Mildura Weekly : Friday August 15 Vol 8 No 41
18 NEWS MILDURA WEEKLY FRIDAY, AUGUST 15, 2014 By ALAN ERSKINE WILLIAM Lewis has only a vague memory of his parents. His father, a Spitfire pilot, was killed in the Bat- tle of Britain, and his mother was a French Resistance undercover opera- tive who was tortured and killed after being captured by the Nazis. Growing up in the Rhondda Val- ley of Wales in the UK, young Wil- liam had his public school education taken care of under a scheme run by the King himself, for children who had lost both parents. At 17 he sat for, and was accepted into The Lifeguards, the most senior Regiment in the British Army, serving for 32 years. Army life, and a succession of hair-raising jobs in parachute and glider operations training, provided plenty of action, thrills and spills... but they were nothing compared to later on in life, when 6ft 4ins Bill tackled the wilds of outback Austra- lia. The William Lewis life story, even the abbreviated version, makes a ‘Boy’s Own Adventure story’ read like a kindergarten fairy tale. It’s a story that starts with his grandfather going from France to Alaska to join the great Klondike Gold Rush, making his fortune be- fore settling in the UK. Money was no object, so he sent his son, Bill’s father Thomas, off to the best univer- sity he could find to study law. Thomas graduated, but instead of a career in law, opted to start his working life as a teacher, working at various schools in his beloved Rhondda Valley, spending holidays travelling in Europe. It was during one of these trips that he met and married the viva- cious young Parisian Pauline Poirot. It wasn’t long before she became pregnant, and was carrying William by the time Thomas brought her home to Wales, where she became the centre of attention...no-one in their home town of Treherbert had ever seen anyone wearing the fash- ionable European clothes of the day... or make-up for that matter! According to Bill, Pauline stuck it out for only a few years before re- turning to France, where she joined a French group involved in under- cover work. She was later arrested by the Gestapo, who had cracked the French and Dutch resistance move- ment codes. Pauline was incarcerated in pris- on in occupied France, questioned and tortured for six months before being transferred to the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she was executed in April, 1945, along with 40 other spies. Their death came less than two weeks before war’s end. “She never had a chance,” Wil- liam said. “The Germans had cracked most enemy codes, and knew ex- actly where and when spies from the French and Dutch resistance move- ments were being located. “The Germans had already swooped on aerial drops of guns and ammunition destined for freedom fighters, and my mother and other operatives were arrested immediately after parachuting into an area near Lyon.” Thomas Lewis had joined the Royal Air Force at the start of the Sec- ond World War, serving as a fighter pilot in the famous Spitfire squad- ron. He was shot down in August of 1940, in a ‘dogfight’ over the English Channel. His body was never recov- ered. With only the vaguest memories of his parents, William grew up as a loner, and even now, aged 78, it’s a trait he is still comfortable with. He admits he finds it hard to get on with most people (don’t ask him what he thinks of politicians...especially Tony Abbott), and has his music - and a selection of 2000 books - for company. It’s when Bill talks about his Army career that you get a better in- sight into the man himself. He was a career soldier from the age of 17, starting with the London-based Brit- ish Life Guards, part of the famed Royal Household Calvary, and the oldest of the guards, dating back to 1658. Bill has many colourful tales of serving with the British Army in the Middle East...including spending, in his words...”two years playing Law- rence of Arabia.” Bill admits he was always up for a challenge, and after he returned from the Middle East (‘busted’ from 2nd Lieutenant to a corporal...he just smiles without giving the rea- sons), he trained with a parachute regiment, successfully completing a 25-week course that included eight jumps...two of them at night. The course came in handy. Later, while trying out with the best of the best, the Special Air Services regi- ment, he was required to do a jump from just 500ft (normal jumps were at 8000ft). “Scariest thing I have ever done,” he admitted. “The chute and I were still in a pendulum motion when I hit the ground and rolled. That was my first - and last - jump from that height.” Bill tried twice - unsuccessfully - to get into the SAS. He did everything that was required of him during the six-week courses, but got the ‘Return to Unit’ order both times. He didn’t see anyone else his height (6ft 4ins) at training, and thinks that might have been the reason. Regardless, the SAS takes only the toughest, the fittest, the elite, as proven by one story Bill tells. SAS recruits were made to do a forced march, with full packs and combat gear, covering 120 miles (193km) in 72 hours...through thick bracken bush, forest and rough ter- rain. One recruit who broke his an- kle at the half-way mark, bound it up tightly, made some rough crutches and completed the trek - on time! Instructors still disqualified him - for breaking his ankle! Bill says some Brits are hard to please. He went on to train as a glider pi- lot, flying aircraft big enough to carry two armoured cars, training under Staff Sergeant James Wallwork, who achieved fame as the pilot of the first glider to land at the German-occu- pied Pegasus Bridge on June 6, 1944, helping clear and hold it against fear- some odds to open up a supply