John Lewes, author of Jock Lewes Co-founder of the SAS, talks in detail about his book and the background behind it.
The story of Jock Lewes, a founding member of the SAS, is an interesting yet tragic one. He was a man whose name and huge contribution to the regiment had been all but forgotten, perhaps due to his untimely death during the war. However, thanks to Jock's own letters, combined with the tireless work of his nephew and indeed the testimony of Sir David Stirling, "Jock could far more genuinely claim to be the founder of the SAS than I", his place in history has been justly assured.
With the 75th centenary of the Special Air Service in November this year, OCAD Militaria Collectors Resources was very fortunate to able to pose several questions to the author John Lewes, nephew and biographer of Jock Lewes.
John Lewes, author and nephew of Jock Lewes.
How did you first become aware of Jock's involvement in the SAS?
I first became aware of Jock's involvement in the SAS when I was a young boy listening to my father, Jock's younger brother, talking so animatedly about the wonderful brother that he loved and missed so much. It was only in early 1993 that I fully realised that Sir David Stirling's letter to my grandfather, Arthur Lewes, was much more accurate than anyone had hitherto realised and much more informative about the origins of the SAS than any post-war book had ever been. In his letter of 1942, Stirling wrote, 'I hardly know how to begin this letter. Any form of explanation is so inadequate as to be not worthwhile presenting. Jock could far more genuinely claim to be the founder of the SAS than I.'
I fortunately was able to take a career break and wanted to delve into the philosophy of my parents and grandparents, only to discover the well preserved letters of Arthur Lewes and his eldest son, Jock. They clearly showed that the Victorian Arthur and Elsie had taken a strong hand in shaping their children 'to be great' but with their values that meant to also 'be happy'. I knew that my father, Dr David Lewes, a leading cardiologist, had written to authors and newspapers to rectify inaccuracies about Jock Lewes in various publications but regurgitation about a distorted view of SAS beginnings was more often than not the perceived 'wisdom' that he received.
What was your motivation to write his biography?
So much love and care was bestowed upon Jock - and yet David Stirling's significant recognition of Jock Lewes being the creator of the SAS didn't match with every single book, official or otherwise, that had been published about the creation of the SAS after 1945. Jock had been raised to be a special servant of either Australia or Britain - he had also clearly sacrificed himself to win the war at any cost but despite his huge contribution at a most vulnerable time in World history he remained almost forgotten or sidelined as a footnote in history. Researching deeper and knowing more, I had a family obligation to tell the truth about Jock Lewes. I also knew that any global defence force and pivotal organisation like the SAS would need to know an accurate account of their family history during the ravages of war that modern crises presented them. Within a year of Jock Lewes Co-Founder of the SAS being published, the world fully embraced asymmetric warfare with the 9/11 atrocity; knowledge of oneself and one's enemy was now paramount: everything in fact that Jock Lewes modelled as one of the British Army's most outstanding young managers and leaders in WW2.
Leo Cooper, who owned the imprint of Pen and Sword Books was incredibly supportive and encouraging to me as was Brigadier Henry Wilson, Jonathan Wright, Charlie Simpson and their colleagues at the publishers. I am most grateful to them all as I am to Jock's veteran NCOs, most of whom I interviewed; the soldiers' letters and words and Jock's own writing helped piece the conundrum of David Stirling's letter being at odds with the partial history and 'footnotes of Jock's derring-do'.
The book was published in 2000, do you have any additional information you would like to add to a future edition?
The biography was first published in 2000. Since then it has been reprinted a number of times with three different covers, the latest with a most powerful and evocative front cover with photographic highlights on the back. A future edition would incorporate some new research and records that are still being assessed.
Joy Street is a published collection of love letters written between Jock Lewes and his financé Miriam Barford during the war. I asked Mr Lewes for his opinion on the book.
Joy Street A Wartime Romance in Letters, Edited by Michael Wise, was fortunately published while I was researching the biography of Jock Lewes. It was an invaluable source to anyone who wished to revise the history of the origins of the SAS. For some of Jock's letters to the woman he wished to marry clearly corroborated what David Stirling had confessed in his letter to Arthur Lewes - that Jock had been creating the basis of what we now know to be the first modern elite Special Force in the six months before the SAS was officially begun. Joy Street's title also well sums up much of Jock's relationship with Miriam Barford; their deepening love and correspondence, based on just over ten meetings before war tore them apart, displayed the greatest truth of human emotion: 'moving, funny, poignant and wise, they hold something for everyone who has known what it is to love and be loved.' Secure in the knowledge of his growing love, Miriam was his muse and this was certainly a strong factor in how Jock managed to push himself to the extremes of human endurance. Spurred on by his love for her, he acted alone as a 'guinea-pig' for his own experiments on taking desert warfare to limits that his superior officers could only dream of. Joy Street complements other letters and notebooks by Jock which show that he understood how to apply Sun Tzu's Art of War in the Middle East better than his superiors. Jock and Miriam accepted that their letters might be later published by relatives and Jock wanted to publish some of his own stories. The couple were both accomplished writers; only a part of Jock's writing has been revealed and I have plans to publish more of It.
