Smoke But No Gun
Sergeant Henry John Levay Royal Army Medical Corps
The Man Henry John Levay (John) was born on 12th April 1920 at 25 Salthrop Road, Ashley in Bristol, son of Henry Robinson, a Bank Clerk and May Levay nee Oakey. He was the youngest of five children, Christina May (Chrissie) born in 1907, Douglas Stanley 1909, and twins Mary and Margaret 1910. The family later moved to 1 Brynland Avenue in Bristol but Henry senior sadly died on 6th September 1930 aged 57 at the Bristol General Hospital whilst John was only 11. He left May £1048.15s.10d in his will and her to bring up the five children alone in difficult circumstances, despite the will and a bank pension. John gained a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School, an independent school for boys founded in 1586 in Clifton, Bristol, where he studied until 1936 aged 16. On leaving school he went to work for a locally based national cigarette manufacturer in the city, W D & H O Wills, part of the Imperial Tobacco Company, as an Office Boy and later Clerk. He was described as being very keen at his work, as when running errands would literally skid to a halt when he reached his destination, earning the nickname ‘Skid’, a soubriquet he kept until he retired from the same firm some 40 years later. On 28th April 1939 aged 19, John enlisted into the Royal Army Medical Corps, Territorial Army as a Private with service number 7049082, for the 'duration of the emergency'. He chose the RAMC as he had no desire to shoot anyone or carry a gun, and a note in his pay book states 'Protected under provisions of the Geneva Convention 1929'. He passed his recruit training on 20th March 1939. On enlistment John was described as 5'.10 ½“ tall, weighing 128lbs, a maximum chest of 33 ½" with a fresh complexion, green eyes and light brown hair. His medical category was A and his religion Presbyterian. His trade was given as a Medical Orderly. One of his early duties was to stand at the top of Park Street near the University in Bristol with litmus paper on a stick to detect a gas attack. He was embarrassed by constantly being asked by old ladies what he was doing and offering him sweets.
John was posted to Belgium during the early months of the War as part of the British Expeditionary Force and involved in the retreat through France to the beaches of Dunkirk where he was evacuated on one of the small boats after being on the beaches for three days. Although john did not discuss his grim experiences in detail, he revealed he was at some point caring for soldiers who had caught ‘things’ from the local girls, and that it was the only time he had slept standing up. On his return to the UK John attended a course in General Nursing at the Royal Services Hospital. He was promoted to Acting Lance Corporal on 11th November 1942 and Acting Corporal six days later. On 16th November 1942 he re-mustered as a Clerk and on 16th February 1943 promoted to War Substantive Corporal and later Acting Sergeant. Meanwhile back in the UK, John’s future wife Margaret (Peggy) Wallis and two of her colleagues who worked at the Imperial Chemical Industries in London as legal secretaries, had been evacuated to Bristol to escape the blitz and were staying with John’s mother May in Oakwood Road. The three women were literally ‘waiting’ for John when he came home on leave and were all smitten by this young soldier, Peggy clearly won John’s heart as they started a relationship. John was awarded four war service chevrons and towards the end of the war saw service on the Western Front following D-Day and was present in post-liberation Paris in 1945. For his war time service he was awarded the1939-45 Star, France & Germany Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45 and the Efficiency Medal ‘Territorial’, his war service counting double for the latter. On 23rd April 1946 John married Peggy at the Church of All Saints in Carshalton, Surrey and they lived with May at 28 Oakwood Road, Henleaze later moving to Muller Avenue. In April 1952 they adopted their only daughter, Judy who was three months old. John continued working at Wills but Peggy chose not to work again. Neither John nor Peggy could drive and so they would catch buses, trains or walk everywhere. In 1955 when Judy was four the family moved to Berkshire Road in Bishopston. John was described as a lovely Dad and used to read stories to Judy imitating the voices of Winnie the Pooh and his chums. He was also a Bristol Rovers fan attending all the home matches, and also very fond of cricket. As he lived within walking distance of the Gloucestershire County ground he would spend a lot of time there and occasionally go direct on the bus home from work, Judy meeting him there later straight from school. On Thursday evenings for many years John and Peggy would take a 30 minute walk to his sister Margaret’s house in Henleaze Gardens, where they would play Canasta, at which John was very good. Margaret was married to Cyril Sims a Wing Commander in the RAF. John also did the Telegraph crossword daily, managing to complete it most days in a 15 minute tea break. John retired from WD & HO Wills in 1980 aged 60 and having risen to the head of the Engineering Department, and being well regarded by colleagues. He was super healthy and never had a day off work sick, his only ailment being hayfever, which he had used as an excuse not go to church with his mother because of the flowers on display. During 1985 John and Peggy moved to Pembrokeshire to be closer to Judy, her second husband and three children, who loved John, particularly during board games as he would get very excited, especially if he was winning. John and Peggy were not generally sociable, and Peggy did not enjoy going out and mixing. They did everything together and were never known to argue, John adopting an ‘anything for a quiet life’ attitude. He was however a member of the RAMC Association and his official badge number was 4361. John died of cancer on 15th August 1996 aged 76 at their bungalow in Glandwr Havefordwest, Dyfed in Wales. In the two weeks before his death he still managed to complete the Telegraph crossword so long a Judy filled it in for him, only missing the last two days before he died. He was cremated at Parc Gwyn Crematorium in Narberth and Judy scattered his ashes close to the bungalow where he had spent his last 12 happy years. Peggy lived another nine years and passed away during 2005. His daughter Judy poignantly said of John, “I still miss him a lot, and cherish the fact that he told me a couple of days before he died that he had never for one moment regretted choosing me”.
The Story The medals awarded to Henry John Levay were acquired direct from his daughter on E-Bay on 12th May 2016 and following some negotiation by e-mail. They were of interest due to the paperwork included with them and the fact the recipients Daughter, Judy was willing to provide a detailed biography and additional photographs and items of documentation in order to help preserve her Father’s memory. A poignant tale and one from the heart of a family member.
World War II Medal award certificate & confirmation of Efficiency Medal
- 1939-45 Star: Unnamed as awarded.
- France & Germany Star: Unnamed as awarded.
- Defence Medal: Unnamed as awarded.
- War Medal 1939-45: Unnamed as awarded.
- Efficiency Medal: 7349062 CPL. H.J.LEVAY. R.A.M.C.
This page last updated 13 Jun 16