Wing Commander Harbourne Mackay Stephen CBE, DSO, DFC*, RAF retd
Harbourne Mackay Stephen was born in Elgin on 17 April 1916. His parents were Thomas Milne Stephen and Kathleen Vincent Stephen, nee Park, who were married in Croydon in 1903. The house in which he was born was the North of Scotland Bank House at 151 High Street, his father at the time being the Bank’s manager. This house, erected in 1857 on the site of Drummuir House, one-time site of Elgin’s Theatre Royal, was replaced by the present branch of the Clydesdale Bank in 1969.
It is not known exactly when the Stephen family left Elgin, but Harbourne, known to his family and close friends as “Harry”, was educated between the ages of four and seven in Elgin by a governess, then in Edinburgh and finally as a pupil at Shrewsbury School. No doubt his somewhat disjointed education was caused by family moves, in association with his father’s banking career. He left school at the age of 15 to become a “Copy Boy”, at 15 shillings a week, for Allied Newspapers in Grays Inn Road, London. After some years at Allied Newspapers, he joined the staff of the Evening Standard.
Flying had long interested him and, at the age of 20 in April of 1936, he joined the Volunteer Reserve of the Royal Air Force at White Waltham as a Sergeant pilot. He fitted his training around his newspaper work, flying Tiger Moths on Saturdays and Sundays. From the Tiger Moth he graduated to the Hawker Hart and, just prior to the outbreak of WWII, he converted to the Hawker Hurricane. At the outbreak of war, he was called up to be a Sergeant pilot and the weekend training rapidly developed into a seven day a week process. In April 1940 Harbourne Mackay Stephen was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and was posted to 605 Squadron at Drem in East Lothian. During his short stay there he was credited with shooting down a Heinkel bomber. Posted to 74 Squadron at Hornchurch in May 1940, and converting to the Spitfire, he was thrown in at the deep end of the RAF’s frontline in the Battle of Britain.
By August 1940 Stephen had personally shot down a dozen German aircraft and had contributed to the demise of several others. His most memorable day was 11 August 1940 when, in the morning three sorties, he shot down four enemy aircraft and in the afternoon shot down another one and damaged a further three. By the end of 1940 his personal tally was more than 20 aircraft destroyed and he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. In December 1940, now a Flight Lieutenant, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order by King George VI on the personal recommendation of Sir William Sholto-Douglas, Air Officer Commanding in Chief of RAF Fighter Command. This DSO was the first ever to be awarded to an airman in the field. Harbourne Stephen was a “Fighter Ace” indeed.
In early 1941 he returned to Scotland as Chief Flying Instructor at RAF Turnhouse (now Edinburgh Airport) and helped form 130 Squadron. Later that year, on promotion to Squadron Leader, he commanded 234 Squadron shooting down his final victim, a Messerschmitt 109, in October 1941. His final tally was 22½ enemy aircraft destroyed. He spent the rest of his 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.
Harbourne Stephen refused a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force at the end of the war preferring to return to his first love – the world of journalism. In 1946 he took up a management traineeship at Express Newspapers. His first senior position was as Manager of the Scottish Daily Express, the Scottish Sunday Express, and the Evening Citizen. His move to Glasgow enabled him to continue his association with the Royal Air Force when, in 1950, he was appointed Commanding Officer of 602 (City of Glasgow) Auxiliary Air Force Squadron. In 1956, Lord Beaverbrook, who he had met during his distinguished RAF career, chose Harbourne to oversee the rebuilding of his Scottish printing empire. Later he moved back to London as the General Manager of the Sunday Express and Sunday Graphic.
In 1959 he was appointed General Manager of the Sunday Times, where the colour supplement, which became the Sunday Times Magazine, was his brainchild. His next move was as Managing Director of the Daily Telegraph, where he launched the weekend colour magazine. He was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1985. He was a founder member and Trustee of Raleigh International, a Member of the Council of the RSPB and of the Scientific Exploration Society and continued these interests until his death in London on 22 August 2001, at the age of 85. He is survived by his wife Erica and two daughters.
Wing Commander Harbourne Mackay Stephen was a Battle of Britain pilot, one of “The Few”, who distinguished himself in the defence of his country and who was recognised personally by his King.
In later life he became a renowned innovator in the world of newspapers and he was recognised by his Queen. It is surely only right that we should recognise this notable “Son of Elgin”. His participation in the Battle of Britain, with 74 Squadron Royal Air Force in 1940, helped to prevent an invasion of this country and the enslavement of its people.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”