Norman Lewis

Sapper Norman Lewis was captured by the Germans in 1940 and held as a prisoner of war in Poland for five years, until he embarked on an epic 10,000-mile escape.

Norman Lewis

Sapper Norman Lewis was captured by the Germans in 1940 and held as a prisoner of war in Poland for five years, until he embarked on an epic 10,000-mile escape.

Crossing continents to evade recapture or worse, he arrived back on home soil one month before the end of the war in Europe. Now 100-year-old Norman recounts his story on the 75th Anniversary of VE Day.

Capture

“I joined the Territorial Army in May 1939 before the outbreak of war. When it began, I was called up immediately and posted to France.

"I was captured on June 7th 1940 about 10 miles from Rouen. I hadn’t a clue about Dunkirk [which had happened earlier in the week]; nobody told us.

“Seven us were ordered to demolish a bridge early in the morning. The German front was getting closer. Every time we were due to blow the bridge an officer we didn’t know told us to hold on, until eventually we saw German tanks.

“All hell broke loose. Their three tanks opened fire on us with machine guns. Our lorry went up in flames. There were bullets bouncing all around us. The officer of the infantry, who were about 100 yards away from us, shouted: “for God’s sake, blow the bridge! They’re Jerrys!” The Corporal pushed the plunger, but nothing happened. He tried three more times; it wouldn’t go. The Sergeant from the infantry came across to us and ordered us to get out of the area and he lit the fuse, which was a secondary set for the bridge.

“The bridge went up. We were covered in rocks and stones. Nobody was badly hurt. We crawled across the ground and eventually got out of gunfire range. Walking up a hill, we noticed a group of soldiers firing over our heads at the bridge and we thought they were friendly. They shouted to us: “Come over here, Tommy.” So, we went towards them and realised that they were German’s, but not only were they in front of us, they were all around us. We’d walked into an ambush.

“One of the lads got wounded and after five minutes or so, I felt a jab in the back of my neck and, in perfect English, he said to “stand up, for you, the war is over”. I stood up, he stripped me of my arms and I looked around and all of the other lads were in the same boat.

“They marched us to a ditch which was surrounded by trees and they were setting up a machine gun to shoot us. As I was lined up to be shot, I knew I was going to die, my life flashed in front of me. I saw everything, and that I was about to lose it all. But then a German officer coming down the road saw what was about to happen and stopped it and told us to get out of the ditch and start to walk behind the lines.

“Now, I swear blind, that that British officer who stopped us from blowing the bridge up was this German officer. And he saved our lives.”

 

Prisoner of War

“We were forced to journey for hundreds of miles from France through Belgium, Holland, Germany and on to Poland. Buckets of water put out for us by the farmers, as we went passed, were kicked over by the German guards. Any food was walked on.

“After two or three days on the march, it had dawned on me that I was a prisoner and that I couldn’t do much about it, so I accepted it. Some of the lads wouldn’t accept it; they killed themselves. A lot died. Orders came from England that those who were sane were to look after those who were a bit unbalanced.

“At one point I passed out. My friends saw what happened, came back and got me to my feet; because any solider falling to the ground and not getting up was shot by the sentries.

“We came to a pond and the guard’s said, “you can fill your water bottles here.” We filled it with water and had a drink, then went farther up the bend and there was a shire horse lying in the pond with all his insides out. And we had drank that.

“We got to Holland where they put us into coal barges in total darkness. We couldn’t sit down; we were packed that tight. Some died but the Germans wouldn’t take them out.

“Eventually, we got into Germany. They marched us through Germany for a day and then packed us onto cattle trucks for another three days and three nights.

“When the train stopped, we were in Poland at a place called Thorn [Torun]. I was kept in a large fort there for about six months.

"They stripped us of our uniforms. Gave us a Polish uniform; a jacket, a shirt, a pair of trousers and a pair of wooden clogs. We had no boots. We had no socks. I had two blankets a tin to have my meal in and a cup to have a drink out of. We weren’t allowed razors.

“Our meal every day was a drink of coffee in the morning and nothing until dinner time, when we had a bowl of turnip soup and at night-time, one slice of black bread. We were bored sick, with nothing to do, just walking around the compound.

“Men committed suicide; an awful lot of them did.

The Main Camp

“Six months on, we were ordered to come out of the fort and go to a large camp that they had built for us. There were 23,000 men there. I was there for two and a half years.

"The beds were three tiers high with each platform sleeping 20 men. Those on the top bunk were lucky, because all the lice, the fleas, the dirt, the urine, fell through the boards onto those below.

“On the insides of the camp, there was one strand of wire, ten foot from the main barbed-wire fence. Anybody going over that single wire was shot, because the German’s said they were trying to escape. We were playing football one day and the ball bounced against the main fence. One man went charging after it, jumped over the single wire and they shot him.

“Eventually, Red Cross parcels arrived. The first batch was one parcel for 16 men. We had to draw lots. Mine was an OXO cube out of that lot. Eventually, it was one parcel per man per week.

“I learnt to speak German out of spite, because one day a German guard was shouting at me and I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, so I learnt German to swear back at him.

“I don’t hate the Germans – some of them were a bit rough and trigger happy, but I don’t blame them all, because most of the guards had lost their wives and families in the bombings. I was alright with them.

 

Working Parties

“After two and a half years, I was sent on a working party to a sugar beet factory. I was there for six months. The work was hard; it was 12 hours a day.

“There was a bit of sabotage, though: one of the lads put a house brick in when the beet was going down the trough and it wrecked some of the machinery. But they never found out who caused the bother.

