From Fire to Faith and Freedom

The story of Secodn World War fighter pilot Jimmy James


JIMMY would like to thank his extended family and especially his wife Betty who has been his great help and joy over these many years. He also remembers with gratitude the many pilots and Air Force personnel past and present, especially those of 450 Australian Squadron. He would also like to thank Richard Ingham and designer Martin Teviotdale for their untiring and excellent work. Richard Ingham is a former regional and national journalist with newspapers and magazines including The :rimes and BBC news. He can be contacted on Design:


FOR as long as he can remember Jimmy James has been fascinated and intrigued by aeroplanes and the thought of fiying. He can recall the feeling of wonder and excitement he experienced as he watched the light planes taking off with the lucky people who could afford the 2/6d (12 1/2p) or 5s (25p) cost of the pleasure fiights taking off from near his family home in Llangynwyd, Bridgend, Wales. His family couldn't afford the fiights but Jimmy was never to lose that fascination with fiying and aircraft. And for this young boy with his head in the clouds that fascination was so nearly to cost him his life about a decade later ... as a Second World War fighter pilot. His single seater 1360hp Kittyhawk had been hit by enemy ground fire. He knew he had to get out but was too low. He opened the throttle to gain more height but that increase in power had a devastating effect. The engine burst into fiames which blew back over the cockpit.

He jettisoned the canopy, disconnected the oxygen mask and RT leads and gripped the cockpit above him to pull himself out and parachute to safety. He couldn't. The metal had been heated to such a degree by the burning engine that he was unable to hold on. And all the time with the engine cut the plane was in danger of stalling and plunging to the ground with him still inside the cockpit as it filled with acrid, choking smoke. But Jimmy did get out and survived being trapped inside his cockpit, a scenario faced and feared by so many fighter pilots throughout the war. Today he is an active 95-year-old. In the comfort of the home in Chesham in Bucks which he shares with his wife Betty, Jimmy is happy to talk of his wartime experiences as a pilot and a prisoner of war, told without heroics, bravado or a sense of bitterness but with a touch of humour. He tells it as it was in a very matter of fact way.


with a Mark 16 Spitfire

Let Jimmy take up the story." After completing pilot training in Zimbabwe, we had to travel through Africa by train and boat and plane and finished up at a holding camp in Cairo, in Egypt. We were there for about three weeks and one day, despite the weather I felt cold. I started to shiver violently, was examined and admitted to hospital. I was in for about three weeks and the reason? I had contracted malaria:' He remembers all too clearly one incident in particular while he was a patient. There was a wry smile on his face as he carried on with the story.

Jimmy was one of three sons and two daughters whose father was a miner, his mother a member of the local Mothers Union.When the war broke out Jimmy was too young to join up but finally when he reached the required age he enlisted and volunteered for the RAF and aircrew. He was finally accepted to train as a pilot, much of which was to take place in Africa. It was a long way to go but the airfields in this country were all operational and in danger of attack by enemy fighters and bombers and not the place for trainee pilots in light aircraft undergoing their initial training. Instead it was off to Africa for Jimmy and his intake trainees. Others went to the United States and Canada.


"One day the army nursing sister came to see me. She handed me some medicine - and some advice at the same time: 'Take the medicine in one swallow and then put a sweet in your mouth immediately'. I did as I was told. I swallowed the medicine and immediately realised the reason for the advice. The medicine was raw quinine and it tasted awful, hence the advice about the sweet:'

After being discharged from hospital Jimmy was transferred to an operational conversion unit at Abu Sueir outside Cairo. It was from here he took off on his first solo flight - and it was a flight which took him into the face of a sandstorm. He couldn't land back at his airfield so followed a canal down to El Firdan, phoned his base to explain what had happened and then headed back when the weather cleared. From Abu Sueir he went on a refresher course at a base in Perugia, Italy and it was after he had completed his training he joined the 450 Australian Squadron, as Jimmy put it, to make up the numbers. He was now operational, flying the sturdy, four ton Kittyhawk single seater fighter which was armed with six .50in (12.7mm) machine guns, three in each wing. The plane's 37 foot wing span was four feet greater than its length and it could also be armed with three 5001b bombs, one under each wing, the other under the plane.

