3 Squadron LIFETIMES
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A Eulogy by Tom Russell
It is indeed a great honour for me to speak of Reg, and his service with the RAAF in North Africa and southern Europe.
There are three men here today who served with him in those areas:
- Peter Cuthbert, with the rest of our ground crew, looked after Reg on the ground, attending to all of his needs, as they did for all of the pilots. Reg always spoke very highly of the work done by the ground crews and had a great regard for them. Here also are Tud Allen and Ray Clarke, who served on the Squadron as ground crew.
- Wing Commander Bobby Gibbes DSO, DFC & Bar, who was his CO from Alamein to Tunisia, says: Reg was a very skilful pilot, with bags of "guts".
- I flew with Reg from Alamein to Sicily. In July of 1942 I joined No. 3 Squadron at Amyria in Egypt, and with five other pilots started my operational flying training. Though the battle lines were stationary at Alamein, the pilots whom we had come to join were kept busy keeping the Stukas away from the 9th Division boys.
In the Pilots’ Mess at night, we would listen as they talked about the jobs they had been on. Their stories fascinated us. Bob Gibbes was CO, "Danny" Boardman and Keith Kildey were the Flight Commanders, plus the other seasoned pilots, including F/Sgt Reg Stevens.
We new pilots commenced our operational flying as the 9th Divvy began pushing Rommel and the axis forces westward. It was then that we really began to benefit from the training and advice they had given us. Reg was a constant visitor to our tent and would continue to give us advice or answer any questions we wanted answered. He liked having supper with us, and always reckoned that our "yaffle box" – food from parcels we had received from home - was the best on the Squadron. He said that to me again last October when we were in Canberra.
Reg lived and fought in the shadows of Danny, Keith, Garth Clabburn and David Ritchie. It wasn’t until he received one of the quickest promotions to the rank of Squadron Leader during the war, and most certainly in the history of the Squadron’s operations, that his tremendous contribution to the Squadron’s efforts, and its subsequent recognition as the pre-eminent fighter Squadron of the North African and Tunisian campaigns, was rewarded.
Reg was commanding officer as we moved to Malta and Sicily, and led the Squadron until Brian Eaton returned to assume command. There must have been so much obvious potential in Reg, that he was commissioned, and bypassed other officers to assume control of the Squadron, with the rank of Squadron Leader. Not a bad record to start as a sergeant, rise to the rank of Squadron Leader, and to command not one, but two fighter Squadrons.
Reg became Commanding Officer of 451 Squadron on the 7th of September 1943, and remained in that position until he handed over to Ed Kirkham on the 13th December 1943. Surely, the number of pilots who achieved so much would have been very limited.
My diary mentions Reg many times, and there is so much I could say about a man I admired, respected, and held in very high esteem. Let me simply say, that though his awards say something of what he did, he was never one to seek publicity.
I valued him as a friend, was always grateful for the help he gave to a "sprog pilot", and consider myself privileged to have served with him, and under his command.
Alan Righetti sends some memories from his diary……….
Reg Stevens was a F/Sgt with 3 Squadron when I joined them just before the battle of Alamein. He had already begun to show that he was a skilled fighter pilot, with qualities of leadership, courage and aggression.
We flew many operations together from Alamein to Tripoli, and it was always a good feeling to know that "Steve" was in the same six when the odds were against you.
I particularly remember two operational flights with him. One led by Keith Kildey, when Steve and Keith blew up a petrol barge off the coast of Benghazi. very spectacular!!
Another six led by Danny Boardman in November 1942, when we flew in late afternoon from Gazala, to strafe an ME109 base at Magrum. Danny and Steve attacked so low that telephone wires and insulators trailed from Danny’s aircraft!!
“Steve” was always cheerful, optimistic and helpful to new pilots, and very popular with aircrew and ground staff. It was obvious that he was destined for a distinguished career as a leader.
I was privileged to know Steve as a friend, and to have flown with him.
Johnny Howell-Price has always been thankful to Reg for his help on the 3rd August 1943. During an operational 'do', Johnny found himself in the sea off the coast of Sicily near the town of Catania. Reg saw his plight, and while circling over him, alerted the Air Sea Rescue services, and continued to give Johnny protection while they were coming. The Walrus seaplane arrived, and during the pick-up, a shore battery opened fire on it. Reg immediately went in and shot up the battery and put it out of action. His aircraft was hit and damaged in the process. For this he was awarded an immediate Distinguished Flying Cross.
John Culbert, Secretary of No. 451 Squadron Association, has sent some words that were written by Warren Thomas, who after serving with 3 Squadron, joined Reg on 451:
It appears that 451 was destined to remain an Army Co-Operation unit if the RAAF had its way. However the RAF wanted it as a fighter squadron, and they got their way… It had become political.
Eventually good sense prevailed, and in September 1943, Reg Stevens, my old tent-mate from 3 Squadron, was given command, with instructions to bring it up to fighter standard. Reg had done well in 3 Squadron, having been promoted from Warrant Officer to Squadron Leader in the space of a fortnight when the CO Brian Eaton became sick.
When Eaton returned, the RAF thought Reg was too good to waste by demotion, so gave him the job with 451 Squadron. Reg’s first act was to collect a bunch of operations-hardened pilots to add experience to the existing gang, who, though all experienced on the type of aircraft, had not been in action except for a few of the originals with army co-op experience. To this end he collected Don McBurnie , George O’Neill, Monty House and Jack Gleeson, all late of 450 Squadron, and Henry "Donk" Bray, Gordon Jones, Rex Bayly and myself, all late of Three, with Bob Mercer, late of 6 Squadron "tank busters".
This made a formidable team, and compared with the average squadron, which usually had a number of "sprogs" to nurse along, we probably made up about the strongest unit (on paper at least) in the RAAF at that time. Later results confirmed this opinion.
Padre Bishop Bob Davies has asked me to offer Nan, and her family, his sympathy and on behalf of those two other wonderful padres, Fred McKay and John McNamara, now no longer with us. …Reg will have good company, Nan.
They all knew Reg very well, and were close to him.
Meg McKay, Millie, Bruce and Elvie Burchfield, Alan and Vera Wand, Ivor and Wyn Leaver, Nean Russell, Jean Gibbes, Merral Wood, and we of the Association here today, also say how deeply we feel, Nan, for you and your family.
Wing Commander Neil Hart, who at the moment has his Squadron at Darwin for exercises, has sent me a fax, which he has asked me to read at this service.
Tom, on behalf of the men and women of No.3 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, would you please pass to the family and friends of Squadron leader Reg Stevens, our sincerest condolences.
It is always sad to hear news of the passing of a member of the 3 Squadron family, particularly one who made such a fine contribution to the Squadron in a time of conflict. Reg’s memory as a wartime commanding officer, and as a true gentleman, lives on in the history of one of the Commonwealth’s oldest and finest fighter squadrons.
May he rest in peace, and may his family find comfort in the memory of such a fine officer and gentleman.
God bless you Nan. - You have the thoughts of every member of the 3 Squadron family with you today.
Editor's Note: See our earlier valedictions for Reg.
The War Memorial's interesting 1990 interview with Reg can be found here.
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