Sergeant Jack Bell


I met two of my heroes this week.

No, I have not been at the MCG or some other sporting venue, I mean real heroes.

Jack Bell and Harvey Bawden were in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II.

Jack served as a wireless operator in the Western Desert and Harvey flew as a gunner on Lancaster bombers in Europe.

There roles were very different, but both were brought down by enemy action, and both lost friends in the process.

The survival rate of air crew in Bomber Command flying from England was limited to say the least.

Of the 125,000 who passed through, more than 53,000 were killed. If you look at wounded and those captured that figure moves up into the 70,000s.

Those odds were not faced by any other part of the armed forces.

Harvey beat the odds until his 29th operation. He was shot down on a raid over Dortmund in Germany and was taken as a prisoner of war for the final months of the war.

He had broken his leg exiting the aircraft.

Jack faced better odds flying in a transport aircraft in the Desert war.

His lot was to be part of the crew ferrying medical supplies and personnel around north Africa.

There were risks of course, but not that of a crew in Bomber Command.

Jack’s aircraft was shot down by a German unit and the aircraft crashed.

So odds or not, he was brought down and became a prisoner of war.

The reason these men are heroes to me is because they volunteered for a very tough job and they got on with it.

Volunteering for air crew was a lottery.

Not everyone could be a pilot, not everybody wanted to be a pilot, but in the vast machine across the Commonwealth each man was trained in a highly skilled craft, be it navigator, air gunner, wireless operator, flight engineer or pilot.

Where you were posted after training had nothing to do with choice, most went to Bomber Command where the losses were high.

By the time Harvey volunteered, the losses were known, yet he still volunteered. He flew across the world to fly and fight to help stop the push of Germany, a country which was invading land and killing people at an alarming rate.

When he was shot down, most of Harvey’s crew were captured and killed by civilians. A perhaps unknown aspect of war.

When Jack was shot down his mate in the aircraft was killed less than a metre from him. This happened in 1942, but when I spoke to Jack this week he said he thought of his mate, Tony Carter, every day.

Jack is 100, and Harvey is in his 90s; most of their air force mates didn’t make it to 25.

– Steve Kendall
Twitter: @stevekendall1