Cecil Arthur Lewis

Cecil Arthur Lewis MC (29 March 1898 – 27 January 1997) was a British fighter ace who flew with the famed No. 56 Squadron RAF in the First World War, and was credited with destroying eight enemy aircraft. He went on to be a founding executive of the British Broadcasting Company and to enjoy a long career as a writer, notably of the aviation classic Sagittarius Rising, some scenes from which were represented in the film Aces High.[1]

Cecil Arthur Lewis
Born(1898-03-29)29 March 1898
Birkenhead, England
Died27 January 1997(1997-01-27) (aged 98)
London, England
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branchBritish Army
Royal Air Force
Years of service1915–1919
RankSquadron Leader
Battles/warsFirst World War
Second World War
AwardsMilitary Cross


Early life

Lewis was born on 29 March 1898 at 11, Radnor Place, Birkenhead, then in Cheshire, the only child of Edward Williams Lewis, a Congregational minister, by his marriage to Alice Rigby.[2] His parents had been married at Runcorn in 1896.[3] After a short time at Dulwich College,[2] the young Lewis was educated at University College School and Oundle,[4][5] leaving school at the age of seventeen.[2]

First World War

Lewis joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, after lying about his age and learned to fly at Brooklands.[6] In 1916, he flew the Morane Parasol on operations with No. 3 Squadron and was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during the Battle of the Somme.[7][8] Flying over the battlefield on the First day on the Somme (1 July 1916) to report on British troop movements, Lewis witnessed the blowing of the mines at La Boiselle. He later described the early morning scene in his book "Sagittarius Rising"

We were to watch the opening of the attack, coordinate the infantry flare (the job we have been rehearsing for months) and stay over the lines for two and a half hours.

It had been arranged that continuous overlapping patrols would fly throughout the day. Lewis's patrol was ordered "to keep clear of La Boiselle" because of the mines that were to be blown. As he watched from above the village of Thiepval, almost two miles from where the mines exploded, Lewis saw a remarkable sight,

At Boiselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. There was an ear-spitting roar, drowning all the guns flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earthly column rose, higher and higher to almost four thousand feet.

Lewis's aircraft was hit by lumps of mud thrown out by the explosion.[9]

During May and June 1917, when he was flying the S.E.5a with the elite 56 Squadron, Lewis was credited with eight victories.[10] Back in England, Lewis served with 44 and 61 Squadrons on Home Defence before returning to France in late 1918 with 152 (Night-Fighter) Squadron, flying the Sopwith Camel, as a flight commander with the rank of captain.[11]
A forty-minute interview with Lewis, describing his experiences as a First World War pilot, was recorded by the BBC in 1963–64 and later made available online as part of the centenary commemorations of the war.[12] In it, Lewis describes how on his first flight he had the most unusual experience of seeing 9-inch howitzer shells turning over in flight at 8,000 feet before descending to the target. He also described his most frightening experience of the war: a reconnaissance flight at 1,000 feet during the initial bombardment before the battle of the Somme. This entailed flying along the line of fire of shells. Close passing shells caused severe turbulence to his aircraft and a number of his friends were killed.[12]

Flight instructor, journalist, broadcaster

After the war, Lewis was hired by the Vickers company to teach Chinese pilots to fly and to establish a Peking–Shanghai air service using Vickers Commercials, the civilian version of the Vickers Vimy bomber. In Peking in 1921 Lewis married Evdekia Dmitrievna Horvath, known as Doushka (1902–2005), the daughter of a Russian general.[13] He returned to England when the air service project was abandoned by Vickers after a couple of years. With his first wife, he had one son and one daughter.[4]

Through a friend, the Russian singer Vladimir Rosing, Lewis met the artist Charles Ricketts, who became his artistic mentor and sponsor. After Ricketts's death in 1931, Lewis edited his letters and journals for publication. Some of the ashes of Ricketts were buried at Arolo on Lake Maggiore, in the park of Lewis's villa there,[14] which Ricketts had given him £300 to buy.[5]

In 1922 Lewis was one of the five young founding executives of the British Broadcasting Company, precursor of the British Broadcasting Corporation, where he was a writer, producer and director.[15] The other four were John Reith, Arthur Burrows, Stanton Jefferies and Peter Eckersley. In 1931, he co-wrote and directed a short film adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play How He Lied to Her Husband. In late 1936 – early 1937 he was a producer and presenter for the infant BBC Television Service at Alexandra Palace.[16] At the 1938 Academy Awards ceremony, Lewis, Shaw, Ian Dalrymple and W. P. Lipscomb were awarded Oscars for their screen adaptation of Pygmalion.[17]

Second World War

Lewis joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in early 1939 as a pilot officer and during the Second World War served in Sicily, Greece, Egypt, and Italy, rising to the rank of squadron leader.[18][19]

Bernard Shaw wrote of Lewis: "This prince of pilots has had a charmed life in every sense of the word. He is a thinker, a master of words and a bit of a poet.".[20]

Later life

During the late 1940s Lewis became enamoured with the teachings of the Greek-Armenian mystic Gurdjieff. In 1947 he flew a Miles Gemini to South Africa, where he spent the next three years on a farm he established, but the farm was not a success, and in 1950 he returned to England. He joined the Daily Mail in 1956 as a journalist, formally retiring in 1966.[5]

After his last job, Lewis moved to Corfu, where he spent the rest of his life, continuing to write until well into his nineties. He became the last surviving British flying ace of the Great War.

Private life

In Peking in 1921 Lewis married Evdekia Dmitrievna Horvath, known as Doushka (1902–2005), the shy eighteen-year-old daughter of Dmitri Horvath, an Imperial Russian general, and brought her home to England the next year. On arrival in London, Doushka spoke little English, and the couple began by speaking to each other in French. They had a son, Ivor, in 1923, and a daughter, Celia, in 1924, and settled in Chelsea while Lewis was working for the BBC.[13][21] Through Shaw, who became Lewis's mentor, the Lewises met T. E. Lawrence, Noël Coward, Paul Robeson, Sybil Thorndike, and H. G. Wells. The marriage struggled, as according to Doushka Lewis was "a compulsive philanderer". On the strength of the success of Sagittarius Rising (1936), Lewis moved to Hollywood but Doushka returned to Peking, to stay with her mother.[13] After Hollywood, Lewis went to Tahiti to find a simpler life, which he recorded in The Trumpet is Mine (1938), then to Italy to write Challenge of the Night (1938). In 1939 he came back to England to join the RAF as a flying instructor.[5] Doushka stayed in Peking for almost three years. Lewis met her on her return to England but there was no reconciliation, which Doushka later regretted, blaming her pride. They were divorced in 1940. Doushka married Cedric Williams and they had a daughter but later divorced.[13]

In 1942, at Holborn, London, Lewis married Olga H. Burnett but they had no children and were divorced in 1950.[22] In 1960, he married Frances Lowe, known as Fanny.[4] In 1970, they bought a 26-foot boat and together sailed it to Corfu, a story told in Turn Right for Corfu (1972). The couple settled there and lived happily until Lewis's death in 1997.[5] In 1996, when Lewis and Doushka were in their nineties, he published his last book, So Long Ago, So Far Away, an unreserved apology to her.[13]


Works by Lewis

  • Broadcasting From Within (1924)
  • Sagittarius Rising (1936) ISBN 1-85367-143-6
  • The Trumpet Is Mine (1938)
  • Challenge to the Night (1939)
  • Pathfinders (1944)
  • Yesterday's Evening (1946)
  • Farewell to Wings (1964)
  • Turn Right For Corfu (1972)
  • Never Look Back; an Attempt at Autobiography (1974)
  • Gemini to Joburg (1984)
  • Five Conversations about Gurdjieff (1984)
  • Sagittarius Surviving (1991)
  • All My Yesterdays (1993)
  • A Wish to Be: A Voyage of Self-Discovery (1994)
  • So Long Ago, So Far Away: Memory of Old Peking (1996)


  1. "Cecil Arthur Lewis". The Aerodrome. 2015. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  2. James Owen, "Lewis, Cecil Arthur (1898–1997), airman and radio and television broadcaster", in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  3. Marriages Dec 1896: "RIGBY, Alice, & LEWIS, Edward Williams" in Register of Marrisges for Runcorn Registration District, vol. 8a (1896), p. 392
  4. "Lewis, Cecil Arthur", in Who Was Who 1996–2000 (London: A. & C. Black, 2001, ISBN 0-7136-5439-2), p. 347
  5. T. H. Bridgewater, Obituary: Cecil Lewis in The Independent dated 29 January 1997, accessed 6 March 2019
  6. Lewis, Cecil (1936). Sagittarius Rising. p. 10. ... How old are you?' 'Almost eighteen, sir.' (Liar! You were seventeen last month.) ...
  7. "No. 29824". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 November 1916. p. 11058. "For conspicuous skill and gallantry. He has done fine work in photography, with artillery and on contact patrols. On one occasion he came down very low and attacked a column of horsed limbers, causing casualties and scattering the limbers."
  8. Shores, Christopher F.; Franks, Norman & Guest, Russell F. (1990). Above the Trenches: a Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915–1920. London, UK: Grub Street. ISBN 978-0-948817-19-9.
  9. Martin Gilbert, Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War, London (John Murray) 2007, p. 54
  10. Shores, Christopher F.; Franks, Norman & Guest, Russell F. (1990). Above the Trenches: a Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces 1915–1920. London, UK: Grub Street. ISBN 978-0-948817-19-9.
  11. "No. 30286". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 September 1917. p. 9540.
  12. "The Great War interviews". BBC IPlayer. 10 March 2014. Retrieved 15 September 2015.
  13. "Obituary: Doushka Williams". The Independent. London. 4 August 2005. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  14. "213. A Summer Miscellany: La Peste". Charles Ricketts & Charles Shannon. Retrieved 24 March 2018.
  15. "British Broadcasting Company Ltd. Formed". BBC Timeline. 2015. Archived from the original on 11 May 2015. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  16. "Cecil Lewis". BBC Genome Project: Radio Times 1923-2009. 2015. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  17. "The 11th Academy Awards (1938)". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 2015. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  18. "No. 34603". The London Gazette. 28 February 1939. p. 1396.
  19. "No. 36930". The London Gazette (Supplement). 6 February 1945. p. 814.
  20. "The Week-end Review". New Statesman and Nation. 12 (284). 1 August 1936.
  21. Births June Quarter 1923: "Lewis Ivor B. V. H.", mother's maiden name Harvath, in Register of Births for Hampstead Registration district, vol. 1a (1923) p. 919; Births June Quarter 1924: "Lewis, Celia", mother's maiden name Horvath, in Register of Births for St George's Hanover Square Registration district, vol. 1a (1924), p. 624
  22. Marriages Dec 1942: "Burnett, Olga H and Lewis, Cecil A" in Register of Marriages for Holburn Registration District, vol 1b (1942), p. 790
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