Robert Norman Bell – high flyer


Robert Norman Bell, Corporal 15/1253 1st Leeds Pals

Later commissioned in RFC/RAF as Lieutenant 

Robert Norman Bell was born in Bridlington on 7th June 1896, the only son of Robert Fletcher Bell, a traveller for agricultural merchants dealing in corn, seed cake, manure etc., who had married Eleanor Brown in Beverley three years before. He had an older sister, Phyllis, born two years before. (Census Records and FreeBMD).  He under-stood that his paternal grandfather had been born in Cumberland, and moved to the East Riding where he became a small farmer, but he died when Robert was six or seven.

On the 1901 Census the family was living at 3 Cambridge Street, Bridlington.  By 1911 they had moved to ‘Colesbourne’, Cardigan Road, Bridlington, and on his RFC papers the address is ‘Sundby’, Cardigan Road.

Very little of Robert’s service records have survived, but unlike many of his contemporaries he left a written record of his experiences, and what follows is taken largely from that. (Part of the Liddle Collection, University of Leeds.)

When Robert left school, probably in 1913, he became apprenticed to a pharmaceutical chemist, and left them to join up in 1915, when he was eighteen. (RAF records).  As the Pals were by that time at Colsterdale that may be where he was attested.  He was posted to B Company, No.6 Platoon, No.5 Section, and in time became the platoon bomber.

With the battalion he sailed to Egypt in December 1915, and Robert’s memoirs tell of the collision with what he described as a Greek steamer, although it has also been described as a French mail boat, and named as the Dajurjura.  They remained in Egypt, guarding the Suez Canal, until 1st March 1916, when they sailed again, for France.  The Pals were to take part in the Big Push, which became known as the Battle of the Somme.

They spent their time training for the attack, but this was interrupted in early June by a notice held up in the German trenches, which informed them that Kitchener had been drowned when the Hampshire sank.  German intelligence was apparently very good.  It was also good on 1st July 1916, when Robert was part of the second line of troops going over the top at 7.30 that morning.  Perhaps luckily he caught his foot in some barbed wire and fell flat on his face.  Picking himself up he made his way forward to his own front line, by which time it was clear that the casualties had been horrendous and the rest of his company seemed to have disappeared.  After searching for several hours he found where the rest of the battalion had gathered, all eighteen of them, and they made their way back to their own lines.

The next few months were spent bringing the battalion back up to strength and doing spells in different parts of the line, interrupted by a time in hospital in September, where he was diagnosed with Pyrexia of unknown origin (PUO), and had a back molar extracted – without anaesthetic.  Then it was back to the battalion on light duties for a few days before going back into the line, and then into billets in early October.  The next few months fluctuated between training and being in the line, until the middle of March 1917, when his life changed dramatically.

Robert had applied for and was accepted by the RFC.  He was sent on leave and then to an Officer Cadet Battalion.  He was successful in his training and finally left the army on 25th September 1917, when he was placed on the General List of the RFC.  After more training, including learning to fly, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant on 23rd October, having been posted to 217 Squadron.

Meanwhile his sister was at university in London and sharing a flat with two other girls, ‘one of them to become her sister-in-law the following year.’  The implication is that Robert married her, but without a name I have not been able to find definite confirmation of this.

More training followed, at Tadcaster, Catterick and Marske, before he was sent to France as a day bomber pilot, by which time, on 1st April 1918, the RFC had become the RAF.  He went on a number of bombing missions but after only a few weeks the squadron was struck down by the Spanish Flu epidemic, and Robert was back in hospital.  By the time he recovered the war was almost over, and when it ended there was little for them to do.  The squadron was run down, and Robert was demobilised on 26th March 1919, the same day on which he was promoted to Lieutenant.

He was awarded the 1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.  According to his memoirs he spent the rest of his adult life ‘concerned with aircraft’, but in what way specifically he did not say.  In 1969 when he wrote the memoir he was living in Farnham, Surrey, and it seems likely that he died in Winchester, Hampshire, in 1987.

Researcher: Peter Taylor

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  • All opinions and inferences are the researcher’s own.
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