A Stirring Relic of War: RAF “Scramble” Bells
RAF Pilots with Scramble Bell
Perhaps the most iconic item associated with the RAF involvement in the 1940 Battle of Britain are the large bronze Station (or “Scramble”) bells that once adorned British airfields. These impressive bells were used to signal incoming enemy raids to waiting RAF pilots. From the Imperial War Museum to the museums at the old Tangmere and Duxford airfields, the display of these bells often attracts the awe of visitors, and the envy of collectors.
Although there is controversy concerning the original purpose of the bells, whether used as alarms for emergencies such as crashes or fires, there is no question that the bells were used to Scramble pilots during the war. A wartime documentary that can now be viewed on Youtube, shows a young airman ringing a Station Bell with a chalked message scribbled on it: “Don’t Come and Tell/Ring This Like “Hell.” One of the last surviving Battle of Britain pilots, Pilot Officer Ken Wilkinson of No.616 Squadron, also corroborated the use of the bells, and recalled that he had “scrambled to the sound of the Bell many a time.”
It is generally accepted that Station Bells were produced by a variety of firms from 1936 to 1945. There were two different sizes of bells, a standard bell that was 11 inches in height, and a larger example that was 12 1/2” in height. The smaller bell weighs 13kg, while the larger 21kg. While both bells are etched with the crown of King George VI and the Air Ministry initials, “A.M.” and are dated between the years 1936 to 1945, it is the larger bells that have attracted the most interest of collectors and are commonly referred to as “Scramble Bells.” The bells were manufactured in two different types of bronze/nickel metal. One appears as a brass/bronze finish, while the more common appears as nickel/silver. The large bells are almost always finished in the silver tone, with the exception of the 1936 issue. The smaller bells seem to have been produced with greater variation in metal finishes. Some of the bells have special markings stamped on the top. These are usually an assortment of initials, that may be manufacturer’s or inspection stamps, along with the British Broad Arrow mark that denotes government acceptance and issue.
A Painted Scramble Bell
Many of the Scramble bells offered for sale in recent years have traces of red paint present; others seem to have been painted white. Collectors have noted that many of the bells seemed to have been used for airfield fire response purposes, either during the war, or after. It is not known precisely when the bells were painted, but the famous documentary footage released during the war clearly depicts a bell that has been painted in a light color.
The collector’s market has expressed the most interest in the large bells that are dated “1940.” This is largely a result of the strong connection to the Battle of Britain. Because of the scarcity, and because of their presence at airfields during the epic fight, bells dated prior to 1940 also command a premium. A large Station bell dated 1940 in fine condition with original clapper, has commanded prices in the range $3000-6000 USD. Earlier dates, range in price from $2000-$3500, while later issues of the large bells are priced $1700-$2500 based on condition. Sadly, while the dates on the bells do seem to be connected with the date for the opening of a particular airfield, there is no numbering of other method for connecting a bell to a specific airfield.
I have collected RAF material for over twenty years, and have authored a book on the equipment used by RAF pilots and aircrew during the Second World War (see What the RAF Airman Took to War, Osprey/Bloomsbury, 2015) but it was not until the summer of 2017, that I was finally able to purchase an original RAF Station Bell. The example, now proudly preserved in my collection, was purchased in England and shipped to the U.S. at a cost of nearly $300. It is a fine example of the large Station Bell and is dated 1940. Although it retains a fine finish, there are traces of it having been struck by an external object (perhaps a hammer) in a few places. The bell has the proper King’s Crown and A.M. markings and bears the British Ordnance arrow on the mount as well as the initials, “A.T.W.” These initials are often encountered on 1940 dated bells. The finish is the usual nickel/silver.
1940 Bronze Scramble Bell with 1941 RAF station chair (Author's collection)
Collections are never complete, but with the addition of this bell, the centerpiece of my Battle of Britain display is now well rounded. In the depths of the Second World War, these bells called the brave RAF pilots to their aircraft. They now remain as silent witnesses to the dramatic events of the war. Many Spitfire and Hurricane pilots who answered the “Scramble” call of these bells did not survive combat. Now, almost all of them are gone, with only nine pilots still living in 2018 who served in the Battle of Britain. These remarkable objects survive in memory and in testimony of those who so selflessly dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom in the Second World War.