In June and July 1940, eighty years ago, the inhabitants of High Wycombe and the surrounding towns and villages really began to appreciate what it meant to be at war.

It would have been a very anxious time for many local families because of what was happening to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) just across the English Channel. They had had no alternative but to retreat against the overwhelming invasion by Nazi forces, before being evacuated from the French port of Dunkirk.

The BEF included three Battalions of the Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (OBLI) Regiment. These Battalions contained several hundred local men. Their casualty rate was severe. One suffered more than 300 casualties.

From another, which was ordered to delay the German advance and then fight their way to Dunkirk, only about 200 men and 10 Officers made it. The third was encircled by the Germans and had to surrender. All the men who had surrendered, except some of those who had been seriously wounded and were eventually repatriated, spent the rest of the war as POWs. Nearly 5 years in captivity.

Around thirty local men lost their lives and many more were taken prisoner during the retreat and the evacuation from Dunkirk.

The confusion was so great that the fate of many men was not established for days, weeks and in some cases, months. For many of the men who died, the exact date of their death was never established.

As the Bucks Free Press reported at the time “Many wives, parents, sisters, brothers and other relatives of officers and men of the 1st Bucks Battalion are still anxiously awaiting news of their men-folk who were fighting with the BEF in Flanders, prior to the evacuation from Dunkirk last month.

It must now be realised that those of whom no definite news has been received as yet can only be regarded as “missing”, although not yet officially reported; but their relatives need not, for that reason, give up hope of their ultimate return.

It is known, and has been claimed by the enemy, that a considerable number of British soldiers were taken prisoner during the retreat. and there is every reason to suppose that many of the missing members of the Bucks Battalion are among this number.

In the circumstances prevailing it will probably be a considerable time (possibly several months) before the International Red Cross can ascertain and make known the names and whereabouts of these prisoners of war.”

Private Stanley Harvey

Local man Stanley Harvey was one of the lucky men who made it back home. He vividly described his experiences during the retreat to Dunkirk in a letter to his brother-in-law.

Stan lived in Micklefield Road with his wife and three children. He had enlisted in the 1st Bucks Battalion of the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry at the start of the war, and they had been sent to join the British Expeditionary Force early in 1940.

He had begun his letter with a mild attack on the Army authorities for their parsimonious attitude in granting 48 hours leave before they embarked but then not offering to pay the fare to enable the men to get home. Fortunately, as he described it “Two old dames got talking to me at Oxford Circus and when I told them we had to pay our own fare, they raked up nine shillings between them and gave it to me!”.

He continued: “It was a bad day for us when old Leopold sold us [this was reference to Leopold King of the Belgians, and Commander in Chief of their Army, who had requested a cease-fire with the Nazi’s on May 28, 1940], it nearly broke my heart to see the lorries and equipment we had to leave, it will be many a day before that lot is paid for. They certainly gave us hell the short while the war was really on [that is, before the retreat and evacuation from Dunkirk].

"The first we knew about it was an air raid early in the morning, we all turned out and got into our trench. There were no bombs dropping near us but plenty of dog-fights [one-to-one aerial battles]. to watch. We moved up to the Belgian border that day and for a few days things were not too bad...We caught a couple of parachutists but they had just baled out and were riddled with bullets.

"After the third day they [German planes] started coming over in swarms and their bombs were dropping uncomfortably close. We got orders to move then, we thought it was queer, they were lining anti-tank guns all along the roads.

"The next day Jerry made the break-through, right where we were, so we only just got away in time. After that we were never in the same place more than two days running.”

Further extracts from Private Harvey’s letter will be published next week, which will describe his experiences during the retreat to, and evacuation from, Dunkirk.

I would like to thank Jeff Harvey, son of Stan, who brought the letter to my attention and has kindly allowed me to publish extracts from it.