Lewis, William H (Bill)

Summary of William (Bill) H Lewis

Bill Lewis was a signalman in the Royal Signals Corps, captured in the Libyan desert 8 May 1940, and held as a PoW in Sulmona and then in Stalag xi-Ai. His story is told by his daughter, Jill, interspersed with entries from his tiny diary that he wrote while in the camps and on the run, and general historical details researched by Jill for context. Photos collected by Bill add to the text. Bill returned to Sulmona in 1973 with 100 former comrades.

The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.

Lewis, William H (Bill) by George Mitchell

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William (Bill) Lewis

Notes from Jill Burford, daughter of Bill Lewis

William (Bill) Lewis made notes about his wartime experiences in a tiny notebook that somehow he kept all through the war.  The writing was tiny, barely legible and in very faded pencil.

Bill Lewis died in December 1973 shortly after his return to Sulmona – the reunion weekend organised by Joe Drew. The regular reunions held in London were a vital link to Bill’s experiences as a POW first in Sulmona and then in Germany. These men had shared so much as young men and they could continue to enjoy each other’s company in much more convivial circumstances. An episode of “This is Your Life” featured Joe Drew. Many of the Sulmona ex -POWs, including Bill Lewis, appeared on the show.

Bill used some basic Italian in his notes and he often spoke Italian phrases at home. He loved Italy and in 1966 he drove his family in a Morris Traveller through Europe finally finishing up in Italy. He had really intended to drive to Sulmona on that trip, but the family only got as far as Lake Garda.  Bill did finally manage to return to Sulmona in 1973 along with 100 former comrades.

The article below by Jill Burford appeared in the Monte San Martino Trust NEWSLETTER in 2016.

MY SISTER Pat Krivine and I had long planned to visit Sulmona, in the Abruzzo, eastern Italy, to pay our respects to the brave and generous families who had helped our father and many of his comrades during the difficult days following their break-out from Camp 78 after the Italian Armistice in September 1943. We were able to make the trip in April at the time of the Freedom Trail based on the town. We had limited information about the wartime exploits of our father, Signalman Bill Lewis. Sadly, he died in 1973 when we were too young to ask detailed questions. However, we had some knowledge based on his sketchy diary, and news following his return to Sulmona in October 1973 with 100 former comrades. He was captured in the Libyan desert and was shipped to Italy, eventually arriving at Camp 78, near Sulmona, in May 1940. Despite some terrible experiences at Camp 78, we understand there was also an enormous spirit of comradeship. Activities were arranged, including football matches and plays including the Mikado. Dad remained a keen fan of Gilbert & Sullivan all his life. Red Cross parcels and letters from home held special significance, and must have broken the monotony of being imprisoned. With help from English residents of Sulmona, we were introduced to Luigi and Mario, who live in Marane village. They had been born post-war but had plenty of stories from their family history. Apparently, in 1943 everyone in Marane knew that some escaped prisoners of war, including Dad and Charles Pomeroy (“Pom”), were hiding in a cave high up the mountains behind the village, but everyone kept the secret. Mario and Luigi knew about the Primiero-Santo family who had provided immense support to Dad and his comrades while they were lying low by providing

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food and clothing. The cave was immediately above their house. Dad’s diary refers to many days when he had “no grub” and also the “B. awful weather” – so the days when a meal of pasta with vegetables was carried up to them must have seemed like a feast. The Germans were in the area, posing huge risks to anyone who helped the PoWs. Indeed, we were shown the white cross on the mountain that marks the grave of an Italian partisan who had been shot by the Germans for doing just that. Every year a service is held in his memory. Mario and Luigi took us up a steep rocky track that led to the cave and I climbed inside. This was extremely emotional and it certainly brought me closer to this traumatic time in my father’s life. The cave was dark and bats flew out when Mario shone his flashlight in one corner. This was a pretty inhospitable and uncomfortable space, which offered nothing more than a simple shelter. From his diary, we can tell that Dad was based in the cave for a couple of months, returning to Camp 78 a few times, on the lookout for food. He was on the run for six months, but was recaptured by the Germans only a few hundred yards from the Allied lines. We were also shown the former home of the Primiero-Santo family, who emigrated to Australia after the war. We know Dad was immensely happy to visit members of the family in 1973. They remembered him and proudly showed him that they now had mains water. The three-day 16th annual Freedom Trail in Sulmona began on the 23rd April. A throng of people of all ages assembled in Piazza Settembre XX and miserable weather didn’t deter the walkers. We walked some of the way on the stage to Campo di Giove but waved goodbye to our friends just outside Sulmona. Our experiences in Sulmona were emotional but enlightening. The Italians we met were passionate and very mindful of the sacrifices that had been made by the families who had experienced great hardship during the Fascist regime and later under the German occupation. We have some regrets that we did not attempt the full first day of the Freedom Trail but we hope to return another year with our families. We also want to track down the Primiero–Santo family in Adelaide and make contact with any surviving descendants.

