World War Two air gunner laid to rest with service at Lancaster Cathedral

John 'Jack' Spencer.
John 'Jack' Spencer.

When John Spencer passed away, a most remarkable story unfolded.

Always known as Jack, the family discovered his ‘hidden’ history which comprised a complete record of his flying documents and recorded story of his life in the RAF during the heavy bomber campaign of 1943-45.

John was born in Bradford in 1921 and lived with his parents and sister, Margaret but was always known as Jack.

He spent all his working life at the engineering firm Tanks and Drums, receiving a 25-year service gold watch, and married Betty Ives, also from Bradford, in October 1942.

Married life was soon to be disrupted by his call up and Jack volunteered for the RAF and as aircrew.

On enlistment Jack reported to RAF Blackpool for the initial obligatory ‘square-bashing’ and selection process. This was followed soon after by training at RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire for the ground-school element of his Wireless Operator/Air Gunner training. For the flying element of his Air Gunner training he spent a period at nearby RAF Walney Island flying in the venerable Avro Anson.

On completion of this stage of training he first met the bomber force in Armstrong Whitworth Whitley aircraft at the Heavy Bomber Conversion Unit at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland before posting to No.10 Squadron to commence operational flying on the Handley Page Halifax.

His crew on 10 Squadron was led by an Irish captain who midway through the tour sadly suffered a heart attack while on home leave and never returned. As a result of this the crew had to be completely reconstituted and were then moved to 171 Squadron at RAF Pocklington in Yorkshire where they completed their tour.

In all Jack flew 40 operational missions over occupied Europe and was extremely lucky, given the 50 per cent casualty rate in Bomber Command, to survive without a scratch. Nevertheless, on the sorties flown he experienced many occasions when his guns and radio skills were used.

In all, Jack flew a total of nearly 540 hours, 210 of which were operational, mainly over Germany in a Halifax Bomber, and 195 of these being night-time operations.

In his own words he does go on to say: “However, since that date I have never set foot in any sort of aircraft and I have never missed the flying or regretted not doing so.”

On demobilisation Jack returned to his family and job in Bradford. His connection with our area, as for many people from West Yorkshire, began in retirement when he and his wife Betty moved to a bungalow in Slyne-with-Hest in 1983.

There Jack played for the local cricket and bowls team, eventually becoming treasurer for the club (because, in his words, ‘nobody else would’).

‘A lovely man’ was how people replied when asked about Jack. He was quiet, kind, unassuming, with a sense of mischief and an infectious chuckle. Thankfully he wrote all this history down in his ‘Scribblings and Quibblings’ which his family now have and will find a home for at a suitable RAF Museum.

In the words of Father Steve Pearson, “Although John was naturally an undemonstrative man, the values of the Christian faith informed his life as he grew up within the family home in Bradford.”

When the Second World War broke out, Jack would have been 18, and like many men and women of his generation he was called up to defend his country against fascist aggression and he became a part of Bomber Command.

John saw many hours of flying with Bomber Command and his sacrifice helped pave the way for the Nazis to be defeated and freedom restored across Europe.

But a great price was paid in military and civilian lives: he lived through a great time of sacrifice.”

Jack was laid to rest in the grounds of St Peter’s RC Cathedral in Lancaster on February 14 following a requiem mass in the presence of family members and supported by the Royal British Legion standards and Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA) representatives.

If there are any families in the district with elderly relatives who served in the Royal Air Force who require support in any way, the RAFA can be contacted through their welfare team by calling the Wings Centre in Preston 01772426930.