A FORMER Bomber Command crew member who completed 50 operations during the Second World War has been speaking about his experiences.

Wing Commander John Bell MBE, DFC, Ld’H visited Boscombe Down Aviation Collection in Old Sarum where he recounted his time serving in Bomber Command.

He was visiting to see the Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS) which is currently on loan to the collection, an example of the sight he used during part of his time in Bomber Command.

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During the Second World War around 125,000 men served as aircrew in Bomber Command of whom 55,573 were killed on active duty. All were volunteers.


John trained in South Africa. He had volunteered for aircrew in June 1941 at the age of 18, the minimum age you could sign up. He trained as an observer at first which combined the roles of navigator, bomb aimer and gunner.

At 6ft4 John recalls being told ‘you’re too tall to be a pilot. You won’t get in the cockpit’. So he trained as a navigator, bomb aimer and gunner instead, which he thought “sounded interesting”.

“When I came back to England the four engine aircrafts were coming in, like the Lancaster and the Halifax,” John explains.

“They required a separate crew member as bomb aimer and navigator. As my bomb aiming was better than my navigation I didn’t have any choice and they posted me as bomb aimer. That’s what I did and that was my job on all the operations we carried out.”

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However, he did have to have pilot training so he could step into the pilot seat in cases of emergency.

During training John had plenty of opportunities to fly a Lancaster, which he said was “good fun”, but admits during operations he never had to take over from the pilot adding: “I was always there, ready to do it if necessary”.

619 and 617 squadrons

Once “operational” John joined 619 squadron in July 24, 1943, aged 20. His first operation was to Hamburg on July 24, 1943.

In the winter of 1943/44 John and his crew flew to Berlin eight times, during the Battle of Berlin which is when Bomber Command suffered exceptionally high losses.

John says when they joined Bomber Command there was an “unwritten contract” where they had to carry out 30 operations before they could have a rest from flying operationally, if they were lucky enough to survive. Usually, they would be posted to an Operational Training Unit (OTU) to instruct novice aircrew for this time.

“We nearly reached that after six months,” explains John. “But we decided rather than be split up – we wanted to stay together as a crew– so we thought we would volunteer to do the next 20 operations without a break and we all agreed to do that. Then we thought why don’t we join 617 squadron, which was on the next airfield to us, and have something different to do.”

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John and his crew joined 617 squadron (The Dambusters) at the end of January 1944. 617 Squadron was a “special duties” squadron.

They dropped the largest conventional bombs of the war, the 12,000lb Tallboy and 22,000lb Grand Slam.

They would be charged with bombing installations like bridges, dams or factories making U-boats or other military hardware.

“Instead of being a joint operation with a large number of squadrons and hundreds of aircrafts they operated singly on their own against, specific, small but important targets in northern France,” added John.

He says there was a “great amount” of anti-aircraft fire and the “sky was full of millions of pieces of metal flying around” but admits it was a “matter of luck” whether you were hit or not.

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Close calls

He recalls two close calls on two operations including a night flight to Hamburg where one of the engines stopped working - leaving them with just three - which meant they could not maintain the height of 20,000ft and had to come down to around 10,000ft.

He said the whole crew had a discussion over the intercom about whether to turn back to base or to continue. They decided to continue the mission at 10,000ft.

“I have to say at 10,000ft all the anti-aircraft fire is exploding at 20,000ft. What we forgot was the aircraft flying at 20,000ft were dropping their bombs down and we were flying underneath them. They missed us and we made it back.”

He remembers another mission over Germany where they had been flying in heavy cloud and it was freezing on the outside of the aircraft affecting the engines. Two stopped working.

“We are plunging down towards the earth with a full bomb load. We had to release the bombs to release the weight on the aircraft and the flight engineer managed to get the engines working at a height of 10,000ft so we were down pretty low. There was no point carrying on so we made our way back home.”

Stabilised Bomb Sight

The Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS) was only supplied to 617 squadron and was used with the Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs.

As a bomb aimer John would have used this piece of equipment, which would calculate when to release the bomb.

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By August 1944 John had completed 50 operations compared to the average of around nine.

“You had to survive of course to be able to retire so survival was not really in your own hands only in as much as you could be proficient as possible and try to keep out of trouble,” says John.

Reflecting on his time with Bomber Command, he said: “I look back with relief I survived when many didn’t.

"We acknowledge we were lucky. You can make your own luck - you have to be proficient in what you are doing not only with bombing but actually flying and staying alive as it were.

"It is lucky flying through millions of exploding shells time and time again and not getting hit so luck was on our side."

After completing his 50 missions he went on to instruct new aircrew recruits at the operational training unit.

Following the war, John remained in the RAF before retiring in 1977.


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