Interview with Maureen and Sidney Stevens


Interview with Maureen and Sidney Stevens


Sidney was inspired to join The Air Force when he was working as an Air Raid Precaution Warden and one night his own home was bombed. The house next door was also destroyed and the lady who had offered him a cup of tea only hours earlier died. He undertook his training in the United States and then flew operations as a pilot with 57 Squadron at RAF Scampton. Maureen joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and worked as a wireless operator in the control tower at RAF Wigsley and RAF Scampton. Sidney and Maureen Stevens met while Sidney was training at the Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Wigsley. They met again when both were based at RAF Scampton when Sidney wanted to meet again the lady whose voice had guided him back again to base from the control tower.




Temporal Coverage




00:48:06 audio recording


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AStevensM-S160927, PStevensS-M1601, PStevensS-M1602, PStevensS-M1603


SS: I was stationed at Abingdon I think and the —
DK: Can I just stop you there. Just introduce you. It’s David Kavanagh, International Bomber Command Centre interviewing Mr and Mrs Stevens at their home.
SS: Right.
DK: Sorry.
SS: That’s ok. And I, I was, one of the wireless operators, actually he was the signals officers, came along and said to me, ‘Have you seen anything like this before?’ And he had a wire, a wire recorder like the [unclear] four tapes started. And I was playing about with that and a senior officer, a group captain came along and said, ‘What are you doing with that, Stevens?’ And I said, ‘Well, an interesting machine here, sir.’ And of course, I got his voice coming back saying, ‘What are you doing with that Stevens?’ And he’d never seen this or heard of this before either as far as I know. And so he said, ‘Well, sometimes,’ he said, ‘It might be a good idea, while you’re, while it’s still fresh in your mind just to record some of one of your experiences. Or one that you could think about and put on this wire.’ So, I got the signals bloke again and we actually recorded the first bit of that on, on wire and later on it was transferred to tape. Very thin tape. And there again not a sort standard tape that we have now. One they were experimenting with. And that’s how eventually it arrived on the machine here. So that’s how the recording arrived.
DK: So the recording was made on your station in 1944.
SS: I should think, yes. It was made in 1944. Towards the end of ’44.
DK: If I keep looking down I’m just making sure the tape’s working.
SS: Yes [laughs]
DK: What I wanted to ask you is, what were you doing immediately before the war?
SS: Well, I, in nineteen thirty — I suppose it, when what really sparked me was when Chamberlain came back with his little bit of paper saying, ‘I believe this will be peace’ in your time — ‘In our time.’ And I thought to myself if he believes that he believes anything. It was quite obvious really that Hitler wasn’t going to take any notice of him. At least it was to me as a child. And so I volunteered to join the air raid precautions. Now, I started so early on this training that when the war actually broke out I was one of a small number of people who were down in control centres. So that when bombs, when air raid wardens who were dotted all over the place to give reports had to report it somewhere and the control centre was where they reported it. And it was people like me then and I was at a control centre, I suppose I was a chief of control centre there for some time in North Croydon. And there. What the Crystal Palace, the Crystal Palace, the football team there. And we had an underground shelter so all the calls came in to the, either to the north or the south underground centres. And then we had an engineer and various other experts who could deal with things like a gas, electricity, water, sewage, unexploded bombs and all that. A wide variety of things. All these things came through the control centre. We then allocated various people to do jobs. That’s what I was doing. And then one night after, just after the Battle of Britain and when it started getting dark and they were bombing London I was actually in this control centre. It was quite a voluntary job. I was doing eight hours a night once the war broke out. Not getting paid for it. It was a shilling a night for a cup of tea I think [laughs] but I got expenses. And a message came through to us saying that my house had been bombed. And so later on, I had to wait until my shift finished, obviously had to hand over to somebody and on the way home — the gas, sewage and all that sort of stuff. Blackout, formless houses. When I arrived at my road sure enough like a gap and a sort of sense of [unclear] or something like that. My house had been blown up. And that was unfortunate because my mother had been evacuated to Devon and she thought things were getting quieter and had come back to see how we were. And my father was there as well. And of course, this, this was a fairly small bomb I think. Certainly by later, the things that I was dropping later on, and when I got home I found the house was just in smithereens. It just, it just hardly existed really. Fortunately, we’d lived in Devon for a long time before we came to Devon — I mean before we came to London and so we had a very large farmhouse table. One of those things that you would put flaps in with handles underneath. So a really sturdy table. And when they heard the bombs coming down they dived under there. And the house collapsed really and the piano which was part of the furniture in the living room had fallen over and formed a little tent. And so both my parents were buried under there. My father had an enormous dent in his steel helmet I remember. An uncle who was there at the time dived underneath but couldn’t quite get the whole of his body underneath and a bit of his right side got crushed and they had to take him away to have a badly broken leg tended to. But even worse than that the lady who lived next door had said to me, ‘I’ve just got some tea here. Are you going to work?’ I said, ‘Yes. Going down to the old Report Centre.’ And she said, ‘Like a cup of tea?’ I said, ‘Oh yes please.’ So, I stopped and had a cup of tea with her because tea of course was rationed and off I went. The next I saw of this poor lady the house next door, in which she lived also had been smashed but she had been smashed against the front door like some hideous gelatinous graffiti really. Sort of splat stuff you see in comedy films sometimes. But no comedy about this of course. My next door neighbour was just smashed just like that. You could see her outline and the smell was appalling. And I stood outside at the empty sky and said, ‘You bastards. I’ll get my own back on you sometime.’ And of course, I did get my own back by becoming a bomber pilot.
