Friday 14 June 2024

Clevedon's Pathfinder (1943)

Yesterday, I was privileged to spend time with 103 year old RAF Bomber Command veteran Arthur Spencer, who lives just a few hundred metres from my home. Brought up in Southampton, where his father - a veteran of the Great War - supplemented his disability pension by working as a postman, Arthur joined the RAF as soon as he left school in 1940 aged 19 years. I asked him why he had joined up, and his answer couldn't have been clearer.

There was a madman marching his armies all over Europe and something needed to be done to stop him.

Apparently so many young men had applied to join the Royal Air Force in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain, that there was a delay in the start of Arthur's training. The gap was filled through service as an Air Raid Precautions Warden (ARP) in his home town. At that point Southampton hadn't experienced what Arthur describes as 'the big raids' but it had been hit quite hard.

A flyer for Arthur Spencer's autobiography

In November 1940 Arthur put on a blue RAF uniform for the first time, and started on an accelerated training schedule that was to take him to various locations around the UK and to North America. Along with fellow cadets he spent time manning air defences at RAF Watton in Norfolk in between 8 week training courses which had been collapsed down to 5 weeks in order to feed the demand for fully trained flyers more quickly. After a difficult journey to Halifax in Canada via Iceland Arthur trained on Stearman PT-13s down at Lakeland in Florida before progressing to monoplanes. After being 'washed out' in Florida, Arthur trained as a Navigator back in Canada and subsequently returned to the UK where he completed advanced training, was allocated to Bomber Command and underwent 'conversion' to Lancasters at RAF Swinderby. In December 1942 Arthur was allocated to 97 Squadron based at RAF Woodhall Spa (coincidentally the town where I grew up, indeed my first job was as a waiter at the Petwood Hotel which served as the Officer's Mess during the war years).

One of the buildings which still stands at RAF Woodhall Spa

After teaming up with his new crew, which included pilot Jimmy Mullen, Arthur begun his operational career at the start of the new year (Sadly, Jimmy was killed on active service during his third Tour of Operations and is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial). On Arthur's second operation over Dusseldorf in January 1943, the reality of war was writ large.
By the time we got to the target, the navigator's job was done. We would sit behind the pilot in a space blacked out with dividers and curtains so the route could be plotted in decent light. After my job was done, I pushed the curtain back and climbed through to the pilot. I was amazed to see the sky illuminated with searchlights and flak. I thought to myself 'can we really fly through that!'. I was scared at the time, but we all got used to it.

 After about 20 Operations from Woodhall Spa, 97 Squadron was chosen to join the Pathfinder Force. 3 crews were allocated to 617 Squadron (The Dambusters), several were stood down, and the rest of the men were posted with 97 Squadron to RAF Bourn where they undertook new training on the use of more sophisticated radar and bomb aiming. Their job would be to light up and mark targets. The former by using Target Indicators which were flares that ignited at 3,000 feet.

Avro Lancaster at RIAT in 2014

In all Arthur would complete two Tours, one of 30 Operations and One of 15. just under half of these were with the Pathfinders. Many of the Operations that Arthur was involved with, are recounted in his book. Having visited Peenemunde in Germany a few years ago, I was particularly interested in hearing about Operation Hydra (17/18 August 1943). Peenemunde, near Rugen Island on the Baltic Coast was a special weapons establishment where V1 and V2 rockets were being developed under a cloak of secrecy.

At the briefing we were told that a new type of radar was being developed at Peenemunde. We were to hit the target in the following sequence: The living quarters of the scientists, the development works and the factory. We were also warned about a nearby Polish PoW Camp. It was the first raid to be conducted with a Master of Ceremonies (A Master Bomber who would oversee the target marking in real time). We were told that if we weren't successful, then we would need to go every night until it was!

 Eight mosquitoes were sent over Berlin to mark targets as a decoy, so as to keep the German night fighters busy. It worked, we got back safely. However, once the Luftwaffe knew was happening the night fighters tracked north and 40 Lancs were lost in subsequent waves. We did see one shot down 20 miles or so away over Flensburg, They must have gone off course and we watched as the aircraft was 'coned' by searchlight beams.

Peenemunde - now a 'dark' tourist attraction

My Aunt Joan & Friends - V1 Ramp (1948)

Another memorable Operation was the bombing of Frederikshaven which was so far into Axis territory that the Lancasters flew on and landed in North Africa. On the way back to their home base at Bourn the Lancs dropped bombs on the Italian naval base at La Spezia. Arthur recalls the Lancaster pilots competing to get back to their bacon and egg breakfast at Bourn, with some encouragement from the CO.

I didn't want to outstay my welcome, so I will wait for the book to hear more, but to complete the wartime story, Arthur unsurprisingly turned down the opportunity to fly a third Tour and moved down to Foggia in Southern Italy as an instructor. Following the war he settled down to civilian life with his wife of 79 years Eva, and two daughters. Arthur worked for BOAC for a while before undertaking a successful career in education. 

Details of Flight Lieutenant Arthur Spencer's book can be found here: A Pathfinder in the Peenemunde Raid

An account of my visit to Peenemunde is here: A Visit to Peenemunde

My portfolio of photos taken at the old RAF Woodhall Spa airfield in 2007 here: RAF Woodhall Spa