route for the Allies. Apparently Wallwork landed his fully-laden glider so close to the bridge - at night - that even the Ger- mans were impressed. Bill said that landing was later described as the greatest feat of flying ever witnessed in World War Two. (Wallwork flew gliders in every major British air- borne operation of the war, and again achieved fame during the Nor- mandy invasion). “I once met an old former Ger- man soldier who witnessed the in- vasion,” Bill said. “He told me he had never seen anything like it...the ocean was filled with invasion vessels of every shape and size, with land- ing craft putting 100,000 men on the beach in a very short time. “Wallwork was one of many who played a key role in that invasion. I was pretty close to him, and got to know the family. After he died, his wife sent me his beret and flying badge. It’s still one of my most trea- sured possessions.” Bill’s experience under Wallwork later led to him carrying glider train- ing overseas, firstly for the French, then in North Africa, later for the Is- raeli Army and then in Rhodesia. He also spent time in Iran, followed by a stint as an instructor with the Royal Afghani Army, where he got to know the then King’s eldest son so well they often played polo together. A great working, social and rec- reational life came crashing down when the Russians invaded Afghani- stan in 1979, and Bill fled, walking across the mountains to the safety of a neighbouring country, eventually finding his way back to the UK. Bill and a mate bought a bat- tered old former police Wolseley car for 100 Pounds, hoping it would last long enough to make it the several hundred kilometres through France and a bit of Spain. Not only did the tough old car make it through the Pyrenees mountain range, it took them on an 8000-km adventure, all the way to Johannesburg. The pair went their separate ways in South Africa. Bill said he had long harboured a dream of becoming a cowboy, so he went to the United States, landing a job on a dude ranch in Colorado, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, helping look after oil- rich executives who wanted the full ‘wild west’ cowboy experience, with the luxury of a swimming pool, bowling alley, good food and five- star living quarters. Bill had been there for two years when USA Immigration authorities caught up with him. He had been on a six-month visa, and was given the option of arrest, or voluntary depar- ture to neighbouring Canada. “It was about that time that I thought I would give Australia a go,” he said, “I came here in 1989, made my way to Berri, discovered alcohol, and became a river rat. I was going through a cask of wine a day, living in a camp with several other people by the river. “People must have been sick of us, and a police raid early one morn- ing meant the end of the camp. I packed up and moved to central Australia, where I was ‘adopted’ by an Aboriginal family close to Alice Springs, and later, near Ayers Rock. “I stayed drunk for two years, but it was here that I had the great for- tune to meet the legendary bushman and cameleer Noel Fullerton, who taught me a lot about these unusual beasts. I ended up breaking in and working some camels, to the point where I went ‘walkabout.’ I took two of the beasts - one to carry the grog, and the second to carry my music and books. “At that stage I was going through two casks of wine a week, two bottles of scotch...and an ounce or two of marijuana. I never saw another per- son for three months...there was no question I was starting to lose it.” Bill slowly made his way back to ‘civilisation.’ He was camped at the Curtain Springs watering hole when, in his words, he met “the most cap- tivating woman, a gorgeous person,” who he credits with literally saving his life, after getting him into a six- month detox program. “I finally got through it, but not before seeing giant monkeys, huge mice and other creatures in my night- mares,” he said. “At that time I was also smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. I gave up those as well. That was 15 years ago, and I haven’t touched a cigarette or a drink since.” After a short spell at Jamestown in SA, Bill moved to Mildura, where he remained for 10 years before de- ciding to go ‘bush,’ making his home in the picturesque lake-side Bush- man’s Rest Caravan Park at Lake Cul- lulleraine. He admits he’s still very much a loner, although he maintains contact with the woman he credits with sav- ing his life, and is content these days to devour up to three books a week, and listen to his favourite classical music, especially Wagner. He also puts his houseboat into the river for frequent fishing trips in the Lock 9 area. And about this time every year, Bill embarks on a special mission, taking fresh fruit, especially oranges, and as many clothes and kids toys as he can collect, to his tribal friends in central Australia. “It’s amazing,” he says. “Some of those kids had never seen an orange before.” A member of the British Royal Household Calvary...glider pilot...parachutist...trained in Special Air Services warfare...work for the Governments of France, Afghanistan, Iran and Israel...a cowboy in the USA...and then his adventures really started! This is the story of... A recluse who came back from the brink! • ONCE A SOLDIER: Big Bill Lewis, 78, uses an old Army greatcoat to keep out the winter chill. • Soldiers of the Blues and Royals and Life Guards performing ceremonial duties at Windsor. Bill joined the Life Guards as a 17-year-old, but later served with the famed British Army Glider Pilot Regiment. • In Australia Bill also worked alongside the legendary cameleer Noel Fullerton.
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