Jock Lewes: From Tideway to Tobruk – Part I 

HTBS Types may consider that “Game of Thrones” actor Alfie Allen (left) is not entirely convincing as Oxford Rowing Blue and pioneer special forces soldier, Jock Lewes (right) in the new BBC drama series, “SAS: Rogue Heroes.” Allen picture: BBC.

9 November 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on the man who took on Cambridge and then Rommel when both tasks seemed hopeless.

HTBS Types may have noticed that Göran R Buckhorn’s 2011 piece, Jock Lewes: Famous Oxford Blue & SAS Soldier is back at the top of our “Most Popular Posts” column. British readers will know that this is because of SAS: Rogue Heroes, the new six-part BBC drama series allegedly chronicling the Second World War origins of the famed British Army special forces unit, the Special Air Service (SAS). It is by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, based on the book of the same name by Ben Macintyre and it will air in the US on MGM’s Epix network. 

The SAS was formed in North Africa in July 1941 as a strike force that could operate independently deep behind enemy lines. David Stirling, an aristocratic adventurer and rebel, is often cited as “The Founder” but he gave equal credit to Jock Lewes, Paddy Mayne and Georges Bergé.

While it is timely for an update on the life of John Steel “Jock” Lewes (1913 – 1941), I do not intend to say very much about the television series or anything of Lewis’ involvement with the founding of the SAS. Both have been widely written about by people better qualified than I. I will concentrate on just two particular aspects of Lewes’ short life: his unfortunate flirtation with politics and his time rowing at Oxford.

Dramatic License 2022

Jock Lewes as a member of his school Cadet Corps (left) and later as a hardened soldier (right). Despite his lack of combat experience, Lewes quickly proved himself a radical tactical thinker and a brilliant leader of men whose rigorous and intensive training programme moulded the early SAS. It is difficult not to speculate how much of his time as OUBC President had honed these skills.

I have only watched the first four episodes of SAS: Rogue Heroes thus far but I would sum up what I have seen as “enjoyable nonsense.” While it is set in the 1940s, Heroes is a drama that could have only been made in recent times, notably in the fact that all the main characters are “troubled” in some way (modern heroes must have feet of clay and mental ‘elf issues) and in its use of heavy metal and punk music in the soundtrack. Included are AC/DC, Motörhead, The Clash and Sham 69. Some people on Twitter have complained about this anachronism but would they be so concerned if classical music from the eighteenth century was used instead? 

An opening caption tells us that it is “Based on a true story, the events depicted which seem most unbelievable are mostly true”. Steven Knight had trouble with the fact that many of the things that actually happened sound like a product of cheap fiction.

Whatever the truth, in Knight’s version of history, lowly Lieutenant Lewes, even during his pre-SAS time, is apparently free to fight the war in North Africa with as much latitude as he had when he was the President of Oxford University Boat Club tasked with defeating Cambridge.

There is no mention of Lewes’ rowing background and there is no indication that he was brought up in Australia. Further, at 170 cm and 67 kg, Allen is a little effete to play the 183 cm, 80 kg handsome and athletic Lewes. 

In a flashback, Lewes and his girlfriend, Mirren Barford, are rather unnecessarily seen in flagranti in a car parked by what I take to be the River Cherwell in Oxford. “It’s what all the young people in America do, apparently” she says, taking the lead. Sadly, my main interest in this scene was trying to work out if Jock was wearing a rowing tie – it had light blue and white diagonal stripes. As he was a gentleman, he kept it on during the brief proceedings. 

However, none of this really matters, the seriesis about entertainment not education. Most importantly, as The Guardian’s review says, “It is witty, pacy, confident, and, as you might expect, occasionally very violent.”

Germany 1935 – 1938   

A magazine picture of 31 July 1936 showing Lewes and other Oxford University Boat Club oarsmen on a tour that he organised of German regattas. John Lewes, Jock’s nephew and biographer, noted that, “(Jock) wrote letters home singing the praises of Germany and refused to back his rowing group’s anti-Nazi activities.” [Editor’s note: “Winte” mentioned in the caption in the magazine clipping should be “Winser”.]

