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Wednesday, December 4, 2013
As the exhausted pilots peered through the dawn gloom, searching for their airfield in the final moments of the perilous mission, the clear, calm tones of a Norwich woman cut through the radio static, guiding the men later immortalised as the Dambusters, safely home.
Today, 93-year-old Maureen Stevens and the pilot who fell in love with her over the airwaves celebrate an amazing 70 years of marriage. And as we tell their remarkable story it is a chance to salute not just their shared history, but their unique role in world history.
Back in 1943 war was raging in the skies over Europe and Flt Lt Steve Stevens was at the terrifying centre of the action. With planes shot down on every mission he barely expected to survive each day – let alone dare to hope he might spend seven decades with the beautiful young woman whose voice guided so many to safety.
Just weeks earlier Flt Lt Steve Stevens had been astonished to hear a woman’s voice.
Back from a mission, he was expecting to be given landing instructions by one of the men he knew from the control tower.
Instead Maureen’s voice came over the airwaves. “It was the first time I had heard a girl’s voice from the tower, so I thought I would go up and have a look!” said Steve. “There was this glamorous girl sitting in the middle of a crowd of people, the centre of attention, so I crept away.”
Eight months later, and exactly 70 years ago today, they married in Norwich.
By that time Maureen had played a pivotal role in one of the best known episodes of the entire war.
She was on duty during the famous Dambuster raid, talking the returning crew back to land after their mission striking at the heart of industrial Germany, breaching dams and letting floodwater rage through factories.
Through the dawn of May 17, 1943, and for hours afterwards, she sat listening in the desperate hope that more men would make it home.
Today Steve and Maureen live in the Norwich semi they moved into more than 60 years ago. Steve (christened Sidney but always known as Steve) will be 92 later this month, Maureen (christened Maud) will 94. “He’s my toy boy!” she laughed.
It almost wasn’t so.
On their first date Steve failed to turn up as he had been scrambled to go out on another raid – and had forgotten to ask her name. It was only when he heard her voice on his cockpit radio a second time, from a different base, that he persuaded her to give him another chance. Within weeks he had proposed.
“I think it went something like, ‘If I’m alive at the end of the year, we’ll get married!’,” said Maureen.
She was born and brought up in Norwich and was working as a proof reader at the Jarrold’s print works when she volunteered for war work. “I thought I would be doing some sort of clerical work,” she said in her beautifully clear, steady voice. “But in the interview they kept me talking for a long time and then said they had something different for me.”
She was trained as a radio telephone operator and her voice welcomed pilots home after countless raids over blacked-out Europe.
Aircraft were lost and aircrew killed on virtually every mission so each crew coming into range from apparently empty skies, and requesting permission to land, was another battle fought and lives safe, at least until the next time.
“Steve first fell in love with my voice” she said.
“They loved to hear my voice, and I loved to hear theirs.”
“The first time I went into a control tower I was petrified.
“I had never been near an aircraft before.
“Then, my first night on duty, a plane took off and went up in flames. I went racing down the stairs, I just wanted to get out, but the man in charge pointed to my seat and said, ‘Miller! Your place is there.’ So I came back and sat down.”
On the night of May 16, 1943 she had no clue she would be part of anything other than a routine mission.
Operation Chastise, later to become renowned as the Dambuster raid, was so secret that even fellow Lancaster pilot Steve knew nothing of it, only noticing the bomb bays had been modified (for the equally secret new bouncing bombs) as he was instructed to delay a test flight while the newly formed 617 Squadron took off.
Maureen said: “I don’t really like talking about it because I was simply doing my job. I never knew where the planes were going each night.
“This particular night there was nothing out of the ordinary. The only thing I remember really clearly is the unusually calm atmosphere as I came off duty at 8am.”
The mission had been accomplished, water was raging through German factories. However, of the 19 aeroplanes which took off from RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire, eight did not return and 53 of the 133 aircrew involved were killed, a casualty rate of almost 40 per cent.
The statistics of survival, for a second world war bomber pilot, were brutal. Half were dead before they completed 10 missions. Steve flew 30 and did not expect to survive the war.
“On almost every trip people just didn’t come back,” he said. “Sometimes they would arrive at a base and move their things in to a room one day, and then go out on a trip and never return.
“Sometimes it was damned hard getting back. You’d have holes in the aircraft.
“You were flying in total darkness. In the air I was so busy I didn’t have time to think of what might happen. It was only afterwards…”
He grew up in rural Devon at a time when many people still travelled by horse and cart.
“At school, if we heard an aeroplane we’d all run out of the classrooms to try and see it,” said Steve, who did not imagine he would ever fly in aeroplane, let alone take charge of one.
The family moved to London in the late 1930s and, with money short, Steve left school early for a job in local government.
But with the outbreak of war the teenager fitted his day job around voluntary night shifts in a command centre co-ordinating the clear-up after bombing raids.
One night, on duty, he heard a bomb had fallen in his street. He stayed at his post all night and then cycled back to find just a gaping hole where his home had been.
His parents had been saved by crouching beneath their sturdy farmhouse table but everything else had gone – save a single pair of his shorts, and the bicycle he had ridden to work.
“I stood in the back garden and shouted ‘You bastards. I’ll get my own back on you,” said Steve.
Determined to do just that, he volunteered for the RAF.
In tomorrow’s EDP and online Steve and Maureen share more of their remarkable 70-year love story and the real life role they played in the legendary Dambusters mission.