Saturday 26 September 2020
The 75th Anniversary of the Great Escape

The story of OKS Bertram Arthur 'Jimmy' James. 

The 24th March 2019 marks the 75th Anniversary of the Great Escape, which took place in 1944 at Stalag Luft III (a Luftwaffe-run POW camp), and was depicted in the 1963 film The Great Escape.  But why are exactly are we talking about this? Because there was an OKS who took part inthis infamous escape attempt - OKS Bertram Arthur ‘Jimmy’ James! James attended King’s from 1928-1932, and was an officer of the  Royal Air Force , & to commemorate this anniversary we wanted to share his story. 

On the night of 5 th June, 1940, Flight Lieutenant James was the 2 nd pilot of a Wellington bomber, on the way to a mission over Germany when he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire over the occupied Netherlands. He bailed out about 25 miles south of Rotterdam but was captured and taken to the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft I on the Baltic coast of Germany. In his time in this camp, Jimmy made at least 7 unsuccessful attempts to tunnel! 

He was then transferred to Stalag Luft III in late 1943. It was in January 1944 that Jimmy became involved with the Great Escape, and helped oversee the moving of the displaced soil which was hidden underneath seats in the camp’s theatre. The escape committee decided that 200 men would break out through the tunnel: 30 places were allocated to German speakers, next 70 were chosen because they had worked on the tunnel, and the remaining 100 was done on a lottery. James was given number 39, and was one of a sub-group of 12 who planned to pass as foreign labourers from a local timber mill on their way home to Czechoslovakia on leave. However, they were recaptured at a German railroad station, after the alarm was raised by guards. In total, only 76 prisoners had got out of the camp, and of that only 3 made it to freedom. 

Hitler ordered for all the captives to be shot, butHermann Göring, chief of the Luftwaffe, intervened & the number was reduced to 50, all of whom were executed by the Gestapo. James was one of the fortunate survivors. 15 were sent back to Stalag Luft III and eight, including James, to Sachsenhausen camp, where they were interrogated under torture. James made another daring escape here by tunnel, only to be recaptured 14 days later.

Jimmy was eventually liberated by American troops in Austria in May 1945, a few days before Germany surrendered. In total he tried to escape at least 11 times from POW & concentration camps, and had succeeded twice, only to be recaptured.  

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Jimmy began speaking about his wartime experiences. His remarkable memoir, ‘Moonless Night: One Man’s Struggle for Freedom 1940-1945’ was published by William Kimber in 1983 (a copy of which sits just outside Chums). In an extract from Jimmy’s book, he describes a time when he was put in solitary confinement after an escape attempt from Sachsenhausen, and his time at King’s came into his mind:  

‘Torture and death were all around; cries and screams rent the stillness of the night. I found refuge in a my periods of meditation. Free from all distractions I entered new realms of consciousness; poetry and events long forgotten cam e back to me with extraordinary clarity. I drifted back in time and saw panoramic visions of the past. … The scene would shift to England and my school days in Canterbury, and the vast and beautiful Cathedral which had dominated our lives when I was at the King’s School, but taken for granted by most of us boys. Now the great Cathedral rose up before me in all its mediaeval splendour, the lantern pinnacle Bell Harry Tower soaring above the majestic lines of Choir, Nave and Transept and the ruined Benedictine Priory. Built to the glory of God it now seemed to come back out of the past to case a protective shroud over me in this satanic place. I felt that God was near and for the first time for many years I prayed.’

After the war, James was awarded the MC and took a regular commission in the RAF. Post this, he was appointed general secretary of the GB-USSR Association until he joined the diplomatic service in 1964. He passed away in 2008. 

The story of OKS Bertram Arthur 'Jimmy' James. 

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