DK: Was this, was this incident then instrumental in you wanting to join the RAF? Was that a spur?
SS: I think, I think at that time everybody wanted to join the RAF as a Spitfire pilot. I was one of the very few I think who decided it was heavy bombers for me. I wanted to kill more of the bastards than I could in a fighter. I mean, that’s just how I felt. And it was that really that progressed to me on to becoming a Lancaster pilot ultimately.
DK: So, what, what year did you actually join the RAF then?
SS: I think I volunteered in 1939. December I was born. In 1940. I’ve got my papers upstairs. I can check on this if you like. Then my training —
DK: So where, where was your training first of all then?
SS: Well, I trained, well first of all you had to go to a — what did they call them? Oh, an Initial Training Unit and do six weeks which was very, very and I went down to a place called Paignton. Down in Devon.
DK: Paignton. Yeah. I was there last week.
SS: That was just for the ITW.
DK: Yeah.
SS: And there we learned all the elementary stuff about the RAF. How to get on, how to salute and march about and all that sort of stuff. Also, stuff like serial flight. Beginnings of the education on navigation and signalling, Morse code and that sort of stuff, you know. By light and by buzzer. And bits about the air force law. So, we knew our training. What we were doing partly. And that course lasted about six weeks and it’s quite surprising how many people got washed out. First of all from that initial course and after that from the subsequent training unit. Some people got so far but I don’t think very many actually survived those courses to become pilots because obviously training as a pilot was very expensive, demanding in man hours and machinery and that sort of thing. So the people eventually who did become pilots were pretty well selected I think.
DK: So where was your pilot training then? Where did you go for that?
SS: Well, I started off at Carlisle where I did an elementary EFTS. Elementary Flying Training School. And then by some strange chance —
DK: That’s, that’s — sorry. That’s where you would have gone solo.
SS: Sorry?
DK: That’s where you would have gone solo.
SS: Yes. I think I’ve got one or two pictures.
DK: We can have a look later if you like.
SS: I’ll show you that later on shall I?
DK: Yeah.
SS: I’ll, I went first of all to Carlisle and then the course that I was taking after I’d gone solo was suddenly stopped because they were going to use what was called a grading course. Where they would bring people in for so long and then if they didn’t go solo or you weren’t apt they were chucked out pretty quickly. This was because they had such pressure of people wanting to get in. They were equally keen on getting quite a lot and selecting the few that were left. But also, as a sort of strange arrangement the RAF had come into, or our government had come in to contact with the Americans and they had a very few civilian flying schools which they ran on government regulations using government aircraft and that sort of thing. And I was allocated to go on those six schools in America. So I went out to the civilian flying school.
DK: This is, this in America.
SS: In America. In California.
DK: Do you remember whereabouts?
SS: A place called Lancaster in California.
DK: Right.
SS: Out on the Mojave Desert really. Plenty of room to crash an aircraft on.
DK: So, so what was it like going to America then in wartime? Was it —
SS: That’s right, yes.
DK: Was it a big, big change? Cultural change.
