Interview with Jack Bell


Interview with Jack Bell


Jack Bell joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a wireless operator/air gunner and joined 216 Squadron, at Heliopolis, near Cairo. He flew in Valentia and Bombay aircraft in a transport role. On an operation over Libya, his aircraft was shot down by ground fire and he was badly injured. He was transported to Italy, on a hospital ship. He spent time in a prisoner of war camp at Parma and was then transferred to a punishment camp, PG 65 at Gravina. After an escape plot was discovered, he was moved to PG 57 at Grupignano near Udine. When Italy capitulated, Bell was transferred to Stalag IV-B near Mühlberg in Germany. Here he spent the rest of the war. He discusses his experiences of camp life, including smuggling Florence Barrington into the camp as her son was imprisoned there. Jack Bell was repatriated to Great Britain in 1945 and then returned to Australia. He discusses his difficulties of adapting to civilian life.




Temporal Coverage




00:57:14 audio recording


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AP: So this interview for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive is with Jack Bell the 216 Squadron wireless operator, shot down over Libya during World War Two and spent a number of years as a prisoner of war. The interview is taking place at Jack’s home in Surrey Hills in Melbourne. My name is Adam Purcell it is the 30th of January 2016. So Jack, might as well start with the early stuff if you don’t mind. Tell me something about your early life growing up, what you did before the war.

