Interview with Arthur Spencer


Interview with Arthur Spencer


Arthur Spencer joined the Royal Air Force after leaving school. He began pilot training in Florida but then re-mustered as a navigator and trained in Pensacola. He completed two tours of operations as a navigator with 97 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa and RAF Bourn. He later became 205 Group's Navigation Officer. He describes dropping target indicators and Window. He was based in Algiers for some time and describes life there. He was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for providing air support for the Resistance in Italy. After the war, he worked for BOAC and then as a teacher.







01:11:54 audio recording

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PL: My name’s Pam Locker and I’m in the home of Mr Arthur Humphrey George Spencer *********** on the 27th of February 2017 at 10 o’clock. And if I could just start off by saying a very enormous thank-you on behalf of the Bomber Command Digital Archive for agreeing to talk to us and to share your memories. So if I could start by — Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about your family and how you first became involved with Bomber Command.
AS: Ok, well, I was born in Salisbury, Wilts, but my parents must have moved to Southampton before my memory begins and I was brought up in Southampton. I enjoyed school. I went to a very large Boys’ Grammar School and I was in my first year in the Sixth Form at the time of the Munich crisis and there was obviously going to be a war and as I finished school, the war broke out. In fact the first year of the war was during my last year at school. Obviously the Air Force were recruiting madly at the time of the Battle of Britain and I had grown up on the literature of the First World War. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and that sort of thing and realised that warfare in the trenches was pretty horrible. Richard Aldington wrote a very good novel called “Death of a Hero” which I still think is one of the best novels ever written and, so I volunteered for the Air Force and after the usual waiting around period, I found myself in the Air Force. Initially as a, an under training pilot but I didn’t make the grade as a pilot, although I got more than half way through the course. I was very late washing out as the Americans called it. I was in Florida. And so I re-mustered as a navigator and was sent back to Florida, to the United States Naval Air Station Pensacola, to undergo a navigation course. I never failed to be horrified at the inadequacy of the practical training on that course. If I’d had been at an RAF or RCAF Navigation School, I’d have had about a hundred and fifty hours in the air, undertaking navigation exercises. At Pensacola, I had less than thirty hours of flying. All of it over the Gulf of Mexico and never once experienced navigating an aircraft. The American naval way of doing things was to send up about eight people together and two of them would practice taking sun shots with a sextant, two of them would practice using the drift meter, two of them would be firing guns and two of them doing something else which I’ve forgotten, but completely inadequate. However, the theoretical side of the course, the classroom side, was excellent. It was run by an American naval officer, navigator, assisted occasionally by the RAF liaison officer and I did have a very, very good theoretical background. We were told, towards the end of the course, that the top six to, in the final examination, would ferry an aircraft home, so my first flight as a navigator was ferrying a Ventura across the Atlantic. We went to — the top six went to Dorval and then flew, after crewing up with a very experienced American civil pilot and an equally experienced wireless operator and a second pilot, who was, like ourselves, had just finished his course. We were allocated a Ventura. Little two-engined aircraft which we had to deliver to Prestwick. We, all the aircraft being ferried across at that time flew to Gander in Newfoundland and then these little aircraft had to wait for a tail wing component to get across the Atlantic. Now I was stuck there with another navigator who’d been an acquaintance at Pensacola, but not a particular friend, but because we were stuck there for a fortnight together waiting for a tail wing, we became very good friends and by co-incidence, he was sent to the same squadron as myself and when he retired from a very senior position in industry, he came to live in Somerset and so we remained lifelong friends. And, he died a couple of years ago. His family were good enough to ask me to make the eulogy at his funeral and his wife is now in a nursing home near Taunton. We try and see her every third week because her son lives in Australia and her daughter lives in Germany so we are the local contact. His name is George Brantingham and I mention this because he plays a fairly important part in a later stage of the story. Anyway, we got across the Atlantic successfully and after further training, I got to Bomber Command Operational Training Unit at Upper Heyford. Number 16 OTU. And one of the most important things you do at Operational Training Unit is to crew up into a crew. And in the literature, you find horrific stories of people being put into a hanger, twenty pilots, twenty navigators, twenty wireless operators and so on and being told, ‘Sort yourselves out.’ And I read this sort of thing time and time again. It was much more civilised fortunately at Upper Heyford. We were told that the course would be four weeks ground school and then the pilots would go off to a satellite airfield to learn to fly Wellingtons and then they’d come back and we would spend the last six weeks of the course flying cross-countrys and so on together. And we’d only been there two or three days when George, my friend, George Brantingham said to me, ‘I’ve got myself a pilot.’ Well I hadn’t really thought about it at that stage but I said, ‘You were quick off the mark, George. Who is it?’ And he told me it was a Sergeant Tracy, a larger than life American who’d gone north over the border to join the RCAF. And so at the next opportunity, I contacted George and said, ‘I hear you’ve got yourself a navigator. Can you recommend a pilot to me?’ And he thought for a minute and he said, ‘Well I reckon young Jimmy Munro is about the best pilot on our course.’ At the earliest opportunity, I found Jimmy. A very fresh-faced eighteen year old Canadian and I said, ‘Have you got a navigator yet?’ ‘No.’ ‘What about taking me on?’ ‘Ok that’s fine.’ And that conversation is probably why I’m here today. If I’d had a different pilot I might well not have been. But he was, as Bill Tracy had said, an incredibly good pilot. He’d grown up on the Ottawa River in a little hamlet called Fitzroy Harbour and part of his boyhood was canoeing on the Ottawa River and he handled a Lancaster just as well as he handled a canoe. And so we got through our OTU successfully. Went to Swinderby, just outside of Lincoln, to convert to Lancasters and so to 97 Squadron, fairly late in December, before Christmas, but fairly late in December 1942. Can I stop there a minute?
