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On the Spitfire’s 85th anniversary, a treat for a hero

My 100th birthday just flew past!

Enough to make you weak at the knees: TA805 soars through the skies yesterday for a very special flypast
Enough to make you weak at the knees: TA805 soars through the skies yesterday for a very special flypast

EVEN after all these years, it’s still the unmistakable sound of defiance, of bloody-mindedness, of reassurance... and so it was all over again yesterday, for a gallant hero who had the ultimate surprise on his biggest of big days.

For most people marking a century not-out, one of the greatest thrills is receiving that congratulatory message from the Queen.

For Colin Bell DFC, however, there was something else yesterday: a full-throated, low-flying, victory-rolling Spitfire roaring overhead.

‘What a wonderful surprise! That’s part of history,’ said Mr Bell afterwards. He was not the only one celebrating a big birthday yesterday, though. So, too, was the Spitfire.

For it was on March 5, 1936 - 85 years ago - that the modest, workaholic genius Reginald Mitchell watched his latest handiwork judder to life on a runway in Eastleigh, near Southampton. Known only as K5054, it took off for a short circuit and came back down again eight minutes later.

It was not just the birth of a brilliant fighter. It would become Churchill, King George VI and Vera Lynn wrapped up in three tons of metal flying at 370mph. To this day, it makes the bravest and the toughest go weak at the knees.

So, the Daily Mail was determined not to let this birthday go unnoticed - particularly at a time like this. What’s more, we also had a specific destination in mind: the house in Kent where Mr Bell was celebrating yesterday with his support bubble. The widower leads a busy life as one of the most active RAF veterans of the Second World War; he still flies, and gives regular talks. He certainly has some extraordinary stories to tell.

He spent most of the war not in a Spitfire but in a Mosquito, the famously nimble two-seat, twin-engined fighter bomber. The two aircraft had one crucial factor in common, however. ‘The Spitfire had the Merlin engine - and the Mosquito had two Merlin engines, so I think we had the edge,’ Mr Bell says proudly. He survived no fewer than 50 missions over Germany (few made it to 30) and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. His exploits with his navigator, Doug Redmond, have been turned into a book. The title says it all: Bloody Terrified. Mr Bell had been looking forward to 2021 and to celebrating his 100th birthday with a proper old shindig at the RAF Club in London. Since the death of his beloved wife Kath five years ago, the club has become a home from home. ‘It’s always a delight to see Colin and have a natter - usually over a glass of red wine,’ says former RAF officer John Nichol, the bestselling author of Spitfire: A Very British Love Story.

Sadly, the infernal coronavirus put life on hold. However, Mr Bell’s many friends had other ideas.

Matt Jones, co-pilot of the first Spitfire to circumnavigate the globe, was keen to mark both birthdays and contacted the Mail with a flight plan.

Peter Monk - who runs the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar, not far from Mr Bell’s home - was happy to lend us an aircraft. TA805 was built at Castle Bromwich in 1944 and survived the war unscathed.

There was one hurdle, however: the lockdown ban on non-essential flying. Thankfully the Transport Secretary was on our side. ‘The flypast is a fantastic tribute to mark two major milestones - the 85th anniversary of the first Spitfire flight and the 100th birthday of World War Two pilot Colin Bell,’ Grant Shapps said. ‘I hope we will all take a moment to reflect on the crucial role they have both played in our nation’s history.’

The Civil Aviation Authority concurred. ‘We are proud to be able to help celebrate the maiden flight of the Spitfire,’ said CAA chief executive Richard Moriarty.

‘I would like to pass on our best wishes from everyone at the CAA to Colin Bell on his 100th birthday.’

And so it was that, yesterday afternoon, Matt Jones took to the skies over Kent while Mr Bell’s daughter, granddaughter, and eight-year-old great grandson Jake ensured that he was out in the garden at the appropriate moment.

He had enjoyed an earlier treat on Thursday - a flypast by an RAF Chinook.

But yesterday came the roar of that sound Mr Bell knows as well as any man alive. In next to no time, Mr Jones and TA805 were thundering over his head - again, and again.

The normally-talkative centenarian was lost for words. But then, what was there to say?

Here was one of the greatest British inventions of all time saluting the greatest generation. From Mail readers everywhere, a very happy birthday to you both.