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Terry Thompson devoted more than 25 years in putting together a research archive on RP Stevens. Andy Saunders took on the project to produce this book. Stevens is a pilot who deserves to be much more widely known, and Saunders is to be congratulated for bringing him to the attention of 21stC readers.
Stevens had an unusual childhood, spending much of his teens (in the Twenties) in Australia, where, amongst other things, he honed his excellent shooting skills. His first adult job was with the Palestine Police, before returning to the UK and marrying in 1935. He learned to fly at Redhill and then with the RAFVR. He worked in a civil capacity flying Army Co-Operation flights in Southern England for a competitor of my heroine. There are frustrating gaps in the storyline here that are unlikely ever to be closed.
On the eve of WW2 Richard Stevens lost his brother in a most bizarre and tragic accident. By this time Richard was a Sergeant Pilot in the RAFVR, and intensely frustrated to be doing the same anti-aircraft co-operation work in uniform. He lobbied long and hard for a transfer to Fighter Command. But it was not until late 1940 that, at the age of 32, he started fighter pilot training. By this time, his already unusual psyche had been scarred by the tragic death, in a domestic accident, of one of his children.
Stevens had displayed an unusually high ability for pilotage in poor weather – this made more interesting because he was not a natural ‘stick & rudder’ pilot. Combined with a higher than average determination to kill Germans, this made him a natural for a night fighter pilot. He managed to survive Defiants, and then became one of the few night operatives of the Hurricane – and found his métier.
This operational period of the book is somewhat hampered by the author’s lack of Stevens’ log books; the consequent heavy reliance on operational record books becomes a little tedious. On the other hand there are one or two letters home to his family which have survived, and reveal a somewhat tortured character. By 1941 he was truly a Lone Wolf, ranging across the skies of Southern England at night, generally chasing the searchlight beams for clues to his prey.
It is ironic that John ‘Cats’Eyes’ Cunningham received the public adulation for his success in a Beaufighter night fighter – aided of course by his radar operator; Stevens who had a similar success rate, and no radar, remained a pilot largely unknown to the public.
A vignette underlining the faultlines in his character is a tale that he would not let his ground crew clean his Hurricane of the grisly remains of He111 crew that he had caused to blow up. As the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids over Britain diminished, so Stevens switched to night intruder operations over Europe, trying to attack German raiders or night fighters returning to their base. The reader is barely surprised when Stevens meets his end near a Dutch airfield, most probably due to flying into the ground.
The last chapter, mainly concerned with attempts by ‘mediums’ to communicate with the now dead Stevens, is superfluous. That aside this is an interesting portrait of a flawed but talented pilot who deserves to be better known.