From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre
Lieutenant John Steele Lewes was a paragon of military virtue, a man of rigid personal austerity, and a martinet. Born in India to a British father and an Australian mother, he had captained the Oxford University Boat Club, graduated from Christ Church, and seemed destined for a career in politics or the upper reaches of the army. Having joined the Welsh Guards on the outbreak of war, he was appointed regimental training officer, and billeted at Sandown Racecourse.
‘Jock’ Lewes was almost too good to be true. ‘Be something great,’ his father had told him, and Lewes intended to fulfil that injunction. He was athletic, rich, patriotic and handsome, with glinting blue eyes and an immaculately tended Douglas Fairbanks Jr moustache.
Lewes was stern, workaholic and slightly priggish, with a deep ‘contempt for decadence’, according to his biographer. He had no sense of humour, and ‘his austerity could be simply too much for other mortals.’ ‘You wouldn’t find Jock catching a quick drink in Cairo or taking a flutter at the racecourse,’ observed Stirling, who could usually be found doing one or the other.
The two officers did, however, share an urgent desire for action, and a belief that the commandos were not being properly used. A rising star in Layforce, Lewes had already demonstrated his pluck and ingenuity in several operations, including a successful attack using motorised gunboats on an enemy airbase near Gazala on the Libyan coast. Lewes had been impressed by the Germans’ use of paratroops in the conquest of Crete, and thought that a parachute force might prove a useful addition to future allied commando operations. He began lobbying senior officers to be allowed to form his own, hand-picked unit, and wrote home that he had been given ‘that which I have longed for – a team of men, and complete freedom to train and use them as I think best’. Stirling was struck by Lewes’s calm demeanour, great professionalism and experience. According to one version of the story, he had got wind of what Lewes was up to and deliberately sought him out in the officers’ mess. Others say the conversation was purely accidental. Either way, the ideas of Lewes and Stirling were converging.
There was, however, another, secret side to Jock Lewes that might have given Stirling pause, had he known about it: Lewes had flirted with Nazism.
On a cycling tour to Germany in 1935, Lewes had been deeply impressed by the organisation and strength of the nascent Third Reich. ‘England is no democracy and Germany far from being a totalitarian state’, he wrote to his parents. ‘Dazzled’ by National Socialism, he visited Germany several times in the following years, returning home more smitten from each visit: he mixed with German high society, attended a 1938 ball where Hitler and Goebbels were guests of honour, and fell in love with a young German woman, Senta Adriano, an enthusiastic member of the Nazi party. He mooned over Senta’s ‘frankness and sincerity’, her ‘golden hair, eyes greeny blue and well spaced, fine delicate eyebrows – not plucked’. Plucked eyebrows would have been a mark of frivolity.
Then came Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, as Nazis rampaged through Germany and Austria, smashing and looting Jewish shops, businesses and synagogues. Jock Lewes may have been politically naïve, but he was not a fool: the events of November 1938 provoked in him a violent and painful change of heart. Suddenly, with horrible clarity, he understood the true nature of the regime he had appeased, politically and emotionally.
‘I have been struggling to maintain my belief in German sincerity, but only a fanatic faith could withstand the evidence they choose to put before us’, he wrote. ‘I swear I will not live to see the day when Britain hauls down the colours of her beliefs before totalitarian aggression.’ He broke off his engagement to Adriano, and became, almost overnight, a ferocious opponent of Nazism. ‘I shall willingly take up arms against Germany,’ he wrote. He felt he had been duped, both by the Nazis and by the fascist woman he loved. ‘He took the lie personally’; he was out for revenge.
Lewes’s determination and ruthlessness, his utter dedication to the task of fighting Germany, was the reaction of a man who has been wronged by a faithless lover, one who has made a terrible mistake, and needed to make amends.
The light was already failing when Lewes, Stirling and four other men climbed into an elderly biplane to perform the world’s first desert parachute jump: for Stirling, a jaunt; for Lewes, the next stage in his campaign of revenge against Nazi Germany. The Vickers Valentia, on loan to the Royal Air Force, was used to deliver mail; it was almost comically unsuitable for parachuting. The parachutes purloined by Lewes were designed with static lines to be clipped to a steel cable, attached fore and aft: as the parachutist left the plane, the line would pull out the folded parachute until fully extended, at which point a connecting thread would snap and the parachute canopy would fill with air. There were no parachute instructors in the Middle East, but a friendly RAF officer advised them to ‘dive out as though going through into water’. The team practised by jumping off the plane wings, a fall of about ten feet. By way of a test, Lewes tossed out a dummy parachutist, made from tent poles and sandbags, at a height of eight hundred feet. ‘The parachute open okay, but the tent poles smashed on landing.’
Lewes and Stirling agreed that they were ready to go: they would simply tie the parachute lines to the legs of the passenger seats, open the door and dive out. The pilot took off from the small airfield fifty miles south of Bagush, circled once, and then gave the signal to jump: Lewes and his batman went first, followed by a volunteer named D’Arcy, and then Stirling. D’Arcy later wrote: ‘I was surprised to see Lieutenant Stirling pass me in the air.’ But not half as surprised as Lieutenant Stirling. His parachute had snagged on the tailfin of the plane and been badly ripped. Realising that he was not so much parachuting as falling, he closed his eyes and braced himself for the impact.
Stirling did not regain consciousness until he awoke, half paralysed, in a bed at the Scottish Military Hospital. ‘I was a bit unlucky,’ he said, with resounding understatement.
Lewes, predictably enough, had ‘made a perfect landing’, and felt moved to write a poem about the romance of parachuting.
Green for Go! Now! God, how slow it is!
The air doesn’t rush and earth doesn’t rise
Till you swoop into harnass and know it is
Over, look up and love the white canopy
Steadfast above you, an angel in panoply
Guarding the skies.
Stirling did not feel that way. His first experience of parachuting had been extremely unpleasant. He would suffer back pain and migraines for the rest of his life as a result of his spinal injury. The fall had almost killed him, but it had given him a very good idea.
It was eight weeks before Stirling could walk again. In that time, he gathered every map of the coast and inland area he could lay his hands on, jotting down notes on airfields, roads, rail lines and enemy positions along the coast. When Lewes visited him in hospital, Stirling laid out his plans: ‘I believe it would be possible, not too difficult in fact, to infiltrate small numbers of men into select German positions from the desert flank. I think we could then have a pretty dramatic effect on their efficiency and morale by sabotaging aircraft, runways and fuel dumps.’
With typical generosity, Stirling would later credit Lewes with much of the thinking behind this plan. Yet at this stage Lewes was sceptical. How would parachutists be able to carry sufficient explosive to do real damage? Who would authorise such an operation? And how would the raiders get away after an attack across hundreds of miles of sand? ‘Have you thought about training for walking in the desert?’ he asked. Lewes’s doubts may have had less to do with the feasibility of the plan than with misgivings about the character of Stirling himself, a man with a rakish reputation and many of the traits Lewes despised. He may also have felt that Stirling was interfering with his own plans. Lewes was heading back to besieged Tobruk. They agreed to discuss the concept of parachute raiding once more when he returned. ‘If you manage to get anywhere with the idea, talk to me again,’ said Lewes, as he got up to leave. ‘I don’t hold out much hope.’