Jimmy James

Jimmy James

Bertram (Jimmy) James was born in India on 17th April 1915. His family were tea planters and he was sent home to be educated at King's School in Canterbury.

James emigrated to British Columbia but returned on the outbreak of the Second World War and volunteered for the Royal Air Force.

In June 1940 James was a co-pilot of a Wellington bomber shot down near Rotterdam. He was caught by the Dutch police who handed him over to the occupying German Army.

James was imprisoned at Stalag Luft I on the Baltic coast. In September 1941, he and a companion got out via a tunnel during a power cut and hid under a hut outside the camp. However, James was spotted by a guard. After several unsuccessful escape attempts he was transferred to Stalag Luft III.

In January 1944, Jimmy James joined a group of men planning a mass breakout. The escape committee decided that 200 men would break out on the night of 2nd March 1944. James was a member of a group of 12 who planned to pass as foreign labourers from a local timber mill on their way home to Czechoslovakia on leave. James and his friends were caught at a railway station. All but three men were recaptured.

Adolf Hitler ordered the captives to be shot. Hermann Göring, who feared reprisals against members of the Luftwaffe that had been captured, objected to this measure. After discussions with Wilhelm Keitel and Heinrich Himmler, it was decided that only 50 prisoners were executed by the Gestapo. James was sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

In February 1945 Jimmy James was moved to the Tyrol away from the advancing Red Army. He was eventually liberated by the US Army on 3rd May, 1945.

James was awarded the Military Cross for his attempts to escape back to England. After the war James remained in the Royal Air Force. He retired in 1958 with the rank of squadron leader. James served as general secretary of the Great Britain-USSR Association until he joined the diplomatic service in 1964. He was also the British representative on the International Sachsenhausen Committee.

Bertram James, who published his autobiography, Moonless Night in 2001, died in Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, aged 92 on 18th January, 2008.

Primary Sources

(1) Jimmy James, Moonless Night (2001)

The parachute opened with a crack pulling me out of my terminal velocity dive with a jerk which seemed to tear me apart and then I was floating gently two miles up in the night sky over Holland. The stricken Wellington, of which I had lately been the second pilot, had been turned into a flaming hell by the pounding flak shells and was streaking away to the east trailing fire and smoke; held by the dazzling white searchlight beams, the bomber was still on course for a target it would never reach. Seconds later there was a flash as the bombs exploded, and the Wimpy plunged like a fiery comet to the dark earth below.

The swift passage from pandemonium to the utter stillness of the parachute descent left me momentarily floating in space and time, a disembodied spirit wafting gently in the black void above the eerie beauty of the sombre landscape with rivers etched out in silver ribbons by the light of the full moon.

The violent swaying of the parachute shrouds reminded me that I was floating in a physical medium beneath a large silk canopy, and descending steadily towards enemy-occupied territory which I should reach in less than ten minutes. I must try to pinpoint my position. I decided that the two rivers shining in the moonlight must be the Waal and the Maas which both flow into the North Sea south of Dordrecht. Knowing that we had just crossed the coast, I reckoned that I must be about twenty-five miles south of Rotterdam and possibly the same distance from the sea.

It was about eleven o'clock on the night of 5th June 1940, and the last light of sunset was fading in the westering sky. I resolved to walk in that direction, acquire a boat of some sort on the coast, and row or sail back to the Kentish coast.

The ground was now getting close. It is impossible to judge distances accurately at night and it was my first parachute jump; suddenly it seemed to come up and hit me and I found myself in a heap in the middle of a muddy field.

I had tried to go as limp as possible in the last moments of my descent, but nevertheless, sprained an ankle on landing. I picked myself up carefully and tried to accustom my eyes to the gloom of my surroundings. Then, to my horror, I perceived some black shapes looming out of the darkness. A German

Army patrol coming to round me up? I hastily buried my parachute in the mud, and was preparing to run in the opposite direction, when there was a 'Moooo' followed by several more bovine noises of the same variety. Obviously the local cows didn't like their night's rest being disturbed by this strange apparition just dropped from the skies.

Reassured by these familiar farm noises, I relaxed, found a gate onto a road, and started to limp along it in a westerly direction.

