Fri, Feb 01, 2008 - Page 6 News List

POW hero James dies at age of 92

DIGGING FOR FREEDOM World War II RAF pilot Jimmy James helped fellow POWs dig a 30m escape tunnel out of Stalag Luft III using a table knife


Jimmy James, a British flier in World War II obsessed with escape plots during his five years in German captivity, most prominently the breakout portrayed in the movie The Great Escape, died on Jan. 18 in Shrewsbury, England. He was 92.

On the night of June 5, 1940, Flight Lieutenant James, co-pilot of a Wellington bomber, was on the way to a mission over Germany when his plane was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. He bailed out but was captured and taken to the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft I on the Baltic coast of Germany.

James made at least seven unsuccessful attempts to tunnel out of that camp. Then he was transferred to Stalag Luft III, southeast of Berlin. By the time he was liberated by US troops in May 1945, a few days before Germany surrendered, he had tried to escape at least 11 times from POW camps and a concentration camp and had succeeded twice, only to be recaptured.

"I was just a guy who wanted to get home; I was no hero," the Birmingham Post quoted James as saying.

But his unrelenting will to be free brought him Britain's Military Cross for gallantry in 1946.

The most storied escape occurred on the night of March 24, 1944, when 76 Allied prisoners tunneled out of Stalag Luft III. James and another prisoner had overseen the hiding of soil displaced by the tunnel digging, supervising its placement underneath seats in the camp's theater, where the captives had put on shows.

James could sometimes look back with a wry eye. He once told the BBC about a flier who was annoyed over having been shot down when he had London theater tickets for the next night.

"He'd bought a ticket for Arsenic and Old Lace in London that was on in the West End," James said. "And he was bemoaning this fact when he came into the camp. He said, `I bought a ticket for this show,' and I said: `Oh, that's all right old boy, we're putting it on next week. You can see it here.'"

The breakout, as depicted in the 1963 movie starring Steve McQueen, is remembered for what James once called "rather Hollywood fantasy" -- the McQueen character's short-lived escape on a motorcycle.

But the real escape became a grim affair. Only three of the 76 escapees made it to freedom. Fifty of the 73 men who were recaptured were shot on Hitler's orders.

James was recaptured at a railroad station while fleeing toward the Czech border and was eventually transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

In September 1944, he joined several other prisoners of war in escaping from the camp through a 30m tunnel they had dug 3m below the surface, using a table knife. He fled north, hoping to board a ship for Sweden, but was recaptured once more and later imprisoned at two other concentration camps before being liberated.

Bertram Arthur James, known as Jimmy since his days in military service, was born in India, the son of a tea merchant. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1939 and remained in the military until the 1950s. He later entered the British diplomatic corps, holding posts in Europe and in Africa.

In 2004, James attended a ceremony at the site of Stalag Luft III, now a part of Poland.

"Having lost 50 comrades, ghosts of the past are inevitably going to rise up. I feel a great loss. I never thought that 60 years ago, when I crawled out of the snow, there would be a ceremony in Poland to commemorate the event," he said.

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