Lewin, (George) Ronald (19141984), military historian and biographer, was born in Halifax, Yorkshire, on 11 October 1914, the eldest of four sons (there were no daughters) of Frank Lewin, patent agent, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Wingfield. He was educated at Heath grammar school in Halifax and the Queen's College, Oxford, where he was a Hastings scholar and a Goldsmiths' exhibitioner. His first class in classical honour moderations in 1934 was the best of its year and was followed by a first in literae humaniores (1936).
From Oxford, Lewin went in 1937 as an editorial assistant to the publishers Jonathan Cape. Having joined the Territorial Army as a gunner early in 1939, describing himself as probably the most inefficient civilian who ever put on uniformand that includes the good soldier Schweik!, he was called up on the day war broke out and served in the Royal Artillery until 1945. He was in north Africa with the Eighth Army, was slightly wounded, and was mentioned in dispatches. In the winter of 1943 he was posted to England to train with a super-heavy regiment, and fought with the twenty-first army group in north-west Europe from June 1944 until the end of the war, by which time he had become a captain.
Lewin returned to Cape briefly on being demobilized, but prospects seemed limited and in 1946 he joined the BBC as a talks producer in the Third Programme. In 1954 he became chief assistant, Home Service, its head from 1957, and its chief in 1963. He set up the Music programme and initiated the Today programme and other successful series. He was, however, not cut out for administration, and he retired ill in 1965. There followed some ten years of clinical depression, the strain of his work having brought on a delayed reaction to his wartime years.
Lewin returned to publishing, joining Hutchinson and specializing in works of military history and wartime experiences. But he also turned to writing his own books. Before the war he had written many book reviews and contributed poems and articles to various periodicals, and now he was commissioned to write Rommel in the Great Commander series. This appeared in 1968 and Montgomery as Military Commander followed in 1971. In 1969 he also edited the third volume of Freedom's Battle: the War on Land, 193945. In 1973 Churchill as War Lord was published, and in 1976 Man of Armour, about Lieutenant-General Vyvyan Pope. By now his reputation was well established and he was chosen to undertake the official biography of Field Marshal Viscount Slim. It was a difficult task, for Slim's autobiography had been justly acclaimed, but Slim the Standard-Bearer (1976) was a triumphant success, lucid, intelligent, and exceptionally readable. It won the W. H. Smith literary award in 1977. The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps followed in 1977.
Lewin was now accepted as one of the leading military historians but Ultra Goes to War, published in 1978, presented a new challenge. Though he lacked scientific or mechanical training, his mastery of the techniques by which the allied cryptographers broke the German ciphers was so complete that he was able to explain them in words that the least qualified could understand, and assess their significance with magisterial authority. He followed this with an account of cipher-breaking achievements in the USA, published as American Magic there and The other Ultra (1982) in Great Britain. For this he paid several visits to the United States and was the first to see many of the relevant papers in the National Archives. He moved on to Hitler's Mistakes, a study of Hitler's shortcomings as politician and general, but owing to a delay in publication this appeared only posthumously.
In 1982 Lewin was struck down by a recurrence of the cancer for which he had had an operation eight years earlier. From then on until he died he was undergoing treatment and in constant pain. He was kept going by his determination to finish the one-volume history of the Second World War which he had been asked to write by Oxford University Press. He achieved about a third of his objective, laying down his pen only on the day he went into hospital.
Lewin was appointed CBE for services to military history in the new year honours of 1983, but took even greater pleasure in receiving the Chesney gold medal of the Royal United Services Institute in the previous year for eminent work calculated to advance military science and knowledge. His prodigious memory, clarity of mind, and immaculate prose style did indeed put him among the masters of his profession; his generosity to those less experienced who sought his help ensured that he was as well liked as he was respected. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Historical Society.
In 1938 Lewin married Sylvia Lloyd (d. 1988), daughter of Philip Maximilian Sturge, industrial print manufacturer, of a Quaker family in Birmingham. They had three sons and a daughter, and the death in a road accident of the youngest son in 1963 was a terrible blow. Lewin died on 6 January 1984 at St Luke's Hospital, Guildford, Surrey.
Philip Ziegler, rev.
WWW · personal knowledge (1990) · private information (1990) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1984)
CAC Cam., corresp. and papers
CAC Cam., corresp. relating to biography of Slim
Wealth at death
£1,066,861: probate, 31 Oct 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales