10 February 2009

RIP: Sqn Ldr Terry Spencer DFC

Terry Spencer DFC
18 Mar 1918 - 8 Feb 2009


ZUI this article from The Times:
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.

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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.

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With the coming of apartheid, South Africa became a major international story. Spencer then began a long, successful career in photo-journalism with Life magazine, starting by covering unrest and violence, including the Sharpeville massacre. With the “winds of change” sweeping the African continent he went on to report and photograph the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, the Congo uprisings and mutinies, Biafra and the Algerian war.

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Sent to Nigeria to do a story on the Sultan of Kano, Spencer received a cable asking whether he could photograph the Sultan in his harem. He replied: “ONLY WOMAN PHOTOGRAPHER CAN ENTER HAREM OR POSSIBLY EUNUCH STOP NOT EVEN FOR LIFE MAGAZINE AM EYE PREPARED MAKE SACRIFICE NECESSARY FOR LATTER”.

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Terry Spencer was born on March 18, 1918, in Bedford. His father was the wealthy heir of an engineering firm. Spencer was educated at Cheltenham College and then gained an engineering degree at Birmingham University. He started the war in the Warwickshire Yeomanry with horses, and was transferred to the Royal Engineers before joining the RAF.

In September 2008, cancer was diagnosed and Spencer was told that he would not live until Christmas. A bon vivant to the end, he invited all his friends to a pre-wake party on December 21.

After 62 years of marriage, Terry and Lesley Spencer died within 24 hours of each other. She telephoned him at the hospital in Odiham, Hampshire, and asked the nurse to hold the phone to his ear as he was very weak. Lesley told him that she loved him very much, went to sleep and never woke up.

Terry and Lesley Spencer are survived by their two daughters. Their only son died as a small child.

Spencer's DFC was gazetted on 19 Jun 1945:
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following awards in recognition of gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations:-
Distinguished Flying Cross.
Acting Squadron Leader Terence Spencer (47269), R.A.F. (Lieut., Corps of Royal Engineers).
This officer's keenness for air operations has won great praise. He has completed a very large number of sorties and has invariably attacked his targets with great courage and determination thereby achieving much success. One one occasion in February, 1945, Squadron Leader Spencer was forced to come down in enemy territory. He was captured, but subsequently rejoined his unit. He has been responsible for the destruction of one enemy aircraft and a good number of mechanical vehicles.
[London Gazette issue 37142 dated 22 Jun 1945, published 19 Jun 1945.]

More information can be found here, here and here.

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