John Napier (Dinger) BELL

Poppy

BELL, John Napier

Service Number: 162
Enlisted: 15 July 1935, Point Cook,Victoria, Australia
Last Rank: Flight Lieutenant
Last Unit: No. 10 Squadron (RAAF)
Born: Adelaide, South Australia, 25 April 1916
Home Town: Farina, South Australia
Schooling: St Peter's College, Adelaide
Occupation: Regular Airforce Pilot
Died: Air Crash (secret rescue mission to France), Ploudaniel, France, 18 June 1940, aged 24 years
Cemetery: Ploudaniel Church Cemetery, France
Grave 4
Memorials: Adelaide WW2 Wall of Remembrance, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Farina War Memorial, Farina War Memorial
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Non Warlike Service

15 Jul 1935: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, SN 162, Aircrew Training Units, Point Cook,Victoria, Australia
1 Sep 1938: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, SN 162, No. 9 Squadron (RAAF)

World War 2 Service

3 Sep 1939: Involvement Flying Officer, SN 162, No. 9 Squadron (RAAF)
1 Jan 1940: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant, SN 162, No. 10 Squadron (RAAF), Battle of the Atlantic - RAN and RAAF Operations
18 Jun 1940: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant, SN 162, No. 10 Squadron (RAAF), Battle of the Atlantic - RAN and RAAF Operations

'Rescue Mdme de Gaulle from the Nazis' - the RAAF casualties of WW2 - No. 10 SQUADRON RAAF

In 1977 a RAAF officer named Kevin Baff was researching a book that was later published (1982) as "Maritime is Number 10", a wartime history of No. 10 Squadron RAAF.

In the course of his research he came upon the story of a most remarkable clandestine operation with which No. 10 Squadron had been tasked in the northern summer of 1940, just as France was falling to the Germans. He pieced together the circumstances around the ill-fated mission which had been a mystery since the Supermarine Walrus left on its clandestine mission from the slipway at Mount Batten at 0255 hours on the morning of the 18th June 1940.

The background to the operation was the task of extracting the family of French Under Secretary of War General Charles de Gaulle, from Carantec in Brittany in the face of the German advance. The details were not known by other than a very few people.

"In common with other squadrons of Coastal Command, No. 10 Squadron was tasked to conduct various 'special flights' during this period of tension when attempts were being made to dissuade France from surrendering. At 2100 hours (9.00pm) on the 17th, the Mount Batten Duty Controller was contacted by a staff officer working for the Commander in Chief Western Approaches, Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Naismit, VC, Commander Pinset requested that a "float plane be made available' to fly a Captain Hope of the British Army to a place on the north coast of Brittany."

As it happened a Supermarine Walrus seaplane of No.15 Communications flight was loaned to No.10 Squadron for this task because one of its (No 10 Squadron) pilots was a very experienced pilot in the type (Flight Lieutenant John "Dinger" Bell).

"Even the Commanding Officer of No.10 Squadron was not privy to the purpose of the mission. "I understand 'Winnie C' (the Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill) had something to do with it ", Charles Pearce, (the then CO) recalled years later."

Ted Cocks, Duty NCO, recalled to Kevin Baff that they made some hasty modifications to the Walrus fitting it with a defensive machine gun in accordance with the orders.

"Chas Harris, "Dinger" Bell and the RAF airman boarded the aircraft and I was standing with Des Douglas as the aircraft taxied to the head of the slipway. At this time the fourth person appeared. This chap, in civvies, was well dressed in a brown suit, brown shoes (possibly brogues) and carrying a small tan attache case. I think he carried a hat. He climbed on board the aircraft and as they ran down the slip I noticed the open exhaust ports flaming and said to Des "Nice target!"

"At the time I thought they were putting in an agent. For reason which I cannot recall, we believed they were landing in a river or an estuary near Brest".

What happened over the next few hours will probably never be known conclusively.

