Pilot Officer Bertram A. "Jimmy" James
Unit : 9 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
Camps : Dulag Luft, Oflag XXIB, Stalag Luft I & III, Sachsenhausen and Flossenberg Concentration Camps.
Jimmy James was the twenty-five year old co-pilot of a Wellington bomber of 9 Squadron, based at Honington, Suffolk, which was flown by Squadron Leader George Peacock and shot down on the 5th June 1940. James wrote: "We were somewhere over Holland, and every gun down there seemed to have us in its sights. Lit up like a Christmas tree. Flak came soaring up at us, rattling against us like hail on a corrugated iron shed. And for some reason known only to old George, instead of making the usual manoeuver - a bloody quick vertical nose-dive towards terra firma in order to try and break out of the searchlight cone - George continued to plug on heavenwards. We never reached it. Bang! The port engine cascaded in flame. That was one engine gone and we'd only got two. And with a full bomb-load and a lot of merry flames about, the situation was split-second hazardous. And George Peacock had caught on, yelling, 'Bail out! Bail out!' We had this tail gunner, a guy named Webster. I think he won the first-out prize: one swing of his turret and he'd gone. Out went the rest of us - at speed."
"Poor old George Peacock hung on for a few more seconds, and poof - the whole plane exploded, raining pieces of metal down past us. Our navigator also left it too late and trailed down with his parachute in flames. They were pretty grim seconds, I can tell you. As I sailed down in the darkness, I could see the outline of the sea and various fires, and I was thinking, 'If I can reach the North Sea with all this confusion going on, I might manage to borrow a boat and get to England.' It wasn't until quite a while afterwards that I understood that when your aircraft blows up, and you hop out into space with seconds to spare, you're not in any condition to make detailed plans about escape. I hit the ground pretty hard; I sprained one ankle a bit. It was muddy and horrible and I saw dark forms moving towards me and I thought, 'Hell, the Germans are pretty quick at this sort of thing.' Then one of the forms said, 'Moo-oo,' and I realized it was the wrong sort of animal. I buried my parachute in the mud, found a gate, and began to limp in a westerly direction. All I had to do now was find the sea, grab a boat, and sail through the dawn towards England. I walked west for the whole of the night, jumping into these deep dikes which drained the road whenever I heard a vehicle approach."
Jimmy James had hoped to complete his walk through Holland, giving off the impression to the local population that he was a Luftwaffe pilot out for an early morning walk. He was not aware of it in the darkness, but this disguise was somewhat undermined by his black-eye, a blooded face and mud-smothered clothing. Nevertheless during the morning a Dutch civilian invited him into his home and gave him some coffee and food. Unfortunately this man's brother was fearful of German reprisals if James was discovered, he slipped out of the house and informed the local police, who took Jimmy James prisoner within the hour.
The following is an interview that Jimmy James recorded in 2000 for BBC Radio Shropshire, including additional detail from "The War Behind the Wire" by Patrick Wilson. © BBC. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.
"I was caught in the morning and taken to various places and interrogated. I went through Dulag Luft which was the transit place for RAF aircrew at that time. We arrived in Stalag Luft 1 (at Barth) on the Baltic in July 1940. It was a miserable, dreary little hole of 2 or 3 bare wooden barrack blocks surrounded by the usual barbed wire entanglements of a prisoner of war camp and we were actually literally without anything except the clothes we were shot down in. We had no books, no diversions, hardly any food - a bit of black bread and soup at lunchtime and no hope, because it was before the Battle of Britain and the Germans had occupied the whole of the continent of Western Europe. So we wondered what had happened and how long we would be there, or whether we would ever get home. But we were young, and the place filled up with more RAF aircrew who were shot down."
"The camp staff were all members of the Luftwaffe and behaved, for the most part, in a civilized manner towards the prisoners. In the early days, particularly, our relations with the Germans were good, provided that Higher Authority and the Nazi Party were kept at a distance. Major Von Stachelski, the Kommandant at Barth, was a humane and thoughtful man. We was imbiding one evening in the Mess bar, as was his custom, when he fell to thinking about the poor British locked up in their compound with nothing to drink but water and Ersatz coffee. The more he drank the more he dwelt on their sad state. Then he could stand it no longer. He gave orders that some boxes were to be filled with a good quality of bottled beer and ensured they were delivered to the compound where they were received with due gratitude and joy by the inmates. Unfortunately, the incident was reported to Higher Authority and the Kommandant was relieved of his post immediately."
"The guards were conscripts from all walks of life and they seemed ill at ease in their helmets and new military uniforms. They were an obvious target for our youthful exuberance. We called them 'goons' and often whistled a popular ditty like the Wizard of Oz in time to their marching when they went off after appel. This caused so much irritation that the SBO [Senior British Officer] soon put a stop to it. Nevertheless, the popular sport of 'goon baiting' was often irresistible to the younger prisoners and continued in one form or another for most of the war."
"We subsisted on the German ration for a non-working civilian: a cup of Ersatz coffee, made from acorns, in the morning, a bowl of soup, usually Sauerkraut, with a few potatoes at midday, and one fifth of a loaf of black bread with a pat of margarine and a small piece of sausage or cheese in the evening, supplied on a room basis and divided up by the room 'stooge' for the day. The bread was a heavy, soggy mixture of rather questionable ingredients. The sour taste at first offended the palate but there was little else to eat, and it could be improved by toasting when there was fuel. These rations amounted to barely 800 calories a day, less than half the minimum required for an adult human being. The pangs of hunger were ever present. The [Red Cross] parcels made a tremendous difference to our well-being. They were the difference between near-starvation and an adequate diet. I well remember the meal in our room after the first parcel issue. It seemed we ate solidly for some hours. Amongst the goodies produced from the various tins were cheese, corned beef, stew, biscuits (hard tack), prunes, even cocoa, and best of all, tea. We were careful to eat slowly; a man in another camp died after bolting the entire contents of his first Red Cross parcel too quickly."
