Sunday, January 20, 2008

RAF Legend, 'Great Escaper' Jimmy James Flies Final Mission

I received notice from Marilyn Walton that the great RAF pilot and Great Escaper Jimmy James passed away in England recently. I am pasting his obituary from the London Times here.

From The Times
January 18, 2008

Squadron Leader Jimmy James
RAF pilot who was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III

“Jimmy” James was one of 76 officers who escaped from Stalag Luft III on the night of March 24, 1944, and was fortunate not to be among the 50 executed on Hitler’s order on recapture. He was sent instead to Sachsenhausen concentration camp from where he tunnelled his way out, only to be caught again after 14 days on the run.

He was the second pilot of a Wellington bomber shot down south of Rotterdam in June 1940. Initially hopeful that German security would not be too tight, the Netherlands having been overrun only in May, he planned to acquire a boat to sail back to England, or at least get him far enough from the coast to be picked up. A Dutch farmer gave him food and shelter but for one night only as his presence was certain to become known: the local police arrested him before he could move on.

After routine interrogation by Luftwaffe intelligence officers and the Gestapo, he began his life as a prisoner in Stalag Luft I at Barth on the Baltic. This seemed ideal for boarding a neutral merchant vessel to Sweden, but the tunnel through which James and others dug to get out of the camp was discovered by a sentry on the night of the escape before it was his turn to go through.

A year later, in September 1941, he and a fellow prisoner dug a tunnel from an incinerator to a point beyond the perimeter and made detailed plans to walk to Sassnitz and take the ferry to Sweden. Unfortunately, although the pair snatched the opportunity of the camp lighting failing unexpectedly to crawl from their hut to the incinerator, a prowler sentry appeared as James was about to move from under the hut. His companion got clean away and reached home via Sweden.

Although involved in several other escape plans, none reached fruition before he was moved to Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Silesia.

In January 1944 he joined the group in Stalag Luft III planning what eventually became the Great Escape through a 365-foot tunnel nicknamed “Harry”. (“Tom” and “Dick” had been put on hold as Harry seemed more promising and demanded a large work force). Harry had been partly dug some months previously but closed when many of those working on it were moved to Poland. It had a vertical shaft below a stove platform in one of the huts, and James was put in charge of a team dispersing the sand dug from the tunnel at night by placing it in the space under the camp theatre.

After several alarms and near-discovery the tunnel was completed to the exit point in a wood beyond the perimeter wire and no fewer than 200 camp inmates were selected to make the break attempt on the night of March 24. The first 30 were chosen by the escape committee because they spoke fluent German and so had the best chance of making a “home run”. The next 70 were chosen from those who had worked on the tunnel, and the final 100 were names taken from a hat of 500 volunteers.

James was allocated place number 39. His plan was to join a group of 12 who, with papers indicating they were foreign workers at a local wood mill going home on leave, would travel the first leg of their journey by train, heading for Czechoslovakia where they hoped to make contact with the local resistance. All went well for them until, having made one successful train journey, they attempted another only to be arrested at the station by police alerted by the mass escape. A sentry had stumbled on the mouth of the escape shaft at 5am on March 25, by when 76 officers had got away. At first Hitler ordered all those recaptured to be shot but allegedly due to pressure from Goering, who feared reprisals against Luftwaffe prisoners in Allied hands, the order was changed to “more than half to be shot”.

Of the 76 who escaped, three — a Dutchman and two Norwegians — reached freedom, the rest were recaptured. Fifty were executed, 15 returned to Stalag Luft III and eight, James among them, sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, after the Gestapo had interrogated him about the escape at its infamous Albrechtstrasse headquarters in Berlin. On arrival in Sachsenhausen, 17 miles north of Berlin, he met up with the other seven who had escaped from Stalag Luft III. They were not put in the main compound of the camp but in a Sonderlager (special camp) along one side. To their surprise, this lent itself to construction of a tunnel from below the corner of a hut a mere 120 feet to a point beyond the outer wire fence.

Using a table knife with a serrated edge, James and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse dug the tunnel while the rest of the group kept watch. They were joined by Lieutenant-Colonel John “Mad Jack” Churchill, captured during a commando raid on the Dalmatian island of Brac, whom the Germans suspected of being related to the Prime Minister. By the second week of September 1944, the tunnel had reached the point for the exit shaft to be made. It was decided that six officers would escape in pairs, Jack Churchill and James travelling together.

The breakout was made on the night of September 23. Churchill led the way northwards to the Berlin-Rostock railway, which they followed on foot for three successive nights before jumping a goods train bound for Neustrelitz. After two nights’ rest in woods, eating vegetables taken from a station garden, they continued on foot along the railway until bumping into a group of Russian prisoners. Fed by the Russians, the pair continued on foot for eight more days until they were captured while sleeping by three members of the Volkssturm — the German equivalent of the Home Guard. They were back in Sachsenhausen by the next day — locked in the Zellenbau cell block, regarded as death row, where they stayed until February 1945.

The final saga of Jimmy James’s war involved a laborious journey with other hostage-prisoners via Flossenb├╝rg and Dachau concentration camps to the Austrian Tyrol, where they were finally liberated by the American Army on May 3, 1945.

Bertram Arthur James was born in India where his father was a tea-planter. He was educated at King’s School, Canterbury, and worked in British Columbia from 1934 until volunteering for flying training with the RAF in 1939. He was awarded the MC and mentioned in dispatches for his escape attempts.

Granted a regular commission in the RAF he retired as a squadron leader in 1958. He was the general-secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office-sponsored Great Britain-USSR Association, until joining the Diplomatic Service in 1964. He held posts in Africa, Western and Eastern Europe and London. He retired in 1975, when he visited Sachsenhausen with Jack Churchill and other survivors. He served as the British representative on the International Sachsenhausen Committee until shortly before his death.

He is survived by his wife, Madge, whom he married in 1946. Their son predeceased him.

Squadron Leader B. A. “Jimmy” James, MC, survivor of the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, was born on April 17, 1915. He died on January 18, 2008, aged 92

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