Obituary: Commander John (Ian) Steven RD

John Steven RD: Decorated veteran of Malaya, the Cod War and Cold War
John Steven RD: Decorated veteran of Malaya, the Cod War and Cold War
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Born: 3 September, 1932, in Edinburgh. Died 1 June, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 81

JOHN “Ian” Steven was born exactly seven years before the start of the Second World War. He was the youngest child of Catherine and John Steven, originally from Thurso but who had come to Edinburgh to work. John was a train driver at Leith Docks.

At the time of their marriage Ian’s parents lived at Lochend Road South but by the time Ian arrived the family had moved to Craigmillar.

Ian was baptised in Bristo Memorial Church and attended primary locally. At the age of 11, he sat and passed the Qualifying Exam, or “quali”, and went on to win a bursary to attend George Heriots.

The headmaster of his school was not enthused, telling Ian: “There is no point in you going there Steven, your father couldn’t afford the uniform.”

At Heriots until his sixth year, Ian became so proficient in playing the bagpipes that he eventually reached the standard to be an examiner. Ian left at 18 and entered banking.

But this promising career was interrupted by the “call-up” to national service.

Ian underwent initial training at Dreghorn Barracks before being posted to the Royal Scots, which he disliked so much he transferred to the Royal Signals, a move that would change his life forever.

At this time Britain was involved in peace-keeping in what was known as the Malayan Emergency where communist insurgents were attempting to overthrow the government.

Ian by now found himself attached to British Special Forces as a signaller in the SAS.

It was noted on his records Ian had completed a jungle warfare course with the Royal Scots and so was ready for a posting to Malaya.

When he pointed out to the brigadier interviewing him prior to his posting that he had been trained in the Pentland Hills in midwinter, he was told not to be insolent.

Ian saw active service in the Malayan jungle, but the only injury he sustained was a fractured nose after colliding with a tree in a parachute drop. He was however awarded the General Service Medal for the Malayan Emergency which he proudly wore next to his Reserve Decoration, a Royal Naval Reserve medal.

On completion of national service Ian returned to Civvy Street but found it difficult to adjust to being a bank clerk. One day, the bank manager enquired of Ian: “Have you got a problem?” To which Ian replied: “Yes, you are my problem.” He then stormed out, later applying to Leith Nautical College for a place.

He was accepted and qualified as a radio operator in the Merchant Navy. As a merchant seaman he travelled around the world twice, on passenger and cargo ships, before he was 21.

He then decided to join the Royal Naval Reserve, was accepted and commissioned as a Radio Officer, eventually being awarded the Reserve Decoration after 14 years’ service as an commissioned officer. Ultimatey he reached the rank of Commander, and he was known as “The Commander” in certain circles for the rest of his life .

During the early 1970s, Ian was involved in the Cod Wars, a standoff between Britain and Iceland over fishing rights. Ian was attached to the full-time Royal Navy for duties in the seas off Iceland.

He was then recruited into Naval Intelligence.

He was serving as a signals officer on the SS Explorer, a fisheries research ship sailing out of Leith and, unknown to the crew, being used to spy on Russian submarines in the Barents Sea, north of Norway. Ian would meet American naval intelligence officers prior to the ­Explorer sailing and secret equipment would be fitted for Ian to use at sea.

Only the Captain and Ian knew of this. After the Explorer returned to Leith the equipment would be removed for analysis.

It was at this time, February 1974 at the height of the Cold War, that the FV Gaul, a fishing factory ship, mysteriously vanished with 36 crew on board on the night of 8-9 February in the Barents Sea. This was the very area the Explorer operated in. Ian believed the Soviets knew spying was going on but mistook the Gaul for the spy ship and sunk it. The full report into the sinking is still secret. Ian continued to have an input into naval intelligence for many years after this incident.

Ian encountered a young lady called Anne Greenshields in 1958 at the New Cavendish Ballroom in Morningside. They wed in South Leith Parish Church on 30 September, 1961. Soon they were blessed with two children, Andrew and Catherine. Alas, in 1982 Ian’s beloved wife Anne died prematurely after an unforeseen illness.

Ian and Anne were both staunch members of South Leith Church and doubtless Ian’s Christian faith helped him over this extremely difficult watershed in his life .

In the 1960s Ian was attracted to the philosophy of Freemasonry and became a Freemason in the Services Lodge (Edinburgh) No 1291. Ian was to remain an ­active Freemason for the rest of his life and discharged the duties of Honorary Auditor for more than 30 years. He was also a companion in the Journeymen ­Masons RAC No 417 and an enthusiastic member of TEMC where the “old salts” of the Merchant Navy Association met twice a month. At the time of his death Ian was the president of the local association. In later years he was involved with numerous seafaring activities and training for such.

He was instrumental in setting up Solas (safety of life at sea) to train and test trawlermen in survival skills.

Ian later in life also qualified for a private pilots licence. He then started to teach navigation and communications and, as an examiner, passed the then student, Prince William, on the communications part of his private pilots licence before he went into the armed forces.

Ian also taught communication to the police college at Tulliallan, as well as navigation and communications to potential yacht skippers at Port Edgar. Again he was also a qualified ­examiner.

Ian and Anne occupied two homes in the Leith area in the last 40 years or so. Initially in Ryehill Grove and laterally in Craigentinny Avenue, which he shared with his daughter Catherine and numerous dogs, feral cat, tortoises and various other animals after Anne’s death.

Ian was proud of his children and their achievements and of his granddaughter Cara.

He was diagnosed with stomach cancer some months ago and spent his final few days in the care of St Columba’s Hospice where Andrew, Catherine and the dogs were in constant attendance.

He maintained his fighting spirit and sense of humour to the very end. His siblings, George, Gordon and Margaret, all predeceased him.