(2) Air Ministry, statement on awarding Bertram James the Military Cross (17th May, 1946)

On the night of 5th June, 1940, Flight Lieutenant James was the 2nd pilot of a Wellington aircraft which was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and had to be abandoned whilst over Holland. He made a successful parachute descent some 25 miles south of Rotterdam, disposed of his equipment, and evaded some people who were approaching, but subsequently was captured by the Germans. He was held at Oberussel for four days for interrogation. Later he was sent to Stalag Luft I at Barth from which camp he made an attempt to escape during an air raid on 21st October, 1941. His attempt, which was made after a tunnel had been constructed, was unsuccessful and as a punishment he received 14 days solitary confinement. In November, 1941, he was discovered whilst engaged in the construction of a second tunnel, and was sentenced to another 14 days solitary confinement. While at Stalag Luft I, he worked on the construction of at least five other tunnels, all without success. His next attempt was made whilst at Stalag Luft III (Sagan) in July, 1942, when he, with another prisoner, managed to slip away from a sick parade and hide in a cow shed. Here they began to construct another tunnel, but were discovered when it was 21 feet long. For this, Flight Lieutenant James served a sentence of 14 days in the cells. In April, 1943, he, with others, commenced the construction of a tunnel which resulted in the escape of 76 officers, but unfortunately 50 R.A.F. officers were shot by the Germans whilst endeavouring to get away. Flight Lieutenant James, however, managed to leave with civilian clothes and forged documents and, together with eleven others, entrained for Boberohrsdorf, arriving there the next morning. Here the party decided to split up into pairs. Flight Lieutenant James and his companion walked across country towards Hirschberg, but were apprehended by German Police. Flight Lieutenant James was eventually sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp where, with others, in May, 1944, he commenced the construction of a tunnel some hundred feet in length, and 10 feet below the surface. On 23rd September, 1944, he and four others escaped through this tunnel. Flight Lieutenant James and a companion made their way towards Rostock, but were arrested by members of the German Home Guard who returned them to the Concentration Camp where they were put in cells. Flight Lieutenant James remained in the cells from 6th October, 1944, until 15th February, 1945. He was ultimately liberated by the Allied forces on the 6th May, 1945.

(3) Jimmy James, Moonless Night (2001)

"I wouldn't put a dog out on a night like this," said one of my roommates gloomily, as we were sitting having supper on 24th March. It was to be my last meal at Sagan. The others had not drawn a place on the tunnel, but the cook had laid on a large farewell spread to prepare me for a long cold walk. We ate in silence. It was as though impending doom had thrown a dark shadow to chill the tense excitement in the air.

At nine o'clock it was time to go. I checked my escape kit again: papers, money, compass, maps, and gathered up my home made pack containing rations and a few oddments of spare clothing. As I was leaving, I remembered the store of cigarettes under my bed.

"So long, you bastards," I said, "You can have my fags. I'll be able to buy plenty in the Mess when I get home."

"We'll save them for you," rejoined Hockey. "You'll need them when you come out of the cooler. Good luck, anyway."

On exact timings, shadowy figures were converging on Block 104. I reported first to Wing Commander Norman in Block 109; he was being kept informed of all Germans in the compound, and routed escapers accordingly.

"OK," he said, ticking my name off on a list, "Get the all clear from the stooge at the door."

I walked into Block 104 where Squadron Leader David Torrens was standing at the end of the corridor.

"OK," said Torrens, checking his list. "Room eight."

I found other members of our party in the room, and we were joined a few minutes later by Nick Skanziklas, looking very much like a Greek worker in his cut-down, dyed overcoat and cloth cap.

All regular inmates of Block 104 not involved with the escape had been evacuated to other huts for the night. The block was fast filling up with odd-looking characters in an assortment of clothing ranging from smart business suits and trilby hats to plus fours, workers' trousers, old coats, berets and cloth caps, carrying suitcases, bundles and packs.

(4) Jimmy James, Moonless Night (2001)

When we got off the train at Boberohrsdorf around nine o'clock there wasn't even a ticket check. We just walked through a gap in the fence out onto the road where we separated and went our different ways.

Nick Skanziklas and I walked to the other side of the village where we joined a road which ran along the side of a wooded hill, an outcrop of the Riesengebirge (Giant Mountains), a formidable obstacle on our route to the Czech border. We turned off the road and began our ascent into the mountains - there was no alternative if we wished to avoid meeting Germans. All that day we toiled across the mountainous snow laden terrain. Straining upwards on the lower slopes, every step an effort in the soft, clinging snow. On the higher slopes floundering through deep snow up to our waists, now and again hitting a trail which led southwards. We plunged into the deep valley of the Bober, crossed a bridge and scrambled up the precipitous slope the other side. Hauling ourselves up by the bare roots of trees clinging tenuously to the steep eroded hillside, we at last came to level ground, a small plateau, the trees thinned and we dragged on and on across a white waste of snow.

