Major R. Peter C. Lewis
Unit : "C" Company, 3rd Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 77176
Awards : Mentioned in Despatches
"Pongo" Lewis, a name awarded to him by naval friends while he had been stationed at Gibraltar before the war, commanded C Company of the 3rd Battalion. On Sunday 17th, progress along the central "Tiger" Route was becoming increasingly difficult and so the decision was made by Lt-Colonel Fitch to detach C Company in an attempt to outflank their opponents. The following are extracts from Lewis's report of C Company's action at Arnhem.
"D" Day. 17th September 1944.
The Brigade Commander and the Battalion Commander came to "C" Company's position and I was told to find a way round to the ARNHEM Bridge by the NORTH and get there with my Company at all costs.
I proceeded with my Company up a side road which led to the Railway Line as I thought this might not be protected. At the junction of track and Railway Line 9 Platoon (Lieut. Wright) came under fire from an enemy vehicle which quickly withdrew. Two more half tracks and an ammunition wagon were ambushed by this Platoon and set on fire. 7 Platoon (Lieut. Hibburt) attacked a half track which came up in their rear and set it on fire; the total casualties from this action were five Other Ranks.
On reaching the Railway, I gave the men a rest and then proceeded towards the town. We arrived in ARNHEM Station at Midnight 17/18th approx. It was a fairly dark night so I marched the Company through the town to the main square where we encountered enemy soldiers in transport. I told the leading Platoon, 8 Platoon (Lieut. Infield) not to engage the enemy or make a hostile move as I thought they might think we also were Germans: they did, and I marched the Company on the rest of the way to the Bridge. We had captured two prisoners on the outskirts of the town, one being an officer, and at this point, the officer escaped and warned the enemy that reinforcements had reached the bridge.
On reaching the bridge I went forward with my "O" Group and met Lieut. Buchanan, I.O. of the 2nd Battalion, who instructed me where to put my Platoons. 8 Platoon were to go to an important Cross Roads just NORTH WEST of the bridge and the remainder of the Company in some school buildings just NORTH of and overlooking the Bridge. I sent the Platoon Commanders back to move their Platoons. 8 Platoon moved off and I have since heard, reached their area and fought for some days. 7 Platoon (Lieut. Hibburt) I never saw or heard of again. Lieut. Wright later turned up with half his Platoon and told me that there had been a fight and some of his men had been killed and others captured. We occupied the school buildings and prepared them for defence.
As Major Lewis described, Company HQ and No.9 Platoon moved into the Van Limburg Stirum School, which was already held by a larger group of sappers of the 1st Para Squadron, commanded by Captain Eric Mackay. Over the following days this building was singled out for repeated heavy attacks, but each was thrown back as brutally as it came. C Company had made their way to the bridge in a most skilful manner and were the only formation in the entire Division, excluding those who had followed John Frost's "Lion" Route during the early stages, to reach Arnhem Bridge. The arrival of Lewis and his men had almost been a complete success and 100 men could have been brought into the perimeter, however when Lewis and his "O" Group returned from the bridge and began to lead the Company in through the defences, two of their platoons found themselves advancing alongside German soldiers who were about to launch an attack on Frost's positions from the North. Both sides in this skirmish were not immediately aware of the others presence, but once identities had been established a violent firefight ensued. The Germans suffered very heavily and their attack was completely thwarted, but many of C Company had been taken prisoner and Lewis could only bring 45 men into the perimeter.
"D" + 1. Monday, 18th September 1944.
In the morning I reported to O.C. 3 Battalion that we had reached the Bridge. Some half tracks came over the Bridge and from the town; these came up the road only twenty yards from our house and were fired into from the top windows and put out of action. Enemy tried to dislodge us by attacks from the NORTH but failed. We were fired at by 50 m.m. gun of a Mark III tank which came up the road from 8 Platoon area. Determined attack on our house by night defeated by dropping grenades and Gammon Bombs into enemy from top windows.
The latter action took place when a group of relaxed Germans came to a halt alongside the School, believing it to be unoccupied. Lewis and Captain Mackay organised a brutal ambush, mostly using grenades, and Lieutenant Len Wright of No.9 Platoon remembers seeing his Company Commander running from room to room, dropping grenades out of the windows, after which he reported to Wright that he hadn't enjoyed himself so much since he had last gone hunting. Many German casualties resulted from this attack, with possibly 20 fatalities, however no one in the School was hurt in the process.
"D" + 2. Tuesday, 19th September 1944.
Casualties began to mount up and the wounded were getting overcrowded in the cellar. Two men died of wounds. In the evening we were attacked by two Mark VI Tiger tanks which fired solid shot through our house at 30 yards range. I cleared the top part of the house and as they were unable to depress their guns their guns enough they could not clear us from the bottom. The enemy set fire to a row of houses next to us and burnt out Captain Briggs and his party who moved to another building.
"D" + 3. Wednesday, 20th September 1944.
In the morning, the enemy started to hit our building time after time with his Mortars and at Midday set the house on fire. The wounded were carried out and immediately two M.G.42.s opened up at us from either side of the street and the enemy Mortars lowered their range. About six more men were killed and others were wounded. Having been wounded myself in the leg and shoulder, I ordered Captain Robinson, my second in command, to escape with the fit men while the wounded were given up to the enemy. On coming out into the open the enemy continued to fire on the wounded in spite of a white flag being waved and more men were killed. Eventually they stopped firing and made us prisoners.
Both Major Lewis and Lieutenant Wright, who had been taking it in turns to rest, were wounded by the same blast during the artillery bombardment of the school on Wednesday. With the building badly ablaze, capture was inevitable though a few were successful in breaking out to continue the fight for a little longer. Lewis remained behind at the School with the wounded and gave himself up, but first he took the opportunity to praise the assembled group for their heroic defence of the building. To announce their surrender a sapper was sent up the embankment with a white towel tied to his rifle, but he was fired on by a German machine-gunner and wounded in both legs. This man died of his wounds five months after the Battle, and it is rumoured that the soldier who shot him was immediately executed by his own commanding officer for firing on a white flag. As they searched the prisoners and examined the wounded, a German officer shot a hopelessly wounded sapper in the head with his pistol. The man's comrades were dismayed at the time, but have since appreciated that it was an act of mercy.
Thanks to Henriėtte Kuil-Snaterse for sending in this story.
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