Edmund Bell was born in Blackburn Lancashire on 6th June 1910. He spent his thirty fourth birthday in RAF Transport Command West Africa as the D Day Landings were taking place in Normandy. He had just completed his 151st sortie navigating a Dakota DC3 from Douala, the largest city in the Camaroon, to Accra on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) – a distance of 609 miles in a total flying time of 5hrs 15 mins. Fifty six years later, his funeral took place on his ninetieth birthday at the Parish Church of St. Cuthbert’s Lytham, Lancashire, on June 6th 2000.
The sixth of the month was to be an auspicious day for the Bell Family. His wife, Annie (Nan) was born in Blackburn on 6th April 1912. They were married in the town on 6th July 1937 and their son, Gordon was born there on 6th November 1939. Nan and Edmund had met at school and were married for 63 yrs. For the last thirteen years, they lived in Lytham
“Enlistment for Duration of the Present Emergency”
During the summer of 1940, as the air campaign of the Luftwaffe raged over the skies of Britain, Edmund Bell decided to volunteer for the RAF. He was considered “too old and in a reserved occupation”. On Gordon’s first birthday, his father tried again. This time, the losses incurred in the Battle of Britain meant having to raise the age limits for entry and on 1st April 1941 his medical took place at Preston, Lancashire. The irony of the date did not escape him.
Reflecting on the day four years after the war had ended he wrote;
“Even then, I didn’t understand the purpose of it all because the boys I knew were young, happy and so full of life. But then they did serve an ideal to die for although a few “spivs” today think they were “mugs”. Even Gerald thinks I still am – maybe I am but then possibly I agree with him but I would do exactly the same if I could put the clock back 10-20 years.”
From June 1941 to March 1942, he was trained at RAF Padgate, London, Scarborough, and Carlisle where he noted a “Salary Increase, 3s/6d week (£9-2-0 per annum.)” A final photo was taken with Gordon before departing to Aircrew Despatch Centre, Heaton Park Manchester and a 12 day troop ship voyage to Canada;
Thursday March 26th – Friday 27th 1942
Into Gourock by 9.00am.Tender to “Rangitiki” in Clyde. Full of Canadian soldiers returning home for courses. Many Nazi prisoners on board- all services; some taken during raids on France. Am on D2 Deck – H18 Mess. Big ship – about 18000 tons. Warm and sunny. Wrote Nan.Good Meal. Conditions pretty lousy. Too many in. Many more prisoners taken on board. Turned in at 9:30pm. Slept badly altho’ tired – too stuffy – Getting ready to move.”
“Beer 6d pint-Players 1s8d for 50 – Oranges 6 for 1/= –Navy Cut + Bruno Tobacco 6d per oz!!!…Bagged a mattress, Set sail at 18. 10hrs, ‘SS Rangitiki’ and another; 2 destroyers escort. Last letter to Nan and Gordon…Bed by 10:15 pm on a mattress on floor. Lousy”
Sunday 29th March to 5th April (Easter Day)
Very Rough, Feeling Seedy!! – 3 times as far to go yet. Pitching and Rolling Like Mad. Head whizzing round like a top….Mother’s birthday (31st March) …Death aboard other ship. Hope it’s not one of our lads. Very overcrowded and stuffy. …Raining hard and gale blowing; visibility almost nil…Prisoners hoping to make a break. Guard doubled about 100 miles away from Halifax.” (Canada)
During the voyage, a trade developed swapping chocolates and cigarettes for Nazi badges from prisoners.
Monday 6th April 1942
“Nan 30 today. Easter Monday” “…fog lifted slightly – sighted land 6:15pm! pulled into Halifax – Nova Scotia by 8pm. grand sight – big place – no blackout here. wrote Nan.”
Aircrew Training in Canada
From March 1942 to February 1943, Edmund Bell was posted to the Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) RAF Pearce, some 2,800 miles to the east via Montreal.
After a four day train journey, he arrived at Pearce “We are miles and miles from anAywhere and anyone. New station” (Now, nothing remains but a memorial cairn on the site of the guard hut). His pilot training began in earnest a fortnight later;
“Beautiful Day! Up 5:30am over to Flight Crew room ready to fly by 7am. Managed to get 40mins in at 10.30am! P/O Clark on Stearman. Lousy. Helmet & intercom punk. Couldn’t hear a damn thing. Made a very poor show indeed. Will have to do better.”
A further four weeks of intensive training followed until the landmark day of his first Solo flight. By the end of that week (31st May 1942) he had completed 14:25 hrs Dual and 2:25hrs Solo.
