Wing Commander John Bell hits his century

Wg Cdr John Bell. [Pic: 617 Squadron Association.]

Guest post by Dr Robert Owen, official historian, 617 Squadron Association.

Wing Commander John Bell MBE, DFC, L d’H, the last British wartime aircrew member of No. 617 Squadron, will be 100 on Saturday 25 March 2023. As a bomb aimer, serving initially with No. 619 Sqn and then No. 617 Sqn, John is a veteran of 50 operations over enemy territory. 

He was born on 25 March 1923 and left school in the summer of 1939, aged 16, just before war was declared. He then went to work for a firm of chartered accountants in the City of London. Soon, his evenings and weekends were occupied as a member of the local Home Guard platoon. Seeing the Battle of Britain being fought overhead during work visits to Kent, he determined to join the Royal Air Force as soon as he was able, and like many saw himself as a dashing young pilot. 

Rather than wait to be called up, in June 1941 he presented himself as a volunteer at the recruiting office in Worcester Park. Sent to a medical board in Oxford he found his hopes of becoming a pilot dashed. At 6 ft 4 ins, he was too tall. Instead, he was offered an alternative which to him “sounded interesting” of being trained as an observer and air gunner. Accepting this, he was called up in September 1941. 

After the usual spell at the Aircrew Reception Centre, Regents Park (Lord’s cricket ground) and several months in Torquay with No. 13 Initial Training Wing, he was sent to Eastbourne to learn the basics of navigation. The next stage of his training would take him farther afield.  

In May 1942 he boarded a troopship bound for South Africa, to continue his navigation and bomb aiming training as an observer at No 45 Air School, Oudstshoorn, followed by a gunnery course in Airspeed Oxfords. In early 1943 he returned to the UK via New York.  

Destined for Bomber Command, his next stage was with No. 14 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Cottesmore where he was to first meet members of his future crew, captained by Bob Knights. Crewing up was a seemingly haphazard affair, sufficient trainee aircrew of the relevant trades were assembled in a hangar and told to sort themselves into crews. 

John recalls: ‘I remember standing there with a Canadian navigator, probably looking a bit lost, both of us thinking, “How do we find a good pilot?” Then a rear gunner came up and said to us, “I’ve got a pilot, come with me.”’

Although flying training at the OTU was conducted using Vickers Wellingtons, by this stage Bomber Command was building up its might with the new four engined Lancaster and had introduced the “pilot, bomb aimer, navigator (PNB) scheme”. Observers now had to choose between the latter two trades. Since his bomb aiming was better than his navigation, the decision was made for him, which meant additional training, since the Mark IX on which John had trained was now being replaced by the Mark XIV sight which was not only easier to set but also allowed greater tactical freedom.  

From OTU the crew transferred to No. 1660 Conversion Unit at Swinderby, in June 1943, converting initially to the twin engine Avro Manchester, before transferring to the superlative Lancaster. Here they also acquired the final member of their crew, flight engineer Ernie Twells. After a month’s conversion they were declared operational and on 30 June posted to the recently formed No. 619 Squadron, based at Woodhall Spa.  

After three weeks further training, during which Bob Knights flew his initial “dicky mission” with another crew, on 24 July they were detailed to attack Hamburg. The next night saw them out again, against Essen and then on 27 July it was back to Hamburg to continue Bomber Command’s major onslaught against this German port. On this occasion the port inner engine burst into flames on the outward journey. Knights extinguished the fire, but the aircraft would not maintain height. Undeterred, they pressed on to the target, bombing from 10,000 feet, with the main force twice that height above. Two nights later they were back over Hamburg again, such was the pace of operations. 

Between August 1943 and January 1944, the period of the Battle of Berlin, the crew flew to the ‘Big City’ no fewer than eight times. On 20 October, during a trip to Leipzig their two inboard engines cut owing to icing.  

“We were plunging down towards the earth with a full bomb load. We had to release the bombs to release the weight on the aircraft and the flight engineer managed to get the engines working at a height of 10,000ft so we were down pretty low. 

Now, with no bomb load and the rear turret unserviceable they had no option but to turn for home. 

Other targets during this period included Munich, Kassel, Hannover, and a trip to Frankfurt when they also carried Army War Correspondent Anthony Cotterell.   

By January 1944, Knights had completed his tour although the others needed to fly on more trips to complete. Rather than remain with No. 619 Sqn and fly with a different captain, they decided that it was better to stay together, and opted to volunteer to join No. 617 Sqn. It would mean going straight into a second tour of 20 operations without the usual respite of a period instructing at an OTU, but it seemed the best thing to do. 

After an interview with Leonard Cheshire, the crew were accepted and after a brief leave arrived at Coningsby on 29 January 1944. Within a fortnight they found themselves back at Woodhall Spa, as 617 and 619 swapped airfields to give the former more security and more dispersals. 

At this time 617 were using the 12,000lb HC blast bomb (not to be confused with the later ‘Tallboy’) and were about to embark on precision attacks against factory targets in occupied France and Belgium. The attacks required extreme accuracy in order to prevent unacceptable casualties to civilians. To achieve this, 617 were equipped with the Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS) and Leonard Cheshire and Mick Martin would pioneer a low level marking technique to provide bomb aimers like John with a small and precise aiming point. The SABS could produce remarkable results, but it required very precise flying and close-knit teamwork amongst the crew.  

After a week of practice, the crew were ready for their first operation with 617, an attack on the Gnome-Rhone aero engine factory at Limoges, on 8/9 February, which was a spectacular success. At the end of the month John was commissioned. 

Further factory targets followed. Inevitably there were a few failures, mainly due to weather and visibility, but the technique was proven, and Leonard Cheshire and three other selected pilots were given Mosquitoes with which to place the markers. The Squadron began to lead other No. 5 Group attacks against targets such as the Paris rail yards at La Chapelle and Juvisy, and even heavily defended German targets such as Munich. 

Then suddenly, at the beginning of May 1944, the Squadron was stood down for a month to practice for a special operation to be conducted on the eve of D-Day. Operation “Taxable” involved precise flying and navigation carefully calculated tracks over the Channel between Newhaven and Cap d’Antifer, while other crew members, including John, despatched bundles of “Window” (strips of aluminium foil) at exactly timed intervals. The purpose of the operation was to create the impression on German coast-watching radar, of an invasion force of ships approaching the coast, while the real invasion force, employing counter-measures to mask its presence, approached the landing beaches of Normandy.  

The operation was a success, but within two nights, the Squadron was called upon to make a precision attack against a railway tunnel at Saumur. The operation would also be the baptism of fire for the Squadron’s latest weapon, Barnes Wallis’s 12,000 lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bomb. Given that the Squadron had done no bombing practice for over a month the results achieved by John and his colleagues were remarkable. One Tallboy was a direct hit on the hillside directly above the entrance, bringing down tons of earth and rock into the tunnel, others severed the rail tracks and blocked the cutting leading to the entrance. By doing so, they severely restricted the movement of reinforcements to the Normandy battlefront. 

Wallis’s intention had been for his bomb to be dropped alongside structures such as the massive concrete blockhouses constructed by the Germans as part of their V-weapon campaign. Damage would be caused by the shockwaves transmitted through the earth. This was achieved to great effect by a Tallboy released by John on 17 July 1944, against the potential V-2 launch site at Wizernes in the Pas de Calais. The target was a large concrete dome on the top of a quarry face, protecting underground workings. John’s Tallboy struck the edge of the dome, causing part of the quarry to fall away, undermining the structure. 

Although ‘Tallboy’ had not been developed to penetrate concrete, it was the only weapon in the RAF’s armoury capable of damaging the substantial E- and U-boat pens that were bases for naval forces which could disrupt the Allied convoys supplying the invasion forces. By August 1944 the Squadron’s attention was focused on these structures. But by this time John had completed 50 operations, (for which he would be awarded the DFC) and it was again time to consider coming off operations. Knights wanted to continue, but John was engaged to be married and felt it was time to go. 

On 24 August John said farewell to the crew he had known for nearly 18 months and was posted as an instructor at No. 12 OTU, Chipping Campden. It was a different world to that of operations and heralded the start of a period of readjustment. After a spell at the Officer’s School, Hereford, John was sent to Catterick for redeployment. There his pre-war experience in accounting caught up with him  and he was sent on an Accounting Officers course.  

After the end of the war, in 1947 he applied for, and was granted, a short service commission and transferred to the Secretarial Branch. Posted to Fighter Command at Tangmere he was sent to Gatow, Berlin, to assist with airlift. On his return to Britain in 1951 he was sent to Shepherd’s Grove in Suffolk to reactivate a former airfield for use by the USAF. While there he learned of openings to train as a photographic interpreter and then, after completion of a PI course, he entered the world of Intelligence. For the next twenty-five years he served at Nuneham Park, in Singapore and Washington, with a period working with the USAF at Kimpo Air Base, Seoul during the Korean War when the Americans were short of specialist personnel. 

Awarded the MBE in the 1970 New Year Honours List, he finally retired from the RAF in March 1977 holding the rank of Wing Commander. In March 2016 he received the Legion d’Honneur from the French Consul. 

In retirement John has worked hard for charity, being a stalwart campaigner for the RAF Benevolent Fund. As a member of the Committee of the 617 Squadron Association, and latterly its President, he has played a significant role in championing the commemoration of wartime Bomber Command, raising funds for the Bomber Command Memorial in Hyde Park and working to ensure that the story of Bomber Command is passed on to future generations.

Salisbury Journal post about John Bell from 2021