In 2000, Bertram 'Jimmy' James gave an account of his part in the Great Escape and his life as a PoW to BBC Radio Shropshire's Jon King. It is a truly amazing story!
The escape attempt from Stalag Luft III ('Stalag Luft' is short for 'Stammlager Luft' or Permanent Camps for Airmen) was immortalised in the classic 1963 film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen. Athough the film doesn't portray the freezing conditions with thick snow on the ground on the night of the escape, it does give an idea of the ingenuity that was used inplanning the escape - the search for wood to shore up the tunnels, the undergrond railway, the electric light tapped from the Third Reich and the imaginative methods for getting rid of dirt from the tunnels.
Bertram Arthur James was born in 1915, in India where his father was a tea planter. He was educated at King's School in Canterbury, later working in British Columbia.
When he was 24 he vounteered for flying training with the RAF. He served with the No.9 Squadron based at RAF Honington in Suffolk, and during the early part of WW2, he flew Wellington bombers.
'Jimmy' James' five years worth of escape attempts began in 1940 when his bomber was shot down over the Netherlands, by then in Nazi hands. He was sent to Stalag Luft I in Barth from where he dug the first RAF escape tunnel in 1941. James was caught but his colleague escaped and made it back to his home in Sweden.
'Jimmy' James has been described by military historian Howard Tuck as 'Britain's Greatest War Hero'. "He had a truly remarkable life...he was unique, and the finest gentleman anyone could wish to meet".
James was awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in dispatches for his escape attempts. After the war, he was granted a regular commission in the RAF and retired as a squadron leader in 1958. He later joined the Diplomatic Service, holding posts in Africa, Europe and London until 1975. He subsequently revisited both Sachsenhausen and the site of Stalag Luft III.
Whilst at Sachsenhausen, James made another escape attempt, and was free for 14 days before he was recaptured. He was liberated by the US army on 3rd May 1945.
Furious at the expense and humiliation caused by the mass escape from a camp that was supposedly unbeatable, Hitler personally ordered the cold-blooded murder of 50 recaptured prisoners. This was carried out by the Gestapo - 21 of these Gestapo executors were themselves tried and put to death by
Once the tunnel had been finished, 200 prisoners were selected to make the escape on 24th March 1944. 76 men actually got out before a sentry discovered the mouth of the tunnel. James was no.39 and joined a group of 12 men posing as foreign workers in a local wood mill who were going home on leave. They hoped to make contact with the resistance in Czechslovakia, but were recaptured while they attempted to change trains.
group responsible for 'losing' the excavated soil. One of their methods was to put bags of the soil inside their trousers and let it gradually trickle out as they walked around!
By 1943, James was imprisoned at in the supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III where he immediately joined a group of officers planning the mass break-out which later became known as the 'Great Escape'. Over 100 men were involved in digging a tunnel more than 350 feet long and codenamed 'Harry'. James was in charge of the
Squadron Leader 'Jimmy' James passed away on 18th January 2008. I was lucky enough to meet this remarkable war hero at Autographica in October 2007. He signed a photograph for me. I have written a summary of his wartime captures and escapes but you should make a point of reading some of his first hand accounts (see the links). It makes you really glad that you weren't in his shoes at the time!!
the Allies after the war.
Three of the escapees (a Dutchman and two Norwegians) reached freedom, but of the other 23, 15 were returned to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, and the other 8 (James included) were sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp where the only way out was "up the chimney".
Jimmy James signed this photograph for me at Autographica
WWII Wellington Bomber
Drawing of Stalag Luft III showing
the line of the tunnel
Jimmy James standing in the woods where
Stalag Luft 3 used to be
The Military Cross
Stalag Luft III as it appears in the film
The Great Escape
Tunnelling scene from The Great Escape
Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Scene from the film The Great Escape
Squadron Leader 'Jimmy' James (1915 - 2008)
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