“After that, I came back to the main camp and the following day I was called out again to go on another working party. I objected, but they ignored me. I was put on a lorry and sent to work on a farm with another 19 men. It was fate really, because it saved my life, going on that farm.

“When I got there, they put us in a four-bedroomed cottage. The guards were in the first room, the prisoners were 10 in the second room and 10 in the third room with a small passageway in between, with a half a beer barrel acting as toilet for the night. The end room of the cottage was for clothing or for food or parcels to go into.

“A farmer picked me to work on his site and I was there for two years.”                                                                                                                                      

Escape

“We had smuggled a radio and map of Europe into our prison which we’d put on the wall. We heard that D-Day had happened and one of the lads had a red pencil and was inking in every day how far the front was advancing. The Germans heard about the map, but they didn’t tear it off the wall. They came in to have a look to see how far the front was. Every day they would come in and have a look.

“One day in 1945 we heard gunfire. It was the Russian Front. They got closer and eventually the German guards decided they would leave. They asked us to go with them and tell the Russians – if they caught up with them – that they were good to us. We all refused.

“At first they wanted to shoot us, but they changed their minds and they locked us in the prison and threw away the key. Some Poles came and broke the door down and hid us as the battle went on. When we came out of hiding the Russians were in charge.”

 

10,000 miles

“The Russian’s questioned us and after a while said, “you’re alright, go to Warsaw.” It was 175 miles away in very deep snow and we hadn’t got a compass or a map. We found a child’s sledge, and the following day we filled it up with blankets and whatever food we could find and we set off.

“If we had walked north, we would have walked into the German army. So we went south instead. The war was still on and we could have been killed easily.

“The first day we covered four miles. The second day we came to the main road with Russian lorries and managed to get a lift to Warsaw. We were dropped off in the middle of the night after a two-day drive and some partisans took us down into their cellar gave us food. The following day they took us to the Russian headquarters.

“A Russian officer questioned us all and gave us a sheet of paper to write our details on. Everything we could think of from our hometown; cinemas, shops, street names, neighbours, anything. A week later word came back that we were telling the truth and they took us down to the main square.

“The Russians put us on a cattle truck with a basket of food, a drink and some blankets. There was a fire in the middle with a stove and straw at either end. We were on there for six days and six nights and ended up in Odesa.

“After a week, they took us down to the docks and we boarded a ship. It was a British ship, so we got to pick our cabins.

“We set sail through Constantinople in Turkey, to Egypt, to Italy, to Gibraltar, to Liverpool.

“During the journey I sent a telegram back home to say “I had arrived in Egypt, hope to see you soon”. Dad must have wondered “how the hell has Norman got from Poland to Egypt?” but that was it. That was the only word they had.

“They later told me the telegram lay on the table for a couple of hours – they wouldn’t read it because I’d got a younger brother who was also overseas and were scared it was bad news.

 

Back Home

“Back in England I was taken to Amersham, for 12 hours. We had brand new uniforms, doctors, dentists, money and medal ribbons sewed up. Then they put me on the London train for Stoke.

"I got to my parent’s house at 4 o’clock in the morning. My dad opened his bedroom window and said, “who’s there?” I said, “it’s me, Dad. Norman.” I had never seen my Dad breakdown before. He opened the door and my Mum came downstairs and they started to put food on the cooker. I said I wasn’t hungry, but they wouldn’t believe me. I weighed just 8st 6lbs when I returned home.

"That night, I couldn’t sleep in the bed – it was too soft – so I got on the floor and my parents didn’t like that.”

"The following Monday I was talking to my next-door neighbour and I saw a young lady cycling over the hill. I thought, “she looks nice.” It turned out to be his sister Dorothy. I took her out that night, then I took her out the next night. By Wednesday I knew, “she’s the one I’m going to marry”. We were married for 70 years until she died five years ago. We have three children and 17 grandchildren.

“I got back in April and had six weeks leave from May until September, one day for every month I had been overseas and then I went back to the army. After a week back, having medicals, they dismissed me. I was unfit for further service.”

“I was told I’d have five years’ back-pay to pick up. I used mine to buy the house which I still live in today. It cost me the princely sum of £650. £2 16 ½ pence per month.”                                               

VE DAY

“I remember the news coming through about the end of the war in Europe. I remember Churchill standing up and telling us that Germany had surrendered. I went out and there were people in the streets dancing. There was drink. It was wonderful. Dorothy had gone to work, and all my friends were away at war, so I had the day to myself.

“All the shopkeepers came out of the shops, and people put a street party on. We just laughed and were happy.

“I was longing to get back and to pick Dorothy up, at 5pm. We didn’t do anything in the evening. At home we had a glass, me, my dad and Dorothy. That was all.

“I was glad. I was glad Hitler had got beaten and there would be no more killing.

"I don’t want it again.”

 

SSAFA

A few years ago, a nurse spoke to Norman’s local SSAFA branch in Staffordshire to see if they were able to support him.

Kathy Munslow, Divisional Secretary went to meet him, have a ‘chin-wag’ and find out how she could help.

“It was a chin-wag that changed my life.” according to Norman.

Though Norman didn’t want much help, Kathy was able to provide him with a wheelchair to help him get about.

She also introduced him to Geoff from a local partner charity called Tri-Services. Geoff is also a former Royal Engineer (though younger), and the pair visit Norman every week to check and address his needs and to swap stories.

Through Kathy and Geoff, Norman has met many other veterans, attended memorial ceremonies as guest of honour and even been awarded medals he didn’t realise he was owed.

They even hosted a party for Norman’s 100th birthday last year.