Interview with Peter Stevenson


Interview with Peter Stevenson


Peter Stevenson was born in Grantham and joined the Air League of the British Empire as well as the Air Defence Cadet Corps, The Officer’s Training Corps and the Public School’s Air Cadet Wing. He rose through the cadet ranks and embarked on training and other airfield duties and witnessed life on Bomber Command stations.




Temporal Coverage




01:10:25 audio recording


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HD: This is Helen Durham on the 17th of August 2016. Here for the International Bomber Command Centre and I’m interviewing Mr Peter Stevenson who was part of ground crew during the years of Bomber Command. Peter -
PDS: Ok.
HD: Thank you ever so much for allowing us to come and interview. I wonder could you just start off by telling me what sort of thing you did before the war? How you started?
PDS: Well the thing I want to stress right from the very beginning is that I was among the people who say, people say, they also served who only stood and waited. I grew up in Grantham at a time when Grantham was very much an RAF town. There were, in addition to the 21 Training Group based on RAF Spitalgate there was also, later on, number 5 Group headquarters down at St Vincent’s and the majority of my school friends were sons of serving officers. The Grantham School collected a fair number of people including, rather surprisingly people whose fathers were serving at Cranwell as well as Grantham. Now, Grantham was one of the three stations that survived the downsizing after the First World War. You’ve got Cranwell of course as the, as the RAF college but in addition to that there were two squad, two stations RAF Digby and RAF Spitalgate. There are various ways of spelling that. It’s either Spittle or alternatively S P I T A L when people were feeling a bit more respectable towards it. Now, the three stations were of course very much in competition with each other and we got to know quite a lot of the people there. As I say my two friends were always up there and we learned an awful lot about the, what was going on at that time. This was of course a time when the youth of Britain was very, very much encouraged to become air minded and one of the things that emerged just after the First World War was an organisation called The Air League of the British Empire. Now, this not only promoted air mindedness in youth and the general population but it also sponsored things like RAF open days at the various stations and they also did a lot to sponsor the prestige activities which were going on at that time. These were either the height records, the speed records or the distance records or whatever. Now, in Lincolnshire of course we went very much in the distance records and I can remember quite a lot of the activities where aircraft were produced specifically for gaining the world distance records and the RAF were justifying, if you like, the tax payers money by spending a lot of time making Britain first in whichever activity it happened to be. Now, the Air League of the British Empire around about 1935 was when they began to realise that war was more or less inevitable. They started a junior section which I joined and received all the information what was going on. Then, which was rather significant, my King’s School at Grantham, it had an OTC. Now in those days OTC was a little bit elite. It meant officer’s training school er Officer’s Training School and so the OTC, it tended to produce or promote leadership and right from the very beginning even when you were twelve years old whenever you learned anything the first thing you had to do was to learn how to teach that. So inevitably by the time you were about fifteen or sixteen you became fairly confident at facing up to all sorts of people. This helped very much because my father, who was sales director of the big Ford dealers in the, in the Lincolnshire area had a lot of contacts. One of the most significant was Sir Arthur Longmore. Now, Sir Arthur Longmore, a bit of a controversial figure because he was number three commandant at Cranwell around about 1923/24 time. He went to become the AOC of the Middle East and when it was a case of finding a scapegoat for the loss of Greece and the Balkans during the, the Nazi invasion down there in the early years of the war when a head had to fall they decided that Sir Arthur had to be the person who got the chop. He came back to Grantham but took a significant part in the formation of the Grantham squadron of the Air Defence Cadet Corps so we got to know him pretty well and through him we gained entry or entrée if you like in to places like the 5 Group headquarters and Spitalgate and so on. Now, one of the other things about this OTC, Officer’s Training Corps was the fact they trained you up to what was called the Certificate A Standard which was the first, if you like it was the 11+ for getting in to Sandhurst. Now, around about 1935 time the RAF rather objected to the war department in general that here were the, here was the army making sure that the majority of the likely lads who were coming up were well injected with khaki in to their blood and they wanted a slice. So what happened was formed an organisation which you can still find on the internet, if you look it up, which was called the Public Schools Air Cadet Wing. Now, this was a fairly, again a fairly elite organisation. There were only about two hundred and fifty of us and they were composed of people who were in the university air squadrons and also a certain number of selected grammar schools across the country. We were allocated eight places on this and of course there was the inevitable selection board to which one appeared in your best and you were interviewed. The other seven went in, all very fit and looking air crew right away and you could tell by the look on their face they were accepted. Then I walked in complete with glasses so there was dead silence, and they said, ‘This is for air crew.’ So I said, ‘Excuse me gentleman but,’ I said, ‘We are now entering a very technical stage of the war. You have accepted seven air crew. You need somebody to keep them in the air.’ I think the sheer effrontery of this caused them to stop dead. They sort of looked at each other, as a grin all over their faces. ‘Alright you’re in.’ Well it was absolutely marvellous because the RAF wherever there was a local, you know they were near to Oundle and some of these other places, there were certainly RAF stations nearby but of course at Grantham we were lucky because we’d got Spitalgate at the top of the hill. What they spent on us I do not know but it must have been by today’s standards millions. They took us everywhere. They opened the stations, we went in, we flew with them, we went with exercises. Although we were khaki clad we were treated as being part of the RAF right from the beginning even though we were only fifteen, sixteen and the net result was of course that the majority of us were absolutely dead set for going into the RAF and one thing that I have to mention about the, the Public Schools Air Cadet Wing was the wonderful camp that they had in July 1939 just before the thing started where we went down to this Selsey Bill which was next door to RAF Tangmere and they took us everywhere. They showed us everything from Bomber Command to Fighter Command to Coastal Command to the Fleet Air Arm and so on and this really was an absolutely marvellous occasion and I can still remember now the final dinner in this huge mess tent that we went in to. We were told to appear in best uniforms and so on. When we were, we moved in our jaws dropped because this thing, this, after being in our mess tent for the week this thing had been converted into an officer’s mess and it was white linen and RAF personnel doing the serving and we stood and then the top brass came in and it really was. There was the head of Bomber Command, there was the head of Fighter Command, there was the head of Coastal Command, Fleet Air Arm and the top table was resplendent including one civilian who we knew by sight and as soon as we took one look at him we sort of looked at each other, ‘Hello. What’s all this about?’ and this was a bloke called Duff Cooper. Now Duff Cooper was one of Churchill’s war mongers, if you like and he was, he had for years been absolutely dead set against the disarmament and so on and he was very largely responsible for the political drive behind making sure that the RAF was equipped as far as possible with new breeds of fighters and so on and of course at that time with, shall we say, the Chamberlain mentality about there was this hope that if we only ignored him far enough, long enough he would probably go away which of course he didn’t and Duff Cooper stood up and said, ‘Right gentleman,’ he said, ‘Within one month we shall be at war.’ There was a sort of, ‘Ahhh,’ like that but he was dead right and so what happened was that I was in this Public Schools Air Cadet Wing. Now, in the meantime sir Arthur Longmore with his friends up in the league of the Air League of the British Empire had caused the formation of the Grantham squadron of the air training er the Air Defence Cadet Corps. When they were looking round for a commanding officer, let me go back a fraction. I said I wanted to go there. My father put his foot down. He said, ‘Look. You’re coming up for your matric examinations, you’re already in the OTC. You’re already in the Public Schools Air Cadet Wing you have not any time for any further organisation.’ So I said, ‘I still want to go.’ He said, ‘Alright, you can go under one condition. That I come with you just to make sure you don’t commit yourself.’ ‘Ok.’ So we turn up and we were addressed by Chamier who was the head of the Air Defence Cadet Corps at that time and all the various people including Sir Arthur Longmore and it came a question. Yes, the mayor of Grantham agreed that the council would, would submit a budget for the, because it was all privately run at that time, the RAF hadn’t actually taken it over and so yes it was agreed that we would form a squadron of the Air Defence Cadet Corps. Then the next question was who was the, to be the commanding officer. Now, my father, in the First World War, he got a blighty one in 1915. When he came back he spent most of the war up at the Ripon Reserve Training Centre which was one of the biggest training organisations for people for the First World War and he eventually ended up as aide de camp to the commanding officer up there so he had quite a lot of administrative experience if you like and so what happened was when it came to the question of the, of the commanding officer Sir Arthur Longmore just pointed straight at my father and said, ‘There is your commanding officer,’ you see. My father’s jaw dropped and there was a certain amount of hear hearing going on and of course we walked out with my father as the new commanding officer of the Grantham squadron of the of the Air Defence Cadet Corps and me not allowed to join. Now, of course when war was declared I was sixteen. There was a possibility that I might go onto the sixth form but things were so unstable at that time that in the majority of cases unless you were, what shall we say, top flight 1-1 students obviously destined for university the general tendency was look we’re in it we might just as well sort of adopt a career strategy and so what happened was I left school, started an engineering apprenticeship which was to last five years as it worked out but of course I never expected to finish that because at the age of eighteen I would be called up anyway to go in to it. At the same time you had to go to technical college and so on to get your, your technical qualifications behind that. By the time I was eighteen I had passed the point of no return. In other words having reached that level I went before various selection boards who said you must stay out to get the necessary Institute of Mechanical Engineers qualifications to go straight in and I was accepted provisionally for a commission in the technical branch of the RAF. So I was sort of hell bent for that particular line expecting to go into the RAF around about ‘43/44 time when I qualified but in the meantime of course we had to be in part of of pre-service organisation. In my case of course it was the Air Defence Cadet Corps and then from 1941 this became the Air Training Corps and because my father was very, very strict about these things whenever we got into uniform we were, he would not allow us to leave the house together. We always had to go separately. We went off to the headquarters and I saluted him very carefully whenever I came, came across him because of course I was saluting the King’s Commission in those days and he said straightway to all the flight commanders, he said, ‘Look. With his experience he probably knows a damned sight more about the RAF and these things than, than you do, but,’ he said, ‘I am not actually accepting any recommendations of promotion until you’re all quite satisfied that he is worthy of promotion. I am not going to have any favouritism in my squadron.’ So I ended up going into, going into the, in to the Air Defence Cadet Corps as a humble cadet and during the war, because I was, if you like, one of the few only cadets who actually stayed in the Air Training Corps for the whole of the war period I rose up from being cadet, corporal, sergeant, flight sergeant and eventually became the second warrant officer for the Grantham squadron and I have still my warrant over in a file here which could be done to prove this. Now, during this time of course we went to an awful lot of specialist courses at various places down at places like Cardington and, and so on and it was also interesting because we had the first warrant officer’s course at Cardington and there were seventeen, eighteen of us I think, all ATC warrant officers and I was in that. That was the first, the first course there. Now, during the war, of course we were essentially civilians during the daytime but in addition to that and apart from the fact that we were probably doing either a whole day’s release or three nights at night school or technical college then of course we had also to be in pre-service training which I was already in as being in the ATC. First of all we were attached to RAF, RAF Spitalgate, Grantham which of course was a training station. By that time it was 12 PAFU Pilot Advanced Flying Training Unit which were training night fighter pilots. But of course as things built up we had a separate wing down at, separate flight down at Colsterworth and it was agreed that we would leave Spitalgate as being the nearest station to the Colsterworth flight and then we would, we ourselves be attached to Bomber Command stations so our first station of contact was RAF Bottesford which was the home of 207 squadron. 207 squadron was noted as being the first squadron to receive, when it was formed or reformed ‘cause 207 that number two hundred indicates that it was originally a Royal Naval Air Service station or squadron in the First World War so 207 was reformed at Cranwell and immediately came down to Bottesford which had only just recently been commissioned as a station and they were the first squadron to receive these Avro Manchesters. Well, of course, anybody who knows anything about the Manchester, if you say, ‘I flew in a Manchester,’ they’d look at you as much as to say, ‘Oh how did you escape,’ [laughs] because of course it was a wonderful aircraft so far as an air frame was concerned but it had these two huge horrible Vulture engines which were virtually a couple of V, V12 engines, one on top of the other which was put in to service before it was properly trained, properly tested. The net result was that these engines would suddenly fail and if it failed on one engine that was it and it came, it would come in and crash and that would be the end of it. Anyway, it was interesting at Bottesford because then it was just at the point when the RAF were beginning to get some very interesting personnel there. There was a certain Joe McCarthy who was at Bottesford at the time and he was already a bit of a name for himself because if there was one thing that Joe liked was low flying and as soon as the blitzes that were being planned for the Tirpitz and the Gneisenau and the other, the other targets this was before, if you like, the RAF had settled down in to, in to an area bombing technique. This was still at the period when there were specific targets. Now, when McCarthy decided that low flying was needed he often used to go down the fens where he could fly along and go around the trees rather than over them and it was quite normal for us to be going along at something in the region of a hundred and fifty, a hundred and eighty miles an hour about fifty feet above the ground which was quite exciting and I can remember one particular time when we were buzzing across and I was, as navigation instructor for the squadron had got a group of ATC cadets in various places and I was talking to them through the intercom. I’d got a couple of them with me up in the top turret of this, of this Lancaster and there was a couple down at the back end and others sort of in various disposal because they never worried about, I mean we never bothered about parachutes because, you know, we never got high enough to use them [laughs] and I can remember panning along and of course the usual thing we did was we kept because we knew the countryside fairly well we would sort of be brash enough to say, ‘Upper gunner to captain.’ ‘Yeah, go ahead’ captain er ‘go ahead gunner.’ ‘HT cables five miles ahead.’ ‘Thank you.’ Not a change in height. Not a change in speed. ‘Top gunner. One mile ahead.’ ‘Thank you.’ Not a change in speed. Not a change in height. And one of the others would say, ‘HT cables in sight.’ ‘Thank you.’ Not a change. Then all of a sudden an American voice said, ‘Alright boys. Shall we go over them or shall we go under them?’ And of course there was absolute dead silence and he said, ‘I take it that means under them,’ and we did [laughs] which was rather exciting. And of course another thing he used to love to do on a Sunday morning when “Dad’s Army” was being marched along with Mainwaring in front one thing about a Lancaster which you don’t really get these days is if you could get a Lancaster down to about fifty feet no sound comes forward. The net result is that you can be going along and he suddenly would go like this and we got ourselves over a typical fenland road with ditches each side of it and there in front was “Dad’s Army” marching along, goes pfffft straight over the top of them. Of course it was very interesting because when you turned around the only person who was still on the road was Captain Mainwaring. All the rest, all the rest of them [laughs]. Oh they were great days. Anyway, the, as I say the Bottesford period was a period when the RAF was still experimenting with low level flight, low level flying, specific targets and so on. What happened was that the amount of damage that was being done because at that time Bottesford was still a grass airfield that they came to the conclusion that the airfield, as a grass airfield was just about worn out. They just couldn’t keep the grass together especially in the winter time and they were definitely getting worried that they would not get airborne with their, with their bomb loads on so they decided to close Bottesford. 207 was first of all sent off to RAF Langar and then eventually it went up to RAF Spilsby and today if you go up you will find that the 207 squadron veterans and their archive and everything are all held up at the Spilsby airfield. Well, Spilsby, but East Kirkby, in the, in the headquarters there so what happened was that we hadn’t got a, we hadn’t got a, an attachment so I think my father managed to twist some arms up at 5 Group headquarters and the next thing is we were attached to 106 squadron at Syerston. Now, Syerston was perhaps the most westerly of the 5 Group airfields and by that time the RAF, the Bomber Command 5 Group in particular had settled down to grim warfare. No more specialist targets. No more panacea targets as Harris used to call them. No. This was, this was Harris warfare in full and it was an entirely different operation. Now, we had got used to, at Bottesford we’d got used to the fact that we would be working on a planes helping to clear up, loading incendiaries and all that sort of thing and we had sort of reached the point where we were in spite of that fact that we were only teenagers basically we were accepting the fact that the bloke we were talking to yesterday afternoon was no longer there and we also, I mean I used to find for example that as a leading NCO I used to bring my, ‘cause they used to collect us from, from Grantham those of us that could get away on a Saturday morning working five day week because the employers realised that we were, that our, what we were doing was valuable they would let us go off. We would be collected, taken to an RAF station. Could be Bottesford, could be Syerston or wherever. As soon as we entered there we were immediately shunted off to the security section and the security officer would say, ‘No communication with the outside whatsoever. Big op tonight. We mustn’t let any loose talk,’ and so we would be fixed in the station or we would go and we’d load incendiaries and we would generally go, and of course the next morning when the aircraft came back then I would collect from our nissen hut, we had a specific nissen hut there, I would collect my, because we marched everywhere. Nowadays, they just walk but we marched everywhere and I would be intercepted by one of the flight sergeants, RAF flight sergeants who said, ‘Keep away from that one. We haven’t had the chance to hose it out yet.’ And, oh yes there were some because they always the tail end gunner out and some of those tail end gunners oh I tell you, it was mess, it really was. So we grew up very rapidly. When we got to Syerston we did find that the RAF frame of mind if you like had changed over from this Harris expression panacea targets to total obliteration and it was grim and as I say we grew up very quickly. So we carried on and you could more or less say that three weekends out of four we were at one station or the another whether it was Bottesford or whether it was Syerston and so on. Well, I dropped a name, Joe McCarthy and quite a lot of the people who were with him of course were head hunted by you know who. By the time we got to Syerston who was the commanding officer there? You know who. Now people are divided. There’s ten percent of the RAF thought that Guy was absolutely marvellous and the other ten percent were not at all sure because -
HD: So he was the commanding officer at -
PDS: Oh Guy Gibson. Yes.
HD: Guy Gibson.
PDS: He was, he was a bighead and he had all sorts of funny ideas because he’d been an ex between wars officer where, at a time social standing was very very important and it was only towards the end of the war would Guy Gibson allow himself to be photographed with his sergeant air crew. Oh no. No. He would separate them out.
HD: So he was quite separate.
PDS: He would only appear in a photograph. If you look at Guy -
HD: Yeah.
PDS: In some of the early periods of the war you don’t see an NCO anywhere there. All commissioned. Guy did not approve of the ATC. He thought we were just a boys club and want keeping clear of the real war so we in general kept clear of him and but for all that the Syerston period was an important period I think for the majority of the young men who went into the RAF from the Grantham squadron and a lot of them sort of ended the war feeling that there but by the grace of God so on and I think what happens is you do tend to find as happens in all branches of all services that survivors begin to get a bit of a guilt complex. Why was I allowed to survive? And the fact that when I eventually got the necessary qualifications for going into the RAF they said well to be perfectly honest we’re so near the end of the war and the vast reconstruction that we’re going to have to do not only in this country but of course particularly in Europe and elsewhere. In view of the fact that I was working on construction machinery and I was, by that time a section leader and design draughtsman and I was producing equipment which gave me no end of trouble actually because I can start looking up on the internet and there is some enthusiast in New Zealand or Australia, particularly Australia who is keeping one of my graders going as being an historical piece and I’m going, ‘No. That was mine. I designed that.’
HD: So what sort of things did you design then?
PDS: Pardon?
HD: What sort of things did you design?
PDS: Well it started off on big dump trucks. You know -
HD: Right.