Notes from Bill Lewis, interspersed with his daughter’s Jill Burford’s comments

William H (Bill) Lewis  Service No. 2581945
26/04/1939 Royal Corps Signals 280 Signed up  (aged 20)
13/11/40 Posted to Middle East –
17/11/40 Sailed from Liverpool on “SS Strathallan”
[Jill’s note: Strathallan was torpedoed by Uboat 22/12/42 off the coast of Algeria]

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SS Strathallan

29/11/40 Arrived Freetown, Sierra Leone
01/12/40 Left Freetown

04/12  Boxing competition on board  
[Jill’s note:  my father organised this competition and  won the Middleweight contest]

04/12  1st round
05/12  2nd round
07/12  semi final
12/12  Arrived Durban
16/12  Left Durban
24/12  Swimming Race  6 lengths (50 yards) 2min 10 sec
28/12  Swimming Gala
[Jill’s note: my father organised this too]

28/12   Arrived Port Suez
31/12   Landed in Egypt – Tahag
28/01/41 Leave Cairo
29/01   Pyramids
29/01   Citadel
31/01   Returned Tahag
10/02   Wireless course

[Jill’s notes: The Italian 10th army had been destroyed by British and Allied Western Desert Force attacks during OPERATION COMPASS (9 /12/40 – 9/02/41)
OPERATION SONNENBLUME – Rommel – dispatch of German troops to Northern Africa in February 1941. Part of the Western Desert Campaign (06/02/41 – 25/05/41) – Axis Victory (Germany, Italy, Japan) in Cyrenaica, Libya.

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14 February advance of units 5th Light Afrika Division (later renamed 21st Panzer Division) arrived in Tripoli and sent immediately to the front line at Sirte.
This move by Rommel was apparently unexpected despite copious intelligence reports from British military intelligence)
Sonnenblume had been underestimated by General Archibald Wavell (Commander in Chief Middle East) the War Office and Churchill. Many British units had been transferred to Greece and others to Egypt to refit leaving the 3rd Armoured Brigade under strength, its worn out tanks began to break down. Some commanders appointed by Wavell were incompetent and Wavell relied on maps which he found to be inaccurate when he later arrived to see for himself. 
In 1949 Wavell wrote “I had certainly not budgeted for Rommel after my experience of the Italians.  I should have been more prudent….”]

21/02  First letter received from home
09/03   Left Tahag
10/03  MENA
11/03  Burj Al Arab      Sidi Barrani       El Salloum
12/03  Mersa Matruh
13/03  Bardia
14/03  Tobruk
15/03  Derna
15/03  Letters received  from Trudie and home (posted 12 Dec and 15 Jan)
16/03  Benghazi
01/04  Ajadabia
04/04  El Abiar
05/04  Barce
06/04  Blue
07/04  Fort Mechili

[Jill’s Notes: The Italian armoured division Ariete captured the British garrison at Mechili – a considerable British force was captured which led to the British retreat continuing to Tobruk and then to the Libyan/Egyptian border.]

08/04  Captured
13/04  Left Mechili
13/04  Derna
21/04  Left Barce
22/04  Benghazi
03/05  Left Benghazi
04/05  El Agheila
05/05 El Burat

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06/05 Tripoli
06/05 Sabrata
07/05 Registered Red Cross
12/05 Left Sabrata

[Jill’s Note: My father sailed from Tripoli on the vessel “Barbarigo” which was torpedoed and wrecked later that year -15/07/41]

SS Barbarigo

14/05 Arrived Naples  Capua   Red Cross parcel received
31/05 Left Capua
01/06 Arrived Sulmona

Men in the camp at Sulmona

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28/07 Cardinal visit
06/08 American ambassador visit
25/08 Bishop of Rome visit and Red Cross Representative
05/12/41 Cablegram from home

[Jill’s note: No entries in my father’s diary from Dec 41 – Sept 43 but I know he was fully immersed in camp life as others have documented there was an enormous spirit of comradeship in Camp 78 – football matches, boxing contests, concerts etc. Red Cross parcels and letters from home held special significance.]

[Jill’s note on the Allied landings in Salerno-Calabria-Taranto
Support operations launched in the South as diversion for the main Salerno landings – 8th Army landed in Calabria 3rd September (Operation Baytown) from Sicily.

Further landings in Taranto 9th September (Operation Slapstick) British 1st Airborne Division – no opposition from Germans
Main invasion force (Operation Avalanche), landed around Salerno 9th September. Beaches well defended by Germans and there were heavy casualties (over 6,000 in the British X Corps).
8th Army marched north to Foggia and captured the airfield 27th September then advanced as far as the Volturno line (from Campobasso to Larino and Termoli on the Biferno River). The winter of 1943/4 was harsh and the terrain was difficult – it took until mid-January 1944 for the Allies to fight through Volturno, Barbara and Bernhardt lines to reach the Gustav line.]

Map of defence lines South of Rome, 1943/4

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08/09/43 Peace with Italians 6.30pm Football match

[Jill’s note: this section of the diary was tiny writing in very faint pencil, it was extremely difficult to decipher I have tried my best but there are a few question marks and gaps. I know Pom was my father’s good friend Charles Pomeroy with whom he travelled back to Sulmona in October 1973 in a 3 day visit organised by Joe Drew– Dad died in December that same year.]

09/09 Parade on pitch
10/09 Walking round camp
11/09 Jerries passing through Sulmona all night
12/09 Pom, Cyril W & I go for walk outside camp 5.30 Reached peak at 11.30
13/09 Left two Canadian officers & headed south.  Kipped till 6am.  Pom could not make it so we left Mac & party and came down to load up and get water and grub.  Slept near village. At night went back to Camp to scrounge some grub.
14/09/43 Jerries at a scrap at Camp with Carribo? (Rumour) another Scarpa blows over must keep with old Sweats? Dick, Charles, B? Joe, Mike, Canning move into old house
15/09 Move into house Jerries been rounding up blokes mountains. Another Scarpa, Pom & I duck down till 8.30. Meet Trigg, go to cave
16/09 Watch Jerries rounding up blokes 16.00 at camp
17/09 Got some grub at village at night. Went up with C. E and S -? of Charlie Pomeroy
18/09 Cliff gives us bread
19/09 – 26/09 Keeping in all day, scrounging grub at night
27/09 Trigg & Wilson go to Sulmona
28/09 Flap.  Cliff, G?, Sam join us
29/09 – 7/10 Keeping low
08/10 Flap.  4.30am move up to Cassetta
09/10 Capt Lucas & 3 others arrive
10/10 No grub
11/10 Papa & Swiwel? With grub.  E, Sam and Cliff to Sulmona
12/10 Swiwel? comes, told us to wait
16/10 Flap.  Joe & cousin?  ??  Sleep in a hut
17/10 Flap.  Sam .  close. a..bb..nd.  I went back to hut at dusk found S & E Kit gone.  Slept out
18/10 Met up with Cliff.  Others go di coppiato (stealthily)
19/10 Met Iti  Yank, Mac & Rice
20/10 5.30 am for water.  Goats milk
22/10 Everyone browned off to eyebrows. Sam Euphan….?  sempre domani
23/10 Cosimo turns up with bags of grub. I got gaff at water point. Blokes coming back from other side lack of grub.

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24/10 Cliff & I go for rekky di sopra 2 come back 4.00pm. lot of duff gen
25/10 Rumour Castella di Sangro
27/10 B. awful weather.  No grub 4 days. Last brew of chocolate. Wogs returning to camp
28/10 Wogs come back. Sleep in Phil’s hut
29/10 Pasqua comes with grub
30/10 Wogs return to camp halfway between Isimuria? & Russo
31/10 Niente grub. Go down tonight if none arrives. 2 women & 2 boys arrive soaked through with grub for Grooso Marshall & co. Got in
01/11 Both Poppa and Cosimo arrive – bags of grub

[Jill’s note: no further diary entries however from another account I know that my father was on the run for six months and was unlucky to be picked up by Germans only a few hundred yards from the British lines.  Dad was transported in cattle trucks and through a series of transit camps to Stalag 11A – Altengrabow until the end of the war.  He never mentioned this camp to us and having read records of other prisoners’ experiences there I am not surprised at all.  It was a very different environment from Sulmona.]

Stalag xi-Ai

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Location map of camp XI-A

Bill returned to UK in May 1945 and was back at work with JWT by August 1945. 

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