How founder of SAS was seduced by pre-war Germany

In our ‘WWII Daily reports (missing, dead, wounded & POWs) collection’ (known as War Office Army Casualty Lists reference WO417 at the National Archives, and exclusively transcribed on the Forces War Records site) can be found details of Lieutenant John Steel Lewes, known as ‘Jock’ (21st December 1913 – 31st December 1941). A British officer of the Welsh Guards during WW2, he was also the renowned inventor of the highly regarded Lewes bomb and the founding principal training officer of the lethally effective Special Air Service (SAS). So how did this soon-to-become important figure get involved with the Nazis?

Over 450 letters written by Lewes to his family between 1924 and 1941, which were found after being left in a garage for over 50 years , describe Lewes’ developing sympathies with the National Socialists after his frequent visits to Berlin as a young man in the years leading up to the Second World War. Revealing his Pro-Nazi belief, in his letters he even argued that Britain should have backed Germany in the First World War. His first visit to Germany, at the age of 22, was during a cycling trip in the summer of 1935. Increasingly dissatisfied with studying at Oxford, and having doubts about his planned military career, he became impressed by German students that he met and their arguments against the Versailles Treaty, and grew to believe that the Nazis were working towards building a better life for them. Letters home frequently championed the growing Nazi culture, and he refused to agree with British anti-Nazi opinions. In 1938, whilst at a ball attended by Hitler and Goebbels, he shook hands with these men. His enthusiasm about Germany continued until November 1938, when, realising the real objectives of the Nazi party, he turned his loyalties back towards Britain, broke off his engagement to a German girl, and vowed to ‘take up arms’ against Germany.

First commissioned as Second Lieutenant, University Candidate, General List in 1935, after graduating, Lewes was transferred to a Territorial Army unit, initially serving with 1st Battalion, the Tower Hamlets Rifles, Rifle Brigade before eventually joining the Welsh Guards. In 1941, Lieutenant David Stirling assembled a group of volunteers to form a unit dedicated to raiding missions against the lines of communication of Axis forces in North Africa. Lewes was part of this group - initially named ‘'L' Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade’, later to become known as the SAS. Initially the team was tasked with destroying Axis vehicles by attaching small explosive charges, but Lewes noticed weaknesses with the conventional explosives, which often failed to destroy the vehicles completely. As he improvised by creating a new, combined charge out of plastic explosive and cans of petrol, the Lewes bomb was born, to be used throughout World War 2.

Sadly, in December 1941, whilst engaged to marry Mirren Barford, also an Oxford undergraduate, Jock Lewes was killed in action. Fatally wounded by a bullet to the thigh, he bled to death within four minutes after the Long Range Desert Group truck he was traveling in was attacked by a lone Messerschmitt 110 fighter as he and his mates were returning from a raid on German airfields. He was buried at the site where the attack happened, but the whereabouts of his grave are now unknown.

Welsh Guards during World War 2

The regiment was increased to three Battalions during World War 2. The 1st Battalion fought in all the campaigns of the North-West European Theatre. The 2nd Battalion fought in Boulogne in 1940 whilst the 1st fought in Belgium as part of the British Expeditionary Force. In May 1940, at the Battle of Arras, the Welsh Guards gained their second Victoria Cross, awarded to Lieutenant The Hon. Christopher Furness who was killed in the action. The Welsh Guards were subsequently part of the legendary Evacuation of Dunkirk that saw over 340,000 British and French troops return to the UK against all odds.

The 3rd Battalion Welsh Guards was formed at Beavers Camp, Hounslow on 24 October 1941. In 1943 the 3rd Battalion fought throughout the arduous Tunisian North African Campaign and the Italian Campaigns.

While they battled on in those theatres, the 1st and 2nd Battalions joined the Guards Armoured Division, with the 1st Battalion being infantry and the 2nd armoured. The two battalions worked closely together, being the first troops to re-enter Brussels on 3 September 1944 after an advance of 100 miles in one day in what was described as “an armoured lash unequalled for speed in this or any other war”. 



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