Interview with Reg Spencer


Interview with Reg Spencer


Wembley born, but educated in Essex, Reg Spencer left school in 1939. In 1943, on his 18th birthday, he was called up for National Service. Following initial training at RAF Bridlington he was trained as a wireless operator at No. 2 Radio School at Yatesbury, before being operationally trained on Anson aircraft at Llandwrog in North Wales. Reg reflects on how, following his operational training, there was no formal aircraft crew selection, rather all new aircrew - gunners, pilots, engineers etc – congregated in a hangar and “you sorted yourselves out” into crews. Crew training on Wellingtons at Desborough preceded a posting to the Heavy Conversion Unit flying Lancasters at Woolfox Lodge and then in 1945 onto operational duties with 514 Sqn at Waterbeach.
Operational duties included up to 14 bombing operations over Germany, three trips on Operation Mana and a number of flights bringing prisoners of war back from France and Italy. Reg also describes the typical duties of aircrew wireless operator -staying in contact with base operations and keeping the crew informed of any operational changes. When the war ended Reg re-mustered to work in Motor Transport and was posted to the MOD Maintenance Unit at White City and then on to the Maintenance Unit at Bicester. He finished his National Service at Kirkham near Blackpool. Reg married in 1945. At the time of the interview they were approaching their 70th wedding anniversary.







00:27:50 audio recording


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This is David Kavanagh for the International Bomber Command Centre interviewing Reg Spencer, Mr Reg Spencer at his home.
DK “and your schooldays?”
RS. “Schooldays were, I was born in Wembley Middlesex. Unfortunately my father, who worked up in Westminster area on electricity sub stations, unfortunately he was deaf and then he went blind, so he was deaf and blind and had to give up work so he decided he was going to buy himself a plot of land down in Essex and build a bungalow, is this .. ok then? Which he did at a place called Point Clear, which is near St Osyth in Essex. So I ended up going to school in the village of Essex until I left school in nineteen thirty nine. Then of course the war started in nineteen thirty nine in September. Prior to going to the air force, I was working basically on farm work, all kinds of farm work ending up on a threshing machine and what not.”
RS. “I joined the ATC at Clacton on Sea prior to going into the air force, so I was in the ATC for three or four years before I was called up for National Service in nineteen fortythree, February fortythree when I was eighteen years old on my eighteenth birthday. I Went to RACA at St Johns Wood which was Lords Cricket ground aircrew recruiting centre. From there we had two or three days having inoculations and getting kitted out and one thing and another. From there I was posted to Bridlington, Yorkshire for ITW which was Initial Training Wing. We were there three or four weeks doing square bashing and various lessons. One of the things we had to do was go out towards the sea over the promenade and have clay pigeon shooting and em being an ex farm worker when we had to shoot rabbits and one thing and another, I knocked out four out of five clay pigeons as they were in those days. So I thought I was going to end up as a gunner as some sort in the air force, but from there I was posted to number two Radio School at Yatesbury for Wireless Operator training. I was there for two or three years [sic] and from there I went to a little place called LLandwrog in North Wales for operational training which was, ere, flying Ansons and we went there for three or four weeks. From there we went to Desborough flying Wellingtons for another three or four weeks. When we went to Desborough we were all chucked into a hanger sort of thing, all aircrew people Wireless Operators like myself, Gunners, Pilots, Engineers and there you crewed up. You just walked about and if someone said “have you got a crew?” you said no. “Would you like to join us as a Wireless Operator, you said “yes.” So we eventually made a crew up at Desborough.”
DK. “I have always been quite interested in how you crewed up. How you all got together and made your own crews rather than being ordered to. Did you find that worked well?”
RS. “ It seemed to because although we were only a crew for a short period we were quite happy and worked together, so on that basis it worked. A lot of people thought you were ordered to be a crew but no you were all chucked into the pile and you sorted yourself out. So we were at Desborough for some time on em, Wellingtons just ordinary cross country flying, fighter affiliation that sort of thing. From there we went to a place called Woolfox Lodge not far from you. That was Heavy Conversion Unit, so we went onto Lancasters at Woolfox Lodge, again there for a short period [short pause-“we can edit that out”] Woolfox Lodge, Heavy Conversion Unit, so that was our final training. From there we went to 514 squadron at Waterbeach. We arrived there in the February.”
DK. “If I can take you back, you trained as a Wireless Operator there?”
RS. “At Yatesbury, yes ok [slight pause] Yes we arrived at Waterbeach in forty five which is late on in the war and em, we carried out several operations over Germany.”
DK “and which squadron was this with?”
RS. “514. Yes at Waterbeach. Several operations over Germany. Eventually the European war was coming to a close and it was agreed with the Germans and with the Americans that we could fly over Holland and do Operation Manna which you obviously know of. I did three trips on Operation Manna over to Holland and also at that time as the war finished we were flying to France to bring back our troops who had been Prisoners of War under German occupation. Also we were flying to Italy doing the same operation bringing people back from Italy who had been Prisoners of War.”
DK. “How many operations did you do, bombing operations over Germany?”
RS. “I would think fourteen or fifteen something like that.”
DK. “And how did you feel with the Manna Operations, did you see the Dutch people?”.
RS. “We could see the Dutch people, prior to taking off.”
[Interruption by a telephone ringing in the background.]
RS. “Where did I get up to?”
DK. “operation Manna”
RS. “Operation Manna, yes when we went to get our parachutes we were given permission to help ourselves to very cartridges which were used for distress purposes and one thing and another.”
DK “I will just move the phone in case it interrupts”
RS. “So as we approached the target and mind you, you are only over the target for a second sort of thing, I stood by with very cartridges and was firing them as were other people, so it was almost like Blackpool illuminations, which the Dutch people appreciated, you could see them on the ground waving to us up there. You could also as you went over occupied territory see Germans standing at the cross roads in their sentry boxes and that sort of thing. You could also see one or two tanks and that sort of thing but em, yes I did three operations on Operation Manna.”
DK. “how did that make you feel when the Germans weren’t shooting at you, they were holding to the cease fire?”
RS. “That’s right, yes the agreement I think was that we were allowed to fly down to fifty feet and they would not attack. If we did any as you know they were quite free to em, open fire against us.”
DK. “But the Italian, bringing prisoners back from there er, that was quite entertaining because you met people who had been Prisoners of War for three or four years and one particular little instance that happened, we had loaded up and they had about twenty troops sitting on the floor of the Lancaster and the em, chap who sat next to me when we took off he said “how long will it be before we get back to England?” I said four, four and a half hours I suppose. He said “will you let me know when we get to the French coast?” I said yes sure. So we approach the French coast and I said to him it’s the French coast down there. Just where the Wireless Operator sits there is a very small window and you can see just in front of the engines the ground and what not. So he leant over “yes the French coast and will you let me know when we get to the English coast, how long will it be?” I said about five to ten minutes that all. I said to him “there’s the English coast over there” and as he came over he was sick all the way down the back of my neck and being a prisoner of war poor chap it stunk to high heaven. Anyway we landed at Ford in Suffolk where the WVS and the NAAFI were waiting to receive these troops and as I got to the hatch to go out a volunteer WVS or something like that said “come on darling we’ll soon get you sorted out.” I said I was one of the crew. Anyway they washed it all down and I got over it so that was that little funny incident that happened.”
DK. “Eventually after Operation Manna and em, bringing troops back from Italy and France of course the war finished and of ninety per cent of aircrew I should think were made redundant. They were just told they were not flying anymore, you got to remuster to finish your National Service. So from there we were taken to Bruntingthorpe, thousands of Aircrew were at Bruntingthorpe all coming from different squadrons and what not. We were interviewed asked what would you like to do to finish your service of. So I thought when I was on the station motor transport seemed like a nice job driving about the airfield, so I volunteered for that. Eventually I was posted to Blackpool for a motor driving course which like the other nineteen on the course, we all passed. From there you were supposed to fill in a form to say where you would like to be posted to. Well my parents were living at Clacton on Sea and my wife was living at Wembley with her Mother. So I put down East Anglia or the London area and one of the chaps in the billet said “what have you put down?” and I said “either London or East Anglia.” He said “you will end up in Scotland or Wales,” so I said “well see.” By pure coincidence I was posted to the White City, you know the White City in London which is a Maintenance Unit for the MOD and we had Humber Snipes there. Beautiful cars and we had to go up to London and take somebody wherever they wanted to go and back to the White City. When I first got there the adjutant said to me “I’m sorry but we haven’t got any billets here, we have some places where you can lodge.” He said “do you know anyone in this area?” I said “well my wife lives at Wembley” “ah well we’ll billet you at Wembley” So I ended up em with my kitbag, knocked on the door at home and my wife opened the door “hello what are you doing here?” “I’ve been billeted on you” and I stayed there for three or four weeks. She was being paid by the Air Ministry until I was then posted to Bicester. Do you know Bicester? That was a maintenance unit. And em, all round the perimeter track either side they had vehicles of all sorts and it was my job to go round with a compressor on a little low loader Bantam, with two airmen and have a look to see if any of the tyres on the vehicles were flat or spongy, stop and pump them up. [Pause] Then eventually we were detailed to move a lot of the vehicles from Bicester up to Carlisle which was another Maintenance Unit. So we used to get a lorry or trailer on the back or bowser of something and go up to Carlisle Maintenance Unit and make our own way back by train. And em from Bicester I went to Pershore in charge of a parachute department, issuing parachutes and one thing and another there. I was only there for a few weeks and I went back to Kirkham near Blackpool, transport again and from there I was demobbed, nineteen fortyseven.”
RS. “When I went from 514 squadron we volunteered to go to 617 squadron which was training for Tiger Force and we went there about June forty five. Off course the European war finished in forty five in August so em, we didn’t have to go to the Far East all the Aircrew were made redundant and I went on to motor transport.”
DK. “How did you feel when you didn’t have to go onto Tiger Force now going to the Far East. How did that make you feel?”
RS. “Well at the time we were like anybody else in the Air Force, we were volunteers and we were keen I suppose to go out to the Far East and carry on with the Japanese, because we were going to be re-equipped with Lincolns instead of Lancasters, that was supposed to be a better aircraft as far as defence was concerned. As we said the Japanese war finished and we didn’t have to go, but having thought about it, even with our Lincolns to go out to the Far East against the Japanese with their Kamikaze sort. You didn’t know if you were going to do one operation or, if you were going to be fortunate enough to go on to the end of the war sort of thing, so that was that.”
DK. “Can I take you back a bit further as a Wireless Operator, what were your duties on the aircraft?”
RS. “Well basically you had to check in every hour with em er home base sort of thing, to see if there had been any change. Sometimes, not that it happened to us, sometimes it would be called off and you would just come back. Or there would be a change em because of wind direction or something or other you would have to advise the Navigator to veer to the right to get there or one thing or another. You were there also for em emergencies, if you were running out of fuel and you couldn’t get to Base, you would have to get in touch with Base or get in touch with Headquarters and they will say instead of coming to Waterbeach go to Woodhall, Woodbridge not Woodhall the emergency landing. We did loose an engine once going out actually and we talked to the crew and decided to carry on. Coming back the Pilot said “we have one engine missing” so they said “divert to Manston” So we went down to Manston which had one of the overshoot runways, at the end they had sand or gravel or something so you could overshoot to land. At that particular time when we were coming back I stood up in the astrodome, “you know the astrodome” which is just near the Wireless Operators seat and stood there looking out, you know, there’s an aircraft over there. So I said aircraft “so and so, so and so, so and so” and the Rear Gunner swung round and the Mid Upper and they said “where abouts? oh, oh, I can see it” and it gradually came in like that and got to within shooting distance sort of thing and it turned out to be a Mustang. He came along and waggled his wings like that, he could see us. We said ok and that and he just peeled off and off he went. We made it home on our own. Other than that we had no damage to the aircraft at all.”
DK. “Your operations before Manna, they were to Germany?”
RS. “Yes they were to Germany. The furthest down we went was to Regensburg, that was an eight hour trip which was the longest trip. Others were going into Germany, three hours out and three hours back sort of thing. Keil, we went to Keil two and a half hours, three hours I suppose. The most of them were daylight we only did two or three night operations. The first night we went we had the Group Captain who was the Station Commander at Waterbeach. He came as second pilot to see that were acting as a responsible crew and then we obviously went off on our own.”
RS. “I shouldn’t say it really I suppose but I consider it the best four years of my life, because in many respects I lived in Essex as a farmers boy sort of thing and just elementary education at the local church school. I wasn’t high and mighty with education and whatnot and em when I got into the billet with the lads and that sort of thing, comradeship and going out together and whatnot em. I think in fact I wanted to stay in. When I was at Kirkham with the em, transport there was a chap in our billet, his job was, his job was, driving a Group Captain about [pause]. He had a Humber Snipe, the Group Captain would say “ I want to visit so and so” might have been up in Coningsby or whatever and he would take him. Of course being the Group Captains driver he was treated on the Station as if he was the cats whiskers. He said it was a nice job, So I said “why are you packing it in?” “The wife wants me to come out, so I’m going out. Why are you interested in the job?” So I said that would be ideal for me. So I phoned the wife and said I had a chance to stay in the Air Force.”
Mrs RS. “Doing what?”
RS. I said “being chauffer to a Group Captain”
Mrs RS “ oh that’s not much of a job is it?”
