Thursday, 8 October 2020

Dennis Spencer DFC, 1920-2020

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 – click HERE.


Matt said...

So sorry to hear this news, but what a magnificent innings your Dad had.

I loved his book which has sparked an interest in all things Blenheim for me.

Wishing you all well.


Stryker said...

Thanks Matt, he certainly did have a good innings!

Rob said...

What a fantastic piece of family history - also two of my favourite plane types, although he was lucky to not actually go on ops in the Hampden (the spell-checker doesn’t like that plane).

Delta Coy said...

Sorry to hear of your dad's passing and thank you for sharing those great memories.

Jeffers said...

Very sad as another of the great generation passes, but what an amazing life! You must be very proud.

WSTKS-FM Worldwide said...

My heartfelt condolences. Your father sounds like he lived quite a life. Certainly an adventurous one during the war.

Best Regards,


David said...

Thanks for sharing your memories with us. Best to you and your family.


lewisgunner said...

A modest hero in the best British tradition. A lovely post Ian . It must have been demanding to navigate over Burma as I doubt that you could just follow a road. Also the air conditions were notoriously bumpy and the ‘planes were rushed into production and built with an emphasis on getting them into service fast.

MSFoy said...

Nicely done, Ian - that's a lovely tribute to your dad. Once again, my condolences on your loss.

The Good Soldier Svjek said...

Sorry to hear about your dad passing on but wonderful memories of his wartime service .

KEV. Robertson. said...

Hello IAN- Sorry to hear the passing of your Dad. No matter how long it takes they are always with us and never forgotten- fond memories reign. Regards. KEV.

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

What an absolutely fascinating post... very well done on describing your Dad's life so well... Sorry for your loss...

Stryker said...

Thanks everyone!

Wellington Man said...

This is a beautiful tribute to your father, Ian, who was clearly an exceptional man. The way you've written about him, I think, shows that his qualities extended far beyond the quiet courage he demonstrated during the war. I'm so sorry for you loss.
Best wishes

Don said...

What a terrific piece, Ian, many thanks.
You know how much I valued knowing Dennis and Annabelle.
Best wishes

Duke of Baylen said...

Thanks for sharing this personal story which reveals another aspect of life and service in wartime. It also reminded me of my grandfather simply because he was in the RAF too though in another role in another theatre.


The Archduke said...

How humbling the lives of these astonishing young men. I salute your father’s memory. I can’t help thinking that, had he gone operational in Hampdens, we would all have missed the pleasure and privilege of your blog.

James Fisher said...

My condolences for the loss of you Father Ian.
A terrific read and a fine tribute to him. All the best to you and your family.
Kind regards, James

'Lee. said...

Very sorry for your loss Ian, but what great memories and a great old age :)