Squadron Leader Jimmy James AFC* DFM

Squadron Leader Jimmy James AFC* DFM joined No 46 Squadron in late 1956 as a senior flight commander and was deputy to OC 46 Sqn ( Freddie Sowery) the multi-squadron Javelin formation flypast at the Farnbrough Airshow in 1958, The highlight of Jimmy’s career happened very early; as a 19 year old captain flying a Bombay transport aircraft (even then thought obsolete) he was shot down over the the desert in North Africa. His VIP passenger Lieutenant General William Gott was on his his way to takeover as commander of the Eighth Army in North Africa but was killed in the crash. General Goff was the highest ranking officer killed in the Second World War.

Jimmy died on the 7th of January 2015; click to read his obituary in the Daily Telegraph.

Below are extracts from a DVD made by the Woking and District Aircrew Association about Jimmy’s flying career which covers his wartime service, his VIP flying and his time as a nightfighter pilot. Also included is the text of a presentation Jimmy gave about the General Goff incident.

Part 1 . Training

Part 2. The General Gott Crash

Part 3. General Goff Post-script.

Part 4. VIP Flying.

Part 5. Nightfighters

THE WESTERN DESERT.

A DAY THAT CHANGED THE WAR

Squadron Leader ‘JIMMY’ JAMES, AFC and Bar, DFM

It was late March 1942 when I joined 216 Squadron as a raw young sergeant pilot at a desert airfield near the Nile Delta, and 1 had every reason for feeling utterly disillusioned and confused. In the 4 months since being awarded my Wings it had been one disappointment after another. A posting to light bombers had been cancelled: a hair raising troopship convoy to the Middle East with 1000 other aircrew, a disaster. The latter was caused by a telex error which requested ‘aircrews’ and not the needed ‘airscrews’! We were unwanted and unexpected surplus aircrew, and had to be accommodated in an awful unprepared transit camp for several depressing weeks out in the desert. Though I had set my heart on flying fighters or bombers, I volunteered to join 216 (a transport squadron), and soon came to realise that I had made one of the best decisions of my young life. 216 was a famous and highly professional ‘maid of all work’ squadron manned by vastly experienced and desert-wise ground and aircrew, many being pre-war regulars.

It was an extraordinary experience flying urgent supplies to the Eighth Army and Desert Air Force advance bases, not only very exciting but frequently dangerous, as we had to use forward landing grounds and hastily prepared airstrips close to the battle line. In the vast wastes of undulating rock, sand and light scrub, there were few landmarks; this made navigation very difficult when flying at the maximum permitted height of 50 feet – (to avoid enemy fighters). Our navigators- sorry, observers, rarely, if ever, got lost even in sandstorms or in the sand haze of an active battlefield, seemingly navigating by braille and the colour of the sand. Finding isolated strips and distant oases, including those behind enemy lines when supplying the LRDG/SAS, presented them with no problems! Water was severely rationed even in the violent heat of summer months and our diet was rarely other than bully beef and hard biscuits. Everyone shared that fare, and apart from being terrified on occasion, this rough and ready basic gypsy life was a happy experience.

After the retreat to Alamein our detachment returned to the main base, where in spite of having flown only 320 hours, and following some intense training on the Bristol Bombay, I was promoted to 1st Pilot and then sent on a few pleasant routine flights around the Middle East to gain some captaincy experience. In mid-July we started to operate directly into a landing ground just behind the Alamein area (Burg el Arab) as the first of the big battles took place and, while the operations from home base were easier, they were much more risky.

Those who have flown in Egypt in the months of July and August will be well aware of the intense heat and very high humidity which makes any activity extremely uncomfortable by mid morning. In those conditions, the Bombay with its big, high wing could prove to be quite a handful, particularly at circuit height or below, when vicious thermals made accurate flying a real challenge for every captain.

