25 Apr. 2010
John Stevens' ANZAC Day
Bomber Command took more casualties than any other British service in WWII. Of those, the biggest proportion was tail gunners. It was the most dangerous job in the war. In his book The Right of the Line, historian John Terraine wrote: ‘The air gunner’s task, especially at the rear, was essentially solitary, calling for both deep moral reserves and great physical fitness. Sitting almost immobile in the cramped panoly of a metal and perspex cupla for six, eight, ten, or even more hours, constantly vigilant yet unable to relieve cramped legs, arms or back, called for extraordinary feats of physical endurance. The air gunner’s prospects were a comfortless life and lonely death, a combination calling for amazing fortitude.’
In addition,the Luftwaffe night fighters usually attacked British bombers from behind and below, which made the tail gunner both very responsible for the safety of the aircraft, and very vulnerable. In the event of the plane being hit the tail gunner had a long, tight crawl, encumbered by his electric suit and other gear, to reach the front of the aircraft to bale out. Understandably, many didn't make it.
Dad's plane was often attacked, but he reckoned that if the tail gunner was awake and fired a few rounds, the night fighter would buzz off to attack some less alert target. Their plane was often hit by flak, and once was so badly damaged that the navigator was killed and the Halifax forced to land at the USAF base at Riems. While there Dad got to go through a B17 bomber, and was deeply envious of the American air gunners' 0.5 inch air cannons (he described the RAF/RAAF .303s as 'pop-guns').
Despite repeatedly putting his life on the line, and coming out of the war with a serious ear complaint and deafness due to sudden changes in altitude when doing evasive corkscrew dives, Dad refused to march on ANZAC Day or ever to wear his 5 medals (which I still have, in absolute mint condition). He was utterly opposed to war, which he described as "simply murder, you know" and did not believe it should be celebrated or glorified in any way. Whether you agree with that attitude or not, it was deeply held and authentic, and in my opinion he had earned the right to express it.
Yet here I am honouring the memory of W/O First Class John Samuel Stevens on this ANZAC Day.