Spitfires lined up in Japan


"I was f1ying at about 200 feet when I came under a lot of enemy fire and was clobbered. There was a whisper of smoke coming out of the engine. I knew I had to act quickly. I opened the throttle to gain some height and speed:' The action Jimmy took was, in theory correct, but it was to have catastrophic consequences. "As I opened the throttle the plane was suddenly engulfed in f1ames from the damaged engine. I nursed the plane up a bit higher but to make matters worse the cockpit was filling with acrid smoke. I knew I had to act quickly. Very quicklV:' He closed off the power and as the plane slowed it was in danger of stalling and smashing into the earth in a fireball. He didn't want to be in it, obviously. He put out over his radio what had happened and knew only too well that he had to get out of his doomed fighter. And quickly. There was no time to waste. "I undid the oxygen supply tube and the RT leads and jettisoned the cockpit canopy. With that out of the way I reached up to grip the top of the cockpit to pull myself up and out but it was impossible. The f1ames blowing back from the burning engine had heated the metal to such a degree that I just couldn't

get a grip and hold on. I tried a couple of times but it was impossible:' Under more 'favourable' conditions there was the option of f1ipping the plane over on to its back and falling out but the speed and altitude made that impossible. Jimmy went on. "With your position in the cockpit it is very difficult to get downward pressure from your legs to help you get up. You have to remember that in the enclosed space you are also wearing a parachute and have a dinghy folded up and attached beneath you as well. "I tried again to get out but it seemed impossible. I distinctly recall thinking at the time 'This is it. The end. Amen'. But then I had a feeling, it wasn't a voice, urging me to try again to get out. I prayed 'Please God get me out of this' and then felt this force, like a powerful hand, under the parachute. Suddenly I was out. I remember just missing hitting the tailplane and being in total silence. My parachute opened and my plane hit the ground. I landed in a lush green field. I was alive but there was a problem. I was on the wrong side of the line. In enemy territory.


"One pointed to my torn trousers as though to say 'I'll sew them up for you'. I took them off and he did bring them back to me sewed and repaired. That was a real Christian act when you consider that about 45 minutes beforehand I had been strafing them. Matthew 25 comes to mind. I just hope he survived the war." Matthew 25 reads: Jesus said: Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.

"I tried to hide my parachute but then heard a voice. 'Englander'. I saw there were two Germans, one with a rif1e and other with a revolver. There was nothing I could do. I was taken to a farmhouse where I realised I was in a bit of a mess. My trousers were torn but I wasn't burned although I was covered in molten metal from where the plane had melted:' occurred during his operational training while he was in Egypt. Jimmy recalled the incident. "I had landed and was walking in to the crew room when I heard my name being called out by a senior officer. It was a FI Lt Harvey. He said 'James, in here'. I thought ok, now what have I done 7 He said 'James, I see that you are f1ying in shorts and short sleeves. Do you realise that if you have a fire you would not have a lot of protection'. Wise words indeed and I added a quiet thank-you to him." In the farmhouse Jimmy was ref1ecting on the words of FI Lt Harvey when he noticed German soldiers curiously peering at him round the corner of the room he was in. The state he was in acted as a stark reminder of a situation which had


The devastating telegram telling his family Jimmy was missing, believed killed in action

That 'following' letter referred to was dated 14th September 1944. It said: Air Ministry, Casualty Branch, 73-77 Oxford Street, London W1. Sir, I am commanded by the Air Council to inform you that they have with deep regret to confirm the telegram in which you were notified that your son, Sgt Evan Walter James, Royal Air Force, is missing believed to have lost his life as a result of war operations on 4th September 1944. The telegraphic report from Air Force Headquarters, North Africa, states that during a fighter bomber attack on a bridge in the Rimini area, Italy, your son's Kittyhawk aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and was seen to dive into the ground. Before the crash occurred your son had reported by radio that his aircraft had been hit.

Jimmy may have been a bit worse for wear but he had survived the shooting down and capture. He knew he was OK but two days later back in Wales his family were to receive the telegram that every wife, mother, father, sister, brother etc prayed they would never receive or have to read. It was to his father Dan and read: Priority D James Esq, 11 Bridgend Road, Llangynwyd. From Air Ministry 73 Oxford Street W1. 6.9.44. Regret to inform you that your son 1653092 Sgt E W James is reported missing but believed to have lost his life as a result of Air Operations on 4th September Stop Any further information received will be �ommunicated to you immediately Stop Letter following shortly Stop


Back at the farmhouse Jimmy was told he was to be transported to Germany. The journey had its hardships but also its occasions where small acts of kindness