August 7th started as one of those days, but I was not too happy when I was ordered to take another front line run to Alamein in the early afternoon. The heat was at its worst; I had already flown three such trips in the past few days and they were becoming ‘hairy’ experiences even for the hardened and more experienced crews. The Luftwaffe was much more active with sneak strafing and dive bombing attacks on the forward landing grounds. Several Bombays had had near misses in the circuit and one had been badly damaged on the ground: the fact that I had missed such incidents so far did not decrease my apprehension about flying into this increasingly vulnerable and hostile situation.

We took off about 1400 hours with a heavy load of freight, which included, typically, a load of urgently needed minefield tape. As expected the Bombay, hardy, unsophisticated but reliable, wallowed and staggered across the Delta in the discomfiting unstable air conditions. Once over the desert and into the battle zone, we descended to the mandatory 50 feet to begin a roller coaster ride over the dunes and rocky outcrops. At this height it was impossible to see very far ahead and in hazy conditions there was always a risk of getting too close to the enemy. There was, therefore, scant warning of the landing ground other than the sudden sight of military vehicles, thus demanding a fearfully tight circuit with the wing tip skimming the ground and the balloon tyres just clearing the vehicles. (I was always amazed not to be fired upon by our troops on these sudden appearances above them; equally amazing was the fighter-like agility of the Bombay in these conditions, whereas back at base it was like driving a steamroller with incurable kangaroo landing habits). After landing and taxying rapidly to the liaison tent, the Bombay was quickly unloaded, with the engines still running, and then reloaded with 14 severely wounded, two important passengers, and bags of mail.

While I was hastily checking in with the operations officer, the field telephone rang with an order for me to delay take off, and to wait for the imminent arrival of a very important officer. I was forced to break all the rules by switching off the badly overheating engines, and insisted that the wounded were evacuated from the fuselage, now like an oven, into the cooler ambulances.

I was then told that the exceptional delay was due to the urgent recall of General Gott to meet Mr Winston Churchill, who was holding emergency meetings of the war cabinet in Cairo, and to be appointed the new commander of the 8th Army. The General arrived in a flurry of activity and I ordered the rapid reloading of the wounded and the restarting of the engines. I had to place the General in a limited space near to the main door, but he accepted this happily; he looked reasonably smart for the Western desert, and was very alert, pleasantly considerate and every bit a General, even with minimal insignia.

We took off about 1600 hours, turning to the south east to avoid getting too near the German lines, and set off on the bumpy flight at 50 feet to the safety area. There was little time to think about the awful discomfort of the wounded and the General; at that height I had enough to do just manhandling the Bombay over the uneven terrain and worrying about the overheating engines. About 15 minutes after take-off, I heard unusual clattering noises and loud bangs which I assumed to be an engine failure, and it was then that I saw streams of tracer shells spraying ahead. All hell broke loose as machine gun fire hit the fuselage, filling the cockpit with smoke. I glimpsed an Me 109 slightly to the right as it pulled up in front of me, and at the same time I sensed, rather than saw, another 109 which shot past me on the left. This was followed by another double attack which holed the wing tanks and caused small fires in the cockpit. A third pair of fighters came in to spread the mayhem of smoke and fire yet more extensively.

In this confusion, I pulled the stick back instinctively to gain some height, hoping to spot a landing area, but then saw that both engines had been seized up by gunfire! I had swiftly overcome my initial sense of panic and fear and ordered the 2nd pilot to get everyone down on the floor, and to prepare for an emergency landing – if I could pull it off – and evacuation. After managing the difficulties of passing through the fires and then returning, the second pilot and medical orderly assured me that all the passengers were alive and that all the emergency procedures, including the removal of the main door from its hinges, had been carried out. From a height of 150 feet, I was now gliding down slowly, trying to pick out through the smoke in the cockpit a suitable clear landing run, but as the ailerons were partly jammed I had little option but to land more or less straight ahead.

