I was first introduced to Percy by my nonagenarian neighbor, the indefatigable George. Like many of my elderly neighbors, George has lived on this street since the houses were first built, one of the many new housing estates built after the War, following the devastating bombing raids that left tens of thousands homeless. They are salt-of-the-earth working class Brits who have worked hard all their lives to support their families and communities, never made a fuss, never been in any trouble—and who have been rewarded for their loyalty and decency by being completely ignored by society. For younger interlopers like my family, our elderly neighbors are a constant source of reassurance; the friendly face chatting away to my children over the low garden wall, the endlessly patient figure at the door when my son has kicked his football into the next-door garden for the tenth time that weekend; just occasionally, they are the chuckling grandfather figures I call upon when my husband is away and there is an enormous spider glaring at me from the corner of the kitchen.
Landing on the Normandy beaches
As soon as George found out that I was a writer, he offered to introduce me to his pal Percy, one of the few surviving soldiers who were part of the D-Day landings. Meeting Percy in George’s cosy sitting room, it is hard to imagine him a nervous twenty-year-old, wading onto the Normandy beaches, picking his way past the bodies of the fallen. He is remarkably sprightly for a man in his nineties, insisting on rising to his feet when I enter the room and he is, as I quickly discover, completely lucid. Those memories of his most terrifying appointment with history are so fresh in his mind, the interview felt like a journey into the immediate past.
William Percival Lewis enlisted in the First Buckinghamshire Battalion of the Oxs and Bucks Light Infantry, where he was a signaller for No.6 Beach Group. They set sail for France from Portsmouth at six in the morning on D-Day. For the majority of those young soldiers, it was the first time they had ever left England—and for many there would be no return journey. They arrived at 11am. Percy describes the thousands of boats ‘all over the place’, listing many of the larger vessels by name. Carrying his wireless equipment, Percy boarded the landing craft with a group of other men, including an officer and two Royal Engineers.
As they made for the shore, Percy could see burning tanks and two white lines they were told to make for as soon as they came to a halt. “You didn’t need telling twice!” Percy comments about the order to dash for the shore, with German shells hurtling towards them. Once they had climbed onto the sand dunes, the company split up and Percy got his equipment out; he has no idea to this day what happened to the men in the other party, he never saw them again. Setting up a wireless device was no mean feat, and as Percy patiently demonstrated it for me it was hard to imagine an exhausted, frightened young soldier expertly handling twelve-inch copper rods and earphones, struggling to get a signal. In the event, there was dead silence and they were ordered to pack up the equipment and wait.
What followed was an agonizing wait through the night, but no more craft came to their beach. It turned out that the place at which Percy’s regiment had landed was particularly treacherous and he could see the evidence of the bloody battle the first wave had fought all around him. There were dead bodies everywhere, plumes of acrid smoke, and the debris of blown-up lorries. The eerie silence was broken from time to time by planes dropping bombs nearby.
Percy’s stretch of beach was quickly abandoned and his company went on the move, occupying an abandoned German pill box which they realized formed part of the original Maginot Line. It turned out to be an excellent base, equipped with a kitchen, room for twelve men, several abandoned machine guns and a periscope which allowed them to observe the German movements across the river.
A series of unfortunate turns
The pill box became Percy’s home for the best part of three weeks. When they were not watching for German incursions, they were unloading the stores that had followed the men—rations, ammunition, the vast stores needed to support an army beginning the arduous process of liberating Europe. It was when Percy’s battalion was broken up and he was drafted into the Black Watch that his life took the first of a series of unfortunate turns. There was the eerie calm before the storm as the battalion advanced towards Rouen. “We hadn’t seen a German for two or three days by then, they were in retreat.” But finding their advance cut off by a river, they dug down in an orchard and found themselves under heavy fire. “We’d run out of ammunition and we were out of message pads. I offered to go and fetch some.”
Percy made it back to the barn where the medical officers and a signaller were based. He picked up the message pads and began making his way back. “There were mortars falling all over the place. I flattened myself on the ground once or twice, but eventually I got back to our trench and dived in. That’s when I felt it. The other men were going, ‘what’s the matter? What’s the matter, Percy?’ and I was just pointing at my boot.”
The other men leant him against the wall of the trench and cut through the laces of his boot, calling for stretcher-bearers when a large quantity of blood poured onto the ground. He had been hit by shrapnel but the shelling was so severe by then that the stretcher-bearers were forced to shelter in the trench until the shelling eased off and they could carry Percy back to the barn. “The medical officer bandaged it up to stop the bleeding, stuck a label on me and put me in a jeep.”
I had an unfortunate eruption of the giggles at this point in the interview, imagining a young Percy having a label slapped on him like Paddington Bear or a jar of jam. “They stuck labels on everything!” Percy assures me. “Yellow labels, blue labels, all sorts of things. I think mine was blue, can’t remember why.”
He was sent with other wounded men from dressing stations to field hospitals and finally back to England, to a hospital in Staffordshire. Percy appears to have been quite bewildered by all the fuss: two weeks in a hospital to allow the wound to heal, a spell at a rehab centre in Stoke-on-Trent, where he was given his Blues (the blue trousers, white shirt and red tie worn by wounded soldiers), all for a wound he never noticed at the time he was hit. “Funny what you don’t notice under fire,” he observes. “I didn’t even feel it until I was safely back in that trench. It had ripped right through the skin. But it hadn’t damaged the bone or muscle.”
Before long, he was back in uniform and back in France, then through Belgium where they had ‘a bit of a scrap’ which I take to mean they nearly got blown to pieces. They moved inland through Holland, with Percy explaining to me the painstaking ‘leapfrog’ strategy of platoons advancing, summoning others, holding the line while other platoons moved through, the long, torturous crawl of the Allies across western Europe, facing an unpredictable enemy, one minute in full retreat, another offering violent resistance. Percy’s company arrived in a Dutch village in the middle of the night and occupied two houses opposite a crossroads. “Nothing much happened, it was quiet. I remember there being a little woodyard nearby. Funny the things you remember.”
It was when Percy was ordered to radio back the message that they were safely established that he noticed he had lost his aerial. Somewhere back in the darkness, the aerial had snapped off and the company had no way of communicating their position. He was ordered to go back and find it. I do not know if it is simply the anaesthesia of the many decades that separate Percy from that night, but when he talks about slinging his rifle over his shoulder and walking out alone into the darkness with the moon rising above him, he betrays no sense of fear at all. “I marched myself along, got a fair way down the road. Then suddenly I hear, ‘Halt!’ I ignored it and kept walking, but there it was again. ‘Halt! Are you friend?’ I looked around for shelter and noticed a row of cottages with an open door, so I thought, ‘I’ll duck in there.’ I dashed over to the door, straight into the arms of a German.’”
Suddenly, Percy found himself surrounded by German paratroopers. He threw down his rifle and raised his hands but he felt a rifle butt slam into his back and he was shoved into the middle of the road. His first thought was that they would realize the direction he had been traveling in and his company would be routed. “I kept thinking we’ll all be killed. All of us. We’re not fifty yards away from my own men.”
But the Germans had other ideas. He was taken into a cellar full of German paratroopers. “There was a desk and four chaps sitting there. They pushed me towards the desk, took away all my gear. One of the chaps said, ‘Comrade?’ And I said, ‘no.’ Then I thought, ‘did someone speak English?’ I thought I’d heard someone behind me, saying, ‘help me!’ I turned around and there’s a man under a blanket, saying, ‘my hand! My hand hurts!’”
Percy knelt down and pulled the blanket back to find that the man’s hand was a bloody mess, the skin hanging off. ‘There were two German Red Cross men standing there, looking on and doing nothing to help him.’ Percy immediately dug out the man’s emergency first aid kit and started winding a bandage around the man’s hand to try and stop the bleeding. His German hosts watched nonchalantly as he attempted to save the man’s life. “I made the tourniquet with the bandage and a pencil I found on the floor,” says Percy matter-of-factly, “but as you know, you can only leave the tourniquet on for twenty minutes or gangrene sets in.” I nod sagely. “He needed water very badly, so I got his water bottle, but a German put his foot on it to stop me. So I hit him and gave the man a drink.”