AS: Talk about —
PL: Re-starting, re-starting recording with Mr Spencer.
AS: Right, well, 97 Squadron in fact didn’t unleash us against the enemy right away. They gave us quite a bit more training before they decided to let us fly Lancasters, one of their precious Lancasters, on Operations. 97 by the way, was one of the very first squadrons to be equipped with Lancasters and part of their history was the daylight Augsburg raid of 1942. And some of the crew who took part in that raid were still at Woodhall Spa when we joined the squadron. Our first Operation, like all first Operations was mine-laying down on the Gironde estuary, near Bordeaux, and then we set about operating mainly to the Ruhr, Hamburg, Nuremberg, Munich, Wilhelmshaven. All in my Log Book. And the incident I want to talk about a little bit, is on the 19th of March 1943, when I flew with one of the Dambusters. Co-incidentally, he was also Munro but whereas my pilot was Sergeant Munro, this was Flight Lieutenant Les Munro, which is a name you may possibly have come across before now. Well, the three crews went from our squadron to join 617, but they started intensive low-level flying training before they left, before they left Woodhall Spa. And on one of these occasions, Flight Lieutenant Munro’s navigator was quite badly gashed across the forehead in what we would now call, nowadays call a bird strike. Now these three crews weren’t screened, was the word which we used for Operations, they were still taking part in Operations, and he was scheduled to go on Operations, but he didn’t have a navigator. Jock Rumbles, his navigator was too badly injured to go, so I was allocated to him. And that morning I flew an air test with him. You nearly always did an air test before you flew Operations at night. Twenty-five minutes. But Operations were cancelled before we even got to briefing. So although I flew with him, I didn’t operate with him. At the time I was very glad not to, because it was regarded as a bit dicey operating away from your own crew. You were very much a Unit as a crew but in retrospect it would be nice to be able to say I’d flown an Operation with one of the Dambusters. But I didn’t think that at the time, I was glad not to go. Well we continued flying, building up Operations ‘till we moved down to Bourn in April 1943 to join Pathfinder Force. We had another intensive period of training. Normally when crews joined the Pathfinder Force they went to Upwood, the Pathfinder Training School, but because we moved as a squadron, the Unit’s instructors came to us and we did a lot of intensive training. I remember Bennett. He was frequently with the squadron. He was the AOC at Pathfinder Force, of course. And one of the things he said was, ‘Of course the really important people in the crew are the navigators and bomb aimers. The pilots are only the chauffeurs to get them there.’ Which was very good for our morale, of course, as navigators. And by the time we’d finished our Pathfinder Training, it was May. Nights were very, very short indeed. And so virtually all our early Pathfinder Operations were to the Ruhr and the Ruhr took about three hours, three and half, four hours. Anywhere else in Germany took much longer. You couldn’t get there and back under cover of darkness. So we went to the Ruhr. Can we stop a second again there?
PL: Of course.
PL: Re-starting the tape.
AS: Pathfinder Force had been formed sometime fairly early in 1942. It happened after all Bomber Command had been equipped with cameras which took automatic photos when bombs were released. And when these early pictures were analysed, it was found that something like five percent of the aircraft dropped their bombs within three miles of the target, or something like that. Some infinitely small number of bombs were getting anywhere near the target and one of the measures adopted was to form Pathfinder Force which was then equipped with the, what was then the state of the art radar operation and all the other new instruments that were coming in and our job was to go in and either light up a target or more frequently mark it with bombs which were called target indicators which would burst barometrically at three thousand feet over the target because frequently the target couldn’t be seen once bombs started going down with so much smoke and dust coming up. But these target indicators hung on a parachute at about three thousand feet but they only lasted six minutes so they had to be backed-up fairly frequently. And the main Force coming along behind would bomb on the target indicator, not worry about finding an actual building or railway yard or docks or something like that to — Anyway, as I say, our early Operations in Pathfinder Force were all the Ruhr because the nights were so short. And we expected to be going to the Ruhr on the 16th of June. We’d done an air test in the morning and a bit naughtily we’d been shooting up a train just outside of Cambridge, diving at it, flying alongside it and the passengers were obviously enjoying it, they were waving back to us enthusiastically and the engine-driver was obviously enjoying it too, because he leaned out of his cabin and gave us a sign. [laughs] And er, but when it got a bit close into Cambridge, we decided we’d better go home, so we flew back to base. And when we got back to base, there was the Flight Commander’s van waiting in dispersal and we thought, ‘Oh dear. We’re in trouble,’ because we were flying quite low enough for people to see our identification letters, ‘OF-J Johnny’, and there must have been some senior officer on board, we thought, who’d got on the phone, the blower we would have called it then, as soon as he got into Cambridge and complained about these young idiots who were risking their lives in an expensive aircraft. However the Flight Commander was not there for that reason. The Flight — Jimmy opened the window and the Flight Commander called up, ‘Jimmy. You’re to take a week’s kit and fly up to Scampton after lunch.’ ‘Ok. What for?’ ‘I don’t know. You’ll get all the gen when you get there.’ So we weren’t in trouble. We found, when we got back to the mess, that four crews were going to Scampton. Now Scampton of course was the home of the Dambusters. So our attitude was, a little bit ambivalent. On the one hand, what a compliment to be one of only four crews in Pathfinder Force to be selected to take part in some special Operation. On the other hand, were we really awfully keen to be, take part in some Operation with a squadron which had only done one Operation, but on it, had lost about forty-five percent of it’s aircraft. [laughs] So, as I say, our thoughts were a bit ambivalent but there was nothing we could do about it. So we packed our kit after lunch and flew up to Scampton and when we got there, we were eventually four aircraft as I say. I’ll name the four captains. Jimmy, now a Pilot Officer, Pilot Officer Jones, Pilot Officer Munro, Pilot Officer Jones, who’d been one of the other crews that joined 97 from Swinderby in, at Christmas and two older pilots who were just coming back to 97 for a second tour. Because 97, a two-flight squadron at Bourn, at Woodhall Spa, had grown to a three-flight squadron at Bourn, so a lot of new crews coming in. So four crews were taken along to a briefing room and there, an elderly captain, a Group Captain, told us why we were there. When I say elderly, he was about thirty-five. But, er. [laughs] You know, we were all in our teens and young twenties so he seemed elderly. I’ve researched him since, and actually and I’ve found he was thirty-four at the time. [laughs] Anyway, he told us that we would be assisting Five Group, they were, of course based all round Lincoln, on a special Operation which would take place in the near future and we would be lighting the target and marking it for the aircraft of Five Group who would provide the main Force. Ok. Where? Well he either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us when. ‘It’ll be in the next few nights, because you need a full moon to reach a pin-point target.’ And he also told us that for the next couple of nights, we would be practising over Wainfleet Sands which was a bombing range on the Wash. And that we weren’t allowed to go into Lincoln, which seemed a pity, but, still, we were confined to camp. Well after a couple of nights practising over Wainfleet Sands, we — going back a little bit, we were told as the Pathfinder crews, we had to decide the plan of attack. And what we decided was that two aircraft, ours and Pilot Officer Jones would go in first and lay a line of flares either side of the target and the other two would come along and mark it behind us. Aft er a couple of days practice, we went to briefing, and I think it was the only time I ever went for a morning briefing, and we were told where the target was, and it was the old airship shed at Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance. And they were manufacturing there some new radar devices which would no doubt improve the defences of the Ruhr and it would be in our own interest to make sure that this attack was well-carried out. But that if it didn’t occur in the next few nights, it wouldn’t take place at all because it needed good weather and a full moon. And then at the end of the briefing, almost off-handedly, we were told, ‘Well. Friedrichshafen is much too far into Germany for you to get there and back under cover of darkness so you’ll fly straight on over the Mediterranean to Algiers. Algiers and Tunisia of course having recently, having been taken by Operation Torch, the attack on the west side of Africa. Mainly French and American but it had given us airfields in North Africa which we could use. And after briefing, we could go to stores and draw some tropical kit. Which we did. None of us of course had badges of rank on this basic tropical kit which caused one or two problems when we were in Algiers, but I’ll come to that later. Well the afternoon was a lovely afternoon and we thought, ‘Ok.’ But we kept in touch with the Met Office and they got increasingly pessimistic as the afternoon went on and very close they said, ‘No. It’s not going to happen tonight.’ So we wasted our time the next day and the Met Office were becoming more optimistic and it looked as though we would go and apparently a Met Flight, Meteorological Flight, a Spitfire, went out over southern Germany and reported that the weather was good, so Operations were on. So we loaded up our kit and we took off that night at twenty to ten. That was Double British Summer Time of course and as we took off from Scampton, which incidentally was an all grass airfield. There were no runways there which surprised us that the Dambusters had been operating from an air— and of course we had a terrifically heavy load, over two thousand two hundred gallons of petrol in order to do the long flight to Algiers, so it was quite a struggle getting the thing into the air but we all got into the air and as we looked round, there were aircraft coming up from all the other Lincolnshire airfields and we set off and flew to Reading which was the first turning point. And from Reading to Selsey Bill, down on the south coast and we got there too early to cross over to France. We would have arrived in daylight and fighters patrolling the south coast came up and flew around us and waggled their wings at us which we took to mean they were wishing us good luck. And as darkness began to fall, one or two more adventurous spirits certainly set course earlier than I intended to let my pilot go but I’d done my calculations very carefully and we would get to the French coast at darkness, not into daylight. I had no wish to be over the French coast in daylight. We crossed the French coast at a little seaside town called Cabourg and I thought perhaps I’m the only person of the, what, five hundred airmen above Cabourg who’s been there before because at one stage of my education, about the third year of Grammar School, the Headmaster had said to my parents, ‘He’s doing very well in most subjects but his French is not very wonderful.’ And that was an understatement. And he recommended an exchange with a French boy and the school being right on the French coast, along the south coast, many exchanges took place every year, of course, and I was lucky enough to go three times to the same little town in Normandy, and the nearest seaside town was Cabourg, so I was taken to Cabourg quite a lot as a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen year old. Anyway we crossed at Cabourg and the Germans fired off light flak at us but light flak burns out at about twelve or thirteen thousand feet and we were up at about twenty thousand so we sneered at it a little bit and put our noses down to, as we’d been ordered to do, to go quickly through the fighter battle on the French coast and the next turning point was Orléans. Very badly blacked-out and then we turned east towards Switzerland and the weather deteriorated a bit but I’d got a drift on and an occasional light and I was pretty certain that whatever the weather, we’d see the Rhine, because even at that far from the mouth of the Rhine, it’s still a very big river. And just about as, on the ETA, Estimated Time of Arrival I’d given the pilot, he and the bomb aimer shouted, simultaneously, ‘Rhine coming up.’ And there was Basle. Basle of course is part of Switzerland. We shouldn’t have been over Switzerland but we briefed to go over Switzerland, so there we were. And we flew along the, roughly along the border between Switzerland and Germany to a point on the south side of the lake. The south side of the lake being in Switzerland and we were to orbit a little headland on the south side of the lake and then we had worked out it would take three minutes to cross the lake and three minutes before Zed, the time at which the Operation was due to begin, we set out and made our way across the lake. As we crossed the lake, the bomb aimer looking down vertically, was able to say, ‘Crossing the coast now.’ And I then counted down twelve seconds and after twelve seconds, start releasing our flares. Well, I couldn’t do any more then and I stood up in the astrodome and looked out and watched the flares bursting underneath us and when the fourth flare went, and there was no sign of other flares, they were on our left-hand side, I thought, ‘Oh goodness, have I committed some dreadful boob?’ Because there was terrific responsibility, of course, upon me and the navigator of the other aircraft. But as our fourth flare went down, a line of steerers [?] started appearing about half a mile away on the left-hand side, on our port side, and there was this enormous aircraft hangar clearly illuminated between the two lines of flares. And we were going to drop twelve flares initially and we continued and as we dropped our last flare, and I still couldn’t tell you which happened first, but two things happened, a green target indicator had burst right over the roof of the factory and we were coned in searchlights. Now, coned in searchlights is not a very nice experience I can assure you. We had been coned three or four times before and it seems to take an eternity to get out of this cone, if you’re lucky enough to get out of it. So, eventually we, Jimmy twisted and turned and twisted and turned but we couldn’t seem to shake it off and he turned about and put the nose right down and we dived out over the lake and shook them off. And we were supposed to go back to the lake after we’d finished our first, but we didn’t expect to go back to it like — that method, but there we were circling over the lake and after a few minutes, the Master of Ceremonies as he was called, master bomber, the Group Captain, had called for us to go in and lay a second line of flares and again we were coned but we got out of the cone fairly quickly that time and we had a couple of bombs, the small bombs we were carrying, we dropped those and back out over the lake and after about twenty minutes, the Master of Ceremonies declared that the raid was over and we should make our way to Algiers. He reminded us that we were very close to the Alps so that we should climb hard through the Alps and, ‘See you in Algiers.’ So we climbed hard through the Alps and, which was a lovely experience, I mean, you may well have crossed the Alps in a modern airliner at thirty thousand feet with the lights on, as I have, and looked down and thought, ‘Well. There are the Alps.’ But when you’re only just above the top and there’s no light in the aircraft and the full moon is shining, absolutely lovely. Wonderful experience. I shall remember all my life. We crossed the Italian coast somewhere close to Genoa and then we got down low, down to the sea, to keep beneath the Italian radar in Sardinia or Corsica and made for Algiers. When we got to Algiers, there was a terrific fog and we thought, ‘Well, the sixty aircraft are going to be directed out to sea and the crews are all going to be baled out,’ because you couldn’t see a thing and people were calling up, ‘I’ve only ten minutes petrol left.’ And there were no modern aids there of course. But there was an American flying control officer with enormous initiative and he got on the end of the runway in a jeep and fired Very cartridges up through the mist. And I shall always remember what he shouted, ‘The first man to make home base wins.’ [laughs] A baseball expression I assume. And the sixty aircraft landed with — one of them, there was a dead bomb aimer on board, who’d been hit by flak over the target, one from Woodhall Spa actually with the squadron that had been formed there when we left. And so we had a couple of days in Algiers. A lot of sunshine. Eating some of the fruit that we hadn’t seen for years in England and then on the way back we bombed Spetzia which was a bit of an anti-climax really because the, only two of the Pathfinder aircraft were serviceable. Two of them had to stay and come home more slowly. Ten of the main Force aircraft had been damaged over the target so we dropped our bombs fairly quickly on Spetzia and back to Scampton. It was an anti-climax really after the — and there we are. We flew back to Bourn that evening after sleeping for the day and Bennett was there to meet us, the AOC, and he was absolutely livid. Relations between him and Cochran were notoriously bad. Cochran was the AOC of the Group, Five Group. And he said, ‘It’s nonsense using four aircraft. If one had been shot down or — you should have used twenty.’ And he felt that the Pathfinders had only been used so that they could be blamed if something went wrong. He was not a happy man. And there we are. That was Operation Bellicose. The raid on — The first shuttle service operation. It was thought at the time that it might be followed by quite a few more but it wasn’t because of the difficulty of serving Lancasters in Algiers. You would have needed a whole force of ground crew out there to — So it wasn’t a one-off, it did happen, I think once more, with a very small group of aircraft but didn’t become a habit. Can we stop there again?
PL: Re-starting tape.
