In 1981 a diligent and professional Chartered Surveyor who had risen to the giddy heights of District Valuer reached the age of sixty and took retirement from the Civil Service...


W Bro Nick Saalfeld


But look forward from that calm and measured career and you’ll find an adventurous record-breaker. Look back and you’ll find a true hero.

Colin Bell, DFC, 102 when we spoke and now 103, flew 50 operations over Germany in 1944-45; 13 of them over Berlin at a time when, as the capital of the Reich, the City was a boiling cauldron of anti-aircraft defences, including the latest radar-guided heavy guns.

He was a pilot in 608 Squadron, a unit reformed in August 1944 at RAF Downham Market as a Mosquito “Pathfinder” squadron, tasked to execute daring night strikes until its dissolution at the end of the War. He says of the ‘Wooden Wonder’, “I was in love with the Mosquito from the moment I first flew it. There wasn’t a better aircraft. It could outfly all German night fighters, until the arrival of the German jet-powered Me 262 towards the end of the War. The Mosquito responded instantly to inputs on the controls. When compared to the Spitfire, the Mosquito had two Merlin engines, so if I had to choose between the two aircraft, as the Americans say, ‘no contest’.”

With no guns in order to optimise its low weight, the Mosquito version flown by Colin was a hugely effective bomber, carrying four 500lbs bombs. Bell not only flew his bomber into the jaws of the enemy, he flew almost exclusively solo missions. “I only did formation flying once”, he says. “In formation, there was no flexibility! You had to stay on the same course as the rest – and that increased the risk. On your own, you can dodge and weave the lethal flak.”

In 1940, the young Colin Bell saw the Battle of Britain being fought out in the sky above him. “I was looking forward to an evening out with my girlfriend when a German bomber chucked a bomb at Hampton Court Bridge. As the bomb exploded, I was thrown onto the ground and I got covered in filth. The German missed the Bridge – the bomb fell on the other side of the road to me – and it’s lucky it did! But that was it – I was now determined to join the Royal Air Force.”

After initial training in Scarborough, Colin progressed to more advanced training in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Having gained his wings in America and expecting to return to Britain to fly for the RAF, he found himself ready for service just as the US formally joined the War after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. With America short of qualified pilots, Colin was retained in the US as a flight instructor. “It was the blind leading the blind”, he says. “Yesterday I was a cadet. Today I get my wings. Tomorrow I’m an instructor!” Just before leaving the US, he was accredited as an instructor on single engine high speed aircraft without having had a single hour’s formal training as an instructor!

Back in the UK and in the heat of war, he found himself in Bomber Command and teamed up with a surly Canadian navigator, Doug Redmond, who had also been an instructor back home. “A Wing Commander came into the room”, says Colin. “He said, ‘I’m coming back in an hour’s time, and I shall expect you all have crewed up – one navigator to one pilot’. And he went out and shut the door. Immediately one chap jumped on up and said, ‘Who wants a drunken navigator?’ And I thought, well, I don’t want him. Doug seemed to me quite an old man (he was actually 28) and I thought, he’s probably got experience. As soon as he said that he’d been an instructor, I realised that he was the chap for me. He was a brilliant navigator. And I was very lucky to have him. And I modestly told him he was lucky to have me!”

The combination of two exceptional airmen and the flying attributes of the Mosquito forged a team which helped Bomber Command to reduce hugely the German capability to manufacture arms in the later stages of the War.

But the romance of war films belies a much more challenging reality. Colin says, “The worst experience was being caught by anti-aircraft fire. It lifted us up out of our seats and it caused both engines to lose power. It interfered with the fuel supply temporarily. We were worried, but as the propellers windmilled there was nothing to do but wait. At night over Berlin, being pummelled by anti-aircraft fire and conned by searchlights, we just had to ride it out. After the engines recovered and we started flying again, I leaned across to Doug and said to him, ‘You weren’t frightened, were you, Doug?’ And he said “No – I wasn’t frightened – I was bloody terrified!” And today, “Bloody Terrified” is the title of the book about Colin and Doug’s escapades, as written by Doug’s son, Ian Redmond.

The reward for their efforts? As a pilot, Colin got bacon and eggs before each sortie. “If you got shot down and you’re endeavouring to escape, you’d have a full meal inside you.”