As soon as Percy had finished attending to the man, all hell broke loose. “I heard shouts of Raus! Raus! A German officer had burst in. I was dragged to my feet, a rifle was planted in my back and I was hauled out of the cellar.”
Percy’s captors marched him down the road, past a Panzer tank. “Suddenly, I could hear so much firing going on and I knew it must be my own chaps who were taking it.” Percy found out later from two friends in other units, that this company had indeed come under fire and every single man had been killed or wounded. His friends had realized Percy must have been captured when his body wasn’t there.
In the meantime, Percy was marched to an abandoned infant school, which he says was covered in swastikas and pictures of Hitler. Here, he was handed over to ‘four massive Germans.’ They allowed him a few hours sleep followed by long hours of marching, often under fire, until they arrived at a castle. By this stage, Percy was exhausted and disorientated. He was taken to a German officer for a surprisingly friendly interrogation, during which he gave his name, rank and number and was asked about the movements of various British divisions. He denied everything, but took the opportunity to look at the massive map on the wall to work out where he might be. He had been a scout master before the war and could find his way around a map. “I’ll talk to you again in the morning,” said the officer, a little ominously, as Percy was led out.
There was another cellar, more Germans cleaning weapons, but at least in this cellar there were bedsteads and the chance of some much-needed rest. Three bedsteads, two of them occupied by the filthiest men Percy had ever seen – or smelt. “They were covered in mud and stank to high heaven.” It turned out that the two men were Gordon Highlanders who had fallen into a bog while chasing two Germans. The Germans had thrown a stick grenade at them, which had fortunately failed to explode. Having failed to kill them, the Germans pulled the men out and took them prisoner instead.
When the Allies got too close, the prisoners were marched to a railway station, where they were given a small square of bread each and forced into cattle trucks. “There were about a hundred of us squashed into two cattle trucks. Straw on the floor, barbed wire over the windows.” The men had no idea where they were being taken. For three days the train chugged towards Germany, moving only at night. They were given nothing to eat or drink and it was too crowded to lie down.
When the train finally came to a halt, Percy could hear the RAF bombing the nearby docklands. The train had pulled up next to a train full of potatoes and the starving men were allowed out in groups of two or three to grab as many potatoes as they could. “We wiped as much of the dirt off as we could and ate them raw, we were so hungry. We were soldiers, we were used to eating well.” They were quickly bundled back onto the train and the journey continued, until one night, they were woken by a deafening roar. The RAF had destroyed the engine and the guards’ van of the train.
The Germans ran desperately through the fields but the prisoners were trapped in the cattle trucks and screamed to be let out. When they were finally freed from the train, they watched in astonishment as another train arrived and a group of around thirty Russian women were marched out under guard to repair the broken railway tracks. They worked through the night and were taken away again. Then the Allied prisoners were put on another train and carried to a prison camp in Germany.
“I’d never seen so many bloomin’ people in my life!” commented Percy, describing the moment they were marched into the compound. “There was every nationality you could think of. Around 14,000 Russians, at least a thousand Brits in the British compound.”
The prisoners survived on a portion of watery soup, black bread and a small quantity of cheese in the mornings and bread and imitation coffee in the afternoon. “It turned out to be full of anything they could sling in it – acorns, wood bark – but we had no choice, we just drank the stuff.” As the war in Europe moved to its bloody conclusion, the numbers in the camp swelled, with more prisoners arriving every day. One such prisoner was a sergeant major well-known among his men as a harsh disciplinarian. Percy gives me a hilarious impression of a querulous sergeant barking incomprehensible commands which feels horribly familiar even for a civilian. “You’re prisoners like me!” barks Percy, “but you mess about and you’ll spend ten years in a British jail, so mind yourselves!” He laughs, “put the sh*ts up me, he really did! But I got to give him his due for the good he done.”
