Jock Lewes: Famous Oxford Blue & SAS Soldier

Photograph from John Lewes’s book Jock Lewes: The Biography of Jock Lewes, Co-founder of the SAS (2001) published by Pen & Sword Books.

For quite some time now, I have wanted to write something about the old Oxford Blue, John ‘Jock’ Lewes, who was born on 21 December 1913. The other day, the Daily Telegraph had an article about him which gives me a good excuse to bring him up here at HTBS. Of course, for non-rowers, he is mostly famous for being the one who helped David Stirling to found the legendary elite force Special Air Service, SAS, where he invented the so called Lewes bomb. Lewes was killed when a German Messerschmitt fired on the truck in which he was travelling, behind enemy lines in the North African desert in December 1941. Lewes was buried in the desert by his comrades without his grave being marked. With the Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall, Lewes’s nephew, John Lewes, now hopes to search for his uncle’s grave to be able to give him a proper burial. It is believed that his grave is outside the town of Benghazi. Read the article in the Daily Telegraph here.


Regarding Jock Lewes’s rowing career, he rowed in the second seat for Oxford in the 1936 Boat Race against Cambridge, which of course, was the year when the Light Blues were unbeatable with Ran Laurie at stroke and Jack Wilson in the seventh seat. (Both Wikipedia and SAS’s official site has it that Lewes was President of OUBC that year, but he was not.)

For the next year, 1937, things would be different, however. After the 1936 race, Lewes was elected President of OUBC, and that summer he took an Isis crew abroad to race at several regattas in Germany. He started early to train his trail eights, and had some good coaches signed up to coach his Dark Blues: J.S. Sturrock, J.C. Cherry, P.C. Mallam, ‘Gully’ Nickalls, and W. Rathbone as finishing coach. Despite the advices of his coaches not to do it, Lewes arranged that his crew would race against an eight from London RC already on 13 February – Oxford won.

While things were looking up for Oxford, Cambridge ran into some problems. President Laurie suddenly left when he was given a post in Sudan, where his great friend Wilson was already working. The fellow who took Laurie’s stroke seat, H.W. Mason, broke his leg in a ski accident and was out for the season. Cambridge signed up the well-known oarsman Jack Bersford, Jnr., as coach, but this was his first coaching job for a Blue boat and little was achieved.

“The race was full of thrills, for there was a false start and a couple of slight fouls,” G.C. Drinkwater writes in his The Boat Race (1939). At the start Oxford was not ready, while Cambridge took off. After two strokes the Light Blues were called back. Cambridge lead slightly after the second, clean start. Gordon Ross writes in The Boat Race (1954): “it was ding-dong to Hammersmith bridge and the crews shot the bridge a breast.” The crews were level at Chiswick Eyot but at Barnes Bridge, Oxford was leading by almost a length. This gave the Dark Blues a push and they continued to pull away, crossing the finish line first, three lengths ahead of their opponents. It was a sweet victory. Oxford had waited for many years; last time they had won was in 1923. “Behind this great Oxford win there lies the story of a very fine President”, Ross writes. The great rowing journalist and writer ‘Dickie’ Burnell agrees:

“Lewes did more to win the 1937 Boat Race for Oxford than any other man, in or out of the boat. He was passionately convinced that the need was for men who race, and who would be happy together, and that the technique of rowing style was something to be taught by the coaches.” (The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race; 1954)

At this time, it was still the President, not the coaches, who decided who was going to row in the boat. Lewes greatness was proved when coach Nickalls spotted a weakness on Lewes’s side of the boat. R.R. Stewart moved in to replace D.R.B. Mynors at bow, while Lewes lifted out himself in favour of D.M. de R. Winser. Therewith Lewes joined the small and exclusive club of non-rowing Presidents of the Boat Race. When the winning Oxford boat came into the dock, President Lewes was the first one to congratulate the crew. Ross mentions in his book that crew member R.G. Rowe told him that after the race when they drove back for lunch in a hired Daimler, Jock Lewes was standing on the roof honking his coach horn the whole way to Ranelagh Club. Rowe called Lewes an “inspiring President”.

Let us hope that John Lewes find his famous uncle’s grave, so that Oxford Blue and the brave SAS soldier, Jock Lewes, gets the proper burial that he deserves.

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