View Full Version : Flak liaison officers - A.K.L. Stephenson

31st December 2012, 21:35
The following may prove interesting as an explanation and illustration of the work of these Army officers attached to Bomber Command:

STEPHENSON, Major Arthur Kenneth Lennard (117803, Royal Artillery) - Distinguished Flying Cross - No.6 Group Headquarters - awarded as per London Gazette dated 6 July 1944. Granted commission as Pilot Officer on Probation, 19 March 1934. Confirmed as Pilot Officer, 19 March 1935. Promoted Flying Officer, 19 September 1935. Placed in Class “C” Reserve, 12 October 1935. To Class “A” Reserve, 19 March 1937. Relinquished commission and placed on Reserve of Officers, 1 January 1938. As Acting Bombardier, commissioned in Royal Artillery, 1 February 1940. Public Record Office Air 2/916 has recommendation; as Flak Liaison Officer he had flown sixteen sorties (66 operational hours).

Since being attached to his present unit this officer has taken part in several operational sorties over some of the enemy's most heavily defended areas. He has also participated in shipping sweeps and night fighter patrols. During an attack on Munchen Gladbach in August 1943, the aircraft in which he was flying was attacked six times by enemy fighters and badly damaged but nevertheless the attack was pressed home. Throughout, Major Stephenson calmly made notes, bringing back valuable information. His conduct was an example of cool courage and devotion to duty and an inspiration to the other members of the crew. On another occasion, when his aircraft was attacked by enemy fighters and damaged, this officer's complete disregard of personal danger was instrumental in obtaining valuable information.

RCAF Press Release 3104 drafted 19 April 1944 deals with him and his duties:

With the RCAF Bomber Group in Britain - In the briefing room of every bomber station is a large map of Europe showing the danger zones through which aircrews must fly to reach the target. On them are plotted searchlight concentrations, enemy fighter belts, anti-aircraft zones, dummy targets, decoy fires and heavily defended areas.

The army observer who flies with bomber crews to make firsthand reports is a reliable source of information. One such expert is Major A.K.L. Stephenson, flak liaison officer for the Canadian Bomber Group. A qualified pilot and a former commander of an ack-ack battery in Britain, the 30-year old army officer has been over numerous “hot spots” in Europe. On a recent trip he flew as co-pilot with the 24-year-old Commanding Officer of the RCAF Thunderbird Lancaster squadron, Wing Commander W.F. “Bill” Swetman, DSO, DFC, Kapuskasing, Ontario, who was flying on his 50th operational trip.

The six-foot-three-inch soldier, who flies with a different squadron in the RCAF Group each time, enlisted in the RAF in 1932 and proudly wears his pilots wings on his khaki battle dress. A training crash placed him on the reserve list, so he transferred to the artillery.

Major Stephenson, whose adopted parents ranched on the borders of Kootenay Lake, Long Beach, near Nelson, British Columbia, has had many narrow escapes. One time his four-engined bomber was chased for 30 minutes by night fighters and the crew evaded five consecutive attacks. He spent part of his boyhood in British Columbia and his three brothers were educated at Coldstream, near Vernon, British Columbia. The major hopes to return to Canada after the war and ranch in British Columbia.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Major Stephenson is one of a small group of army officers flying with the RAF. Seated beside the pilot, they allow no new defence or enemy tactic to go unnoticed so that counter-measures may be planned immediately and aircrews briefed on where to avoid heavily defended areas.

The pin-studded map tells a complete story to bomber crews. They know just where along the route they are likely to be engaged by fighters, flak or searchlights and whether the opposition is likely to be fierce or only moderate.

Here’s what it’s like to go along with Major Stephenson and a seven-man Canadian bomber crew, remembering that all the time he will be counting ack-ack guns, searchlight batteries, fighter sightings, encounters and attacks, and comparing them with what already is known about these areas.

As the giant Lancaster approaches the enemy coast, searchlight clusters sweep the sky to pick up his bomber and others in the bomber stream. As he flies on through these bright beams, red flashes break the blackness, followed by vivid shell bursts near our aircraft,

Gunners peer into the inky night for night fighters while the skipper steers his perilous course. All members of the crew make mental notes of where they meet the stiffest opposition. Through flying night after night, the crews keep “genned up” on the hot spots.

After roaring across a couple of hundred miles of enemy territory, his bomber nears the target area. Swarms of searchlights and anti-aircraft fire illuminate the city. From his ringside seat he can judge the ferocity of the defences, knowing that in a matter of minutes he, too, will be in the midst of the fiery inferno.

