A funeral service was held in London for Bertram ”Jimmy” James, one of the few British prisoners to avoid being executed for joining in the ”great escape” from a German prison in World War II. James, who was 92, died on January 18 in Ludlow in northern England.
He was a pilot on a Wellington bomber that was shot down near Rotterdam in The Netherlands on June 5 1940, and was captured the next day. Despite numerous attempts to escape, he spent five years as a prisoner-of-war.
Attempting to escape, he once remarked, ”was our contribution to the war effort”. He made 13 attempts from various prisons, according to military historian Howard Tuck.
James was sent to Stalag Luft III, near Zagan in Poland, in 1943.
Joining in plans for a mass escape, he was put in charge of dispersing about 40 tonnes of sand taken from one tunnel.
On the night of March 24 1944, James was the 39th man to escape. He and a Greek companion made their way to a railway station and caught a train headed toward the Czech border, but were recaptured two days later.
”When you emerge into the snow and you’re running away from the camp, there’s a sense of exhilaration,” James told The Associated Press in 2004 during celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the escape. ”We were on our way, we hoped, to freedom,” he added. ”That wasn’t quite the case.”
All but three of the 76 escapers were recaptured, and 50 were shot.
The escape attempt from Stalag Luft III was one of the most celebrated incidents of the war, recounted in the film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.
”A lot was Hollywood fantasy. There were no Americans in the escape,” James said of the film.
After being caught, James was one of eight men sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside Berlin. He escaped from that prison in 1944, but was recaptured two weeks later.
He learned Russian during his imprisonment, and served in the diplomatic service from 1964 to 1975.
James is survived by his wife, Madge. — Sapa-AP