One day earlier this year (1998) I met Vic Payne in the churchyard. I was doing some clearing-up, and he was tending a family grave. In conversation he began to tell me a story of his family during the war, which I wrote down the next day.

Vic’s elder brother Bob was in the Army from the very beginning. He had not long been married, and had left the family home in Coleshill, taking a flat at Hazlemere. He was drafted to France just as the Germans were sweeping across towards the Channel.

Bob’s unit had retreated across France until they came to St Malo, hoping to find a ship. But the port was closed and the last ship had gone. A small group of them laid up in a wood close to the town. The German soldiers were so close that their Sergeant told them not even to breathe. They decided that their best chance was to split up and make towards Brest in the hope that there might be a ship from there.

Bob walked west for five days non-stop, and at last came near to Brest. He met a Military Policeman on the road, who said “Keep going lad. It’s only half a mile now, and Jerry’s very close.” It was the last ship in port, and he got aboard just as it started to move.

Eventually he got back to England, and was immediately given a week’s leave. During the chaos in France his mother had been told that he was ‘Missing Presumed Dead’. There was no time for him to contact home en route, and soon he reached Amersham Station, and set out in the dark to walk to Hazlemere and his wife. He did not find her there, and uncertain what to do, he set off back towards Coleshill.

In Village Road Bob’s mother and a brother were standing in the dark looking over towards London, as they often did, watching the Blitz - the red glow of the fires, and the searchlights sweeping the night sky.
Suddenly Mrs Payne said “That’s Bob’s footsteps !”
“What do you mean, mother ?”
That’s Bob’s footsteps !” said very firmly. And of course it was.

When he asked where he could find his wife, he was told she had moved to Winchmore Hill. “I’d best be off then.” But he finally gave in at his mother’s “You’re not walking another step tonight, Bob. You’ll be staying here until the morning!”

C H Wege