You wouldn’t pick it from looking at him or talking to him, but Jack Bell was born in 1917. “I’ll be 100 next year,” he said when I interviewed him for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive in 2016. “Gawd, that’s a terrifying thought!”
Terrifying it might be for Jack, but I reckon it’s an astonishing achievement, particularly after hearing the story of what happened to him during WWII. Jack Bell had a long war, and it was not an easy one.
A child of the Depression, Jack decided in 1935 that he was sick of working in an accountant’s office, and joined the military. As a gun sergeant with the Australian Militia, he says, “I could hit an anthill at a range of 3,000 yards – over a hill!” War came in 1939 and Jack immediately went into camp for a month in Caloundra with his unit. It was during this time that he had a critical realisation. If he could hit an anthill at 3,000 yards, someone else over that hill could probably hit him too. “That’s it,” he thought. “I’m going to get up in the air where it’s more difficult to get hit…” So in November 1939, Jack put his name down for the Royal Australian Air Force.
He was called up in May 1940 – too early for the ITS at Bradfield Park, which wouldn’t open for another month. Jack instead did his early training at Ballarat Showgrounds. His cohort moved to the Ballarat aerodrome for a wireless course after construction of the Air Force station there was completed that August. Next came Evans Head for gunnery training. And suddenly he was qualified. By the beginning of February 1941, Jack was on his way overseas.
Jack disembarked at Port Tawfik in Egypt. At an aerodrome at Heliopolis, just outside of Cairo, he completed a cypher course, then waited for posting orders. Three months later someone finally realised that 216 Squadron was looking for him. It turned out the Squadron was based on the other side of the same aerodrome. Jack had not received his posting orders because he was already at Heliopolis.
While nominally a bomber unit, 216 Squadron was engaged on transport and support operations. They assisted the North African campaign by ferrying supplies and fuel and occasionally dropping people behind enemy lines. There were so many primitive airfields in the desert that they were given numbers instead of names.
Jack’s first steed for this flying was the alarmingly obsolete twin-engine Vickers Valentia. The Valentia was a strengthened and re-engined version of the Vickers Victoria, a big British aircraft designed in 1922. While the Valentia was marginally more capable than its regally-named predecessor, its genesis in the design offices of the 1920s was embarrassingly clear. “It was like a bus,” Jack said. The Valentia was a canvas-covered biplane with huge, draggy fixed undercarriage and, almost unbelievably for an operational multi-engined aeroplane of WWII, its pilot and navigator sat in an open cockpit at the front of the aircraft, wearing pith helmets and peering through a low windscreen. It carried a fitter as part of the crew, whose sole job was to wind up the big inertial starters to get the engines going at the beginning of every flight. On a good day, the Valentia topped out at 82 miles an hour. “One day we were overtaken by a truck on the ground below us,” Jack remembered wryly.
Happily for Jack’s continued existence, in October 1941, 216 Squadron got rid of its last Valentia. Not so happily, its replacement was the equally uninspiring Bristol Bombay. The squadron had been using Bombays solely as bombers since the beginning of the war, and the aircraft took on the transport duties of the now-superseded Valentias. “They were just useless, absolutely useless,” Jack reckoned. The type was a step up from the old Vickers aircraft inasmuch as it was now a monoplane, and the cockpit was enclosed. But it was a huge, slow thing, its undercarriage was still firmly bolted down and it was grossly underpowered. As a bomber it was more or less ineffective: it could carry just eight 250lb bombs and its bomb aiming apparatus was so old it could not drop them with any degree of accuracy. In an attempt to supplement the feeble punch packed by the official bomb load, “the air gunners and the fitters used to throw 25-pound anti-personnel bombs out of the flare chute.” Reassuring? Not at all. But it was an aeroplane, and it was all that was available.
Like its aircraft, life at 216 Squadron was fairly primitive. For meals, the aircrew ate bully beef and biscuits, or canned herring in tomato sauce. To pass the time they played cricket or poker. There were “probably a million flies per square foot.” But it was, Jack reckoned, “a wonderful experience for a young fella like me.”
For Jack it came to an abrupt end, however, on 23 January 1942. “I’ll never forget it,” Jack said soberly. The plan was to fly to a place called Msus, southeast of Benghazi in Libya, taking up replacement pilots and medical supplies and returning with elements of a Brigade Headquarters. All went well until they were flying down an escarpment near the town of Derna, which was then under attack by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Down below, suddenly, was an echelon of the 15th Panzer Division. They could hardly miss the big Bombay.
“The second pilot categorically stated that we were shot down by a tank,” Jack said, “which I never ever believed… the shells, to me, were more like point fives.” Whatever they were, they “rattled across the mainplane and down the centre of the aircraft.” Jack’s mate, Tony Carter, was the navigator. He was killed immediately. The pilot was wounded (he would ultimately lose a leg), as was one of the passengers. Jack received a nasty abdominal wound. Only the second pilot escaped unscathed.
Jack can’t remember much of what happened next. Rescued, and captured, by the troops who had just shot them down, he was operated on by a German doctor who happened to have been a Harley Street abdominal specialist. The doctor had been sent to England as part of Germany’s reparations after the First World War. He had returned to Germany in August 1939 and hadn’t been allowed back to England.
The man saved Jack’s life. After eight or nine days of being fed intravenously, Jack was transferred on the back of a three-tonne truck to Tripoli with other wounded prisoners, a journey of some 40 miles. It was not a pleasant trip. The friendly doctor gave him several phials of morphine and told him to jab one in his leg each morning and night. “Well, the next three days I can’t remember,” Jack said – which is lucky, because the combination of unmade roads, wartime conditions and rough handling on the part of those who loaded and unloaded the truck each night broke the stitches that were literally holding Jack together. “My abdominals – skin and stomach – were wide open,” he said with a shudder. Jack overheard a doctor telling a nurse that they would simply let nature take its course. The nurse refused to allow that to happen and convinced Jack to eat, cooking up a quince with sugar especially for him. “She was the enemy,” Jack said in wonder, “but she fed me that sweetened quince and that’s how I started to eat again.”
Jack was moved to Italy on a hospital ship, and then stayed in a hospital in Caserta until he was eventually interned at Parma, outside Milan. He sold his wristwatch for two blocks of chocolate to give to an officer making an escape attempt – but when the plot was discovered, for his part in it he was sent to the “punishment” camp at Gravina.
It’s perhaps not surprising that from this point, food – or more precisely, the lack of it – becomes a dominating theme of Jack’s story. Prisoners at Gravina were fed, but only just. “They weighed me at the end of February,” Jack said. “I weighed six stone four pounds” – about 40kg. At one stage, he was made “catering officer”. To feed 600 men for two days, he was provided with exactly twelve broccoli, eleven cabbages and a bunch of fennel. The cooks just bashed it up, roots and all, heated it in a big copper pot and served it as a brew.
“We were starving,” Jack said of his time at Gravina. On average, six prisoners a week were dying of malnutrition. The situation improved at his next camp, near Trieste, but not until the middle of 1943 once it became clear that Italy was nearing capitulation. On 23 September, their jailors left. “The British sent messages saying ‘stay where you are, you’ll be relieved in the next 24 hours.’” So Jack and his comrades stayed in the camp and waited for rescue. But in a cruel twist, overnight the camp was surrounded by German forces and the prisoners were loaded onto cattle trains and sent deep into Germany. It would be nearly two years before they were free.
Their destination was Stalag Luft IVb at Mühlberg, near the Elbe river. “It was probably at that stage the worst prison camp in Germany,” Jack reckoned. It was overcrowded. Some 35,000 prisoners squished in an area of about 32 acres, and for the first three months Jack’s group had to sleep in tents on the parade ground while waiting for more huts to be built. Food was adequate, “according to the Germans” – in reality it was barely a subsistence diet and things were grim until Red Cross parcels could supplement the rations.
The Red Cross parcels that made the diet survivable also served another purpose. “Some of the parcels had particular marks on them,” Jack said. “We – the average prisoner – didn’t know that these were sent out by MI5.” The marked parcels contained maps, hidden under labels, and other useful items for escapers. There was an Escape Committee, presided over by the Man of Confidence (who officially was the contact between the Detaining Power and the rest of the British prisoners), and all potential escapers had to be approved by the Committee to preserve the secrecy of the clandestine Red Cross supply lines. As far as escaping activity went, Jack himself was unable to physically help digging tunnels because of the injuries he sustained in the crash, but he would act as lookout if someone was stealing coal from the brazier, for example. He also has many stories of some of the escape attempts made while he was a prisoner: tunnels under vegetable gardens that collapsed on the diggers, for example (“a tomato plant with all the soil dropped down on top of him…”), or hiding a newly arrived man with the assistance of a uniform provided by the French prisoners (who had relatively more freedom than the Commonwealth troops).
After enduring the extreme cold of the winter of 1944-45, and after seeing the glow of the fires at Dresden (less than 60km away), on 4 May 1945 the German commandant simply notified the British senior officer that they would be leaving, wished everybody good luck, and took off with all the guards. The next day the Russian Army arrived – and Jack and the other prisoners were, in his words, “recaptured.” This was to ensure that the Russians had a bargaining chip, he reckons. After three days at Muhlberg the Russians marched everyone to Riga, just short of the Elbe. Jack and a few comrades took off and spent the next few days foraging for food. Eventually they crossed the fragile bridge over the Elbe and were in American hands.
Jack returned to the UK by air. All his clothes were taken on arrival and he was fumigated – and then issued with a complete new uniform. He was bitterly disappointed at losing his faithful RAF battledress jacket, which he had been wearing on that fateful operation in January 1942, and subsequently continued to wear throughout his captivity. “It still had the holes in it from the shellfire”, he said ruefully.
Jack told me of some overwhelming kindness from the British public on his arrival after his release. Staying with a friend in Brighton, for example, he went out grocery shopping with the man’s wife. Jack’s shiny new uniform stood out in the queue at the fishmongers. When the man behind the counter found out that Jack was a returned prisoner, he gave them double rations for free. “And the people clapped me, you know,” Jack recalled. “They were really wonderful people.”
His arrival in Australia was a different story, however. Japan surrendered while Jack was mid-Pacific. By the time he got home he had been out of captivity and relatively well-fed for three months. He didn’t look like the emaciated prisoners of the Japanese, who began arriving in Australia shortly afterwards. So instead of thanking him for his service, people would ask why he had gone to Europe at all. “The bloody war with Japan hadn’t even started when I left!” he says incredulously. “The reception wasn’t too great.” Even the RSL wouldn’t accept him as a member, saying he would have to go onto a waiting list.
There were personal effects too. “At night time I didn’t know what I was doing – I was thrashing around, kicking and rolling… it took a long, long time to get back to normal.”
The hardest thing he ever had to do, Jack says, was visiting the mother of his friend Tony Carter, the navigator who was killed when Jack’s Bombay crashed in Libya. “He was an only son, and I can still see his mother looking at me with the question in her eyes, why was it my son and not you… I can never forget it.”
Until the late 1980s, Jack didn’t much talk about the war. But then he wrote, for the benefit of his family, a 30-page document that told something of his story. “It was the greatest thing I ever did,” he says now. “It released me… 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 who wanted to know what happened.” Now he talks to many people about his experiences – indeed, I first encountered Jack, doing exactly that, at a large public event at the Shrine in 2013.
In wartime particularly, you never can tell quite where fortune might take you. Luck plays such an important role in where you are sent, in when you serve, in which aeroplane you fly. “It’s an experience that I would never ever do without,” Jack says of his wartime service, “but I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody.”
“The strange thing about it,” he says thoughtfully, “is that all my mates who stayed in the artillery came back, and I got shot down…”
Jack was interviewed in January 2016.
Text and colour photo (c) 2017 Adam Purcell. Wartime photos courtesy Jack Bell.