Interview with John Bell


Interview with John Bell


John Bell completed a tour as a bomb aimer with 619 Squadron. The crew decided they would like to continue flying and so volunteered to join 617 Squadron. They were interviewed by Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire and accepted on to the squadron. When John was approaching his fiftieth operation his fiancé asked him to consider retiring from operation flying. He knew his luck was running low and so he did indeed retire. When he visited the squadron later his pilot told him he had retired just at the right time. The next flight after John stopped flying with his crew a piece of flak entered the bomb aimer’s compartment who survived because he was standing in the turret.

Temporal Coverage




00:19:37 audio recording


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Interviewer: Well, good morning, John.
JB: Good morning.
Interviewer: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview for the Aviation Heritage Project from Lincolnshire here.
JB: My pleasure.
Interviewer: As you know we’re going to be collecting this information and it will go into an Archive and will be of future use for whoever is going to follow us.
JB: Excellent.
Interviewer: I wonder if you could just start by just telling us a little bit about how you came to serve with 617 Squadron.
JB: Yes, I, well I first of all the crew and I started our operational career with 619 Squadron at Woodhall Spa in June of 1943 and we proceeded to operate throughout the rest of 1943 until we moved to Coningsby around about December I think to allow 617 Squadron to come from Coningsby into Woodhall and have the airfield to themselves. And we were approaching the end of our tour, rather our pilot was approaching because he’d done two second dickie trips at the beginning which we hadn’t done and I missed a couple through illness so at some point we, we would have been split up as was the normal situation and sent off to other parts instructing at OTUs. But as a well-knit crew a family organisation as you might say we felt we didn’t want to be split up and we’d like to continue flying which seems a bit silly now when you look back. But we thought we’d volunteer to fly with 617 Squadron and we did and we were welcomed by Wing Commander Cheshire, had an interview and all went well. He said yes, ok. We were an experienced crew by then. So he was looking for experienced crews and we were very fortunate with our survival through to almost the end of our tour and that’s how we came to join 617 Squadron.
Interviewer: You must have been aware of the reputation of 617 Squadron. Did you feel that you really were joining an elite or was it a sense of concern?
JB: We knew we were joining an elite Squadron. We weren’t quite sure exactly what they were doing. In fact, at our interview we were asked why we wanted to join 617 Squadron. We said, well we were fed up with flying at twenty thousand feet and we rather liked this idea of flying low level and he promptly said, ‘Well, we’re not doing low level flying anymore.’ Which as you probably realise that was they attempted to do this after the dams raid and they lost a lot of aircraft.
Interviewer: Yes.
JB: So it wasn’t a good idea and when Cheshire took over I think in about November of ’43 he started a different programme of operating which proved very successful. Operating at night over France and with little opposition most of the time at that time during the first few months of 1944. So we knew that the chances of survival were greater or at least we thought they were rather than with the main force. Perhaps with hindsight you’d wonder why you would want to volunteer to continue to fly on operations.
Interviewer: Well, they do say never volunteer but please tell us about your impressions of Wing Commander Cheshire. He’s such an important person in this.
JB: Yes. He was very approachable. Quiet. But he had that quality you knew you were going to follow that man and he would, there was no bombast with him and no sort of dictatorial attitude. He was very quietly unassuming but nevertheless he laid down what he wanted us to do and he was prepared to lead us in this. History shows that he did lead from the front. And he was just a nice man and well respected as a commanding officer with a great deal of experience as a bomber pilot.
Interviewer: Did he give you full regard? You said you had a lot of experience as a crew. Were you encouraged to put your views and experiences into the, into the Squadron melting pot so to speak?
JB: Well, I’m sure the pilot, the pilots really were the people who put the information in actually and they carried the forward the views of the crew but I suppose that when the pilots got together and he was with the pilots discussing tactics and so on took into account what the crews felt. We didn’t directly speak to him about it.
Interviewer: No.
JB: But through the, through the pilot we would. Yes.
Interviewer: Yes.
JB: Yeah.
Interviewer: Would you be able to tell us a little bit about what it was like to be on operations with 617? Could you perhaps describe the run up to and the activities that were involved in preparing for an operation and what actually happened?
JB: Yes. It is pretty much the same as, as all preparations for, for an operational flight and we would be told in the morning that the, there was the likelihood of an operation that evening and we would assemble. Well, we’d go through the process of getting kit ready and so forth and assemble for a briefing in the afternoon and after the briefing we would then get our kit from, you know the parachute and dinghy, Mae West and stuff like that. In the morning of course we would have checked the aircraft out thoroughly so there would be an air test and that was absolutely mandatory to make sure everything worked in the air. And then the bomb load would be checked out. I as the bomb aimer would be responsible for making sure that we had the right bomb load and seeing it put on perhaps, loaded on to the aeroplane. A navigator would also have his own maps and so forth to gather and the gunners would also collect their guns from the armoury. The armoury normally was received, the guns from the turrets and they would check them over and then the gunners would go and collect them and make sure they got the right ones back into the aircraft. So all this went on and checking everything thoroughly and then the, having drawn all the maps and made sure we knew where we were going and the briefing of course would spell out the exact timing of the operation and how many, who were to bomb first. And the particular operations that we were doing with 617 Squadron were, Leonard Cheshire managed to persuade the AOC that he should do the marking because we had, I think they had some experience with poor marking by Pathfinder at the time and so he marked. And that was the first one I think on Albert. I remember that raid where he marked the target with flares from extremely low level with the Lancaster and that was the type of operation that we did throughout the four months. I think up to May. Yeah.
Interviewer: Right.
JB: When we stood down. Yes.
Interviewer: Right. Did you have any experience of dropping any of the heavy weapons that 617 Squadron was equipped with? The Tallboy or –
JB: Well, yes. The, well, during that four months we were not only dropping one thousand pounders but also the twelve thousand pounds light cased [pause] what were they called? It was a blast weapon. So we were used to carrying a twelve thousand pounder but of course the problem with that was yes it was a blast weapon against buildings, normal type buildings and but also had some inaccuracy in it because of its shape and small fins that were necessary to get to enable it to be carried in the bomb bay. Then from, after June the 6th three days later we were equipped with a Tallboy and that’s when we got into the Tallboy era and it was a much finer weapon.
Interviewer: Yes. If I may I’d like to ask you a technical question about that which comes from a question that was put to me recently at the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. What was it like? How did you actually ensure that the Tallboy was released very quickly? Was it an electronic or a mechanical release mechanism?
JB: It was an electronic –
Interviewer: Right.
JB: Yeah.
Interviewer: So there was no time delay in that because you needed extreme accuracy didn’t you?
JB: Yes. You did and I cannot remember any detail of, of problems with the release. Since then many years later I discovered that there were. Why? Why for example there were wide misses with the Tallboy landing somewhere else and there was a problem with the release mechanism. This was a strap.
Interviewer: Yes.
JB: And the straps were taken off the aeroplane on return and they were checked over to make sure they were serviceable and then put back. But there was a problem I understand with them for maybe releasing two or three seconds late which of course affected —
Interviewer: I can see you were —
JB: Yes, it was. Trial and error.
Interviewer: Thank you.
JB: Yes.
Interviewer: That’s very helpful.
JB: Yes. I didn’t, I didn’t experience any problems. No. No. Whilst I didn’t hit exactly where I’d aimed the, it was close enough so they were all in the target area.
Interviewer: You were a bomb aimer.
JB: Yes.
Interviewer: And from the point of view of the Archive for people visiting this in years to come a question must be asked and that is really to ask your, your feelings about the nature of the job you were doing because you were looking down at the target.
JB: Yes.
Interviewer: And you were releasing heavy weapons against that target.
JB: That’s right. Yes.
Interviewer: With respect may I ask how you felt about that please.
JB: When I was operating with, with main force with 619 Squadron there were occasions when I realised, well obviously one realised that we were aiming at a part of the city where the industry was or the docks area or whatever it was. And hopefully the spot, the spot flares that were dropped by the Pathfinder Force hopefully were in the right area and so you were aiming at that. Nevertheless, you saw a city in flames throughout not just in that one area that you’re aiming at so the thought occasionally was you know that there is some sort of sympathy perhaps for the people who were on the receiving end. Having been through some of the London Blitz I could well understand that. But it didn’t put me off doing the job that I was trained to do. Then following on when we got to 617 Squadron of course not only were we dropping on a specific target, whatever it was, an engine manufacturing plant or but it was a single target which we were aiming at. Therefore, we hoped there were no civilians in the area. In fact, we made quite a lot of, went to a lot of trouble to make sure that the French workers in there got out before we dropped our bombs. So there was a great deal more of more satisfaction because you could see where your bombs were aiming at and where they exploded and you knew that you were taking out a specific target. So the operations were quite different and more satisfactory from, from the expert view of the –
Interviewer: Some military view.
JB: Military view. Yes.
Interviewer: Yes. Thank you.
JB: Yes.
Interviewer: That’s a very full answer. Could I ask you also about how you disciplined yourself? You were lying in the nose, you were, you were responsible for, really for directing the aircraft in those last few seconds of flight towards the target.
JB: Yeah.
Interviewer: Most important that you hit the target and yet around you there would have been anti-aircraft fire, possibly the risk of fighter attack. Can you tell us what it was like to to do that part of the operation.
JB: Yes, the, pretty well all the flight to the target and perhaps we’re talking about operating with 619 Squadron in Main Force where you’ve got several hundred aeroplanes. You’re keeping a look out for other aeroplanes to make sure that you don’t collide with them and that was one of the problems of collision and other, and night fighters. But then approaching the target then the adrenaline in started to rise because you could see ahead a flaming city way up, way ahead and the sky would be filled with thousands of shell bursts. Now, this is impinged on my memory I can see this now and thinking how are we going to get through all those shell bursts? But when you, when you get to the point where now you take over and the bomb doors are open and you are guiding with the pilot to keep him on track towards it you are concentrating on the job. You don’t think about anything else and everything else is taken out of your mind. You’re not worrying about the flack bursts. If one hits you well that’s tough. You can’t avoid them so you got on and do the job. Once you’ve dropped the bombs and taken the photograph then you can get out of the area as quickly as possibly and usually there’s a shout from the crew when I said, ‘Bombs gone.’ ‘Right. Let’s get out of here.’ And so it was [pause] if I, I was not, I was never afraid except in coming up to it wondering how we were going to get through. So there was no fear involved. A lot of apprehension. I’m sure we shall be alright and that was really our attitude throughout.
Interviewer: That is a remarkable story. I mean we who have obviously not done it but read a little bit about it —
JB: Yes.
Interviewer: Can understand something of what you’re saying there. It’s a remarkable story, John.
JB: Yes, it’s a bit, it’s akin to the Army coming out of the trenches in the First World War and going en masse across open ground and bullets were flying around. Some of them got hit. Some of them were missed and I think in that respect we were going through all this hail of flak. Somebody got hit, somebody didn’t and we were very fortunate and there was no way you could miss it.
Interviewer: No. And of course, you all lived this strange existence whereby between operations you’d be living a normal life in so far as it could be normal. How did you cope with those ups and downs of feelings and tensions and things?
JB: Well, yes. We’d use our relaxation in the usual way by going to the pub in the evening or into Boston. There was a weekly trip into Boston on the buses and so there would be big relaxation there. But it was just a matter of going to a different pub you know and the crew normally went. Crews went together. They lived together and they drank together and they flew together and so you went with your, with your, the crew were your mates, your friends and it was that sort of thing. Yes. You just, you were thankful when you got to the, to the reported to the flights in the morning to see what was going on for the rest of the day. If there was no operation planned well that was a great relief. You could get on with something else. Go and clean the aeroplane or check it over or take somebody for a flight somewhere. There was always somebody going on leave and it was a fairly easy business flying people around to, you know on a jolly. Well, not a jolly but you know taking them to where they wanted to go for leave or something like that. Or visit another, another airfield. So yeah, we relaxed as much as possible and then got hyped up when it was due for operational flight.
Interviewer: Yeah. Could you, I mean I think I could talk to you all day here, sir. I really could but I appreciate the time is passing. Your time in particular. But I must ask you could you tell us something about some of the other characters that you remember from 617?
JB: 617. Yes. There’s a thing about remembering the crews on the Squadron. I always found it difficult to remember their names mainly because the only names that appeared on the operations board were the pilots. So we knew all the names of the pilots but I didn’t know the names of most of the crews. I might know the names of two or three bomb aimers because the bomb aimers used to go to a briefing together and each member of the crew had his own briefing section. So gunners would know other gunners and I would know two or three other bomb aimers but generally you didn’t know too much about the other crews. You didn’t mix with them obviously for, you know, recreational purposes. But I remember several of the pilots. I can’t remember any particular episodes but they obviously occurred when I was commissioned. I then moved in to the Petwood Hotel and what was the Petwood Hotel then and there were several incidents of people letting off revolvers late at night and behaving in an unseemly manner but being allowed to get away with it with an admonition from the CO. ‘Don’t do it again.’ There wasn’t much he could do about it if you, if you, you know went over the line. But I kept myself to myself because I was, I was escorting a WAAF who later became my wife and so I was otherwise engaged.
Interviewer: As it were. Yeah. Again, I feel I must ask this question. I don’t wish to intrude too much in to your privacy but you know if if you have a strong personal relationship like that and you’re going off on operations was it something that you just accepted?
JB: Yes.
Interviewer: Or did you talk it through with your fiancé as she would have been?
JB: Yes, we did talk it through. She was, she was actually employed in the map section so I had to visit the map section every day and of course I visited more often than most [laughs] naturally and so I went to the Intelligence Section for details of the targets and so forth and she knew as all the ladies did that were engaged to be married to aircrew that they were in a great deal of danger. When I got to the point of approaching my fiftieth operation because you could, you could retire after thirty and we didn’t. We continued flying. When you got to fifty you had another, another stage point where you could say ok. She said, ‘I think we ought to think about the future because –’ and I knew the odds were becoming shorter. They certainly were. And this was proved to me after I left the Squadron because I went back to visit the Squadron in November and I had a chat with my pilot and he said, ‘Oh you retired just in time.’ Apparently, they were shot up on the next operation coming back from Brest and flak actually went through the bomb aimers compartment. Missed the bomb aimer because he was standing up in the turret. Now, I didn’t normally stand up in the turret. I was usually lying down. So was it fate? I don’t know. But I retired at the right time.
Interviewer: I think at that point with regret I must ask that we terminate this. It’s been a total pleasure and total privilege to conduct this interview. For the record I should say that I have been conducting this interview with John Bell, bomb aimer of 617 Squadron and the interview was conducted at Thorpe Camp on the 12th of May 2012.



Julian Maslin and This Interview was recorded by Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire., “Interview with John Bell,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 21, 2024,

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