Blind veteran ‘moved’ by family care home link

Peter Van Zeller. Picture: PA
Peter Van Zeller. Picture: PA
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A blind veteran who lost his hand to a sniper in a post-D-Day assault has discovered he lives in the same nursing home which cared for his war hero father.

Peter Van Zeller only realised his family link to the Blind Veterans UK centre near Brighton when he moved in and discovered his father’s name was on an honours board of fallen heroes.

Tank commander Lieutenant Thomas Van Zeller, of the 5th Battalion Tank Corps and Lovat’s Scouts, was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry during the First World War.

He rescued wounded soldiers from a bridge under attack near Brie in March 1918 while under shell fire.

Later in the conflict he was the only survivor when a tank blew up in his face, and he was subsequently treated by the charity then known as St Dunstan’s.

The blast left him blind with shell fragments lodged behind his eye and damaging his nose and jaw. After 20 operations he regained sight in one eye and his face was reconstructed.

Peter never knew his father was brought back to the centre for rehabilitation after a stroke later in life, dying there aged 87 in 1978.

Tearful to this day about the discovery, Peter said: “I was very moved when I saw that and very proud.

“It is still difficult now to accept all of this. It’s quite extraordinary.

“I knew he had been with St Dunstan’s 100 years ago but I didn’t know a lot of detail – he never spoke about it.”

The 97-year-old was born in London and grew up in Inverness where his father retired from duty as a farmer.

Still at school when the Second World War broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force aged 18, training as a pilot, flying a Westland Whirlwind fighter in 263 Squadron protecting convoys of cargo vessels at sea.

But he left after two years when a friend piloting his plane while he was on leave, crashed and died.

He returned to the Highlands but became “bored” with civilian life and joined the army in December 1943.

The veteran was sent to Sword Beach in Normandy in June 1944 about a week after the D-Day landings.

He said: “We were lucky, we were the first lot of reinforcements after D-Day. We were dispersed to regiments which had high casualties. I was drafted into the Somerset Light Infantry and I lasted about a month.

“The end of my second military career.”

Aged 23, he was shot in the right arm by a sniper during an assault on the town of Villers-Bocage and his hand and forearm had to be amputated to avoid gangrene.

He describes it as the “best of luck” because he was not shot in the back.

After the war he gained an honours degree in agriculture at Oxford and then studied at university in Aberdeen.