The Night Aces
By Lee Brimmicombe-Wood #2. Richard Playne Stevens
One should be careful of casting a certain type of warrior as a 'breed apart', but in the case of the nightfighter aces it might be warranted. Early in the war it was one of the most dangerous of occupations. Attempts to battle the Blitz over Britain resulted in the RAF launching single-engined fighters on lone night patrols, with no special night instruments or navigation gear. Without the aid of air intercept radar or radar-directed ground control to find bombers with, the pilots had a greater chance of losing their lives to an accident than finding and shooting down a bomber.
The risks of night flying were well-known. One Spitfire ace I talked to thought night patrols were a 'bloody dangerous' thing to do. He had plenty of anecdotes about colleagues who had gone up in their high-performance fighter and then ploughed into a hillside in the dark, or smashed up their Spit on landing. He regarded them as suicide missions. Later in the war, specialist training and radio navigation instruments were to make night flying much safer. But in those desperate days of 1940 and 1941, pilots went up regardless of the risk. In the RAF the most legendary of these men was Flight Lieutenant Richard Stevens DSO DFC and bar.
PHOTO: F/Lt R.P. Stevens DFC* DSO
Biographical information on Stevens is hard to come by. Most sources give little background on him. So I'm grateful that his son, John Lawrence Stevens, contacted me to fill in the gaps. He tells me:
"Richard was borne on the 11 September 1909, the son of Mr and Mrs S.A. Stevens of Tunbridge Wells. He had four other bothers; James, Philip, Timothy & Lawrence. His sister’s name was Helen. Richard was educated at Hurstpierpoint collage. When in his late teen/early twenties he worked on cattle ranch in Victoria, Australia, as part of ‘Buddy Programme’. With the hard economic times of the late 1920,s he was forced to return to the UK.
"I am not too sure what he did then, but he married my mother in 1932, took a position as an officer with Palestine Police until about 1936. Upon his return to Britain he took flying lessons at Shoreham Flying School, and after graduation took a position as a pilot with Imperial Airways, mostly flying at night. Towards the end of December 1938 he became a father to twins."
Then war came. Stevens was old by pilot standards. He was thirty--the maximum age for aircrew--when he'd signed up for the RAF in 1939. However, he had been a commercial airline pilot prior to the war, flying the cross-Channel route between Croydon and Paris with mail and passengers. His four hundred hours of flying experience in all weathers made him ideally suited to the rigours of night flying.
Stevens joined his first squadron, No. 151, in October 1940. Throughout the summer of 1940, regular Fighter Command squadrons had been flying night patrols in addition to their day duties. But towards the end of the battle specialist nightfighter squadrons were formed, amongst them Nos. 85 and 151, both Hurricane squadrons. These offered the possibility that specialist training might decrease accidents and improve results.
It was during this period of training for nightfighting that tragedy struck Stevens. The legend, propagated in a number of published sources, alleges that he learned that his wife and children had perished during a German night raid on Manchester. However, his son John confirms that this is not true:
"His wife (Olive Mabel) and his twin children (a boy and a girl) did NOT perish in bombing raid on Manchester. His wife lived until she was 84 and his son (John Lawrence) is still very much alive. There was tragic event however on the 1st of October 1940 when his daughter (Francis Marie) was killed in house fire in the Sussex village of Shermanbury. She was ‘the apple of his eye’, and this event may well have had an adverse effect on his overall well being. I do not know for certain, because I never had the opportunity to personally know my father."
It is possible that this event might explain why Stevens fought an increasingly reckless fight against the Nazis.
Stevens' first kill came on the night of 15/16 January 1941. At 12.56 am, he took off in his Hurricane from 151 Squadron's forward base at Manston. Half an hour later he received reports of raiders headed towards London. Homing in on the shell bursts from Ack-Ack batteries below, he soon found the slim shape of a Dornier 17. Stevens screamed 'Tally Ho' and climbed after it, up to 30,000 feet, where he closed to 25 yards and let rip with his guns. The aircraft dived and Stevens followed, giving it another burst. The bomber burst into flame and crashed into a wood near Hornchurch.
This was not the only action Stevens was to see that night. Just before morning he was scrambled again and found the fat bulk of a Heinkel over the burning fires of London. The rear gunner saw him and opened up, but Stevens raked the bomber with his machineguns and it began to descend, trailing smoke, crashing near Southend.
Stevens was only the third RAF pilot to score a brace of night kills in a single night. It earned him a DFC. But this was only the beginning of his killing spree. Grounded for a while due to ear trouble, Stevens returned to battle with a vengeance in April 1941, shooting down two Heinkels on the night of the 8th. On the 10th he scored a Heinkel and a Junkers 88, which was enough to add a bar to his DFC.
All this time he was still operating without the benefit of radar ground control. He would find bombers in the dark by following the clues left by Ack-Ack shell bursts or the movement of searchlights. He was the true 'cat's eye' fighter pilot, possessed of uncanny night vision and good aim. Up to July he shot down another six aircraft, had one probable and damaged another. He was the highest scoring night ace at a time when radar-equipped Blenheims and Beaufighters were beginning to take the strain of the night battle.
ILLUSTRATION: A Hurricane Mk.I of 151 Squadron.
Part of the reason for Stevens' success was a complete disregard for his own safety. He would close to extremely close range before firing and his Hurricane would often return bearing scars of flying wreckage from his victims. He was, according to his colleagues, a solitary and melancholy man. If he was unable to fly he would stalk around the officer's mess, avoiding talking to anyone, before tucking himself into a corner with a favourite book, often T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence of Arabia, another lone wolf, appears to have been one of Stevens' greatest heroes.
The summer months of 1941 were a period of great frustration for Stevens. The Luftwaffe had shifted east to support the war in Russia and raids over England were few. For weeks he never saw an enemy bomber and he cursed and fidgeted at the lack of opportunity. It wasn't until October that he spotted a Ju 88 trying to slip in over East Anglia. He was to chalk it up as his fourteenth victory.
Soon after, Stevens was posted to another Hurricane unit, 253 Squadron, as a flight commander. Here, he virtually pioneered the night intruder mission. He reasoned that if he could not find bombers over England, he would look for them over France or Holland. On 12th December 1941, the day his DSO award came through, he took off for the first time to Gilze-Rijen in Holland, to stooge around. He found nothing and came home. Three nights later he set off again. But this time his black-painted Hurricane never came back. His gravecan now be found at Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands.
Years later the ace Johnnie Johnson was to say of Stevens 'To those who flew with him it seemed as if life was of little account to him, for the risks he took could only have one ending ... We have the fondest memories of him.'
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