JB: Well I was born in 1917 and of course when I went to school it was the period of what was called the Great Depression which in both the UK and Australia the unemployment was about rating 30 per cent. And to look for a job, I tramped the streets of Brisbane for two and a half months without success, and my Sunday School bible teacher worked at a company called DMW Murray and he rang my mother to say send him, send Jack in straight away, and I was one of about twenty boys, they were lined up outside this accountant’s office and six of us were told to ‘stand over there’. That’s how I started work and I got, and I got one dollar twenty eight a week, of which I gave a dollar to my mother and two, two, twenty eight cents half of that was rail fare and the rest was mine to spend. We worked from eight thirty in the morning to quarter twenty, a quarter twenty past five and we couldn’t leave the department until we put the wrappers on until the manager left, which could sometimes be quarter to six. Well I struggled through that area and when I turned eighteen I decided I, I wanted to join the military, and so I went into the Australian military forces and an artillery section called the Fourteenth Battery Fifth Field Brigade, which was weekend jobs and sort of once every fortnight on parade and went on bivouacs and camps and I got, came out, finished up being the acting gun sergeant and, with twenty five-pounder guns and I could hit an ant hill, with ranging shots over about three thousand yards over a hill. So when the war broke out we were put into camp in Colander for a month’s camp. I decided I was going to join the air force. The reason being, if I could hit an ant hill over that far away, I’m going to get up in the air where it is more difficult to hit, and the strangest thing about it is all my mates who stayed in the artillery all came back home and I got shot down. Now, I tried to join the air force in Nov- end of November ‘39 and it was, I had to do an adapt, what they called an adaptability course, this was I had to listen to sounds and say yes no, yes no they were the same or not. I failed the course. Eventually I called up in aircrew in May 1945, passed the medical test sufficiently healthy to be a pilot. Well on the 24th of May we were called up and I was told I was a wireless operator air gunner. And the first interview I had was to see if I could do, become a wireless operator. I couldn’t, didn’t pass the test but I am now a wireless operator air gunner. We travelled by train from Brisbane to Benalla. Our initial training there was four weeks before we started and six months later about the end of, middle end of November, we finished our course and I was up to twenty six receiving and twenty four sending in Morse. We were sent to Evans Head to do our gunnery school. Now we had sixteen Fairey Battles which had been sent out from England a lot of them still battered with sh, shell shot holes. There were three of them actually serviceable. I can quite honestly say that my training as an air gunner was two flights in those Fairey Battles over a range, firing a GO gun and I never ever believed I ever even got anywhere near hitting the target, but we all passed out as they so desperately needed aircrew that we were all presented with our air gunners’ badges. And we left Brisbane on the first of Feb and went down by train to Sydney and about two hundred twenty five of us, pilots, navigators and wireless air gunners left on the “Aquitania” to go to Britain. We were going through the Indian Ocean when we were diverted to India. We spent a month in India, then went over to Africa, Port Tawfiq, we went into camp, which we actually erected the tents ourselves, or most of them we did. We stayed there for about six to eight weeks and I was sent to a little place called Helioplis, Heliopolis just outside Cairo to an aerodrome. And because there was not, not sufficient aircraft there, twenty five of us were sent to do a cypher course, which took three weeks I think from memory. Came back, everybody else was posted, I was left there on my own. Little did I know that I had been posted to 216 Squadron which was based on that aerodrome. Until, I didn’t find out until August and the warrant officer in charge came and said ‘Jack’, he said, ‘you should have been with us since May’. I should, how would I- I used to go to the warrant officer in charge and ask, ‘what am I doing, why have I been posted?’ So anyway I finished up on 216 Squadron which was equipped with Vickers Valentias. The Valentia was built in 1922, I’m not quite sure. It was a canvas aircraft, fixed under cart, and the pilot and navigator sat in the outside in the cockpit wearing pith helmets with a windscreen. Now as far as I can remember its top speed was about eighty two miles an hour although from information received it should have been about one hundred and twenty but, from what I understand what we went through, I don’t believe we got more than eighty two miles an hour unless we were going downhill of course, diving. But I do remember one incident that we were passed by a truck on the ground because we were flying into a head wind and we were going up the desert to a little place called Mersa Matruh. It took us nearly three and a half hours to get there and we came back, bringing back a few wounded from the front, which we brought back to Heliopolis. From then I was transferred to a Bristol Bombay, now this aircraft was ninety four foot wingspan and sixty six feet long. It was supposed to do one hundred and eighty miles per hour and the most we ever got it up to was one hundred and thirty two but its cruising speed was about one hundred and twelve. And our function was, bomber transport it had been taken out of bombers as it was only equipped with one GO gun forward and a rear turret, rear turret but if the air gunner sat in the rear turret, the bomb load was dropped and fuel was expended the tail dropped and we lost I think it was eight or ten aircraft that way before we found out that the main spar, had been altered by the ship builders Harland and Wolff to the design of eh, the Bristol Aircraft Company. We were then put on this range of supporting the long range desert group with supplies, fuel and dropping people behind the lines in landing grounds that were given numbers. The strange thing about the long range desert group was that they never would that, that, they, at the landing ground until