A deer stall provided us with some rest but it was hardly shelter. While one lay in the straw filled trough, the other tried to keep warm in front of a small fire of dried sticks we had managed to light. It was so cold that sleep was out of the question and the small heat from the fire merely caused steam to rise up from soaked footwear. Towards evening we had had enough, besides we wanted to pinpoint our position before dark. We moved on.

The ground started to slope gently downwards; soon we came to the edge of the forest and found ourselves looking over a broad valley beyond which lay rugged, mountainous country, deep in snow. To the east was a fair-sized town which we knew to be Hirschberg.

The temperature was dropping and Nick gazed disconsolately across the valley to the mountains beyond. He was shivering and I could see he was blue with cold.

"We've got about forty miles of that to cross before we reach the Czech border," he said.

I had been used to Canadian winters of 30°F and more below zero, but I began to see that survival might be in question for both of us, with our limited rations and thin clothing, if we went on over mountains in these conditions.

We took the valley road to Hirschberg. Nobody seemed to take any notice of us. A farmer passing on a horse drawn cart called out that it was very cold for the time of the year. I agreed heartily with him. We were gaining confidence. Passing Hirschberg West Station on the road leading out to Polaun near the frontier, and mindful of our recent successful train journey, we decided that it would be quite safe to go in and buy tickets to a point nearer the Czech border; after all, the forgers had supplied us with excellent passes.

As we approached the ticket office in the crowded booking hall I saw, out of the corner of my eye, two figures start to move out from the wall towards us; we converged at the wicket. A policeman in teapot helmet and a civilian were standing in front of us.

"Papiere," demanded the policeman gruffly.

We produced our passes confidently, but he merely glanced at them, put them in his pocket, inspected the contents of our packs, and said peremptorily, "Komm mit."

I protested that we were foreign workers on perfectly legitimate leave of absence, and that our old mothers were waiting to see us. He replied that it would only be necessary to come to the station to answer a few questions and then we could go on. He grasped me firmly by the arm, the other man took hold of Nick, and, watched by an interested crowd of spectators, we were marched off in the gathering dusk.

(5) Order issued by Heinrich Himmler (March 1944)

The increase of escapes by officer prisoners of war is a menace to internal security. I am disappointed and indignant about the inefficient security measures. As a deterrent the Fuhrer has ordered that more than half the escaped officers are to be shot. Therefore I order that Department V (controlling the KRIPO) hand over to Department IV (controlling the GESTAPO) more than half the recaptured officers. After interrogation it should be made to seem that the officers are being returned to their camp but they are to be shot en route. The shooting will be explained by the fact that the recaptured officers were shot trying to escape, or they offered resistance, so that nothing can be proved later. Amt IV will report the shootings to Amt V giving the reason. In the event of future escapes my decision will be awaited as to the procedure to be adopted. Prominent personalities will be excepted; their names will be reported to me and a decision awaited.

(6) Jimmy James, Moonless Night (2001)

When the full extent of the escape became known, the order for a Grossfahndung (National Alert) was given on the highest authority.

Police and security services went onto full alert all over Germany, also an SS Panzer division which happened to be in the Sagan area. There was little chance for the 76 escapers to slip through the net, even those with watertight papers and several cover stories, like Roger Bushell and Scheidauer who were caught near Saarbrucken; having passed an exhaustive Gestapo check, one of the officials shot out a question in English, an old trick, but Scheidauer who was French and had been speaking English for months, answered in English.

When Hitler was informed of the Mass Escape he flew into one of his increasingly frequent rages. Calling a conference with Goring, Himmler and Keitel, he ordered that all the recaptured officers were to be shot. Goring objected on the grounds that it would look too much like mass murder to shoot all and, anyway, reprisals could be taken against German prisoners in Allied hands.

"Then more than half are to be shot," shouted Hitler.

Himmler fixed the number at fifty and set up the machinery for their execution.

Bushell and Scheidauer were among those shot. After interrogation at Gestapo Headquarters at Saarbrucken, they were taken along the Autobahn at dawn on 29th March, towards Kaiserslautern, accompanied by Dr Spann, the Gestapo Chief at Saarbrucken, and Kriminal Sekretar Emit Schulz. The vehicle was stopped and Bushell and Scheidauer were told that they could get out to relieve themselves. When their backs were turned, Spann, carrying out his orders to the letter, gave a sign to Schulz and they both fired their revolvers simultaneously into the necks of the two officers. Their bodies slumped to the ground. Death must have been instantaneous and one hopes that they did not know that they were to be executed.

This was not so in some other cases, notably in the Kiel killings, also on 29th March. Squadron Leader Catanach, an Australian captured at Flensburg, was told casually by SS Sturmbannfiihrer Johannes Post that he would be shot; Post was collecting a theatre ticket for his mistress at the time, the while watching Catanach's face for his reaction to the announcement of the Himmeljahrt.

