Trib­ute to WWI hero

Ge­orge Stan­ley Bell DFM – 100th An­niver­sary of Amiens

Costa Blanca News (North Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Bell (Grand­son)

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.

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