after we landed, ‘cause they’d stay on the hill and come down, we would take all the stuff out of the aircraft and leave it there on the ground, we would help them load it onto their beach buggies. And they survived in that area in the desert for about six months at a time it was incredible that they, they had very little water. I mean there were a few oases at Dura, Bug and other little places that they managed to get water from. But they were operating from virtually behind the lines doing sabotage work. We also did train the first group of SAS troops that were formed by Captain Stirling, and the principle of the parachuting was that, a thousand feet was the height from which were supposed to be dropped. Which was the official, as I understand it, official height for the air force to, to do. But David Stirling said, ‘no it isn’t we are fully packed with eighty five pound weight, packed and need to do it from five hundred feet’. Well this strange mob, they were all sorts of people as a matter of fact I met Johnnie Gregson afterwards at prison camp. They were hard-nosed and they were tough men, they came from all walks of life through the British army, Palestinians and all types. And they did drop from five hundred feet. Of course it was a static line drop. So as the big sergeant major stood in the door, he pushed them out because the tail plane was so big if he didn’t push them out they would have hit the tail plane as they dropped down and the ‘chute would open and they would drift away. Now I didn’t go on an operation dropping behind the lines but, three of my mates did do and what they did, they had this delayed action little plastic explosives which they always blew off the port wing of the aircraft, never starboard so they couldn’t bastardise it to rebuild the aircraft. Sometimes it took them ten to twelve days to get back, walking back from where they had been dropped. And the stories that they used to tell me on how they walked on bits of rubber off burned-out trucks, their boots were gone and even to some extent they drank their own urine because they didn’t have water. They tried to get water out the old beach buggies and wind-damaged trucks on the way back, and some of them did perish. But in all it was a wonderful experience for a young fellow like me and the worst thing I think I’d ever had to do was we were flying to bring back the wounded from a tank battle at Sidi Rezegh in November 1942, no I am sorry 1941. We landed behind the hill and picked up twenty one stretcher cases. Now if you can imagine, men had been in tanks and those tanks had been hit and burst into flames, how horrific it was to hear those men crying out for water when you knew darned well you couldn’t give them a drink of water. And we did three trips this day, I don’t know how many survived the, the journey, we tried to do the best we could for them but I am sure that over half of them would have died. Now we certainly had our funny sides you know in life, in the desert. For instance there were probably a million flies per square foot, and our meals were generally bully beef and biscuits or goldfish, in other words herrings in tomato sauce. So our skipper used to say, ‘well lets go up for a bit’, and we used to fly around for half an hour and take all this goldfish and all this bully beef with us to cool it down and drop back, and we had to then, the crew, the aircrew would get it all together, grab the food and eat it best they could before the flies got it. We used to play cricket, had good times, we played poker did all sorts of funny things. But it was a very great curve of learning, it taught me tolerance of people, how their behaviour. And this day that we left on the 23rd of January 1942, I’ll never forget it, Tony Carter and I were not in a fixed crew, we were relieving people on different crews. We took off this morning round about eight o’clock, half past eight to fly to place called Msus and, we were taking up a couple of replacement aircrew pilots, some medical supplies and we were to pick up, as we understood it, a section of a brigade headquarters to bring them back. Unfortunately the actual British intelligence was two days behind what the, where the actual front was. So we flew up to Msus we were flying at three thousand feet above the cloud bank and as we approached near Msus we flew down from Derna down toward, Msus is south of Benghazi. Well the escarpment was coming up and we were flying down the escarpment and an echelon of 15th panzer division Afrika Korps boys were coming up to attack into Derna. Well the second pilot categorically stated that we were shot down by a tank which I never, never believe because the ground fire, they had bofors guns the same as we did and their anti-aircraft well, the shells to me were not eighty eight mils that was shot by a tank, they were more by point five. And these point fives rattled across the mainplane and down the centre of the aircraft, killed my mate Tony Carter, who was beside me who was the navigator, broke the leg of, the captain of the aircraft, the second pilot didn’t get a scratch. So ultimately he had to lose his leg the first pilot, and one of the pilots who was in the back, who we were taking up as a replacement he lost an arm and both of them were repatriated back to Britain in August 1942, which was good luck to them. Tony Carter was my friend we didn’t train on the same course, we went away together, we lived together for all that time, and the worse thing I had to do in my life was to go and see his mother after the war in August 1945. He was an heir to one of the largest car dealers in Sydney, Lartney Even Carter, and he was an only son and I can see it even now. I can see his mother looking at me with the belief in her eyes why was it my son and not you and I, I can never forget it. Well I finished up, operated on by a German doctor who incidentally happened to be a Harley Street abdominal specialist. He was one of the reparation doctors sent to England after the First World War and he was a very excellent, ‘are you married, had kids?’ and he told me, ‘they don’t trust me Jack’, he said, ‘I shall never be the boss, I’m only second in charge’, but he said ‘I went to Germany in August ’39’, he said, ‘they wouldn’t let me back’. Now I owe my life to that man and he came to me after about eight or nine days when I was being intravenously fed and he gave me eight vials of morphine. He said, ‘you are going to go to Tripoli’, which is four hundred miles away on the back of a three-ton truck with other wounded. He said ‘I strongly suggest you jab one of these vials into your leg in the morning and one at night time’. Well he did one, he jabbed my leg that morning when we left and unfortunately, that night I didn’t realise, what, actually how I’d be treated getting me off the truck into the little hospital area for the night. Well I was rolled off the stretcher, naturally travelling all day on these unmade roads, pot holes and all sorts of holes and damage, the fourteen stitches, lateral stitches I had were starting to break. So I jabbed myself with one of them morphines and the seepage was starting to come through, come through the bandages. Well the next three days I don’t remember because I made sure I shot myself in the morning and on the night before, before we got off the truck. Now the second phase of my life story is when we arrived at Tripoli we were taken to a hospital, I don’t think it was a prisoner of war hospital, because it was a brick building and I was cared for by a nurse, she would be in her fifties, spoke perfect English. This doctor came and inspected me and he said, eh, she looked after me and dressed me. Now the German doctor put two lateral stitches over the top of my fourteen stitches to hold the wound together, unfortunately every stitch broke. The bandage was just full and whole of my abdomen, my abdominal seal, my skin my stomach was wide open and he said, the doctor said, ‘well we will let nature take its course we haven’t got the facilities to restitch you’. Now that lady brought me a little bowl of pasta to eat and I couldn’t eat it, I couldn’t just eat it and she said, she cleaned me up and she said ‘well look, unless you eat you’ll die’. She went outside and there was a quince tree and she actually picked a quince and cooked it with sugar for me and gave it to me. Now that is the second person, the second, she was the enemy but she fed me that quince, sweetened quince and that was the way I started to eat again. I had very little to eat I was transhipped to Italy on a hospital ship, the “Aquilla”, which was a passenger ship that used to come out to Australia before the war. The matron in charge was Countess Ciano who was Mussolini’s daughter. She was, she made sure that she came and spoke to every prisoner that was in the, in the hold of that ship. We landed at Caserta, at Naples and were sent to Caserta and the doctor there, Major Martin, a British doctor, had nothing. Had no, no medical supplies and he said to me, ‘I can’t do anything I will just have to bandage you up’. Now the food was foreign to me, it was pasta, rice, boiled rice and so forth and they weighed me at the end of February and I weighed six stone four pounds. I was shipped up to a little place called Parma outside Milan for recovery. I sold my wristlet watch for two boxes of chocolates to give to Skippy Palmer who was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Australian navy, he was planning an escape. The silly orderly I sold the watch to showed it round to his mates and the plan, the plot was discovered of course. Now at that stage I could stand and I was bent over, probably about a thirty degree angle and they posted me to a punishment camp. Gravina PG 65, there were probably six hundred in that camp and I was the, the catering officer for the weekend. Now we got, I can’t quite remember which way it went but we got twelve broccoli and eleven cabbage or reversed and a bunch of fennel for six hundred men for two days. The cooks just bashed it all up, all roots and all and just put it into the big copper and heated it up and served it as a brew. Now the death rate in that little camp that I was there for the four weeks, was approximately six a week. They were just, we were starving and one of the fellows there told me that the original camp group was three thousand in Libya and of those three thousand, a thousand had died in the six weeks previous to that time from starvation. I was sent after being at Gravina I was sent up to a little place at Udine which is south of (it), Grupignano is just south of Udine near Trieste under the Dolomite mountains. Terribly cold in winter and hot in summer. The camp was probably two thousand Australians and fourteen hundred New Zealanders with odd Indian and Cypriots and South Af-, Canadians there. Now the life in the camp was if you behaved yourself it was alright, but if anybody caused a misdemeanour of some sort, like talking in the ranks while the count was going on, he wasn’t punished but the lieutenant, or captain in charge, would take six people out of the ranks and put them in a hut, in the jail for a week each. That was their way of punishing you, they didn’t punish the perpetrator. The food was inadequate, we were walking around the camp holding each other up, we were suffering from beriberi. Fortunately some Red Cross parcels did get through and at one time I remember getting one parcel to six men, there was supposed to be one a week per person. But we managed to survive and by the middle of, oh 1943, it was obvious that the Italians, had landed, the British forces had landed in Sicily and come up the, and they were going to give in. So the food improved, everything improved. As a matter of fact we used to play cricket there. I will never forget Sergeant Fitzy Vincent, his grandson played for New Zealand in test cricket, was the skipper of the hut that we played and the food was so (incredible) at that time we bet we would beat that hut, hut number 26 we were in number 32 and we played a cricket team each. Then I took eight wickets for two runs because I, with my stomach all ruptured I could only bowl a slow, slow left hand, right hand off break. And the balls were made out of coir string, because they wouldn’t allow us to have the ordinary cricket, cricket balls and we won the match. We had all the food we could possibly eat it was fantastic. Also played two up, we broke, I broke the bank one day after thirteen straight hits I backed tails for thirteen straight, the week later and Socksy Simon and Coffee Walpole were the runners, they ran the two up school. I had so much of their camp money, I gave it to the hut commander (Nocker) West and said right go and buy up, there was a shop at that time, they were selling bottles of marsala. I forgot how much they were but we got enough that I don’t remember the next twenty four hours. September the 23rd I think it was, Italy capitulated and the British sent messages to say stay where you are, you will be relieved in the next twelve to twenty four hours. The forces were down near Rome and we couldn’t work out how they were going to do that, but the Germans had us surrounded that night and the next day they put us on these cattle trucks to go to Germany. Well it took ten days to get to Stalag IV-B which was a little place called Mühlberg, which was just about on the Elbe River. It was south of Berlin, east of Leipzig and north of Dresden and two miles away was Falkenberg which was a railway centre, absolutely fantastic railway system there. What they didn’t tell us of course was that sixty kilometres away there was the underground factory for getting oil out of coal, it was all underground, which we didn’t learn about for a while but we eventually got to know about it. Now Stalag IV-B was probably at that stage the worst prison camp in Germany. It was thirty two acres and that, when we arrived there it was so full we slept on tents on the parade ground and it was the middle of October. The food was according to the Germans adequate, well it was sufficient to give us about, the doctors worked out about two thousand calories and we needed two thousand two hundred and fifty to keep us alive. Eventually Red Cross parcels did come in I think it was early December we got a Red Cross parcel which helped us immeasurably and it was January before we got into huts. At one time we had thirty five thousand prisoners in this thirty two acres. Now each hut was ten metres wide and thirty metres long, with an ablution block and another hut thirty metres long and ten metres back. We had four blocks of two in our compound, we had about two thousand one hundred, two thousand two hundred prisoners there. Our particular hut, we organised, coming up from Italy, we had a system organised in eating food, that you had a numbering system. You took your place in a queue if there was a hundred in the queue you took up ninety eight, ninety nine whatever it was but you remembered the one before you, the one after you and each day you went out and got that. Because at the end of, out of these big huge dixies they used to bring in you got half a litre of a scoop out put in. Well at the end there probably might be about enough for another twelve or fourteen to get second half scoops. So they, then they’d move back and those boys would then move up so the next day they’d get their share and it worked very well. A typical, it was either sauerkraut, millet, sugar beet or, well, a gruel of some sort, it could be endives there were all sorts of things in it, a vegetable soup. The Red Cross parcels in Germany were far more frequently issued than they were in Italy, but just enough to keep us going. And some of those parcels of course had particular marks on them. And we didn’t know, or the average prisoner didn’t know that these were sent out, they were actually sent out by MI5 and then there were, escape maps were put under the labels at the top and all that sort of thing hid. And a friend of mine Bennie Royle who was in the camp with me, badly injured, inoffensive looking bloke. He was the assistant man of confidence and I didn’t know until after the war was finished and we came home, what he did. He was on the escape committee and he used to collect that stuff and a man of confidence himself had to really say, no I can’t help escapees because he was the contact between the detaining power and the rest of the British prisoners. If he said, he said he would do something that would mean the camp would be punished so, it was offloaded to Ben and Ben used to get clothing, all sorts of stuff and he’d, they’d move it around, now there’s articles I’ve got, I went to a man of confidence and he wouldn’t do this and he wouldn’t do that. That’s right he didn’t do it, but it was being done and unless you are actually allowed and they’d given permission for you to escape, you couldn’t get anything. Because it had to be well organised because otherwise the actual stretch of supply would be found out. Now as the war continued, the Russians they lost sixty thousand Russians in the winter of 1941-42 when they arrived there from cholera, typhus and their, their death rate we got now our loaf of bread for three of us moved in, one loaf of bread three days, one loaf of bread four days, they got one loaf of bread for seven men for seven days. Their basis was that they couldn’t kill us they had so many prisoners that it didn’t matter, they were on top. Now when the bread parcels, bread trucks used to come in there was a tractor coming, two big carriers behind. It was all squares the camp and the road that come down and the road to turn right to go to the, the actual hut that stored the bread. The Russian boys used to stand all round on these corners any twenty to thirty of them. Now the guard was an old and bold from the First World War and he had a single bolt action rifle. They worked on the surmise he could only get at the most two shots away so they used to jump at these trac-, these trolleys, big truck bases, grab all the food and run. Now some did get killed. I unfortunately witnessed one day with two of my friends, Sandy Jones and Jimmy Edwards, oh a German warrant officer called an oberfeldwebel actually kicked a Russian to death. Stomped on him because he attempted to steal a loaf of bread. We couldn’t do anything, there was the guard standing there with his rifle at the ready, but that oberfeldwebel, I’ve got the facts of the case right here in this room. At the end of the war he was reported to the Russian before, when they came over and relieved us on the 23rd of May and the man of confidence said, gave all the information, ‘we have dealt with him’. In other words he was killed, in fact most of the Nazi party members of their guard system didn’t survive the Russians coming into the camp. We did have escape committees we had, we had tunnels dug. Unfortunately I couldn’t do very much with that. But I could act as eyes, lookout if there was anything. I used to raid the coal shed to get some coal, but Norman again a friend of mine living in Adelaide, he was only a little fellow, he was a wireless operator same as myself. And he used to go down the, down these tunnels and bring the sand, soft sandy soil out and his mate was Gil (Lenshort) who was six foot four