We said goodbye to my dad on Monday. Dad had many facets
to his long life, but I thought it would be appropriate to record here a few
things about his wartime experience in the RAF.
|This is my dad W/O Dennis Spencer DFC on leave in India 1944, sorry I don't know the name of the dog!|
When the war started, he was working as an engineer in
London and he continued to do this throughout the Blitz and on into 1941. At
that time his work was classified as a reserved occupation but following one
air-raid he emerged from the works shelter to see a group of Spitfires flying
low overhead and decided there and then that he would volunteer for the RAF.
Being somewhat reserved by nature the glamour of being a
pilot didn’t appeal to him so he chose to volunteer as a Navigator thinking
this would make the best use of his technical skills. He had to wait a few
months to be called for basic training during which time his call-up papers
arrived for the army, he told me he was very pleased to be able to return them!
|This is a photo he took from a Hampden bomber during a training flight in Canada. It shows two other Hampdens flying in formation, probably somewhere near Vancouver Island.|
He did his basic training at Babbacombe in Devon before
moving on to Cranwell where he learnt the art of navigation flying on Anson
trainers. In common with many RAF personnel he was then shipped to Canada,
travelling out on a convoy at the height of the U-boat war. He did a period of
training at Hamilton and Charlottetown before taking the train across The
Rockies to Patricia Bay to complete operational training on Hampden bombers. He
qualified as a Navigator/Wireless Operator.
|This picture is of the Navigation classroom at Mount Hope, Canada. I found a copy of his Navigation textbook which looked too complicated for me - you had to be a skilled mathematician to safely guide a plane in those days.|
Dad loved the Hampden and loved Canada, he even somehow managed
a short-term engagement to a lady called Betty (mum used to roll her eyes when
he recounted that tale). Here he also had his first experience of how dangerous
his chosen occupation really was when one of the other crews were killed in a
crash-landing. The pilot had only been married for a few weeks and they all had
to have a whip-round to get enough money to give his wife the fare home.
|This is a view of the pilot's position from just behind his seat. The Hampden was known as the 'Flying Suitcase' because of its narrow fuselage and it was a dream for a navigator because of the all-around view from the plexiglass nose. This is probably P/O Geoff Vardigans but I can't tell for sure as there is nothing written on the back of the photo.|
Coming back to the UK in 1943 (this time on the Queen
Mary which could out-run the U-boats) he was sent to Crosby-on-Eden (now
Carlisle airport) which he said was dismal and wet after life in Canada. The
Hampden was being withdrawn from service as obsolete, so he had been sent with
his pilot to convert to Beaufighters. The course also involved learning to use
a new invention – underwing rockets – and it was on a take-off to the
firing range that he experienced his first crash-landing when an engine overheated and they came back to earth with a bang, fortunately both he and his pilot were unharmed.
Dad and his pilot Geoff (they had crewed up in Canada and
remained together through all his operational flying) expected to be posted to
Coastal Command which was where the Beaufighter was mostly employed at this time.
Instead they were told they were going to SEAC (South East Asia Command)
and would be ferrying a plane all the way to India.
|I found this slip in his log book, it's a movement order for part of his epic trip from Cornwall to India.|
Although the war in North Africa was now over it was
still no mean feat to fly an unarmed Beau crammed with spares all the way from
Portreath in Cornwall to Allahabad in India. It’s a tribute to his skills as a
navigator and Geoff’s as a pilot that they made it without incident.
Posted to 211 Squadron on the Indian/Burmese border he
was quickly introduced to life on operations. His first mission was an attack
on Mandalay railway yards in April 1944 where he also fired his own machinegun
in anger for the first and last time to scatter an anti-aircraft gun crew. He fired
his gun without warning which startled his pilot (Geoff was absent sick) who
was rather cross with the newbie, however he may well have saved the lives of
the crews in the two following aircraft by his actions.
|This photo is probably of a 211 Squadron Beaufighter but is not captioned. The Squadron sometimes operated from grass air-strips but during the Monsoon had to move to metalled runways.|
Flying operations over Burma was physically and mentally
draining, usually the planes operated on their own and the average mission
lasted 3-4 hours but sometimes as long as 6 hours. Most of the time was spent
flying at just 30 feet hugging the contours of the ground to avoid detection
from enemy fighters and radar, a momentary lapse of concentration could see a
plane plough into the ground which did sometimes happen. During his time on the
Squadron a crew was lost every two to three weeks and their loss was seldom
witnessed by anyone, many died but some ended up in Japanese hands to
experience the misery of a prison camp.
|This photo shows the type of terrain that the Beau's operated over in Burma. Once across the Chinn Hills and on to the Burma Plain the aircraft would drop to a height of 30 feet for the flight to the target area.|
When he arrived on the Squadron a tour of operation was
set at 300 hours flying but this was reduced to 200 hours a few months later, a
decision that probably saved his life. When dad completed his 200 hours (only
the second crew to do so) the ground crew gathered round on landing to
congratulate them both. However, as Geoff was short of a few hours he was told
he must fly another mission, without hesitation dad volunteered to go with him.
Fortunately, that flight passed without incidence, but it must have been
nerve-wracking. In total he completed 205 hours of operational flying over 51 missions,
he crash-landed on a further two occasions during this time.
|This is P/O Geoff Vardigans with a member of the ground crew. He has just returned from an operation and is pointing out a bullet hole through one of the propellers, dad had just popped to the loo so missed out on the photo call.|
With his tour expired he went on leave in India and was subsequently
posted to Yelahanka where he completed an instructor’s course in aircraft
recognition. In the meantime, the Squadron had been withdrawn from operations
and was in the process of converting to Mosquito’s. The Mosquito was not a
popular plane with the Beau crews and being of wooden construction it didn’t
adapt well to the climate in the Far East, there were reports of planes
literally falling apart in the sky. Fortunately for him, the war ended just
before he was due to re-join the Squadron.
|This letter is from Air Marshal Sir Keith Park (of Battle of Britain fame) congratulating dad on his award of the DFC in 1945.|
Like many servicemen, he found himself stuck in India
after hostilities had ended as the military struggled to repatriate them.
Luckily for him he manged to get a plum posting to a communications Squadron
where his job was to ferry VIP’s around the country in Expeditor’s. He got to
stay in the palaces of Maharaja’s and to fly over the Taj Mahal, it was a time
he greatly enjoyed.
|The King sends his apologies, well I guess he had a lot of medals to give out!|
In mid-1946 he was finally de-mobbed and returned to
civilian life in London. He received his Distinguished Flying Cross from the
King through the post.
There is more about dad on the 211 Squadron website –