From Munich it was on to Frankfurt and an interrogation centre. Jimmy's stock answer to the questioning was to explain he was 'only a sergeant. I don't know what's going on'. It seemed to work. Then it was back to his cell where it was unbearably hot and then freezing cold. "I survived obviously but I was wearing tropical khaki. It was September/October time but then the Red Cross reclothed me and we were sent on to various this time bound for Stalag Luft 7 at Bankau in Poland where he was held until 19th January 1945. Yet despite the prospect of having to spend an indeterminate time in yet another PoW surprise. As he entered the camp he heard the totally unexpected greeting of 'Hello Jimmy. Welcome to Stalg Luft T He explained: "I was very surprised to hear my name and then very surprised to see who had said it. It was a pilot called camp his arrival did herald a pleasant Rhodesia. He told he how he happened to be a PoW. He had been flying Spitfires in Yugoslavia when he had lost his engine'.' camps." Jimmy found himself on another train Bill Cowan who I had trained with in


were to be etched on his memory.

Jimmy explained: 'The lorry we were in was going through the streets of Verona when it made a stop at a fruit stall in a piazza. One of the guards got out and bought some fruit- not only for himself but also for me. Another very kind act." And the story has a remarkable sequel. happened to be in Verona when I realised I was standing in the same piazza. And in front of me was- a fruit stall. I asked how long the fruit stall had been there and was told it had been in the same spot He explained: "Sixty years later I

'Forever'. Remarkable'.'

The next stage of his journey into captivity saw Jimmy on a train bound for Munich where prisoners faced a hostile reception. The city had been heavily bombed and the population was very


much anti-RAF. Jimmy remembered:

"They were very aggressive and one poor chap was nearly thrown under a train.

They called us terrorfliegers (terror



the Germans were wise to prisoners tunneling down and away under the hut floors and so the new huts were raised on concrete pillars. The guards used to get dressed in special gear to go to look under them for any signs of possible escape attempts. We called them ferrets."

In his crippled plane Bill had a choice. He was over a beach, one side held by the Germans, the other by the partisans. The problem was he didn't know which side was held by which side. He made his decision. It was the wrong one, hence his presence in Stalag Luft 7. And the mention of Rhodesia brought back another memory for Jimmy. While they were there they were going through their initial training at an airstrip at Shabani. "We were flying Tiger Moths and as we were heading back to the base we could look down and see lines of dust rising from the very dry ground. Driving the vehicles were some really nice local ladies who were on their way to give us afternoon tea:· It was on the way to Stalag Luft 7, at the initial holding camp of Dulag Luft, that the PoWs were asked by the guards to give their word that they wouldn't try to escape. Jimmy explained: "If you agreed you had to step forward but none of us did. For that we had to give up out belts, braces and shoe laces to make it more difficult for us to escape. Of course by this time



Another ritual at the camp was the prisoner count which was held every morning. A simple procedure - but not when the prisoners had their way. There were about 1,000 of them and every day they had to line up in columns. The Germans' job was to ensure there was the correct number at every roll call. The prisoners for their part tried to make it as difficult and frustrating as possible for them. They achieved their goal by calling on the services of one of the shorter of their number. Jimmy explained: "We tried to make it so the daily count was no easy ride for them. Our short chap would time it so that he could run between the lines of prisoners and be included in the count again or make it so that he could duck down and be missed. We tried to be as troublesome as possible:' Jimmy also remembered one incident which raised a huge laugh although the Germans didn't see the funny side of it. It came when the German in charge of the count marched up to give the figures to the commandant, came to attention before him and fell flat on his back.

"Naturally there was lots of laughter from us and as a result we were told to stay where we were. It was cold but it was worth it:' Life in the camp was very much what they made it and any entertainment they had to make up and work out for themselves. They could walk around and chat and for the more adventurous there was rugby- arranged in a triangular tournament between the Australians, the New Zealanders and the British. And what it lacked in basic equipment it certainly didn't lack in enthusiasm. In addition to the rugby they formed a Welsh male voice choir. "We had a piano and an accompanist who was from Yorkshire. If he didn't know the tunes we would hum them to him. We used to sing things like Men of Harlech. It wasn't perfect but quite successful:' They also had a conductor by the name of Noel Davies who conducted the Pontardulais Male Voice Choir. He also had the distinction of conducting 1,000 voices from 16 massed choirs at Truro Cathedral. Jimmy recalled: "It wasn't too good I must admit but we enjoyed it. The ball, for example, was a load of caps tied together:'



