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Bell, Harry James (1913–1983)

by Mark Johnston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Harry James Bell (1913-1983), soldier and grocer, was born on 3 May 1913 at Northcote, Melbourne, fourth of six children of Charles John Bell, a baker’s driver from New Zealand, and his South Australian-born wife Olive Ethelwyn, née Sampson. Educated at Helen Street State School, Harry worked as a grocer for Hales Bros. On 1 June 1940 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He arrived in the Middle East in October and was made acting corporal in January 1941. A fortnight later he reverted to private at his own request. He was posted to the 2/32nd Battalion in February.

In April 1941 Bell sailed to Tobruk, Libya, where he endured the siege. He sustained gunshot wounds to his right arm and buttock on 4 August and spent sixteen days in hospital. In September he travelled with his battalion to Palestine. After training and garrison duty in Syria in January-June 1942, the 2/32nd travelled to Egypt. Bell was promoted to corporal following the unit’s involvement in the fighting near El Alamein in July. On the night of 30-31 October, during the battle of El Alamein, he led a successful attack on an enemy machine-gun and an anti-tank gun, and saved his platoon commander’s life. Next day he showed inspiring leadership against enemy tank attacks. When a raid went awry on the night of 2-3 November, he refused to leave his wounded platoon commander behind, saying that `15 Platoon had never left one of its men, and they will not start now’. Bell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his `distinguished service and personal bravery’.

Returning to Australia in February 1943, Bell married Mildred Alice Robinson on 8 March that year at the Methodist Church, Northcote. In September-November he participated in the Lae-Finschhafen campaign in New Guinea as a sergeant. He took over his platoon on 14 September when the commander was wounded at the beginning of an attack on a village near Malahang. Moving into the open and ahead of his men, Bell destroyed an enemy machine-gun post that was holding up the advance from the flank. He was awarded the Military Medal. In November he was admitted to hospital with malaria, which affected him so severely that on 10 October 1944 he was discharged from the army. He was selected as a member of the Australian contingent to the Victory March in London in 1946.

As a soldier, Bell was a natural leader. Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with grey eyes and brown hair, he looked the part and was idolised by his men for his courage. According to one acquaintance, Bell wanted to be `one of the boys’, though he once told a comrade that he would have preferred a commission in the field to his decorations. After the war he lived in humble circumstances at Northcote. He resumed his career as a grocer and on Saturdays worked at Four’n Twenty Pies Pty Ltd, Ascot Vale. From the early 1960s he was employed as a storeman at Sigma (Pharmaceuticals) Pty Ltd, Clayton. He retired in 1978. President of his battalion association, he was a member of the Rats of Tobruk Association and the local sub-branch of the Returned Services League of Australia. He enjoyed horse-racing and music. A gentle, unassuming man, he was committed to helping others, especially his family and friends. He died of myocardial infarction on 3 January 1983 at Northcote and was cremated. His wife and their two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (1961)
  • S. Trigellis-Smith, Britain to Borneo (1993)
  • series B883, item VX501785 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Mark Johnston, 'Bell, Harry James (1913–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 March 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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