As his Lanc begins its bombing run, the crew realize that the enemy gunners know the track they are following. “Chandaliers” are pumped into the air all around and these bright white parachute-borne flares indicate t both ack-ack gunners and enemy fighters the whereabouts of his Lancaster. Some 300-odd searchlights surrounding the target city criss-cross and feather-dust the sky as the pyrotechnic display of aerial rockets, multi-coloured tracer and flares shoot across the sky. Red, white and green tracer streams mark the path of ack-ack shells hose-piped into the sky by light flak batteries. A flaming fighter flashes to earth like a huge comet, shot down by gunners of a nearby bomber. Shells streaming towards his plane appear to be direct hits, only to pass by 1,000 yards away, and burst above or below into thousands of tiny fragments.

The Lancaster drops its bombs and dives out of the hell, glad to escape from the vicious technicoloured target area. But the crew doesn’t easily or quickly forget the graphic picture of burning aircraft disintegrating in mid-air or enemy rockets zooming in all directions.

On the homeward journey they relaxed momentarily as the bomber appears to be flying over an area free of searchlights, flak or fighters. Suddenly, out of the stillness, a brilliant blue-coloured finger of light flashed across the fuselage. This is the dreaded master-beam. Probably it has a dozen satellite beams waiting to form a pool of light which may cover half a square mile of sky. This is the “coning” aircrews speak about. There is an anxious moment as the perspex of the pilot’s cockpit glitters with brilliant reflected light which seems to fill the fuselage with blinding radiance.

The skipper throws his 30-ton charger crazily about the sky, diving, twisting, weaving, orbiting, to shake off the illumination before the massed gunfire can get the range. He succeeds in shaking off the “cone” and the crew flies home, fatigued, shaken, perspiring - but happy.

That is what the flak observer and bomber crews go through to get the “gen”.

“The Germans stud the most likely lines of approach to his target cities with searchlight belts and heavy gun batteries,” explained the major. “He encircled the areas he knows we are after with rings of lights and guns, extending well outside the city limits to give maximum range and opportunity for his heavy guns to concentrate over the city. To get maximum field of view, heavy and light flak guns are placed on high towers looming well above the highest buildings and on the roofs of his skyscrapers. Dummy fires, decoys, dummy targets, imitations of the pyrotechnical target markers and blinding flares dropped by our Pathfinder force are all used to confuse our pilots and their crews in their attacks.”

David Duxbury
31st December 2012, 22:04
A very interesting read Hugh, which goes to show that everybody in these night bombers was almost always in some degree of danger during their their forays over enemy territory (not to mention the standard dangers faced routinely in the take off and slow climb to altitude en route across the channel, etc, and possibility of damage from flak/fighters at any point thereafter). So nothing startlingly new, but the narrative does bring out well the reasons for adding these flak liaison officers to the crew. I believe the practice of sending up Army A/A officers regularly started in 1942, although in those earlier days the officers also fulfilled a normal crew member function, usually as air gunners, as their previous experience in operating A/A batteries must have given them a good bed of knowledge to rest on which might prove valuable in decyphering what the German flak crews far below were attempting to do in the way of new tactics, etc. However this man seems to not have a particular "normal" aircrew function, being left free to study all the outside activity without any particular responsibilty for the operation of the aircraft or its defences as such. One would suspect that this was probably a result of the experiences of the earlier Royal Artilllery personnel who may have pointed out that being involved in the defence of their aircraft was a severe distraction which would materially reduce the effectiveness of their flak observations.
David D

1st January 2013, 02:48
Both AK. Stephenson and JW. Nicholson flew ops with 6 Group crews as flak officers. Stephenson, on Mar 7/8,1944 to Le Mans with W/Cdr Swetman from 426 Squadron. Nicholson with F/Lt G. Edwards to Stettin on Aug 16/17,1944 and with F/Lt F. Lynch to Russelsheim on Aug 25/26,1944, with 428 Squadron. Certainly not easy targets.

22nd October 2013, 12:32
Hello Hugh,

Thank you for your thread regarding my Grandfather A.K.L. Stephenson, it is nice to learn more about his involvement during the war.

Richard, thanks for posting details of his missions with 6 Group.

I would like to add the following, as I hope that we may be able to obtain more details of his involvement in Burma and Japan.

His initial unit was MI 15 with headquarters at the War Office, Col G.O. Allen was his Commanding Officer. as detailed in your post he transferred to the Army at the beginning of the war from the Reserve of Air Force Officers trained by the Cambridge University Air Squadron and No 1 Squadron at Tangmere.

In 1938 he was called up from the Reserve and posted to 11 and 13 Squadrons at Odiham. As he was found unfit due to his training accident he was transferred to Anti-Aircraft Command and received a Commendation for exemplary service from General Sir Frederick Pile and reached the rank of acting Major st the end of 1940.