AS: The attack on Spezia, on return from Friedrichshafen, was in fact our thirtieth operation which is the end of a tour. And we expected to go off on our three weeks’ Leave. In Pathfinder Force the arrangements were for a tour of operations were a bit different from those in the rest of Bomber Command. In the main Force, you did thirty operations, then you were given a rest which was said to be at least six months. You were probably an instructor at an OTU and then you could go back for a second tour of twenty operations. But in Pathfinder Force, they didn’t see the point in dispersing a crew after thirty operations. Having got an experienced crew together, hopefully a successful crew together, why not keep them together. So after thirty operations, you got three weeks’ Leave and then you came back and did another fifteen. Not twenty. And to recompense you for going straight through, this was then reckoned to be two tours. Anyway we got back from Spetzia, our thirtieth operation, confidently expecting to go on Leave the next day but the pressure was on and the flight commander, Wing Commander Alabaster said, ‘You’ll have to do two more operations before you can go on Leave.’ So we did two more operations. Both to Cologne. And then we drew our railway warrants and ration cards and went off on three weeks’ glorious Leave and got back in time for the Battle of Hamburg. The first raid on, of the big raids on Hamburg had already taken place while we were still on Leave, on the last night of our Leave. And I’d have liked to have been on that one because as you may know, that was the first night that Window was used. These metallic strips that people dropped. Well they were still very effective when we went the next night and the next night. But I’d have liked to have been able to say I was on the first Windows Operation, but I wasn’t. I was on the second. So at the Battle of Hamburg, and a trip to the Ruhr as well, and then — I’ve lost my place in my Log Book but I shall find it in a moment. [a short pause as he turns pages] It was pretty obvious to us that after Hamburg, Butch Harris, the AOC of Bomber Command, would be looking at Berlin as his next main target. And we got to the middle of August, and you could usually get some idea of targets from the bomb load and the petrol load which was published first thing in the morning on the list of crew, the Order of Battle as it was called. And it looked, for all the world, as though it was a suitable bomb and petrol load for Berlin. And we were a bit astounded because it was full moon and at that time, flying far over Germany in the full moon was not very healthy. The German Fighter Force was becoming increasingly skilful and morale dropped a little bit in the squadron at the thought of going to Berlin in the night of the full moon. But there again, there was nothing we could do about it so we went to briefing and there was a red line — at the end of the briefing room there was a great map across the end wall of course, and there was a red tape attached to the map, going well on the way towards Berlin, but not to Berlin itself. And we were eventually told that the target was Peenemünde. No one had ever heard of Peenemünde of course. So briefing continued and we were told that this was a very important German radar research station. Not a word about rockets of course. And we went through all the usual briefing, the Met Officer, the navigation officer on the route, the bombing leader on the bomb load, the signals officer on the signals to be used, so on and — intelligent officer on defences. But there were a number of additional things. We were told that there would be an attack by seven or eight Mosquitoes on Berlin, which would hopefully keep the Fighter Force away from us. We were told that there would be a massive number of night fighters operating over Germany that night. We were told that we’d be dropping our bombs and target indicators not from twenty thousand feet as we usually did but from eight thousand feet and that there would be a master bomber. And this was the first time a master bomber was being used on a really big Operation. Obviously Guy Gibson kept in touch with his nineteen aircraft on the Dams raid and on that Friedrichshafen raid, we had a master bomber, but it was only sixty aircraft. And this was the first time that a really large force of nearly six hundred aircraft had a master bomber who circled the target and explained to the main force, which were the most accurately placed target indicators to aim for. And also, told when the aiming point was to be changed because the aiming point for the first wave, and we were in the first wave, was the dwelling quarters of the scientists and technicians working at Peenemünde and the second wave was the attack on the factory and the third wave was the attack on the experimental station. So we had our briefing and went and had an operational meal and drew parachutes and escape kit and got dressed and out to the aircraft and a chap with the ground crew as usual and we took off at twenty fifty. Ten to nine. Which was Double British Summer Time, so it was still light when we crossed the coast at Southwold. And out across the North Sea. Again, a lovely night. You know the navigator of course worked behind a black-out curtain over his maps and charts but I couldn’t resist popping out frequently to have a look at the sun and the moon as it came up, shimmering on the sea, silver, and there was hardly any wind and it was absolutely beautiful. And there we were going off to deliver bombs to people. It took about an hour and ten minutes to cross the North Sea and as we approached the Danish coast, there was some activity over on our starboard side and searchlights and flak and the searchlights coned an aircraft and eventually the flak got very close and the aircraft burst into flame and flaming bits started dropping into the sea. And I sometimes give lectures on this to groups like Probus and so on and I always say that I ought really to have felt enormous sympathy for that crew and I probably did but foremost in my mind was the thought, ‘What a rotten bit of navigation.’ Because if they were ahead of us, there must have been another Pathfinder crew. In fact there were other Pathfinder crews and yet their navigator had allowed them to wander over Flensburg, the northern-most town in Germany which was very heavily defended. And they’d paid the price for it. However there was nothing we could do about it so we continued on our way. It took about twelve minutes to cross Denmark and then down over the Baltic Sea. Masses of islands of course. Hundreds of islands, so navigation was a very simple matter. As we got close to Peenemünde, I’d given the bomb aimer and the pilot the ETA and there was a shout from the bomb aimer, ‘There’s a smoke screen ahead.’ And so there was. I’d popped out and had a look and there was a smoke screen over, as we thought, right over the target. And so it was. But a smoke screen blows in line and when you’re like my four fingers, and when you’re looking at it from a distance you can’t see, but as you get increasingly over the top, you can see down, so as we got nearer to the target, we could in fact see the target.
PL: So there were gaps in the smoke screen where you could see down.
AS: Yes, yes. Oh yes, yes. They weren’t — The smoke containers which sent the smoke up were spaced across. They couldn’t have them absolutely close together so there were gaps between these lines of smoke, the wind blew the smoke across, but — So there were some TIs already down. The —
PL: TIs?
AS: The master bomber informed us which were the most accurately placed, so we place our TIs and our bomb, one four thousand pounder there. Hopefully over the living quarters of the scientists and technicians. And there was no defences whatsoever. It was probably the easiest trip we did. And on over the target to take our photo. You had to stay straight and level for twenty-five seconds once your bombs had gone so that the photo could be taken. And then we turned away. We didn’t fly exactly back on the same route because of course we’d have been flying on to the incoming aircraft but just south and once again, out over Denmark I made sure that my pilot stayed well clear of Flensburg. Back across the North Sea, dropped down to — we’d climbed after bombing at eight thousand feet. Back down to where we could take off our oxygen masks and have a cup of coffee and the radio officer had got some light music on the wireless and we had our sandwiches and so back to Bourn. And 97 Squadron had sent eighteen aircraft. One of them had returned early with engine trouble, the other seventeen got back. Not a scratch on them. And so, went to the parachute section first thing to — after a word with the ground crew while we were waiting for transport. Get rid of parachute, back to de-briefing and we were all fairly delighted it looked as if it had been a successful Operation. But one of the things we’d been told at briefing, which I should have said before, the very last thing was that it was essential that this Operation should be successful and if it were not successful, we should have to go again the next night and the next night irrespective of casualties. Now, the first night, you can rely on surprise but if you had to go a second or third time, you couldn’t. So that did concentrate the mind a little bit. So, and so to bed. Operational meal, traditional eggs and bacon and so to bed. Now I’ve always been an early waker-up. Quarter past six this morning. Quarter past six virtually every morning. And I was an early waker-up during the war and even if we were not back ‘till three or four o’clock in the morning. Most of the squadron would sleep through ‘till lunchtime. I never once missed my breakfast. I wouldn’t say I was first up in the morning but I was always in the Mess by nine o’clock. I’d get up about eight and have a shower, because you always felt dirty after a night out in a bomber. They were pretty dirty smelly things, these big bombers. And I would go to breakfast and then I would normally sort of spend the morning hanging around waiting for the crew, the rest of the crew to come round. I’d write up my Log Book, I’d catch up with my correspondence, I’d try the crossword in one of the posh papers and I might practice my snooker skills ‘cause there was no one else in the billiard room. And so on. But that morning, I didn’t do any of those things, I walked up to the Intelligence library to have a look at the photographs, to see how successful, with the thought of that threat still hanging over us. And when I got there, I knew of course from what I’d seen the night before, that it was likely to be successful. And so it proved to be but what absolutely astounded me was that we’d lost over forty aircraft. But I didn’t — Apart from the chap that we’d seen chopped out over Flensburg, we didn’t see any sign of any defences. But what had happened of course, that these German fighters had been circling over Berlin and then the attack was on Peenemünde. It’s only about twenty minutes flying from Berlin to Peenemünde, so those fighters which still had enough petrol and many didn’t, many had to land and refuel, but some of them were able to fly up to Peenemünde and they got in the third wave. And the third wave lost about twenty percent of their aircraft. One in five. The second wave was somewhere in between the two. I think they lost about eight or nine percent of their aircraft, but not as bad as the third wave. So Bomber Command did lose a lot of aircraft that night. And, but at least it was successful. We didn’t have to go again. And that was our fortieth Operation, so we had five more to do to finish our tour. It really was Berlin the next two but by that time, the full moon had gone and we did a couple over to Berlin and we went to, I think, to Nuremberg and once to the Ruhr. And then our last trip was coming up. We did our forty-fourth trip on the 31st of August. Our last trip was coming up and we were briefed to go on the 1st of September to Berlin but Operations were cancelled and the same happened on the 2nd we were briefed to go to Berlin and Operations were cancelled. Now the corporal in charge of our ground crew, a young married man, and the ground crew of course, used to work outside in appalling conditions, not in a warm hangar but out at dispersal. And, they, this corporal was due to go on Leave when we got back on the 2nd after our final Operation, but it was cancelled on the 1st, he wouldn’t go on Leave. When it happened again on the 2nd he wouldn’t go on Leave. He insisted on staying until we had completed our forty-fifth Operation. Well, on September the 3rd, that morning, the invasion of the mainland of Italy started. And we thought, ‘Oh. It would be a nice cushy trip to Milan or Turin for our final Operation,’ because they were really a long way but they were fairly cushy targets. The Italian defences weren’t very wonderful. And. But it wasn’t. We didn’t know of course, but apparently an agreement had already been made with the Italian government that the Italians would surrender and we would stop bombing their major cities. It was Berlin again, by a long route back over Sweden again. Over neutral territory. And we got back and that was our forty-fifth Operation. And most of us decided that, that was enough, but unfortunately Jimmy and two of the gunners stayed with him and it wasn’t. And so there we are. That’s the end of my life in Bomber Command.
PL: That is absolutely wonderful. Thank you very much indeed. Can I just ask you a couple of other things?
AS: Um hum.
PL: The first. So what did you do, so after the war, what did you go on to do then, after you left Bomber Command?
