An English village revisits its Czech history: The Benes years in Buckinghamshire

Edvard Benes

During the Second World War, the former Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes and his government were in exile in England. Originally they were based in London, but in late 1940, due to the blitz, the President and his Cabinet moved to a small village called Aston Abbotts, in the southern English county of Buckinghamshire. In addition to the government personnel, Czech, Slovak and Ruthenian presidential guards also stayed in the village. President Benes and his wife, along with the entire Czech community of the time left a deep impression in Aston Abbots and sixty years later, the villagers and diplomats came together to celebrate this history. Kate Barrette was in Aston Abbots for the Czechoslovak memorial festival.

"And we must all stand together in order to prepare - after victory has been achieved - a peace in Europe over which we could already today solemnly declare that all that we are passing through now, today in this war, will never happen again." -Czechoslovak President-in-exile Edvard Benes addressing a crowd in England, where he and his Cabinet were based throughout the Second World War.

"Czechs were not really taught about what happened in Britain. People just learned that President Benes lived in London, when he didn't."

Neil Rees is a local history enthusiast who has done a great deal of research into the Czechoslovak government in exile, and in particular, their stay in the picturesque village of Aston Abbotts, in the southern English county of Buckinghamshire.

"This location was chosen because the place where Benes lived for a short time in Putney, in London, was being heavily bombed by the Germans, and his main offices in London were also bombed - he had offices in Park Street, London and they were completely bombed by the Germans. His colleagues were very worried about his safety, and they thought that maybe the Germans were even targeting Putney to try and kill him - but we don't know that.

Aston Abbotts
Anyway, Jan Masaryk, who was basically President Benes' best friend, used to spend weekends in the countryside near here, and he had friends called the Rothschilds, and they lived in the next village, called Wing. He asked them if they had any friends that might rent them their houses, and Mr. Morton, one of Mr. Rothschilds' best friends that lived here in Aston Abbotts, agreed to rent his house for 21 pounds a week, to President Benes."

The special memorial festivities in Aston Abbotts last weekend included a visit from the Czech ambassador to Britain, Stefan Fule.

Fule describes the significance of this tiny village of just 350, in Czechoslovak history.

"I was obviously thinking not only about those 60 years that passed since the Second World War, but I was very much also thinking about these four years that Aston Abbotts provided the Czechoslovak exile government with shelter and a friendly environment. Many very important decisions for the future of Czechoslovakia were made, debated and agreed here in Aston Abbotts, so it's a very important and special place close to our hearts."

Stefan Fule,  photo:
Czech and Slovak dignitaries, as well as local villagers pack the Aston Abbotts Anglican Church for a special service to commemorate the end of the War and the time President Benes's cabinet spent here between 1940 and 1945. During the service the Czech, Slovak and English national anthems play.

Vojta Levin served in the Czech Armored Brigade during the war, and was one of the president's personal bodyguards.

"We paraded at 8.00 in the evening, in the street from eight until midnight, midnight until four, and four until eight in the morning. And when President Benes went out in the neighbourhood, there were two to four of us with him, just in case something happened. Because as always, some German parachutists might land here, and might either kill him or try to get him. It was not just him, because the Queen of Holland lives next door, and General DeGaulle also is quite near, so this whole area was in danger."

Many local people remember the Beneses fondly. They shared some of their stories with me.

Edvard Benes
"I knew him very well, yes, we used to meet and he used to go for a walk every Sunday morning, or after lunch on Sunday, with his wife. Initially I opened the gate for them; I didn't know who they were. The lady thanked me and asked me if I lived in the village, asked me what my name was, and what I did; I was at school then of course. And she said, oh well this is my husband, Dr. Edvard Benes, President of Czechoslovakia, and we shook hands. The president couldn't speak very much English and I couldn't speak any Czech, so his wife acted as an interpreter both ways, she would translate the English into Czech and the Czech into English. And after that when we used to meet we used to have a chat. And I used to ask the President a lot about his country, and all that sort of thing, so I felt that I learned quite a bit about it. I certainly knew more about Czechoslovakia than Neville Chamberlain did, which wasn't difficult. But he was a marvelous man, and he was very popular."

"He was a delightful man, and we made great friends with two Czechs: Rudolf Klimek, who came from Olomouc, he was a wonderful friend to our family, and Michael - I can't remember Michael's surname. In the churchroom, there are a couple of items that he gave me, when he went back to Czechoslovakia."

"My mother used to make a lot of homemade wine, and she used to cure hams and quite a number of the Czech soldiers used to come and have wine and some food. And one of the soldiers, Charles Palenka, he married my young aunt."

One of the most dramatic events of the War was the assassination of the Nazi "protector" of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich. Carried out on the orders of President Benes, it was a turning point in the way the Allies perceived Czechoslovakia. The plans for this mission were prepared in part in Aston Abbotts. Neil Rees again:

You can find out more about the history of the Czechs in Buckinghamshire during the Second World War at: