Steve didn’t think he’d live, but Maureen knew he’d come back
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
In the second part of a two-day feature ROWAN MANTELL continues the amazing 70-year love story of the Norwich couple who met over wartime airwaves and played a part in the legendary Dambusters mission
When pilot Steve Stevens proposed to the girl with the beautiful voice, who had just played a pivotal role in the Dambusters raid, he feared he would not live to see his wedding day.
But yesterday, Steve and Maureen, of Lakenham, in Norwich, celebrated 70 years together.
Their love story began as Cpl Maureen Miller guided Flt Lt Steve Stevens in to land at a Lincolnshire RAF base back in 1943.
He was ready to fly his first bombing raids over Germany – the culmination of a vow made as he stood looking at the gaping hole where his family home had once stood.
His parents survived, but everything else he owned, except a single pair of shorts plucked from the rubble, was gone.
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'They had thousands of people wanting to be pilots. I went off to a selection board for air crew and was amazed to get through,' he said.
Months of intensive training and testing followed. He learnt about everything from the mathematics of navigation to how to build latrines in the desert and finally began flying.
To his surprise he was then sent to America where he not only learnt to fly military aircraft, but also enjoyed weeks of Canadian snow and Californian sunshine. Off duty he explored Hollywood and Los Angeles. One afternoon he and a friend had a day out with a young Scottish journalist and, decades later, he was astonished to find a picture from that day on the back cover of a book by legendary radio broadcaster Alistair Cooke.
'We were all heroes and made very, very welcome!' said Steve.
When he returned to England he joined 57 Squadron at RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire. He learnt to fly huge Lancaster bombers in the total darkness of blacked-out Britain – ready to take the war out to the industrial heartlands of Germany.
'There was a high probability that I wouldn't live. And I didn't have too much to leave. Only my bicycle for my younger brother,' said Steve.
On the night of May 23, 1943, he flew his first trip as a Lancaster captain, over the German city of Dortmund. 'As the bombs left the aircraft I felt a moment of exhilaration. I thought I had paid the debt I owed. After that, I had had my fill of hatred,' said Steve.
'We were trying to flatten German industry, or at least damage it. On one mission to Essen, they had hundreds of searchlights, and the anti-aircraft guns went on for miles. There was all this spiteful flak. Aircraft were being shot down and enemy aircraft came speeding after us.'
Most of his missions were over Germany but he went on three raids to Italy, including a 2,200-mile flight to Turin, which became the longest distance raid carried out by Bomber Command. Twelve aircraft went missing and Steve, out of fuel, had to land in Cornwall.
On another raid enemy fire opened up a huge hole in the fuselage, cutting the oxygen to his gunners, leaving them unconscious, and his wireless operator injured and severely frostbitten. With no navigational instruments working, the remaining crew managed to get the Lancaster back – but although all survived that terrible trip, three of the seven were later killed in action.
By now Steve had not only discovered the name of the glamorous blue-eyed blonde he had first heard guiding him back to land. He had asked her to marry him.
'I think it went something like, 'If I'm alive at the end of the year, we'll get married!',' said Maureen.
'I wasn't the marrying kind. I didn't want to get married. I was the youngest of seven and had four older sisters and I used to say I didn't want to be like them and spend my life with one person! But I remember thinking, very early on, that he'd make someone a good husband!'
And suddenly she was on duty in the control tower, listening out for one voice in particular – and always strangely convinced that he would emerge, unscathed from the skies.
'I still remember the time his plane came in late,' said Maureen. 'The control tower officer was worried, but I said, 'He'll be all right.' And he was.'
In November 1943, just days before his wedding, Flt Lt Steve Stevens shook hands with King George VI as the monarch awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
But perhaps the tragedy of all those missing names, as planes were counted back, mission after mission, is the reason Maureen has never been in an aeroplane.
'As the pilots came back it was my job to land them, or tell them to circle in a stack and bring them in one by one in turn, unless one had been shot up and needed to land straight away.
'It was a job I loved. I had never expected to leave Norfolk, and there I was landing aircraft. Mayday calls could be very exciting. Crew would get lost or disorientated and we had to talk them safely down.
'But I have never flown. And I never want to fly,' she said.
The couple married in St Matthew's church, Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich, on December 4, 1943 and were granted nine days leave for a honeymoon in Torquay. 'Lord Nuffield paid for Steve's honeymoon because he was an RAF officer and when we went to pay my bill, someone had paid it. To this day I still don't know who,' said Maureen.
'I came out of the WAAF in 1945. I was expecting our son, Adrian, by then, and came out with £12 and 10s – it wasn't even enough to buy a pram!
The couple lived with her parents in Norwich until Adrian was six. Steve carried on flying for the RAF after the war but also trained as a teacher and taught maths at schools across Norwich including the Norman, Avenue and Earlham schools. 'I loved teaching. I found maths difficult at school myself so I found good ways of learning it because it was essential to flying. Some of my old pupils still write to me – some are grandparents now!' said Steve.
In 1955 the Dambusters film, starring Michael Redgrave, was released, conveying both the supreme bravery of the pilots, who flew across Europe at astonishingly low altitude to avoid being picked up on radar, and the tragedy of those who were killed, on both sides. 'I thought it was a wonderful film, first class,' said Maureen, who has rarely spoken of her own role in the real life operation.
After her war service she worked as a secretary for Colman's for 30 years and Steve was president of the Lakenham branch of the British Legion for 25 years.
Adrian excelled at school, went on to Cambridge and became a university lecturer, specialising in medieval French and German. He and his wife, Janey, returned to Norwich this week, to the home he grew up in six decades ago, to help celebrate the platinum anniversary.
For a man who did not expect to survive the war, and his wife who claimed she was 'not the marrying kind,' this 70th anniversary is a chance not just to celebrate their own shared history, but also to salute them for their remarkable role in national and international history.