WHO REALLY FOUNDED THE SPECIAL AIR SERVICE?
By Gil Boyd BEM
Sometimes in life, things happen, that steer you down a road of interest and curiosity which uncover some interesting facts about real heroes, this is my story of two of them, Jock Lewes and Reg Seekings, and my personal view on who I truly believe was the founding father of the Special Air Service who brought in revolutionary training methods that in part are still used today.
It all started with a Police colleague of mine, Roger Lewis, moving back to Wales on retirement, and buying a house in the mountains previously owned by a sculptor.
In this sculptors garden was an unfinished statue of Jock LEWES, destined for a Military establishment somewhere that never came to fruition.
Roger desperately needed a chainsaw, so we did a swap, and I ended up with the statue of Jock Lewes in my garden.
Once there, and positioned in a key part of my garden, I started to find out a bit more about this man, who was at the very start of the Special Air Service which was formed in 1941, and soon learnt he played a bigger part than had been previously thought in its inception.
Words like Co-Founder have been used in books and periodicals, about Jock Lewes’, but his name is one that is not as well known as Stirling’s.
I believe, because he was killed so early on during the war, and the formation of the Special Air Service, that the true recognition was never given to this man, who at least deserved to be recognised as the steering light.
After all it was he that asked Stirling, his friend to join him in the special units formation.
Jock Lewes statue in my garden
USE OF SPECIAL FORCES
In 1941 General Auchinleck was the Commander in Chief in the Western Desert. He found it very hard to match his military skills against Rommel and used Commandos and the Long Range Desert Group to be the thorn in the side of the Germans advance operating behind enemy lines. It was clear that although the LRDG were very successful in their covert endeavours to strike deep into enemy territory, they were often used as a taxi service for the Commandos, and latterly the SAS.
During July 1941, Lt Jock Lewes, who was attached to No 8 Commando based in Alexandria, intercepted a consignment of parachutes destined for the 2nd Parachute Brigade in India. With these parachutes he decided a better way to covertly attack the enemy. They would parachute into their operations, but needed to establish what the chutes could do for them. He set about doing experimental work with these chutes to see if they could carry extra weight and deploy at a lower height safely.
STIRLING JOINS LEWES COMMANDO’S
It was about this time that David Stirling, an ex Scots Guards Officer, joined this group after speaking to Jock Lewes, and whilst jumping with them from an old Valencia bomber, seriously injured his spine, and became paralysed for a short time. He was placed in a Military Hospital in Alexandria to recover. Whilst there, recovering, he decided to take Jock Lewes advice in formulating a detailed report whilst he had the time, to highlight the fact that large formations of "Commandos" doing these covert Clandestine operations in the desert would not work. Lewes suggested to Stirling, that many of the highly trained operators in No 8 Commando should be brought under one banner, and utilise their skills in smaller more agile four man teams and formations. His report went to the Deputy Commander, General Ritchie, who in turn sold the concept to General Auchinleck to assist in a new offensive planned against Rommel. Many Commando units were disbanded following this reports approval, and they were to join what Brigadier Dudley Clarke named L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade. Unwittingly, he also named another "ghost" formation 1 SAS to make the Germans think there were more units than there actually were.
SELECTING THE LEADERS
In August 1941 Stirling was authorised by the C - in - C to recruit the best officers and men from Commando units which he did successfully.
David Stirling summoned around him officers he could trust, and those he knew well from his days at Cambridge University and Oxford. These officers were brave men in their own right, such names as Paddy Mayne, Fraser, Bonnington, Thomas and McGonigal. Jock Lewes, an ex Welsh Guards Officer, had less than two years experience as a soldier, but was clearly the brains behind this new legendary fighting force. He was a driven man and was never afraid to express his views, and I hope I make clear in this short story of his life in the Regiment his vital contribution to its success and what it has achieved.
THE FORMATION OF THE SAS
At the end of August 1941 in a small village called Kabrit, a 100 miles from Cairo, the Special Air Service as we know it today was truly formed.
The formation was handpicked. Lewes, together with his hard tough officers, set about training each man they had selected from the Commando units in stripping and assembling enemy weapons, explosives techniques and navigational expertise. Some of the formation was also allowed to carry German weapons, which at the time were more practical and effective in the desert conditions.
