Flying Officer (Pilot) John Swift Bell
John Swift Bell was born in Lincolnshire in 1917, the second son of Major Herbert Alfred Bell and Ethel Mary Bell of Lindum Close, Wragby Rd, Lincoln. He studied at “Weckites, Charterhouse and Christ’s College, Cambridge”, where he gained a Bachelor of the Arts degree.
His service career began in early 1935 when he joined 503 (Special Reserve) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force at Waddington, being commissioned as a Pilot Officer in April 1935 and promoted to Flying Officer on 1st November, 1938.
When 503 Squadron was disbanded in November 1939, its personnel were transferred to 616 Squadron then being formed at Doncaster. At the time 616, like 503 was a bomber unit. However, by January 1939, the squadron had converted to Gloster Gauntlet fighters, also receiving Fairey Battles later in the year to assist in conversion training for the Spitfires they received in October 1939.
Following the German invasion of the west on 10 May 1940, 616 Squadron were involved covering the British withdrawal at Dunkirk. On 1 June, Bell succeeded in shooting down a Me.109, but was then himself shot down, being rescued by a minelayer and returned to Britain at Dover.
John, also known as ‘Jack’, related this episode to his parents in this letter home:
Dear Mother and Daddy,
Thanks for your letter, we now have writing facilities under control here, so your envelope is superfluous really, but it was a good idea.
We have been continuing patrols but had no activity until yesterday when altogether the Squadron shot down about twelve in the course of two patrols. I got a Messerschmitt 109, which is a single seater fighter, but ran out of ammunition and his companions got onto me and I got shot down. After a most exciting time, about three miles from the coast. Only one enemy was still after me, and had a few shots at me in the water but I think his ammunition was gone or he thought I was (I was hiding under the tailplane) for after a burst of about ten rounds he went away. My machine sunk at the same time so I had to swim for it to the ship by the shore taking off the B.E.F. – I knew they would have no boats to send for me if they saw me. When I was about half a mile away some of the ships started moving so I fired three rounds on my revolver, and one of them answered with three shots and her signal lamp, which made me happier! Then when I was only three hundred yards away from the nearest it started to move, but they shouted to me and put off a small boat, the sort you find on childrens’ boating lakes! (All this time, you see, German aircraft had been machine gunning the beach and the boats going between it and the beach) and was manned by a rating and a Tommy who had volunteered to come out. As soon as I was aboard we moved off to go into Dunkirk harbour to take on more troops – without boats we couldn’t take on any more from the beach (ten boats which should have been there were still on their way across the channel – great strings of rowing boats and Thames motor launches towed by tugs). In Dunkirk I was feeling better and came up on deck as we drew alongside. We were in there for about three-quarters of an hour and never stopped being bombed once. The ship was only a sloop with no armour plating, and only two xxxxx guns and a few Lewis guns. We augmented these with rifles and bren guns. Then we came out and started home, we got bombed again on the way back but not hit although one salvo of eight was very close, and we got a few fragments – most were very minute and did nothing but fleck the deck. It was a good sight to get into Dover, but everyone was too tired to exhibit any delight! No charming crowds of beautiful girls or anything!
The Navy had dried and ironed my shirt, collar, tie x pants and socks but my uniform was still pretty damp and I had no shoes, but the army looked after all that when we got to Dover.
Then I was driven over to Hawkinge and flown back here just 16 hours after I had left! It was most amusing on the ship when I went into the wardroom there sat a friend of mine, David Dobie, who is in the East Yorks.
Just before midnight, the Air Ministry rang up – I answered and they asked me the number and any other initial of the J. Bell, F/O, who was missing in order to inform his next of kin – I said he wasn’t missing any longer – so they asked me if I was certain!
616 moved north to Leconfield on 6 June to recuperate. In the middle of the month Bell damaged a Heinkel He.115 which jettisoned its mines and escaped. Later, on 1 July 1940, he shared in damaging a Heinkel He.111 over Yorkshire.
616 Squadron moved back to 11 Group and RAF Kenley on 19 August 1940 when they replaced 64 Squadron who made the reciprocal trip north. 616 were heavily engaged over the forthcoming days, regularly flying in squadron strength on patrols and interceptions.
Flying on the first sortie of the day at 11.30am, 30 August, Bell was part of an eight aircraft interception of Dornier Do.17s and escorting Messerschmitt Me.109s over West Malling in Kent. In a head-on attack against the Me.109s, Bell was shot down and his Spitfire X4248 crashed and burned out. It appeared, to some witnesses in the ground, that he tried to get his burning Spitfire back to West Malling, but fell short. It is unclear whether he perished after baling out too low or died in his aircraft as a result of the fire. Bell was the fourth pilot from 616 to lose his life whilst the squadron was stationed at Kenley.
As a result of these losses and other wounded pilots, the squadron moved to Coltishall on 3 September.
John Swift Bell is buried in St Peter’s Cemetery, Eastgate, Lincoln, he was 23 at the time of his death.
For further information, please see links below.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.