Friday, April 22, 2011

Billy Lee's 'European Tour' of 1940

Photographs (Top to bottom):
1. Private William Harker Lee, MM
(5th Battalion The Border Regiment, WW2)
2. The French Pyrenees: Cirque de Gavarnie with Spain beyond
3. The Rock of Gibraltar (late 1930s photograph)
4. Arrowthwaite (Kells) district of Whitehaven, Cumberland
('Home' for William Harker Lee MM)

For additional information click on 'Comments' below


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Additional information

"His country, whilst he lived, a boon supplied,
And faith her shield held o'er him when he died;
Hope, Christian, that his spirit lives with God ..."

William Lisle Bowles (1762 - 1850)
'Epitaph on Benjamin Tremlyn ...'

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(1) Summary of Billy Lee's wartime adventures

Private William Harker Lee MM (known as 'Billy') was born in Whitehaven, Cumberland in 1920. Before the war, while working as a coal miner, Billy Lee enlisted to the 5th Battalion The Border Regiment, the traditional Territorial Battalion for West Cumberland. On 17 April 1940, Billy Lee - then 20 years old - embarked for France with the 5th Border Regiment (part of the 126th Brigade, 42nd Division, B.E.F.). They landed at Le Havre the following day, 18 April 1940.

The Division was then moved to the Lille area where they constructed defences along the Franco - Belgian border. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands, Luxemburg and Belgium on 10 May 1940 Billy Lee's Battalion (5th Border) was ordered to advance and straddle the Escaut to 'hold the line'. They marched to Tournai (Belgium) with the roads crammed with refugees heading in the opposite direction. Because of the swift German advance, the men of 5th Border were ordered to blow bridges to slow down the Germans. They then withdrew in stages towards Dunkirk via Cysoing, Lesquins, Bizet (near Armentieres) and Mousbrugge-Harringhe.

After the withdrawal of the B.E.F. to the Dunkirk area, at the beginning if June 1940 Billy Lee was seriously wounded by enemy machine gun fire. At the time Billy was in position near St Valery guarding the perimeter of the territory still under British control and allowing the evacuation to continue. Billy was taken firstly to the CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) and then to hospital. While he was in hospital the Germans finally arrived at Dunkirk and Billy Lee was taken prisoner.

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Billy Lee was in hospital for about a month, and then taken to a POW camp at Tournai, Belgium and locked in a cell. At the end of August 1940 Billy managed to escape from the prison camp, made his way back to the UK via France, Spain and Gibraltar. In 1941 he was awarded the Military Medal, receiving it from King George VI at Buckingham Palace, London.

After being treated for his wounds Billy Lee MM reluctantly returned to his pre-war occupation as a miner. What he really wanted was to be back in the army with his mates. Nevertheless, with the war drawing to a close Billy decided to settle down somewhat and in January 1945 he was married Miss Julia Fleming of 16 North Street, Cleator Moor. Julia's brother, Private Hugh Fleming, also of Cleator Moor had served with Billy Lee in the 5th Border Regiment in France but was killed German spring assault of 1940.

After the war, in 1947, Billy got a different mining job at William Pit, Whitehaven as a 'brusher'. Then, during the afternoon shift on 15 August 1947, there was a gas explosion underground at the William Pit, Whitehaven and 104 miners lost their lives. After all he had endured in the darkest days of the war in France in 1940 William Harker Lee MM was one of these 104 men who died in the gas-filled dark of William Pit. Some accounts about the men who died in the William Pit explosion give the address of William Harker Lee MM as 26 Aldby Street, Cleator Moor. This is where Billy's widow Julia - his next of kin - lived for a time after the tragedy. However, Billy Lee's true 'home district' was the Arrowthwaite (Kells) district of Whitehaven. His actual home address was 16 Thwaiteville, Arrowthwaite, Whitehaven.

Billy Lee MM had given an account of his escape to M.I.9 immediately after making it back to Britain. The transcript of this interview is now available to read at the British National Archives at Kew, as are the personal accounts of many other wartime escapees. In addition, Billy also gave an interview to a reported from 'The Whitehaven News', the local weekly newspaper in his home area. More than 60 years after his tragic death William Harker Lee MM is once again able to tell the story of his 'European tour' of 1940 in his own words. The date of Billy Lee's interview with M.I.9 was Thursday 5 December 1940, while the date of the interview with 'The Whitehaven News' was Tuesday 10 December 1940.

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(2) Billy Lee's statement to M.I.9
(Thursday 5 December 1940)

Transcribed from:
National Archives Doc. No WO/373/60
(Image Ref. 77)

No; 3599849 Private William Harker Lee, The Border Regiment

3599849 Pte. W.H. Lee, 5th Border Regiment, 42nd Division

Captured - 3rd June 1940
Escaped - 26th August 1940

Left Gibraltar - 19.11.1940
Arriving Liverpool - 04.12.1940

Home address: 16 Thwaiteville, Arrowthwaite, Whitehaven, Cumberland

Length of service: 18 months

Profession: Miner


My Battalion was in position near St Valery on about the 2nd June. On the following day I was wounded by machine-gun fire and taken down to the C.C.S.


While I was on the operation table in the hospital, the Germans walked in. I was kept at the hospital for a month and then moved to a prison camp at Tournai in Belgium. While in hospital my treatment was good, but this changed once I got into the prison camp, where I was locked in a cell and only allowed out to get my wounds dressed. During one of these journeys to the doctor, passing through the guard room, I noticed where the key of my cell hung and was able to steal it, unlock my cell door at night and walk out of the camp.


This was on August 26th. On leaving Tournai I crossed the French - Belgian frontier and made for a village called Erre where I lived for some time with a Frenchman. This Frenchman decided eventually to join me in my escape South, and we got the train at Lille for Paris with another Frenchman, who paid for our fares and managed to get me a Carte d'identité

In Paris we stayed for three days sightseeing. We then took another train to Toulouse, where we stayed for three days at the Bristol Hotel. From there we went to Perpignan and then to Amélie-les-Bains, where we crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. At Figueras in Spain we were arrested and the Frenchman was searched by the Civil Guard and had to surrender 74,000 francs. From Figueras we were taken to Miranda del Ebro concentration camp and, when I was released from this camp and taken to Gibraltar, the Frenchman remained behind.

INTERVIEWED by M.I.9 on 5th December 1940

M.I. 3 (a) and M.I.6 were advised of the date and the time of the interview.

M.I.3 (a)
P.W.3 Extracts
M.I.9 File 3 copies

[NB: This I would regard as the 'definitive' account, although some things have been missed out (e.g. the names of the French people who helped him). This document omits mentioning another British soldier who escaped from the prison camp at the same time (see Billy's statement to 'The Whitehaven News'). One imagines this was for security reasons].

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(3) Billy Lee's statement to 'The Whitehaven News'
(Thursday 5 December 1940)

Extract transcribed from:
'The Whitehaven News', Thursday 12 December 1940 (page 5)
Cumbria County Archives, Whitehaven Records Office
(Reel NP05104)

"During the fighting I was wounded in the back and stomach by shrapnel and had four machine-gun bullets in my legs. I was taken to the British Hospital and was there when the Germans came. When I was able to get about I was put into prison uniform and sent to a prison camp. The food was awful - cabbage soup, black bread, rice and potatoes - so I determined to escape at the first opportunity. I managed to pinch a key out of the guard room and made my way out of the camp with a lad from Birmingham.

We got some civilian clothes, money and food, and then set off for Switzerland. We made our way through Holland and Luxembourg but we were told we had no chance of getting through. We then made our way back to Belgium, swimming through canals as the bridges were guarded by 'Jerries', and crossed into France. Here civilians helped us and we set off for Spain, which we eventually reached though it was pretty tough going over the Pyrenees. In Spain we were arrested and put into gaol, but after 60 days our release was effected and we got on board a ship for England.

Altogether, it took us about five months to get home. Now I have to go back to hospital to have the remains of the bullets and shrapnel extracted - what will happen after that I don't know. I can tell you I am more than glad to be home again but I rather miss my pals."

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(4) Some personal comments

In the years since the war family and friends of Billy Lee MM have talked about his successful escape: how he managed to get out of the prison camp, who he may have met, where he went and how he finally managed to get home. Unfortunately, after Billy died so tragically so soon after the end of the war he was never there to tell the true story of what happened. According to Billy he and the British pal who escaped with him first decided to head for Switzerland. When they found they were unlikely to get out by this route they headed towards the French frontier. This was an area they had got to know in the months before German invasion.

There are, of course, perils in relating historical events without corroborative evidence. Therefore having these two personal accounts by Billy about his escape is really providential. They also give an indication of Billy Lee's personality.

M.I.9 was the escape section of British Intelligence during WW2. The information that Billy Lee was able to give to M.I.9 about making a successful escape would have helped them a lot, particularly at a time when most of mainland Europe was under Nazi control. A copy of Billy's statement was also given to M.I.6, the British Secret Service.

Sometimes the simplest plans are the best. After the war the popular view - reinforced by books and films such as 'The Wooden Horse' and 'The Great Escape' - was that escaping POWs would spend several weeks or months digging a tunnel under the perimeter fence of the prison camp. Having worked as a miner before the war Billy Lee would have made an excellent tunneller. But why bother digging an escape tunnel when you could just unlock a door with a key and simply walk outside? That took care of the first stage of an escape plan.

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

As already mentioned, after the initial plan to make for Switzerland seemed futile Billy and his British pal headed for the French side of the Franco - Belgian frontier. Quite possibly, they had already made friends with some of the local French men and women. Billy and his pal next made their way to the small village of Erre about 25 miles south of Lille. Erre is an 'arrondisement' of Douai in the French Nord 'département' (59).

At Erre, Billy Lee, still not fully recovered from his wounds, was sheltered by a sympathetic Frenchman. It is not clear from the available evidence we have if Billy and his British pal split up at this stage. Similarly, the name of the early French 'résistant' who sheltered Billy in his time of need is also unknown for the present. Possibly Billy and the French 'résistant' had become friends while the 42nd Division of the B.E.F. was in the area earlier in the year.

Billy's next step to make a successful escape was to make it back to British held territory somehow. The summer of 1940 was also the time when an almost unknown French General, Charles de Gaulle began to make regular radio broadcasts to the French people from unoccupied London. De Gaulle appealed for Frenchmen who might happen to find themselves in London to make contact with him and continue the struggle against the Nazi Occupiers. This may have been why Billy Lee's French pal decided to join with him in heading towards the South.

In any case, being travelling with a Frenchman in France can only have improved Billy's chances of getting home. One cannot imagine Billy having learnt much French prior to going overseas. Being able to obtain a false Carte d'identité throughout a friend of a friend was another factor that helped Billy travel about quite normally.

Paris during the first summer of Occupation was full of German soldiers, newly-arrived German administrators and many of the top brass of the Nazi party including Adolph Hitler, Herman Goring and Albert Speer. It seemed they all wanted to see round Paris. They went round the city as any tourist would do and had their photographs taken in front of the main sites. For example, Hitler was famously photographed standing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

In Paris, Billy and his French pal followed in the footsteps of Hitler and Goring by spending three days sightseeing! The original M.I.9 transcriber recording Billy's escape account has underlined this part of the statement. Going round Paris as tourists rather than 'skulking about' in the dark corner of a café meant they would blend in better with everyone else.

Having obtained false identity papers meant they could take the train towards Toulouse and cross the demarcation line between 'Occupied France' and 'Vichy France'. According to Billy they crossed the Pyrenees south of Amélie-les-Bains, which he found evidently found tough going because of his wounds. Neither of Billy's statements gives the exact details of how or why he was released from the Spanish prison camp after being interned by the authorities. Could this have been due to 'diplomatic negotiations' by the British Embassy staff in Spain? Did the Frenchman who Billy had been travelling have enough money left to pay the authorities to effect a release? Once again, because the documentary evidence does not give a more detailed explanation, one can only speculate.

Whatever led to Billy's release from the Spanish prison camp the sight of the Rock of Gibraltar - especially for a young man born and brought up in a coastal town - must have been a welcome one. From Gibraltar Billy Lee was able to catch a boat to Liverpool, and from there back home to Arrowthwaite, Whitehaven. Billy's French pal stayed behind in Spain although it is unclear from the statement if the Frenchman remained interned or was free to return to France and continue as a 'résistant'.

Tuesday, 03 May, 2011  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(5) Further information

When Billy Lee MM was wounded while the B.E.F. was being evacuated from Dunkirk one of those who helped Billy on to the First Aid lorry was one of his best pals - and someone I would later come to regard as a good friend - Mr John Lowrey. For many years John Lowrey was the Secretary of the West Cumbria Branch of the Dunkirk Veterans Association until the Branch voluntarily disbanded in 2000 shortly after the 60th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation.

In August 1947, after the William Pit explosion at Whitehaven John was a member of the nearby Haig Pit Rescue team helping with the rescue. John's team came across the body of his pal Billy Lee MM and John helped carry his pal's body out of the darkness of the mine and into the daylight above ground. For more details about Johns Lowrey and Billy Lee MM click on the following link:


For further photographs and information relating to Billy Lee MM click on the following link:



1. Mr Tony Goddard
(Assistant Curator, KORBR & Border Regiment Museum)

2. National Archives, Kew

3. Mr John Lowrey
5th Border Regiment, WW2 & Dunkirk Veteran
(Former Secretary, Dunkirk Veterans Association, West Cumbria Branch)

4. Cumbria County Archives
(Whitehaven Records Office)

5. 'The Whitehaven News'

Wednesday, 04 May, 2011  

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