AS: Well, as I said, Bomber Command was equipped with the state of the art radar. And just after I finished Operations, and I mention the fact that Africa had now been cleared of the Germans, and if one listened to the news during ’42, ’43, you heard about a Bomber Force from the Middle East attacking Tobruk, and Benghazi, and it was pretty obvious that when airfields became available, these aircraft would move over to Italy. And, an advert, it wasn’t phrased as an advert, a notice appeared in Daily Routine Orders, asking for someone to instruct in this state of the art radar overseas. Now it didn’t state where overseas, but one didn’t need to be a genius to realise it was going to be the Mediterranean theatre and that these aircraft — so I thought, ‘Well that sounds interesting.’ And I’d only recently been Commissioned. I was a Pilot Officer and it was advertised as a Flight Lieutenant vacancy so I thought, ‘Well, have ago at this.’ And I applied and after the usual air force delay, I found I was accepted and I went home to Southampton on a week’s Embarkation Leave and when I got back, the squadron were kind enough to divert an aircraft, ‘cause I had to go to Blackpool which was the Embarkation Centre, they diverted across country to take me up to Blackpool, which would have saved a nasty train journey. And, I, eventually, we were kitted out for overseas there and had various inoculations and so on, after about a fortnight in Blackpool, up to Liverpool early one morning to get aboard a troop ship which went a long way out into the Atlantic to avoid the — ‘cause the Germans were still in France of course and they had aircraft operating from the south of France against convoys, but we didn’t see any sign of them and back into the Mediterranean and we docked in Algiers and I was in a transit camp there for two or three days and then down to Tunis which was Headquarters of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. And there, a Wing Commander looked after me and told me what I was going to do. And apart from the six Wellington squadrons they had, they had one Liberator squadron which was a South African squadron and a Halifax squadron and the Halifax squadron was going to be equipped with the same sort of apparatus that we had in Pathfinder Force and act as what they were going to call a Target Marking Force once they’d got across to Italy. Now that squadron was still in, in the desert, so after spending Christmas at, at Tunis, the Wing Commander and a mate of his, they found out that my French was pretty good so they took me down to Bône market, hoping to get some turkeys for Christmas, for the Mess. But, at the government’s expense, we flew this aircraft down to Bône but went to the market but there were no turkeys. We found a bag of fresh carrots. And I suppose fresh vegetables were something of a relief to people who were living on rations. And we took those back. They were gratefully accepted. And I remember on Christmas Day, I went for a swim in the Mediterranean with a WAAF officer. It was pretty cold, but we wanted to say we’d swum on Christmas Day and we also went and found the amphitheatre at Carthage which is very close to Tunis and I knew a little bit about the Punic wars and so on. So we went and explored Carthage, the amphitheatre at Carthage. And a few days after Christmas, before the New Year, I went down to join this Halifax squadron in the desert, at El Adem, just outside of Tobruk and they were merely sort of kicking their heels really because, waiting to go across to Italy. They would occasionally operate against Crete port installations where the Germans were still in Occupation of Crete. But they weren’t doing very much and I couldn’t do very much with them at that stage, ‘cause they didn’t have any equipment of course. I talked to them, but not very much. Eventually the ground crew all went off, back to the Delta, to go by ship across to Italy and we were left for a week. More or less living on our own devices with no ground crew and the CO, the Wing Commander didn’t have a crew so I was crewed up with him as a navigator and flew across to Italy and the night before we went, we even took the tents down and slept under the wing of the Halifax for the night and the Khamsin was blowing at the time so there was sand everywhere and during that week, a dirty old Arab who used to appear on a donkey which was much too small for him, and he’d have a bucket of eggs, tiny little eggs, but he would barter a half a dozen eggs for a cupful of sugar, so at least you could get a few eggs to fry. And. Anyway we flew over to Italy. All the airfields literally were around Foggia, that area which — [pause as he turns pages] This area around here, it’s, in fact, you’ve got the Apennines running up the middle and a few airfields there but there’s a lot of hills that side of Italy, of course but there were masses of airfields round there and we flew to one of those called Celone and eventually the squadron was equipped with the apparatus so that I got on with my work but eventually I was posted away from the squadron, back to the Group Headquarters because my responsibilities were to the whole Group, not to that squadron. And I decided that having read my Siegfried Sassoon about ‘scarlet Majors at the Base’ ‘And when the war was done, and the youth stone dead, he’d toddle safely home and die - in bed’ and you know, the Hotspur’s criticism of a staff officer assented popinjay in Henry 1V and I decided I ought to do a few Operations. Bennett had insisted on his Staff Operations operating occasionally. In fact on one night, two staff officers turned up and went with the same crew. Much to my surprise. And they went with a pilot with whom I’d done a training exercise once and frankly I wouldn’t have wanted to fly with him on Operations and neither of them came back. The whole crew went missing. Anyway, I felt as staff officer, I would set a good example by going occasionally. And a very interesting Op came up. I used to go to the meeting of the — air staff meeting every morning and there was a guard’s officer there who was responsible for liaison with the Resistance. And he came one morning and said that the Resistance in southern France were going to mount an attack on a German airfield and they would welcome a diversion by an attack on the airfield that night and I thought, ‘That sounds interesting. So. I’ll go along.’ And I went along with this Target Marking Force and dropped flares over this and there were obviously things happening on the ground and this was just before the invasion, so, as a result of that, the French gave me a Légion d’Honneur. [laughs] Which I’ll come back to in a moment. And I did two more with the Target Marking Force and two more in the Wellingtons because the Wellingtons increasingly were, as the Germans withdrew, were being used for supply-dropping over Yugoslavia and so I did a daylight with the Wellingtons over Yugoslavia, dropping supplies to what appeared to be a crowd of bandits in the hills above Sarajevo, who waved enthusiastically to us as the parachutes dropped down. And then a night one, dropped on a big cross, up in the hills behind Trieste and so that was quite interesting really. And eventually after about a year, the air force decided my, I’d done enough, that people were now fully trained and so they sent me home and I thought they’d forgotten about me. They sent me on Leave when I got home. I was on Leave for about five or six weeks. And of course the air force never really forget about you. I eventually got a telegraph to report to such and such a Wing Commander at Astral House, London and I went up and he said, ‘Well what do you want to do now?’ Which surprised me a bit because in the forces, they usually tell you what you’re going to do. [laughs] You know, I must have looked a bit perplexed, so he said, ‘How do you fancy going to Transport Command?’ And I said, ‘Alright. It’s a flying job?’ ‘Yes.’ So I went to Transport Command and flew Dakotas from Croydon to the continental capitals of liberated Europe. And during the Transport Command Training, one had been given the opportunity to get a Civil Air Navigator’s Licence. You had to get a certain percentage of the exams and you had to take an extra paper in Civil Aviation in the war but I did that and got mine. So just after Christmas ’46, there was an advert, again not really an advert, a notice in DRO saying that BOAC were again recruiting navigators. Anyone interested give their name to the Adjunct So I thought, ‘Well this is a good opportunity.’ And so I went off to BOAC. Everyone — there were an enormous number of people of course joining BOAC from the air force at the time and we all came to Whitchurch, just outside of Bristol to their Civil Training School and after a few weeks there, I was, a month, six weeks, I was posted to the flying boats at Poole Harbour. So I could live at home in Southampton and flying to Singapore and back. To Singapore and back took eighteen days for the crew in those days. Took five days for the passengers. No, three days to Singapore and five days to Australia. It was a different world. I sometimes, again, lecture to groups like Probus and Rotary about it because Civil Aviation was so different in those days. So there we are. End of story. Any questions? [laughs]
PL: Many, many questions. So, so then once, so that’s, that’s basically what you did then, you were in Civil, Civil Aviation for a few years.