SS: Well, incredible really. First of all, when we, getting across the Atlantic was a bit tricky. Coming across the North Atlantic in winter was quite an experience in convoy. A rather slow running convoy and of course the troop ships were packed. It wasn’t my first experience of a troop ship because I’d been on one of these school cruises. Cost about five pounds for nine days and that sort of thing. But we, we used old troop ships and we slept in hammocks and we knew everything about sitting down on these hard board bases and that sort of caper. So I’d had that experience before going on a troop ship. So consequently I wasn’t seasick and it was fascinating going on deck for example and just watching these breakers come over the top and just freezing because they, they landed on the deck, you know. Stuff was frozen. It was cold. You couldn’t, of course take any clothes off just in case we got sunk which seemed highly likely because they, they were getting some small idea about forming convoys. We had two very old American destroyers that they’d lent us under lease lend as it was called. And it was quite an experience watching these poor destroyers try to battle against these Atlantic storms. It was bad enough on bigger troop ships but for them it must have been absolute hell. And then I went from there to Canada. Halifax in Nova Scotia. And then by train down to New Brunswick where they got a dispersal camp which was just being built. And then I got spilled out down there to take an overland, with an overland trip by rail right the way through to California. And then, there we did the sort of basic training. And then again several people wiped out. Even having got as far as that because they had already done solo in England. And then we had an intermediate course on what they called a basic trainer. And finally the Harvard. The good old Harvard which took about for fighter experience really. And the majority of people of course volunteered to be pilots, fighter pilots. They all had the idea of putting on goggles and tearing after the enemy. My idea was something different. I wanted to go, I wanted to go and bomb the bastards. And so I came back to this country and then had to learn how to fly twin-engined aircraft, and of course particularly we concentrated on flying in the dark. Completely. Completely dark and with very, very small lights to line, to enable us to land really. Some of these lights were just formed like a T. If you could imagine putting some paraffin in watering cans and sticking a knob of cotton wool in the spout. These were the so-called goosenecks as we called them. And you’d get seven of those in a line forming a T and we would use those to land in the dark which was, which cost a great number of lives. We killed a lot of people trying to teach them how to fly at night. And I was one of those who escaped again. And then having flown quite light aircraft. Twin-engined aircraft we then went to the heavier ones. Eventually used the Wellingtons which really were wonderful old warhorses. They were very well designed by Barnes Wallis of course who talked about this. And they were flexible. I would say they were not an easy, easy aircraft to fly I think. And then from there I went to an aircraft called a Manchester which were like a twin-engined Lanc. An absolute bloody awful aircraft to fly.
DK: What was, what was wrong, what was wrong with the Manchester then?
SS: The Manchester had two great big engines mounted in tandem as it was. You had two propellers. Just, just two engines. One on each side. The propellers were huge. The, they, very very quickly oiled up if you tried to taxi any, at any speed and the brakes too used to get absolutely red hot. So it was very difficult taxiing them I thought. And I just did a few flights on one of those by day and night and eventually went from there to a Lancaster. Well, the course was very very short. I had never seen a Lancaster at the beginning of April. And this is 1943 by the time I got there. And I went on to the squadron. I had only done about a half a dozen landings I think in a Lancaster and I was thought operationally fit and went across to Scampton where I joined number 57 Squadron which I did the rest of my tour. It’s also very interesting where you were crewed up. We moved about for a bit, pilots and navigators and eventually crews more or less picked themselves. In that I was rather unlucky because my first navigator was a hugely impressive man. Very tall. You know. Six foot four tall. Something like that. Very public school character. Nicely spoken and so on. And he’d had his uniform, standard uniform nicely lined with silk and that sort of stuff. He came over to me one day and said, ‘Would you mind if I were your navigator skipper?’ So I said, ‘Well, can you navigate?’ ‘Oh yes. Of course. Of course. Of course. No trouble at all.’ So I said, ‘Right, we’ll try you for navigator then.’ And then the others sort of came and joined us in various ways. Except I hadn’t got a flight engineer. We didn’t have flight engineers on a Wellington and I got appointed a chap who was an absolute disaster. You only had to look at him really. First of all his eyesight was poor. He had long great big goggles on with lenses in. He was altogether a sort of under confident and so on. And when I went on my first, my first trip on a Manchester I see he was promptly sick all over the throttle box. Which wasn’t a very nice start for me or for him. And so he got thrown off because he was sick and I never saw him again. And I didn’t have another flight engineer until I was nearing the end of my training when quite suddenly the engineer arrived. Which was useful. And then the navigator who was absolutely useless. I went out one morning over Ely and I said to him, ‘Right. Navigator. Can you tell me where we are?’ A long long long pause. And I thought crikey. I’d been over Ely Cathedral three or four times and done circuits of it. I said, ‘Do you know where we are navigator?’ Hadn’t got a clue. ‘Sorry skipper, I haven’t got my maps. I’ll just get, take up a moment or two.’ And when I landed my wireless op said to me, ‘I don’t want to worry you skip,’ he said, ‘But look at the note I got from navigator.’ And he’d written, he’d written the wireless op a note, “Get me a fix for Christ’s sake.” So, I thought well if you’re going to get lost on the way to Ely that’s not much good. So I went and saw my flight commander who said, ‘Well, you can’t change him now. He’s a darned nice bloke,’ and he gave me all sorts of [unclear] He was a good bloke. Had a pair of Purdey guns and the wife, oh my goodness me. She was a sixteen [cylinder?] model you know. Turned up in large Lagonda to a hotel. They went and stayed, he went and stayed overnight with her. But he was a good social chap. He knew the, knew the local landowners by name and that sort of stuff but as a navigator he was useless. I couldn’t get rid of him because everybody there was convinced he was such a fine chap. Except I was coming back from, still on the training stage on Lancaster and he suddenly says. ‘My skipper. My ears, my ears.’ Because that was how he spoke you see. So I said, ‘What about your ears navigator?’ He said, ‘My ears. My ears are popping.’ So I said, ‘Well, they’re likely to. Just breathe in, blow your cheeks out, they’ll pop out again.’ And he was still yelling about this so I said, ‘Right. Hold on then. Very quickly I’ll get you back to base.’ So, I lowered the wheels and flaps and got down very smartly and went up to flying control and said my navigator was sick. Seemed to have some ear trouble. And the doctor whipped him away and then I got him later replaced by a little snaggle toothed chap. About thirty I suppose. And he was very competent. He was my navigator for most of the rest of the tour. Yes. So that was it really. How to get rid of the navigator. Wait till he’s got ear trouble and do a dive and pop his ears out. Which is why I’m deaf now [laughs] because I got the same treatment [laughs]
DK: Apart, apart from the unfortunate navigator did you think it worked well? That the crews more or less found themselves.
SS: Well, mine wouldn’t have don certainly. Mine would have been a dead loss. I wouldn’t have given myself a couple of trips with a crew with that particular chap. The flight engineer and this disastrous toff really as a, as a navigator. I wouldn’t have got very far.
DK: No.
SS: But by a piece of luck.
DK: So, so what were your thoughts now about the Lancaster as an aircraft?
SS: Oh superb.
DK: That was a Lancaster.
SS: It was infinitely better than any other heavy aircraft. It had, the great disadvantage was that really it was an aircraft built around a bomb carrier. It carried the maximum amount and weight of bomb for the size of the air frame and consequently the last people who seemed to be thought about were the aircrew. And there was a long and devious method of getting into the, into the pilot’s seat. And the navigator was in a very cramped space and the, so was the wireless op. They were really in light-proof cabins anyway. But they were very very small. And when you think, I don’t know if you’ve seen the navigators charts, Mercator charts but as they had difficult getting and manoeuverating their, I’m sorry manoeuvring their navigating equipment and the charts and keeping the plot going. Somehow or other they did it. And there again the poor old wireless op had a pretty small cabin to work in. There wasn’t really a decent second pilot’s seat either for the engineer to sit at and it could have been better. And of course the, the rear turret was absolutely isolated from the rest of the aircraft. Small, fairly small door and when they got in they had to leave their parachutes outside. Which was all very well until you had an emergency. It was very difficult to get hold of the damn thing then. You had to open the door, sort of fall out backwards I think to get out of the aircraft. So, you didn’t get very many Lancaster aircrew surviving when they were hit. Not compared with other aircraft anyway.
DK: So, all your operations then were with 57 Squadron were they?
SS: They were. Yes.
DK: And they were all flying from Scampton.
SS: Yes. Oh no. No. I did twenty from, I did twenty trips approximately from Scampton and ten from East Kirkby which had just opened at that time.
DK: And how many operations did you do?
SS: Well, I did actually thirty trips. I think, I think twenty nine operations because one of them was a bit of a disaster. But that was the fault of a poor aircraft I think.
DK: And the earlier recording was of you where you were attacked by a night fighter.
SS: Yes.
DK: And your engine’s damaged. How many times did that happen? How many times were you — ?
SS: Well —
DK: Coming back on three engines or less.
