Burslem lad who went on top secret mission to help win WWII celebrates 100th birthday

100th birthday of Claude Bell of Beechwood Residential Home, May Bank
100th birthday of Claude Bell of Beechwood Residential Home, May Bank -Credit:Stoke Sentinel

A man who was recruited for a top secret mission during World War Two can remember his role like it was yesterday as he celebrates his 100th birthday. Intelligent Claude Bell was given the important task of building a machine alongside a team of British codebreakers that would allow them to crack Hitler’s communications.

Claude, who grew up in Burslem and later moved to Porthill and then Wolstanton, travelled to multiple countries between 1942 to 1946 due to his expertise in telephone engineering and ability to understand how transistors work. Even Winston Churchill was impressed by Claude and his colleagues' work cracking machine, known as the Colossus computer.

This was a set of computers that helped in the cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher. The Colossus was the world's first electronic computer and aided deciphering the Lorenz-encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals.

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Claude, who attended Moorland Road Central Elementary School and then Hanley High School, said: “I was 18 in 1942 but I wasn’t called up to war because I’d been an apprentice telephone engineer. One day a man said to me to go to the London headquarters and report there, so I went down and found I was joining a little team run by a man named Tommy Flowers, and I was working on a top secret job - so secret they wouldn’t even tell me what it was.

“It was building a machine to crack a machine that Hitler was using. This allowed them to put a teleprinter on his wireless link and decoded the Lorenz code over the air and deciphered it back onto a teleprinter. It was called the first computer. We didn’t have transistors so it was over 1,000 valves - it would fill my room it was so big.

“The machine had to be ready for VE Day as Churchill was very interested in it, and it worked. We built a model village near Dover with a field full of rubber tanks to deceive Hitler and we were told he believed it. The real leaving point was Normandy beaches further down the coast.

“The machine was fitted in Bletchley Park. They wanted me to fit a maintenance machine but I refused and came back to Stoke and joined the army in the Royal Corps of Signals. I was called up and sent on a very technical course because they had no doubt I could do this course because of my skills.

“VE Day was celebrated and I passed out as a signalman and finally got a post to India to the GHQ Far East in the Delhi offices. India wanted its freedom from the UK. We went to Delhi by boat which took a month. I hadn’t been there a week when a sergeant came to me one day and said ‘keep your things together, you’re going to Singapore tomorrow’.

100th birthday of Claude Bell of Beechwood Residential Home, May Bank
100th birthday of Claude Bell of Beechwood Residential Home, May Bank -Credit:Stoke Sentinel

“I asked why and he told me the Japanese have packed out and Singapore has no money, so the men stopped working and they were having trouble with the telephone exchange. Me and two Sergeants went to the airport and found the Singapore plane, and there were lots of high up officers who loaded the plane up on military rank order, and I was the last, so I had to pull up the steps.

“When I got there, on the wall to the fitment room was a diagram, just like one in Hanley, hung on the wall of the telephone exchange and it said Hanley and Harrogate on it. Fortunately, I knew a bit so I told the sergeants what to do.

“We walked into another room and we heard voices, and there were three men in Japanese uniforms on the computer and the penny dropped, so the sergeants had to decide whether to keep the Japanese or not. They told them to go home and not come back and we took over the telephone exchanges. Eventually Singapore got some money and India got its freedom and left the British Empire which was a big occasion.

“Singapore was being prepared for an invasion before the Americans dropped the bombs. The Singaporeans f needed a switchboard and found a Japanese one.

“It was a sergeant's job to fit a switchboard but none in our unit could do it, they asked corporals who couldn’t do it, and they knew there was no point asking the privates, so they eventually asked me. I wasn’t part of the crowd. I had a 16 year old Malay lad who’d come out and help me.

“A rumour went round that a boat was going to England that had vacancies, so we drew lots and I won so I got to spend a month in Burslem. It took a month to get to Stoke, then it took another month going back. I came out of the Army in 1946 and went back to the telephone exchange in Hanley, where I met my wife as she was a telephone operator upstairs."

Recalling married life, Claude added: "My wife’s name was Elizabeth - ‘Betty’. We met in 1950 were married in 1951 at St John’s Church in Burslem. We had two children, a daughter called Elizabeth after my wife, and a son called Andrew." Claude joked: "We got the names before the Royals.”

Claude went on to have lots of memorable family holidays in Wales, and also bred prize-winning German Shorthaired Pointers named Donna and Blitzen. The incredible 100-year-old celebrated his birthday on April 15 and received a letter from King Charles and Queen Camilla.

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