The ninth article in this series has been made possible by a submission from our Honorary Historian, Mr Steve Brew.
A Rare Breed
Terry Spencer was a remarkable man.
The things he achieved in his lifetime are so incredible that one could be forgiven for believing he was an invented character in some brilliant thriller. Terry’s life was certainly exciting – the very stuff of ‘Boys Own’ annuals – but it was no work of fiction.
So many clichéd phrases come to mind – decorated fighter pilot, respected leader, daring escapee, world record holder, bold adventurer, and celebrated photo-journalist, to name just a few – but these words barely scratch the surface and do him no justice.
Terry was an unassuming 21-year-old engineering student when war broke out in 1939, but this was the kick-start he needed: the war was the making of him. This is not as crass as it may sound. Though the conflict was the greatest disaster to befall many lives, it was a gift others. This was because they learnt trades and skills, which provided subsequent careers that they would have otherwise never had the opportunity to pursue. Terry was one such young man.
He was initially offered a commission in the Royal Engineers, but was not fulfilled and found himself drawn to the thrill of flying, and the romance and reputation of the fighter pilot. He transferred to the Royal Air Force in October 1941, and this is where his adventure began. As ‘a good looking dapper Errol Flynn type’, he fitted the image well.
Terry proved to be a skilful Spitfire pilot and gifted leader, and led his men on numerous missions in support of D-Day operations. He shot down seven V1 buzz bombs, and also ended the career of a very dangerous German Ace.
He was a brave man. One of that rare breed who seem to have no fear. You can imagine what an asset he would be in any squadron. And yet he looked so normal. None of the jutting jawed devil may care Hollywood image. An average sort of a man. Except he had this disregard for danger.
In February 1945, it appeared Terry’s luck might have run out when he was shot down over Germany and captured. However, just a month later, he escaped with another pilot by bicycle, and subsequently motorcycle, in a Steve-McQueen-style getaway, and the pair made it back to British lines.
Terry returned to his squadron but was shot down again only 17 days later. Everyone was convinced he had been killed this time. In fact, he had been blown out of his cockpit with such force that his parachute deployed at a height of just 30-40 feet, and he survived what the Guinness Book of Records now recognises as the lowest parachute descent on record.
He was injured and hospitalised, but liberated by advancing Allied armies around two weeks later. He was awarded an immediate Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits, and was later also awarded the Territorial Efficiency Medal and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.
Terry was demobilised in December 1945, and flew an aircraft to South Africa the following spring to deliver it to its new owner. He was subsequently employed there as the personal pilot of the managing director of Kimlite Industries, a front company trading in illicit diamonds.
Upon his return home the following year, he swooned the actress Lesley Brook, who starred in 23 films between 1937 and 1948. After a whirlwind romance, they married in August 1947 and moved to South Africa in July 1948, shortly after Lesley’s final film release.
Terry launched a new career in South Africa as an aerial photographer. He did well, but became an even more successful photo-journalist with LIFE and People magazines, spending 20 years with each publication. During this time, he covered several conflicts, including the Vietnam War, Northern Ireland, and Congo, and photographed countless film stars, musicians, politicians, and royalty.
It was also during this time that Terry’s daughter Cara begged him to do a story on her favourite band. He agreed to do so and soon found himself on a three-month tour with a The Beatles. Once, when they were filming ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ in 1964, Terry took Cara down with him to take some photos. ‘Dad loved working with them,’ she remembers, ‘as they were so natural, funny and clean.’
After his retirement, Terry published a coffee table book about The Beatles, aptly entitled It was Thirty Years Ago Today, and an autobiography with Lesley called Living Dangerously. Following 62 years of ‘an extraordinary marriage’, Terry and Lesley died within a day of each other in February 2009.
Terry has been described as a combination of James Bond and Biggles. Cara feels he ‘would have just laughed at the description, though he always exhorted his family to ‘live dangerously!’’
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