Percy goes on to relate how the Russian prisoners died like flies. Russia was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention and the Russians were subjected to particularly harsh treatment, many of them starving to death. Every day, a truck with a single coffin would pass the British compound bearing the bodies of dead Russian soldiers who were dumped in a grave and the coffin brought back empty. Percy’s frightening sergeant thought they deserved more dignity than simply being dumped into a mass grave and asked the German commander’s permission to march his own men down to the burial site to honor the dead Russians when they were buried.
The camp became more overcrowded and increasingly fierce fighting made it harder and harder for supplies and Red Cross parcels to get through, a problem exacerbated by the light fingers of some of the guards. Instead of getting one Red Cross parcel a week, the men were getting one parcel between four every fortnight. The men clubbed together to pool their meager resources, non-smokers bartering their cigarettes for dried milk, biscuits or chocolate. Empty milk tins could be turned into cups to carry the watery soup they were given.
Percy speaks warmly of the German guards, all of whom were older men who had been badly wounded on the Eastern Front. The prisoners and guards bartered prized goods with one another, though the practice was strictly forbidden. “The guard would come wearing a cape with all kinds of things hidden under it,” Percy explains, “and we’d get overexcited and gather round, and he’d plead, ‘go away! Go back! Me shot, me shot!’
Liberation and back to Britain
One day they woke up to discover a Sherman tank approaching them and most of the German guards had vanished. Ecstatic, the prisoners rushed over to the main gate, only to be accosted by a cameraman, who forced them all to close the gate so that he could photograph the glorious moment of liberation. “I stuck my hand through the gate and made the victory sign,” said Percy proudly, “and the bloke photographed it. I seen that photo in the Imperial War Museum!”
Opposite the camp there were three massive warehouses, full of what Percy calls ‘German loot.’ The men quickly broke in and found an Aladdin’s cave of boot polish, razor blades, perfumes looted from Paris, musical instruments of every kind. “But all we were after was food!” Finally, they found food – hundreds of mysterious tins. “When we finally got the damned things open, they were full of solid jelly. We were so starved we got right stuck in, gorged ourselves. And then, nearly killed ourselves.”
It turned out that the jelly was soup in highly concentrated form and the high salt content made the men violently and dangerous unwell. Percy still sounds quite bitter about how poorly they were looked after following the liberation. They were starving and weakened by the harsh conditions, but for weeks after the Allies arrived, they were still scrounging bits of black bread to keep themselves alive. Weighing a healthy 10 stone 10 when he first went into uniform, Percy weighed 6 stone 2 when he was freed after six months’ imprisonment.
Eventually, Percy was taken to an airfield where he and a large number of other men were flown in Dakotas to Brussels and on to Duxford in England. There began the long process of recovery. “We’d already been deloused three or four times when we was prisoners,” he explains with a wry smile. “Imagine that, two hundred young men forced to stand stark naked except for our boots in the freezing cold while our clothes were frozen. The bloody Germans were shouting Raus! Raus! I won’t repeat what we were shouting – can you imagine trying to put on freezing clothes in March?!” He is kinder about the WAAFS back in England with their DDT powder.
He was allowed home only because Percy’s parents lived around the corner from a hospital. He was too weak to carry his own kit bag on the journey home and dragged it across railway platforms and the London Underground. At Slough station, he was too exhausted to move, but a man bustled up to him, calling, “Blimey soldier! You look ill, where you been?”
“A prison camp,” answered Percy. The man immediately picked up his kit bag for him and accompanied him to his parents’ house. “My dad opened the door and immediately started shouting, Lil! Lil! I only realized when he was calling my mum that they hadn’t known if I was alive. All they’d been told was, ‘missing in action.’ Mum was all over me, as you can imagine!”
