Thursday, 2 July 2015

People Of Biddisham - Arthur Steel Flight of the Navigator

 Early in June I was honoured to have a private audience with Mr Arthur Steel of Coombes Way, Biddisham. It was Richard Cross who called me and said I MUST speak to Arthur. So I went along with a notebook and thankfully something to record our conversations. Three hours later Arthur at 97 left me quite exhausted with his energy for telling the dramatic stories of just part of his life so far.

Many of you will know him around the village, Arthur was parish Clerk for 18 years (apparently Guy Gibbs said it would just be six weeks!) and moved to Coombes Way in 1970.

Arthur was born in Bristol on the 8th October 1917, and as a child gained an exhibition scholarship for his above average results at school. As a bare kneed Scout he was at King George VI coronation waving to the princesses and was even in the rare presence of King Edward VIII with Lord Baden-Powell at St Georges Chapel, Windsor. 
After school and during the Great Depression of 1933 he was grateful to get a job at MAC metal works in Bristol.
Here he met his future wife Rachel spotting her in 1937 and eventually taking her out on their first date on the 3rd March 1938.

Ray in Bristol awaiting Arthur's return.
From Bristol Arthur applied for an office manager job that involved training for the metal firm all the way up in Alloa Scotland producing mining and fire pumps.
 Ray and Arthur continued their relationship long distance as Arthur kept himself occupied playing Rugby for Bridge of Allan and Dunblane, running the Scouts groups, setting up the first YMCA in Clackmannanshire and lots of swimming and hiking.

War broke out in September 1939 and may of Arthur's friends enlisted. Arthur felt terrible watching his friends go off to war whilst he was safe in an office, however he joined the Home Guard but wanted to help even more. He had been turned down due to an impressive scar on his back, a result of being hit by a tram on Gloucester Road, Bristol as a teenager.

The services told him he was more use at home working on the fire pumps and degaussers. But Arthur wouldn't let it go and got his Bristol doctor to write a note that would get him enlisted.

FIT AIR CREW was eventually stamped on Arthur Steel's name after a medical passed with flying colours. He had the biggest chest expansion of the group and could swim two long lengths under water, something that would prove very useful.
Arthur reported to the Air Crew Reception Centre at Hyde Park, London and joined the production line of thousands handing him his uniform and punching him with four TBAT vaccinations.

From here his intensive training began taking him from Torquay, to Cranwell, Canada and back to Scotland. It was decided that Arthur would be a Navigator Wireless Operator. He was able to send 18 words a minute, dictate 25 words a minute, take photographs, read maps, direct the pilot etc, etc. all whilst in the bubble of a Beaufighter plane.

Ray and Arthur's wedding day in Bristol 1942.

On leave in 1942 Ray and Arthur were married at the St Anne's Methodist Church Bristol on the 30th May. A marriage that would last 63 wonderful years after such a long distance beginning.

Arthur arrived in Halifax, Canada in January 1943 on the storm worn Andes ocean liner in the freezing cold. Canada was so cold Arthur saw Niagara Falls in frozen silence! Training was good in Canada with no rationing as he clocked up flight hours seeing the beauty of Canada and the Atlantic islands.

Finally after two and half years of navigational training in the Beaufighter plane in 1944 Arthur was ready to see real service from North Coates Airfield.

Pilot Tony Adams

On the 20th July 1944 on a mission to Norway the Beaufighter piloted by Tony Adams and navigated by Arthur Steel plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, this is what happened next .......................

The Article in the Grimsby News by Stuart Russell. Rescued Airman in Sea Drama

"With a rope tied around his waist a Grimsby fisherman dived into the North Sea to rescue an injured airman.
Earlier an aircraft was seen to plunge out of control into the water by the mate of the trawler Median which was fishing several miles away.
The skipper immediately ordered the vessel to proceed at full speed to the scene although the course took him through a minefield.
   Some 15 minutes later the airman was seen clinging to a float.

Two attempts were made to position the trawler alongside him, but as there was a danger of running him down, it was only possible to bring the vessel to within 15ft of him. 

 It was then that James William Daykin of 1 Elm Road, Cleethorpes, a trimmer on the Median, went into the water , managing to fasten a line around the injured man. 

Meanwhile, with help, Skipper Ernest James Rogers of 125 Queen Mary Avenue, Cleethorpes, drew the two men towards the trawler and lifted them on board. 
 The vessel the made it's way back through the minefield and to port.

In January 1945 Skipper Rogers received the MBE (civil division) for his part in the rescue and Mr Daykin was commended for brave conduct, also being awarded the vellum of the Royal Humane society for his gallantry."

Arthur's Reply to the Letter dated 30th December 2003

Dear Sirs, 

You recently carried an article by Start Russell in a series "Bygones Special - Yesterdays Heros" with one of them headed "Rescued Airman in Sea Drama", It featured the actions of Skipper Ernest Rogers of the trawler S.S Median who ventured his vessel into a minefield, after seeing an aircraft crash into the sea, and Mr James Daykin who dived overboard to bring a line to the badly injured airman. 

I assure you these men and the rest of the crew of the Median, are remembered daily, with gratitude and respect. Without them I should not be here but with my pilot, and our aircraft, at the bottom of the North Sea. 

On that day 20th July 1944 the North Coates Beaufighter Wing was briefed to attack shipping off the coast of Norway. Flight Lieutenant Tony Adams, my pilot, with me as his navigator, in torpedo aircraft U/254, were well on the way, when our port engine started giving trouble. We informed the Wing leader, and set course back to base, getting as far as 40 miles off Flamborough Head, by which time the engine was vibrating so badly it was increasingly difficult to do anything. For a few more miles we struggled on, until the engine finally tore itself out of it's mounting, causing the aircraft to flip over, and diver vertically into the sea. I noted the air speed indicator showed 280 knots - about 320 miles per hour - as we fell, and I knew we should both be dead within a few seconds, as no-one ever survived such incidents. 

I regained consciousness deep under water, tapped by cables and torn metal, struggling to hold my breath, and furious that I was drowning instead of being instantly killed on impact. Ultimately I could hold my breath no longer, and clearly recall taking three deep breaths of seawater. By a miracle I broke clear and surfaced coughing and spluttering. After a time I was conscious on my surroundings, watched the tail of the aircraft disappear under the sea, and our dinghy, which had released from the wing, set off for the horizon in a brisk wind. I managed to stay afloat partly by my Mae West jacket, but mainly from using the fuel tanks that had floated from inside the wings when the aircraft disintegrated. Tony was nowhere to be seen, although I kept calling but with little hope he could still be alive. 

My right leg was swinging about, from the knee joint, and I wasn't in great shape, but had to stay conscious if I had any hope of surviving. Many miles out to sea, injured, no dinghy and with nly a fuel tank under each arm, things weren't too optimistic. 

After sometime I became aware a vessel was heading my way, and begun to blow my whistle. as issued to all aircrew and which I was told was heard nearly a mile away. All I had to do was keep afloat, which I just about managed until this wonderful trawler got close - and went past as it still had too much way. I managed to hang on, it came round again, a man dived over and tied a rope around me, and I was pulled in. There was a nasty moment as I got nearer to the propeller, which was still turning, but I was hauled aboard and promptly lost consciousness. While I was out, Ern Rogers got someone to kneel on my thigh while he pulled the dislocated knee back into place. He told me, later, that he would never have attempted it if he had known the leg was also broken but he certainly saved my whole leg - and my life. 

They searched for Tony but there was no trace, so they started back to Grimsby I was transferred to an Air Sea Rescue launch and taken to Immingham, the to Grimsby hospital and, some days later, to various RAF hospitals, where I spent seven months before returning to North Coates. 

Ern and Mrs Rogers visited me in hospital. bring a gift from the crew, and we corresponded regularly, until Ern died. I was able to attend his funeral and am still in touch with his daughter Jean, who sent me the cutting. Mrs Daykin, whom I also visited, told me her husbands skin came away in large flakes all over, as did mine, from immersion in a mixture 100 octane fuel and salt water. I only saw Mr Daykin once more, as he was usually at sea, when I was able to call. 

Having read this article I felt I must pay tribute to these men, who risked their lives, and gave me back my own. This was nearly sixty years ago and, now 86 and reasonably fit I continue to enjoy my life with my wife and family, thanks to these Grimsby trawlermen. 

There is an inexplicable postscript. My wife, expecting our first child, was at the cinema with a friend. The newsreel was showing the Beaufighter Wing attacking shipping off the Dutch coast. For the first time in her life she suddenly had a blinding migraine, and had to be taken home. We checked later and it was the moment we hit the sea. Co-incidence - or something else?

Yours Faithfully

A G Steel
The memorial at North Coates, Arthur should have been 242, no one else ever survived a Beaufighter crash.

Arthur continued his RAF service moving into intelligence and then on to demobbing servicemen even boxing champion Freddie Mills. The only member of the forces on leave on V.E night, together with Ray he spent the evening looking at new pre-fab homes and thinking of their future instead of wildly celebrating like the rest of the Europe.

Ray and Arthur finally settled in the South West with children John, Shelia and Peter. He didn't get back into a plane until 1971 and revisited Canada in 1984 for more adventures.

Throughout his life Arthur has had many near misses from being hit by a tram, electrocuted by bad wiring, bomb misses and the North Sea miracle. Even an angry resident of Biddisham managed to thump him!

Arthur has many, many more tales to tell and is still in the RAF reserves.

After the war with daughter Shelia and son John.

Thank you to Arthur and Shelia for sharing your time and stories. 


  1. Amazed to read this and find Arthur Steel is still alive. Ernest Rogers was my grandfather and I grew up looking at his Citation from the King hanging on the wall and heard the story of his saving Mr Steel many times. Until her death my mother stayed in contact with him by letter and I remember meeting him once as a child and being entranced by him. A wonderful energetic man and my best wishes to him.
    Andrew Murphy

  2. Thank you for your comments Andrew, it is lovely to hear from someone who is so closely related to this story. Alex