How SSAFA helped a Second World War hero find his wife
When Stephen Lewis and his wife Pearl lost touch during the Second World War, Pearl turned to SSAFA. Here we tell the story of Stephen’s war and how SSAFA reunited a war hero with his wife.
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Stephen Lewis grew up in London’s East End and he and wife Pearl were still living in Hackney when war broke out in 1939. Stephen, then a self-employed insurance broker, said: “When I went to join up they said you’ve already joined, your call up date is tomorrow!”
He joined the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and learned to operate 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns before being posted to Hunstanton. “We were very poorly equipped,” he said. “Our anti-tank weapons consisted of bottles of petrol with a rag stuck in the top. We got bombed by Stuka bombers and in one raid my gun fell on me and both my hands were broken.”
Not long after his recovery Stephen sailed from Liverpool. He said: “My officer put me in charge of entertainments because we were at sea for 13 weeks.” Stephen found eight musicians among the troops and organised a series of concerts where he sang the popular songs of the day.
A Sergeant Instructor by this time, Stephen arrived in India and spent a short time there before transferring to Persia. He went on to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, spending just a few weeks in each place instructing on the Czechoslovakian Bren Gun. Stephen was in Egypt in 1943 and joined Montgomery’s Eighth Army for the invasion of Italy. “That was a long war in Italy and it was a rotten war. We quickly demolished the Italian Army but the Germans were really strong north of Naples. It lasted until 1945.”
With his constant movement Stephen found it impossible to keep in touch with Pearl. After three years with no word she feared the worst and turned to SSAFA. The SSAFA Overseas Service was set up to help families who wanted to enquire about men serving abroad but quickly became just as important to men wanting to know about the safety and welfare of their families.
“I kept getting transferred from one unit to another. There were two million in the British Army so how could they keep track of everybody?” Stephen said. “Pearl’s letters never reached me. She got very worried because she thought I was missing. She went to SSAFA and asked them to find out what had happened to me. SSAFA told her they had found me in Italy and I was due to come home shortly. It turned out Pearl was in Ruislip because our home had been taken over to put bombed out victims in. We had to reclaim it after the war.”
While in Italy Stephen found his skills as an entertainer once again in demand with the troops. “When the war was over I happened to meet Spike Milligan, and we were told to organise some entertainment for the Allied Forces. We became great friends and he wrote about that time in Where Have All the Bullets Gone?”
When Stephen got home he was promoted to Company Sergeant Major and posted to Berkhamsted where he assisted British prisoners of war returning from Germany. He left the Army in 1946 and when he and Pearl were reunited they moved to Canada before finally settling in Bournemouth.