the invasion. Winston Churchill had demanded Liddell Hart’s arrest but MI5 instead placed him under careful surveillance.

As those of us present at the unveiling of the hill fort interpretation boards learned, Sarah Churchill, the actress daughter of the wartime Prime Minister, worked for some years at the RAF’s Imagery Intelligence Unit in the requisitioned Danesfield House. Winston himself, we were told, would pay visits to his daughter and receive first hand briefings at what was then RAF Medmenham. Next door to Danesfield House, in the SAS Company’s grounds where the hill fort also extends, we were shown a prototype of the ‘bouncing bomb’ designed by Barnes Wallis. (At Hurley, just across the river and the location for US Naval Intelligence in WW II, models of the ‘swimming tank’ that went ashore on D-Day were tested in the former monastic fish pond.)

Medmenham, which could have served from its idyllic appearance as a wartime Ministry of Information “this is what we are fighting for propaganda” English village, revealed links with warfare right across the centuries. Not only does it have two neighbouring prehistoric hill forts but the one above Medmenham also probably housed Hugh de Bolebec’s Norman castle. On Ferry Lane stands a symbol of a conflict which saw the humbling of the British Army by the Boers but which we now associate with our armed forces’ pageantry.

Sir Basil Liddell Hart
Sir Basil Liddell Hart

Men with links to Medmenham straddled a great leap in the development of warfare. 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 with the practice of Blitzkrieg, lightning attacks dependent on speed and surprise. Two years before Ladysmith, Winston Churchill had taken part in the British Army’s last meaningful cavalry charge at the battle of Omdurman in 1898. When he visited RAF Medmenham four decades later its personnel were involved in locating the launch sites of ‘Doodlebugs’, the earliest type of military cruise missiles.

By Jeff Griffiths

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