All of us here at the RAF Association are deeply saddened by the death of Wing Commander John Bell MBE DFC LdH, aged 100. John has been a resident at one of the RAF Association’s retirement complexes since 2004. 

John was born on 25 March 1923 in Wandsworth, London. In 1941 John volunteered to join the RAF, but at 6ft 4in was too tall to be trained as a pilot. Instead, he chose the role of observer and air gunner and was called up that September. Having learned the basics of navigation, in May 1942 John headed to South Africa to continue his training in navigation, bomb aiming and gunnery before returning to the UK via New York in 1943. 

John Bell during his RAF career

Joining Bomber Command’s No. 14 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Cottesmore, John teamed up with the men who would be his future crew. As his talents lay more with bomb aiming than with navigation, John became the crew’s bomb aimer. 

After converting to Lancasters, on 30 June 1943 the crew was declared operational and posted to 619 Squadron. Their first operation as a crew came on 24 July with a raid on Hamburg. More ops followed, with trips to Essen, Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, Kassel and Hanover.  

When their tour of operations ended, the crew decided to stay together and volunteered for 617 Squadron. This meant going straight into a second tour of 20 operations without the usual respite period. 617 Squadron’s role included precision attacks against targets in occupied France and Belgium, which required extreme accuracy to avoid civilian casualties. 

On the eve of D-Day John took part in an operation to drop bundles of aluminium foil, or ‘window’, to fool German radar into believing the invasion force bound for Normandy was heading for beaches much further to the east. 

After completing 50 ops, John took a step back from operations. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and was posted as an instructor on aircrew training units. 

After completing an accountancy course at the end of the war (having worked for a firm of chartered accountants before the war), John applied for a permanent commission and entered the world of photographic intelligence. For the next 25 years he served in the UK, Singapore, Washington and South Korea. 

John was awarded an MBE for his service in the 1970 New Year Honours List and retired from the RAF in 1977 holding the rank of Wing Commander.  

In March 2016 he received the Legion d’Honneur from the French Consul, recognising his bravery and commitment during the Second World War, including his role in precision attacks against factory targets in occupied France and Belgium with 617 Squadron. 

Following the death of his wife Florence in 2004, John moved to RAFA Housing Storrington in West Sussex to be closer to his daughter Susie and grandchildren. For many years he was an active volunteer with the Association, serving as a Branch Welfare Officer in Sussex as well as raising funds for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. 

Nick Bunting, Secretary General, at the Association said: “We’re deeply saddened by the death of Wing Commander John Bell MBE DFC LdH, aged 100. His outstanding contribution to the defence of our nation, during WWII and beyond, will never be forgotten. We are also incredibly grateful to John’s exceptional commitment to the Association during his time as a volunteer, dedicating his free time to help people in the RAF community who are in need. Our thoughts are with John’s family and friends at this sad time.” 

 

 

John Bell pictured on his 100th birthday with his daughter

John Bell pictured on his 100th birthday with his daughter.