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Remembering Black Country airman killed in WWII

By dan shaw  |  Posted: December 03, 2012

Charles Corbett Stevens photographed 1st May, 1942, just three weeks before he was killed in action

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CHARLES Corbett Stevens, Sergeant, 946087, 156 Squadron, RAF Volunteer Reserve, Killed in Action, Wednesday, 20th, 1942.

Charles Corbett Stevens was born in 1923 at Corbett Hospital, Amblecote, Stourbridge, where his mother, May, had been taken in with appendicitis. He was given the middle name of Corbett by his mother as a thank-you to the hospital that saved her life by conducting an emergency operation.

His mother died early in his life and his father remarried, but Charles did not get on well with his stepmother, so when he was 16 years old he ran away from home and tried to join the Royal Air Force. He was told that he was underage and to come back when he was 17. He then lived with his grandmother, and on his 17th birthday he enlisted into the RAF Volunteer Reserve, where he trained as a pilot. This was in January 1940 and he was sent to Canada for his training, but it was found that his hearing was defective.

He formed a very close friendship with many of the Canadian RAF volunteers and wanted to stay with them so he trained as a ‘tail-end Charlie’, the name given to crew members who manned the rear gun turrets on the Wellington and Lancaster bombers.

Steve, as he was called by his Canadian crewmates, returned to the UK and was soon flying missions over Germany.

In September 1941 the plane in which he was flying was badly damaged during a mission and crashed while trying to land. Upon impact the tail-end gun turret in which he was strapped was flung some 40 feet away from the rest of the plane. He was barely alive when his rescuers pulled him out but he was taken into hospital where surgeons did a wonderful job and saved his life. After this he was sent to Wordsley Hospital where plastic surgeons were fantastic in performing operations upon his facial injuries in as much that very little could be seen after his recuperation of nine months.

Although he could have remained with the RAF as ground support, Charles asked to be returned to his squadron to continue operational missions, whereby his request was granted. This was in May 1942 and in a mission over Germany on 20th May his plane crashed and he was posted as missing. A year later in 1943 he was officially presumed to have been killed in action and his father notified.

Some years later his father was notified by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that Charles had been buried in a collective grave with the rest of his crew in the communal cemetery of Hargines, a village near the Franco-Belgian border, some 28km north of Mezieres.

In April 1953, Stan and Joe Green, cousins of Charles Stevens, were driving a European tour coach en route to Strasbourg and then into Germany. On board were a group of 35 girls from Tipton Green Grammar School, accompanied by six teachers and friends. The route passed through Mezieres, so they asked if they could possibly detour to see if they could find the grave where these airmen had been laid to rest.

No one from the family had been able to find and visit the grave until this opportunity arose.

Following the map, with Stan driving, Joe was able to direct the coach along country lanes, heading northwards towards the Belgian border and pinpointed the village of Givet. It was here the roads became very narrow for the British coach but at last they came upon the little village of Hargines and found they could go no further. As they came to a halt Joe noticed that on the right hand side of the coach was a small boulangerie (a baker’s shop). Stepping inside and in schoolboy French, Joe introduced himself: “Bonjour Mesdames et messieurs, je suis Anglais, parlez vous plez?” to be answered “Non monsieur, but you speak French very well, are you lost?” Fortunately on board was a teacher who taught French to the girls and with Joe asking the questions she was able to translate.

“We are looking to a war cemetery, which we have been told is in the village of Hargines.” A broad smile came across the faces of the people in the shop who we found were grandma, husband and wife and a daughter.

“We do not have a war cemetery here, are you looking for the grave of Charles Corbett Stevens, a British airman?” By this time Stan had joined his brother in the shop and been taken aback by the response that they knew of Charles Corbett Stevens.

“Come, follow us,” they said and Stan, Joe and Miss Biggs (the French teacher) followed them out of the shop, through the small village and up a winding pathway, where at the top they could see the small village church. Entering the churchyard through some iron gates, the turning immediately left, the French family indicated a large grave beneath a wall, with headstones naming the RAF aircrew buried there, Charles having the headstone in the centre.

After all those years the final resting place of Charles and his young Canadian pals had been located by his cousins by sheer chance, and the first French family they had spoken to in the village was the family who had been delegated to care for the grave in perpetuity as a deed to thanks to the British and Canadian servicemen who had lost their lives so that their country could be freed from Nazi occupation.

Photographs were taken of the grave, which were later given to his father and other family members. Thanks were expressed to the French family and a thank-you letter was sent to them by his father and they remained in touch for several years. But no one from Charles’ family ever visited the grave.

In March 2001 Joe contacted the West Midlands branch of the Air Gunners Association who were seeking to obtain names of any air gunners who had died in the war and did not have their names recorded in any memorial.

Joe and his wife, together with Auntie Mabel and her son and his wife, were invited to attend a memorial service at RAF Cosford, where Charles’ name had been added to a book of remembrance in the Church of Christ the King.

Charles’ mother May had a young sister, Mabel, who was just a few years older than Charles when he went to live with his grandmother. Aunt Mabel was still at home and they became very close to one another and after he died in action and his grave had been located, it was Mabel’s wish to visit the grave.

By this time Mabel was becoming too frail to travel such a long distance but still yearned to visit the grave. She had a nephew, Bobby, who was an accomplished canoeist. He was friendly with some young people in Holland, who periodically visited him at home in Yeovil. On one occasion they all went to the NEC in Birmingham and came to visit Mabel at her home in Brettell Lane, Stourbridge.

They were invited to stay the night and Mabel and her son Steve hosted the Dutch people. Over dinner Mabel was asked if she would like to visit Holland. She asked if it would by any chance be near Hargines. She told the Dutch people it was a wish of hers, before she died, to visit the grave because all that she had to remember Charles by was a well-worn photograph which Joe had given her some 50 years earlier.

The Dutch took their leave but obtained from Bobby a few details of where Charles was buried.

Some months later a package arrived from Holland. It contained a video tape showing a journey through Holland, Belgium and France, with the Dutch people had embarked upon, to the Hargines and the village cemetery where Charles was buried. We think they were directed to the cemetery by the same family who some 60 years previously had directed Stan and Joe to Charles’ grave.

Inside the package was a note saying “thank you” and they hoped that in some way they had been able to pay their own tribute to an airman who had lost his life in war so that their country could be liberated; a deep felt thank-you for the hospitality they had received from an old lady and her family whom they had met for the first time on their visit to the UK.

The aircraft that Charles Stevens lost his life in was X3671, a Mk.III Vickers Wellington bomber. On the night of 19/20th May, 1942, 156 Squadron took part in a raid on the German city of Mannheim. 197 aircraft flew, 105 Wellingtons, 31 Stirlings, 29 Halifaxes, 15 Hampdens, 13 Lancasters and 4 Manchesters, and 11 aircraft were lost – 4 Halifaxes, 4 Stirlings and 3 Wellingtons.

Charles’s crewmates were: Squadron Leader Thomas Campbell McGillivary, DFC, aged 26, from Oamaru, New Zealand; Pilot Officer Denis Hellyer, aged 25, from Guildford; Flight Sergeant Kenneth Vincent Whelan; Pilot Officer Edward Francis Valentine, aged 20, from Glasgow; and Sergeant Donald Mathieson, from Canada. They all lie together in Hargines cemetery.

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