AS: For eighteen months, yes.
PL: For eighteen months. And then — So how did you get into teaching?
AS: Well, I — in fact I had a place at Southampton University before the war and I didn’t take it up, but I went to a Training College because I wanted to get through fairly quickly. And the Training College in Winchester was giving a shortened course of eighteen months so I didn’t do what they called the Emergency Teacher’s Certificate of a year, but I did eighteen months and I was then qualified a teacher. And the school where I did my final Teaching Practice, the Head offered me a job. So. Which was just outside of Southampton and so I was with him for about seven years and then I came to a more senior post in Bristol. Bristol was one the earliest Authorities to go Comprehensive and then I got a Deputy Headship at the Thornbury. Which is ten miles north of Bristol. Quaint old town. And quite a long time as Deputy Head and I was, someone hinted to me that I ought to apply for this new school at Weston-Super-Mare and —
PL: Which is called —
AS: Priory School. You may have passed it.
PL: And that was a ground-breaking new school.
AS: Oh yeah. You may have passed it, if you came round the Bay, when you turned off the motorway, did you turn right by the Magistrates Court?
PL: I can’t remember.
AS: Almost immediately — or did you come right through — no, you didn’t come right through—
PL: I hugged the — I went on a windy road hugging the, the coast.
AS: Around the coast? Well, you almost certainly passed Priory School. Did you pass Sainsbury’s?
PL: Yes.
AS: Well it’s opposite Sainsbury’s. That’s Priory School, where they’ve just acquired two and a half million pounds to build a new science block and who have they invited to open it? [laughs] And what are they going to call it? The Spencer Science Centre. And the teachers who were trying to teach me science in the 1930s would turn in their graves at the thought of a science centre being named after me.
PL: Well, congratulations. What an accolade.
AS: Well, it’s rather nice isn’t it.
PL: It is. And your — ‘cause I think this is important as part of your story to include. So your school and your experience was used as a case study by the Open University.
AS: Yes. Shall I get the book and show you?
PL: I would love to see the book. Wait one minute though.
AS: Yes.
PL: I just want to, just to sort of wrap up the interview. There’s two questions I want to ask you. The first is, how your family fared during the war. I was interested to hear you say that they were based in Southampton.
AS: Yes.
PL: So did they — everybody stayed in Southampton did they, because —
AS: Yes. I think — The bombing raids on Southampton occurred just after I had left to join the Air Force. Well, there were several daylight raids but the night raids, the big night raids were just after. And after the first one, my father who was working there, continued there but he sent my mother up to Salisbury where we had — which is where I was born. Where we still had relatives. So she was there only during the first one. By the time I was coming home on Leave of course, they were both back in Southampton because the bombing raids were over. One of the things I noticed with my father, who was not a particularly demonstrative person, did come down to the station and see me off each time I went back from Leave and I’ve thought about that quite lot since then.
PL: Very touching.
AS: I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I was a spoilt only child. [laughs]
PL: They must have been incredibly proud of you. So my last question, which is a question that we’re asked to ask all of our veterans and our volunteers who speak to us is, your feelings about how Bomber Command were treated after the war. Would you like to make any comments about it.
AS: I was a bit surprised that when most of the Great War leaders were made Peers, Harris was not made a Peer. It didn’t worry me a great deal that there wasn’t a memorial. After all, a memorial is only a piece of stone or something with a list of names on. Part of the past. You know that was my only surprise really, that Harris was, didn’t receive the accolade that the other war leaders, Montgomery and so on received. But, Dresden of course, was held against Bomber Command but there was a lot of industry going on in Dresden. There’s a book by an academic at Exeter University, about Dresden, I think it’s out on loan to someone at the moment, but there’s a lot in there about all the industries going on at Dresden at the time. There we are.
PL: Well is there anything else, before we finish, that you’d like to record? About any of your experiences.
AS: No. I probably forgot one or two things on the way through but — [laughs]
PL: I’m sure it doesn’t matter. Well, I’d just like to say again a huge thank-you. That was an absolutely fascinating interview. Thank you very much indeed.
AS: Tell my wife that when she comes. [laughs]



Pam Locker, “Interview with Arthur Spencer,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 22, 2024,

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