SS: Oh. No. Three engines was enough actually with damaged aircraft. No. You got minor damage quite frequently but it wasn’t — I suppose I compare it to being in a hail storm really. You hear the stuff beating about and you get small holes in the fuselage which was where I suppose you could put a sharp pencil through the fuselage if you tried hard. So it didn’t, didn’t offer any real, any real protection. But I think I was hit by flak enough to give you a forced landing at the nearest airfield when I got back to England twice. I’ve got my logbook somewhere. I could look it up. I’ve still got my logbook upstairs and I’ve got a small computer thing which was made by my flight engineer as well. So, that gives probably a different idea of what went on because some people wrote great reams in their log books but this was considered bad manners in 57 Squadron. So generally the pilots just wrote DCA which meant did he carry it out? Or DNCO duty not carried out for various reasons?
DK: Right. Mrs Stevens, can I, can I ask you a few questions? When did you join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force?
MS: The WAAF. I joined in June 1941.
DK: Ok. And you were actually based at Scampton as well then were you?
MS: Yes. I was. And I was in 5 Group which was in Lincolnshire. And I’d been on several stations. Bomber Command stations. I started at Waddington and then I went to Swinderby. Then to Skellingthorpe. And then a Conversion Unit at Wigsley. And I was posted to Scampton in May. I honestly can’t remember the date at all but it was just a few days before the dams raid.
DK: Did you, did you know what the dams squadron were doing then? Was it —
MS: Not, not at all.
SS: No.
DK: No.
MS: I had no idea of where the aircraft were going. I knew nothing about it at all. They used to simply take off. They took off because they were given a green light from a caravan at the end of the runway. And they took off. As they took off the pilot’s name was on the board. Time of take-off. Never, never saw the target or anything like that.
DK: Right.
MS: And the only time you spoke to the pilot was on the way back when he called up. And as they called up you would give them a height to fly. The first one, for example you would say, if the runway was clear, you would say, ‘Pancake.’ Which meant that he could come in to land. And then the second one would call up. You would say, ‘Aerodrome one thousand.’ The third one would say, you would give him, ‘Fly around at fifteen hundred feet.’ In other words they were stacked at five hundred feet intervals. During this time of course the squadron had a call sign. The station had a call sign. There was quite a normal procedure that you had to go through and you had to verify who they were of course. And then you would bring them in one at a time to land. It was a very good job. Very exciting job. Very sad of course at times. And as they came back you would put the time of arrival on the board. On the same line of course as —
DK: Yeah.
MS: When the pilot took off. And you put the time of arrival. If they didn’t come back, well you just simply left it blank. I didn’t do it. They had a, the control officer was there and we took all our instructions from him and conveyed them directly to the pilot. We had also a logbook and that, you would log everything that the pilot said, and you said and there again you would put the take-off time and time of arrival. And any conversation at all that took place.
DK: And so that was really your, your world then. Within the control tower itself.
SS: Yes.
DK: So between them taking off, going on the operation and coming back what were you doing then? Did you just wait?
MS: Well, what we did then we used to listen out to what we called, “Darkie,” calls. I mean if I said they were Mayday calls you would —
DK: Yeah.
MS: Be more familiar with them and you obviously didn’t get them every night but Lincolnshire was — very often they had very bad mists and fogs and things during that time. And sometimes you would get a stray aircraft. He would call up and ask where he was. And there again you would go through the normal procedure. Asking him where he came from and once it was alright then you proceeded to bring him in to land. And sometimes it was a very, very difficult job for the control officer. He would be on the balcony outside firing verey pistols and things like that and communicating all the time on the radio telephone. And the officer in charge would relate to me messages and he would come back. And eventually you would get them down or probably they just needed to know where they were. But we had, I was on duty one night and the officer in control, he was a Canadian. And I remember that one particularly because it took ages for this poor chap to get down. I can’t honestly remember whether he ran out of fuel or whether — I don’t, he certainly didn’t crash but he was very, very grateful to get down. We got him down and he came up into the control tower afterwards and thanked us.
DK: That’s nice to know.
MS: Oh, it was a lovely, it was a lovely job and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
DK: Yeah.
MS: I found it very nerve wracking at first.
DK: I can imagine.
MS: Having not been away from home.
DK: Yeah.
MS: I mean, we didn’t travel in those days like the young people travel today. But —
DK: So, what, what made you join the WAAF then? Was it —
MS: Well, as a matter of fact on the age of eighteen you had to do some sort of war work and I actually volunteered for the Wrens.
DK: Right.
MS: And they deferred me for six months. And I volunteered for the Wrens because my father had been a regular serviceman in the Royal Marines and that was really my choice. But anyway, I was called up during that six months and joined the WAAFs. I wasn’t sorry. I was delighted. It was a lovely job.
DK: So, at Scampton then there was both 57 and 617 Squadron.