PARACHUTE DEATHS DUE TO EQUIPMENT FAILURE
Parachute training started soon afterwards, and it was whilst the formation were jumping from an old RAF Bristol Bombay aircraft on the 17th of October 1941, that the first two jumpers plunged to their deaths due to the weak static line clips used to connect their parachutes, which failed to pull the chutes from their bags. The clips were strengthened and to show the force that he had total faith in them, Jock Lewes as the training officer, not Stirling as many books have shown as that jumper, elected to jump first to restore the damage already done to his men’s confidence and morale. This fact was corroborated by Pat Riley one of the "original" members of the SAS, as it was he who was number two after Lewes out of the aircraft door.
JOCK LEWES INVENTS THE "STICKY BOMB"
Jock Lewes in the meantime, was perfecting an idea he had for blowing up enemy aircraft on the ground. It was a special combination of Thermite and plastic explosive, which was then mixed together to become known as a Sticky Bomb. Once attached, they would be very hard to remove quickly. No one had come up with this idea before so he was left alone to perfect its construction.
The C-in-C had planned to carry out his offensive on the 16th of November 1941, so it was imperative that the formation were ready and fully trained by that date. The aim of the force was to parachute into Gazala airfield and destroy the German aircraft on the ground, which would have caused massive damage to the allies if they had been able to take off during the British offensive. Sadly the force took off in some of the worst desert storms for years, turning the operation into a disaster. Out of the 66 men that took off, only 21 returned that night, one of whom was Reg Seekings, who I will talk about later. High winds and blinding sand storms meant that many of the men were lost in the desert or captured or killed by the Germans.
ASSISTANCE FROM THE LONG RANGE DESERT GROUP
Following this failed parachute operation, Stirling decided to use the LRDG to ferry his men into battle in future using their proven vehicles and experience. This he did on their first successful raid on Tamet, a German airfield where they destroyed 24 German aircraft on the ground and 20 petrol tankers and other vehicles, as well as food dumps. Another raid on Benina airfield showed the effectiveness of using smaller three man teams for the first time.
Stirling, Corporal Seekings, and Corporal Cooper, entered a German airfield and sat in the middle of the runway until the RAF diversionary attack went in. Whilst the diversionary attack was being carried out, they entered hangars and placed time delay bombs in all the parked aircraft, leaving swiftly to watch the whole airfield erupt in a ball of flames. Over the next few months these small bands of SAS men destroyed over 320 aircraft.
ALL SAS MEN CAUGHT TO BE TORTURED AND EXECUTED
The units success angered Hitler so much, that he said that all SAS men caught in future would be interrogated, tortured and executed out of hand.
As a direct result of these successes, the small raiding parties became mobile for the first time using the vehicles of the LRDG who were formed in June 1940 with their modified Chevrolet and Ford trucks bristling with a variation of machine guns. The favoured machinegun on the variations of vehicles that were used by the SAS in those early days were the Vickers K Drum fed .303, due primarily to its rapid rate of fire using two separate barrels side by side, usually fitted to aircraft, and the other gun was invariably the .50 Cal Browning machine gun.
Cap Badge of the Long Range Desert Group setup in July 1940 by Major Ralph Bagnold
SAS MERGE WITH THE LRDG
General Ritchie took over the Eighth Army Group and sent L Detachment to Jalo Oasis to share the location with the Long Range Desert Group. Soon after this merger many successes followed.
In December of 1941, SAS units attacked enemy airfields at Sirte, Agheila and Agedabia knocking out more than sixty enemy aircraft using the Lewes Bombs for the first time devised by Jock Lewes.
Model of a Chevrolet of the Long Range Desert Group fitted with various weaponry
FRIENDS SEPARATE ON RAIDS
Stirling and Paddy Mayne went to Tamet on the 21st of December 1941 whilst Jock Lewes and his raiding party attacked a target in Nofilia at the same time.
This is where the famous legendary tale of Paddy Mayne entering the German pilots mess alone with his Thompson machinegun fitted with a drum magazine killed all inside. He was clearly fired up on that raid, and as one aircraft was left standing and they were out of explosives, Paddy Mayne ripped out the instrument panel and console with his bare hands to render it useless!!
DEATH OF JOCK LEWES
Sadly on the way back from the Nofilia raid Jock Lewes was killed by a German Messerschmitt 110 plane strafing their column.
Things changed in the unit when Jock was killed, and morale was affected drastically as his loss was felt by all members of the Regiment in those early days.
Stirling was shocked to learn of his close friend's death. A friend he had had, from those days in Cambridge before the war. Jock Lewes unlike Stirling, was an Oxford Graduate, with the traditional light and dark blue as their respective University colours.
These colours they proudly wore within the University rowing teams they both rowed for and often against one another, were to prove invaluable in the construction of the Regiments winged dagger badge.
THE WINGED DAGGER
These two colours were to form the basis of the SAS winged dagger with the words WHO DARES WINS underneath. Initially the sword that is on the cap badge today was the sword of Excalibur surrounded with fire, but this was changed towards the end of the war to a winged dagger. All the original cloth cap badges issued to his men were handmade in a tailor shop in Cairo which Stirling had found. He initially issued white berets to his formation, but soon found on many occasions, other troops took the rise out of them, this caused many a fight in the bars of Cairo. Soon afterwards Stirling changed the berets to maroon and later to the sand colour which remains with the Regiment today.
John Cooper on the left & Reg Seekings wearing the original white berets issued to SAS members
THE SAS WINGS
The SAS wings were worn on the right upper arm by many of the soldiers, whilst others including the officers wore theirs on their left breast pocket above their medal ribbons. This was changed by Stirling and Lewes, so that the enemy could not identify officers from the men, and thereafter all ranks wore their wings on their right upper arm for continuity and uniformity with the newly founded Parachute Regiment who also standardised the wearing of wings this way.
CHURCHILL SENDS HIS SON
A fact not commonly known, was that Winston Churchill sent his son Randolph to accompany Stirling on several raids in the desert campaign, so that he could see firsthand the success the unit had achieved in such a short time, but the motive was, I believe, to assess for his father the Prime Minister, whether the formation should survive or be disbanded and report back. He was clearly impressed with what he saw and as a result the unit went from strength to strength thereafter.
In January 1942, David Stirling was promoted to Major, at which time he expanded his unit to include Free French Paras and the Special Boat Section of No 8 Commando. This gave Stirling more flexibility and the ability to achieve maritime operations against the Germans as well. L Detachment was formerly renamed The 1st Special Air Service a Regiment in its own right with an establishment as listed below.
The whole Regiment was made up of: 500 Officers and men of all ranks 1st SAS
100 men of all ranks French SAS Sqn
115 man of all ranks Greek Sacred Sqn
55 men of all ranks Special Boat Section
David Stirling’s younger brother William, went onto form 2 SAS, after leaving the American 1st Army Group in which he served
. David Stirling ith his men and their Willy’s jeep vehicles showing the various weapons combinations in this famous photograph
MAJOR STIRLING CAPTURED
In January 1943 Stirling was captured in a village called Gabes, in Tunisia by a German unit setup to counter the work of the SAS which had annoyed Hitler so much over previous years.
He was sent to Colditz Castle following many attempts to escape in other camps. Rommel decided to defy Hitler’s command for his execution as he was an honourable man and a brilliant General, and decided not to execute any of the Special Air Service as it was against his principles as a soldier.
DEATH OF DAVID STIRLING
Colonel David Stirling went on to have a long life after the war and sadly died in 1990, the same year that he was bestowed with a Knighthood by Her Majesty the Queen for his services to the Special Air Service. It is ironic also, that no member of the Special Air Service has ever been awarded the Victoria Cross!!
I am proud to have Jock Lewes statue in my garden, and I am also pleased that I have perhaps rescued it from certain destruction from the council tip. It has opened so many doors that would eventually lead to one story, and about one unit, that we owe so much to.
WO11 ALBERT REGINALD "REG" SEEKINGS DCM, MM, MiD11
The second part of my story relates to a local man to me whose name again only came to my notice when I saw an article in a local newspaper on the sale of his medals following his death and realised it was the one and same Reg Seekings I had researched earlier. I started to realise that this man was mentioned many times working alongside Jock Lewes and David Stirling at the formation of 1 SAS and his past was worth exploring even deeper.
Reg was born at Stuntney near Ely in Cambridgeshire on the 19th of March 1920. He attended Stuntney School with his brother Bob up until the age of 14 then left to help his father on a local farm.
Reg laboured on the farm for four years, and then joined the Cambridgeshire Regiment (Territorial Army) with a view to taking up boxing, as he knew they spent some time bringing promising boxers through.
Reg always wanted to be a professional boxer, and idolised Eric Boon, a well known fighter of some standing at the time. Reg became quite an accomplished boxer in the East Anglian area, and won many of his bouts.
In May 1940 Reg and his brother Bob volunteered for 7 Commando commanded by Lt Colonel Bob Laycock known as Layforce.
During July of 1941 L Detachment 1 SAS was formed by David Stirling and Jock Lewes, and it was from the small Commando units that he selected his men. Reg was selected to the unit on his past achievements, and was sent to Kabrit a training camp setup to solely train the new formation’s members. Later the same month Reg was involved with 66 other members when they jumped in on the disastrous operation that was beset with horrendous weather, and only 21 members returned, which I mentioned earlier. This is when Stirling changed his tactics and used the LRDG as a taxi service to transport the SAS men behind enemy lines to carry out their operations. Reg was with Paddy Mayne on the successful airfield operation at Tamet, where they destroyed 24 German planes and the pilots mess area I highlighted earlier in Jock Lewes story
During the advance into Normandy, Reg was shot in the back of the head. With the bullet lodged close to his spine, a medic, who later turned out to be an Army dentist, attempted to remove it but to no avail, and Reg carried the bullet lodged there until the end of the war. Reg carried on with the missions that were planned for his unit untroubled by his injury. Reg had another close call when he together with 24 of his Platoon were in the back of a lorry when it was hit by a mortar round killing all but two of them. Reg luckily was closing the tailgate when it struck. Later in the D-Day campaign Reg who was with A Squadron SAS, based at Morvan near Dijon in France assisting the French Marquis to attack a German convoy at a village of Montsauche. The Germans lost a number of their troops and vehicles on that attack and as a reprisal set light to the whole village and shot 13 of the villagers
BERGEN - BELSEN
Reg was one of the first SAS Reconnaissance patrols commanded by Major John Tonkin, which first drove through the gates at Belsen concentration camp near Luneberg. He was then the Squadron Sergeant Major. They were greeted by the camp commandant Josef Kramer and a woman in a dark blue uniform called Irma Grese. Whilst there, they saw a camp guard using the butt of his rifle on one of the prisoners. Reg Seekings asked Major Tonkin for permission to intervene, and teach the guard a lesson, which was granted. Reg went over and hit the guard in the face; he got up and was then knocked out by another punch to the head. Major Tonkin told them all that no more were they in charge of the camp and that any guard who attempted to mistreat prisoners from here on in, would be severely punished. Both the camp commandant Kramer and Grese who was responsible for the women in the camp, were later convicted, and executed for war crimes at the camp. They were never to forget what they saw at that camp and were to have a lifelong hatred of brutality and injustice, which were all the Nazi’s personified.
ANOTHER FOUNDING MEMBER
Throughout my research, I have found certain names that played a major part in the formation of the Special Air Service. Reg ,in my opinion on reading the facts was, regardless of his rank at the time, a leading light in this. Here is a statement made by a Major Jim Almonds who was a fellow member of those early days in the formation of the Regiment: "Seekings was one of the driving forces of the original and subsequent SAS units during WWII, and his contribution greatly underestimated"
During his service with the Regiment in the war he was commended for bravery on a number of occasions, I would like to show by way of extracts some of his honours:
SEEKINGS Albert Reginald 5933155 Lance Sergeant
DCM (Distinquished Conduct Medal) awarded on the 26th November 1942 – Middle East Operations. The citation reads:
"This NCO has taken an important part in 10 raids. He has himself destroyed over 15 aircraft and by virtue of his accuracy with a Tommy Gun at night, and through complete disregard of his personal safety, he had killed at least ten of the enemy. He particularly distinguished himself on the raid at Benina in June 1942" It is requested that no details should be published of these operations owing to their secrecy L Detachment Special Air Service.
SEEKINGS Albert Reginald 5933155 Sergeant (Infantry)
MM (Military Medal) awarded on the 18th November 1943 – in Sicily as part of the Special Raiding Squadron as the Regiment was temporarily named at the time.
MiD (Mentioned in Despatches) as Warrant Officer Class 1 on the 8th November 1945 – North West Europe.
For his services to A Squadron 1 SAS throughout the period of 6th June 1944 to 8th May 1945, as he had been in action throughout, he was awarded an MiD. The award started its life for Reg as a Military Cross at unit level, the SAS Brigade HQ however, changed it to a bar for his already held DCM, and 21 Army Group wanted to change it to a bar to his already held MM.
The Adjutant General at the War Office subsequently dropped his honour to a Mentioned in Despatches!! Even in those days there was misunderstanding about the levels of the Military Cross and the Medal themselves, as the Cross was always deemed to only be awarded to officers. I am sure, without digging out the records on this specific issue to Reg and seeing the reasons for the changes and the individuals up the food chain who made them, that is why it ended up as an MiD, the easy option!!
In September of 1945 the Special Air Service was disbanded and Reg left the Army.
At the end of the war, Reg and his wife Monica became the landlords of the Rifleman Arms Public House in Ely where they stayed for 9 years.
David Stirling had also left the Army and lived in Nyasaland in Southern Rhodesia. He convinced Reg and his wife to move to South Africa, where he became a plumber at a mine in Northern Rhodesia. This job didn’t last long, and Reg tried his hand at several jobs including farming again, but finally settled down running Harveys Store at Mount Hampton, Marlborough.
It was at this time that Reg joined the British South Africa Police (BASP) Reserves. It was known locally as Lord Grahams Crusaders. Reg was promoted to the rank of Inspector. It was here that in 1966 Reg was called to arms once again following the murders of Mr and Mrs Viljoen, who were killed on their Nevada Farm near Hartley, by a group of ZANLA terrorists, who were part of a larger group who had crossed the Zambesi River from Zambia. The larger formation went onto a town called Sinoia, where the Police had great success killing many of the terrorists with the assistance of a Rhodesian Air Force helicopter. This battle would be known to the ZANLA, as, "The Battle of Sinoia".
Following this uprising, all Police Regulars and Reservists were trained in anti terrorism warfare. Chief Superintendent Alec "Bill" Bailey became a close friend of Reg Seekings, so when he setup a new training section, he called upon Regs expertise to assist him. This was the formation of the Police Anti Terrorist Unit.
MOVED BACK HOME
As the political climate changed in Rhodesia in 1982, Reg and Monica returned to England, and to the neighbouring County of Suffolk in the village of Stanton. Monica died there on the 23rd of December 1996.
Sadly on the 17th March 1999 Reg died at his home in Suffolk. He is buried in Stanton Graveyard, near Bury St Edmunds. Picture taken 6th March 2009.
Albert Reginald SEEKINGS DCM, MM MiD gave so much to this country, and like so many of his time and Regiment, went silently to his grave. It was in 2005 that I noticed the article in the Ely Standard about Reg Seekings medals being auctioned off at a London Auction house on Friday the 22nd of September 2006. The medals were being sold by a Ron Penhall who had acquired them from Reg himself along with documents and photographs.
As an ex Policeman, and former member of The Parachute Regiment, I was intrigued to learn a bit more about this real hero of our times, and to also discover, after lengthy investigations, that his niece Melanie Morley, served with me as a Detective in Cambridgeshire Constabulary. How ironic was that to be?
What a journey, and what stories about this band of truly underrated men. I could probably have written a book on their heroism within untold true stories.
I hope I have done these two men justice, and I hope my views on who formed the Special Air Service does not offend anyone, as it is only based on the facts as I read them in my yearlong investigation and not views to challenge the Ethos of the Regiment!
Additional Piece: 10th March 2009
Since writing this story, In early 2009 I traced the surviving member of the patrol in December 1941 when Jock Lewes was killed, and it was he, Jimmie Storie who now lives in Scotland, that actually buried him beside the burnt out truck that the patrol used on that last patrol. He actually spoke to Jock as he died. The patrol were eventually located and recovered by the LRDG back to JALO.
On returning to JALO Oasis, David Stirling was fuming that they had left his friend behind and tried to make them return and recover the body, but due to operational reasons this was never carried out.
It is now right and proper, and with the family’s permission that I set out to locate the vehicle and Jock’s body for the family in the deserts of Libya where I believe I have found the actual site using satellite imagery.
It would make infinite sense to produce a TV documentary about Jock Lewes and his short military career. He was to have such a profound effect on the SAS as it is today, and also, especially now that a letter has been found in the Lewes family possessions that came from David Stirling to Jock Lewes’ father, stating that it was Lewes not Stirling that formed the SAS.
The family would like Jock’s remains returned to the UK and buried in the SAS Cemetary at Credenhill, Hereford once any permission has been granted to do this by the "new" Peoples Republic of Libya.
Gil Boyd BEM
Original 24/8/08 Copyright
Updates 10/4/11 Copyright
Unveiling of the new statue to Jock Lewes at Credonhill in the presence of his immediate family and HRH Prince William on the 7th of November 2008.