Pilot with a taste for disobeying orders who became a mentor to young motorcycle racers
Stafford Coulson: as a hands-on individual, a desk job in London was not to his liking
Obituary from Daily Telegraph Thursday, May 31, 2007
GROUP CAPTAIN STAFFORD COULSON, who has died aged 90, was a master bomber in the RAF's Pathfinder Force and sometimes flew on operations when he had been ordered not to do so; after retiring from the RAF he devoted much time to his passion for motorcycling and became a father figure to many of the country's leading young racers.
Having spent much of the war as a flying instructor in Canada, Coulson at last managed to join an operational bomber squadron in August 1944.
A big man in every respect, he soon made a significant impression with his irrepressible spirit, energy and courage. Unusually for a pilot with no previous bombing experience, he joined the Pathfinder Force with the Lancaster-equipped No 35 Squadron, and for five months he flew continuously on bomber operations over Germany. He was awarded a DFC.
On promotion to wing commander, Coulson was given command of another Pathfinder squadron, No 582, based at Little Staughton, near Bedford, and also flying Lancasters.
He was acting as the master bomber on a raid against the rail complex at Sterkrade when the bombs started to fall short. A sharp rebuke in his cultivated, calm voice had an immediate effect, and the raid was an outstanding success.
A few days later he controlled the raid against Paderborn. The town was completely shrouded in cloud, but the raid was carried out with near-perfect accuracy.
It was Bomber Command policy that commanding officers should not fly regularly on operations. But this did not accord with Coulson's somewhat rebellious and enthusiastic approach to life, and he would fly as often as possible, claiming that a CO should lead from the front - a view that endeared him to his men.
On one occasion he was ordered not to fly on a particularly long operation deep into Germany. Nevertheless, he gathered together a scratch crew of "oddbods" (aircrew waiting to be assigned to a permanent crew) for a training sortie, which happened to coincide with the take-off of the rest of his squadron. Once airborne he joined the main bomber stream and returned nine hours later, having bombed the target. On a second occasion his squadron was not required for the attack against Hitler's Bavarian retreat at Berchtesgaden, but Coulson formed another scratch crew and joined the main force to attack the target.
After the war Coulson was awarded a DSO for "showing exceptional qualities of leadership and devotion to duty".
Stafford Pulleine Coulson was born on July 6 1916 at Wincanton, Somerset, the son of a doctor. At Charterhouse, where he was a very successful sportsman, he came close to being expelled for, as he recalled, "always breaking rules and generally being a bloody nuisance". After giving him 10 of the best for some misdemeanour, his headmaster once commented: "I believe you want to go in the RAF - you seem to have just the right sort of qualities."
At the RAF College at Cranwell, to which he gained
a cadetship in January 1935, Coulson trained as a pilot and gained his colours for football and cricket. He had started motorcycle racing whilst still a schoolboy, but found that it was forbidden at Cranwell.
Undaunted, he kept his machine at a local pub and would take his push-bike to retrieve it before heading off for various circuits, including Brooklands.
On one occasion at Brooklands he won a gold medal for lapping the track at more than 100 mph. The feat was all the more remarkable in that he rode a low-powered 350cc BSA, and was as much a tribute to his engineering skills as to his riding ability.
On graduation from Cranwell, Coulson was posted to No 34 Squadron, equipped with the bi-plane Hind light bomber. Shortly after re-equipping with Blenheims, the squadron flew them to Singapore. Coulson's flight encountered violent monsoon conditions over India and three aircraft were lost.
After the outbreak of the war in Europe, Coulson was frustrated at the inactivity in the Far East, and in May 1941 returned to England. He was sent to Canada to be an instructor in Nova Scotia, where he managed to fly a number of anti-submarine operations in the flying school's Hudson aircraft.
After the war Coulson served in Palestine, Egypt, and Germany, where he commanded the Flying Wing at Sylt before taking command of No 122 Wing at Jever, flying Vampire jet fighters. While standing on the aircraft dispersal area supervising an operation, he was run over by a reversing RAF Land Rover and broke his back, but four years later he was able to return to flying duties.
After promotion to group captain, Coulson took command of RAF Scampton in October 1957. The station was being prepared to accept the new Vulcan nuclear bomber, and No 617 reformed with the delta-wing V-bomber the following May. A few weeks later Coulson organised and commanded the parade when the Queen Mother presented a new Standard to the Squadron.
In 1960 Coulson left for an appointment at Nato's Headquarters in Oslo and later returned to the Air Ministry. He was, however, a hands-on individual with considerable technical expertise, and a desk job in London was not to his liking. He had two bowler hats (required attire in those days), allowing him to slip out at lunchtimes to a nearby pub while leaving the second hat on its peg in his office to give the impression that he was busy in other areas of the building.
He retired from the RAF in July 1962 to become a Queen's Messenger, an appointment he kept for 16 years.
Coulson's passion for motor sports never abated. He was instrumental in forming the RAF Motor Sports Association, later becoming its chairman. He was a driver and navigator in the RAF Rally Team and a driver in an RAF team endeavouring to set a 48-hour endurance record.
His great love, though, always remained motorcycles, which he continued riding until he was 83. He had a great affection for the Isle of Man, where he was a well-known and popular character at the annual races.
He gave great encouragement to young riders whom he identified as having a special talent, and he sponsored and supported them under the banner of Coulson Racing. Many of Britain's best riders owe their start in the sport to Coulson's support and encouragement. One commentator described him as "one of British motorcycling's most fascinating characters".
Coulson had a keen sense of humour and was a consummate raconteur. He had a particular liking for draught beer and cats. He was fascinated by horology, and the watchmaker's tool kit he was given as a boy was still in use shortly before he died. He was an outstanding and much loved president of the Little Staughton Pathfinder Association, modest about his own wartime achievements but loud in praise of others.
Stafford Coulson died on April 29. He married, in 1942, Third Officer Phyllis Webber; the marriage ended in divorce but they remained good friends. A son and a daughter survive him.