54293 F/O Bell E.G.
Ernie Bell was educated in Hungerford and on leaving school started working at Oakes Brothers. As soon as he was old enough (17½) he joined the Royal Air Force as an apprentice, training to be a photographer, a keen interest of his.
Before long he proved himself as aircrew and was selected for pilot training, some of this at South Cerney, flying the twin-engined Hampden Bomber. He passed through an Operational Training Unit and was then posted to a Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron. The P.R.U. squadron was based at R.A.F. Benson, where he is known to have flown the De Havilland Mosquito, an unarmed camera carrying aircraft, with 544 Squadron.
The work is known to have taken him deep into enemy territory for long periods, without guns or escort. It is believed that he took part in photographing the Dams, after 617 Squadron had carried out their now famous raid in May 1943. There is also evidence that he photographed the German V1 rocket sites that were beginning to appear in the Low Countries and Northern France.
The British were developing their own secret weapons, one of these being a smaller version of the Dam Buster Bomb, called the High Ball. This was planned for use against enemy shipping in much the same way as the Dam bomb, being dropped at low level and bouncing towards the ship. In the testing stage, photos were required and 544 Squadron were chosen to provide crews for this programme. Ernie Bell and his navigator were chosen as part of the new 618 Squadron. Months of testing were to take place, some on the south coast ranges and on old ships in the Lochs of Scotland. There were many critics of this new weapon and tests were not going well. Like the Dam's Bomb the outer casing, which had to be strong enough not to break up when dropped from aircraft, was failing. By the time it was ready there were no large ships left in the German Navy. There were also fears in some quarters that should one of the new weapons fall into enemy hands it could be copied and used against our own shipping. It was therefore decided to transfer the project to Australia and use the new bomb against Japanese ships in the Pacific.
In October 1944, Mosquitoes were put on board the aircraft carriers H M S Fencer and Striker at Glasgow departing on the 31st. The journey took them via Gibraltar and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) arriving in Melbourne on 23 December 1944. The squadron assembled at Narrowmine in Victoria for more training flights continued until May 1945 without a decision being made by the War Cabinet on suitable targets. With little enthusiasm from the American High Command and a now almost non-existent Japanese navy there was little for the squadron to do, apart from a few photographic flights by the P.R.U. aircraft.
On 18 June 1945, F/O Ernie Bell and his navigator, F/Lt Sillito flew to the R.A.F. base at Laverton Victoria, on liaison duties taking off the next day,19 June in a Mark 16 Mosquito NS735. Shortly after take-off, flying in cloud on instruments, he lost control and crashed in flames near Violet Town. It is thought that an engine problem may have been the cause, because reports at the time said that the aircraft was in a spiral dive with insufficient height for the pilot to regain control.
Both airmen were killed and later buried in Benalla War Cemetery, Victoria.
Ernie Bell left a wife and young child at their home in Staffordshire.
- Ernie Bell as a Sergeant Pilot