Arrochar butcher was German prisoner

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John_BellAN ARROCHAR village butcher was a World War Two German prisoner of war from 1943-45.

John Alexander Bell was serving as a Flight Engineer in the RAF when his plane was shot down over the Moselle Valley, part of which is in Germany and part in France.

John, known to all as Jock, survived, but did not see Arrochar again until after he had been released by American forces in May 1945.

He was born at Braeside in Arrochar in September 1914, his birth starting the fourth generation of the Bell family to live in the village.

He grew up there and attended the village school, of which he was dux in his final year, 1928.

His daughter Mrs Mary Haggarty said: “At that time he had seven younger brothers and sisters, so instead of going on to further education, as recommended by the school, he had to leave and start work to bring more money into my grandparents home.

“The local butcher offered him a job, and my father accepted. He worked there until the start of World War Two when he was conscripted.”

Jock joined the RAF in late 1939 and served at Linton-on-Ouse, near York, but returned to the village in 1940 for his wedding. By 1942 he was with Bomber Command’s 78th Squadron, flying in four-engined Halifax heavy bombers.

As one of the crew of HR659 he had completed 18 successful missions over Europe before the fateful night of April 16-17 1943.

Halifax-bomberReturning from a mission bombing the Skoda Armaments Works in Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, they were attacked at Bitburg, near to the Moselle Valley, by a Messerschmit 210 night fighter.

Flight Lieutenant Mortenson, the pilot, and Sergeant Pitman, the rear gunner, were killed in the first burst of cannon fire from the fighter.

In the second burst the intercom was knocked out so the crew had no communication with each other. The port wing was burning and the plane was going down.

Jock and crewmate Lawton Minshaw, the air gunner, managed to parachute to safety, and they landed in an open field about 100 yards apart.

Although Jock had badly injured his leg, they decided to head for Luxembourg. But after a couple of days his leg was in a bad way and he could hardly move.

Eventually the pair were caught by the Germans, and taken to the ancient city of Trier where they were paraded through the town, Jock in a cart, and were jeered by the citizens. They were collected by a Luftwaffe officer, taken to a Luftwaffe station, and interrogated, then sent by train to Stalag Luft III, which was 100 miles south east of Berlin.

Mrs Haggarty, founder and chairman of Arrochar, Ardlui and Tarbet Heritage Group said: “An elderly gentleman has told me that it was his parents who heard during a Lord Haw Haw broadcast that my father had been taken captive.”

Later the two men went to Stalag Luft VI at Haydekrug on the shores of the Baltic in what had been Lithuania.

This camp was evacuated in July 1944 because of the advance of Russian troops, and Mrs Haggarty would like to find out more about what happened next.

She said: “He was moved, possibly to Thorn, a fortress town in West Prussia, and from there forced to march over the winter of 1944-45 to Stalag 357 at Fallingbostal in Lower Saxony.

“Liberation came for him in May 1945, thanks to American Forces, somewhere in the Lubeck and Hamburg area.

“He returned from the war weighing a little over six stone. When his health recovered he went back to the local butcher shop, and he never really talked about his days in the prison camps.”

After Jock’s death in 1980 a local joiner working in the loft of Prospect View, the house above the butchers shop in which the Bell family lived when Mrs Haggarty was a child, found his dog tags from the RAF and Stalag Luft III.

Mary_Haggarty“How lucky was I that the joiner was a local man who knew my family and that my maiden name was Bell,” she said. “If this hadn’t been the case, the tags might just have been thrown away.

“It was on receiving the tags that I became curious about my father’s war days and started researching his story.

“I found out that he was a member of the Caterpillar Club, having had his life saved by a parachute.

“Now I would like to find out more about the terrible marches PoW's held captive in Germany were subjected to towards the final days of the war, which I believe my father took part in.

“This being the year that at last there will be some recognition of the part that Bomber Command played in the war effort, through the unveiling in June of a Memorial, maybe someone out there can tell me about them.”