I can’t begin to relate to what it must have been like for that couple to open the door and see their son—skeletal, barely able to stand, but apparently back from the dead. Percy found himself being greeted to a hero’s welcome wherever he went. There were celebratory dinners everywhere— the British Legion, the Red Cross—but everyone had overlooked the fact that he was too weak after months of starvation to eat anything. His diet was strictly controlled. “I daren’t even drink a glass of lemonade!” he exclaims, “it would’ve just gone straight through me!”
But Percy’s days in the army were not over yet. After three months’ repatriation leave, plenty of rest, double rations and ‘a bit extra from Mrs Mack the shopkeeper’, Percy was deemed fit enough to return to active service. At the army centre in Leeds where he had been told to report, the returning soldiers had their destinations listed on a board, but the names of Percy and around forty others were not listed. They were told to assemble in a gym and Percy says he knew something was wrong when the Colonel entered and immediately told them to sit down. “You’re going up to Scotland for Infantry training.” The war in Europe was over, the war against Japan was still being fought.
The men spent an uneasy night in ‘a place like a castle’ in Scotland to begin their training, woken at two in the morning by a large number of drunken soldiers tipping them out of bed. In the morning, Percy joined hundreds of bewildered men on parade. “What is going on!” he demanded. “Haven’t you heard the news?” he was told, “the Americans have dropped a bomb.”
Percy hadn’t a clue what he meant—quite a few bombs had been dropped during the course of the war, some of them by Americans.
“We were supposed to be going out to Japan. The Americans have dropped a bomb. War’s over.”
Percy spent two more years in the army before going back to his trade as a carpenter. He married in 1952. He found the adjustment to civilian life hard, but found support from other former POWS who discussed their wartime experiences together and tried to make sense of what had happened to them. He went back into the Scouts and threw himself into his pre-war activities. “You’ve no alternative, you’ve got to get on and earn a living!” he smiles, “and you have to remember, by the time I was called up in ’42, I’d already been helping with the war effort. I was in the Air Raid Patrol, going about picking up bits of dead bodies in bags after air raids. Even as a very young civilian, I’d had to adjust to the war. But we all had to.”
“I don’t think we are free.”
Every June, Percy returns to the D-Day beaches with the dwindling numbers of veterans, to remember friends and comrades who never went home to pick up their old lives. Sadly, I discovered as I was putting the finishing touches to this interview, that Percy fell and broke his hip just before making the journey this year and may never get the chance to go back again.
When I ask what message Percy has for the young, he says calmly, “I went through this for freedom. It’s up to you to carry on protecting that freedom. That’s what we fought for. There are thousands of men and women—some of them my friends—who fought for the cause of freedom and are buried in graves all over Europe.”
“Have we protected freedom?” I can’t help asking. “Have we built a world worthy of the generation who fought to free it from the Nazi aggression?”
Percy shakes his head sadly. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we are free. We’ve let ourselves down, we’ve forgotten what we fought for.” For the first time in the interview, he looks very dejected. I am reminded of an old saying I heard once. The old soldier is forgotten in peace. He nods. “Yes. Look at those poor devils who died during the First War. Until about 20 years ago, no one even acknowledged them. All those young lives. I sometimes feel that no one cares.”
I left Percy’s company feeling as though I had journeyed into the past in the company of a very ordinary man who lived in extraordinary times and rose to the challenge with the quiet heroism I have come to associate with that generation of Englishmen. When I was a child, our grandparents were the ones who fought in the war, everyone had an elderly relative with a story to tell. To my children, the Second World War is ancient history. By the time they reach adulthood, there will be no one left who remembers. I suppose it is for them that I want Percy’s story to be remembered, but I cannot shake off that nagging sense of sadness that he feels so let down by his country and so little valued.
My generation grew up revering men like Percy as heroes but perhaps we have not been very good at expressing our gratitude. For what it is worth, I will always be grateful to those soldiers, the young men not much older than my son, who got on those boats at Portsmouth and sailed to the most dangerous beaches in the world without a backward glance. I do not believe that the world will ever see the like of Percy Lewis again.
(Editor’s note: This article originally stated that William Percival Lewis was eighteen years old on D-Day; he was twenty years old.)
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