Due to his flying experience he volunteered for a transfer to MI 15 and was posted by them to 6 Squadron RCAF in Yorkshire early in 1941. He flew with a number of Squadrons within the group as second pilot and reported on enemy fighters and anti-aircraft defense techniques to MI 15.
He flew on bombing missions over Europe, gardening (mine laying) missions over enemy territory, coastal and estuaries as part of the Coastal Command, reporting to Air Vice Marshall Slessor on submarine armaments and radar techniques. He was also attached to the Photographic Unit at Benson prior to special missions such as the Peenemunde raid on the elimination of scientific laboratories for the V1 and V2 rockets.

In addition to his involvement with 6 Group, he was assigned to an American Bomber Squadron of B17s for experience in daylight raids at Bassingbourn.

Around 1943 he was promoted to Lt. Colonel and given the task of setting up an MI 15 branch in South East Asia Command. He reported first to New Delhi and was then posted to the headquarters of General Slim at Kamilla, where he was attached by him to a liberator squadron. He also served with another squadron flying with them on intelligence assignments.
Having gained experience in Burma of Japanese tactics against aircraft, he set up a branch of MI 15 at B Camp at Candy in Ceylon, sending his reports to both General Slim and Admiral Mountbatten who was at A Camp.

He then returned from Burma for more intelligence work with American B29s, flying from Karagpore over the 'hump' to bomb targets in Japan, refueling in China (Kunming and Kwelin). He returned from Burma to 35 BGH Mount Lavinia, Ceylon, suffering minor wounds and septicemia.

Finally in 1944/45 he returned to the War Offices, London and was seconded to USAF Intelligence, under General Quasado, stationed at The Pentagon. He took part in 3 flights to Guam in the Pacific in the course of the American exercise being planned for landings on the Chinese coast.

He had mentioned to me about some involvement with intelligence flights over Japan, in preparation to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however I have no details of this.

In 1946/47 he was demobilised in the UK.

I would be extremely grateful for any information relating to my grandfather and if any possibility exists, to obtain copies of logs he kept or documentation of his involvement.

25th November 2013, 22:48
A bit of new information. RCAF photo PL-26800 (ex UK-4965 dated 20 September 1943) is captioned as follows: “Major A.K.L. Stephenson, member of the Royal Artillery, is an expert on ground defences attached to the RCAF Bomber Group in the United Kingdom. He was born in South Africa but with his brothers attended school in Nelson, British Columbia for 14 years. He joined the RAF in 1931 but was invalided out eight years later. After the outbreak of war he succeeded in joining the Royal Artillery. He wears the pilot’s wings on his khaki tunic, and makes operational flights in the capacity of second pilot for the purpose of observing enemy ground defences.”

The negative for this photo is now held by Library and Archives Canada.

9th January 2014, 23:11
Further to the officer earlier mentioned (Stephenson), the following entry in data bases may be of interest:

NICHOLSON, Temporary Major John Windsor (109345, Royal Artillery) - Distinguished Flying Cross - No.6 (RCAF) Group - awarded as per London Gazette dated 26 July 1945. Home in London, England. No citation in London Gazette other than “In recognition of gallant and distinguished service in North-West Europe.” RCAF Press Release 6535 dated 17 August 1945 (which gives his name as “John William Nicholson) describes him as having been “flak officer of the RCAF Bomber Group in Britain during its heaviest operations against Germany.” It further states that he had earned an Air Gunner Badge, had made “16 operational trips against heavily defended land targets” and referred to a citation which said that he “calmly made notes of the enemy’s tactics and ground defences, bringing back invaluable information.” RCAF photo PL-31968 (ex UK-14222 dated 24 August 1944) shows S/L G.J. Edwards (St. Lambert, Quebec, No.428 Squadron) discussing trip to Stettin with Major J.W. Nicholson, No.6 Group anti-aircraft expert from London. RCAF photo PL-42511 (ex UK-19620 dated 16 March 1945) is captioned as follows: “Discussing the last RCAF Bomber Group attack on Cologne before the fall of that city are, left to right, W/C Lawrence MacKinnon, DSO, DFC, Ponoka, Alberta, G/C J.K. MacDonald, DFC, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and Major John Nicholson, London England. MacDonald commands the station from which the Moose and Ghost squadrons fly, while MacKinnon is in charge of operations on the same base. Nicholson, a British army officer though he sports an air gunner badge, and has flown on 13 sorties, is the flak expert of the group. The three have been interviewing fliers at interrogation.” RCAF photo PL-45251 (ex UK-22900 dated 30 July 1945) is captioned as follows: “Major John Nicholson of London, England, has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his activities on 16 operations against Germany while he was flak officer with No.6 (RCAF) Bomber Group in Britain. Major Nicholson, who also earned his air gunner’s wing while with the Canadians, is a specialist in assessing the defences guarding enemy areas and now will lecture Pacific-bound airmen in Canada on anti-aircraft topics.”