Who’s thinking about Dunkirk at this time of year? Apart from the really appalling news from the United States, its just a few more days to Christmas, and the season of excess. Well, I’m thinking of Dunkirk because yesterday I received the news that Sid Lewis had died on Friday night. Sid was one of the seven veterans that I interviewed for “I Fought At Dunkirk”.
Sid did not have an easy life. He had been abandoned at an early age, and was taken into care when he was seven. From then on his life was spent in institutions, first in orphanages, and then in a Salvation Army Hostel in Whitechapel. He was in trouble with the law, struggled to earn a living as a labourer, and joined the army for a better life. Six months later, in September 1939 Britain was at war with Germany.
Sid was one of the first men of the British Expeditionary Force to land in France. His unit, the 2nd Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment landed at Cherbourg on September 24th and travelled to their posts on the French border with Belgium. The period from September 1939 to May 1940 became known as the phony war, because there was no large scale warfare in Europe, but there was some, and Sid took part in it. On the French border with Germany near Metz in Alsace Lorraine there was continual shelling, and almost nightly incursions across no mans land by both German and allied forces. Sid spent some hours alone in a hidden look out post in German territory, and the fear that he experienced when his camouflaged slit trench was surrounded by a German patrol almost broke his nerve.
A few weeks later the German Army launched their invasion of France, and Sids unit was on the retreat from Waterloo. Preventing a retreat from turning into a rout is a very difficult thing, and there is no rest for soldiers in the front line. They have no control over the battle. Sid was caught in a major battle at Hollain as the line of the canal was bombarded with shells for twenty four hours, and then his unit, much reduced by casualties had to make a forced march across country to set up another rough defensive line to the west.
Here at Wormhout they came under attack from dive bombers, tanks and artillery. It was an impossibly one sided fight. Sid managed to escape, but ninety six men from the Battalion were taken prisoner and machine gunned to death by a unit of the Waffen- SS. By the time that Sid reached the beach at Dunkirk he was bone weary, and shell shocked. Eventually, back in Britain he received treatment for his recurrent nightmares and anxiety, he transferred to another unit, and Sid took part in the invasion of France in 1944. He stayed in the army in peacetime, but was always in conflict with authority in some way. He was convicted of a minor offence, and his children were thrown out of their Army accommodation when his wife died. He was stationed overseas at the time, so could do nothing to help them.
No, Sid did not have an easy life. I met him when he was a Pensioner in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where he was, finally, getting looked after. He deserved it. In a wheel chair, and now old, he was still complaining that the Hospital was not allowing him to make a trip back to France, because they thought he was too ill.
So, walking along the pavement crowded with Christmas shoppers, waiting while Christmas trees are desperately manoeuvred into too small cars I’m thinking of Dunkirk, and Sid Lewis, one more unsung hero who is no longer with us.