MS: Yes.
DK: There then. So were you actually on duty —
MS: Yes.
DK: The day the —
MS: Yes.
DK: Dambusters returned.
MS: Yes. I remember nothing about it at all except going off duty at 8 o’clock that morning.
DK: And this —
MS: As far as I was concerned it was simply another raid.
DK: Another operation.
MS: There again, people said to me did you have friends? You know, did the chaps date you and all that sort of thing. Well, of course not. They were, they were far too interested in flying their planes and getting back from war. And as far as I was concerned — no. It [pause] they were simply names put on a board.
DK: Yeah.
MS: I knew, I knew one chappie there. Mickey Martin. An Australian pilot who flew P for Popsi, I think. He used to call it P for Popsi. And yes. That’s how it was known and, but I only knew him through work because we’d been on other stations prior to —
DK: Right.
MS: Arriving at Scampton.
DK: So how, how did you two both meet then? What’s the story behind that?
MS: Well, I think, I think, if you really want to know I think it was when my husband on Conversion Unit at Wigsley.
DK: Right.
MS: And he was interested in my voice and he came up to see what I looked like.
DK: So that was before he joined 57 Squadron then.
SS: Yes.
DK: Oh right.
MS: Yes. In fact, I think Steve, you said to me afterwards he joined, he went to 57 Squadron on Lancs of course then. He converted from Manchesters to Lancasters at this RAF station called Wigsley. And he remembered being posted on the 1st of May. I have no idea when I was posted but I was posted from, well I think I went [pause] honestly. Where was I? Wigsley? I can’t honestly remember.
SS: Yes. You were at Wigsley. Yes.
MS: Yes, of course. It was. Wigsley.
SS: Wigsley to Scampton.
MS: Of course it was. That was where you were on Conversion Unit and I was on duty there. He recognised my voice. Waited for me to come off duty so that he could say hello to me.
DK: So he recognised your voice from Wigsley.
MS: Yes. Yes.
DK: And when you got to Scampton came up.
MS: Yes. He did. Yes. In fact, I was, when I went into the WAAFs I thought probably I would do some sort of clerical work or something like that. And no. They, I was, saw, I think he was a squadron leader. I know he was a commissioned rank and oh he said, ‘I’ve got another job for you.’ And he was telling me we were going in the control tower and we were actually picked for our voices.
DK: Right. Ok.
MS: And, as I say it was a very interesting job. A bit nerve wracking at first. I was very nervous. Very frightened.
DK: Presumably you were chosen because you had a very clear voice. Was that what they were looking for?
MS: Probably. Yes.
DK: Yeah.
MS: Yes. Yes.
DK: So —
MS: Is it still clear?
DK: It’s very clear. Yes.
MS: Well, I’m ninety seven in December. Or will be.
DK: I wouldn’t believe that.
MS: I’m — my toyboy husband here will be ninety five in December. And on the 4th of December it will be — we will have been married seventy three years.
DK: Congratulations.
MS: So there we are.
DK: Yeah.
MS: The Lord’s been very good to us. We’re a couple of poor totteries now aren’t we darling?
SS: Yeah. Quite the —
DK: How do you, can I ask you Mr Stevens how do you look back now on your time in the RAF and with, particularly with Bomber Command.
SS: Well, it was an interesting time. It’s not the sort of thing I would recommend any growing young man because the casualty rate was enormous. When I arrived at Scampton first of all I was a sergeant pilot. Goodness knows why some people got through the course and were sergeants, others were officers. I don’t know. Because some of the people who failed the pilot’s course then became navigators or bomb aimers and many of them became commissioned. So consequently you’d got the ludicrous situation arising one night where I had a flying officer wireless operator and a flight lieutenant rear gunner and yet there I was a sergeant pilot. As soon as, as soon as you got to the aircraft it was the skipper. It was the pilot who was in charge. Nobody else. No doubt about that at all. But it could have led to awkward situations but —
DK: So, even though you were a sergeant you were in charge of the aircraft. Even though there could have been an officer.
SS: That’s right.
