US veteran Melvin Spencer revisits Horham airfield in Suffolk

His visit to north Suffolk was only brief – one month to be exact – before he was shot down by German bombers.

But it was long enough to earn US airman Melvin Spencer fame as The Man Who Came for Breakfast in the Ian Hawkins book B-17s over Berlin.

And yesterday, the 89-year-old from Iowa returned for the first time since the end of the second world war to Horham airfield, near Eye, where he was a navigator for B-17 bombers which flew sorties over Germany to bomb military bases and industrial targets.

Poignantly, he was also reunited with a leather A2 jacket which had stayed at the Red Feather Club next to the airfield since he was last there in February 1944.

The second lieutenant arrived in England shortly before Christmas in 1943 having completed his training with the US air force at San Marcos in Texas.

He was one of three graduates chosen for overseas deployment with the 95th Bomb Group at Horham.

He had successfully completed three bombing raids with the B-17s, including one to destroy a submarine base at Wilhelmshaven in heavy cloud cover stretching from 29,000ft to 100ft above sea level.

Most Read

In February, the bombers were then tasked to attack a ball bearing plant in Braunschweig with support from B51 and B38 bombers, but the group had to split up.

As the bombers reached Holland they were approached by between 200 and 300 German fighter planes, which had targeted the group and opened fire.

Two of the eight crew members on board Mr Spencer's B-17 were killed and two of the four engines were destroyed, forcing the remaining crew members to eject and parachute onto German soil.

Mr Spencer recalled: 'After the deafening noise of the four engines and the 50 calibre machine guns it was totally quiet and peaceful. There was no sound as we dropped.'

He was among 20 airmen shot down during the raid, who were captured by the civilian population and handed over to the Nazi authorities as POWs, initially housed in a warehouse before being moved by train to the Dulag Luft at Frankfurt, where they were interrogated.

A couple of the airmen tried to hatch a plot to escape as they were armed with 45 calibre pistols, but decided against as they were hundreds of miles from France and safety.

The POWs were then moved to Stalag Luft 1 camp near Barth in northern Germany, where they remained with 9,000 airmen from the US, Britain and Canada before the camp was liberated by the Russian army in May 1945.

Mr Spencer added: 'The camp was run by the Luftwaffe who treated us like military prisoners. We were not treated particularly inhumanely in terms of being enough food to eat, although a couple of prisoners were shot.

'Whenever we heard a bombing mission flying above us, we would start cheering and the German guards would tell us to shut up.'

But the kriegsbrot (war bread) they were served was not particularly palatable, so the airmen looked forward to receiving their regular Red Cross parcels containing spam, although many of these packages were intercepted by the Germans.

Following liberation, Mr Spencer was evacuated initially to Camp Lucky Strike, before returning to England and then travelling by Landing Ship Tank on an 18 day voyage back to America.

However, he had never returned to his Horham base until yesterday's visit arranged through the Red Feather Club. He remembered the huts still standing at the site, but not much else.

'I was here for about a month and was basically flying for much of that time, so I really have very sketchy memories.

'In another sense it is a new adventure because it is helping to rekindle memories. I just think it is so wonderful that they have arranged this,' Mr Spencer added.

He has been joined on his trip, which ends next Friday, by relatives including son Dennis, 58, a TV executive and grandson Nathan Spencer, 29, a Boeing engineer. He is married to Dena, 78.

In tomorrow's EDP we meet the young GIs who turned Norfolk into a Little America, bringing colour into a black and white world.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter