75 years ago, in the Spring of 1941, members of the British Commandos in Egypt became increasingly disillusioned with both the lack of training and the fighting role that they had been promised time and again. What they wanted was action, unlimited freedom to hit the enemy hard behind enemy lines and disappear to fight another day. They had to wait half a year before they met a true leader in Tobruk.
Lieutenant Jock Lewes of the Welsh Guards was to change the fortunes of a select group of soldiers. As early as March 1941 he had pioneering and developing a raft of training that he alone created, and by May 1941 he had permission to put it into action. He was to train his own ‘band of cut-throats’ for sabotage operations in May and June.
By September This evolved over six months into Lewes’ basic elite training course that was ready to run in September that year and was led and managed by Lewes. David Stirling, inspired by Jock Lewes’ parachute detachment in late May, realised the top brass might continue to cancel Jock’s meticulously planned sabotage operations unless he could remake contact with his father’s colleagues in Cairo HQ: General Stirling and he both had shot grouse with Major General Neil Ritchie before war’s outbreak. Stirling succeeded to bring the huge potential of Jock’s vision and his parachute detachment to the attention of Ritchie who was now Auchinleck’s deputy in Cairo HQ.
I interviewed and recorded the ‘engineers’ of the SAS who had been the leading NCOs at that time. Men like Major Almonds MM, Major Pat Riley DCM and Warrant Officer Reginald Seekings MM DCM, all talked about ‘being dragged from pillar to post’ with no clear role or training before they met Jock Lewes in Tobruk. As Jock had already written to his girlfriend, Miriam Barford:
Militarily we are marking time…the spirit of the army is fundamentally good, but no effort is made to kindle it…and set before us is the simple arithmetic of war.
Part of that arithmetic in North Africa was that the Axis outnumbered the British by about 25:1 at the start of 1940, their weapons, planes and vehicles easily outgunned the British. In 1941, Lieutenant David Stirling was also struggling with the lack of direction that the so-called special service of the Commandos was taking in Egypt. Before Stirling was shown a new way of fighting by Jock Lewes, he had spent much of the first half of 1941 in and out of hospital with injuries and was facing a charge of malingering that was leading to a court martial. How did Jock Lewes, this formidable young leader and manager, lift groups of men out of a military limbo and into special service worthy of the name?
Those same NCOs had learned to trust Lewes’ values, his exceptional leadership in raiding behind enemy lines in Tobruk in July 1941 where Jock honed the training he had begun with his men since the Spring. Then the NCOs learned he was going to officially start a larger parachute brigade and begged Lewes to take them with him.
The chief of deception in the desert war, Dudley-Clarke, was already fooling the Italians with a bogus parachute and glider unit, the First Special Air Service Brigade and he wanted Jock’s real parachutists to use the same name so that their raids would make the enemy fear a huge force of thousands when it was in fact only about 60 men.
So, Stirling wanted to get Lewes out of Tobruk before the successful pioneering of raids behind Nazi lines killed Tobruk’s exhausted raid leader before he could turn his vision into reality. Stirling knew Lewes could make the ‘cut-throats’ successful on a larger unit basis. The 75th anniversary of the SAS this year is timed to coincide with the ‘L’ detachment’s first raid in November 1941 that was aborted after parachuting in a hurricane – though Jock Lewes’ training showed that the survivors could navigate themselves back to base in the most appalling conditions. How did Jock Lewes have the elite course, the template for all evolving global Special Forces, ready to go and run for only two months before raids began the destruction of hundreds of aircraft in the following year?
As David Stirling, the other first co-founder conceded, ‘Jock Lewes could far more genuinely claim to be the founder of the SAS than I.’ Few Army officers were researching the empty solitude of the Libyan desert which the Long Range Desert Group had learned to chart. Jock began to drill his men in precise navigation there and long distance marching as soon as he stepped off his troop ship in early March 1941: the now legendary Lewes Marches were born with its extremely tight water discipline and heavy kit burdens. That month he also improved their stealth, stamina and presence of mind in assessing where the ‘sniper’ firing rounds close by them was hidden, ‘I can with perfect safety kick the sand up uncomfortably close to any bad offender against the rules of concealment with my rifle.’
The ethos of the SAS was derived from the philosophy of Jock Lewes who had always expressed great concern about how ‘the typical regular officer’ underestimates the ordinary recruit, content with catchphrases like, ‘we must never expect the soldier to think.’ Jock Lewes respected himself, sincerely valued his men and developed them so that as individuals they could at times lead their small groups, irrespective of their rank, as they were trusted to be the specialists he had trained them to be. Jock was ahead of his time, and he hadn’t been tainted by the obsession with class in rural Australia as a boy. Both Lewes and Stirling wanted to end the war early by destroying enemy weapons, vehicles, technology and equipment. Both soldiers were known for not using gratuitous violence. Jock Lewes honed his own skills; his letters and unpublished notebook reveal how he rehearsed everything himself before taking his men through his own exacting form of true special service – a term that now had deep and profound meaning.
John Lewes is the nephew and biographer of the first book on Lt. Jock Lewes, Jock Lewes Co-Founder of the SAS. He is providing commentary for Episode 1 of BBC Television’s Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre in early 2017.
A Spy After All, also by John Lewes, is the novel inspired by the derring-do of Jock Lewes, merging fact and fiction.
Jock Steel serves his country as an agent but then pursues soldiering in North Africa at the cost of revenge by traitors in London and renewing his love affair in Oxford. Jock Steel’s military vision to create a raiding force provides the ‘flesh that clothes the bones’ of M19’s own piece of fiction: a phantom force to confuse the enemy, known as the SAS Brigade…
Jock Lewes Co-founder of the SAS is published by Pen and Sword Books Ltd. To order a copy go to enquiries@pen-and–sword.co.uk or call 01226 734555.
A Spy After All will be available in 2017 with its website: www.aspyafterall
Copyright ©John Lewes 2016