The day in 1940 when dodging a bomb pushed Colin into the RAF, he had been on his way to see Kathlyn, the lady who would become his wife. He handled his relationship with the same deftness as the Mosquito. “She started off hating me. But Samuel Goldwyn came to my aid with a fantastic film called ‘Gone With The Wind’. We’d had Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and all that sort of stuff. But this was real. Every girl wanted to see ‘Gone With The Wind’. So I asked Kath to come and see it with me. Because I said I’d got my father’s car on Friday night, which was true. And I said I’d got two tickets, which wasn’t true. She didn’t want to go with me but the lure of seeing Clark Gable prevailed and she agreed to come out with me – but just this once.

“So when she’d gone, I phoned the box office – and the lady there said I must be joking: there’s a six month waiting list. I said, ‘Darling, if I can’t get two tickets for Gone With the Wind on Friday night, I might just as well go out and cut my throat’. She said, ‘Ooh, we can’t have you do that! We do keep a few tickets back for foreign visitors. There’s just a possibility…

And there was. “After watching the film, we had a superb meal. I got her home at 2.30 in the morning; and her parents were there waiting at the gate, and her mother said ‘You’ll never go out with that boy again’. Thus cementing our relationship, because no teenage girl wants the approval of her mother for her boyfriend!”

“Our lives took separate directions. And unknown to her, I went out to America to learn to fly, and she joined the WAAF. But I wrote to her while I was in America. And she sent me a very nice letter back. I let the guy I was sharing a room with read it, and when he’d finished, he said: ‘When you get home, you should marry that girl’. And I did. And it lasted for 73 wonderful years.

When Colin left the RAF, Kathlyn was clear. “I’ve spent years of my life watching you fly out and hoping you’d come back. I don’t want to be the wife of a peacetime officer.” Hence Colin’s career as a Chartered Surveyor, and then, after ‘retirement’, returning as a consulting surveyor, helping businesses challenge surveyors’ decisions on rateability.

It was a glorious peacetime life, but when Kath passed away, Colin, bereft of the love of his life, pondered what he should do. “When that door closes, you can’t reopen it”, he says. “You have to make up your mind what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. And I’ve gone around the country giving talks and raising money for charity. It’s what Kath would have wanted me to do. And that’s how I came to be involved in abseiling.”

In 2023, Colin raised funds not only for the Hospice in the Weald where Kath spent the last weeks of her life, but also worked for London’s Air Ambulance Charity, the RAF Benevolent Fund and the RCN Foundation. On 14th September last year, at the age of 102, Colin became the ‘oldest person in the world ever to abseil’ by rappelling the 280ft and 17 storeys down the side of The Royal London Hospital. Said Colin at the time, “Somebody pointed out to me that it didn’t matter whether it was 17 storeys or five storeys – if I fell, the result would be the same. That was helpful… But of course I’m not really 102. I’m biologically 70. I think when you get to 102, you can make your own rules up as you go along…”

For 2024, there’s no sign of Colin letting up. He’s contemplating several adventurous projects, including joining a team to drive some ambulances to Ukraine in support of the war effort there.

He remains an energetic and determined supporter of the armed forces. “My parents, in common with the majority of their generation, were absolutely scared to the core of the prospect of another World War. They embraced appeasement, but they were wrong, weren’t they? It just encourages the despots to attack us. As the old Roman adage goes, ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’. It’s much cheaper for a country to arm itself to prevent a war than it is to fight a war. You can talk about education, infrastructure, the NHS and social care, but all of that pales into insignificance when your enemies are walking up the streets of your cities.”

Along the way, his charitable efforts and commitment to his military connections have also seen him join the Craft, unsurprisingly the Royal Air Force Lodge No 7335, one of the Circuit of Service Lodges, founded in 1954 as a London Masonic haven for serving RAF Officers who might find themselves stationed worldwide.

His Masonic career has been an influential and vital part of his extraordinary life and he is eternally grateful for the comradeship, support and encouragement on the lessons of life that being a Mason has bestowed on him.

Colin Bell has lived under five monarchs, served his country, won a DFC for his skill and bravery and seen the world change beyond all expectations in an extraordinary life. You’ll find him planning his next charitable activities at the RAF Club, quite probably with a gin and tonic in hand.

This article is part of the Arena Magazine, Issue 54 April 2024 edition.
Arena Magazine is the official magazine of the London Freemasons - Metropolitan Grand Lodge and Metropolitan Grand Chapter of London.

Read more articles in the Arena Issue 54 here.