The British Air Ministry
Scramble Bell

Scramble bell

Fellow enthusiasts before me have endeavoured to describe these bells usage on Royal Air Force airfields. It is not really clear; their original planned use and actual use most probably changed over the years. They must be directly linked to the RAF Expansionist period in the mid 1930’s, the earliest dated bells are from 1936. Somewhere in the Government archives there are undoubtedly a whole host of documents outlining the thoughts behind the introduction of these bells. It’s quite probable that some future researcher is going to locate these and then we will finally know all.

We know that they were sometimes used as Station bells and that they were sometimes used as Guardroom bells and often as fire-bells. They must have been used to give an alarm. It is recorded on war-time film that they were used at fighter stations to scramble fighters in 1940. For want of a better name and surely for the most romantic of reasons others before me have come to call these Scramble bells.

And now to deviate for a moment.  As a youngster in the mid 1960’s I was very aware of the many derelict aerodromes in the eastern counties of England. By bicycle I used to visit and explore them, at that time I didn’t know of anyone else who had such an interest, my chums thought me most odd.  It was only in 1981 when I first bought a copy of Michael Bowyer’s ‘Action Stations’ that a realization dawned that they drew the attention of others, many others too.

In more recent years another idea began to formulate in my mind, it is this. In the same way that the enduring image of shipping is a ships anchor and that, despite the seniority of the jet engine, a  common  image for aviation is  still a two bladed propeller…. then surely  Britain’s second world war aerodromes  also deserved such a stirring  image. May I be permitted to suggest that, along with the RAF ensign and the control tower, there is NO FINER ICON to symbolize   a post 1936 British Royal Air Force aerodrome than by one of these majestic Air Ministry Scramble Bells.

And of the three the most impressive and most easy to live with is the bell.

You too could own one!

Quite early on in my quest I came across an introductory article written by Geoff Pringle of Oldnautibits in 2003. With his permission I quote:-

‘These bells were actually designed as emergency sounding instruments, but they soon came to be used to warn fighter pilots of incoming attacks by the Luftwaffe. The ringing bell was the signal for the pilots to ‘run like hell’ in order to ‘scramble’ their waiting Hurrricane or Spitfires. This is why these bells have acquired the name ‘Scramble Bells’, despite their original designed purpose.

Part of  a letter from Mr Keith Williams of Birmingham.  Quoted with permission:

“……. this question of were they or weren't they has long been debated because there was no official application for Scramble Bells & this had always concerned me until last year when I discovered that Pilot Officer Ken Wilkinson, one of only thirteen remaining alive Battle of Britain pilots lived just a few miles from me. So I looked him up & phoned him. He berated me a little as he was watching the cricket on TV & simply instructed me to arrive at his door during lunch. So I took my 1936 bell with me in the boot , as soon as Ken came to the door he said , 'now what’s all this about bells young man' , I was 65 myself then.

I explained to Ken the disagreement between Bell collectors about the use of Bells for scrambling pilots, his reply was ' Rubbish, I can tell you that I scrambled to the sound of the Bell many a time' & then he came out to the car in his slippers looked at my bell then signed it for me, Ken Wilkinson 616 sqn , 1 Grp.  So there you are, that was good enough for me

My guess is that, & you will know this, a couple of squadrons of Spits or Hurricanes take up plenty of space around an airfield, you have maintenance crews who need to know to get every aircraft armed & ready . Then the pilots themselves could be scattered quite widely, some reading , some listening to the radio, some playing football , engineers could be running engines & a means becomes necessary that reaches through all this & tells everybody to scramble. I guess at first this was done by mouth once the ready hut phone went but not everybody heard the call, then some bright spark thought we need something loud & the loudest thing on the airfield would have been the big bell outside the Guard room or the base commanders office & that these were 'nicked' & positioned outside the ready hut & that is also why so many different types of suspension methods were used, because there was no official spec for a Scramble Bell.”

The other interesting observation is that its easy to understand how bells outside the Guard house or commanding officers office would be kept pristine & always have a clapper present where in fact many bells including some of my own show positive scars of being hit with either a large spanner or hammer on the outside which if you think about it is a much easier method of striking a bell that is probably on a frame at a much lower level than those hanging officially…..

Sometimes we know which RAF aerodrome   the bell was used on but most often not. It is to us to speculate on which air station they may have been at during those dark days of World War Two.