Brave Rowers, Brave People

Jock Lewes was 22 when he was elected President of the OUBC eighty years ago, after rowing in his first Boat Race in 1936 at 2. One year later, Jock Lewes significantly influenced the ending of what is still the longest succession of Cambridge victories in Boat Race history. Five years later – exactly 75 years ago in March 1941– he began pioneering and developing a raft of training that he alone created and led as Co-Founder of the Special Air Service. Jock Lewes was one of many brave rowers who have excelled in other ways. How did he become such a remarkable man? How did this formidable leader and manager lift groups of men out of relative obscurity into the spotlight? The story partly began with rowing.


The antecedents of the current OUBC Development Squad, which has produced at least 14 rowers in the last six years, could be argued to have its roots in the philosophy of OUBC Presidents like Jock Lewes. Athletes from the Development Squad in the last decade include both winning Blues and Isis rowers, such as Alec Dent, Ben Myers, Dan Harvey and Alex Woods – as the OUBC website suggests, ‘particularly impressive given the OUBC’s success in both races.’ Development squads are the life-blood of inspiration and long-term success.


Breaking the endless string of Light Blue defeats of Oxford was not inevitable. However, Jock Lewes developed the Trial Eights in a more modern way than had been seen before. It was no accident that it was Jock Lewes who in Dickie Burnell’s words in The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, ‘did more to win the 1937 Race for Oxford than any other man.’ How did Jock Lewes end this longest phase of 13 consecutive wins (1924-1936, Oxford’s decade of successes was 1976-1985, losing in ’86 with six more wins after)?


Jock Lewes was Captain of King’s School Parramatta Boat Club and was observant about rowing techniques used by others. Dialogue to resolve problems in the boat was important; ‘Talk to the crew in the boat when by yourselves and get them to talk and give their opinions…Never Sulk.’ His reflective schoolboy diary showed that he manned up early; a balanced approach to resolving and preventing problems was unusual in a young man. Dialogue and respect for each individual were part of Jock Lewes’ mantra for harnessing all the skills of every rower, or rank in his own parachute detachment that he gained permission to fully pioneer in May 1941. His band of ‘cut-throats’ could take on the enemy with surprise as only a well trained team could attempt to do with split-second decision-making and action. What enabled him to surprise Cambridge?


Cambridge had managed more abreast rowing than Oxford previous to 1937 and Jock put that into the mix with mirroring good practice.  Jock again spent time observing races outside England. At the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 he watched the Americans perform well by changing their rowing order little, rewarded with victory in the final of the V111s. The 1935 Oxford crew frequently made daily changes in the boat. How did Jock avoid that?


Jock prepared early – just as he did with what we now know as the SAS; his Special Forces programme was ready to go in Autumn 1941 because Jock Lewes developed it gradually in the previous six months. As David Stirling, the other first co-founder conceded, ‘Jock Lewes could far more genuinely claim to be the founder of the SAS than I.’ So, Jock organized an exacting programme of competing across Europe in the summer of 1936; in some senses a rehearsal for his and Oxford’s incredible achievements. Abroad, Jock also ‘wanted to give as little away so as to achieve maximum advantage in surprising the opposition.’ His letters are revealing, ‘I want to spring this crew on Cambridge…to that end I am concealing our great strength even from Oxford itself as far as is wise.’ How was this achieved so spectacularly?


Jock considered it less effective to shape the final crew too early but balanced this with few changes at the end of training. He arranged to give a dinner for both Trial VIIIs five months before the Boat Race. In mid-November 1936 he wrote:


‘The system of picking a crew by means of Trial VIIIs is only good if Trial VIIIs realize how important they are. Trial VIIIs with the wrong spirit can lose a Boat Race much more easily than half the things to which Oxford’s failures have been put down… Collect all the men together where they can get to know each other, so that the whole of the trials will be carried on in the spirit of a … party and not become the grim ordeal it can so easily be.’ 


Jock’s upgrading of Oxford oarsmen gradually developed a boat that needed few changes. Jock used his own money to fund such gatherings for he determined that the Isis crew would not be ‘abandoned as we were in 1935 or allowed as a sort of favour to enter the Head of the River race a few days before the Boat Race, it will be turned over to properly selected coaches and carry out well organised training.’


Jock was evasive with the Press in order to protect his oarsmen, ‘I love the Press just as I love my pipe – and the one is as bad for training as the other.’  Perhaps Jock Lewes could afford to shield his rowers from the papers. In the 1930s the Oxbridge teams were given front page individual picture headshots splashed across the newspapers. This was big news – and now, given the pedigree of the type of women and men who row today, it still is. British Rowing continues to be breath-taking in more senses than one.


There was just one last change in the 1937 Oxford boat. The Boat Race was set for 24 March. On 10 March Jock decided he wasn’t happy with his own beginnings in his stroke. The OUBC Secretary, Mike Ashby, takes up the story: ‘To our horror and astonishment, Jock, our splendid President got out and Winser took his place. Now he could only watch the great victory for which he had done so much.’


Rowers and leaders alike can draw inspiration from Jock Lewes who understood that leadership and management are about serving others, and leading from the front with a well honed skill-set. Without Jock Lewes, Cambridge would almost certainly have won fourteen times in a row, and the SAS would never have been created in time to alter the fortunes of the British in wartime North Africa and the other theatres of war upon which that success depended.


John Lewes is the nephew and biographer of Jock Lewes (Jock Lewes Co-Founder of the SAS, (Pen and Sword Books).       Links:                                             Copyright ©John Lewes 2016

Photo credit – John Lewes Archive

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