Amazingly, the Bombay made a smooth landing on the rough desert surface, but with a cross wind I could not get the tail down on the gentle downward slope, and vicious manhandling was called for as I struggled to stop the aircraft ground looping or overturning in the soft sand patches. We ran on for miles and eventually, when the tail did come down, I found that the brakes had been shot away and I still couldn’t slow down let alone stop. Glancing back, I saw that my W/op had been badly injured and that the fires were now taking hold. I ordered the cockpit floor hatch to be opened; I noticed briefly that matters in the passenger section appeared to be tolerably under control and that both the General and the passengers were still alive.

Looking forward again, I was horrified to see in the distance several fighters, which I feared were the Mel 09s returning for another attack. I shouted to warn the crew and told them that as soon as we had slowed to about 20 mph I would signal for everyone to be pushed out – including the wounded. Immediately after, we ran into soft sand that slowed us down, and I gave the signal for the rapid evacuation of everyone as I struggled to keep the Bombay on an even keel.

Within a few minutes, I realised there was nothing more I could do now and I decided that I must leave the cockpit to help out in the back if anyone were still left aboard. The attacks by three pairs of fighters then began. A split second after I had slid across my seat to lower myself to the cockpit floor, the first burst came right through the cockpit roof and blew my instrument panel to pieces in front of me. Absolute chaos ensued as the remaining attacks seemed to tear the aircraft to pieces. With fire and thick fumes everywhere, my several attempts to get to the back through a wall of flames were frustrated and, dazed and badly burnt, with my clothes on fire, I then left through the floor hatch. Only then did I discover that the Bombay had sunk almost onto its belly and it was only with the greatest difficulty that I was able to crawl through the dense black smoke and wreckage, to emerge disorientated into the blinding light of the desert sun as the aircraft collapsed entirely behind me.

I staggered around the blazing aircraft expecting to find twenty one survivors. It was the most profound shock to find just four people, mostly badly wounded, lying on the sand. To my utter dismay, I discovered that the two experienced ground crew that we always carried had not removed the main door from its hinges in accordance with emergency procedures, and it seemed that, as we hit the final soft sand patch, the open door had broken its latch and jammed shut. Despite my many attempts to get to that door the blazing heat of the inferno drove me back time and again, as the Bombay turned into a red and white mass of liquefying metal. I have never quite got over that horrifying and frustrating disaster, following what had first seemed to have been an amazing escape from an impossible situation. The only consolation that I got was that someone told me later that all the passengers had been killed by gunfire before the fire had taken hold.

After briefing the medical orderly, I decided to set off for help, convinced that we would not be missed – and therefore not discovered before dark, by which time it would have been too late for the other survivors. It was an incredible journey involving a jogging walk of many miles in the desert heat (only later did I find that I myself had sustained bullet wounds); a chance rescue by a lone Bedouin for a wild ride on one of his camels; finally attracting the attention of a distant Army lorry which had delivered a semiconscious and badly burnt pilot to the nearest Army camp, when the alarm was at last raised. What it was that guided me, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, to navigate accurately the rescue convoy back to the crash site, I shall never be able clearly to define. The death of General Gott was a tragedy. It is still the subject of much argument, intrigue and controversy. To set 6 MelO9Fs on this totally stricken and burning aircraft and to follow up with a further wave of attacks on the ground was clearly no accident as the military information at the time was suggesting.

Time continues to show that this ungallant and exceptional attack was a planned operation to kill General Gott and to remove any witnesses. There was a serious lapse of security in battlefield communications and at a higher level and these facts were concealed at the time. Mr Churchill recognised the outstanding leadership qualities and great desert experience of this popular and very able General, and he was much saddened on hearing of his demise, whilst awaiting his arrival in Cairo to appoint him as Commander of the 8th Army. His place was taken by the little known General Montgomery. . . .and the rest is history. It was, indeed, a day that changed the War.

Jimmy James was a very active on the Committee of the Woking Branch of the ACA including a very successful term as Chairman. Jimmy died on 7 January 2015 aged 92. He attended his last No 46 Squadron Reunion just 2 years earlier.

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