"At approximately 0400 hours, a Frenchwoman living in a small farming village at Keranou near Ploudaniel noticed a loud noise overhead as she went about her morning chores. Further investigation revealed an aircraft on fire and flying very low over the village. Madame Marie Yvonne Pengani recalled that the Walrus was 'coming from Ploudier and we heard that at a place called Valeury someone had shot at them.'"

There was a thick enveloping fog lying over the countryside that morning and Flight Lieutenant Bell was obviously experiencing some difficulty selecting a field in which to carry out a forced landing. He overflew a few fields before crashing at Kebiquet less than a mile from from Keranou. Unfortunately although the field Bell touched down on was cultivated and fairly level, the Walrus hit a small embankment, nosed over and broke apart".

"Robert Kerbrat, 13 years old at the time, recalled that 'the crashed airplane was broken in two. Certain parts were still burning and, when I first saw the wreckage, the four aviators' bodies had been taken out of the cockpit by close-by neighbours."

Bell and Harris were the RAAF's first war time casualties since its formation in 1921.

Compiled by Steve Larkins, January 2017

Reference

"Maritime is Number Ten" Flight Lieutenant K.C. Baff RAAF, Griffin Press Netley SA 1983 ISBN 0 9 5923960

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Biography contributed by Steve Larkins

"...Flight Officer John Napier Bell RAAF of No. 9 (Fleet Cooperation) Squadron RAAF embarked on the "County" class cruiser HMAS Canberra of the RAN. Bell joined the RAAF as an Air Cadet on 15 July 1935 and after training as a pilot was posted in September 1938 to No. 5 (Fleet Cooperation) Squadron RAAF at RAAF Base Richmond equipped with Supermarine Seagull V (Walrus) amphibian aircraft. On 1 January 1939, the squadron was renumbered to No 9 Squadron and in February 1939, Bell and one of the squadron's Supermarine Seagull V (Walrus) amphibian aircraft embarked on HMAS Canberra to operate in the Fleet Cooperation role.

Bell remained on Canberra until August 1939 during which time he completed eighty catapult launches from the ship in fulfilling his role of fleet cooperation duties. On completion of his tour of duty in Canberra, Bell was posted to No. 10 (General Reconnaisance) Squadron RAAF based at RAF Station Mount Batten, Plymouth, Devon, England, operating Short Sunderland flying boats in the anti submarine role. Arriving in January 1940 he completed a conversion course to Sunderland aircraft and went on to fly as a captain in a number of patrols in the Bay of Biscay area.

Because of his experience on Walrus aircraft, John Bell was directed to carry out a secret mission on 18 June 1940 using a Walrus amphibian to evacuate Madame de Gaulle and her children from the Brittany area of occupied France.

The aim was to land the aircraft near the de-Gaulle's hiding place, and disembark an Intelligence agent to locate and retrieve them.

Tragically the mission ended in disaster when the aircraft crashed and burnt while Bell was attempting to land in foggy conditions near Ploudaniel and all occupants of the aircraft were killed. With evacuation by air now impossible, Madame de Gaulle was forced to seek other means of transport and was fortunate to secure passage for herself and her children on a British destroyer for the voyage from Brest to Britain. Bell, his wireless operator, Sergeant C. W. Harris (RAAF), a RAF wireless mechanic, Corporal Nowell, and a British Intelligence Officer working with the Admiralty, Captain Hope, were buried in the village of Ploudaniel and the graves carefully tended by the local citizens throughout the German occupation until permanent headstones were erected in 1946." - SOURCE (www.awm.gov.au)

It hs since been verified that Madame de Gaulle and her children had made their way to Brest and secured passage on the last ship to leave for England.  She missed an earlier ship she was originally scheduled on; it was sunk in the Channel.  She and her husband did not become aware of the ill-fated rescue mission until after the war.

A ceremony is held there each year on the anniversary.  For further reading click on links to the left of this page...

A further Memorial to John Bell and his crew is located in the South Australian outback town of Farina, Bell's home town at the time of his enlistment in 1935.

 

Steve Larkins May 2016

 

 

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