Blind veteran discovers he is in care home which treated his war hero father

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 that 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 on March 23 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 Van Zeller
Peter Van Zeller in his RAF uniform during the Second World War (Peter Van Zeller/Blind Veterans UK /PA)

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 shared his story to mark the centenary of the Armistice and to thank the charity for its support.

He 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 and flying the Westland Whirlwind fighter jet in the 263 squadron protecting convoys of cargo vessels at sea.

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

He returned to the Scottish 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.”

Peter Van Zeller
Peter lives at the Blind Veterans UK centre in Ovingdean near Brighton (Peter Van Zeller/Blind Veterans UK /PA)

Aged 23, he was shot in the right arm by a sniper during an assault on the town of Villers-Bocage.

He describes it as the “best of luck” because he was not shot in the back and killed, adding: “All I can remember is there was a violent hit and there was no pain at the beginning, it was just numb.”

He was flown back to Britain and had surgery in Wales.

The bullet shattered the bone between the arm and the elbow, and his hand and forearm had to be amputated to avoid gangrene setting in.

“It was pretty traumatic. I was lucky there was a very clever young surgeon who saved my elbow.”

This made an “enormous difference” to living with a prosthetic hook and after retiring from duty, he gained an honours degree in agriculture at Oxford and then studied at university in Aberdeen.

“I’ve always been with a very strong will. My children call me bloody-minded.

“Nothing was going to stop me.”

Pursuing a career as a farming consultant, he worked for the ministry of agriculture before advising foreign governments and companies around the world.

Aged 40 he met his second wife Betty, who was the housekeeper of a farm he was visiting for work in Gloucestershire.

The pair married and travelled the world together as he continued to work in countries including New Zealand, South Africa and Portugal. While contracted abroad he learned by letter of his father’s sudden death.

The couple were married for 50 years, retiring to Norfolk and then Sussex, where she died in 2012 aged 89.

He was put in touch with Blind Veterans when his eyesight began to fail and he was diagnosed with glaucoma and macular degeneration. He now sees only outlines and is largely confined to a wheelchair.

Thomas Van Zeller
Thomas Van Zeller was injured in the First World War while serving in the army (Peter Van Zeller/Blind Veterans UK /PA)

He moved to the charity’s south coast centre overlooking the English Channel in 2016 and thanks to research by staff learned more about his father’s time there.

Spending much of his time in the home’s workshop making a model of the plane he used to fly, he said: “I can say quite honestly I’ve had a wonderful life.

“This to me is the most wonderful organisation.

“I have no wish to go anywhere else. I’m sure this must be the best care home in the country.

“I don’t lack for anything here. I can’t thank the staff enough.”

He hopes to watch a parade near his home to mark the armistice centenary on Sunday.

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