No.19: Ray Clark in conversation with Johnny Lewis

Ray Clark has interviewed numerous people involved with Radio Caroline for documentaries and his book, Radio Caroline: The True Story Of The Boat That Rocked (reviewed here).
One of his interviewees was Johnny Lewis.
Johnny was first heard on Caroline during the seventies, when he used the DJ name Stephen Bishop, but this interview concentrates on the eighties and, in particular, on the period known as “Eurosiege '85”. This was when the British Government was attempting to stop supply vessels reaching the Caroline and Laser ships in an effort to force them off the air.
Towards the end of the interview Johnny is joined briefly by Stuart Vincent. We are grateful to Ray for sharing this with us.

JOHNNY LEWIS: Eurosiege. Well that was something that started in August 1985. Actually I remember the first day the Dioptric Surveyor - that was the boat the Government was using to try and close Laser and ourselves on Caroline down. I remember the first day it came out because I was doing the Breakfast Show on Caroline at that point. It came past the window of the studio where I was broadcasting about 8 o'clock in the morning. It went shooting past and that was it. We thought “that was a quick visit by the Government”. This was on a Wednesday and a couple of days later, on the Friday, they actually returned. This time they didn't go away! In the early days of Eurosiege I think it was quite obvious it was actually Caroline they were after stopping and not so much Laser because they were sort of anchored... Laser and Caroline were anchored about a mile and a half apart and what happened was the Dioptric Surveyor actually anchored a hundred yards, maybe even closer than that, to the Ross Revenge. I remember that distinctly because I actually had to get on the telephone, the radio ship-to-shore telephone, to talk to them, to call them up and say they were endangering our vessel because they were so close. Eventually they moved away and in the ensuing weeks we were actually stationed between the two boats.

click to hear audio Johnny Lewis on the Caroline-576 Breakfast Show on 22nd August 1985, with Peter Philips on news duties. Unlike Laser, Caroline mostly chose not to refer to Eurosiege on the air, carrying on as if life was perfectly normal. This is an edited version of a recording shared on the Internet Radiocafé, now known as the Radiotrefpunt (radio meeting point) forum by Vincent. Our thanks to him (duration 4 minutes 7 seconds)

On Laser Charlie Wolf, good old Charlie Wolf - he was the one who actually christened it Eurosiege '85 - he used to go on the air each evening and really take the mickey out of the folks from the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) and I believe there were also some folks from the old Independent Broadcasting Authority on this boat that was stationed near the two ships, Laser and Caroline. I remember in particular one evening it was a little bit on the rough side. It didn't affect us or Laser too much but the Dioptric Surveyor which was quite a small boat - I think it was only about 99 tons and remember this was 17 miles off the coast - it was actually bouncing around a little bit. So Charlie goes on the air, and obviously they are monitoring all of this, he says “Hi. This is for all the folks on the Dioptric Surveyor who are tossing their cookies today”. (laughs)

click to hear audio Charlie Wolf and Liz West discuss the Government's surveillance operation on Laser-558, 14th August 1985. This is an edited version of a recording shared on by Matt at The Pirate Archive. Many thanks to Ray Robinson and Matt (duration 2 minutes 39 seconds)

Some of the other things we used to do, when it was really rough we used to actually wind them up because we knew there weren't very many good sailors on the Dioptric Surveyor. What we actually used to do was go on the air because, again, we knew they were monitoring us, and say something like “this is Caroline. What a wonderful breakfast I've got here in front of me. Bacon, eggs - oh there's so much grease on my plate the eggs are swimming around. They're doing the old breast stroke this morning”. Just after you'd said something like that you could almost see the entire DTI crew on the back of the Dioptric Surveyor praying to the great green goddess of the sea!

Johnny Lewis

Johnny in the Caroline studio. A photo shared by him on Facebook.

