ONE OF THE FEW
Squadron Leader Albert Gerald Lewis, DFC and bar
It all started with a picture. A photo in the book called THE FEW.
A photo of a young – rather long haired – RAF pilot, standing besides his Hurricane with a big grin. I could not shake off that image of this carefree young pilot. Displaying all the casual enthusiasm of operational life which characterised Fighter Command during The Battle of Britain.
Who was he? What did he do? Did he survive – not only the Battle of Britain – but the war?
For several years I tried to trace him. To find books about him – or at least books where somebody had written just small pieces about him.
It proved that he was nothing less than a double Ace in a Day.
He was shot down several times. He got horrible burns in face and arms, while jumping out of a burning Hurricane. And even after that, he came back to fight.
This is what I have gathered so far on a very special man: Albert Gerald Lewis.
Albert Gerald Lewis was born 10th of April 1918 in Kimberly, South Africa.
He got interested in flying as a teenager and went through a private Flying School on his own account at the age of 18.
With his pilot license, he went to Britain to join the Royal Air Force at the age of 20 – on a four year Short service Commission, being gazetted Acting Pilot Officer with effect from 29th of October 1938. After flying in different training units – and with different planes, he was posted to No. 616 South Yorkshire Squadron Auxiliary Air Force, which had been formed on 1st of November 1938 as a Bombing Squadron.
When he arrived, the Squadron flew Gauntlets, Tutors and Battles.
After some time he was transferred to an even duller job as a ferry pilot in No 12 Group Ferry Pool. Although the main business was ferrying aircraft, they also found time to practice fighter tactics.
16th of December 1939 Lewis was transferred again. This time to No 504 Squadron,
Debden. The Squadron flew Hurricanes, which was a great leap upwards for Lewis.
30th of January he flew the first of many single “Trawler Patrols”. This day marked his first meeting with the enemy, when he spotted and chased a German Blohm & Voss Seaplane.
LEWIS JOINS 85 SQUADRON IN FRANCE
“The Phoney war” in France had changed to real war and Lewis was transferred to No 87 Squadron the 26th of April 1940 – only to be transferred the day after to No 85 Squadron inder Squadron Leader “Doggie” Oliver.
85 was a crack Squadron which, during WWI had been commanded by the famous Major “Mick Mannock, VC, DSO with 2 Bars and MC with Bar.
The air war in France was more like the air war of WWI.
There was no radar – like later during Battle of Britain – so the pilots flew patrols from dawn to dusk in hope of sighting the enemy.
Sometimes they got a warning from ground troops that enemy planes had been spotted, where after the squadron was scrambled.
But most of time it was just hide and seek with endless patrols.
That changed suddenly, when the Germans attacked Holland, Belgium and France 10th of May 1940.
Losses were heavy with aircraft being shot up on the ground by strafing Me109 fighters and bombed by Heinkel He111 bombers.
The opening scene in “Battle of Britain” gives a very good image of what 85 Squadron went through in those days.
To underline the strain involved in flying all day, every day, in combat against superior odds, let me cite A. J. Brooks: Fighter Squadron at War:
“Sergeant “Sammy” Allard for instance destroyed ten enemy aircraft in a week but only by flying four or five times a day with very little or no rest in between.
This had to take its toll of mind and body and on the 16th of May, after only an hour and a half’s sleep the previous night, Allard took-off on the first of four sorties that day.
Bombs were bursting on the aerodrome as he and his section took-off on their second patrol and on their third patrol Allard fell asleep three times over German occupied territory. As he taxied in from his last patrol of the day, the ground crew were surprised not to see him jump out after the aircraft had been shut down.
A mechanic opened the canopy only to find that Allard had finally succumbed to sheer weariness and had fallen asleep where he sat.
He was still unconscious when the ground crew lifted him out and it was decided to let him sleep on until the dawn patrol the next day.
But at dawn they could still not wake him, so Allard was sent off to hospital in England.
In all he slept for 30 hours non stop.”
FIRST “KILL” – AND SECOND
Lewis flew just as many sorties with just as much lack of sleep, and on the 12th of May flying VY-E, he shot down – not only his first enemy aircraft – but also his second: A Messerschmidt 109 – and a Heinkel He111.
ACE IN A DAY
18th or 19th of May – due to all the Squadrons reports got lost in the evacuation of the Squadron a few days later, there is some differences here – flying AK-A (an aircraft borrowed from 213 Squadron) he got 5 confirmed kills in a day:
Two Messerschmidt 109s on the first patrol in the morning and three more on the evening patrol. This fight had been witnessed by his CO and the squadron.
In some books it is mentioned that Lewis jumped out of his stricken Hurricane by
parachute after the first scrap. (This has not been confirmed – again due to the loss of
“I was jumped by a patrol of 3 Me109’s as I was about to return to base, troubled by a
loose gun panel. I became aware of attack as tracers streamed by.
Turned into attack and found the leader coming straight at me. Somehow his cannon shots missed me and he rolled into a steep turn almost on his back and pulled away. Suddenly there was his belly at point blank range. I rammed the nose of the Hurricane down, my head hitting the top of the cockpit glasshouse – and pressed the gun button.
Fuel spewed out from the L-shaped tank which the pilot sat on, and with fuel streaming behind him, the pilot flew straight down into the deck and exploded.
By the way he handled his plane, I imagine the pilot to be experienced, possibly an
instructor with two greenies or fledglings, as the two made half-hearted attacks, formed up together and headed home, towards Brussels.
The fight had occurred in the Rubaix area on the Franco-Belgian border. My first
inclination was to leave them alone, but realising we had the extra boost in the Hurricane if we needed it for a short duration, I pulled out the boost control and followed the two.
I don’t think they were aware of me following them as I was able to position myself slightly below and behind. They were sitting ducks.
Short bursts into each one and they plummeted straight down into the deck at a steep angle.
I was able to pinpoint the wreckages and submitted my report.
The ack-ack guns confirmed and “Bob” Martin, MC – our Intelligence Officer had a look at the wreckages. They were fairly close together, in wooded country.
The event happened in less time than it takes to tell it.
On landing at Seclin my ground crew met me with grins and thump up signs. Doggie Oliver came over to me and said: “We have witnessed a wonderful scrap between one of our lads and three Messerschmidts!” I told him that I had just had three Me 109s jump me, and had managed to bag all three.
He was delighted as he realised he had just witnessed – with the ground crews – the
action I had been involved in.
“I’m recommending you for the DFC” he said with a grin.”
WITHDRAWAL FROM FRANCE
The squadron lost more and more aeroplanes. And with no new ones coming in the order for withdrawal to England was given.
Monday 20 May Lewis flew back to England in one of the only 3 Hurricanes still usable from 85th Squadron:
“It was obvious that we were being kicked out of France and those of us who were not wounded were told we had to make our way home to England.
Bofors guns were being turned on practically new Hurricanes to destroy them and make them unfit for use by the enemy.
We came under attack by 109s which strafed rows of aircraft standing out in the open.
I eventually found one Hurricane which, apart from a few bullet holes, seemed OK. We started her up and I was soon heading out over the Channel towards England.
Landed at Gatwick and on to Northolt.”
He was met by Wing Commander Broadhurst and granted 48 hours leave.
He sets off, only to fall asleep at a table in the Paddington Hotel and woke up to find
people starring at him. He was by then utterly and completely exhausted.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
28th of June the Squadron moved to Castle Camp – a satellite airfield to Debden, which were to be their base for the early part of the Battle of Britain.
Lewis is now primarily flying VY-Z.
Peter Townsend became CO of the squadron and soon gave Lewis his nickname: Zulu, as he had also christened his great chum, South African Caesar Hull in No. 43 Squadron, from which Townsend came.
From 1st of July operations started in earnest, and three or four sorties a day were flown, usually convoy patrols from Martelsham Heath.
18th of August – flying VY-D on a solo patrol, Lewis destroyed a Me110.
The same day the squadron moved south to Crydon.
31st of August –-flying VY-N – he got a Me 109 after being scrambled in a hurry.
The combat report reveals that 9 Hurricanes took off at 19:17 hours to patrol Hawinge.
They were then ordered to intercept Raid 18C. The first indication of position of enemy aircrafts were given by the anti-aircraft fire from Dover and then 9 Me 109s were seen flying at about 15.000 feet.
The squadron circled out to sea as the enemy aircrafts were off to the left, and then
wheeled in and caught them by surprise. Individual combat followed.
“Pilot officer Lewis fired a four-second burst at enemy aircraft from 150 yards on the beam and from slightly below. Black smoke bellowed out and enemy aircraft dived steeply.
Lewis followed it down to about 5.000 feet making sure it was done for and then rejoined squadron. Nine Hurricanes landed Croydon 20:05 to 20:22 hours.
Enemy casualties: 4 destroyed. Our losses: 0”
5th of September, 1940 the 85 Squadron was exhausted and rotated out of the battle line – north to Church Fenton in Yorkshire.
From there Lewis and the rest of the Squadron flew routine patrols and got the new
replacement pilots in shape for things to come.
The Squadron never came back to the fighting line in the south of England – but was
instead transformed to night fighting duties, due to the fact that the Germans had started to bomb London and other big cities day and night.
But Lewis had still some fighting ahead of him.
Squadrons in the south of England, was in desperate need of veteran pilots and Lewis went south again.
LEWIS JOINS No. 249 SQUADRON.
14th of September Lewis was posted to the top scoring 249 Squadron at North Weald.
He was back in the fighting again.
“A highly successful French Campaign pilot, Plt. Officer Albert G. Lewis, DFC with eight victories arrived from 85 Squadron arrived 14th of September; he was the fourth South African member of the Squadron.”
– Brian Cull: “249 at War.”
It was all out action at North Weald – sorties three, four or five times a day when Lewis arrived – and the very first day in the new Squadron, he shot down a Heinkel He111 and shared a probable destruction of another.
The day was one of the hardest days in the long hot summer, and were by many regarded as the turning point of The Battle of Britain.
Lewis combat report:
Encountered a formation of 18 He111 in diamond formation at 15.000 feet, with fighters at 20.000 feet, spread over a large area. I found myself with Spitfires, which split up the bulk of the formation. One became separated from the rest. I attacked from slightly below from beam, gave a three second burst, and from here got line astern; set both motors on fire causing undercarriage to drop and the e/a appeared to spiral down in vicinity of Brentwood. As soon as this was down I engaged formation again, which had by now dropped its bombs and was heading towards the South Coast. I went after a Spitfire, which broke away, the I closed and set starboard engine on fire. Wheels dropped out and e/a began to spiral down, circled by Spits.
– Brian Cull: “249 at War.”
18th of September he got his twelfth confirmed enemy aircraft.
Lewis combat report:
“Spotted Me109’s above us to stern. Attacked a yellow nose heading back, opening fire from slightly below, approaching head on. Gave short burst of about three seconds, pulling nose well up beneath e/a. It went in a flat spiral and following it down saw it crash near a wood. This was confirmed by Plt. Officer Worrall, Blue 3. Pilot presumed to have baled out as parachute was seen in vicinity.
– Brian Cull: “249 at War.”
SIX CONFIRMED AND TWO PROBABLES ON THE SAME DAY!
27th of September – flying GN-R – he shot down eight enemy aircraft in one day!
Lewis combat report from the morning:
Sighted circle of Me110’s over area near Redhill. Attacked out of the sun and fired two short bursts into e/a following a Hurricane down. He billowed smoke and went down steeply.
Again attacked circle and put a burst into another Me110 – starboard engine out of action and on fire. Climbed into the sun again delivered attack on remains of circle. Hit one who dropped out of fight, heading towards coast and, with starboard engine out of action, tried to get home. Forced him down in vicinity of some hills near Crowhurst. He burst into flames on landing at farmyard.
– Brian Cull: “249 at War.”
Once rearmed and refuelled, seven Hurricanes lead by Lewis, (The Squadron Leader was reported Missing in Action) were ordered to patrol Maidstone before carrying a sweep of Hawking to Canterbury along with 46th Squadron.
Lewis combat report:
“As 249 Leader, sighted formation of Me109’s to north-east of Estuary. Climbed to 15.000 feet to 20.000 feet but were attacked by second 109 formation from above.
In ensuing dogfight was attacked by two 109’s, one of which I hit in belly as he passed overhead. He crashed into wood near Canterbury. Put burst into second 109, which attacked soon after the one I shot down, also in belly.
I did not observe this one hit the ground but went down smoking, whereafter smoking fires near the wood in vicinity of Canterbury could have been other aircraft destroyed, as there were no bombers.”
– Brian Cull: “249 at War.”
Later the same day.
Lewis combat report:
“As green Leader, attacked formation of Ju88’s with Blue Section, and one just dropped out with starboard engine damaged. Closed in and carried out two beam attacks from slightly above and put engine on fire.
Keept after it as it went down steeply toward coast near Selsey Bill. Crashed into sea just near coast.
Shot down one Me109 which crossed my sights after engagement with Ju88. Went down in flames, then followed a second Me109 down which I attacked from above and it crashed in woods near Petworth. This is confirmed by Sgt. Hampshire of Green Section.
Fired short bursts of approx two to three second bursts at Me109’s and a fairly long burst at another Ju88.”
(Brian Cull: “249 at War.”)
Lewis was awarded his second DFC for this day
He thus got 11 confirmed victories in only two days – five at 19th of May and six at 27th of September.
Which is believed to be a record for single-engine British fighters.
SHOT DOWN IN FLAMES
28th of September – only the very next day – the Squadron was flying patrol over
Maidstone, and Lewis was shot down in flames while flying the same aircraft GN-R.
The Squadron was in a gentle dive, with Lewis weaving above them, when he was hit from behind by cannon shells and set on fire.
“We had been patrolling at 26.000 feet, making contrails and were aware that what we thought was He113’s were slightly above us, also making contrails. On being ordered back to base, we dived, with myself weaving back and forth to cover the Squadron.”
Sgt. Hampshire flying as Lewis no. 2 added:
“He and I were tail-end Charlies. I’d just had a look in the sun when he shouted: Look out!
Whereupon I took evasive action and the tracers went over my port wing.
Meanwhile they got him – and he bailed out.”
“At about 30.000 feet I was hit by by cannonfire, receiving shrapnel splinters in my legs and the Hurricane caught fire, burning fiercely at the speed at which we were traveling.
When I pulled back the cockpit cover the flames roared up around my face and, having just pulled the release of the Sutton harness, I attempted to get out.
The suddenness with which I parted company with the plane caused me to be shaken
around like an old rag, then the blissful peace and calm of falling free.
I remembered what we had been told: Don’t pull the ripcord immediately on falling free, allow time to get separated from the plane, and also to lose initial speed. Brace yourself for the jerk that follow the opening of the chute.”
– Brian Cull: “249 at War.”
Jimmy Crossey following him down, circling the parachute to prevent him being shot at.
Lewis landed safely, but was severely burned and was taken to Faversham Cottage
Hospital. Blind for two weeks, with a piece of shrapnel in his leg and severe burns on the face, throat, hands and legs.
He received his little golden caterpillar with his name engraved on the back while in
hospital, which confirmed his membership of the selected band of pilots who had saved their lives by parachute.
After two months in hospital and convalescing, Lewis returned to the 249 Squadron in December 1940 having been promoted Flying Officer on 29th of November.
17th of January 1941 he became A flight Commander and received a Bar to his DFC.
He then flew local, night and day. Enemy- and routine patrols and Fightersweeps.
The war was far from over.
One of Lewis fellow pilots, Tom Neil remembers:
“When I taxied into my hardstand to stop, I saw Gerald Lewis’ Hurricane just ahead of me. He was still in the cockpit as I dropped to the ground and I saw him waving his arms in my direction. When I walked towards him, I could see why.
There were massive damage to the left hand side of the cockpit. No wonder he was upset; it was a miracle he had not been killed or badly wounded.”
– Brian Cull: “249 at War.”
No. 249 Squadron was one of the highest scoring squadrons in The Battle of Britain, with 54 enemy aircrafts destroyed, 16 Probable and 17 damaged.
April1941 Lewis was taken off combat duty and posted to No. 52 OUT as an instructor and commander of C flight.
(At Debden with 52 OUT he flew a Spitfire for the first – and only time – in his life)
Lewis volunteered for overseas service and was posted to 261 Squadron in January 1942.
Via Sierra Leone he went to Tricomalee in China bay, Ceylon to take command of 261
Squadron – a Squadron famous for it’s defence of Malta earlier in the war.
Lewis recalls that the force consisted of himself as CO, 6 Flt Lts, 3 FOs, 8 Pos, 1 WO pilot and 34 Sgt. Pilots. Most of the force were Australians and New Zealand pilots with a few Canadians and an American.
China Bay was a grass airfield – or rather – a clearing in the jungle. Everything was “under construction” and very primitive.
Malaria was bad. Typhoid was caused by foul water supplies and after a Jap bombing, all waterborne sanitation was smashed and cholera added to their troubles.
Most of the dead were buried wrapped in blankets in long trenches, as there was no time to make coffins. Despite all that – the force developed a love for the island of Ceylon.
SHOT DOWN SECOND TIME
9th of April – the day before his 24th birthday, Lewis led his Squadron to intercept a
Japanese raid and as he was taking off, his aircraft was hit by fire from one of the Japanese Zeros.
He was wounded in the left shoulder and could not use his arm.
On fire – once again – he bales out at only 200 feet, with his parachute opening just in time. He could see his base was under heavy attack and for six hours he lay suffering from shock until he was found by some natives, who revived him with coconut milk, and helped him back to the base.
In June 1942 he returns to Britain via South Africa, where he was amazed and
embarrassed to find himself …”a local lad who had hit the limelight”
He had his portrait painted by Springs artist Johannsen – commissioned by the City
Council of Springs and was give a few days leave to see his folks.
“It was rather trying, one reception after another, speeches, grinning whether you liked it or not. And although my ego was no doubt was exercised I was relieved when it was all over!”
For the rest of the war Lewis stayed in Britain. First as Chief Flying Instructor at Tealing, in Scotland. Then at 10th Group HQ and at 11th Group HQ.
A letter of gratitude from a yank Lt.Col. 8th USAAF, while Lewis was a Squadron Leader.
AFTER THE WAR
Lewis left Royal Air Force on 16th of February 1946, having been an Acting Squadron
leader since 22nd of April 1943.
After the war Lewis started farming. First in Britain – but in 1947 he went back home to South Africa.
In 1953-55 he studied agriculture in the USA where he also became a member of The
Church of the Latterday Saints (Mormons), but in 1957 he returned to farm in England.
Albert Gerald Lewis, as well as being a brave and resourceful pilot, was also a deeply
religious man. He provides a summary of his philosophy of life like this:
“As my mind reflects on The Battle of Britain and on the many wonderful characters who formed a part of that scene and died a quarter of a century ago in order that the world might be a better place to live in – as did those in The First World War – and indeed all righteous people from the beginning of time – I wonder, have we achieved lasting peace?
If we are not to disappoint ourselves and all of those who have come before, we need a plan – one that is practical and embraces all mankind.
I sincerely believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only plan which can embrace the world so that all who desire to – may live in peace.”
His grandson Nathan Lewis (the small boy on his fathers arm, next to Albert Lewis)
“I knew and loved him until he passed away when I was 8 years of age.
