Interview with Peter Steward


Interview with Peter Steward


Peter Steward was born in 1933 and talks of not seeing his father during the war due to his father's service in the RAF. His uncles and cousins also served. After leaving school at 15, Peter worked at the Woolwich Arsenal factory and joined the RAF Boys service. He trained as a telegraphist at RAF Compton Bassett and, between 1951-53, was posted to RAF Wildenwrath in Germany with 72 Signals Unit, working on the European Gee chain. He speaks of the welcome he received from the German people and his shock at seeing the aftermath of Allied bombardment. He remained in the Air Force for 14 years, also serving in Cyprus, before working in the newspaper industry.After retirement he formed an ex-boy entrants’ union.




Temporal Coverage




00:25:30 audio recording


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SB: This is Sheila Bibb interviewing Peter Steward on the 14th of August 2015 at his home in Erith. Peter, could we start off with you just telling me a little bit about yourself, your family, background detail?
PS: I was, I was born in 1933 and my father at the time was a milkman, working from, from Belvedere village, called Home County Dairies. When I was — my earliest memories are of Woolwich Road in Erith which was a two up two down terraced house, and they’re very vague apart from instances where father built Meccano models et cetera. My father was always an unskilled man insomuch as that he never had a trade and worked mostly as a labourer or a fitter’s mate. He was called up during the war and after a spell of training and — also at RAF Calshot on flying boats and Catalinas — he was posted to India so I didn’t see him again until 1946. He never rose above the rank of LAC but his brother was a sergeant in the Air Force from 1933 and my cousin also was in the RAF from 1933 cousin Vic [clears throat] was an aircraft fitter, mostly on Lysanders, my,cousin Owen was a radio operator air gunner on 75 Squadron, which was 75 New Zealand Squadron, and he was stationed at Feltwell, flew thirty missions and was killed on his last one. Been married six months, rather tragic. [background noise] Having two other uncles in the Air Force, I left school at fifteen and I went to work at Woolwich Arsenal in a factory making German tank spares but I didn’t like it very much and with a fellow worker, Bob Rowe we were, went up to London, saw the posters in the RAF building in Kingsway and decided to join the boys service, which we both did. From there we went to, for training to RAF Compton Basset to train as telegraphists, which was like for us at seventeen was like torture [laugh]. It was wooden huts, coke fires, um, lots of bull and school of course on top of this so for eighteen months it was heavy going but it was, looking back on it, it was quite fun as well. From there, I was posted to Comms Central, which was Telecommunications Central at Stanbridge and we actually lived in Bletchley. I was there almost two years and a posting came up for Germany. Well, first of all I had to report to High Wycombe which was Headquarters Bomber Command and there we formed a convoy of Gee and Oboe equipment to take to Germany so we went by convoy. I can remember going from Dover to Dunkirk, where the French wanted to have a look in the radio vehicles but of course they were sealed and so there was a bit of kerfuffle but anyway they didn’t get their way and we pressed on to RAF Wildenrath in Germany, where we set up the headquarters. After we’d been there about six months they had a small monitor unit. This consisted of a RVT, a radio vehicle, with monitoring equipment and we would chase about over Europe, checking the main Gee chain, the central European Gee chain, which was also H, HS, H2S for the blind bombing and so, for the next two years, that’s what I did, chase around Germany between Winterberg, Osnabruck, Neustadt, um, Weinstrasse [?], Spijkerboor in Holland. These were all radar units on this Gee chain and all to do with Bomber Command but the closest I ever got to aircraft was at Wildenrath which was a fighter station anyway but we did see, I had a couple of Canberras land there once and that was the closest I got to aircraft from Bomber Command [laugh]. Anyway, after two years I came back to the UK and then I was with different commanders. So, that was my total experience of Bomber Command really.

SB: What time frame was that over?
PS: 1951 to ‘3. [sound of aircraft]
SB: Okay and you say you were chasing the different—
PS: Radar units.
SB: Radar units. What exactly?
PS: We were launching them. We could trigger the H2S system from, from a vehicle carrying a transmitter, a radar transmitter, and I was the radio man ‘cause we had a radio set in there so we could communicate back to back. No telephones then [laugh] so it had to be done with Morse code over a radio.
SB: Yeah and do you know why you were attached to Bomber Command for that or —
PS: As a telegraphist we would be attached to all sorts of units, stations, so you never travelled as a squadron, you always travelled as an individual. For example, I was at Andover in Hampshire with Maintenance Command and Suez blew up and I got posted out there purely to set up a new airfield called Tymvou. I believe it’s now the Turkish airfield on Cyprus and, we arrived and it was just an airstrip, that was it, and we had to prepare this for the French paras and so there we were in a Landrover with a Very pistol waiting for their first aircraft to appear. Bang! Red light, ‘Sheep on the runway.’ Bang! Green light. ‘It’s clear. Come in.’ But that was only for, I was only there for six months in that time and that was, again that was with Signals Command rather than — well, it was Near East Signals Command, yeah, but it was always to do with Signals after that. That was my little —
SB: Okay, so do you have any other interesting stories [slight laugh] from that time or —
PS: [clears throat] We had, we had our first car in Germany. Four of us bought a, Opal Capita between the four of us, served us mightily in Germany, it did. Used to go to all the wine festivals in it. And in the end, coming back, somebody said, ‘Who’s going to drive it back to England?’ Nobody fancied taking it back so we drove it into a quarry and she died [slight laugh].
SB: What was it like being in Germany that soon after the end of the war?
PS: I was shocked. I’d seen the Blitz here in London but when I saw Cologne for the first time with the cathedral still standing but nothing [emphasis] at all around, as flat as a pancake, because by that time the debris had been cleared but it was still just one huge open space around the, the dome. And [sigh] I can’t remember the other town now I went to, that was — it changed hands two or three times during the war and it was absolute flat, very little apart from the railway station there. So, that was my first — and yet we didn’t find any, any ill feeling from the locals towards us. In fact quite the opposite. We used to get invited to wine festivals in different villages. So, you know, we got on with the locals very well. And 72 Signals Unit, they employed two Germans, one for driving and one for general duties around the station, and, but the guy, the driver used to drive Rommel [laugh], quite, quite a change. We were also then at that 72 Signals Unit, Adernau, is right on top of the Nürburg Racing Ring. So I’ve driven a three-tonner around that ring [laugh]. Never got higher than sixty but still [laugh]. Yeah, that was a good time in Germany.
SB: Yeah, so —
PS: I mean, Germany was still split it two then and we were there purely for the Cold War. So, these stations were set up to take our bombers into Eastern Europe. So, we had one or two exercises, you know, to get this thing off and on the ball but our targets, funnily enough, used to be so I understand in England. It would be a bridge or a manhole cover in Sheffield or something like that [slight laugh].
SB: Yes. So, going back to before you got that posting how did you feel when you were told you were going to Germany?
PS: Oh, I was looking forward to it. Excited. Yeah. I wanted to see it, you know. We had — as a kid you had all this hatred for this country that was, you know — well, it had killed my cousin for a start and taken my father away and close relatives, uncles, and so I suppose pretty angry at the time. I thought so, I’d see what these swines are like and it was an eye-opener and, a lesson in humanity I suppose. No, we found, as I say, all these small units we had — maybe it was because we were small units, twenty-two men at the most, that we were accepted, not as conquerors, but as guests almost.
SB: Good. So, how long did you actually stay in the Air Force?
PS: Twelve, fourteen years all told, yeah. I came out. I had to. My first wife had multiple sclerosis so I spent all my time looking after her and — but she died then. So, looking back, I thought I’d love to have stayed in, done the lot, you know, but it wasn’t to be.
SB: What did you do afterwards?
PS: I went into Fleet Street believe it or not. Communications again, you see? I, met a friend who said, ‘Go and see this chap Chambers who runs an agency in Fleet Street. He’s an ex-RAF warrant officer.’ And so I went and saw him and he said, ‘Can you still handle a keyboard?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Right,’ he said, ‘I’m sending you over to Australia and Associated Press.’ He said, ‘They want a keyboard man.’ So anyway that was an eye-opener. And, of course, most of the work, although it was a keyboard it was using punch tape and, so you were on the news desk and they were putting stories in front of you you send them all over the world. All of a sudden you’d get a flash signal in front of you, you know, about some disaster or something so you had to ring the bells and get that off. And from there I went to the New York Times, London Bureau. From there to the last six weeks of the Daily Herald. Then The Sun took over the Daily Herald and I moved to the Daily Express and I was there until Fleet Street folded as it were. Well, it were — every time I’ve had a job it’s become redundant, you know. From there I went into the print industry in general and every time I got to this company it would fold so [laugh] at, at sixty I thought I’m calling this a day. That’s it. Finish. So, I took some jobbing gardening jobs up and then official retirement, you know. Yeah. Quite eventful.
SB: So, would it be fair to say that your Air Force stint actually had quite a major impact on your life?