"War has been defined as 'long periods of boredom interspersed with short periods of tension and terror'. Life as a prisoner was a minor extension of war. There seemed no end to the boredom which stretched out endlessly into the grey future. We were all young men cut off in our prime from normal life, and forced to live a spartan, closely knit, communal existence, hemmed in by barbed wire, guard boxes, machine guns, patrolling sentries and dogs."
"We dug a lot of tunnels from that camp and I nearly got out when two of us, a chap called John Shaw and I, dug a tunnel from an incinerator near the wire. We used it on an air raid when the lights went out but unfortunately I was caught getting in and he had already got in and got away and he got home."
"We were evacuated from there in April 1942 and taken to the east compound at Stalag Luft III, where I did some more tunnelling of very loose sand, fine soft sand and even if you did get out of that, it was a long way to dig - for a start to the wire - and the camp itself was about as far distant as it could be from neutral territory, i.e. Switzerland and the Baltic Coast, which were the favourite places for escapists to head to."
"[Stalag Luft III] had been newly built on Goering's orders for air crew and the Stalag Luft I was evacuated so they were collecting all the RAF prisoners in Germany into Stalag Luft III. There was another movement too while they were building a new compound - we were taken up to Schubin in Poland - Oflag 21B, where we met with RAF prisoners from other camps. ..At this time, the bomber offensive was increasing and there were hundreds of air crew being shot down coming in so they had to keep building camps."
"Although we were only up in Poland for about 6 months it was a period I would prefer to forget. It was very noisy, we were in barrack blocks with about 80 in a block, it got jolly cold in winter: -20 degrees centigrade and not much heating. The only plus was that it was a different form of camp. There were brick built barrack blocks built on a hillside, and there was a bit of a garden and a building that had been used as a girls' school at one time and the barracks were former Polish Army barracks, but it was a change from the normal barbed wire cage we were in."
"We were taken back from there in April 1943 back to Stalag Luft III north compound. There we found that the escape organisation which had come over from the east compound (there had been a number of people left in the east compound) and they were taken to the new north compound and among them was Roger Bushell who became the Big X. He was a very charismatic South African - he was a rising young Barrister pre-war. He was CO of a Hurricane squadron in 1940 and he was shot down. He had already had two very good attempts to escape. He was caught on the Swiss border at one point and they told him when he went to Berlin after the last one, they said, "Squadron Leader Bushell," they said, "If you escape again you will be shot!"
"Well he immediately started organising the Great Escape, one might say. He decreed that there were to be only three link tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, and they were to be all built simultaneously on identical lines and no other tunnelling was to be allowed because previously we had all been burrowing like bunnies all over the place. To give you an example, when we left Barth, 45 tunnels had been tried and a number of tunnels had been tried in the east compound too before we came over. So he said, "Right, we'll stop doing that. We will concentrate all the sources into Tom, Dick and Harry."
"In the early days we were regular aircrew, regular officers, regular NCOs coming in. But now it was a citizen army with people with talents and skills of all sorts so there was no shortage of people who would advise on building a foolproof trap for instance, like Harry's trap. This was built on tiles and we took the tiles up and took the black stove which stood on it away, stuck the tiles onto a hinged board and dug down through the concrete into the ground and the shaft down below that. They put handles on the stove so it could be moved at any time, alight or not, and I think the trap-doorer could either shut or open the trap in about 13 seconds at one stage if we had an alarm of any Germans in the compound. The other two traps were also very ingenious, Tom and Dick, built in concrete and invisible to the naked eye."
"These tunnels went down 30 feet to avoid the seismographs on the wire. At the base of the shafts were 3 chambers, there was a chamber for the air pump which was made from kit bags, air lines made from milk tins, another chamber which was a workshop for the engineers - the tin bashers as we used to call them - and another chamber to store the sand which came out of the tunnel and was taken up and disposed."
"Of course it all had to be shored, and where to get the wood? A lot of it was got from underneath the hut, which is a double flooring, but a whole lot was taken from bed boards on which we slept in the huts. After a while it got very uncomfortable sleeping because we were sleeping on about 3 or 4 bed boards towards the end of it. Anyway, it was all shored, the tunnel was about two feet square, there was electric light (tapped from the Third Reich) there was a railway, a trolley which carried a container into which the sand was put and there were two halfway houses because of having to haul the sand a large distance, so instead of hauling it 300 feet you only had to haul it 100 feet at which there was a changeover as the tunnel progressed."
"Of course there had to be a very big back-up organisation for this so the tunnelling section, dispersal section, the security section and one or two others connected directly with the tunnel. But in building a tunnel, the main factor is two things, security and dispersal and they are both allied because dispersal affects security. If the Germans see a whole lot of extra earth around the place they know there's a tunnel going on."
"We got round it by the penguin method, which was suspending two sacks down each trouser leg and operating a string from each pocket which activated a hole at the bottom from which the sand trickled out. The penguin used to go round, often in a great coat looking like a penguin, trickling this stuff out. The trouble was that it (the sand) was a different colour to the earth in the compound, and so we had to have a chap shuffling along behind him kicking it into the earth. It proved a very effective method, it was in fact the invention of our Lieutenant Commander Peter Fanshawe who was a Fleet Air Arm Observer shot down over Norway in 1940. In the summer of 1943 we dispersed 130 tons of sand from the three tunnels which were all being dug simultaneously. There were, I think 200 penguins employed in the organisation. They made 25,000 trips."
"There was a chap called Edwards who hated the camp and was desperate to get out. He got up one day and said, 'Well boys, I'm going for a walk round the compound and am going over the wire.' He'd said this before but no one had taken much notice. This time, however, he meant what he said and half an hour later began climbing up the fence. A guard shouted at him to come down but he paid no attention. The guard just shot him dead. He fell off the wire like a bird and there was a rather ugly incident, in fact it was a near riot, when he was taken off and they wouldn't allow anyone to go near him."
"Until Tom was found, in September 1943, we had a lot of Americans in with us and they did a lot of work on Tom and they were in fact transferred to their own compound about a week before it was due to be operated. But as I said it was found because the Chief Ferret (German guard employed to spy on the prisoners), a chap called Glemnitz, who spoke good English and had been with us from the start, took up position in the wood opposite the block where Tom was being dug."
"They suspected something going on there and they saw some people coming out with boxes of sand, which was a bit careless. Of course they rushed in and threw everybody out of the block and searched it and they were just pegging out (concealing the trap door) by complete bad luck. One of the goons, as we used to call them, had his pick grating on the floor and just happened to scrape some of the dust away from Tom's trap which was in the concrete. He found this indentation in the concrete and gave a shout and they all rushed in and of course Tom's trap was blown. The Germans were absolutely delighted at finding it, not least because it was within a week of completion. For everyone connected with the tunnel, though, the discovery was a huge disappointment. The only light moment was when the Germans overdid it with the dynamite and very nearly blew up the nearby guard tower. It sank down into the hole made by the blast at a crazy angle. So Tom had done his bit for the war effort."
"Well after that we packed it up until January. In the meantime of course there were other activities going on... At Christmas time we were in the habit of brewing up a hooch of some sort made from prunes or whatever dried fruits we could get, which we then fermented into wine. It was double or triple distilled by our home-made brewery. The result was a bit horrifying but it nevertheless kept us warm and we drank it. At Christmas in 1943 a guard came round with a couple of dogs and was shutting a window of a room when we was handed a bottle of this home-made hooch, which he drank on the spot and promptly collapsed. His two dogs dragged their master to the gate. It's not known what happened to him but he was never seen again. On another occasion somebody threw a bottle of this hooch at a guard in the guard tower. He also drank it in one go and seconds later fell out of the guard tower."
"Surprisingly, the Germans allowed us to build a theatre in the North Compound. We had an architect in the camp called Caldwell who designed it and many people helped with the building. It was actually a very fine theatre, with an excellent stage. The auditorium could hold something like two or three hundred... The theatre was a great morale raiser and in fact we had a great deal of talent there. Among others we had Rupert Davies of Maigret fame, Tolley Rosswell who wrote the Carry on series, Peter Butterworth who acted in it and John Casson, Cybil Thorndyke's son, who ran a theatre group after the war and so they put on some very good shows, Rookery Nook and Arsenic and Old Lace and all the West End shows going on at the time. [One man had] bought a ticket for Arsenic and Old Lace in London that was on in the West End. 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!". We built the theatre ourselves and that was part of their ploy because we could hire costumes from German theatre people and chaps dressed up very effectively as women. So it was a great morale raiser: you put on your best blue and went to the theatre about every fortnight."
"Besides that we'd got a very good library. We could study anything under the sun that we wanted. In fact I passed a couple of exams in Russian and German from the Royal Society of Arts. But people did much more than that: passed final engineering exams, qualified as lawyers, and so on. The papers were sent out by the Red Cross and invigilated by educational types. We had a Master from King's College, for instance. So by this time it was a citizen air force and you could find all kind of talents. So there was that to keep us going and come January they decided to reactivate Harry. Already about 100 feet had been dug, that went out from block 104 North."
"Now the problem was dispersal because by this time there was a whole lot of snow on the ground and it was a very cold winter at that time, so what to do? Now somebody said in a committee meeting, "Well what about the theatre?" In the early days, the huts which were all built on piles, about a foot off the ground, at the sides from the floor down to the ground from outside were covered in and enclosed. So you could make a trap in a room, go down underneath and crawl about quite happily without anyone seeing you, or dig a tunnel and throw the earth around so that the Germans wouldn't know. But once we'd done one the Germans were on to that so they took all the sides of the huts away and we couldn't do that. And hence the penguin business, but we couldn't use the penguin business in the winter, so somebody said (use) the theatre. We'd built it ourselves and the sides were all enclosed."
"I met Peter Fanshawe, Dispersal Chief, walking round the compound one day and he said, "Would you like a job?" I said, "Yes, I'm unemployed at the moment and likely to be for a while." And he said, "Well I want you to be in charge of one dispersal team underneath." Ian Cross, who was a Squadron Leader who had bombed the Scharnhorst - we used to call him "Scharnhorst Cross" - would be the other. So he said "I want you two to come along to the theatre and have a look underneath", which we did. Somebody had built a trap underneath the floor and Cross and I went down and had a look and ideal! Bags of space under the auditorium. So when Harry was started we had the dispersal fixed and they used to work, closed down (work with the tunnel sealed) all day - with the air pump they could do that - and they had electric light in the day time, and worked quite happily. They did this between roll calls in the morning and roll calls in the evening. The sand was all stored in the chamber."
"After roll call, when it was dark, they kept the doors open till about 10 o'clock, then we went down under the theatre with our dispersal teams and the penguins brought the stuff in kit bags by a secure route in the dark, through the tunnel, through the huts and poured it down the trap and we worked like hell underneath dispersing this stuff. So this went on for about two months when Harry was finished it went out to a length of about 360 feet, I think."