RS. “It’s quite a good job really”
Mrs RS. “No you come out. How long are you going to be in for?”
RS. I said “three years”
Mrs RS. “No you come out.”
RS. So eventually I took her to her word and I came out.
RS. “But when we were going to, another little story, or thought we were going to Tiger Force I spoke to the Wife and I said to her, “how about us getting married?” ‘cause we were already engaged, so she said “I don’t know, what happens if you go out to Japan?” So I said “don’t look on the dull side, you will get marriage allowance and you will be able to save that if you can, so when I come back you will have a nice little nest egg to set up home” So we decided to get married on August the eighteenth, nineteen forty-five. So I went to the CO that my wife and I, girlfriend want to get married. “Yes alright then, when is it?” So I told him, so and so and so and so, seventy two hours leave. So I came home to Wembley where the Wife was living. Half the Crew came down with me when I got married and I don’t think they do it so much in these days, but the Best Man stood up and read telegrams of congratulations and whatnot and there was one there from the CO, well the adjutant to say that my leave had been extended eh.” [pause]
DK. “When would these have been taken?” [Probably reference to photographs]
RS. “At em Yatesbury, that’s a fallacy really, that’s in the ATC. And that’s em.”
DK. “you look particularly young there.”
RS. “And I was, I was only eighteen when I went in the Air Force. [unreadable] with the old white flash which indicated you were under training. And we were nearly all told to go down to the local photographer and have your photograph taken, and of course they put us all in Irving. They weren’t on issue to us in the Lancaster, ‘cause of the heating was ok and you did not need them.”
DK. “ What was your thoughts er as to the Lancaster itself compared to the earlier aircraft that you flew in the Wellington you did your training in?”
RS. “Oh there was no comparison really.”
DK. “did it give you confidence”
RS. “Oh yes, yes we used to take off and never gave it a thought that you wasn’t coming back.”
RS. “Carrying onto the story of getting married em, seventy two and they pushed it up to seven days and em, we got married and this year it will be our seventieth anniversary.”
DK. “Congratulations.”
RS. “So that was” [unreadable]
DK. “What about your crew themselves, did you stay in touch with your crew after the war?”
RS. “No, Vi could you go and get my Log Book, it’s in the top drawer?”
RS. “No I tried several times to get in touch with them, ‘cause when we went to Bruntingthorpe when all the crews went down there. You were just told to get in that lorry or get in that lorry sort of thing depending on what trade you wanted to follow up, they just disappeared, but I tried several times to get in touch with them. But em and em and of course the crew were made up of a Pilot and he came from, I don’t know, he was South African he was out training pilots out there.”
DK. “he was South African?”
RS.”Yes and he came back here because he wanted to get onto Operations, so he came back here. So that was the Pilot and then there was the Flight Engineer who also got his wings em for flying, he remustered as Flight Engineer.”
Mrs RS. [Some garbled talk] “A bit old fashioned now, but there was the Crew and he was the Best Man, Eric was the Best Man”
DK. “Eric was the Pilot, was he?”
Mrs RS “No the Pilot did not come”
DK. “Give it to me please, that’s not the one I was thinking of, there is only four of them there. I thought I put a photograph in here this morning, there we are”
DK “Ah, that’s the whole crew”
RS. That’s the whole crew, that was the Pilot, his name was Winkworth.
DK. “South African?”
RS. “Yes but we used to say, just Skipper or otherwords. That was Eric Coxon, Flight Engineer and he has wings as well and he remustered, he passed his Pilots obviously because he got his wings and then. This side we used to call him Pat because he was Irish, Navigator, and this one we use to call him Slaughter, Eric Slaughter, so we called him Todd, ha ha, he was the Bomb Aimer. That’s myself and Paddy, little Irishman there, he was the Rear Gunner, we always called him Paddy. He was an amateur boxer pre Air Force days. And of course the other one was a chap named Jock Shields, Scotsman, he was Mid Upper Gunner. That was the Crew, but no I haven’t managed to get in touch with any of them at all.
DK. “And were the rest of the Crew, British, English?”
RS. “No we had two Irishmen and a Scotsman.”
DK. “Two Irishmen, a Scotsman, South African”
RS. “Two English, yes.”
DK. “ That was something very much about Bomber Command, very cosmopolitan organisation of people from all across the Empire?”
RS. “That right, it was the same when we went to Manna up in Lincoln some months ago. The number of people there that were from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, all over the World who had been in Bomber Command.
DK. “Ok Thanks for that I will stop you there.”



David Kavanagh, “Interview with Reg Spencer,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 28, 2023,

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