Lieutenant Bertram 'Jimmy' James is one of my heroes. He was in the RAF during WWII, and was one of the fellows who took part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, a supposedly inescapable POW camp in Poland. The soldiers who were sent there were all dedicated escapers. I don't think they could help themselves, and they caused no end of bother to the Germans responsible for guarding them. I first made Jimmy James's acquaintance last year, when I was reading a book about the Great Escape, written by Tim Carroll. Jimmy James does not come into it a great deal, but when he did, he always made an impression. Take, for example, his account of the escape:
"When I got to the exit shaft, I climbed up the ladder and the first thing I saw were the stars. I thought of the RAF motto, 'per ardua ad astra' (through adversity to the stars.) It was hard to imagine a more appropriate context for the motto at that time. There had been much toil for all concerned, I thought, as I climbed the ladder to the stars."
I liked the imagery of a prisoner, climbing a ladder to the stars, and the understated poetry of that paragraph gave me a decided fondness for the man. Unfortunately, Jimmy James was not one of the three lucky men who made good the escape. He was re-captured, but instead of being shot, as the majority of the escapers were, or being sent back to a POW camp, he was shipped to Sachsenhausen, a notorious concentration camp, where, in his own words he "began to contemplate what might remain of my life, and what might lie in the life hereafter, with the sanguine hope that my latter period on earth might shorten my stay in Purgatory." He might have resigned himself to his fate, with laudable Catholic detachment, but he was still a dedicated escaper. He, and another remarkable man, Jack Churchill, (who will no doubt have a post of his own sometime) managed to tunnel out of Sachsenhausen, and remained at large for a couple weeks before being caught again. I am happy to say, however, that he survived the war, living to a ripe old age.
After I finished "The Great Escape", I wanted to find out more about Jimmy James, and was pleased to find out that he had written a book about his experiences. "Moonless Night" is a very good book, indeed, which I would recommend highly. It is well written, and, though the poor man went through some terrible experiences, he is very restrained about them, showing a truly remarkable lack of bitterness. There are bits of genuine humour in it, and Jimmy James's inherent decency shines through in every page. I came away from it feeling very encouraged, and determined to be a better person myself. The only complaint I have about it, is an odd one for a book that is primarily biographical: there is not enough Jimmy James in it! I suppose that is a testimony to his humility.