b. 19/05/1886 Kensington. d. 26/02/1966 Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar, Portsmouth.
Richard Bell-Davies (1886-1966) was born in Croxley Green, London on 19th May 1886 and was educated at Bradfield College before enlisting in the Royal Navy (HMS Britannia) on 20th April 1901. For the following ten years his career followed normal pattern of service and promotion in various naval ships, being commissioned in 1905 and steadily gaining wide sea-going experience both in home waters and abroad. During the Fleet summer manoeuvres in 1910, he witnessed Claude Grahame White, the British pioneer pilot, fly a Farman biplane over the vessels at Mount’s Bay, and this caught his imagination.
Some months later, Frank MacLean made an offer to place two aeroplanes at the disposal of naval officers wishing to learn to fly, and Bell-Davies applied for membership of the Royal Aero Club and, with the hope of official selection for flying instruction, he privately undertook initial instruction with the Grahame White school at Hendon, receiving his Royal Aero Club Certificate No 90 on 19th May 1911. On re-joining his ship, he made a formal application to the Admiralty for consideration as a flying officer, and then proceeded abroad to China on duty. His application was approved in November 1912, and Bell-Davies was brought back to England to commence Service flying at Eastchurch.
On completion of his course, he was appointed First Lieutenant to the Eastchurch commander, Charles Rumney Samson, and, on 10th July 1913, graded as Flight Commander in the Royal Flying Corps, Naval Wing. At the end of 1913, he received further upgrading to Squadron Commander. In May 1914, he was invited to accompany an expeditionary force to British Somaliland, where the “Mad Mullah” continued to harass governmental forces, but soon returned to Eastchurch; and after the outbreak of war, he stayed with Samson when the latter formed a mobile squadron and, on 27th August 1914, flew with the unit to Ostend. This unit, soon to be titled 3 Squadron, RNAS, under Samson’s lively command, was tasked with air support of the Royal Marines.
On 23rd January 1915, piloting a Farman No 1241, with an observer, he set out with a full load of 20lb Hales bombs to attack a submarine anchored in Zeebrugge harbour. His aircraft came under heavy anti-aircraft fire and he received a shrapnel bullet in his right leg. Despite the pain and loss of blood, he crossed the coast and released his bombs over Zeebrugge. He returned to Dunkirk and made a safe landing and made his report. He was then evacuated to England to have his wound treated. His many exploits over the previous three months, culminating in the Zeebrugge sortie, culminated in the award of the DSO (gazetted on 9th April 1915).
While he recuperated, his Squadron was withdrawn from Dunkirk to Dover, where it began preparations for a move to the Mediterranean theatre of war, in support of the Allied landings in the Dardanelles. He rejoined them at Dover, and in April 1915 the squadron arrived at Tenedos. Here, they took part in an offensive against the Turks, with tactical reconnaissance, and a series of bombing sorties. They moved again to Imbros in August 1915, and they provided air cover for the ANZAC landings at Suvla, but by the end of October, they became virtually a long range bombing unit, attempting to cut Turkish supply routes.
On the 19th November 1915, these two officers (Smylie and Bell-Davies) carried out an air attack on Ferrijik Junction. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie's machine was received by very heavy fire and brought down. The pilot planed down over the station, releasing all his bombs except one, which failed to drop, simultaneously at the station from a very low altitude. Thence he continued his descent into the marsh. On alighting he saw the one unexploded bomb, and set fire to his machine, knowing that the bomb would ensure its destruction. He then proceeded towards Turkish territory. At this moment he perceived Squadron-Commander Davies descending, and fearing that he would come down near the burning machine and thus risk destruction from the bomb, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie ran back and from a short distance exploded the bomb by means of a pistol bullet. Squadron-Commander Davies descended at a safe distance from the burning machine, took up Sub-Lieutenant Smylie, in spite of the near approach of a party of the enemy, and returned to the aerodrome, a feat of airmanship that can seldom have been equalled for skill and gallantry.
Charles Samson chose to recommend Bell-Davies for the award of the VC, and on 31st December 1915 it was gazetted. Gilbert Smylie was awarded the DSC for his courage. On 1st January 1916, Bell-Davies was promoted to Wing Commander, and given command of the naval air stations in northern England – Killingholme, Redcar, Scarborough and Whitley Bay.
In early June 1916, he received news that his former unit, 3 Wing RNAS, was to be re-formed, for service in France as the nucleus of the first ever British strategic bombing formation. Formed at Manston, Kent, the new 3 Wing was commanded by Captain W L Elder, and Davies was appointed as chief of flying operations. The majority of the crews were Canadians, while equipment was originally meant to be 20 Sopwith Strutters two seaters and 15 Short bombers. They were involved in several bombing sorties on German industrial targets for the rest of 1916.
In January 1917, he left 3 Wing and returned to England where, on 10th January, he received a new appointment as senior flying officer aboard HMS Campania. His subsequent service in 1917-18 was almost totally concerned with proving the practicability of aircraft aboard sea going naval vessels. In July 1918, he was one of the organisers of the successful attack on the Tondern airship sheds by Sopwith Camels from HMS Furious. He was awarded the Air Force Cross later that year.
After the armistice, he was determined to stay in the Royal Navy, and on 7th May 1919 relinquished his RAF commission and took up an appointment to HMS Lion. Promoted to Commander on 31st December 1919, he married in September 1920, and commenced a lifetime association with naval air matters. He was promoted to Captain at the end of 1926; while in 1930-31 he became a naval “air liaison officer” at the Air Ministry. At the outbreak of WWII, he had risen to rank of Rear Admiral, in command of all UK Naval Air Stations, and on 29th May 1941 was further promoted to Vice Admiral.
Six months later, he retired from regular service, but almost immediately returned to active war service in the Royal Naval Reservee as a Commodore on convoys. By March 1942 he was a Commander, captaining HMS Dasher, but finally retired in 1944.
On 26th February 1966, Richard Bell-Davies VC CB DSO AFC died in the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar, Gosport, Hampshire. He was cremated at Swaythling Crematorium, Southampton and his ashes were scattered at sea off Knob Tower, Southampton. His medal group are displayed at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, Somerset.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: FLEET AIR ARM MUSEUM, YEOVIL, SOMERSET.
BURIAL PLACE: SWAYTHLING CREMATORIUM, SOUTHAMPTON, HAMPSHIRE. ASHES SCATTERED OFF KNOB TOWER, SOUTHAMPTON.
Bell-Davies medals on display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, Somerset
Sloane Square, Chelsea
War Illustrated, 22nd January 1916
Longhedge, Wiltshire (Steve Lee)