He described his feelings to a colleague soon after the war ended;
“It’s almost exactly eight years ago to the day when I “packed” my little bag and reported to ACRC London as a ‘U.T. Pilot-Cadet’ –Gosh! I was so happy and proud too – Proud and not a little pleased that I had passed my Selection Board – Quite a formidable task, I would mention, for one as old as 31! And then my posting in uniform……4 months of swotting, swotting & swotting wondering if it was worthwhile – was it when I could get a cushy job as an Orderly Room Clerk quite easily in the UK? …….there is no easy way….trying so hard to assimilate all the Gen at E.F.T.S. ….I tried to pick it up all at once….too eager in fact as my Instructor realised….. and then he patted me on the back, climbed out of the front cockpit and I went “Solo”- I was supremely happy – on my own and singing at the top of my voice – Thinking too- I hope the war won’t be over before I’ve had a crack.”
By the end of June, 1942, 87hrs 10mins flying time had been clocked up. A new posting arrived; to No. 1 Royal Canadian Air Force, Central Flying School at Trenton, Ontario; 1,800 miles west, a three day train journey via Toronto. He was going to be a Navigator.
Training at Trenton consisted of lectures and weekly exams requiring a pass rate of “not less than 60% in each subject and an aggregate of 70% in all subjects”. By 20th of August 1942;
“Bags of panic. Big posting of air Bombers going soon. Everyone being interviewed re changing over! Very unsettling indeed. Still a Navigator! Interviewed 4pm…….Rumours of posting to Winnipeg”
No. 5 AOS (Air Observer School i.e. Navigator) Stevenson Field, Winnipeg, Manitoba lies in south central Canada close by the US border. Edmund arrived there on a 20 week course with Ground School lectures plus day and night flights and exercises. The training aircraft used were twin engined Avro Ansons.
After 77hrs 30mins of day navigation and 37hrs 10mins of night navigation he took his Final Exams. With enormous relief and delight, he attended his “Wings Parade” on 19th February 1943. He was posted the same night to Moncton, New Brunswick en route to the UK. It had been 20 months since his first introduction to “Flying Duties.”
Pilot Officer Operational Training in England
Replete with a new uniform from the famous Eaton’s store in Moncton and after sewing on his RAF buttons, he boarded a special train on a two day journey bound for New York;
More came on board during night: Dutch-Belgians-USA-Norwegians–Canadians ……Aussies – Free French –Czechs –etc. Sailed 10:30am. Past Statue of Liberty…Should be HOME in A WEEK’s TIME! (d.v.) – job getting all my stuff in suitcase & kit bags weigh a ton! (Thursday 11th March) Bit woozy – too hot and stuffy – In lounge –wonder what Nan & Gordon are doing and thinking now! Soon Know!
HMT Queen Elizabeth crossed the Atlantic in six days with no escort and around 10.000 service personnel on board; “a rough voyage, two meals only” with blackouts in force throughout.
Freshly promoted to Flying Officer, his next posting was to an Operational Training Unit of “Wellington” bombers. He was “crewed up” with a pilot with whom he flew regularly on both day and night sorties. They were destined to experience some testing times together;
1944 and Beyond
EB spent Christmas Day in 1944 back on board a troopship, this time HMT “Leopoldville” in Gibraltar Harbour. The first few weeks of the New Year were spent familiarising himself with an aircraft in which he would spend many months navigating across Africa, India, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Bermuda and the USA. It was the highly regarded workhorse of the air – the Douglas Dakota DC3.
19th October 1943 (EB’s 81st flight – 6hrs 20mins; Base – ‘Position X’ – Base; anti-sub patrol )
“Bernard ‘passed out’ at 15,000΄ for at least 30 mins – Put ‘George’ (auto pilot) in & managed to cope. Johnny in the rear was blissfully unaware of it all!! Wot a Life! Pitôt Head ( a critically important airspeed instrument) froze at 14,500’… Stalled… A.S.I. (air speed indicator) Round Twice! 10/10 clouds – Temperature minus 18 degrees –Visibility 50′. Recalled to Base – circled 50 mins before finding way in.
Almost Bought It! What a trip – everything happened that could happen but this must be too soon for me to hand in my pass to St.Peter!! Bernard completely “out” – Lack of Oxygen? Most frightening; – the only crew to return to Base; 5 did not return.”
There are many other examples in Edmund Bell’s log books, diaries, and records of those who also did not make it home.
He had been assigned to the newly formed “Transport Command.”
Motto: “Ferio Ferendo” ( I Strike by Carrying ) and posted initially to 114 Wing Accra West African Forces.
“Civvy Street” arrived in October 1946. It did not last long. Four years later, he was “Back in Harness” in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant one year later to serve at No 19 Reserve Flying School, Woodvale, Southport. He was then transferred to the Royal Auxilliary Air Force attached to 609 (WR) Squadron No12 Group Fighter Command, Church Fenton.
Edmund Bell’s RAF career ended after a further period as a Reserve Officer in 1964; a total of 23 years including 21 yrs commissioned aircrew service. He had flown over 400 sorties and completed 1,110hrs 10mins flying in 24 different types of propeller and jet aircraft. He had been posted to 39 units, landed at 118 different airfields, and navigated over 250,000 miles. His last log book entry reads; “Q.E.D”. not “R.I.P”.