My memory of him is of a deeply humble man, who was very spiritual on his out look on life, he truly loved his fellow man. As a young boy who would watch the battle of Britain movie and held grampy in some kind of awe, I vividly remember telling him that he was my hero after hearing from my father and uncles about his exploits. When grampy asked why and I told him because of his being an ace fighter pilot he looked at me and told me quietly that he was no hero, he was just one of many people who had a job to do and a duty to serve those that couldn’t help themselves.
His later life was always marked by how he served others; he seemed driven by a need to give all he had to helping others.”
TOM NEIL REMEMBERS
In an epilogue in his book “Gun Button to Fire” Tom Neil writes about several of his fellow pilots and what happened to them after the war.
It is obvious that Tom Neil and Lewis were truly great friends. But it is also evident that Tom Neil lost contact with Lewis.
This is also the first time somebody mentions that Lewis might have suffered from “combat fatigue” – very understandable with all he had been through. Fighting from the early days in France and during Battle of Britain. Being shot down several times, badly burned once and several other close calls. A man who gave everything.
Here follows Tom Neil’s own words:
“Gerald Lewis was another South African, a short-service officer who came to 249 in
September 1940. A splendid looking young man, he was 6ft 3in, had a mop of flaxen hair and a very engaging grin.
He had also been very successful during the early months of the war, serving in France with no. 85 Squadron and earning a DFC after being credited with the destruction of at least five enemy aircraft and himself being shot down, though uninjured.
Continuing his good work with 249, he claimed another nine enemy aircraft before he was again shot down on 28 September, this time bailing out after badly burned.
Recovering in Faversham Hospital he rejoined 249 in January 1941 and, having being awarded a bar to his DFC, he joined my own flight and flew with me on several offensive sorties over France.
On 10 February, 249 Squadron was acting high cover to a bomber attack on Dunkirk, with my own section of four, consisting of Lewis, Crossey and Davis, flying rear-guard at 20,000 feet.
Over the target, we were attacked by a large force of Me 109s, Davis being shot down
almost immediately and Lewis badly mauled.
Landing back at North Weald, the cockpit of his aircraft a wreck, I found Lewis profoundly disturbed by the incident and unusually critical of the manner in which such sorties were being carried out. It was this engagement, I believe, that was a tipping point for him, as he never felt entirely comfortable on any such operation again.
When in April 1941, the squadron was told it was to move to the Middle East, as a married officer, Lewis was informed that he would not be making the journey and that he would be posted to the new OTU then being formed at Debden.
So, his departure from the squadron, sadly, was to be the last time I was ever to see him. Although we only served together for five months, I grew to be very fond of Gerald. A shy and retiring young man, he was never at ease in mixed company especially and, despite his splendid physique, seldom took part in any overt horseplay.
Inordinately fond of his home country he would talk at length – usually after dinner in the mess – about the glories of South Africa and how important it was for me to emigrate to the Drakensburg Mountains after the war.
Later, I was told by friends serving with him, how he had gradually lost confidence in
himself and that he was keen “to get away from it all”. So that when he was posted to
command No. 261 Squadron in “out of way” Ceylon, it must have come as a great relief.
But the fates were against him as he was to move into trouble!
Only weeks after arriving in Trincomalee, a Japanese carrier force attacked the Island and he was shot down and wounded again, when in the act of taking off to intercept.
I believe he returned to the United Kingdom several months after the Ceylon incident, but I lost track of him until many years after the war.
It was only in the 1990s, in fact, that Pat Wells informed me that earlier he had met Gerald in South Africa and that our late colleague had “taken to religion in a big way”, and was “trying to convert everyone”.
I had long been aware that before his arrival at North Weald, Gerald had married, but I never heard mention of any children. Nor indeed, now, if he, his wife or any near relation is still alive – he was two years older than me and, as I write, must now be well into his nineties.
If, however, children did result, they would be proud of their fathers achievements, as he gave a great deal for Britain – and South Africa.”
Albert Gerald Lewis died 14th of December 1982 – only 64 years old.
Article by Søren Parup and re-published with permission.