The Fictional Life of Jock Lewes

The 1936 Oxford crew. Jock Lewes is at 2 and his great friend David Winser is at stroke.

28 November 2022

By Göran R Buckhorn

As you loyal HTBS readers and HTBS Types know, some of us writers on this website have a fondness for telling stories about Oxford and Cambridge crews. Earlier this month, Tim Koch wrote about John Steel Lewes, know to everyone as “Jock”, who went up to Christ Church, Oxford, in September 1933, where he took to the oar. As an Australian, Jock had rowed at school in Parramatta.

HTBS has written about Jock Lewes several times before, but Tim wrote a brilliant two-part piece about him (part I and part II) as he plays an important part in the new BBC drama series SAS: Rogue Heroes.

BBC’s drama series Rogue Heroes is based on Ben Macintyre’s book with the same name which was published in 2016.

Jock was a co-founder of Special Air Service (SAS), which worked behind enemy lines in the North African desert during the Second World War. Sadly, he was killed in a raid in Libya in December 1941.

When it comes to rowing at Oxford, Jock Lewes is most famous for a race he did not row in, the 1937 Boat Race, when he as president of O.U.B.C. two weeks before the race, humbly stepped out of the boat to leave room for the “spare”, David Winser, who was Jock’s closest friend at Oxford and had rowed in the previous two Dark Blue crews in 1935 and 1936; in the latter Jock had also rowed. With Winser at “2” and President Lewes in the launch, Oxford won the 1937 race, breaking Cambridge’s 13th straight wins.

David Winser – David Michael de Reuda Winser – is a personal favourite of mine of the mid-1930s Oxbridge crews. I have done research on Winser as I find him a remarkable person. He was a brilliant scholar, oarsman, poet, author, soldier and doctor. As a lieutenant and doctor in the 48 Royal Marine Commando, it was during the Battle for the Walcheren – “Operation Infatuate” – in the Netherlands on 1 November 1944 where he was killed while attending to a wounded soldier on a beach. Sadly, it seems Winser was killed by “friendly fire” from the Royal Navy. Besides Jock and David, three other members of the 1937 crew were also killed in the War, “Con” Cherry, Paul Burrough and Gordon Merifield.

For those interested in Jock Lewes, there are a few books about him that I would like to mention. As well as the rowing history books dealing with the 1936 and 1937 Boat Races and books about the SAS, Jock’s story is told in Jock Lewes: Co-Founder of the SAS (2000). The book is written by Jock’s nephew John Lewes and is mainly about his uncle’s time in the SAS. About Jock and Miriam “Mirren” Barford’s love affair (Tim mentions how the couple is caught in flagrante delicto in a car in a scene in SAS: Rouge Heroes), the book Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters (1995) sheds some light of their liaison in letters written between them, starting with Mirren’s letter of 12 April 1940 and ending with Mirren’s letter of 19 January 1942 – it was first in a telegram on 23 January 1942 Jock’s parents received the tragic news that Jock had been killed on 31 December 1941. Joy Street is edited by Michael T. Wise, son of Mirren and Doctor Richard “Dick” Wise, who served in the U.S. Army in England during the War. Mirren and Dick married on 18 June 1943. After the War they moved to the USA, where Mirren died in 1992.

The third book I would like to mention is a novel by John Lewes, A Spy After All: A Story of Love, Treachery and Adventure (2017). The novel starts in Oxford in August 1939 and the first three characters we meet are David Wintour (David Winser), Jock Steel (Jock Lewes) and Madeleine McLean (Mirren Barford). In the novel, like in real life, Steel/Lewes and Madeleine/ Mirren met for the first time at Jock’s sister Elizabeth’s wedding in Oxford.

In John Lewes’s A Spy After All, the reader meets a fictional Jock Lewes, called Jock Steel.

In A Spy After All, John Lewes kills off Wintour at the Battle of Boulogne in May 1940 – while Winser was killed in November 1944. But this is a fictional story, so the author can do what he likes with his characters in his book. In the novel, Jock is recruited by “C” – remember James Bond’s boss – of MI6 to meet Admiral Canaris, chief of Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, and Canaris and Steel meet in Spain for discussions.

The “fictional” Canaris is based on the real Wilhelm Canaris, who was a Nazi in the 1930s, but, who, after Germany’s attack on Poland in 1939, turned against Nazism and Hitler. It is believed that Canaris met with English agents in Spain during the war. His resistance against Hitler ended in April 1944 when he was arrested. He was hanged a year later in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, a couple of weeks before American troops entered the camp.

In the novel, Madeleine joins MI5 (after her studies at Oxford, Mirren served in military intelligence during the War). Jock fights against German and Soviet agents in North Africa, and A Spy After All ends in Libya in the Autumn of 1941.

Here is a trailer for SAS: Rogue Heroes:

Having read about Jock’s (Lewes) real life and Jock’s (Steel) fictional life, I come to think of the Swedish proverb Verkligheten överträffar dikten – “Reality surpasses fiction”.

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