PDS: That would receive over cast material in coal mines and also in the big quarries and specific mines for specific materials, iron ore and that sort of thing but in addition to that because the the government over here was concerned at the amount of dollars that we were having to spend in buying equipment from the United States which they felt quite rightly that we could produce over here we were, the whole industry was asked to team up with American companies to produce American equipment under licence in this country and by that time I was, as I say a design section leader and I was immediately sent off with a colleague from the welding shops and a colleague from machine shops over to the States to get all the necessary information for getting these graders into production in Grantham which brought me again into contact with airfield construction equipment but coming back quite a bit because I’d already been in that when they said eventually, ‘Well sorry but we’ve ceased recruitment into the technical branch of the RAF but what we can offer you is a commission in the airfield construction service,’ so I thought well I suppose that’s as good as anything you see but even that folded up. They said, ‘Oh no we’ve got enough,’ so eventually about 1945 or the spring of 1945 before either VE or VJ I was more or less sort of hived off to win the peace and so my contact with the RAF more or less ceased at that point. Well, I wasn’t all that pleased. I thought well having spent the whole war doing everything I possibly could to train people up for the RAF through the Air Training Corps and so on and doing so much in contact with the RAF that suddenly to find that here were mere civilian bureaucrats turning around and saying well yeah ok sorry and all that but – so to be perfectly honest around about the spring of 1945 I made rude gestures towards the RAF. I thought right, blow them. And so for fifteen, for a period of about fifteen years I more or less ignored the RAF. I said more or less because by that time my wife and I had got, I’d met up with my wife and we’d got married. We were living on the far side of Grantham and every day when I came into the Aveling Barford company that I worked for I had to go through what was left of RAF Spitalgate and it rather peeved me because that became the headquarters of the RAF, of the ATC gliding set up and you could see all this activity going on and oh blow this for a game and I rather ignored it. But around about, I think it was about 1975 I suddenly got the urge again because during the war, long before you could get plastic kits of aircraft I always used to get the air crew members of the, of the Grantham squadron. I would give them a drawing and some photographs of a specific aircraft and say, ‘Right. Now here’s some bits of balsa. Try and make a model as closely as you could. Here we are. Here are some craft knives and so on and do this,’ because the great thing about it was by the time you’d converted this into a model however rough and inaccurate it would be the fact was that the bloke had reached the point when he could recognise that particular aircraft from any angle and it proved it because eventually we had a wonderful game that we used to do. We got one of these Aldis projector that projected slides and we fitted it up with a camera lens.
HD: Yes.
PDS: Not the lens. The shutter at the front so that we could put a picture in the thing, just click it and it would be on the screen for five seconds.
HD: Right. Yes.
PDS: Right. What was that? Oh that was an ME109. No it isn’t. It’s a Hurricane. Why isn’t it a Hurricane? Because so and so radiators and so on and so forth you see. Then we got it down to one second.
HD: Goodness me.
PDS: And eventually we got it down to the point when these could be recognised at two hundred and fiftieth of a second. It just went like that.
HD: Yes.
PDS: But the mere stick of the aircraft ‘cause I said straight away. That may be the saving of your life. If you can recognise that aircraft as being friend or foe. Your life might still be on. So it was interesting to make aircraft models long before there were kits and everything so that everybody knew the shape of these things and I remember I got, I got into a row up at Spitalgate because one of the instructors up there was doing a lecture and he’d got a whole lot of these slides and he put a slide in, released it, shut it immediately, he said, ‘You’re not supposed to see that.’ So I said, ‘I know you’re not.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ He said. This is the latest, they called it the Typhoon at the time.
HD: It is.
PDS: Well, he said, ‘You’re not supposed to know about that.’ Well [laughs]
HD: So what -
PDS: So the week after I gave him a model of it just from that -
HD: Oh really.
PDS: On that twenty fifth of a second. He took one look at this, he said , ‘Right. I’m confiscating that.’
HD: So what aircraft did you work on during your time?
PDS: Well these were mainly, it started off at, it started off at Grantham.
HD: Yes.
PDS: Now Grantham initially started with biplanes. Hawker Hinds and that sort of thing because at that time during the war the RAF was still mainly army cooperation. We worked on Avro Ansons which of course was notable because the Avro Anson was the first twin engine monoplane that the RAF had. The first one with a, with an enclosed gun turret, retractable undercarriage and so on. Also there were the RAF’s other trainer which was the Airspeed Oxford always known as the Ox Box because it was completely wooden apart from the engines and the other metal bits around it and then as we came over to, to Bottesford of course it was Manchesters and then Lancasters so we got to know those pretty well and I could still go inside the, I could go over to East Kirkby and they could put me blindfolded into the back of a Lancaster and I could walk down, down the Lancaster purely by feel and say right this is a giro compass just as you’re getting through the door. Yes. Now careful this is the point when you’ve got to get over, and so on and we got to know those pretty well. This was another thing of course that they used to do and even as cadets we would go on to a Lancaster which wasn’t doing anything in particular, you would be blindfold and that cadet had to spend ten minutes or a quarter of an hour completely blindfolded inside the Lancaster until he knew exactly where everything was because of course in the pitch dark when the aircraft was at all sorts of different angles you had to recognise where the, what the aircraft was by, by shape or smell because the Lancaster always had a distinctive smell.
HD: Did it?
PDS: When you poke your nose in to the back of the Just Jane or the one at, at oh Coningsby.
HD: Coningsby, yes.
PDS: There’s this distinctive smell. What it is missing of course was the smell which immediately hits you in an old well-worn Lancaster as you came through the door at the back was the fact during certain hair raising manoeuvres the elsan just in front of the spar of the tail plane would inevitably come adrift and it was always an ATC’s job to go and clean out the back of the - [laughs] So we got to know the smell of the Lancaster as well as the feel of it.
HD: The Lancaster. Yes. Yes
PDS: And then of course the blow fell because although we were being taken to Syerston eventually there was a complete reshuffle. They decided that A 5 Group should move further north and so the headquarters of the 5 Group moved up from Grantham up to Bawtrey, the various 5 Group squadrons moved further north so there was not only number 3 Group which was partly Lincolnshire, partly South Yorkshire but also 5 Group up there. Then of course in came in the magic air force. Have you ever, have you ever seen that film “The Magic Army,”?