and grandson of a German migrant and he was a builder by trade, so he was, he actually lined the tunnels with our bed boards and sheets of ply that came with the Canadian parcels so that people could get through the tunnel. In fact the French prisoners were amazing boys, there were about four thousand I suppose French in the camp. Gil got stuck one day, down, right down from putting a piece of board up on top on top of the bed boards. We were digging under the garden, French garden, the French were gardening there for the Germans to get vegetables and a tomato plant with all the soil dropped down on top of him. Of course we had a leg rope on and he was pulled out but he was black and blue when he got out. Now the French they didn’t say a word they just picked the piece of board up, they came over and they put it in, put the earth back and put another tomato plant back in. They were, they brought to our camp, you (couldn’t), unbelievable what they did. Of course they were given more liberty than we were because the Germans had their families under their control and so you know, but being prisoners for so long they were accepted and they could move round the camp and outside the camp with much ease than what we could. For instance we had a chap named Freddy Ward who was a policeman in New Zealand before the war, and he joined up and I think he was in the 19th Battalion I can’t quite remember I forget which one. But he was in the military police and he was in our camp PG 57 in Grupignano, Northern Italy, but on the way to Germany he escaped out of one of the, one of the trucks. Got to Croatia or Yugoslavia of course as it was then, and he did his bit. From what we were told he was, he was finally captured by the Germans and arrested, to be court marshalled, but he had killed five German soldiers. Now he was brought into the camp, a funny thing about the Germans at this stage you didn’t, weren’t sent into camp dirty and dishevelled, you had to be washed and cleaned, your uniform cleaned and you looked like a proper soldier to go in. So the word came out, walk round the compound, out everybody out, this was Bennie Royle and his mates organising this. I only knew one French POW named Pierre, I can’t remember his surname, but he was a nice fellow. They went into the shower block to shower, took a spare uniform with them. When Freddie came out of the showers he mingled with the French prisoners, they dressed him as a French prisoner of war and he walked out back to their hut like that and came into our compound. Was hidden in the ceiling of one of the huts by the New Zealand contingent on the camp, and the Gestapo put a watch in the camp in one of the huts. And he stayed every day there was a fellow there watching on the proviso they reckoned that one day he’ll walk past that window and we’ll get him. Well he walked past that window many, many times. Never was found we used to wave to the bloke as we moved, we’d go to soccer matches we waved and Freddie waved and talked and smiled. Course, he would lay under a little bed and got, a different hairstyle, he wore glasses, well he didn’t, put nothing in them, just the frames and you know the French were able to do that. Now the strangest thing that happened which I never knew about until 1983. There was a fellow in the hut number 32 I was in 32b, that’s right 32b, I was in 34b. Named Barrington, Winston Barrington he was a pilot. Now he was holidaying in Europe prior to the first, prior to the beginning of war with his mother, and in August ‘39 they were in Austria and his wife, his mother got very sick. So when war broke out, being in Austria he was allowed to leave and he went back to England but his mother was left in this hospital. And, Winston got trained as a pilot came in, got shot down, finished in IV-B and course the Red Cross advised the parents eventually where their son were, was. So she, in 1944, yes would be ‘44 she wrote to the, she found out that he was in our camp. She wrote to the hut, the compound commander IV-B. IV-B commander, he was a nice enough bloke he was a Wehrmacht boy he wasn’t a Nazi or Gestapo. And he gave permission for her to come to the camp and see her son. So she moved to Mühlberg and took a place, a room or something in the little village there and stayed, stayed there and every two weeks she was allowed to come in. They were met in the, outside the actual camp in the German camp area in [indistinct word]. Now that lady in November, end of October I think it was, it could have been November I think it was the end of October. The escape committee decided, Hitler made a statement that all POWs were going to be shot and all this sort of thing so, I feared for her life because she was a foreigner living in Mühlberg so, she was certainly being watched by the local police and that sort of thing but, they decided they would bring her in the camp. Now, the French POWs again, they took a uniform with them and they’d, each working day, went to work every day went to work they would drop a piece of this off in to this lady. And the final day came and it had to be done so, as you went out of the camp you were counted, so they doubled and they had one extra out of the camp so they would cover the one extra coming back in. Being in fives you can do that, but in threes, it is very difficult but the Germans march in fives, so put four in or put six in it’s still five, five, three four. So they brought this lady in, Florence Barrington. Now, John Bailey lived in that same hut 32b he was the secretary of the Mühlberg motor club that we had and he didn’t know and she lived in that hut and he didn’t know until they were relieved on the 26th of May, when they were taken out on trucks, that she was in that hut. There were six men knew in that hut that she was there. The French knew but they didn’t say anything, they were remarkable, remarkable the French prisoners. And she was guarded now in the finish I was told, I’ve got it all here she would go on parade and answer, yeah, to her name. Now, in 1983 she went to the Edinburgh POW meeting there the annual meeting and showed up. Everybody was surprised and her story went right round Great Britain in different newspapers her story was published and that lady lived there from Nov-, early November ’44 right through to the end of, the end of the war, incredible, incredible. Well there is not much else I can say, I can tell you a lot of stuff but the [laughs].

AP: That’s your story in a nutshell.

JB: That’s enough I think well, to this day I don’t believe we were shot down by a tank but, of course as a POW the story gets around you know. ‘Oh he was shot down by a tank’, and it became fact but it’s fiction.

AP: Yes

JB: It’s typical

AP: You tell a story often enough you start believing it.

JB: Well course that’s right yes.

AP: I do have a couple more of more specific questions I would like to get to but, the word came back to here I’m getting a bit loud. Anyway I’ll carry on. What I’m interested in, you never actually got to the UK did you?

JB: Only after the war.

AP: Only after the war so you were sort of on a boat going in that direction?

JB: We were under Bomber Command’s umbrella but we were in the Middle East and were just a Bomber transport section.

AP: Okay. So you said you were not in a particular crew, you were sort of an odd job.

JB: Well there were two of, there’s the, they were regular crews, but normally speaking in a transport group there is the pilot and navigator, wireless operator, or that’ll be (Ben) but, people get sick, you know, so we were sort of, ‘we’ll take your place today’ and will be there somewhere else tomorrow, we had, plenty of work, every day there was somewhere you went, we used to go to Cyprus, all round the place. But the flights were pretty short you know, two, two and a half hours and back. But we were coming back one day [laughs] from somewhere we had landed at -. In the distance we could see an Italian Bomber going one way we were going the other [laughs]. We were strafed by an ME109 one day we were damned lucky, we were damned lucky we were on the ground.

AP: What did you think of the, em, you know the first time you saw one of these Vickers Valentia beasts, well what was your impression? ‘What have they given me?’

JB: Well, I don’t know whether you have ever seen it, out at Tullamarine they had the Vickers Vimy that the Smith brothers, well that’s virtually what it was, that plane there. There was the Vickers Victoria, the Vimy and the Vickers Victoria which had a skid at the back and a fixed undercart. Now these were canvas and five hundred horse power motors. Then they made the Valentia which had a wheel at the back and we can [laughs], ah now well. But look, we had what aircraft what we had seen? We’d seen an Avro Anson, a Fairey Battle and that’s about all when we left Australia and out of those two hundred and twenty five odd blokes only thirty six came back anyway. Now the turnover of pilots, of forty pilots thirty eight were killed, twelve came back nine of which were prisoners of war you know. It’s, but the Vickers Valentia was like a bus [laughs] oh dear. All [?] you start your (landing) and we had to carry a fitter, rigger a fitter to wire up and a rigger to take the, all the (scissors) off the ailerons [laughs] flaps [laughs].

AP: It sounds to me that it wouldn’t have been a particularly reassuring aircraft in which to go to war.

JB: No not at all, but we didn’t know any better, I mean that was the, grateful you went there you know, you’re flying for the King and Empire, it was just accepted.

AP: The bomb bay then was that a step up or-?

JB: It was a step up but let’s be honest. I mean it was a huge thing, underpowered it only carried eight two hundred and fifty pound bombs. What’s that, it’s nothing and to drop them indiscriminately because the bomb aimer, the actual bomb aiming apparatus we had was so old you know. And the air gunner and the fitter and rigger used to throw out twenty five pound anti-personnel bombs out of the flare path, flare chute indiscriminately they said they didn’t know where they are, didn’t know. They sent us on these useless missions they were taken out of service they were just useless, absolutely useless [laughs].

AP: How did you find, after your experience of, you know you being shot down and badly injured as you told and, you go through all the, the three years as a prisoner, em coming back to Australia would have been a bit interesting I imagine. How did you find re-adjusting to civilian life?

JB: Very difficult, I couldn’t get over the squeaky noise the women made. I mean see, living amongst men for three and a half years and there wasn’t any WAAF in the air force when I went away. I only saw one WAAF the whole time before I was shot down, that was a wing commander on an advance party to Egypt to bring the WAAFs out to Egypt that was in I think November, December ’41, something like that. When I got back to England and we were put into these barracks in, in, where did we go to, oh, I’ll think what I meant, time lapse, Brighton. All, all the girls there were WAAFs and they were cooking and they were serving you and they were yap yap yap, and this high-pitched voice, we couldn’t attune to it, it was incredible. Well I must admit the British public they were hard, gee they were hard, hard pressed but by golly were they good to us. You know I mean I was given, when I went, when I got back the fellow said, ‘how much money?’ ‘Oh give me ten pound’, he said, ‘I’ll see you in the morning, I said, ‘no this will last me the week I’m a-’. He saw me the next morning [laughs]. ‘Cause I bought a pound of grapes that cost me thirty shillings, I went to a, to dinner and I ordered up and it cost me eight pounds and I was broke [laughs] I had a couple of beers and I was broke [laughs]. But when I went with one of my boys from the hut where I was living in Heliopolis, I was the hut commander and he was one of the fittest on the squadron, he actually lived in Brighton, we managed to meet each other and his wife was living there and they only had rooms that were in a building. And so I said ‘oh’, she said, ‘I’ve got to go and get some shopping, I’ve got to go and get the rations’. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘I’ll come with you’, because I never saw what the rations were like or anything you know. So I went into the fish shop and of course I had a brand new uniform on, you know, everything brand new. And then, we got standing in the queue and this fishmonger said, ‘lass come up’, he said, ‘who’s that’? She said, ‘he’s a prisoner of war, he’s a friend of my husband’s’. They gave her on my behalf double ration, free. Now, and the people clapped around and for me and I’m in tears, it’s hard to, to accept that, it feels sort of, this is [unclear], to think that. Oh, they were really wonderful people, they were, excellent, they were good.

