Interview with John Richard Bell


Interview with John Richard Bell


John Bell completed 50 operations as a bomb aimer with 617 Squadron before becoming an instructor.




Temporal Coverage




00:21:47 audio recording


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The interview is taking place at Mr Bell’s home in Storrington on 27th July 2015. During this interview Mr Bell recounts his experiences as a bomb aimer in 617 Squadron.
JB: I and my crew begged Wing Commander Cheshire when we asked if we could join his squadron and he was sat in his office, very nice man to talk to, we were an experienced crew and he still wanted to know why we wanted to join his squadron, so we told him that we would like to be flying a little lower, nearer the ground, but he said ‘oh, but we’re not going to be doing that any more, we’re operating normally’ which of course they were but they were operating mainly over targets in northern France, practically to the build up to the invasion obviously and one installation that I remember on operation was against the [unclear] works at Limoges which was the first time that Leonard Cheshire had marked the target with his own flares and, er, having found that marking was essential he came over the factory at about two to three hundred feet and dropped twice, to drop flares on the target and to ensure that the French workers in the factory could get out and get into the shelter, the word being that we should try to avoid killing French workers during our bombing campaign. He was a very compassionate man and very easy to talk to and very good, very easy to get on with, he didn’t stand on ceremony and he didn’t order you to do things, he just asked you to follow him, whatever he was prepared to do, he was an exceptional man, an exceptional leader. Early in 1944 the Allies became aware of [unclear] reconnaissance of some large structures, concrete structures being built in the Pas de Calais area of France. They did not know what they were at that time although they suspected they were something to do with the V weapons programme which had been discovered after the attacks on Peenemunde. Following the attack on Peenemunde it was known that the Germans were developing two weapons, a rocket programme and also a pilot’s - aeroplane programme carrying, each carrying one tonne of explosive warheads. The V1 launch site was discovered in the Pas de Calais area early in 1944 and also at that time the two large concrete structures which the Allies were not sure of their purpose but felt they were probably connected to the rocket – V2 Rocket programme. The V1 sites were attacked by Bomber Command throughout the next three months of 1944 and the construction of the - what became known as the V2 programme, the two sites, one in the Eperlecques Forest and one near Saint-Omer at [unclear] were watched as the building progressed but they were large concrete structures and could not be attacked, although they were attacked with conventional weapons but not put out of action until the 617 Squadron was equipped with the Tallboy in June 1944. The site at [unclear] near Saint-Omer consisted of a chalk quarry with a cliff at the far end of the quarry and on the top of the cliff we saw the construction of a concrete dome, obviously built there to protect the workings within the cliff. 617 Squadron were assigned to attack it on – several times in June and July, I think about four times altogether, mainly because of cloud interfering on two occasions and Tallboys were used to destroy all the facilities of the site and in fact one landed close to this concrete dome which obviously destroyed the foundations of the structure. One of the operations I was on was the 17th July 1944 and it was a clear day and we approached the site from the north-west and from a long way away I could see quite clearly, from the bomb aimer’s position, the dome covering the installation in the quarry. We approached at the normal speed of close on one hundred and eighty to two hundred miles an hour and at a height of around eighteen thousand feet. I signed up er [pause]
AP: It’s OK John, just keep -
JB: I switched on the bomb sight and carried out all of the normal procedures for the bombing run and directed the pilot to - on the bombing run. This took some time, we were on the run for at least five minutes and the - I had the dome in my bomb sight for all of that time and at the appropriate moment the bomb was automatically released. It was a clear day and I saw the bomb – the Tallboy going down and I followed it all the way down to the target and it exploded just beside the dome, there was an enormous explosion, so that was recorded as an almost - a direct hit and in fact I did shout out ‘Bullseye’ to the crew to let them know that we’d had a pretty good hit.
AP: And the consequence of what happened, about what it did, can you talk a little bit about what – later on you discovered that -
JB: Later, much later, we discovered that the foundations of the dome - the supports of the dome had been severely disrupted and it had tilted to one side. Obviously the site was then unusable, other Tallboys had bombed the whole of the site and the whole facility was useless by then. On the 25th of July 1944 the squadron continued its attacks on the V weapons sites in the Pas de Calais, we bombed the first V2 site that we’d seen at the Eperlecques Forest and this was a large concrete structure which would have taken a great deal of destruction by Tallboys to put it out of action. It - there were several direct hits on the target on that particular day and eventually the installation was put out of action by our attacks and only the oxygen-producing facility was maintained there. Both sites were never able to launch V2s as they were programmed to do. A third construction site was discovered at a village called Mimoyecques, also in the Pas de Calais area, and it was noted that there were a number of concrete underground installations with a pattern of openings in the tops of the structures. The purpose was not known although it was thought that they were – it was going to be used for the launch of some sort of rocket projectile. The whole site was bombed by the main force of Bomber Command and also by 617 Squadron and their Tallboys were able to penetrate deep into the earth and destroy the foundations of these concrete structures, thereby putting it out of action. It was only discovered - the true purpose of the site was discovered after the Armies – the Allied Armies moved through following D-Day and found that it was a site designed to launch projectiles with a warhead of several kilograms towards London and the number of missiles that would have been launched could have been as high as three thousand a day. The intention of the site was to bombard London with projectiles from these - from this supergun, each carrying a warhead of around thirty kilos of explosive and the intention was from the number of projectiles that they could launch would result in some three thousand shells, so-called shells landing in London every hour and the destruction of the site obviously saved London from an enormous barrage of artillery from long range. This site at Mimoyecques was extremely difficult to bomb because it was all buried underground and there was very little to see on the surface except two concrete structures but er – and of course the whole of the site had been bombed pretty heavily by the normal weapons by aircraft from Bomber Command and the United States Airforce