DK: The navigator or —
SS: Yes. I mean there was one chap I picked up one night as a wireless op and I thought he was a bit quiet so I said to one of the other members of the crew, the flight engineer, I said, ‘Go and see what’s happened to that wireless op. I haven’t heard from him lately.’ He was asleep. He was asleep because he’d been drinking too much. So when the trip was over I went along to him and said, ‘You’re not flying with me again. I’ll never take you aboard. If it’s suggested, I think for a moment you’re smelling of whisky and tonight you bloody well slept. The crew could have been dying. If we had needed an SOS now you’d have been incompetent.’ I said, ‘I really ought to report you but I just shall refuse to have you as a crew member again.’ If that sort of situation arose you just had to tick these people off irrespective of rank. And that was just the situation. I did get commissioned later one night. I became a flight sergeant of course. It’s all, as far as pay was concerned there was no difference of a pay grade between a flight sergeant and what was a flying officer. So, that, it wasn’t really the money. As far as I was concerned there was a great advantage because I went, when I went to Scampton there was a nice married quarter, had been a married quarter which was right on the, near flying control. Right on the edge of the airfield near the taxi track. And our crew fitted that very nicely. And as I say consequently I didn’t, you didn’t find yourself with half the crew sergeants and half the crew officers. We were all, sort of sergeants together which was a great help. And then later on when I got commissioned for a little while I still went on as I was at Scampton and I went on living in this place. Nobody took any notice I was there. I said, ‘Look, I I really would rather stay with my crew.’ But when I got to East Kirkby, the adjutant there. The man with an amazing stutter. He said, ‘Why are you in the sergeant’s,’ whatever it was, mess. So I said, ‘Well it’s because it’s my people there.’ He said, ‘If you were an officer you’d have —’ I said, ‘I haven’t had time to get a uniform which makes me an officer.’ I got twenty four hours to rush down to London. Buy a uniform which nearly fitted and go back again and go in to the officer’s mess. My training for that was as short as that.
DK: So, so what year did you leave the RAF then?
SS: Oh I, I actually, when the war was over my number —
MS: You wanted to stay in didn’t you?
SS: I thought first of all I wouldn’t mind staying in this as a career really. And then I had a rather curious job because when the war was over lots and lots of people were, came back from overseas. Some of whom had very nice cushy jobs out there you know. And others not quite so cushy. And of course the poor devils, I always felt sorry for the Japanese prisoners of war. And the air force had put out a sort of regulation that people who’d trained as pilots would have to show some ability to fly before they could retain whatever their wartime rank was.
DK: Right.
SS: And I went to Abingdon where I was made a unit master pilot. Which meant by that time I’d qualified in all sorts of ways as an instructor and I used to take these people on some, I’d lots of group captains and wing commanders in my log book. I was taking to show them to fly heavier aircraft because the war with Japan was still going on then you see and —
DK: Did you expect to be going out to the Far East then?
SS: I wouldn’t have been surprised. Yes. I thought that might have been the next move but just for the time I was preparing somebody else to go which was a lot safer really [laughs]. So that, that was a most interesting job and on one occasion I was taking a wing commander up and the following day he said, ‘Look Steve,’ he said, ‘I’ve just become your commanding officer.’ He said, I’m now known as the chief flying instructor and I know I can’t fly nearly as well as you.’ So, I said, ‘Alright. we’ll iron that out between us.’ And he was a very nice chap indeed. He had, I’ll just sort of divert a bit. This chap had been a prisoner of war and he’d been taken, sometimes you don’t think how far flung the war was. And he’d been taken in the Japanese war in Surabaya. Right out the Dutch East Indies. And it was the Dutch East Indies. And he was put into a jail there and he said they were so crammed that people just couldn’t lie down. They were so, so crushed. And one of the blokes there, one of the officers complained and said, ‘Look, we can’t lie up. We can’t sit down. We can’t do anything comfortably.’ ‘Well that’s alright,’ said the Japanese and promptly bayoneted two or three people. Chopped the heads off others, you know and said, ‘That’s made a bit of room for you.’ Just chucked the bodies out and that was the bit of room they made. Then he was put in a prisoner of war camp and just working with the rest and one day, oh he got caught by the secret police because they’d been doing some small work for the Japanese and he showed them how to sabotage the work so it would never, never sort of get on with it. And he thought, they sent for him and they actually threw him over them prison wall. And every time they threw bodies over they would have some sort of food, grizzly old rice and that sort of stuff attached to it. He lived on that for about six months. Just like that. Out in the mud burying bodies and eating what he could really. Dying. They hoped he’d die. Anyway, suddenly one day he was sent to go back inside and he thought, ‘Right. This is my lot. I’m bound to be executed.’ So, he goes back inside. To his amazement the commandment bows to him and does all that sort of rubbish you know and said, ‘You’re now the commanding officer because we’ve been defeated.’ So, that was a huge promotion for him. A strange man. Strangely enough of course he’d been one with these people in Surabaya, mainly the Dutch. And the Dutch government or the English government sent a small force. First of all the Dutch government sent out some troops to re-occupy, to re-occupy Surabaya and they failed. And the natives, they were actually treated very badly. The ones they took as prisoners they crucified to doors and things like that. He was telling me some horrible, some horrible stories about that. But of course he went along. By then he could speak their language. He’d been in jail with them, he said, ‘Just a minute. I’m on your side don’t forget.’ So he wasn’t, he wasn’t sort of pulled out of jail or hanged or executed. They just kept him as a pal. And then we sent some troops over under a brigadier called Mallaby. And the Dutch, these, these Javanese were preparing to, whoever again small parties and again he said, ‘You can’t do that. They’re on my side. We’re pals.’ And so Mallaby got killed or something and he took over the British Army Force there and sort of settled them in fairly, relatively happily until more relief arrived. And the bloke who got a DSO as a prisoner of war. It was a real unusual story. The name was Groom and he was an Australian that started —
DK: Can you remember his name?
