Squadron Leader Reg Lewis
Squadron Leader Reg Lewis
Born: August 26th 1922 Poplar, London. Died: October 12th 2009 Age: 87
Squadron Leader Reg Lewis, who has died aged 87, was forced to bail out of his aircraft when resupplying the French Resistance, which then helped him to evade capture and escape across the Pyrenees.
Lewis was the navigator of a very experienced crew, flying with No 138 (Special Duties) Squadron from Tempsford in Bedfordshire. The squadron’s role was to drop supplies and SOE agents from converted Halifax bombers to ground parties in occupied Europe.
He and his crew had already completed 15 operations when, on February 7 1944, they were given the important task of resupplying the highly successful Resistance network in south-east France known as “Jockey”. Organised by Francis Cammaerts, Jockey specialised in sabotaging trains and the railway infrastructure.
The weather forecast was not encouraging, but the crew — captained by 23-year-old Squadron Leader Tom Cooke, DFC, AFC, DFM — were told that they must drop an agent and a quantity of supplies “at all costs”.
Conditions were indeed appalling, and Lewis’s skills as a navigator were stretched to the limit as the aircraft was forced to descend and fly at very low level down the Rhône valley.
When they were forced to climb to avoid rising ground, the engines began to ice up before two of them caught fire owing to the increased strain. The SOE agent was ordered to bail out, and soon after the crew were forced to follow suit.
Lewis landed in deep snow on the side of a mountain. Eventually he found an isolated house, where a terrified woman gave him shelter. The next morning she dressed him in an old suit and arranged for him to be taken to a pharmacy near Valence, where he was reunited with three of the seven crew.
The fugitives were taken to a “safe house” in the mountains, where they remained for three weeks before boarding a train to a village near the Spanish frontier. There they joined a large party waiting to cross the Pyrenees.
After everyone had been issued with a small parcel of food, the party was led over the mountains by two guides. For six days and nights they trekked in freezing conditions, at one point having to traverse a pass at 10,000ft. Lewis was still wearing the old suit, and had no overcoat.
After finally reaching Spain, they hid in a barn, then — concealed beneath tarpaulins — they were driven to the British mission in Barcelona. With the help of false papers Lewis crossed into Gibraltar, from where he flew home at the end of April. All the members of his crew managed to evade capture and got back to England.
Reginald William Lewis was born on August 26 1922 in Poplar, London, attending the local school before going to Clarks College, Walthamstow.
During the Blitz of 1940 his family were bombed twice in the space of a month, losing all their possessions. As soon as he was old enough, he volunteered to fly with the RAF, and was sent to Canada for training as a navigator.
Lewis spent most of 1942 on bombing operations over Germany with No 15 Squadron. Flying the four-engine Stirling, he and his crew completed 30 operations at a time when only about 25 per cent of crews survived so many missions.
They were then due for a rest tour, but had formed such a strong team that when their captain offered the possibility of flying with a special duties squadron all of them volunteered. They were accepted, and arrived at Tempsford in September 1943.
A few days after Lewis and his crew had bailed out over France, it was announced that Lewis had been awarded a DFC for his outstanding work in navigating to remote dropping zones that were lit by ground parties using a handful of torches.
Following his return to England, Lewis became an instructor and later served in south-east Asia on the personal staff of Air Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Allied Air Commander. He was released from the RAF in July 1946, and embarked on a long and successful career in investments in the City of London. He retired at 73, but continued working from his office at home in Gidea Park, at Romford, Essex, until he was 80.
Lewis never forgot those in France who had helped him, and for several years he tried to trace them. Eventually, with the aid of the RAF Escaping Society, he managed to identify one of his key helpers and locate his relatives. In 1970 he set off to seek out his French friends, but tragedy struck when he was involved in a car crash that killed his wife, Joyce, and left him with severe injuries.
Determined to succeed in his quest, however, two years later he joined a party of fellow escapers travelling to France and eventually he located Madame Giraudin, the lady who had first given him shelter. After meeting others, he remarked: “So many people had risked their lives to help me, it meant everything that I could finally thank them in person.”
Lewis served on the executive committee of the RAF Escaping Society, which assisted surviving helpers and the dependants of those who had given their lives for shot down airmen. He later became the society’s secretary, serving until it was disbanded in the late 1990s. He was also treasurer of the Bomber Command Association.
A keen sportsman, Lewis played football for the London Guildhall club and cricket for the local team. He was a member of MCC and a keen supporter of Middlesex. For 20 years he was on the committee of the West Ham Boys’ Boxing Club.
Reg Lewis died on October 12. A few years after the death of his first wife, whom he had married in 1946, he met Brenda Garnham, who was his companion until he died. He is also survived by his son and daughter.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.