Tribute to WWI hero
George Stanley Bell DFM – 100th Anniversary of Amiens
Pinos resident Chris Bell shares his grandfather's story of bravery with us
GEORGE Stanley Bell was a Royal Flying Corps observer and gunner. A very good one. Bell was posted to 49 squadron in July 1918, and assigned to a pilot called Lieutenant Spurling.
Spurling was from Bermuda and was one of the first coloured officers in the British military; he was already on his way to being a celebrity on his Caribbean island and had been promoted to flight leader whenever the squadron went on patrol, so he wanted the best gunner with him.
Bell had already proved himself earlier in the month shooting down a Hun during a dog fight. He spent each evening at the aerodrome stripping his gun, checking every part, carefully cleaning and oiling each component before meticulously reassembling it. He had seen too many of his compatriots die because their guns had jammed in combat.
On August 8, the squadron moved to the front line to Beauvois to support the massive new allied attack on the Somme at Amiens. Their targets were bridges along the Somme and railway yards, often flying two or three missions a day. Sometimes they returned without being challenged, but on other missions, they were attacked by formations of enemy fighters.
The raids continued on an almost daily basis. On August 21, they were attacked by a formation of 25 German fighters although there was no mention of casualties. They didn’t fly the next day due to bad weather.
Friday August 23, 1918 dawned clear and still, so the first patrol was scheduled for dawn at 05.50. However, things didn’t go to plan, their engine refused to start, and as the rest of the flight departed for the target, Spurling and Bell were left stranded on the ground. The flight was logged off at 06.30, Bell wrote in his log ‘washed out - dud engine’.
Spurling spent the rest of the morning with the mechanics trying to get the engine running reliably; meanwhile, the first raid had returned and was preparing to go for a second time. Thinking he was going to get away with going on the second raid, Bell began to relax a little and contemplate the real meaning of this day - It was his 21st birthday, he was officially a man. He laughed to himself, if he wasn’t already a man, then what on earth was doing in the middle of all this! Anyway, no one else even knew, they all thought he was older because he had added a year to his age and changed his date of birth when he had signed up aged 17.
All of a sudden, a stern voice called his name “Bell!”. “Yes sir?” “You’re coming with me!” In an instant his heart fell through his feet, he felt the blood running from his face… he trusted Spurling, but Major Hall, who had called him, wasnt´ his favourite pilot officer and he didn’t feel confident putting his life in the hands of this man, especially today! He began to sweat and shake, he couldn’t forget what had happened just a few days earlier.
Another pilot officer, who had heard how good a shot Bell was, also called to him and said “Come with me”. He had no choice but to follow orders, but as they were walking towards the aircraft Spurling arrived and said sternly to Bell “Where the hell are you going?” He replied “With this officer sir”. Spurling shouted “Like hell you are - get back inside”. Spurling turned to the officer and said “Find someone else”. The other officer seemed flustered and in a hurry, and by now he had lost all his patience. He shouted to another gunner “Right you, come with me”.
The officer stormed off and headed for his machine, “Hurry up, get in” he yelled to the terrified replacement. Then he opened the throttle and without even turning the aircraft into the wind headed out across the airfield, he hauled the plane off the ground very quickly and started to climb steeply. At about 100 feet the plane stalled, one wing suddenly dropped and the aircraft flipped over and spun into the ground killing them both. It was Bell’s best friend and he knew but for the grace of god, or probably Spurling, that would have been him. So he was terrified today!
The second raid of the day was due to take off at 10.30. Not only was he in a different machine, with a different pilot, it wasn’t even the gun he had meticulously stripped and cleaned the previous night. Bell began to feel very uncomfortable, he was always apprehensive before a mission, but this was worse, he was beginning to get a very bad feeling. There were a few more clouds by this time, but the wind was still moderate and the visibility was still good. As it turns out this was an uneventful mission, they arrived back at base two and a half hours later at about 13.00 after dropping their bombs on Valenciennes junction, but for Bell, it had already been a very long day.
Bell went to the mess, he just wanted to eat something and get himself together, but just as he sat down Spurling came in and announced that their engine was fixed and they would all be taking off again for another raid at 16.30. The machine was a DH9, number D3056 and precisely on time, they took off for the target. Once again, it was Valenciennes junction, which was being used as a marshalling yard deep behind enemy lines.
The relentless bombing of the rail yards at Valenciennes was to try to disrupt the movement of German troops and supplies, but it had also attracted the attention of several packs of enemy fighters trying to stop the British planes. So hiding in clouds and avoiding meeting with them was also very important, especially before they reached the target when they were heavily loaded with bombs.
Beauvois was a very flat and large airfield, so the formation was able to take off to the west and into the wind; they then turned to the east and formed up whilst slowly climbing. By now, a thick layer of heavy almost unbroken cloud had blown in from the west and was laying at about 6,300ft. They climbed through the clouds and reached an altitude of 13,000ft, flying east to the target which was about 85km away.
The object once again was to bomb the rail junction. Nearing their destination some one hour later, the weather there was much better and they de- scended through scattered clouds and identified their target. Luckily, there was no enemy opposition and the bombs were dropped. Following the raid, all the aircraft turned west and began to climb above the clouds for the return flight to their own airfield near the small hamlet of Beauvois.
It is most likely that the strength of the wind had significantly increased as the afternoon went on, and flying against this wind was taking far longer than expected, but worse, despite a compass and an air speed indicator, in 1918 and above the clouds they had no real reference to where they actually were. The further west they flew, the thicker the clouds became and the stronger the wind got, making it seem that they had travelled far further than they actually had. It was during this part of the flight that one of the other aircraft in the formation developed engine trouble and had to descend into the cloud. As formation leader, Spurling decided to descend too and follow it down to see where it had landed, but it was very misty and they lost it in the clouds.
So they began their slow climb back above the clouds to re-join their formation, but when they broke into the early evening sunshine there was no sign of any other aircraft and they realised they had lost their own formation too. Once again, they descended to just below the cloud base. According to the log, they flew around for about half an hour looking for a suitable place to land without realising they were still only about half way back to their base at Beauvois. Through the mist and murk, they spotted an aerodrome and they were convinced they were over their own lines by now.
As they slowed down and descended to land, they were suddenly attacked by an enemy scout, Spurling was surprised at the audacity of the German pilot attacking them so close to an allied airfield, but then they both saw a well-camouflaged
formation of some 30 Fokker D7s just below them at about 800ft and climbing towards them. They were still over enemy lines!
Spurling had been circling and descending slowly, so he had no power to just climb away, his only option was to dive and gain speed hoping to quickly climb away again. In 1918 the DH9 was, despite its unreliable engine, the latest technology and it’s climb rate and agility were far in excess of the German Fokker D7.
Spurling pushed the throttle to full power and he dived directly into the formation of Fokkers with his forward guns blazing, one burst into flames and another two collided, one of which span to the ground and crashed. Bell saw four of the machines below his tail, so he fired at the closest one and it burst into flames, another one came up on the left of his tail firing at them, bullets slicing through the plane’s fuselage. Spurling, using the DH9’s ability to turn sharply, made a steep bank to the right and in doing so positioned the aircraft to allow Bell to fire his guns directly at this machine at a range of just 20 yards and it too burst into flames and crashed on the aerodrome below. The rest of the D7s were firing tracer rounds at the rapidly climbing DH9 as three of the enemy aircraft gave chase, but their climb rate was no match for this aircraft without its bombs, and Spurling quickly climbed away and they escaped.
Reaching a height of 6000ft Bell spotted what he thought was an RE8 and relieved he waved at it, but as the aircraft turned toward them it began firing, shredding the fabric and tearing the structure of the biplane’s right wings whilst also cutting the aileron gap wires which were essential for aileron (fin) control. Bell fired a burst back and the enemy aircraft went into a spin and disappeared into the mist below.
Their wings shredded, and now with no ailerons for lateral control, they climbed again to get above the clouds and continued to fly west. The damaged right-hand wings were tearing apart and the aircraft was shaking very uncomfortably. Spurling had only his rudder for control of their direction, which meant he could only make very long slow turns, and the wings canvas and wooden structure was so badly damaged there was no way they could risk getting into another dogfight to defend themselves.
For the next hour, they flew west into the evening. As the sun sunk lower in the sky, below them there was thick dark unbroken cloud and with daylight running out they had no idea where they were. Eventually there was a small break in the cloud and they could see the coast below which meant they knew they were over their own lines by now. They slowly descended and as they did, they spotted another aerodrome. Flying as gently and carefully as he could, Spurling slowly ma- noeuvred the DH9 into position and they landed.
The severely damaged aircraft, which had been hit in several places and with its right wings in shreds touched down heavily on the grass and with that, the wings collapsed and broke up, but they had made it. They had landed at 1ASD, a salvage airfield just northeast of Boulogne. The aircraft was retained for scrap.
Bell was taken to hospital in Boulogne, he was bruised and battered from the landing but far worse were the mental scars. By 1918, post-traumatic stress disorder had been recognised, and Bell was quickly sent back to England to a specialist hospital and later transferred to a squadron in England for the remainder of the war.
Having shot down six enemy aircraft between them and because each ‘kill’ is awarded jointly, they had both become Air Aces in a single day.
Bell was awarded the DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal) for his gallantry and became the first person ever to be presented with such a medal.
In WW2 he was recalled to the RAF and was stationed at Woodley Aerodrome near Reading.