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: 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 WW II 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

Little known story of the first RAAF casualties of WW2 - 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 ;ying 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

"...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 on a canal near the de-Gaulle's hiding place.

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)

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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Biography contributed by Julianne Ryan

Born 25 April 1916 in North Adelaide, South Australia.

Grandfather William Wallace Bell served in the British army in the Zulu Wars of 1879 in South Africa.
He came out to South Australia after that and made his home in Quorn, died 11/11/1947.

John's Father John Henry Bell and Mother Eva Annie Bell, lived at Farina, South Australia.


Grandfather William's sons (John's UNCLES)
:-
3686 Private Richard Mitchell BELL MM - 10th Infantry Battalion
11/08/1915  enlisted into WWI (24 years of age)
02/12/1915  embarked Outer Harbour, SA onboard RMS Malwa
                   as a Private with 10th Battalion, 12th Reinforcement
Awarded:     Military Medal
12/06/1919  returned to Australia

3134 Private Alfred James BELL - 50th Infantry Battalion
09/10/1916  enlisted into WWI  (26 years of age)
16/12/1916  embarked Outer Harbour, SA onboard HMAT A35 Berrima
                   as a Private with 50th Battalion, 8th Reinforcement
26/08/1917  died of wounds received on patrol duty - Warneton, Messines, Belgium
buried in:     Trois-Arbres Cemetery (Plot I, Row Z, Grave No. 42), Steenwerck, France
His name is commemorated on Panel 150 at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, ACT

1359 Warrant Officer Class II William Charles BELL
                   4th Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company
25/01/1917  enlisted into WWI (33 years of age)
11/05/1917  embarked Port of Melbourne, VIC onboard HMAT A9 Shropshire
                   as a 2nd Corporal with Railway Unit, Section 4
01/07/1919  returned to Australia

 

Three of William’s grandsons were to die in WW2:
Cousin: 429801 RAAF Sergeant Leonard Alfred Easther (b. 19/12/1921 
             - 2 Air Observers School, RCAF
(RAAF)
Father Charles John Easther and Mother Annie Elizabeth Easther (nee Bell)
12/09/1942  enlisted into WWII in Adelaide, South Australia
                  at No.5 Recruiting Centre, RAA
15/01/1943  embarked Melbourne, Victoria for overseas
31/01/1943  disembarked into Canada
04/10/1943  obtained Air Gunners Badge
11/10/1943  Sergeant (Air Gunner) with 2 Air Observers School RCAF, Edmonton, Canada
29/10/1943  died on aircraft training flight
                  3 miles north/east of Cooking Lake Airport, Canada
buried in:    Beechmount Cemetery, Canada
                  Plot: Block 206. Grave 1

Airman Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell - (b. 25/04/1916
d. 18/06/1940  plane crash in Brittany, France
buried in:   Ploudaniel Churchyard, Brittany, France.

brother: SX1760  Corporal Alfred Napier Bell
- (b. 01/04/1918
              with 2/10 Australian Infantry Battalion
23/02/1940  enlisted into WWII in Adelaide, SA
20/01/1944  killed in action at Shaggy Ridge, northern New Guinea
buried in:     Lae War Cemetery, Plot E. Row D. Grave 5, Lae, New Guinea

brother (returned):
48040 Leading Aircraftman Bruce Napier BELL - RAAF, 84th Squadron
b. 09/02/1924 North Adelaide, SA
21/04/1942     enlisted into WWII at Farina, SA
24/07/1944     discharged from service

 

John Napier Bell in his youth lived with his family in Farina, South Australia (280 kilometres
to the north of Quorn). Farina, now only a smattering of ruins, is out on the hot and very
arid pastoral lands in northern SA.  Making a living there, beyond the edge of the frontier,
was very hard work. In 1935 at the age of 19, John Bell joined the RAAF.

John was described on enlisting as 19 years 3 months old; single; 5' 5.5" tall; 119 lbs;
medium complexion; brown eyes; dark brown hair.