PS: Oh yes, definitely. It altered you, it made your life style for you. It really [background noise] did me and the joy is now we formed an ex-boy entrants union and, association and now we meet every year. It started off with five of us meeting up at the RAF Museum and that five is now two thousand, all ex-boy entrants. In fact [background noise] where is it? That’s me at just about seventeen, standing next to [unclear] Cliff. [unclear] That’s, that’s at Compton Bassett under training. And that’s — there we are two years ago.
SB: Lovely.
PS: Yeah, and, yeah, as I say, we meet up there at RAF Cosford [background noise] and that’s the only photograph I’ve got. I was on 72 Signals Unit.
SB: Okay. We’ll get a photo of that in a bit.
PS: [background noise] Yeah. As I say [background noise] I took so many photographs for some reason or other. [pause] But it was before the RAF took it over. A, youth, youth hostel with — so a big walking area. Obviously our radar units were on top of mountains but that was our domestic site.
SB: Very good. Right.
PS: No longer there I believe, so I’m told. I haven’t been back since so —
SB: [background noises] Have you actually been back to Germany or any of those places?
PS: Yeah. I went back once [loud background noise] but I didn’t, even then I didn’t get to the cemetery to my cousin’s. He’s buried in Kiel [?]. I didn’t get back there unfortunately. I went with a mate and saw my ex-brother-in-law and that was it. It was a sort of a flying visit more or less.
SB: Yeah. You said your father served in the war?
PS: Yeah. He served mainly in India. As I say he was away until 1946. My cousin was 75 Squadron [background noise] and that’s what he would have been doing on the aircraft.
SB: Very good.
PS: Feltwell is in Norfolk. This is a copy of his, his, um, log book, marked with a star. And as I say, what’s the date there? ’41 and ’42 he was killed. That squadron has the second biggest loss of life in the Bomber Command.
SB: Very sad.
PS: Oh it is. I lost several mates, lost three in Cyprus, four were killed in an air crash in Malta, two in Aden so, you know, even in so-called peacetime it still happens. But when I first went to Cyprus in ’56, of course, we had to go armed everywhere, which was quite strange, walking around with a Sten gun all of — over your shoulder all the time. But I never had to use it. We did get shot at first, first night in Cyprus. We — they took us out to the airstrip. No-one knew where it was first of all then someone said, ‘Oh I know where that is.’ Of course, there was no fencing or anything, just this airstrip with a bit of concrete runway, and they said, ‘Well, here’s your tents.’ We hadn’t got a gun between us and that first night we bivouacked, about three hundred yards from the road. A car come down there Bang! Bang! Bang! And luckily we were in these little safari beds but they didn’t come anywhere near us anyway, probably they were using shotguns. The next day the landlubbers [?] said, ‘Give us some weapons please.’ [laugh] ‘Look after us.’ As I say, we were supposed to be preparing an airstrip for the French and then we brought in the first French aircraft by Very pistol and the first thing off the aircraft that landed was a radio vehicle so they could communicate with the rest of the planes. Where was our equipment? On a ship broken down at Malta. This was for the Suez do. Complete farce it was, really.
SB: You improvised? [laugh]
PS: Yeah. We did. We had to. But they all, had all German equipment, the French, even a mini tractor comes out, a mini bulldozer comes out of one of these aircraft, smooths off a stretch of sand, plane goes over, it expands, it’s a twenty-two man tent. All German stuff. All their equipment was, was German, amazing stuff. But their field kitchen was lousy. [laugh] We didn’t know whether to eat with them and because we didn’t have any facilities at that time. And all they had was these two big cauldrons filled with slop [laugh] and a little jerry can filled with red wine which was like vinegar. So we said, ‘Oh this is enough of this.’ So we lit a fire, pulled out a big frying pan and had eggs and bacon [laugh]. Yeah, but that was interesting.
SB: So when you, you said you went to Cyprus, Aden, all the rest of it, what were you doing when you finally left?
PS: I was back at RAF Amport, which believe it or not is a RAF centre for padres and I was in the Signals section there. A really, really, horrible boring place, terrible. But that was my last posting. I couldn’t carry on after that, as I say, because of my wife. But no, I didn’t like that part at all. It was so, it was like being an office worker, you know.
SB: So, what was your favourite part of the whole experience?
PS: Undoubtedly Germany, with, with Cyprus a close second, yeah, yeah. Because I went back to Cyprus in ‘60, to Episcopi, which was Near East Headquarters. I was in the communications centre there. [clears throat] But it was a nice life on Cyprus. We had a married quarters, lived out, out of the camp, in Limassol and so, it was sunny atmosphere, the beach et cetera. Yeah, we enjoyed two years there.
SB: A far cry from Kingsway?
PS: A far cry from Kingsway, yeah.
SB: Yeah. Are there any other influences that you think that time has had on you?
PS: Well, only the ability to look after yourself, you know, compared to some some blokes. We all felt they can’t cook, they can’t clean you know et cetera, you know, so all that came second — what else?
SB: How about your family? Has it affected their lives?
PS: My wife doesn’t, I mean my second wife, doesn’t want to know anything about the Air Force at all [slight laugh]. She’s bored with it you know. She was, she was interested in ballet and things like that. She used to run a ballet school once. But, she trained, trained at the Royal Ballet School but she was, I’m afraid too big chested to make a ballet dancer. But but she loved the garden as well, so — she was a painter and decorator as well for a while, she got a City and Guilds et cetera, her and her friend, and they used to do it, you know, for a living.
SB: Different.
PS; Quite.
SB: Okay so I think that probably winds up your experiences very nicely then but thanks very much for that Peter.
PS: You’re welcome, very welcome.



Sheila Bibb, “Interview with Peter Steward,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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