"Of the 1,500 in the north compound at Stalag Luft III only about six hundred were in the Escape Organization. The others weren't interested. I would say about a third of the prisoners were, like myself, hard-core escapers. Of the others, some had been very keen in the early days but now thought it wasn't worth it, and the rest were either against it or just didn't think it was worthwhile. My motivation was simply freedom. Being behind the wire is not a thing to be recommended... You're just shut away in a little world of your own. You feel out of it. You are useless. One fantasized about life outside the wire - the life you'd left, the girlfriend you'd left and so on. Naturally you thought about your village pub, where you could just go and have a pint of beer when you wanted it."
"In about mid-March 1944 we were then in a bit of a dilemma because it [the escape] was ready to go, but there were two factors: it was a terribly cold winter - it was the coldest March for 30 years, and the people who were going on foot would be in a very bad way. But, at the same time we had security considerations and we knew that the Gestapo were interested. In fact they had already visited the Commandant and made all sorts of threats. So, Wings [Wing Commander Day] said to Roger, "Well this is an operational war, Roger. You know, the main thing is to cause the Germans trouble." So he said, "Right, well we'll fix the date for 24th March. In the meantime of course all the back up organisations were working like hell getting things ready."
"We had a mapping section which turned out 400 maps of the area. Forged passes, they worked day and night turning out some brilliant passes which passed stringent Gestapo checks later on. They were mostly artists, led by an artist called Tim Whelan who was later shot. The clothing department made very good clothes and suits. Compasses, food, you name it, intelligence of course. And train times, we knew all the train times."
"So we decided on how many were to go. Of the 600 who had worked on the organisation, 200 only could go out so they had to draw lots. The first 30 were specially selected by Roger as the most likely to get home on the grounds of language and so on and so there were a number of foreigners among them... A lot of them had been out before and had also done an enormous amount of work on the tunnel. This first group of thirty were chosen and all had suits, papers and money, so that they would be fully equipped to travel hundreds of miles across Germany into neutral territory... The next 70 also had these considerations but they also considered the work they had done for the organisation. I was lucky enough to draw number 39 out - it might have been unlucky, mind you. I was put in with a group of twelve chaps who had papers as workers in a local wood mill who were going on leave... I was, according to the papers, a Yugoslav and was fitted out with a pair of middle-eastern trousers, which I dirted to make them look like workman's clothes. I also put some civilian buttons on my tunic. My partner was a Greek fighter pilot. I had been asked if I would like to go with him and I thought it might be a good idea because we could go down to the Danube, into Greece and then he'd help get us over to Turkey which was neutral."
"So at the time, zero hour arrived there was electric excitement in the air. All the people in block 104 cleared out and we were told the time to report, we had to report to a Wing Commander two blocks down. He had his stooges out watching for Germans and if it was okay you were directed into the operational hut... Before I left my hut the cook in the room gave us a particularly good feed. I was the only one going from my room and happened to have stored 4,000 cigarettes. I told my companions that they were welcome to them, but one of them rather rudely replied, 'You keep them. You'll need them when you come out of the cooler.' No words could, however, dampen my excitement. So off I went, with my pack and rations, and routed by secure means to Hut 104."
"Not long before 10pm we were all in there and the doors were shut and they started to get out, but there were four things which held up the breakout. One was icing on the trap. The trap got iced up and it took them an hour and a half to break out of it. When they got out they found that the exit hole was about 20 or 30 feet short of the woods, which meant that coming out in the snow you were quite near the guard on the wire and there was a flashlight with a guard box and all that and you would have stood out like a sore thumb if the sentry had seen you. So Roger said, "Put a man behind the bush." A ferret bush [aka. Ferret Fence] they would call it, where the ferret used to lie and watch with a rope, and hang the rope down the exit hole and just signal to people when they can come up. The chap would give a tug on the rope, and if it was okay to go he would give one tug and if it was not he would give two tugs."
"We had to have a simple system like that. It got people out but it held it up of course. Then there was a fall in the tunnel. Somebody with a suitcase knocked one of the supports away and a whole lot of sand came down, then that had to be cleared. Finally there was an air-raid on Berlin, which didn't effect us, but all the lights went out and it meant the lights in the tunnel went out and we had to light fat lamps. So by the time I got out it was about, oh, 1 o'clock, 1:30 in the morning I should think."
"I presented myself to the trap controller at the top. His job was to see you didn't carry too much luggage or weren't too bulky. He passed me and so I went ahead heartened, and climbed down the thirty-foot shaft. It was like going down a ship's hold. At the bottom there was a chap working the air pump. I lay flat on the trolley, yanked the rope, thus signifying I was ready to be taken down the tunnel and off I went, pulled by a chap at the first halfway house, Piccadilly. There I changed trolleys and got pulled to Leicester Square, where I got on another trolley and was pulled the last hundred feet up to the exit by the haulers at the end of the tunnel. On reaching the exit hole, I stood up and saw the stars above me. It was a very euphoric moment. I didn't think about what might happen, the fact was that I had got out of the camp. I was free at last. I thought of the old RAF motto 'through difficult to the stars'. I climbed to the top and received the signal from the man behind the ferret fence. With that, I crawled out onto the snow and joined my group."
"After joining my group in the woods, we were led off round the camp by a Squadron Leader Williams. It was a freezing cold night and we must have walked about ten miles before we reached our objective, which was a country station called Tshiebsdorf where we knew we could take a train south. I was feeling terribly excited. The plan was that we would get down to Czechoslavakia. After a short wait we got on board a train and travelled south to another country station - just north of the Czech border. We expected a check at the station but it was nine o'clock in the morning and obviously the alarm had not reached the station yet. At this point the group split up and I went off with my partner Skanzikas, a Greek fighter pilot."
"We proceeded to climb over the Reisengebirge - or giant mountains - with snow up to our necks. Not only was it tough but we knew that if we had another night in those conditions we would probably freeze to death. Rather than proceeding on we walked into Hirschberg West Station secure in the knowledge that we had good passes and some money. At the ticket office we were intercepted by a civilian policeman who asked us for our papers. We presented them airily and he looked at them and put them in his pocket. 'Hey, what's going on? I'm German and I'm just off to see my old mother in Belgrade,' I told him. 'We'll talk about it in the station,' came his reply. We were taken down to the police station, where there were already four other members of our party locked up. Two more came in later. By the end eight of us had been caught in the local area and all eight of us were interrogated and then taken to the civilian jail in Hirschenberg, where we were each thrown into a cell."
"It was only twelve hours since our escape. We were prisoners again and it was shattering. We didn't have any idea what was going to happen. After a couple of days four of our names were called out - Skanzikas, a Canadian and Pawluk and Kiewnarski, two Poles. They were told to pack up their things and go. Our natural reaction was that we thought they were going to be taken back to the camp. In fact they were taken off to be shot."
"By now a national alert had been raised and Hitler had had a meeting with Himmler and other top Nazis. They'd flown into a rage and said all seventy-six people who got out should be shot. However, someone had reminded them that, if you shoot the whole lot, it will look much like murder and they will shoot our prisoners. As a compromise, Hitler decided that fifty were to be executed and left it to Himmler to chose the names. He then passed the job over to a Gestapo general called Nebe. It seems Nebe just looked through the names on a card index which stated age and marital status. All the Poles and eastern Europeans were shot along with other escapees who were selected on a seemingly random basis. They were taken from their various jails, taken to an autobahn two or three at a time, invited to perform natural functions and just shot in the back of the head."
"The three others were also taken away and I was left on my own with a rather queasy feeling. At one point during that week the Gestapo came in and I thought they were going to interrogate me, but in fact they wanted me to get out of the cell so that they could interrogate some other unfortunate. Anyway, after about seven days, the Meister, a rather unpleasant little man, looked round the door at about 5 o'clock in the morning and said, 'Raus, Schnell'. I dressed, picked up whatever small things I had and went down the stairs where I was greeted by the Gestapo. One of them pulled out a revolver and told me not to do anything stupid. They marched me off to Hirschberg station and took me by train to Gestapo Headquarters, which I was glad to see had been bombed and was in a rather rickety condition. I sat there for about three hours and was then drive out of Berlin, escorted by an SS man beside me and two in the front, with no idea of where I was going. The card stopped beside a dark wood and as we went through it a big wall became visible, with electric wire o n top of it."
"We went along, it looked rather sinister, and then they knocked on this door and the SS officer, who hadn't spoken to me before then, got out and said, "Ah, Herr James! This is a nice place. You will not escape from here." The door opened and an SS Corporal came and took me in charge and I went in. There were two barrack huts with electrified wire round them and another path and a guard with a dog and a 10 foot wall with electric wire on top of that outside. I was taken into the little compound with two huts and down to the end and came face to face with Wing Commander Day, or Wings Day, who had been the senior British officer in Stalag Luft III and had also gone out on the break. So I said, 'Oh hello Sir,' I said, 'Is this Colditz?' 'No, I wish it was,' he replied, 'This is Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. The only way out of here is up the chimney.' We were under no illusions of the fate that awaited us should we attempt to break out."
"In fact conditions for us were not too bad at the beginning. We were given adequate rations and the guards treated us fine. In effect we were political prisoners. Our first introduction to the main compound, however, gave us quite a shock. We would be taken over there for showers. In this compound, there was a semi-circular area which was used for roll calls but was also used as a boot-testing place, and had different surfaces along it - grass, asphalt, stones and so on. On this track miserable, thin, stripped figures were made to test boots for the Russian Front. They'd be driven round all day - walking some twenty-five kilometres carrying a thirty-pound pack on their backs whilst living on starvation rations. If they dropped, they were kicked and dogs were set on them. At the head of the appel platz was a gallows on which inmates were hanged publicly for the smallest peccadillo. If anyone escaped the whole compound was lined up until they were caught and were then made to watch a public hanging... So I think this was the first time that I realised the evil we were fighting and that the war was worthwhile. Well, they brought us in there about once every month I think for a shower."
"So I found myself in this little compound [separate to the above] with about, I think there were about 18-20 odds and bods in it. There were four Russians including two generals, two RAF Poles dropping supplies to the Resistance who had been beaten up by the Gestapo and then put into Sachsenhausen. There were four Irish soldiers, there were two Italian soldiers who had been orderlies to the Italian Naval Military and Air Attaches who had been taken out when Italy went out of the war. And then the five British officers, Wings Day, Johnnie Dodge, who was related to Churchill and had also been an Army Major in the first war, Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse who had been on the Great Escape, myself and Peter Churchill who was an SOE Agent, married to Odette. Then we were later joined by Jack Churchill. And he came in and helped us with the tunnel."
"When we first arrived it didn't look very helpful as far escaping stakes went. Wings said, 'Just lie low for a while and see what the SS do.'... In the meantime we decided to build a tunnel, and again security was the main factor because we knew there was a Gestapo stooge among the prisoners with us. So we didn't tell anyone - except the British officers - what we were doing, and Sydney Dowse and I were the only ones digging. We took it in turns to dig. We had to dig trenches under the floorboards of the hut. We had one big plus there because the sides of the hut on the outside were enclosed and this would never have happened at a Prisoner Of War camp, but the SS didn't think about this, they were 'all-powerful' and we couldn't get out."
"So we had a great time underneath dispersing. Well, it was hard work I would say. We had to dig these trenches and it took us three months to do those, well there was only six inches' clearance. So the earth from the trench we had to push to the side and it was very dusty, slow work and we had to be very careful. One of us was up in the hut and we had a pre-arranged song which was the Zulu War Song. I won't sing it because I can't sing, but it went 'Hold him down you Zulu warrior', I think. If an SS man came along then the chap underneath would stop moving. Wings of course couldn't go down because he was the senior British officer and would have been missed and the Dodger was much too big, a huge man. So the two of us dug away, as I said Jack Churchill came and helped us half way through."
"The tunnel was finished about 23rd September 1944 and we operated it that night. It was raining, luckily, and also luckily we got the SS Corporal whom we didn't like on duty - more of that later. Anyway we all got out and previously we had seen that they were building another compound outside and there was a big wall. For some reason they stopped taking us for showers and we didn't know whether we would be able to get over the wall or not. We thought there was a ladder there but we weren't sure. So Wings wrote to the Commandant and said, “Can you send us some parallel bars? We’re British officers and we like to keep fit.” And so he sent them - surprisingly!"
"All we did was to extend it to its full height, stand on top and look over the wall. So there was a nice builder’s ladder there propped against the wall ready for us to use. Well we used it and it was a very long drop down the side - about 12 feet, I think. Luckily it was soft woodland and we all got over and we went our various ways. Jack (Churchill) and I plugged up the Berlin-Rostock railway line and had a lot of adventures, of which there is no time to relate here. We were eventually caught after a couple of weeks quite near the Baltic – we could smell the sea anyway, salt on our lips and that sort of thing. We were planning to get a ship to Sweden but we were caught and put in the local jail at Gustrov and then taken back in a Black Moria to Sachsenhausen. We had got about 100 miles north, I think."
"In the meantime Wings and Sydney (Dowse) had been caught. They had bad luck, they had gone to an address in Berlin which they had got from one of the Irishmen who had been out on a special do in Berlin where the Germans thought they would try and train the Irish up to go and strike a blow at the Saxon foe – blow up the Houses of Parliament or something - but they had no intention of doing that. They were all soldiers from the 51st Highland Division. The Germans had got on to them and they had put them in Sachsenhausen. One of them had given an address of a Todt Organisation (German Labour organisation) chap who had been running supplies to the West Wall and he said that he was anti-Nazi. So they went to this house – they went on the S-Bahn, as they had some money from the Great Escape – and they found out it had been bombed. They were just cleaning themselves up when a woman saw them and called the police and that was that."
"Wings had had a very bad time, he had been chained up and beaten about and finally after a lot of interrogation they let him off the hook. He said, 'Look, all I want is to be free. Your air crew in England are the same, they do just the same things. All I am doing is, I am a Wing Commander, all my contemporaries are air rank now and I want to get home.”' They said: 'All right Wing Commander, we understand.' The Dodger (Major Johnnie Dodge) was out for another month. He was head up in a pig sty and was eventually found. Somebody had given him away. I think it was a French man, I’m not sure. Anyway, Himmler had in fact ordered our execution, and also the execution of the commandant, the architect who designed the camp, the security officer and the guard on duty at the time, who was the one we wanted to clobber! So anyway he realised he was writing off too many trained killers so he rescinded the order and we had solitary confinement in the cell block for an unspecified period. Well this was actually Death Row, because you never knew when the door opened where you were going. Sachsenhausen was one of the main concentration camps and from 1936 when it was opened, till 1945, of 200,000 who went through, over 100,000 died from starvation, torture, you name it. So it wasn’t a very good situation to be in."
"It contained prisoners they didn't like and the expectation of life there was not very long. We knew that we were in a bit of trouble after fifty had been shot in the Great Escape, and didn't think a further escape attempt would be viewed benevolently... Even after our sentence had been commuted, it was really more a case of having a delayed death sentence because anyone who went into the cell block was very likely to be taken to one of the places of execution later. There was a place called 'Station Z' where people were shot, and another place for hanging. There was also a gas chamber. One further method of execution on the camp was the genickschuss installation - which in German literally means 'neck shot'. The way they did this was that you were shown in to a room where you would be greeted by a man in a white coat, who you naturally presumed was a doctor. He beckoned you to stand on some scales and would measure your weight and then height. Unbeknown to the victim was that there was a hole in the wall behind you through which an SS man would shoot you in the back of the neck while loud music played in the background. The blood would be wiped away and then 'Next please'. They shot something like 18,000 Soviet Army personnel using that method in October 1941 alone. The SS guards who did it were given a holiday in Capri as a reward."
"We knew the dangers of being in the cell block. You could smell the smoke from the crematorium. The SS sergeant who was in charge of it was a man who went round and murdered people in their cells with his own hands. His normal method was strangulation. We didn't know the details but we knew some nasty things went on. Whenever the door opened you didn't know where you were being taken or what would happen. It wasn't a very nice feeling at all."
"I'd be screamed at in the early morning at around 5 o'clock. I'd then have to empty my bucket and be screamed at again on the way back by the SS guard, who would then give me a broom to sweep my cell out. I got a bit tired of this screaming after a while and rather unwisely I screamed back. It was a bit of a gamble and I think I was only saved by the fact that I was a British officer. Anyway he calmed down after that. Much of the time was spent meditating and things that you thought you'd forgotten came back to you. In that respect, it was a rather interesting period. The other thing one could do was watch the prisoners exercising outside through the bars at the top. You had to get up on your bed to do it and be very careful. The SS guards outside wouldn't hesitate to shoot if they saw you. Then you would walk yourself round your cell which was some three foot by seven foot. By then it might be lunchtime, which consisted of some sauerkraut soup. In the afternoon you would try and rest but, if the guard looked through the peephole and saw you, he would open the door and shout, 'Raus - rest forbidden'. For an hour every day we went on a walk in what they called Hitler Strasse - an exercise area around the other side of the wing from where the cells were; once again there were plenty of sights of torture, including an underground bunker where they put people to starve. In the evening I played chess with myself using pieces of wrapping paper. I always won which was at least a morale raiser! Then it was bedtime, feeling that you'd had quite a full day. That was how I coped."
"They had a tannoy in the camp and I remember that on Christmas Eve they played Silent Night. It was the most incongruous thing hearing this beautiful hymn in such a satanic place. Quite a lot of commandos came in and were executed the next morning on account of Hitler's Commando Order. Among them were Commander Cumberledge and three sergeants who were in a commando group that had been captured blowing up the Corinth Canal during the Greek campaign. They arrived in Sachsenhausen after terrible tortures and Jack Churchill managed to communicate through tapping on the wall. They were taken off and shot soon after their arrival. During that month, out of a population of eighty, only thirteen were left by the time we were moved on."
"We were finally released in February 1945 when the Oberscharfführer, the SS Sergeant Major in charge of the block had orders to reduce the population. To him it was fairly simple. They were just taken out to Station Z where there was a gassing or shooting place or whatever, hanging. Or he would come and do it himself in the cell. He was known as The Beast of the Bunker. So by February ’45, out of the population of 80, about 13 of us were left and that included the British officers. The door opened one day and the guard said, “Komm, komm!” Pack up and come. I hadn’t got much to pack up."
"We went down the corridor, into a cell at the end and the other chaps were in front of the commandant and he said, “Well, you’re going back to your friends in the Sonderlager now, but if you try to escape again you will be shot!” So we went back – they didn’t know what had happened to us in the Sonderlager (main concentration camp) and we got a big welcome. One event which impressed us was we saw aeroplanes tearing along at an enormous rate of knots above us and they had no propellers. 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. Of course, they were German Messerschmitt 210s I think they called them, operating on the Russian front."
"The camp was evacuated and we were taken to the station and travelled by train for a couple of days down to the Czech border and there we were introduced to a frightful concentration camp called Flossenberg. We were herded through the gates, SS shouting and screaming at us and there was no room in the cells, apparently. We were taken to the hospital, which was raised up a bit, it was very hilly country. So you could see over the camp. As soon as we went in, the commandant said, “There is no room for these people, they must be shot!” Well luckily we had with us two Germans - one was an SS corporal, the nice one we liked and the man with him was in the SD, which was the SS intelligence who had helped to get us off the hook in Wings’ enquiry. He told the commandant – he had been a policeman before – that if they shot us there would be some awkward questions asked in Berlin because these were British officers and they would be useful for bargaining with the Allies as hostages. We were allowed to live."
"We had a view over the camp. The inmates were driven to work in a quarry at the far end of the camp. They died like flies, at the rate of 50 a day. The crematorium couldn’t take all the bodies so they were burned in bonfires at the side of the camp. We had been there a few days and Wings was looking out of the window and he gave a shout. There were three stretchers going past with bodies covered with blankets spotted with brains and blood and so on. We learned later that they were the bodies of Pastor Bonhoeffer who was a famous theologian, Admiral Canaris who was head of German intelligence and also in the resistance against Hitler, and General Hans Oster who was his adjutant."
"On the same day there were thirteen Allied agents executed so there was room at the inn for us and we were taken down to the cells. It was a fairly informal group because we were allowed out of our cell to walk about and there was a little yard out there with a shed at the end of it. We knew what was going on in there - that was the execution shed. There was a young blonde corporal in charge of the execution and Wings got talking to him one day and he said: "Look, the Allies will be here very soon. They won't like what's been going on in that shed." "Oh," he said, "orders are orders."
"We were vacated from there after about 10 days and put on transport, a group went on a Black Moria and Jack Churchill and I and a few others were put in a lorry. Jack had a piece of paper and he put the names of the British officers on it and he threw it out onto the road as we were going along. We were in the back of the lorry facing backwards and it was open. That was picked up apparently by the British who were quite near - there were Russians on one side and British on the other and it was a narrowing corridor. We could see the Germans making a last stand as we went along. We were strafed by Spitfires too on the way. The SS stopped, got out and jumped into the ditch and left us in the road."
"Finally we stopped outside a camp after dark and I said to the guard: "Where are we?" He replied, "Hier ist Dachau." Well, I knew that one. We were taken in and put in a block - the VIP block it turned out to be! Then we started to meet some of the VIPs they happened to be collecting as hostages. Among them was the Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Canon Neuheusler, Pastor Niemoller, General Garibaldi who was a resistance leader, and a few people like that."
"We stayed there about a couple of days and then we were taken in buses down to south of Innsbruck - a place called Reichenau which was a police education camp, they called it, at least that's what it had on the outside! I think the SS were doing the educating in this case. And there we were put in with a group of all the main political prisoners in Germany at that time, which included a of lot the relations of the people who were concerned in the traitors of the July plot against Hitler, women and children among them."
