I’m sure most of the Western population have seen the American epic film The Great Escape featuring many big names - Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, James, Garner, Richard Attenborough, etc. It was based on the true story of the attempted mass escape of 200+ British Commonwealth prisoners held in German Prisoner Of War camp Stalag Luft III in Poland. Here I am in a quiet graveyard in Shrewsbury where above the bones of Bertram James who was one of the men who escaped (he liked to be called Jimmy.) If you've watched the film Steve McQueen played Virgil Hilts who repeatedly tried to escape. He was thrown into solitary confinement and became the "Cooler King". Jimmy who is six feet under this soil was the Cooler King.
Though he lies in Shropshire soil he was born 4700 miles away in India to a dad who was a tea-planter. After his mum died they returned to England and Jimmy worked with his dad running a business importing tea. The economic collapse in the 1930s killed the business and Jimmy’s dad, too. Desperately lonely he worked on a coal ship to reach America where he had relatives. The economic crisis had hit America too so wearing just the clothes he wore the poor lad went north, riding cattle cars across vast mid-America. Living like a tramp he eventually made it to Canada and worked as a security guard for a local bank. It was all to no avail though and he returned to England.
He joined the Air Force and by age 24 had been promoted to pilot officer. It was 1939 and the Second World War had started. By 25 he was sent to RAF Honington but his aviation skills were a complete waste of time. He was second pilot of a Wellington bomber that was shot down over the Netherlands on 5th June 1940. He jumped out with his parachute, landed and buried his equipment. Sadly he was caught, taken prisoner, interrogated and paraded through central Berlin with other prisoners. He was taken to the famously bleak Stalag Luft I in on Germany’s northern coast. Within days he and Wing Commander John Shore were digging an escape tunnel through the camp incinerator. John Shore actually escaped but Jimmy was caught in sent to the cooler (solitary confinement.)
Over five years he made thirteen efforts to escape from various prisons and camps. He was in Stalag Luft III in 1944 when the so-called Great Escape occurred. The plan was for over 200 men to escape but that was only half of it. Capture and death was likely so credible disguises and identities had to be manufactured. On the night of the escape Friday 24th March 1944 Jimmy - now 28 years old - was partnered with a pilot officer called Sotirios. They were ready, dressed as Yugoslav workers and with the paperwork that would show officials they were trying to get home. It worked - they escaped - and walked for fives mile to a rail stop. From here they walked at night through deep snow to reach Hirschberg to board a train. All efforts were wasted though as they were caught by the police trying to buy tickets and taken to the Gestapo HQ in the town.
In The Great Escape film trucks of escapees were taken to a rural location, unloaded and executed. This happened: in total 73 escapees had been captured and the Chief of the Gestapo had instructed his men to kill fifty of the prisoners. Sotirious who Jimmy had escaped with was shot. Jimmy wasn’t and was lucky enough to be sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. James (now 29) and four other prisoners used cutlery knives to dig an escape tunnel over 110 metres long and on Saturday 23rd September 1944 they escaped - but only for a few weeks. Jimmy was arrested, returned to the camp and thrown into the cooler. It was tough - for four months he was almost starved to death and mocked by the guards who pretended they were about to execute him. The Germans were losing the war and the prisoners were moved south to another prison. After a torturous journey via Dachau and Flossenburg concentration camps Jimmy was eventually liberated by American army troops in May 1945. He'd just turned 30 years old.
He was awarded the Military Cross for his repeated escape attempts. After the war the Squadron Leader married a nurse called Madge who he’d me in an Officer's Club in Germany (for their honeymoon they drove to Norway in a former German Army VW Beetle.) He joined the Diplomatic Service and held offices in Africa, Europe and London. He retired aged 60 but was a well-known public speaker, touring the world to tell of his wartime experiences. He died aged 92 at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital.
Here I am at his grave and he was carried here by a party of gunners from RAF Honington. Hundreds of local people from Ludlow lined the procession route to pay their respects. Four Tornado GR4s performed a flypast in the missing man formation. Jimmy wrote a brill book called Moonless Night about his escapades. There was a multi-coloured deck of flowers over the grave. Who had put them there? I did a hearty salute and left.
A Wellington bomber which Jimmy was in. It was hit over the Netherlands and he parachuted out but was caught and taken prisoner...
He's buried with his wife...
Jimmy was - like Hilts - the original Cooler King...