15/07/1935    enlisted into RAAF as an Air Cadet
                     appointed to Training Squadron, No.1 Flight Training Squadron, Point Cook

16/06/1936    awarded Flying Badge

01/07/1936    promoted to Pilot Officer

09/11/1936    with No.5 Squadron, Richmond, Victoria

01/04/1937    promoted to Flight Officer

04/07/1938    attached to HMAS Voyager

01/01/1939    with No.9 Squadron, Richmond, Victoria

05/05/1939    attached to HMAS Hobart

13/07/1939    attached to HMAS Canberra

01/10/1939    promoted to Flight Lieutenant

After training as a pilot he spent some years in Australia and served with
Squadron No.5, 9 and 10 – gaining flying experience on aircraft:- Wapiti, Seagull (Walrus),
Avro Anson, NA16 and Sunderlands on which he became a very proficient pilot.

He volunteered to go to the UK to fly Sunderlands at Pembroke Dock, Pembrokeshire, England, UK.

17/01/1940  emplaned from Sydney, NSW - attached to RAF
02/02/1940  disembarked into London, England

01/04/1940  joined RAAF 10 Squadron

After General De Gaulle arrived safely in England on Monday 17 June 1940, he made a special request to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, asking him to rescue his wife and children from Brittany. Prime Minister Churchill agreed and informed the British Admiralty on the same day to arrange the rescue. Again on the same day, the Admiralty arranged with the RAF to supply a Seaplane to take a Special Operations Executive and Admiralty passenger (Captain Norman Hope) of the Intelligence Corp (who was fluent in French).

Captain Hope himself would indicate where he wished to land and on instructions from Prime Minister Churchill would endeavour to collect General De Gaulle’s family and return to the aircraft for passage to England.

The mission was considered ‘extremely dangerous’ and required volunteers, the Walrus crews drew lots to see who would go.  Flight Lieutenant Bell and Sergeant Harris drew lots.

Tuesday 18 June 1940, No.10 Squadron RAAF flying Supermarine Walrus Mk1
- Operation SOE (Special Operations Executive)

Pilot  (162 RAAF) Flight Lieutenant ‘Dinger’ John Napier Bell
Flight Engineer  (1730 RAAF) Sergeant ‘Chas’ Charles William Harris
Navigator (565931 RAF) Corporal Bernard Felix Nowell
Passenger (141140 Intelligence Corps) Captain Norman Edward Hope

The Seaplane was fully armed ready to keep defensive watch at all times.

On 18 June 1940 the crew took off at 03:00 hours from the RAF Mount Batten Base, Plymouth to rescue the De Gaulle family from France.   From the time of take-off there was nothing heard of from the aircraft.

The time of return depended on whether Captain Hope could find the family and events on the Brittany coast.   The Germans were expected to approach the area by 15:00 hours on 18 June 1940.

On 19 June 1940 a Motor Torpedo Boat 29, after embarking an interpreter and a skiff, despatched from England to the same area, to arrive off the main channel to Morlaix at 00:01 hours on 20 June 1940.  The skiff was to be used to land Captain Hope to find the De Gaulle family.  The Captain was to convoy them to the Motor Torpedo Boat.  The Motor Torpedo Boat returned on the 20 June, reporting that the interpreter had landed and found the village already occupied by the Germans.

It is noted:  Madam De Gaulle and her children had already escaped via boat to England – they were infact in England before Captain Hope had left.  Madame De Gaulle knew nothing of the attempt to rescue her.  She and her children found room on the last boat to leave Brest before the Germans arrived in Brittany.

The Seaplane crossed the coast of Brittany approximately 20 kilometres west of Carantec.  It is believed that the aircraft came under either French or German fire.  The aircraft was hit and the pilot attempted to land in a field near Ploudaniel, France – but hit an embankment in the fog.

The aircraft caught fire and all four occupants were killed.

When the aircraft crashed some local people came from Ploudaniel and removed the bodies from the burnt out aircraft and buried them in the local cemetery before the German army occupied their town.

Buried in:   Ploudaniel Churchyard, Brittany, France.

His name is commemorated o:-
- Panel 99 at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, ACT
- the recently restored Farina War Memorial.
- on his grandfather's grave in 1947, Quorn Cemetery, SA.

Submitted by Julianne T Ryan, courtesy of Aircrew Remembered.  04/01/2017.  Lest we forget.

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