Some of the other things that used to happen when the Dioptric Surveyor was out trying to close us down was, each time we had one of our supply boats come out, it was a sort of cat and mouse game because they would up anchor and try to see the supply boat handing over goods to either one of the radio ships. So what would happen, the supply boat would keep circling us, the Dioptric Surveyor would keep circling us and as soon as there was a blind side, as soon as one ship couldn't see the other, bang bang bang, all the records would come across, all the food would come across. It was quite good fun actually. I think it had the opposite effect of what the Government really wanted. They were trying to knock our morale by trying to close us down and what actually happened was that it was something that kept us going. I remember all the publicity that we used to get from the BBC and the local IBA stations, and also the press was absolutely amazing. That gave us more encouragement to go on. It was almost, as Ronan O'Rahilly once said to me, like 20 million pounds worth of free advertising. There we were on the front page of every national newspaper and on every news bulletin. I remember the mailbags we used to get in those days. We used to get two or three sacks of mail a week and suddenly it went up to anywhere between 20 and 30 sacks of mail a week. There were people who were saying “Good grief. We didn't realise Caroline was still on the air” and people then saying “We've never really written to a radio station before but good luck and keep going”. Eventually Laser folded and were forced off the air. Caroline continued and the Government gave up their action with the Dioptric Surveyor but then, in 1989, they boarded the ship, raided it and that was it, as it were. A case of c'est la vie.
A lot of the arguments during Eurosiege that the government used to try and close us down was that we were a potential threat to navigation and also we were interfering with legal radio stations. Well the fact is that, certainly in my time on Radio Caroline, we never received any complaints of interference and in fact I would say that probably there are quite a few people, quite a few sailors and yachtsmen and fishermen who maybe wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the likes of Caroline and Laser. I remember a couple of times being out there in very heavy seas, very heavy weather conditions, and boats coming alongside with their radars broken or their radio communication equipment broken and asking us to call the coastguard to get a lifeboat out to help them. That happened on more than one occasion.
Also we used to get people out there who, what we call the yellow wellie brigade, the Sunday yacht people who would come out. I remember on one occasion somebody came out, came alongside and said (posh voice): “excuse me, could you tell me the way to Britain?” Well 17 miles off, you could point in one direction but the trouble is you'd hit a sandbank. (laughs)
A couple of other incidents: we had a gin palace, a real over-the-top cabin cruiser, come alongside one lovely summer's day and this chap and his family came on board. Now you've got to remember that Radio Caroline broadcast from a trawler, a 1000 ton trawler, and painted on each side of the ship in huge great capital letters was the word Caroline. And it had a 300 ft. tower, a radio mast, which did stand out quite a bit when you had a look at the ship. This chap and his family had been on board, I suppose, for about an hour and a half. We were having a drink or two, as we used to on those summer days; the radio station was blasting all over the ship; there were (laughs) long-haired DJs holding loads of records and, after this chap had been on board for around about an hour and a half, he suddenly turned to me, looked at this aerial and said (posh voice): “I say. I've never seen a lightship with a tower like that before.”
I remember another time when the Dutch navy came alongside. There were about six minesweepers, six Dutch naval warships. Actually this was during Eurosiege this happened and it was the one day, or one of the days - and there weren't many of them - when the Dioptric Surveyor wasn't there. We thought “Hello. This is it. They've come to blast us out of the water, literally”. A couple of the boats came right alongside, one on either side of us. We were ready to repel boarders although we woudn't have stood a chance in hell doing anything about it because these ships were actually full of Dutch naval officers and, as it turned out, trainees. And they were all Caroline fans! They just wanted to come alongside to take a look and to take photographs. So our hearts were going boom boom boom boom boom, thinking this was it, and all it was a bunch of Dutch naval officers wanting to take photographs of their beloved station as it were. That was quite a heart-stopping moment. One of those moments you live with for the rest of your life.

Johnny Lewis

Johnny with Caroline's 50 kilowatt transmitter. Photo from his Rounds and Sounds website.

Johnny is joined by engineer/DJ Stuart Vincent to remember one amusing incident.

STUART VINCENT: We were sharing a bottle of whisky, Johnny and myself, and we couldn't abide the absolute rubbish that was going out on the air. We decided to take a trip down to the transmitter room. It was just too much for us. We had the monitor speaker on and then we decided we'd just slow the generator down a little bit to make the DJ's records go fast and slower. We thought this was quite a laugh, adjusting the governor on the generator and it was going up and down, up and down. We got a bit carried away and we stalled the engine. This rather perplexed disc-jockey came running down the stairs in absolute panic saying “good God, the generator's gone off. The transmitter's off the air”.
JL: He looked at us and said “God, you boys are quick on the case”. (laughs)
SV: Yes, we looked at each other and thought “we'd better not tell him the truth”. (laughs)

Back to Ray's chat with Colin Berry.
Ray's conversation with Nigel Harris is over the page.

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