Nam si vos omnibus imperitare vultis, sequitur ut omnes servitutem accipiant?
(Tacitus, Annales XII, xxxvii)

25 Apr 2010

John Stevens' ANZAC Day

Today is ANZAC day. My father, John Samuel Stevens served as an Air Gunner in the RAAF in World War II. He went straight into the RAAF from school and flew in many raids over Europe including over Germany, in Wellington and Halifax bombers. His position was tail gunner.

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.


Jared Carter said...

Dear Paul,

A most moving and well-deserved tribute to your father. Thank you. Over the years, I have had the privilege of talking with a few airmen from that era who flew over Germany and in the Pacific. All were admirable individuals. I wish I could have met your father. His principles and especially his shunning of the celebration of war still shine brightly.

My father-in-law, David Haston, was a mechanic with a B-17 unit operating in the South Pacific; he earned three bronze stars. He is still alive at 94 and speaks engagingly of his experiences in the period 1941-45.

A well-known local bartender in Indianapolis, Russell Settle, a co-pilot on many B-17 flights over Germany, was shot down and interned for fourteen months. He died recently at 92.

Finally, I learned only last week that an accomplished stage actor, Bernard "Barney" Kates, originally from New York but a fixture of the local theater scene here in the 1980s, had been a tail-gunner on a B-17 during the war in Europe. Barney passed away a few months ago.

They are leaving us, then, but their exploits speak for themselves. Both the achievements and the risks taken by these gentlemen, along with those of your father and his crew mates, will remain lustrous during the years to come.

Jared Carter

Paraglider said...

That's a very fine post, Paul.