HD: No. I haven’t.
PDS: This was Leslie Thomas’ skit of the arrival of the first American troops over in to this country and it’s an absolute howler. If you ever get a chance of seeing it you must see it.
HD: Yes.
PDS: It was the impact of what happened when -
HD: The Americans -
PDS: A complete American air force unit which was, because of course they were very heavily segregated in those days and here was this sleepy little south of England town which was suddenly invaded by a whole lot of gum chewing, be-bopping, American negro servicemen who took the local people by surprise.
HD: So what time of, during the war did they come? When was this?
PDS: Oh in ‘43. It was about -
HD: 1943. Yes.
PDS: 1943 when they came.
HD: Yes.
PDS: I mean they had been operating in East Anglia from, sort of ‘42 onwards because we moved out so that the main RAF bomber concentration was definitely Lincolnshire and Yorkshire and so the Americans they came in to the south of that. Then of course it was a question of the invasion and the net result was that Grantham 5 Group headquarters which as I said moved forward, moved up to Bawtry became, became the headquarters of the US Army Air Force 9th Troop Carrying Command and so in to all the stations the ex-bomber stations to the north of Grantham, or to the north east of Grantham became American. The previous one at Syerston became an Operational Training Unit. It was felt that they needed to have Operational Training Units a bit nearer to the, to the action. At the same time they wanted to move the RAF in to the new stations which were being formed in the east of Lincolnshire. Then of course in came the Americans and they had their headquarters in, at Fulbeck, at Fulbeck Hall. It became the headquarters of the American 9th Troop Carrying Command and Fulbeck airfield became the headquarter airfield to which we were attached. Now, that of course was a complete culture change because having been used to the RAF where everything was strictly security and so on to sort of to wander on to one of these airfields. We were collected in the morning, when we got on we were dumped outside. They said, ‘Alright boys, you know where the headquarters are. Make your way there.’ And so we would wander off and oh and, ‘It’s coffee break boys. Go down and, go down to the break,’ so we would go down and enjoy, I mean, after years of the old Camp chicory coffee suddenly being confronted because the Americans brought everything in. Do you know they even brought dustbins in from the States? Oh no they brought everything from toilet rolls to dustbins. I mean can you imagine it during the war when all the pressure on the, on the convoys in the Atlantic that they were bringing in toilet papers and dustbins over. Anyway, of course it was a cultural shock and I’ve written quite a bit about it. Now, what I think I would like to do if, I want to do another copy of this sometime. If you look at this you will see that this is what I call Cadet 1935 to 1945. Now, this starts off with me. I catch the air bug in the 1920s which was, if you like, the first chapter. Then here’s me in the King’s School defence sorry King’s School Grantham Officer’s Training Corps. Then a bit about the Public School’s Air Cadet Wing and particularly the camp at Selsey Bill there. Then there was the formation of the Grantham Air Defence Cadet Corps squadron in 1935. Just for a brief period I became an ARP messenger while I was still at school because my father would not allow me to join the Air Defence Cadet Corps until I was officially left school but in view of the fact the school wasn’t open that was my first job as ARP messenger. Then I joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps which went ‘39 to ‘40. Then this was attachments to RAF Bottesford. The attachment to RAF Syerston. I usually do this because I’ve done a lot of talking to Women’s Institutes and so on and of course until well after the war the ATC was strictly boys only but what many people don’t realise was that the, the women’s services were getting fed up with the fact that all the government assistance seemed to be going into the boys unit and so what was formed was called the Girls Training Corps and of course as soon as they started in Grantham we shared headquarters, much to the delight of all concerned and we trained up their NCOs until they were in a positon to operate separately. So that is a definite chapter, if you like, in my life.
HD: Is that where you met your future wife?
PDS: No. It wasn’t. No. I’ll tell you about that in a few minutes. Anyway, then with the magic air force, the 9 Troop Carrying Command at RAF Fulbeck and then I said anti-climax, and finale and then a little epilogue. Now –
HD: Very good.
PDS: If you would like to take that and dip into it.
HD: That would be lovely. Thank you very much. Thank you.
PDS: Yes.
HD: We’ll sort that out after the interview. Yes.
PDS: Yes.
HD: So tell me then, you’d obviously done all this training and then it got to 1945 and they didn’t need so many engineers.
PDS: That’s it.
HD: To go in to Bomber Command so –
PDS: It was goodbye and thank you.
HD: Yeah. So where did your life take you then?
PDS: Well as I say I was into design engineering but because the Institute of Mechanical Engineers were very strict on getting a broad, as broad as possible experience, I mean, nowadays you can get a qualification by purely being in, in, at university because during the war there was no university. You couldn’t, you couldn’t get that route through to technical qualification and nowadays of course provided you’ve done a certain amount of, if you like between term experience, work experience in engineering companies you would then be accepted as a graduate and then eventually when you got a position of some responsibility and some organisation that they can feel satisfied that you have got the broad spectrum of an engineering in general rather than something of a specific nature so what happened was at the end of the war I came to the conclusion that if I was going to become a qualified engineer I had to get more experience so I packed up this job in Grantham much to their annoyance and when I went I got a handshake from all my colleagues and I got less than a, than a friendly handshake from the firm because they didn’t want me to leave because I’d got quite a few jobs on hand but unfortunately due to the fact that my design experience lacked a certain amount of experience in the design and development of gear boxes and axles and that sort of thing. I was alright on structures but when it came to that it did mean that I was short of experience in the company and what happened was that they recruited what eventually turned out for me to be a cuckoo in the nest. As soon as he got here it was quite obvious he just took one look which said, you are out and so he did everything he could to get rid of me. What happened was that I’d already come to the conclusion that if I was to become generally qualified I’d got to get more general experience so pulled out and for two years I worked with a firm of contractors in Birmingham in their plant depot and eventually family problems meant that I had to come home due to the wife going down with TB and other problems. I had to come back and I joined the firm of Ruston Bucyrus. Now, I didn’t want to go back into production. I’d had enough to know that I was not happy in the works environment. Also the company at Lincoln which seemed to be the best place was not engaged in original design. They took basically stuff that had been designed by their parent company over in Milwaukee which they converted into British practice and so there was not a lot of original design work so I went to them and I said, ‘Well, I’d like to work for you.’ And it was just at the time when they were recruiting. They said, ‘Well, look we’re just in the process of a huge expansion. What we’re interested in is recruiting, if you like, a group of young Turks if you like, who could be the drive behind the new,’ And this was a time when computers were first coming in and so on.
HD: So what year was this?
PDS: This was in 1956. 1956.
HD: Yes.
PDS: So I joined this company Ruston Bucyrus but when I put my CV they said, ‘Well you know, ok we’ll introduce you to all the various directors of the different functions in the company and you choose. If you like a particular aspect. We’ll find a job for you.’ Which I thought was rather surprising and very nice. So, I went ‘Well, don’t hurry. Just think about it.’ Anyway I’d only been home about a week. ‘Would you come up to Lincoln again?’ ‘Yes.’ You know obviously query in my voice. ‘There’s been a development.’ ‘Oh yes’ ‘Yes. Well we’ll tell you about it when you come.’ So surreptitiously I came up to Lincoln. When I get there they said, ‘Well look. We have come to the conclusion that our distributors,’ how are you doing, alright? ‘We we’re finding that the, our distributors who we have been insisting sent their sales representatives to Lincoln to the firm of Ruston Bucyrus for a year’s training and when they get there what happens they are put with the apprentice department and the apprentice department just puts them into the shop.’ What we used to call shop soaking. They were just there. Which of course is not the way that one trains people, you see. Way back in the, way back in the old OTC days it was a case of whenever you had something to talk about you told them what you were going to tell them, then you told them, then you asked them what they’d been told. So I applied that same sort of technique up there and I was able to reduce this, this year-long programme down to something in the region of ten to twelve weeks which of course made a terrific difference and this company gradually developed to the point where I had a whole, I had a new building specifically designed for my use. I had a team of eight. There were five people working on visual aids so I got experience on producing film strips and films and slides and training material and so and then in addition to that I had a sales instructor and a service instructor with me, sort of heading it up and I also spent an awful lot of time round about in the 1960s travelling around Europe and most of the eastern world if you like because the, the North and South America was mainly handled from our Milwaukee head office and we did Europe, Africa, Australia, Australasia and so on. So I headed up this department until unfortunately because we had been making a very acceptable between five and ten percent profit during the years when the British were in command of the company when eventually the Americans got rid of their old guard and brought in a new bloke he said, ‘This is ridiculous. A company like you should be making thirty percent profit.’ So it was a case of downsizing and they literally took the guts out of it so that this company which used to be one of the principal, we employed six thousand people in Lincoln in those days just gradually went out. So eventually I was, I was made redundant from that. After a couple of years of being a gentleman of enforced leisure if you like, which is another story altogether I eventually was headhunted for teaching technical English at a, at a, an ex-teacher training college in Nottinghamshire. These were training overseas people in technical English before they went over to people like British Oxygen and the big fertiliser companies and so on. So it was teaching technical English. Oh we even, we even had people, which was always a very popular job teaching young Omani air force personnel who were on their way to Cranwell, to the college there and we had a whale of a time but it was interesting because I would be teaching probably seven hours a day.
HD: So what year was this?
PDS: This was 1950 sorry 1982 to ‘87. ‘82 to ‘87.
HD: Ok.
PDS: Now, that was very interesting because as I say, I would be teaching probably seven lessons a day and everyone was completely different. One would be the chemistry of combustion for fire service people, the next lesson would be aero dynamics for the people who were going to Cranwell and so on and so forth. An interesting period. Now -
HD: Can you, can we just go back to the war and your family? So were you always with your family? You never had to leave them behind.
PDS: No. That was it. Yes. What happened was that because we were in Grantham, in the middle of Grantham my mother was terribly claustrophobic. Where we lived in Grantham we were surrounded by tall buildings and we were on the direct bombing run for the cannon factory. The twenty five millimetre, twenty millimetre cannon factory British Marcos and time and again the streets just behind us had been caught by short fall bombs. My mother was dead scared she was going to be buried alive and we moved out into a deserted farmhouse in the area between Denton and Moorsalt by Belvoir which was a wonderful period. I must say that. That I have to admit that some of those wartime years for somebody who had been a townie was, some of the most wonderful things because of course in those days with the blackout there was none of this, this light pollution that you’ve got these days. I mean how many people today have seen the Milky Way?
