Credit for the formation in 1941 of the Special Air Service, today the World’s most respected special force unit, has traditionally been given to David Stirling. This, as those ‘in the know’ acknowledge, is only part of the truth. Jock Lewes, a young Welsh Guards officer, was at least equally responsible and yet, until now, his character and contribution have never been closely studied.
Drawing on hitherto unpublished personal journals, this account of Lewes’s life, tragically cut short on 31 December 1941 during an SAS deep penetration patrol, makes for compelling reading. Brought up in the Australian outback where he learnt self-discipline and self-reliance, he went on to have a brilliant career at Oxford University; as President of the Boat Club he was instrumental in the dramatic 1937 victory against Cambridge. Thereafter he spent time in pre-war Berlin where he was at first seduced by Hitler’s socialist policies and by a young Nazi supporter, one of the two loves of his life, but soon became disillusioned, establishing links with opposition factions.
Despite his lack of military experience, Jock quickly proved himself a radical tactical thinker and brilliant leader and trainer of men, a rare combination. He also developed, and gave his name to, the lethally effective Lewes Bomb. His exceptional talents found expression in the development of the SAS concept and ethos. Without his and David Stirling’s partnership there would have been no Special Air Service; as Sitrling later chivalrously admitted, ‘Jock Lewes could far more genuinely claim to be the founder of the SAS than I’.
As well as being the long overdue biography of this highly gifted and complex individual, Jock Lewes, Co-Founder of the SAS, is a major contribution to the bibliography of British Special Forces.
In this excerpt author John Lewis quotes at length from Jock Lewis’s report on his first raid – arguably the first ever raid by the SAS. Two officers each led troops of fifteen men out from the besieged Tobruk garrison for an attack on Italian strongpoint known as the ‘Two Pimples’:
Everything went like clockwork. Jock arrived 200 yards south of the post and heard uproar from the Italian lines; before zero hour he heard ‘laughing and singing, political arguments, a truck being unloaded like a Covent Garden lorry, the concrete mixer and a stiff breeze were all in our favour.’ Dressed in tin hat, shirt, shorts, stocking tops, puttees and rubber-soled boots, he was given the job of silently ‘bumping first’ the outer defensive line on his right as he approached from the rear. Extracts from his Tobruk diary that was sent to MEHQ seem unedited, highlighting both the grotesque and banal in the heat of battle:
A hundred yards to go and up went the diversion, plum to time; the moonless night covered us, but the stars here are always bright enough to show you all you want to see without being seen. We came on faster and crouched lower, still there was talking and laughing in the lines; suddenly the pimple loomed up ahead, a single shot was fired, we were too far to the left but had to go on, I signalled the final rush, and as I reached the foot of the mound, firing into the embrasures with which it was honeycombed, there rose behind me the pitiful wail of the great Italian soldier in extremis.
The head of my troop ‘arrow’ had actually passed through the outer line without seeing it and unnoticed; as the arms swept on they bumped it, and were now busy winkling out the wretched screaming Wop from his sangars and entrenchments with the bayonet, or rolling in grenades when he lay low.
The place was like a disturbed ant heap; Italians, for the most part dressed only in trousers, ran grimly for their lives, silent and scuttling, fell screaming when brought down with fire, knelt with raised hands before bayonets, crying pitifully, or just whimpered as they grovelled underfoot. The top of the pimple we had bumped was chaos. Some of the Italians as they ran threw their absurd grenades at us, they flashed and filled the air with smoke and dust; the shots from our own men were crackling past from behind, and more and more men were climbing up the mound.
Menfrom all troops were there, mad with excitement, shouting obscene profanities at the fallen and departing enemy. Prisoners taken by one man, and left in his eagerness for more, were bayonetted by those folding in from the left and centre. Soon the whole force was dancing a mad war dance on and around the pimple.
To get the troops off the pimple was the only way to restore control. I ordered my troop back. This was taken as the signal for a general withdrawal, the sappers lit their fuses and shouted their prearranged warning to get clear. The withdrawal had begun, the enemy were quick to sense it, and at once before we were clear of the outer lines an LMG opened up and got two men with its first burst. It was very gallantly attacked and silenced, and no more short-range fire troubled us.
By now the troops were properly sorted out, the defensive fire was screaming over. Our plan worked perfectly; the long march southward with two wounded men, one unable to walk, was slow, hazardous and nerve-racking; the noise was terrific, and the coloured fire in the sky most awe-inspiring.
The Very lights seemed to go up every five minutes, not at the quarter hours, and we seemed hardly to have moved between its appearances, but at last we reached the safety of our wadi, climbed the other side, which was being mortared relentlessly, swallowed our tea and rum at the cookhouse, and so to our cave and sangar to sleep, while the Italian continued to roar defiance from a distance in the pleasant impersonal manner that he prefers.
Jock reported the two casualties and tended the pair, removing his pullover to warm the cooling body of a man shot in the neck; the soldier was fatally wounded, but the other escaped with a broken arm. The official estimate of the enemy casualties was one hundred, but Jock regarded that as ‘an exaggeration, fifty would be closer’. Most of the guns on the ‘Twin Pimple’ went up with a ‘lovely roar’. Jock was disap- pointed that he had been unable to ‘exploit our extraordinary good fortune’ while the objective lay for a while completely at the men’s mercy ‘instead of dancing our war dance on top of the pimple’ — ‘but there it is, that’s how it happened, and I suppose, being inexperienced soldiers, almost without excep- tion, it could hardly be expected to have happened any otherwise.’
The attack took place in the early morning of 18 July and the following day Jock wrote to his father that he was ‘able to lift up my head in the presence of those who have been in battle and stood the test of action’:
Last night I led an attack which has been universally proclaimed a success, but what pleases me more than praise of those higher up is the fact that the men of my troop are satisfied with me, and in knowing that with the help and strength which I needed on that night I can do much better. But the Italian is no soldier and fighting him is a hateful business,(so let’s talk no more of it.)
On 20 July David Sutherland arrived when Jock’s senior officers decided that the ‘Twin Pimples’ raid had not after all been a complete success; they now demanded a much-needed prisoner. David Sutherland noted the nature of his raid leader:
It was then I got to know and much admire Jock Lewes. He had an easy, powerful, long-ranging stride of an Australian grazier. Immediately I noticed how supremely intelligent he was, a rare conceptual thinker, a highly geared brain with practical application for everyday operational needs, and fearless too — a formidable man.