Lone Wolf: The Outstanding Story of Britain’s Biggest Nightfighter Ace of the Blitz | Books | Leisure
Richard Stevens poses together with his Hurricane in 1941 on this colourised picture
James and Richard Stevens have been asleep of their cottage close to Gravesend, Kent, when their mom referred to as: “Boys, fast! He is coming down on hearth!” Dashing to their bed room window, the brothers cheered because the German airship break up into two indignant crimson balls of fireside and fell to earth north of the river. They’d witnessed the primary profitable evening fighter interception in historical past over British soil. Lt William Leefe Robinson was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his motion. At that second, younger Richard determined what he needed to be when he grew up: an evening fighter pilot.
It was, even on the top of the Nice Struggle, an inconceivable and unlikely dream. However 25 years later, he turned simply that: the RAF’s biggest evening fighter pilot who even stalked his prey in that very same patch of sky.
By 1940 the Blitz was in full swing as London and different cities took a horrible pounding. The nocturnal raids marked a turning level within the Battle of Britain – RAF Fighter Command was relieved of the stress it was beneath however remained all however impotent in opposition to them as a result of its paucity of evening preventing functionality.
Nonetheless, the Luftwaffe hadn’t reckoned on the efforts of the RAF’s unlikely secret weapon – a pilot deemed too previous to be a fighter pilot however imbued with a deep hatred of the enemy and astonishing evening imaginative and prescient.
Rising up, Richard Stevens had spent hours on nocturnal walks, his siblings remembering him, “At dwelling at nighttime – the evening intuition of a cat!”. Not solely that, however he turned a crack shot.
Firing an air pistol at 78rpm data suspended from a washing line, he delighted in getting pellets by means of the centre gap however was mortified if he missed and the dancing discs shattered into black shards.
Dragon skewering Nazi eagle from his Hurricane’s starboard engine cowling
By 1928, an adventurous spirit led him to go farming in Australia, however life there turned boring so he enlisted within the Palestine Police Power, serving for some 4 years. By 1936, he was again in Britain, married to Mabel Hyde and studying to fly.
Qualifying as a pilot, he flew airliners from Croydon Airport the place his means to see at nighttime stood him in good stead on evening flights. A colleague recalled: “Stevens’ evening sight was unbelievable. Not solely may he see within the fog and mist, he had the instincts of a homing pigeon.”
Stevens quickly enlisted within the RAF’s volunteer reserve. Then, after conflict was declared in September 1939, he flew Military co-operation flights and a goal plane coaching anti-aircraft gunners.
He desperately needed to get on the enemy although, at 31, his superior years dominated him out as a frontline fighter or bomber pilot. In the meantime, Mabel and their youngsters, twins John and Frances, have been concerned in a tragic home accident.
In October 1940, a paraffin range overturned inflicting a hearth during which Frances died aged simply 21-months. Stevens was devastated and the tragedy led to him changing into estranged from Mabel. Later, it was reported his spouse and surviving youngster had been killed within the Blitz – a narrative Stevens did nothing to dispel although, as we will see, it was fanciful.
By late 1940, after relentlessly pestering the authorities, Stevens was lastly posted to coach as a fighter pilot.
His teacher recalled: “We have been used to coping with younger and inexperienced pilots. On to this scene burst 31-year-old Stevens – vastly extra skilled than any of us instructors. He was an extremely competent unhealthy climate pilot, and we may have taught him to fly the Hurricane in every week. However the ‘system’ demanded he keep the complete course.”
However, in November 1940, Stevens was posted to 151 Squadron at RAF Wittering in Cambs as an evening fighter pilot.
Right here, on the evening of January 15/16, 1941 – 80 years in the past this week – he tasted victory for the primary time. Over Essex, he got here throughout a Dornier 17 bomber, sending it flaming into the bottom.
Stevens, momentarily blacking out from extreme G-forces within the dive from 30,000ft, over harassed his Hurricane to an extent it was instantly grounded.
Taking over one other Hurricane later that evening, he discovered additional prey and put a Heinkel into the ocean off Canvey Island. Touchdown at Gravesend to refuel, Stevens strode into the aircrew hut to search out exhausted pilots lounging round doing nothing.
Pilot Officer Ivor Cosby recalled: “Immediately, in strode a chap carrying a sheepskin jacket and flying boots. Wanting round, he demanded, ‘Why aren’t you lot airborne?’ He was instructed in no unsure phrases of 1 syllable, and some expletives, what he may do.
“We requested him who the hell he was, the place he got here from, and in what? He instructed us from Wittering, in a Hurricane. We instructed him: ‘Bloody effectively return there!'”
Stevens second kill, a Heinkel, is recovered
Richard’s first ‘kill’ was immortalised by conflict artist Eric Kennington in a piece referred to as Stevens Rocket, revealed with a Kennington portrait of Stevens himself within the London Illustrated Information.
Admitted to hospital with a burst eardrum attributable to diving from 30,000ft, Stevens later wrote to his father: “I resent congratulations for a job that 9/10ths of the RAF may have finished as simply or higher.”
His first ‘kill’ after recovering was a bomber he noticed in opposition to the moon’s reflection on the ocean. The raider stood no probability. Then, on April 8, he despatched one other bomber crashing in flames close to Wellesbourne, Warwickshire.
Two days later, Stevens actually flew by means of the exploding particles of a Heinkel. One of many survivors, a traumatised air gunner, instructed me in 1987: “We have been flying slowly at beneath 100 toes in misty situations. I believed we have been invisible. Immediately, I appeared up and noticed the shadow of an evening fighter proper on prime of us.
“I simply could not imagine it because the cockpit and propeller slowly moved inside our tail aircraft. When he opened-up together with his cannon, I believed he had collided with us as a result of our particles was throughout him. However there, fairly clearly seen within the glare of our burning plane, a black helmeted determine was silhouetted within the open cockpit.”
In his brief and meteoric profession, Stevens had develop into legendary within the RAF. Whereas newspapers lauded him as Cat’s Eyes, a senior RAF officer referred to as him Lone Wolf and tales of his exploits abounded.
As soon as, when a bomber exploded in entrance of him, the bloody stays of a German airman have been splattered throughout his Hurricane.
The Lone Wolf’s grave is well-preserved in honour of his function
His mechanic recalled: “How he landed at nighttime I do not know. The windscreen had a big gap in it. The oil tank was punctured and dented, and we discovered hair and bits of bone caught to the vanguard of the port wing. The ideas of the propeller blades have been coated in blood.”
Stevens painted a vibrant dragon on to his Hurricane, an RAF ensign wrapped in its tail because it speared a swastika-bedecked eagle.
His rating rising, Stevens developed harmful ways to trace his quarry, intentionally flying into anti-aircraft barrages. Figuring out this was the place the Germans can be, he picked off raiders with consummate marksmanship.
Merely flying a Hurricane at evening was difficult, not to mention discovering after which partaking the enemy. Typically, his cover can be open for higher visibility, however this sucked harmful carbon monoxide exhaust fumes into the cockpit as temperatures plummeted to sub-zero.
One evening, instructed the climate was too unhealthy to fly, he took off anyway. On one other event, the airfield was bombed. Stevens, racing to his Hurricane to get airborne, was instructed he could not take off as a result of the runway lights weren’t on.
Stevens, painted by artist Eric Kennington
Enraged, he shouted: “I do not want bloody lights. I will get that b*****d!” And he did. Stevens continued to say victories, and on the finish of June 1941 despatched a Junkers 88 into the North Sea as quantity 12.
In July, he bought quantity 13, preserving the enemy silhouetted in opposition to the distant Northern Lights earlier than the North Sea ultimately claimed one other bomber. By late summer season, German evening raids had all however stopped.
Nonetheless, as grasp of machine, evening sky and foe, Stevens was despatched over occupied enemy territory to hunt out the enemy. It was referred to as intruding.
Group Captain Tom Gleave, station commander at RAF Manston, recalled: “Evening intruding was in its infancy and Steve was the pioneer. He was somebody I admired tremendously. Though quiet, and a loner, he was imbued with a hatred of the Hun.”
Finally, in his all-black Hurricane, Stevens set out on his final operation over Gilze-Rijen airfield within the Netherlands on December 15, 1941, capturing down one Junkers 88 and damaging one other earlier than his Hurricane crashed close to the airfield, killing him immediately.
Lone Wolf is out now
Tom Gleave recalled: “The ops room stated they heard Steve calling however could not make out what he was saying. Then, nothing extra was heard from him. Because the evening ticked away, the unhappy fact dawned on us all.”
The intense star that had been Flt Lt Richard Stevens, DSO, DFC & Bar, had been snuffed out. He was the RAF’s highest scoring evening fighter pilot of the Blitz and the one one to attain outcomes with out radar through the use of talent, intuition and marksmanship.
He left behind his surviving son, John, and an estranged spouse, bizarrely going to his loss of life with out dispelling the story his household had all died within the Blitz – it being stated that revenge for this drove his campaign to down German bombers. In a profession spanning rather less than a yr, he shot down 15 bombers, had half a declare in one other, claimed two probables and one broken.
Writing of Stevens, writer H E Bates summed his life and loss of life thus: “He’s useless now – you’re the dwelling. His was the sky – and yours is the earth due to him.”
● Lone Wolf: The Outstanding Story of Britain’s Biggest Nightfighter Ace of the Blitz (Grub Road, £20) is out now. Without spending a dime UK supply, name Categorical Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order through www.expressbookshop.co.uk