Catanach merely asked, "Why?"

The execution site was chosen and Catanach was shot in the back. Christensen, a New Zealander, Espelid and Fugelsang, two Norwegians were taken shortly afterwards to the same place, and almost tripped over Catanach's body. They started to run, but were shot down immediately.

These cold-blooded and gruesome murders continued for two weeks, all following the same pattern. They included my Greek companion, Nick Skanziklas, and seven others of the Woodmill Leave Party. Pop Green and Poynter went back to Sagan. Among those shot were Tim Walenn, the Chief Forger, Valenta, Marcinkus, Pat Langford, "Harry's" trap operator, Birkland and McGill, the two Canadians I had passed on my way out, Tom Kirby-Green and Ian Cross. The last man to be seen alive was James Long at Gorlitz on 12th April. He was an old friend from Barth days, and had helped me get out on the incinerator tunnel.

Three got home. Bob van der Stok, a Dutch officer, was Number 18 out of the tunnel. He had papers as a Dutch worker and enough money for long distance train travel. On the platform at Sagan he got into conversation with a girl who startled him by saying that she was a censor and was looking for escaping officers. Van der Stok caught his train; after thirteen hours, three changes and Gestapo document checks every four hours (the German travellers had far more trouble than he did) he reached Holland. Thence the Underground passed him through Belgium and France to Toulouse where he had an anxious moment when he found that he had forgotten the address where he was to make himself known to the Maquis. He remembered that it was something to do with the Dutch Royal Family; as he wandered around fuming, he suddenly spotted the Cafe L'Orangerie, that was it, the contact post for the Maquis. He was soon over the Pyrenees into Spain. He was back on flying and leading a Spitfire squadron on operations within a couple of months.

The two Norwegians Peter Bergsland and Jens Muller travelled by train to Stettin. Here they met some Swedish sailors who hid them aboard their ship that evening; it sailed at once for Sweden where they arrived at dawn the following day - twenty-four hours after leaving the tunnel.

It seemed a high price to pay; three men gained their freedom, fifty were murdered, eight incarcerated in Concentration Camps and gaols, and only fifteen returned to Sagan. It must be remembered, however, that it caused the Germans to divert about five million of their population, directly and indirectly, in the search for the escapers over a period of about three weeks. This was our contribution to the war effort.

The Commandant, Major Broili and nine others of the staff at Sagan were court-martialled and received prison sentences. Three electricians were shot. The Gestapo wondered how 800 feet of cable happened to be down "Harry" for the lighting system. It had been stolen from the electricians and they were too scared to report the loss, but they were assumed to be traitors by the Gestapo and paid with their lives.

(7) Dan van der Vat, The Guardian (22nd January, 2008)

Squadron Leader BA "Jimmy" James, who has died aged 92, was one of the heroes of the biggest mass escape from a German PoW camp during the second world war - the sadly misnamed "great escape" from Stalag Luft III, which ended in mass murder. Much to his disgust, the 1963 Hollywood film was a travesty of the truth.

Already tagged by the Germans as an incorrigible would-be escaper, James was transferred to the camp for air force officers at Sagan in Silesia (now Polish Zagan) late in 1943. In January 1944, he joined a group of mostly British officers plotting a breakout. They considered three tunnels labelled Tom, Dick and Harry, soon choosing the last as the most promising. The 120-yard tunnel was aimed at a wood outside the fence. James was one of those who smuggled soil out of the nocturnal workings to dump it under the camp theatre.

The escape committee decided that 200 men would break out on the night of March 2 1944. Thirty places were allocated to German speakers because they were regarded as having the best chance. The next category of 70 were chosen because they had worked on the tunnel, and the remaining 100 places were filled by a lottery among 500 volunteers.

James was given place number 39. He was one of a sub-group of 12 who planned to pass as foreign labourers from a local timber mill on their way home to Czechoslovakia on leave. But they were caught at a railway station. The tunnel had been found and the alarm raised by guards at Sagan before dawn on March 25, after 76 prisoners had got out of the camp. All but three - two Norwegians and a Dutchman - were recaptured.

A furious Hitler ordered the captives to be shot. Thanks to a curious intervention by the chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, who apparently feared reprisals against his own men in British PoW camps, the number was reduced to 50, who were executed by the Gestapo. Of the survivors, 15 were sent back to Stalag Luft III and eight, including James, to Sachsenhausen camp, where they were interrogated under torture.

(8) The Times (18th January, 2008)

“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.