Did Jock's family maintain contact with Miriam Barford after his death?
My grandparents continued to treat Miriam as a daughter; she had stayed with them and met up several times while Jock was fighting in the desert. Miriam wrote to Jock's parents after he was killed, 'To me, you and Mr Lewes will always be Mother and Father, signing letters, 'from your 'daughter' Mirren.' One and a half years after Jock's death, Miriam wrote to them about her decision to marry an American doctor, Richard Wise. Miriam also corresponded with my father who sent her the last iconic photograph of Jock in Cairo. In later correspondence to the Lewes family she wrote that 'if I should ever make a good thing of this business of living, it is because Jock is my friend, philosopher, and guide.' Miriam, like Jock, wanted to protect her country and became a Lance Corporal in a British Army Intelligence unit. My grandparents sent Miriam Jock's letters to her that had been kept before he left for Egypt. Decades later the Lewes family supported her son's research by sending Michael Wise more primary sources from the war years. This helped support the publication of Joy Street and its serialised extracts in newspapers; Jock and Miriam had given their blessing to such publications in their own writing.
Jock winning the Silver Sculls, 1936.
Jock Lewes, President of the Oxford University Boat Club, 1936-7.
Do you believe that Jock's untimely death meant that his achievements in the SAS have been overshadowed and only recently been fully recognised?
I do believe that Jock's untimely death has meant that his huge contribution to global Special Forces had been overlooked for almost forty years after the war, to the extent that continued research is still being undertaken because his exact contribution has been blurred by incomplete accounts of the origins of the SAS. A history of the SAS had been reconstructed without consulting enough primary source material from the period just before and during the birth of the elite force. Some of the significant witnesses of the SAS inception who were working on a daily basis with Jock Lewes (we now know that David Stirling was not present most of the time in 1941) at the first training base were not interviewed in depth as part of the reconstructed history that evolved. My biography of Jock Lewes who was the only SAS founder who wrote in detail about the SAS concept before and during its birth was also arguably the one key witness missing from all the post-war accounts of the Regiment. Field Marshal The Lord Guthrie and a host of generous benefactors including members of the SAS reflected the greater recognition of Jock Lewes as a founding father of the Regiment by raising a magnificent statue to Jock Lewes in 2008, created by Vivian Mallock, ARBS
I read in various newspapers, from 2011, that Jock's resting place had been rediscovered, with talk about him being repatriated. Is there any update to this?
I interviewed Jimmie Storie who buried my uncle after Jock was killed. Following Jimmie's and other NCOs descriptions of the battleground, a small team of about five of us researched aspects of locating Jock's grave with a view to giving him a proper burial in England. I told The Daily Telegraph that this plan was put on hold when Libya became unstable in 2012 but things may well improve enough to consider this again.
On your website you also mention that you are working on a novel. How close to Jock's experiences is the book and do you have a planned release date?
I have written a novel that is partly in the Alternative History genre, exploring some current global issues through the spectacles of the Intelligence community in 1940-1941, set in Oxford, Bedfordshire, London, Valencia and North Africa. The last third of the book is closest to Jock Lewes' experiences as this section of the spy story culminates in the development of the SAS: fiction strongly based upon fact I believe will offer deeper insights into the birth of the SAS than a straight history book might accomplish. However, Jock's derring-do will be closely based upon first hand accounts, some unpublished. I am completing this novel.
Finally, do you have any plans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the SAS and Jock's first raid?
I have already been commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the SAS in various ways and since March, the month when the evolution of the SAS concepts by Jock began. The official date of the anniversary will be in mid-November when the first SAS raid took place. However, my research on the birth of the Regiment shows that as soon as Jock Lewes arrived in Egypt he began sharpening the fieldcraft of his men with skills that we now associate with all global Special Forces. I have celebrated by writing various articles for local and national magazines or websites with updates on new research. Legendary Lewes Marches actually began in the spring of 1941, Jock's teaching of small groups to parachute followed about a month later and the SAS was actually formed in September. Jock Lewes' contribution to British Rowing and the 75th anniversary was featured on firstname.lastname@example.org and was very popular in March, days before the Boat Race. Another article with excerpts from his writing on Henley Royal Regatta is planned. Some photographs of Jock Lewes are being considered for release in a variety of Television documentaries on the SAS this autumn, and the John Lewes Archive is supporting Help for Heroes with part of any proceeds in 2016. On the night of 16th November, I will be toasting the Regiment and all their co-founders, and the incredibly brave NCOs and parachutists, 'the Originals', many of whom I had the great privilege and pleasure of meeting and interviewing.
OCAD Militaria Collectors Resources would like to sincerely thank Mr Lewes for taking the time to answer these questions and Pen & Sword Books, for their support and allowing the use of their images.
Aside from his biography, printed by Pen & Sword Books, you may also be interested to know that Jock's memory is being kept alive through a dedicated website (http://www.jocklewes.co.uk/). For more information about the book, please take a few moments to read our review. Dorrell, July 2016.
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