"The German General, General Halder who had been the Chief of Staff on the east front, General von Falconhausen, a very impressive German, Colonel von Bonin who had gone against Hitler's wishes and retreated at Warsaw, the Hungarian cabinet, including the Prime Minister and the general staff, Papagos who had been our neighbour at Sachsenhausen, Schuschnigg the Austrian Chancellor and his wife, Thiessen the industrialist, Schacht the Finance Minister, Dutch Foreign Minister Leon Blum, the former French Prime Minister and his wife, to name just a few, so we were in very exalted company. We were put in for ballast, I think!"
"We were evacuated from there - we were taken out in a group of about 150 of us in about six or seven buses with SS outriders and a jeep taking up the rear with hand grenades and guns and things like that. We wound up to the Brenner [Pass], we stopped at midnight on April 27th, I think it was. We just stopped in the shadows and we didn't know what was going on. The SS had disappeared and we wondered what the score was. Well the score was, as I found out years later, that had there been a bombing raid which they were wont to do in those days on the Brenner, the SS were going to machine gun the lot of us and say we had been killed by bombs. Luckily that didn't happen."
"They came back in the early morning and we went on down the side of the Brenner, east down the pass to the Tyrolean Valley and we came to a grinding halt at a railway crossing on the edge of the town of Villa Bassa - it was Italian then, Niederdorf when it was Austrian. The SS were obviously uncertain what to do but they let us get out and I think one of the buses had a flat tyre, and they were out of petrol and they had no orders from Berlin. So they got drunk, but a lot of things happened simultaneously more or less at this time. Wings and Jack went into the railway level crossing hut. An Italian soldier came along and told him that General Garibaldi would like to see him. So they went in and found the general there and saw the level crossing keeper who was a sergeant in the partisans. He had asked the general to take charge of them. He agreed and he had asked Wings and Jack to get the British organised to mount an attack on the SS. Peter Churchill was there - he spoke fluent Italian and interpreted. Wings, who was normally good for a scrap, reckoned that discretion was the better part of valour, and he said, "Well look, lets wait until we get the SS in a position where we know where they are and then we can deal with them." Garibaldi said, "We would be delighted to do something to help you." So they agreed on that."
"In the meantime, a chap called Tony Duce who was the Austrian administration man in that area and also leader of the resistance came up because word had got round that Schuschnigg was with them and that had alerted him and the whole population - they were very excited about it. He arranged for us to go to some quite reasonable accommodation. There were two hotels if you were a VIP, or the straw in the Town Hall if you weren't or if you were British. Well we got the Town Hall, we didn't mind really as long as we had somewhere to bed down."
"In the meantime the SS men in charge of the group had all got very tight on schnapps. Niemoller said, "Its very dangerous if the SS get drunk." One of them more or less passed out, and one of our chaps, Squadron Leader Faulkner who had been a seagulls chap operating behind the lines in Tunisia and had been in Sachsenhausen said, "Well look, give him a bit more schnapps and then take his pocket book." Which is what happened and we found an order that the Allied officers and the various others were not to fall into Allied hands. So we thought we'd better get busy at that time and von Bonin got through on the telephone to a German General who was a friend of his commanding a sector on the Italian front, and said: "Look, send up a platoon of Wehrmacht and kick out these SS swine!" I think he agreed to that after a while. In the meantime we found our accommodation. Wings and Duce went off in an old Volkswagen to try to contact the Americans. They went over the mountains and eventually they did reach an American headquarters."
"Before they left, Bader (one of the SS) had told Wings that they had a special room for the British. One of the Hungarians who had been a Count or something, was Minster of the Interior, spoke very good English. He said: "For heavens sake, don't go into any rooms as the SS are gunning for you." So we didn't do that, but we bedded down on the straw in the Town Hall with SS men at each end with cocked Schmeisers and that was literally the Night of the Long Knives, because the SS were expecting something, possibly the partisans to attack. The next morning they had all gone. We went down in the square and this Wehrmacht platoon had arrived. Von Bonin was covering the SS with a machine gun and Bonin was telling them to throw down their arms, which were picked up very quickly by the partisans. The SS were given the opportunity of either going or trying their luck with the Allies. Bader and a few of them went down the valley and I heard later that they had been stopped by the partisans and strung up. In the meantime we were free - that was our first liberation and there was a very moving thanksgiving Mass in the local church, celebrated by the Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand to which everybody went."
"It's difficult to describe one's feelings after five years behind barbed wire. I was flown back in the civil version of the Wellington that I'd been shot down in five years previously. The feeling of arriving back at Blackbushe in Hampshire was unbelievable. You were on English soil again. I went up to London and it was a bit of an anti-climax actually. Soon after, I was inspected by a doctor who tapped me all over and sent me on leave on double rations, which I couldn't eat anyway. I was told to report back for another medical in six weeks time which I did and was passed fit for flying. Physically I was all right, but mentally my experiences in captivity affected me for many years."
For his persistent attempts to escape from his German captors, Jimmy James was awarded the Military Cross and Mentioned in Despatches. He returned to Germany after the war and it was here that he met his wife, Madge, a nursing sister with the Red Cross. He later joined the Foreign Office and occupied various postings around the world, including West Germany, France, Czechoslavakia and South Africa.
In 2004, Jimmy James returned to the site to Stalag Luft III, now overgrown by woodland, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Great Escape. "It's quite a moving experience because 60 years on there's virtually no camp here except the trees and sand - all the huts have been razed. But you can still feel the atmosphere of the camp. Having lost 50 of my comrades, the ghosts of the past will inevitably rise up and one feels a great loss in that respect. I never thought 60 years ago when I crawled out of the hole in the snow that there would be a ceremony to commemorate the event."
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