so the 617 crews had difficulty in seeing the site but nevertheless were accurate enough with their Tallboys. On July 6th 1944 617 Squadron aircraft, led by the CO, Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, attacked the site at Mimoyecques with Tallboys and completely destroyed the site. This operation on the V3 site at Mimoyecques was Wing Commander Cheshire’s one hundredth bombing operation throughout his bombing career from 1941 onwards and he was stood down from bombing following that day, he was then awarded the Victoria Cross for completing all the operations and for his valour in doing so and his leadership and he was followed in command of the squadron by Wing Commander [unclear] Tate, Wing Commander Tate. In 1941 Barnes Wallis who had given great thought to the bombing of various targets in Germany, particularly those underground or buried installations, and he saw the need for a bomb other than a blast bomb, which was currently in use, a bomb to penetrate the earth and explode below causing some sort of an earthquake. His thought at that time was for a very large bomber flying at forty thousand feet and carrying a ten tonne bomb which of course was quite impractical at that time, but in 1943 the launch of the Air Ministry brought out his project again and asked him to design something that could be carried by perhaps the aircraft of the day, the Lancaster, and so he designed what became known as the Tallboy and he designed it in three sizes – four thousand pounds, twelve thousand pounds and twenty-two thousand pounds, all at that time called Tallboys. The four thousand pound was tested and was found not to be as stable as they thought it should be so the fins on the tail were turned to five degrees from the vertical and this helped to - the bomb to spin as it was dropped thereby giving it great stability and the twelve thousand pounder then became known as the Tallboy and the twenty-two thousand pounder was called the Grand Slam, the twelve thousand pounder was issued to 617 Squadron immediately after D-Day and the first operation was against the Saumur tunnel on I think the 9th of June 1944 and the – it was a complete success in destroying the tunnel and from then on the squadron operated almost solely with Tallboys and later with the Grand Slam, the weapons being central in the destruction of the V weapon sites and any other installation that had been buried below the ground. It had also of course - was later found very – found to be the ideal weapon for destroying bridges and canals so a great weapon by Barnes Wallis again used by the squadron. On the 5th August 1944 we carried out a daylight attack on the U-Boat pens at Brest. This was in bright daylight, sunny day, and I can remember dropping my Tallboy onto the area of the pens and I think it hit fairly close by. My memory of the day is that there was an enormous amount of flak, very heavy flak over the target area but we were, we were not hit, we escaped. My job in the crew in the Lancaster was as a bomb aimer and also as front gunner if need be and my job was to guide the pilot towards the target and then to concentrate on dropping the bombs on whatever the target was and dropping them as accurate as possible and my abiding picture of the whole of all the operations I did, particularly those over Germany at night, was of approaching the target area - the city that was under attack or was about to be attacked and to be met with a wall of anti-aircraft fire. The German gunners would fire their shells into a box at around twenty thousand feet, which was the height we were aiming at, aiming to be at, and we just had to fly through that. It was a pretty awesome sight to behold some miles before we reached the target but by concentrating on what we had to do we just had to ignore it, there was no way you could ig – you could dodge anti-aircraft shells, you just have to fly through them and hope that you’re not going to be hit even by a small amount of shrapnel which of course could damage a vital part of the aeroplane but we were very fortunate that all our operations – that we got through all of them unscathed. Following the raid on the German dams 617 Squadron later became, became used to operate on many other targets for which it was equipped with a bomb sight, a new bomb sight, the stabilising automatic bomb site, also known as SABS. This was a precision-built bomb sight and it was not, it was not used in any other – by any other squadron, mainly because it was difficult to build and very few were actually made. The invention and design of the Tallboy weapon by Barnes Wallis was the – a most important weapon that arrived at the right time in 1944. It was the only weapon that could have destroyed the targets against which it was used, conventional weapons at that time were blast weapons and would have had little or no effect on the structures that the Tallboy attacked and it was, it was essential of course to use it against targets which were buried underground and also, er, heavily armoured targets like battleships, the [targets ?] could never have been bombed by anything else other than a Tallboy so the Tallboy was really the crux of the whole bombing campaign from 1944 onwards to, to hasten the end of the war by destroying those targets which the Germans hoped to use to counter the invasion forces, it just was the [emphasis] weapon that was needed at the right time. The Tallboy was carried in the bomb bay and supported in there by a strap which had – the connection of the strap was electrically operated by the bomb sight at the critical moment. The top of the bomb had a hole drilled in it and in the roof of the bomb bay was a metal plug and the plug was – so when the bomb was hoisted into the bomb bay it married up with the plug and the strap was fitted underneath it and that secured it into the bomb bay. At a critical moment the bomb sight automatically triggered the release mechanism for the bomb, the strap separated and the bomb dropped out. The wireless operator’s job was to go back and wind in the two straps – two parts of the strap. The one thing about the Tallboy was that it was expensive to produce and they could not be produced very quickly so they were in limited supply and we were told that if you can’t drop the bomb, if you can’t see the target, don’t drop it, just don’t drop them all over France said Leonard Cheshire and we were instructed to bring them back which we did on several occasions when cloud obscured the target and – or smoke and if we couldn’t see it clearly then we would bring the Tallboy back and landing with a twelve thousand pounder was not funny and one had to be very careful – the pilot land very carefully which he did of course and there were never any accidents with them as there were never any accidents with the crews that brought back the twenty-two thousand pound Grand Slam when they couldn’t drop it so the aircraft was built to carry it and we never had any problem with it. Following the raid on Brest on the 5th August I completed – that completed my 50 missions constituting two tours of operations that I could retire from operating now and attend to further duties in training other crews in the training, training line. The squadron went on to other targets on U-Boat pens and military and, and naval targets throughout the rest of the war.



Andrew Panton, “Interview with John Richard Bell,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 13, 2024,

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