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Lost in the Battle of Britain

The life of John Swift Bell (Service Number 900510) A guest blog post by Mark Whitnall

John Swift Bell was born in 1917 when the family were living at 12 North Marsh Road, Gainsborough (Kelly’s Directory of Lincolnshire 1913 and 1919).


His father, Herbert Alfred Bell, was the son of Thomas and Caroline Bell (nee Ford, 1845-1923, born in New York, USA). Herbert Bell was born at Aughton near Ormskirk, Lancashire on 11 April 1870. He had a brother Frederick, born 1874, and sister Dora, born 1875. At this time the family were living at Woodbine Cottage, Aughton. By 1881 they were living at 6 Hillside, Lancaster.


After leaving school Herbert trained as a clerk in a solicitor's office.


By 1891 he had moved to Gainsborough and was living at 7 Tennyson Street.

Herbert Alfred Bell. Photo courtesy of Mike Credland

In 1907 he married Ethel Blanche Marshall at Hastings, Sussex, a descendant of the Marshall engineering family, Gainsborough. They had a son, Thomas, born on 27 August 1908. Ethel did not fully recover after the birth and died on 13 September 1910.


By 1911 he was living at Cedar Cottage, 12 North Marsh Road, Gainsborough.


In 1912 he married Ethel Mary Swift (1879-1946). They had three children, Mary Caroline born 1913, Janet Alethea in 1914 and John Swift Bell in 1917.

L to R: Thomas Bell, Herbert Alfred Bell, Ethel Mary Swift with John Swift Bell sat on her knee. Sitting in the foreground are Janet Althea and Mary Caroline Bell. The identities of the other three adults are unknown. Photo Mike Credland

Before the Great War Herbert served with H Company 5th Battalion (Territorial Force) Lincolnshire Regiment based at Gainsborough Drill Hall. He was appointed Captain in the Special Reserve on 13 February 1913.

Officers of The Battalion, Luton 1914. Capt. Herbert Bell is standing fourth from left, middle row. The Battalion served as Infantry on the Western Front in WW1 and as an Air Defence Unit in WW2. Photo Mike Credland

On 21 July 1916 he was promoted to Major.  On 13 March 1917 he deployed to France. His medal entitlement was British War Medal, Victory Medal and Territorial Force War Medal.


After the war Herbert returned to his profession as a solicitor working for a practice at 7 Lord Street, Gainsborough. The family was still living at Cedar Cottage at this time (Kelly’s Directory of Lincolnshire 1922 and 1930).


By 1928 (and until 1943) he was Solicitor and Registrar to Lincoln, Horncastle, Gainsborough, Market Rasen, Caistor and Newark County Courts. He was a member of the Lincoln Church Music Society Committee. 


By 1932 the family had moved to Lincoln and was living at Greestone House, Greestone Place, in the Cathedral Quarter of the City (Kelly’s Directory of Lincoln 1932).

Greestone House, Greestone Place, Lincoln, 2023

John Swift Bell was a pupil at Weekites, Charterhouse, Godalming, Surrey. After leaving school he attended Christ’s College, Cambridge University where he gained a Batchelor of Arts.

In 1935, aged 18, he joined No 503 (County of Lincoln) Squadron, operating Wallaces, Harts and Hinds from RAF Waddington. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 22 April 1935.

On 1 November 1938, 503 was disbanded, its personnel being absorbed into No 616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, then being formed at Doncaster. On 15 December 1938 the squadron was transferred to Fighter Command.

In 1939, aged 22, he was Articled to Robert Epton, Solicitor, Commissioner of oaths, Superintendent Registrar of births, deaths and marriages, Clerk to North Kesteven and Welton rural District Councils, and Deputy Coroner for Lincoln North District (Kelly’s Directory of Lincoln 1939). Epton was one of several solictors with offices at St Edmund’s Chambers, Bank Street, Lincoln.

St Edmunds Chambers, Bank Street, Lincoln. Epton’s offices were at No.2, Bank Street, the corner building on the left. Now student accommodation 2023

On 24 August 1939 he was called up for active service and flew operationally with 616 during the Battle of Britain.


By 1940 the Bells had moved to Lindum Close, on the North side of Wragby Road, just East of Lincoln Christ’s Hospital School (Kelly’s Directory of Lincoln 1941).


Their house is now a nursery school.

Bell’s residence on site previously known as Lindum Close, 2023. Sometime after 1980 additional houses were built at Lindum Close, the development being renamed Darwin Court as the land was once owned by Charles Darwin’s family.

On 1 June 1940 he destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf109 over Dunkirk but was then shot down into the sea. He was picked up by the minesweeper HMS Halcyon and landed at Dover.

In mid-June he intercepted and damaged a He115 which jettisoned its bombs and fled. On 1st July he shared in damaging a He111 over Yorkshire.


John Swift Bell was killed in action on 30 August 1940 flying Spitfire X4248. His aircraft crashed and burned at Wrotham on approach to land at West Malling, Kent after being in combat with Bf109s. He was 23 and was buried at Eastgate Cemetery, Lincoln.


Ethel Bell died in 1946. Herbert Bell died at the age of 82 on 14 November 1952. Both are buried in Eastgate Cemetery, Lincoln.


In Summer 2018 Bell was remembered as part of Lincoln City Council’s 100 Voices, a series of walks commemorating 100 years of the RAF in Lincolnshire. Bell’s story was included on the Sopwith Camel Trail information board in front of St Peter’s Church, Eastgate.

St Peter’s Church, Eastgate, Lincoln. The 100 Voices information board is at far right under the tree.

With thanks to Mike Credland, Branch Chairman of the Lincoln & North Lincolnshire Western Front Association for providing the information on Herbert Alfred Bell. Mike is also Vice Chairman of Friends of the Lincoln Tank. He designed the Lincoln Tank Memorial on Tritton Road, a memorial to the Lincolnshire Regiment at their former barracks on Burton Road (now the location for the Museum of Lincolnshire Life) and another to the 46th (North Midland) Division near Loos in France. He is the author of The First World Memorials of Lincolnshire  published by the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology in 2014. 

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