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Bertram 'Jimmy' James: The greatest escaper Dies


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The RAF squadron leader completed 13 breakouts from Nazi prison camps during the Second World War. Jonathan Brown salutes a true hero

Monday, 21 January 2008

Standing in the candlelight in the chill of a Polish night, the shadows dancing in the birch trees around him, Bertram James raised a toast to the comrades he had known as a young man 60 years earlier: "God rest their souls and congratulations on such a good tunnel."

It was a typically understated tribute from the well-spoken, impeccably mannered Englishman.

Known as Jimmy to his friends, the RAF squadron leader was one of only a handful of survivors able to make the anniversary journey back to Zagan in 2004, site of the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp immortalised in the film, The Great Escape.

Some 76 Allied airmen tunnelled out of the camp, thought impregnable by their Nazi captors. Only three made it to safety while 50 were recaptured and executed on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler. Sqn Ldr James was among the lucky ones.

His life was spared, apparently following pressure from Goering. Because of his irrepressible desire to escape – he completed 13 breakouts during his five-year capture – he was sent to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen – a place which claimed the lives of half of the 200,000 inmates that passed through its doors.

Yet James escaped that too, and went on to lead a full and happy life. He died last week at the age of 92 and since then, the tributes to the man dubbed the "Greatest Escaper" have not stopped coming. "He had a truly remarkable life," said his friend, the military historian Howard Tuck. "This guy was truly unique and he was the finest gentleman anyone could ever meet."

The pilot's compulsion to be free, coupled with remarkable bravery, saw him awarded the Military Cross. But his death robs the world of one of the last great links with a period of history that continues to exert a fierce grip on the popular imagination.

Jimmy James's adventures began in 1940, when as a pilot officer stationed at RAF Honington in Suffolk, his Wellington bomber was shot down over the Dutch coast. These were the darkest days of the war – the Battle of Britain had yet to be fought and the Germans occupied practically the whole of western Europe. The Netherlands was swarming with enemy soldiers and he was soon captured and taken to a transit camp before being transferred to Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany, later that summer.

Over the months this "miserable dreary little hole" steadily filled with Allied aircrew as the offensive on the continent intensified. It was here the young officer staged a breakout in the first RAF tunnel of the war. But while a friend made it to safety, James was caught and taken to Stalag Luft III, a place built by Goering specifically for aircrew prisoners.

After a short and freezing sojourn at Oflag 21B in Schubin, Poland, where the temperature at night would drop to -20C, he was taken back to Zagan, 100 miles south-east of Berlin, where he was to play a crucial part in the events that were to become known as "The Great Escape".

On his arrival in the spring of 1943, he found a well-organised escape committee already in place. At its helm was the charismatic South African barrister Roger Bushell, known to the men as Big X, and played by Richard Attenborough in the movie.

Sqn Ldr Bushell had witnessed the limitations of uncontrolled digging while incarcerated at Barth so insisted all effort should be channelled into just three tunnels – the celebrated Tom, Dick and Harry. The all-military character of the prisoner population was starting to change by now with conscription bringing in men from all walks of life. The arrival of those with Civvie Street skills such as builders, engineers, forgers and blackmailers was to prove central to the "Great Escape" myth, as was the appearance of the Americans.

History scholars have long lamented the exaggeration of the role played by the US airmen in James Clavell's screenplay of the events at Stalag III, not least the addition – at the insistence of Steve McQueen – of the motorcycle dash to the frontier.

The reality was just as compelling. Alongside the problem of shoring up the tunnels, costing the PoWs their wooden slats from their beds, there was the thorny issue of dispersing the excavated dirt. A solution was hit upon by James's eventual boss, Peter Fanshawe, played by David McCallum in the film, who devised the "Penguin Technique" of shuffling around the camp grounds kicking the spoil into the earth. Together the men dispersed 130 tons of sand from the three tunnels over the course of 25,000 trips in just one summer.

In September 1943, before the escape plan could be put into practice, Tom was found by the German guards and for a time the men gave up digging. James recalled how they immersed themselves in a vibrant culture. "The theatre was a great morale-raiser and in fact we had a great deal of talent there," he told the BBC in 2000. There was a well-stocked library and prisoners studied to pass everything from engineering and legal exams. James achieved Royal Society of Arts qualifications in Russian and German.

The escape finally went ahead in 1944. It was the coldest March for 30 years and the Gestapo was sniffing round the camp suspiciously. Of the 600 men who worked on the remaining tunnel, only 200 could go. James drew number 39 and amid an atmosphere of "electric excitement" he climbed into the tunnel disguised as a Yugoslavian.

It did not go smoothly from the start. There was ice on the trap door which took half-an-hour to dislodge and the exit hole emerged 30ft short of the woods. An Allied air raid on Berlin meant the camp was blacked out so the escapees had to light the way through the tunnel with fat burners.

Nonetheless they emerged into the countryside at 1.30am, making their way to the local station in time for the 5am train for the Czech border. But the alarm was up and James was arrested at Hirschberg West. He was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin before being transferred to one of the Nazis' most notorious death camps. On his arrival at Sachsenhausen, he was greeted with the chilling motif above the gates "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Brings Freedom) and the taunts of an SS officer who said: "Ah, Herr James. This is a nice place. You will not escape from here." He was wrong. But what he saw at the concentration camp was to dramatically change his view of his captors.

"This was the first time that I realised the evil we were fighting and that the war was worthwhile," he said later. Among the horrors he witnessed was a testing track for boots made for the eastern front. Here punishment squads on starvation rations would march all day at speed sporting 30lb packs. Those that fell were kicked or set upon by dogs. Regular executions were conducted at the public gallows of men accused of little more than stealing a piece of leather.

Yet the tunnelling continued right under the noses of the SS and in the autumn of 1944, James, with four other comrades, once more set off into German territory. The plan was to board a ship on the Baltic coast bound for Sweden. They made it 100 miles north but were once more captured and returned to Sachsenhausen. Himmler was both embarrassed and furious, ordering all should be executed along with the camp commandant, the security officer, the duty guard and even the architect who had designed it.

The order was never put into practice but the Allies were left on death row until February 1945 when the Germans set about the task of reducing its prison population through gassing and hanging. Incredibly, James once more escaped execution and was transferred to a concentration camp close to the Luxembourg border.

It was now becoming clear that the war and the developments of the age had passed the men by – a situation illustrated when a German Messerschmitt flew overhead. "We saw aeroplanes tearing along at an enormous rate of knots above us and they had no propellers," he recalled. "We didn't know about jet engines at the time. We had all been in the bag for a long time and we couldn't figure it out."

They were transferred again, this time to Flossenberg, where the inmates "died like flies, at the rate of 50 a day" and where impromptu bonfires were lit as the crematorium worked to capacity. The Allied advance was relentless and after 10 days, the British officers and their German political prisoners held as fellow captives were taken to Dachau. Here, recalled James, they were kept in the "VIP block" alongside luminaries such as the former French prime minister, the Hungarian cabinet and leading generals who had disobeyed Hitler's increasingly perverse orders.

It was during a final movement down the Brenner Pass to the Tyrolean Valley after a tense stand-off wondering whether the SS would follow their orders to eliminate Allied officers in their charge that the Nazi war machine finally crumbled. Jimmy James, after nearly five years in captivity, was free.

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He followed a soldiers orders to a tea and he never gave up trying to escape, he was a true hero and will be sadly missed! we salute you and may you rest and peace!  :salute: