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OBITUARIES : Bertram 'Jimmy' James, 1915 - 2008

British pilot took part in 'great escape'

February 01, 2008|From the Associated Press

Bertram "Jimmy" James, one of the few British prisoners to avoid being executed for joining in the "great escape" from a German prison during World War II, has died. He was 92.

James died Jan. 18 at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in Shrewsbury, England, following a brief illness. He was buried Thursday.

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, James spent five years as a prisoner of war.

Trying to escape, he once remarked, "was our contribution to the war effort." James 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 tons 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 it 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 said. "That wasn't quite the case."

Only three of the 76 escapees made it to freedom. The rest 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 "The Great Escape," starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.

"A lot was Hollywood fantasy," James said. "There were no Americans in the escape."

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.

The son of a tea merchant, James was born in India on April 17, 1915. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1939. He learned Russian during his imprisonment and served in the diplomatic service from 1964 to 1975.

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James is survived by his wife, Madge.

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