Terry Spencer:WWII fighter pilot and war photographer-RIP


Truelly in the Biggles mould,
RIP Sir.

The Times obit

Terry Spencer excelled in two audacious careers — first as a Second World War fighter pilot specialising in very low-level strafing raids across occupied Europe, and later as a celebrated Life magazine photographer covering wars in the Congo, Vietnam and the Middle East.

He was born during a Zeppelin raid on England in 1918. When the Second World War broke out he joined the Army, but he was unhappy serving with the Royal Engineers, and subsequently obtained a transfer to the Royal Air Force.

After training as a pilot, he was posted to a squadron flying American P51 Mustangs, the fastest fighters in the world at that time. Flying in pairs, low over the water to avoid German radar, the Mustangs flew deep into France, Germany and other occupied countries attacking trains, boats and army convoys.

In his published memoirs, Living Dangerously, Spencer recounts: “One morning we shot up a busload of German soldiers near Lille in France and I remember smiling as we watched bodies hurtling out through doors and windows, cartwheeling through the air as our bullets ripped into them. We felt totally isolated in our cockpits and did not experience any of the horrors of blood or screams. We were too busy flying at 300 miles an hour a few feet from the ground to feel any emotions about the misery we had just wrought.”

Casualties were heavy in low-level strafing, but Spencer survived unscathed and in December 1943 achieved his ambition to transfer to Spitfires. They were “the most beautiful aircraft in the world, and the most wonderful to fly”, he said. In 165 Squadron he concentrated on low-

level attacks on shipping in the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel before being posted to 41 Squadron as the squadron commander.

On D-Day in 1944, he flew combat missions over the Channel, above the thousands of boats, from warships to landing craft, all heading for the French coast. Later that month the squadron was sent to cope with the latest German secret weapon — the V1 flying bombs.

Spencer downed a record of eight V1s and, like other V1 "aces", developed a technique of nudging the bombs with his wingtip, toppling the V1 gyro and causing it to crash.

Shortly after that he flew cover over the ill-fated airborne operation at Arnhem. This was followed by escorting large formations of American Flying Fortresses bombing the Ruhr. In the winter of 1944 Spencer left 41 Squadron to command the 350 Belgian unit equipped with the latest Spitfire X1Vs — strafing locomotives and military convoys in Germany.

In February 1945 he was shot down while attacking ground targets near Munster. He baled out and landed in a field beside some French slave workers but was soon surrounded by German soldiers. He was taken to a German interrogation centre, but escaped soon afterwards during an Allied bombing raid. Spencer and a New Zealander commandeered a motor bicycle, stole some petrol and reached the American lines. He rejoined his unit, by then in Holland, to be greeted by his CO and fighter ace Group Captain Johnny Johnson, who exclaimed: “Terry, where the bloody hell have you been the last five weeks?”

In April 1945 while leading a section of Belgian Spitfires over the Baltic, Spencer was flying close above the sea when he was hit by fire from a German destroyer. His plane disintegrated. He shot into the air and his parachute was blown out of its pack and opened before he hit the water. A prisoner of war for the second time, he was liberated shortly afterwards, towards the end of hostilities, and his recovery from bad burns was helped by his saline bath in the Baltic. He ended the war as a squadron leader with an immediate Distinguished Flying Cross and a Belgian Croix de Guerre avec Palme.

In February 1946, just after being demobilised, Spencer was asked by the Percival Aircraft Company to ferry solo a Proctor, a small single-engine plane, without radio, dinghy or emergency supplies, on an 8,000-mile flight to South Africa.

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