nothing to eat but sugar beet which we washed and peeled and chewed before spitting it out. It was indigestible. We also found pig swill which we washed and boiled and ate. It was basically something to put in your stomach to try to keep it quiet:' In the camp Jimmy found a space on the barrack block f1oor. "I was at my lowest. I tried to walk but was too weak:' The camp had a bakery and Jimmy persuaded one of the Frenchmen working in it to take his watch in exchange for five loaves. Jimmy's close friends throughout his ordeal were Dizzy Matthews, a navigator from Beverley in Yorkshire; Jock Nicol, an air gunner; Norman Caper, a Canadian from Winnipeg; Johnny Forward from near Pontypool in Wales and a chap called Brian whose surname Jimmy forgets. Norman was known as their bread cutter. "He had been in charge of our bread since we had been in Poland;' Jimmy explained. "He always made sure we had the same number of slices each from our ration which was always the same and as our numbers grew he still made sure we had the same number.

In January of 1945 as the Russians advanced from the east the prisoners were ordered out of camp and marched off to the west. With their belongings packed in cardboard boxes on their backs they were on their way to Stalag 3A at Luckenfalde. It was an army prison camp but they were squeezed in as well. Jimmy had managed to get some new boots but they were a size too small. As they started their march there was ice, snow and a temperature of minus 15 degrees. They spent the first night in a barn where they covered themselves in straw and managed to keep reasonably warm. But the morning brought a problem for Jimmy. "I had taken my boots off and when I woke up they were frozen solid. So not only had I a pair of boots that were a size too small - 7s instead of 8s - but now they were frozen. "The German guard came in and shouted rouse - (meaning get up, wake or move). I managed to get the boots on but from then on when I took them off I kept them under my clothing to keep them warm. Despite the small boots and the weather my feet held up - and we were on the go for a week before we were put on a train to about 17 miles south of Berlin. We had


And as the rations faded so the slices got thinner and thinner. They were almost see-through slices! It started with one loaf of black bread between four, then eight, then 12. It was now towards the end of the war and the Germans didn't have much either:' In the world outside the camp the Russians continued their advance and the Germans left the prisoners to their own devices. And then came another memorable moment.


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Jimmy's PoW papers he took after the Germans had left the camp


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Jimmy explained: "We were asleep one morning when we were woken by one of the prisoners who announced 'If anyone is interested the Russians have arrived'. We got up eagerly at the news and went to have a look. What we saw was one

us said 'We have no food for you. Get it

yourselves'. We went on the scrounge and found quite a lot of stuff which actually made quite a good meal."

Despite the hardships their spirits had

been given a big boost. "There was

Cossack sitting on a donkey! The main

force wasn't far behind:'

some good news and that was that the Americans knew about us and sent a convoy to take us out of the camp. We all piled into the transport but then the Russians told us to get out and go back into the camp. There were now five of us because Johnny Forward was in hospital:' had to stay in the camp - they were pawns in the Russian/American power struggle - acted as an incentive for the fearless five. They decided to take matters into their own hands and make a break for it. The disappointment of being told they

With the Germans gone Jimmy took the

opportunity to go into their offices to

retrieve his PoW papers which he still has to this day. His ID card with photographs shows he was 21 years old when he was shot down and captured. And the number on his papers is forever etched in his

memory. "It's 1653092;' he said.

Jimmy carried on with the story: 'The Russians had now arrived. I was weak and frail but the troops who had liberated


They found a hole in the camp fence and were only stopped when a sentry fired over their heads. Back in they went but

Unfortunately the same thing happened

and we were hauled before the same

commandant again. When he saw us he went red in the face and started banging the table. So, as we didn't fancy a Russian prison camp we made our way to a town called Zerbst where we saw some US soldiers. We chatted to them and discovered they were escorting General Simpson, the commander of the 9th Army.

only until the sentry had moved on.

They found another hole in the fence and made it into a wood about 50 yards away. They also found a road running to the west and started to walk when they came across a Russian truck. They flagged it down and were delighted to discover it was empty except for the driver. They climbed on board and were just a few miles from the river Elbe when they had to get off. Jimmy explained:" It was dusk and we were near these empty houses with bunks. They weren't too clean but we stayed there. The next day we were walking to the river and there were dead Germans lying around where the Russians had gone through. "We found a bridge and were about half way over when a Russian sentry shouted 'Niet'. Our hands went up and we were taken before the commandant. He said we had to go to an internment camp. In short we thought blow that and so off we went in search of another bridge.



"A major let us jump into his jeep and he took us over to a row of armoured cars.We got in and off we went over a pontoon bridge. It was as though we were being looked after by a guardian angel because five or ten minutes later and they would have been gone. Once over the river they off-loaded us. We were standing by the side of the road when General Simpson himself came along. We saluted and he gave us the thumbs up sign:' things they did after so long on the road, sleeping rough and under straw was to go to be deloused, have a shower and be kitted out with fresh clothes. But there were other memorable moments Jimmy remembers: like spotting a Fokker Wolf 190 German fighter. He couldn't resist going over and climbing into the cockpit. He had earlier been mesmerised when he saw a German fighter f1ying very, very low straight towards him. He remembers thinking "If that opens fire I am dead. It didn't but I plainly remember seeing the pilot. He was a big man and I am sure it was Herman Goering making his escape:' The Americans transported them to a nearby airfield and one of the first

The next part of the journey back to Blighty took them by train to Brussels where they got on a train to Lille.From there it was on to an airfield for the final part of their journey back across the Channel.Twenty four of them were put in a Lancaster bomber and f1own to the Hawker Siddeley airfield.They landed safely. They were home. In a hangar another unforgettable sight met them: rows and rows of tables packed with food. "That was bliss;' remembered Jimmy who during his time as a PoW had been promoted to Flight Sergeant. It was then on to the next leg of their homecoming which took them to RAF Cosford where they were rekitted, given some money and sent on leave. In Wales Jimmy's father received a telegram to say he was on his way home. His father's reaction was so different to the first telegram they had received about their son.


The telegram bearing the bad news had been delivered by the postman who knew the family and it was the same postman who later saw another notification that Jimmy was alive. It simply said Jimmy was a prisoner of war and uninjured. Jimmy explained; "When he came across the news that I was ok the postman ran the short distance to our house shouting 'He's alive':' "When I arrived at the station I can still see my father. He gave me a big hug and I think all I could say was 'Hello pops':' On the way from the railway station friends and neighbours came out to see him and welcome him home. And waiting for him at home was his mother. "I didn't think she would ever let me go;' smiled Jimmy.


From left Jimmy with son Steve in Germany; Jimmy, back left, keeping up with tradition, serving Christmas lunch to the ground crew; Officer cadets on outdoor exercises on the Isle of Man; a Kittyhawk painted with a shark's jaws.


From the time he was a young boy, Jimmy had been brought up in a loving family of regular chu1-chgoers. The outbreak of war with its attendant horrms and hea1·tb1·eak did nothing to diminish his faith. In fact, if anything, it would lead to a sti-engtheni1,g of it. The1·e is today a sense of thankfulness and wonder as he 1·emembers and talks about the miraculous nature of his wartime experiences. In lighter moments he often jokes that he asks the Almighty why he was 1·escued from his burning plane to hear the imagined reply "I have wo1·k for you to do -you are to fathe1· a vicar 1 " That. of course. also meant the joy of g1·andchildren and great grandchildren as well. His son, Steve, is a vicar in Mancheste1·. But in a more serious vein he is often conscious that not eve1·yone had such mi1·aculous escapes. and this is where his story comes home. The wa1· often found him in extreme situations and yet it was at times like these that he did not feel abandoned. be it in the flames in the cockpit or being lost in bad weather. As he reflects on what he went through and survived, what comes to his mind is the powerful opening of Psalm 46, so often used in military services, "God is ou1· strength and refuge. a very present help in trouble." In his 95th yea1· Jimmy had the privilege of speaking at the Buckinghamshi1e RAF Centenary Celebration Service at his home chu1-ch of St Mary's. Chesham. The packed cong1·egation included representatives of the county council. representatives of the RAF and the Ai1 T1·aining Corps. His own contribution didn't, however. go exactly as planned. In the prog1·amme was an edited video of his sto1·y and experiences but due to technical difficulties il was unable to be shown. Not wanting the congregation to miss his story the vicar invited him to the front of the packed church. Jimmy. who said late1· he didn't have time to be nervous. spoke and recounted the simple p1 ayer in the cockpit -Please God get me out of this - and his miraculous escape from death. Milita1·y men and women in particular knew all too well what he spoke of and sensed the hope that came from the words that clay.

.The precious gift of life was given to him so he could speak of "One. who is a very present help in trouble."

And that is his gift to the 1·eader today.

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