From Lancaster bomber hero to beloved teacher: the remarkable life of Stevie Stevens
- Credit: Jonny Cracknell
When Second World War hero Sydney ‘Stevie’ Stevens proposed to the girl with the beautiful voice, who had just played a pivotal role in the Dambusters raid, he feared he would not live to see his wedding day.
Like a real life version of the wartime romantic film A Matter of Life and Death, in which bomber pilot David Niven falls in love with radio operator June, played by Kim Hunter, he fell for the calming voice of Maureen Miller.
Their love story began as the radio operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), guided the 21-year-old Lancaster bomber pilot on landing at a Lincolnshire RAF base in 1943.
This wartime radio romance was just one of the remarkable parts of the life story of Flt Lt Stevens (christened Sydney but always known as Stevie), who has died aged 98.
MORE: Wartime RAF hero, whose appeal for visitors touched hearts, dies aged 98Having grown up in rural Devon at a time when many people still travelled by horse and cart, he joined the RAF after his family’s home was bombed. His parents survived, but everything else he owned, except a single pair of shorts plucked from the rubble, was gone.
“They had thousands of people wanting to be pilots. I went off to a selection board for air crew and was amazed to get through,” he recalled.
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Months of intensive training and testing followed as he learnt about everything from the mathematics of navigation to how to build latrines.
To his surprise he was then sent to America where he not only learnt to fly military aircraft, but also enjoyed weeks of Canadian snow and Californian sunshine. Off duty he explored glamorous Hollywood and Los Angeles.
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When he returned to England he joined 57 Squadron at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. He learnt to fly Lancasters in the total darkness of blacked-out Britain – ready to take the war out to the industrial heartlands of Germany.
“There was a high probability that I wouldn’t live. And I didn’t have too much to leave. Only my bicycle for my younger brother,” he said.
On the night of May 23, 1943, he flew his first trip as a Lancaster captain, over the German city of Dortmund. “As the bombs left the aircraft I felt a moment of exhilaration. I thought I had paid the debt I owed. After that, I had had my fill of hatred,” said Stevie.
“We were trying to flatten German industry, or at least damage it. On one mission to Essen, they had hundreds of searchlights, and the anti-aircraft guns went on for miles. There was all this spiteful flak. Aircraft were being shot down and enemy aircraft came speeding after us.”
He went on to fly 29 Lancaster bomber missions in total and in 1943 received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery from King George VI.
Most of his missions were over Germany but he went on three raids to Italy, including a 2,200-mile flight to Turin, which became the longest distance raid carried out by Bomber Command. Twelve aircraft went missing and Stevie, out of fuel, had to land in Cornwall.
On another raid enemy fire opened up a huge hole in the fuselage, cutting the oxygen to his gunners, leaving them unconscious, and his wireless operator injured and severely frostbitten.
By now Stevie had asked the glamorous blue-eyed blonde he had first heard guiding him back to land to marry him. “I think it went something like, ‘If I’m alive at the end of the year, we’ll get married!’,” recalled Mrs Stevens, who died aged 97 in 2017, the day before their 74th wedding anniversary. “I wasn’t the marrying kind. But I remember thinking, very early on, that he’d make someone a good husband!”
They wed on December 4, 1943, at St Matthew’s church in Thorpe Hamlet at the height of the Second World War.
By then Maureen, who was born Maud, had herself played a pivotal part in one of the best known episodes of the entire war.
She was on duty during the iconic Dambuster raid, talking the famous 617 Squadron crews led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson back into land after their mission to destroy the Moehne and Eder dams with Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs.
Mrs Stevens was born and brought up in Norwich and had been a proofreader at Jarrold’s print works when she volunteered for war work.
“I thought I would be doing some sort of clerical work,” she said of her role as a radio telephone operator. “I had never expected to leave Norfolk, and there I was landing aircraft. Mayday calls could be very exciting.”
After the war the couple returned to Norfolk. She was a secretary for Colman’s for 30 years and he was president of the Lakenham branch of the British Legion for 25 years
Mrs Stevens said: “I came out of the WAAF in 1945. I was expecting our son, Adrian, by then, and came out with £12 and 10s – it wasn’t even enough to buy a pram!”
The couple lived with her parents in Norwich until Adrian was six.
Mr Stevens carried on flying for the RAF and took part in the Berlin Airlift in 1948 when Stalin tried to cut off the German city.
He then trained as a teacher and taught maths at schools across Norwich, including the Norman, Avenue and Earlham schools.
“I loved teaching. I found maths difficult at school myself so I found good ways of learning it because it was essential to flying,” he recalled of his move into the classroom.
Some of his old pupils continued to write to him decades after his retirement – “some are grandparents now,” he marvelled.
And it is a mark of the impression he left of those he taught that his death has prompted tributes from many former students.
For a man who did not expect to survive the war, and his wife who claimed she was “not the marrying kind,” theirs was a remarkable life together.
‘HE WAS ONE OF THE REAL HEROES’
Battle of Britain enthusiast and writer Jonny Cracknell, from Poringland, is currently writing a book on Mr Stevens wartime experiences.
It follows an online appeal for more people to visit organised by his former next door neighbour and friend, Clair Ling.
He said: “When I learned he was living just down the road at Saxlingham Hall Nursing Home I was keen to meet and speak to him.
“I’ve always had a big interest in history, particularly the Second World War, and I have been fortunate to meet pilots and my wife’s grandfather was a rear gunner on a Lancaster too.
“I only knew snippets of Stevie’s story at the outset but even that was compelling. His house having been bombed and vowing to become a bomber pilot to get retribution, and of course Maud’s connection to the Dambusters.
“It’s unimaginable these days and times what he went through. Having to take off night after night just in his early 20s and being responsible for a crew of six others on a Lancaster bomber getting home safely.
“But he was just so modest and unassuming. He was one of the real heroes.”