AP: What was the reception like back in Australia, when you went to your home?

JB: Well, being not so well, when I got back to Australia we came back on the “Orion” through the Panama Canal and got into Sydney. And my company that I worked for, DMW Murray, had arranged for me to go to them that day to stay there. So I wasn’t with the whole group of people that came back to Brisbane. Eh I came back two days later so they went to march through the city. And of course the reception wasn’t like it was for the Japanese boys the next month because don’t forget we had been out of prison in May 1945 and didn’t sail home until August. Now we were all fat looking, all well dressed, didn’t look as though we were prisoners of war at all and the reception was, wasn’t too great. Now I was told, ‘why did I go to Europe to fight’? Now the bloody war in Japan hadn’t even, I mean, you know we went to the RSLs to join up and they said we will have to put you on a list because it was like a hundred people trying to fit into this house. It was just all these things that we had to accept and live with, try and live back again to get back to normal. It took me years to get back to normal. My wife can tell you, you know at night time I didn’t know what I was doing but I was thrashing around, kicking about and moaning and she said I still do it. But you know I don’t know that I do it but, it took a long, long time a long time, a long time, ehm.

AP: You em, you mentioned before we actually started that you give talks and obviously from the way you have told me your story here obviously you do this fairly often [laughs], are you pretty good at it?

JB: Well, I got more of the stuff there that I still haven’t told you of what has happened in the camp and that sort of thing, but I couldn’t talk, I wrote that story it’s not, it’s full. I told stuff that doesn’t appear in it. But it was the greatest thing that I ever did because it released me from not knowing, it was out, it was out in the world somewhere and it enabled me to talk to people that weren’t old enough to go to the war and wanted to know what happened in the war. Of course 1987, 1990 we’re talking forty years later so it wasn’t so bad, but the number of people I talk to it’s amazing you know, incredible. I mean I, I got stuff there that when Warsaw fell they brought in twelve hundred women, all Jewish girls of course, and they came to our camp now they were just picked up of the streets and put in these cattle trucks and brought in. They had nothing, just what they, not a handkerchief, not a, when they appeared at the camp they had nothing, and Pat (Noughty] who was from Western Australia and he actually married one of those girls. They exchanged addresses and he was the go-between. We got handkerchiefs, underpants, singlets and stuff and gave it to them. And, one of them must have survived because Pat married her, I don’t know what happened about it but, a month, two weeks later a group of boys came in from eight to eighteen you can imagine them eight to eighteen. These kids used to run round through the sewers of course, to bring messages to the, they went, they finished up in Dachau I doubt if any one of them back. But in our camp at the end of the war, I can never get this, twelve women came into the camp. I don’t know if you ever seen the Nazi guard for the Jewish prisoners with their grey and white full length like nightgown with a sort of [?] but terrible things. Twelve women came in, they were actually picked up off the railways by a couple of British boys that got out and found them down there. And they, where they slept, they slept in the signal box. No beds, bare foot, and that shroud, no underwear. So we brought them back of course we had taken over the hospital, our doctors had taken over the hospital and they were put to bed. Three of them got out of the bed and lay on the floor, they couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stay. Now how many survived, we know that some died, we don’t know how many, but true I saw them come in and there was not, there was no, what there was just sunken bone, shocking to see, shocking to see. I tell people that they, you know phew, I get so emotional but I am doing it for a purpose because we have twelve hundred widows of POWs living in Australia we only have three hundred and forty POWs left something like that might be a few bob each way. And the reason I don’t take anything I say, no I want a donation given to the POW society, and it has helped them because without people, without getting money you can’t function, you can’t function.

AP: Any closing thoughts, your, your service in general, your, your-.

JB: Well look, to say I enjoyed it all, it’s not right but look. I think it is an experience I would never ever do without but I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody to do it. But look it taught me tolerance; it taught me respect, understanding of other nations. See we had over thirty different nationalities in our camp. You get along, and you have to get along. It’s the same as our Society today we’re getting on. There’s always these bad apples, I mean they’re everywhere you can’t do anything about that but, it taught me you know, I welcome the people that live here, now that’s good. I’m glad that there here, it’s a big country.

AP: It certainly is.

JB: Only I wish the government would do something about our, proper structure, our railways, not roads, railways and transport, never mind.

AP: We won’t get into that I think.

JB: No don’t get into that.

AP: Anyway, all right if ah, that’s pretty well most of the questions, everything else you have pretty well covered or it doesn’t fit in with your service so, thank you very much.

JB: Thank you, thank you Adam.



Adam Purcell, “Interview with Jack Bell,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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