SS: Sorry?
DK: Do you remember his name?
SS: Ah yes. I think the name was Groom G R O O M. A D Groom, and a very nice chap indeed. Anyway, I meanwhile had sort of seen the air force contracting almost immediately after that and people started getting demobbed. Demobbed. And so they said, ‘Well if you apply to do this you’ll get your permanent commission.’ I thought I’m not sure I want to now because she had been demobbed and we had a baby and I thought I don’t really want to get posted overseas and see the family split up and so on. So I had compulsorily to work. To do another eighteen months instructing before they let me go. But after I’d been instructing the extra year I had got a job at a training college which I wanted to do. To take up teaching. So, I then got released for this extra six months providing I sort of joined the RAF VR and did some weekend flying and all that sort of stuff. Just in case there was another war. Which there damn well was actually. They called me up for it. That was a very short service. Because as usual the RAF had demobbed too many people. There weren’t too many aircraft. There wasn’t really an aircraft for me us fly so after a fortnight up there we came home again. We’d just got this house and inside three months I got this call up notice again [unclear]. So that was rather sad but anyway I went off to do a fortnight’s flying and then they decided to let me go again because they didn’t have much of a job for me really.
DK: Was this the time of Korea then? Or —
SS: Sorry?
DK: Was this the time of Korea you got called up again?
SS: That’s right. Yes. It was the Korean War.
DK: Yeah.
SS: But the —
MS: Was that about ’52 wasn’t it?
DK: Yeah.
SS: I forgot the time of it.
DK: Yeah.
MS: It was very early on.
DK: Yeah.
SS: Something like that.
DK: So, Mrs Stevens how do you feel about your time in the RAF then?
MS: Oh, we live, we still live RAF. We’ve been to so many reunions and we used to, a few years ago we used to always go up to the reunions and stay at the Petwood Hotel.
DK: Yes.
MS: And even now I’m trying to remember the village it’s in and I can’t.
DK: Woodhall Spa.
MS: How right you are. I could have done with you the other day. Somebody was asking me where it was. Woodhall Spa just didn’t come.
DK: My wife and I have stayed there several times. It’s a lovely hotel.
MS: Lovely.
DK: Yeah.
MS: Well, we —
DK: We’ve taken our dogs there as well.
MS: Do you live in Lincolnshire?
DK: Yes. Just south of, north of Stamford and south of Grantham.
MS: Yes. South of Grantham.
DK: South of Grantham. So we’re often at Woodhall Spa. Walking the dogs at the Petwood.
MS: Lovely.
DK: Yeah.
MS: Well, we used to go up for three day breaks fairly often. And we loved it. Oh yes. We, we’re just RAF. I think both my husband and I, if I hadn’t have married I would have stayed in.
DK: Right.
MS: Without any doubt at all. I loved the life. Discipline didn’t come hard to me at all.
SS: No. Her father had been a sergeant major in the Marines and he so he disciplined all the children very well when he was at home to do it but he was actually dealing with anti-slavery training along the African coast.
DK: Right.
SS: Zanzibar was a particular place he used to talk about and he was actually demobbed before the First World War and then he was recalled again for that.
MS: Yes. Then he actually —
SS: He was recalled for the Second World War.
MS: Yes he was. This last war he was called. They put him on digging trenches. He was in his sixties then. But yes.
DK: Ok. That’s great. I’ll stop there. Thanks very much for all of that. That’s wonderful.
MS: Tell me about —


David Kavanagh, “Interview with Maureen and Sidney Stevens,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 26, 2024,

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