Harbourne Mackay Stephen, World War II fighter pilot, was born on the 18th of April, 1916.
Harbourne ‘Harry’ Mackay Stephen was a Battle of Britain fighter ace – a real-life Biggles – who amassed a tally of 22.5 registered kills. He once shot down five enemy aircraft on a single August day, in 1940, and in December the same year, he became the first airman to be awarded a DSO in the field. After the war, he returned to the field of newspapers in which he had been a junior, before he was called up in 1939. Stephen worked for the Beaverbrook press and for Thomson Newspapers, before becoming managing director of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.
Harbourne MacKay Stephen was born in Elgin, Morayshire, on the 18th April, 1916, and educated at schools in Elgin, Edinburgh and Shrewsbury. In 1931, he joined Allied Newspapers, in London, as a copy boy and, in 1936, joined the advertising staff of the London Evening Standard. A year later, he joined the RAFVR and learned to fly, at White Waltham. Stephen seemed to be a born flyer; after only nine hours’ dual instruction, he made his first solo flight.
At the outbreak of war, Stephen was called up as a Sergeant Pilot. He was commissioned Pilot Officer, in April, 1940, and posted to 605 Squadron, at Drem, in East Lothian. In May, 1940, he joined 74 Spitfire Squadron, at Hornchurch, commanded by the legendary Sailor Malan.
Sunday, the 11th of August, 1940, was a remarkable day for Harbourne MacKay Stephen. During that one day, over the coast of Dover above the English Channel, he shot down three Messerschmitt Me109s and two Me110s, making a total of five ‘kills’. He also very probably destroyed, albeit unconfirmed, one other Me109 and definitely damaged another two, thus establishing his record of eight victories in a single day’s fighting.
As the squadron intercepted a number of Me109s approaching Dover on that morning, Stephen first attacked one, which fell into the Channel, and closed on a second, which exploded in mid-air, after a very short burst from close range. The next Me109 he shot up fell away, shedding pieces, but as he did not see it crash, he was only able to claim it as ‘probable’. Later, he used up the rest of his ammunition and claimed another as damaged.
In his next action, about 12 miles east of Clacton, the squadron closed on an enormous enemy formation of about forty Me110s. The Spitfires dived into the middle of this group and, within a few seconds, the Germans broke in all directions. Stephen caught one with a long burst, which caused it to spin down in flames, and then attacked another Me110, which began violent evasive action. He followed its every move, determined not to lose it, and after several minutes of twisting and turning got in a burst which caused it to spiral down into the Channel. Stephen now attacked another Me110 and scored several hits on its fuselage before breaking away to refuel and rearm.
Ninety minutes later, Stephen was following Sailor Malan into another fight with ten Ju87s and twenty Me109s, near Margate. He got on the tail of one of the 109s and fired, watching it as it slowed and dived away. He followed, firing in short bursts, and saw the pilot bale out and his machine crash in flames.
Stephen recalled afterwards, “The first fight was over the Channel. There were so many targets that I was having bang after bang. I gave one blighter a bang up his jacksie and he fell in the Channel. Then I hit the leader of the formation with a short burst from close up. He exploded in mid-air, a shattering sight. It was a hell of a dogfight.”
He continued those successes throughout the Battle of Britain and emerged as 74 Squadron’s top individual scorer. His later comments sum up the attitude that still prevails today, amongst soldiers and seasoned journos alike! “We fought hard and we played hard.” He went on to add, “We could cope with the hectic social life and then switch off completely and concentrate on the job in hand, never the worse for wear and always at the top of our form. We were young – that was the simple secret.”
In December, 1940, Stephen was awarded the DSO. This DSO was the first ever to be awarded to an airman in the field; a remarkable award for a pilot officer. His final tally was 22½ (he had at least three shared ‘kills’) enemy aircraft destroyed.
Stephen spent the latter part of the war in South East Asia serving as an Air Operations Officer with 224 Group, in Arakan, and as a Wing Commander, commanding 166 Wing, in Burma. At the end of the war, Stephen refused a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force, preferring to return to his first love – the world of journalism.
Stephen joined the Beaverbrook Group, in 1945 and, ten years later, was General Manager of the Scottish Daily and Sunday Express. In 1958, he moved south to Fleet Street to become General Manager of the Sunday Express and Sunday Graphic. Then, in 1960, he joined the Sunday Times, where it was his idea to create The Sunday Times Magazine colour supplement. From 1963, until his retirement in 1986, Stephen was the Managing Director of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.
Harbourne Mackay Stephen, DSO (1941), DFC and bar (1940), CBE (1985), died in Newbury, Berkshire, on the 20th of August, 2001.