In the late 1990s, John Lewes discovered 450 letters in an aunt’s barn that Jock had written to his parents between 1924 and his death in 1941. Among other things they revealed that, between about 1935 and 1938, Jock Lewes was at least “impressed by” or “sympathetic to” the new National Socialist Germany that had come into being in 1933. 

In summer 1935, at the age of 22, Lewes had first visited Germany on a cycling trip. On a personal level, after two years at Oxford, he was dissatisfied with his studies and was having doubts about his planned military career while, on the international stage, the Great Depression had exposed the worst failures of capitalism. Thus, like many young people at that time, Jock Lewes was open to new ideas. 

Lewes was impressed by German students that he met and their arguments against the Versailles Treaty. Certainly, it was reasonable to argue that Germany had been too harshly treated by Britain and France following its defeat in 1918 but Lewes naively took things further and came to believe that Britain and Germany should have united during the First World War and wrote things such as “England is no democracy and Germany far from being a totalitarian state”. His letters spoke positively of the growing Nazi culture and he refused to agree with British anti-Nazi opinions.

In a review of the book that John Lewes wrote following the discovery of the letters, Jock Lewes Co-Founder of the SAS (Pen and Sword, 2001), a partial preview of which is here, Amelia Hill wrote in The Guardian of 23 July 2000:

The content of the letters is so at odds with Lewes’s patriotic wartime persona that some military historians have suggested his early behaviour may have been a front and that Lewes may have been a government agent.

Other experts have speculated that his pro-Nazi past explains why Lewes, unlike David Stirling, commanding officer of the early SAS, was never properly feted for his contributions to the war effort, despite Stirling’s admission that, “Jock Lewes could far more genuinely claim to be the founder of the SAS than I.”

Preparing for a job at the Foreign Office, Lewes spent periods in Berlin. His infatuation with the new Germany was intensified when fell in love with, and later became engaged to, Senta Adriano, a German society beauty who was also an enthusiastic Nazi. In 1938, she and Jock attended a ball where Hitler and Goebbels were the guests of honour. Picture: Jock Lewes Archive.

In the 1930s, many people were equally as politically naive as Jock by their admiration of the Communism of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Further, Lewes was not the only apparently thoughtful person “dazzled” by National Socialist Germany. The most famous “wise fool” was the great social and economic reformer, David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister 1916 -1922. After meeting Hitler in 1936, Lloyd George called the Reich Chancellor, the “greatest living German” and the “George Washington” of a peace-loving Germany, determined to never again go to war with Britain.

Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Adolf Hitler pose for a photograph during Lloyd George’s second visit with the German Chancellor in June 1936. Picture: US Holocaust Memorial Museum/Public Domain

John Lewes claims that it was Kristallnacht, the Nazi regime’s coordinated wave of antisemitic violence on the nights of 9th and 10th November 1938, that finally made Jock see National Socialism for the horror it really was. He broke off his engagement and wrote to his parents:

I have been struggling to believe or rather retain my belief in German sincerity but only a fanatic faith could withstand the evidence they choose of their own free will to put before us… I have great faith in Britain and I swear I will not live to see the day when Britain hauls down the colours of her beliefs before totalitarian aggression… I shall willingly take up arms against Germany, almost gladly.

It seems a very neat, sudden and theatrical volte-face, more worthy of a work of dramatic fiction. Real life changes of belief are rarely so pure and simple. However, what cannot be questioned is the fact that Lewes more than made up for his admiration of fascism between 1935 and 1938 by his active fight against it between 1939 and 1941, untimely dying for the anti-Nazi cause, killed when an enemy fighter strafed his convoy, his body lost in an unmarked desert grave.

In Part II, posted tomorrow, I will deal with Jock Lewes’ time rowing at Oxford, 1933 – 1937.

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