HD: Very few I would imagine.
PDS: Yeah. Very few of them. I mean you have to be out at Kielder Forest or something.
HD: That’s right.
PDS: Where there’s absolutely no light.
HD: Yes.
PDS: Before you could see it.
HD: We had wonderful times up there and we saw an awful lot of the war going on from that area. We certainly enjoyed ourselves when we were living out there but most of the time I’m afraid my mother was by herself because my father as the commanding officer, he had a job in Lincoln and he was with the ATC during the evenings and I was there or I was over at the Newark Technical College and so on and eventually of course when it was obvious that I was not going to go into the RAF then we just settled down to a peacetime existence.
PDS: So where did you meet your wife and how did you meet your wife? Tell me.
HD: Well, this is, this is rather interesting actually because after the war of course there were no cars, no petrol, rationing. Everybody cycled everywhere. Well during the war I’d cycled to and from work. I mean by the time you’d done seven miles each way in the mornings and evenings, you know, you were pretty fit. The end of the war I decided I’d go down to visit my father’s relations down at Southampton which we’d been unable to really visit them due to the, all the, all the closure during the build up for the invasion and so on so I cycled down to Southampton. Then I spent a few days going around in that area. During that time I joined the Youth Hostels organisation like so many of us did at that time. I was coming back, I decided that I would just for the sake of it go over in to South Wales just to see what it looked like because I thought I’d have a holiday down there some time. Went in to the youth hostel at Mitcheldean in the Forest of Dean and couldn’t help noticing across, you know, one enchanted evening and all that sort of business, across the room were a couple of girls who were obviously the centre of attention. There was one particular good looking girl and the other one who was the taller, more gangly one who, I must admit she wasn’t initially as attractive but anyway I thought nothing of it because you see, you start off next morning. They go seventy five miles in that direction, I go seventy miles and that would be the end of it but lo and behold we turn up in Stratford Youth Hostel both booked in for the theatre there. There they were. So we sort of looked at each other. ‘Weren’t you at Mitcheldean? Yes. Knowing perfectly well we were at Mitcheldean because apparently Jean had spotted me as well. So anyway -
HD: Which one was Jean?
PDS: Jean was the older, taller, gangly one. It was only many years later that she admitted that her sister wasn’t going to get a word in [laughs]. Oh it’s so funny because I mean wwe were just kids let’s face it because after the war you see so many people who were twenty two or twenty three they suddenly discovered that they’d not really had a teenage and so many of them sort of turned back the clock and went through the motion of being teenagers again and they sort of did the daft things like cycling all over the place and joining the Youth Hostels Organisation and so on and though they might be departmental managers in the daytime they were kids at weekends.
HD: So how old were you when you met Jean then?
PDS: Well I was twenty three and she was twenty two.
HD: Yeah.
PDS: So what happened was that when we got back yes we went to the theatre together. Unfortunately we had booked in separate seats but that didn’t stop us joining up again for the, for the coffee break during which time we discovered I came from the Grantham area and she came from Spilsby. She and her sister. They were on a tandem. So anyway we got around to how we were going to get back up to, up to Lincolnshire again. They said, oh they were going through Tamworth and Rugby and Leicester and so on. I said, ‘Well that’s not a very nice interesting route.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m doing.’ I said are you aware of the fact that there is a position where the Old Ermine Street crosses the old Fosseway and at that point the Fosseway continues up into the Lincoln area and it’s almost a dead straight route like most Roman roads, avoids habitation wherever possible but it was a dead straight road and at times it even went through farmer’s yards but we came all the way up until we met up until we finally decided that they were going on to Spilsby and their father was going to collect her and, and, and just a minute.
HD: Mr Stevenson has just gone to find some photographs.
[long pause]
PDS: Being a great one for visual aids.
HD: Yes.
PDS: I did this when we were having a bit of a get together, the family and all the rest of it to sort of celebrate Jean’s death about a fortnight ago.
HD: Yes.
PDS: And if you like there is the significant part. This was Jean. Here we are when we first met.
HD: Yes.
PDS: That was that special day in 1946 when we first met up and this was many years later at the same place at Croxton Kerrial which is rather a special place for us. As you can see we were great, we used that tandem for nearly fifty years.
HD: My goodness. Mr Stevenson is showing me some photographs of Jean and their life and they were obviously keen cyclists.
PDS: And hill walkers.
HD: And hill walkers, yes.
PDS: And anyway we obviously, it clicked and from then onwards it was just a love story that went on for the next seventy years.
HD: Wonderful.
PDS: So -
HD: Well thank you very much and thank you very much for giving all your experiences to us and the interview will now finish and the time is nineteen minutes past eleven. Thank you very much Mr Stevenson.
PDS: Would you like a cup of coffee?



Helen Durham, “Interview with Peter Stevenson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 30, 2024,

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