Second to Sailor Malan, Albert Gerald Lewis was the next best performing South African pilot flying for the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. To earn the title “Ace in a Day” a pilot had to shoot down 5 or more aircraft in a single day. Only a handful of Allied pilots achieved this during World War 2, and “Zulu” Lewis is one of them. Here’s the astounding bit, he achieved this ‘Ace in a Day’ status, not just once – but twice! He is also on the top ten Royal Air Force Ace list, having shot down 6 aircraft in 6 hours.
Albert Gerald Lewis ended the war with the rank of Squadron Leader and for his bravery earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). He was born in Kimberley South Africa on 10 April 1918 and the attended Kimberley Boys’ High School, he had an interest in flying and took private lessons in South Africa before taking his pilot licence to Britain to join the RAF.
He was gazetted as a Acting Pilot Officer with effect from 29th of October 1938 and 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. On 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.
France – 85 Squadron RAF
“The Phoney war” in France had changed to real war and Lewis was transferred to No 87 Squadron the 26th of April 1939 – only to be transferred the day after to No 85 Squadron under Squadron Leader “Doggie” Oliver.
Under intense stain of combat flying during “The Battle for France” on the 12th of May flying VY-E, Lewis shot down – not only his first enemy aircraft – but also his second:
A Messerschmidt 109 and a Heinkel He111.
First: 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. This action resulted in his first DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for bravery:
Awarded on: June 25th, 1940, the Citation reads:
“Pilot Officer Lewis has, by a combination of great personal courage, determination and skill in flying, shot down five enemy aircraft, single-handed, in one day. He has destroyed in all a total of seven enemy aircraft, and by his example has been an inspiration to his squadron.”
On the 21st of May Lewis flew back to England in one of the only 3 Hurricanes still usable from 85th Squadron.
Lewis in 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 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, the squadron from which Townsend originally came.
From the 1st of July operations started in earnest, and three or four sorties a day were flown, usually convoy patrols from Martelsham Heath. On 18th of August – flying VY-D on a solo patrol, Lewis destroyed a Me110 and on 31st of August –-flying VY-N – he got a Me 109 after being scrambled in a hurry.
By 5th of September, 1940 the 85 Squadron was exhausted and rotated out of the battle line, but not Zulu Lewis who still had still some fighting ahead of him. Squadrons in the south of England were in desperate need of veteran pilots and Lewis went south again, joining 249 Squadron.
England – 249 Squadron RAF
14th of September Lewis was posted to the top scoring 249 Squadron at North Weald.
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. By the 18th of September Lewis got his twelfth confirmed enemy aircraft.
Ace in a Day – Second time: 6 confirmed kills and two probables
27th of September – flying GN-R – Zulu Lewis DFC shot down eight enemy aircrafts 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”
Once rearmed and refueled, 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, where after smoking fires near the wood in vicinity of Canterbury could have been other aircraft destroyed, as there were no bombers.”
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. kept 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 faily long burst at another Ju88.”
Lewis was awarded his second DFC for this day. Awarded on October 22nd, 1940, the Citation reads:
“One day in September, 1940, this officer destroyed six enemy aircraft; this makes a total of eighteen destroyed by him. His courage and keenness are outstanding.”
Awarded as a bar for on the ribbon of the first DFC.
He thus got 11 confirmed victories in two days – 19th of May and 27th of September.
Which is believed to be a record for single-engine British fighters.
Shot down – England
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. Lewis baled out of his burning Hurricane. 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, this little ‘silk worm ‘caterpillar’ confirmed his membership of the selected band of pilots who had their lives saved by a parachute (hence the ‘silk).
He returned to the Squadron in December, 1940, having been promoted Flight Lieutenant on 29 November. He was flying by 17 January 1941, and became “A” Flight Commander, and was awarded a bar to the DFC.
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 Japanese bombing, all waterborne sanitation was smashed and cholera added to their troubles.
Shot down – China Bay
On the 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 can 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.
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 and continued to farm in his homeland. He also became deeply religious, joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Mormons).
To quote his religious convictions at the end of his life:
“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.”
Albert Gerald Lewis died on the 14th of December 1982 – 64 years old.
These dramatic images outline Zulu Lewis in action at the peak of the Battle of Britain, taken by LIFE magazine who did an interview and profile story on him at the time.
Peak of battle in the ‘Battle of Britain’, South African Pilot Officer Albert G Lewis of No. 85 Squadron grabs his flying helmet from the tailplane of his Hurricane, P2923 VQ-R, as a member of the ground crew warms up the engine prior to a sortie, Castle Camps, July 1940. Photo Copyright IWM Collection.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I, P2923, VY-R, flown by Pilot Officer A G Lewis landing at Castle Camps, RAF Debden’s satellite airfield, July 1940.
Researched by Peter Dickens
Sources: Wikipedia, www.thefedoralounge.com, Hurricane 501 (website), Brian Cull: “249 at War.”Short history. Colourised images by ‘Doug’, Imperial War Museum Copyright