David Stirling and Paddy Mayne are well known for their exploits as founder members of the SAS, the UK’s elite special forces, but less well known is the contribution of Lieutenant Jock Lewes, the original co-founder, who along with David Stirling helped to recruit and train the original members of the unit. Without Jock Lewes the regiment may never have existed, or at least not how we know it today. Sadly for Lewes he was killed in action by an enemy aircraft that strafed the truck he was sitting in as he and his men escaped across the desert following a raid on Axis airfields in Libya; he was bravely returning fire to cover his men as they sought refuge where they could.
John Steel ‘Jock’ Lewis was born in Calcutta on the 21st of December 1913 to an English Father and Australian mother. For the first eight years of his life his father was remote; as a senior partner in an accountancy firm in Calcutta, Jocks father had little time to spend with his children. Eventually the family reunited in Jock’s mother’s native Australia, in a house in the outback just outside Sydney.
Jock loved the outdoor life and proved to be an intelligent, caring and athletic boy. His father instilled the virtues of high integrity, high ideals, and generosity in Jock during his childhood, virtues which stayed with him for life. Jock was later educated at Oxford, where he began to show his belief in the importance of service to king and country. Despite the students of Oxford voting strongly against serving their country in the military, Jock campaigned for service to Britain, and openly wore a badge emblazoned with ‘For King and Country’.
In late 1938 Jock joined the First Battalion of the Tower Hamlets Rifles, a territorial unit, as an Ensign. His stint in the rifles was brief, and he was commissioned into the Welsh Guards in October 1939. He excelled as a soldier, showing particular ability on a small arms course run by Bill Stirling, the brother of David who would later work with Lewes to form the SAS. Jock was so successful on the course that despite his relatively lowly rank and lack of experience, he stayed on, eventually writing the training manual.
Jock eventually volunteered for Commando service, in order to satisfy his lust for action. He was posted to 8 Commando and sent to Scotland for mountain, and landing craft training. On the 31st of January he sailed from the Isle of Arran of the West Coast of Scotland bound for the Middle East as part of Force ‘Z’ under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Laycock. David Stirling, Pat Riley, and Jim Almonds, all future founding members of the SAS were also on board.
Due to aborted missions and broken promises of action Jock began to become frustrated with what he saw as ineffective training and a lack of organisation of the Commando force. He thought that smaller parties of well trained men could surprise the enemy by parachuting in behind the lines and carry out raids on enemy airfields. He managed to borrow a Mail plane from the RAF, which was somewhat unsuitable for parachuting, as well as some parachutes. He set a date for a practice jump and invited along a certain David Sterling. Stirling badly hurt his back in the Jump, although the others were more successful, the idea was never really taken up.
While recovering in hospital David Stirling gave great thought to Lewes idea of a parachute raiding force, and drew up a proposal based on the Idea. After visiting Lewes several times he convinced him that if they worked together they could get the idea heard and approved. With Stirling’s contacts and disregard for the chain of command, and Lewes attention to detail and rigorous training methods the SAS was born.
Despite their obvious differences the two men became firm friends, and recruited a group of men who became one of the most fearsome fighting forces in the world. Sadly Jock never got see the success of the unit which arguably would never have existed without him. We rightly remember David Stirling and Paddy Mayne, but without Jock Lewes we may never have seen the potential of a rapid raiding force in North Africa, and possibly the outcome of the war could have been very different.