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Old 14th February 2009, 11:44
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RIP Sqn Ldr Terry Spencer DFC

Dear all

Just found out this morning that Terry Spencer passed away on 8 February 2009. An amazing man who led an equally amazing life. Here's his Obit from The Times for those interested.


Terry Spencer: RAF fighter pilot and celebrated war photographer

Terry Spencer excelled in two audacious careers — first as a Second World War fighter pilot specialising in very low-level strafing raids across occupied Europe, and later as a celebrated Life magazine photographer covering wars in the Congo, Vietnam and the Middle East.

He was born during a Zeppelin raid on England in 1918. When the Second World War broke out he joined the Army, but he was unhappy serving with the Royal Engineers, and subsequently obtained a transfer to the Royal Air Force.

After training as a pilot, he was posted to a squadron flying American P51 Mustangs, the fastest fighters in the world at that time. Flying in pairs, low over the water to avoid German radar, the Mustangs flew deep into France, Germany and other occupied countries attacking trains, boats and army convoys.

In his published memoirs, Living Dangerously, Spencer recounts: “One morning we shot up a busload of German soldiers near Lille in France and I remember smiling as we watched bodies hurtling out through doors and windows, cartwheeling through the air as our bullets ripped into them. We felt totally isolated in our cockpits and did not experience any of the horrors of blood or screams. We were too busy flying at 300 miles an hour a few feet from the ground to feel any emotions about the misery we had just wrought.”

Casualties were heavy in low-level strafing, but Spencer survived unscathed and in December 1943 achieved his ambition to transfer to Spitfires. They were “the most beautiful aircraft in the world, and the most wonderful to fly”, he said. In 165 Squadron he concentrated on low-level attacks on shipping in the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel before being posted to 41 Squadron as the squadron commander.

On D-Day in 1944, he flew combat missions over the Channel, above the thousands of boats, from warships to landing craft, all heading for the French coast. Later that month the squadron was sent to cope with the latest German secret weapon — the V1 flying bombs.

Spencer downed a record of eight V1s and, like other V1 "aces", developed a technique of nudging the bombs with his wingtip, toppling the V1 gyro and causing it to crash.

Shortly after that he flew cover over the ill-fated airborne operation at Arnhem. This was followed by escorting large formations of American Flying Fortresses bombing the Ruhr. In the winter of 1944 Spencer left 41 Squadron to command the 350 Belgian unit equipped with the latest Spitfire X1Vs — strafing locomotives and military convoys in Germany.

In February 1945 he was shot down while attacking ground targets near Munster. He baled out and landed in a field beside some French slave workers but was soon surrounded by German soldiers. He was taken to a German interrogation centre, but escaped soon afterwards during an Allied bombing raid. Spencer and a New Zealander commandeered a motor bicycle, stole some petrol and reached the American lines. He rejoined his unit, by then in Holland, to be greeted by his CO and fighter ace Group Captain Johnny Johnson, who exclaimed: “Terry, where the bloody hell have you been the last five weeks?”

In April 1945 while leading a section of Belgian Spitfires over the Baltic, Spencer was flying close above the sea when he was hit by fire from a German destroyer. His plane disintegrated. He shot into the air and his parachute was blown out of its pack and opened before he hit the water. A prisoner of war for the second time, he was liberated shortly afterwards, towards the end of hostilities, and his recovery from bad burns was helped by his saline bath in the Baltic. He ended the war as a squadron leader with an immediate Distinguished Flying Cross and a Belgian Croix de Guerre avec Palme.

In February 1946, just after being demobilised, Spencer was asked by the Percival Aircraft Company to ferry solo a Proctor, a small single-engine plane, without radio, dinghy or emergency supplies, on an 8,000-mile flight to South Africa.

The Proctor had been bought by a rich South African. Spencer became his personal pilot and only subsequently discovered that his trade was in illicit diamond smuggling. In South Africa Spencer met his future wife, Lesley Brook, a beautiful and successful London stage and screen actress.

After their marriage they bought an old Piper Cub aircraft and established a profitable aerial photography business in Johannesburg, photographing the houses and farms of wealthy South Africans from low level. Such was the detail of the pictures that on one occasion a photograph caught a servant walking off with a bottle of Scotch after a lunchtime party.

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

The Congo conflict, said Spencer, was: “far and away the worst war” he had to cover, with a total breakdown in law and order, with power-crazed, drunken soldiers and a nation reverting to near-tribal savagery.

Spencer went on to provide extensive coverage of the Vietnam War on combat missions with the US Marines, reporting on the first all-American helicopter offensive deep in Vietcong territory. He described taking photographs of acts of “indescribable horror” and later wondered how he had been able to witness so many terrible sights through the viewfinder of his camera.

On another assignment he was sent to Indonesia at a time when Life was on the blacklist of Indonesia’s President Sukarno. Spencer had to pretend that he was working for a French publication. He managed to establish friendly personal relations with the President, who invited him to lavish parties and provided him with a beautiful Indonesian companion. All this came to a sudden end when his cover was blown and the US Embassy whisked him out of Indonesia by plane just in time to avoid arrest.

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

Other assignments included the Arab-Israeli wars, Northern Ireland and a CIA operation in Cuba during the missile crisis. Spencer’s assignment was to accompany a group of CIA agents to the Cuban coast to pick up two Soviet army defectors. They landed in a small boat and part of the group was sent inland to pick up the Russians. They were never seen again, and were thought to have been captured and executed by Fidel Castro’s forces.

On his return to London after one foreign assignment, Spencer’s teenage daughter Cara suggested he should do a story on a little-known pop group called the Beatles who were just beginning to make their mark. He tracked down Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney performing at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. Spencer then spent several months, off and on, with the Beatles while they tried out many of their great hits, eating with them at wayside cafés and following them to recording studios. He shot 5,000 pictures and his record of a Beatles’ tour of Britain formed a valuable part of his huge photo-library private collection. The Beatles went on to fame and fortune and Spencer to his next assignment.

After Life magazine folded in 1972 Spencer continued for many years photographing writers, politicians and stage and screen celebrities.

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

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

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

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

Terry Spencer, DFC, RAF fighter pilot and war photographer, was born on March 18, 1918. He died on February 8, 2009, aged 90.
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Old 25th April 2009, 01:52
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Oxby R Oxby R is offline
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Re: RIP Sqn Ldr Terry Spencer DFC

Sounds like Terry Spencer had a very colourful life Steve. I sometimes wonder whether enough perches have been provided for all these eagles. It must be getting kind of crowded up there..
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Old 24th May 2009, 05:08
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Eagle0025 Eagle0025 is offline
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Re: RIP Sqn Ldr Terry Spencer DFC

I am surprised his obituary omitted one of his more interesting achievements. Terry Spencer is recognized as being credited with shooting down the famous Luftwaffe ace, Hptm. Emil "Bully" Lang, on 3 Sept 44 near Overhespen, Belgium. Truly an unsung hero. I will certainly remember him this Memorial Day.
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