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'We copped a packet over Peenemunde: Part 4

edited July 2014 in Not Sports Related
It seems one or two (well, one anyway) Lifers have been waiting patiently for the final part of my neighbour Jim's story of his wartime experiences as a navigator/air gunner during WWII. Apologies for the delay GFH, I hope this is OK.

Following his capture and interrogation Jim was sent to a holding camp prior to being allocated to a permanent PoW camp. In fact he was in two or three Stalags before arriving in Stajag Luft III, the 'Great Escape' camp. There were now around 10,000 Allied officers in the camp and many had not kn0wn about the escape until the news of the 'murdered fifty' became known. There was little escape activity now as fresh news of the Allied advance came in regularly with new prisoners.

Jimmy became involved helping backstage in the camp theatre which put on 3 or 4 different productions a week thanks to the efforts of Peter Butterworth and others including the future writers of the 'Carry On' films and Dame Sybil Thorndike's son, John Casson. He played cricket and tennis and generally kept himself occupied. But in mid-December 1944 they heard the first sounds of Russian artillery to the East. They also noticed that the formal but humane Luftwaffe guards and officers were being replaced by SS personnel and rumour had it that Allied PoWs were to be shot. In January 1945 they were ordered from their huts and marched several miles in snow and ice to a much smaller camp which was already full of men. There was little food and no medicine for the sick and many suspected the worst was to follow. But after two days the Germans pulled out and the camp was without guards: The PoWs thought it could be a trap and they would be shot if they tried to leave so the SBO told everyone to sit tight and wait. The next day some soldiers arrived on horses and looked through the wire at them. Jim remembers they looked like bandits with sheepskin jackets and rifles slung on their backs and they just stared at those prisoners who tried speaking to them in Russian. They rode away without a word but the next day the Russians arrived in force and the PoWs cheered them into the camp. The Russians replied to this by banging all of them back into their huts and locking them in! After a day or two though they were allowed out in relays for exercise in the freezing snow. At one point a convoy of American lorries appeared to collect the US prisoners but the Russians shut the gates and pointed guns at them so they turned round and left but only to return two days later and this time leaving with their countrymen.

Jimmy's a little vague after this: it obviously became a bit of a blur but he and the hundreds of other PoWs were taken by various trains to Belgium and then flown home by the RAF. On landing he was given a medical, a chit for a new uniform and a two week pass. He was now 25 and still had several months to serve and his old squadron was being disbanded, he wondered if he'd ever fly again.

At the end of his leave Jim reported as ordered to an RAF station somewhere in Derbyshire which really didn't seem to know what to do with these chaps turning up from all over the place so the RAF came up with a brilliant wheeze: cheap labour for local farmers! So Jim and his chums found themselves being taken each day to local farms to dig up beet, just the sort of job a navigator/gunner was trained for! Life had been better in Stalag Luft III and Jim & co. soon found their way to the local pubs rather than get muddy and mucky. The RAF gave up on this idea and Jimmy was suddenly asked by his CO if he would be signing on for another stint in the service. He really hadn't thought about it, but somebody else ha! On one of his crew's forays into London to .beat up the town' he met a 'popsy' by the name of Marjorie. They met a few times and they corresponded
whilst Jim was a prisoner and met up again after his return to Blighty and they became engaged. Jim swears that she talked him into signing on for another two years because she wanted him to be in uniform for the big day. Another factor was of course that he'd never had a 'proper' job going straight from HOVE college into the RAF. But Jim did look the business on his wedding day in his best uniform and pencil moustache and they remained happily married for 52 years and he speaks of her lovingly.

Unfortunately his RAF career did not become as happy. In late 1945 Jim was posted to RAF Defford in Wiltshire with the title of Station Adjutant and he hated it. 'All bloody spit and polish, old boy'. He was used to the informality of bomber flying and found it difficult to adjust to a peace time service. It did not help that the CO, with whom he had to work closely, was a career officer who eventually became an Air Chief Marshall and insisted on everything being done by the book.
For instance:' if you didn't salute the flag on the CO's car as he drove to lunch in the Mess he'd take your name and have you up on a charge'. Defford wasn't an operational station but carried out the servicing and mothballing of aircraft and Jimmy saw many of the wartime favourites make their last flight there. He says, 'I could have bought a Halifax but Marjorie said we had nowhere to put it'. In fact Marjorie loved being the Adjutant's wife, what with coffee mornings and officer's wives lunches to arrange and attend, but she knew Jim wasn't happy.

Then, quite by chance, Jim got chatting to the Station's Education Officer (Defford was also a training establishment). After asking various questions the SEO said Jim could qualify for an educational grant because of his service in the RAF. What did he fancy studying? Jim replied 'I've always liked architecture' and that was it. At the end of his two years Jim left the RAF and began studying architecture for seven years, all paid for by the service.

So if you have ever attended the Odeon in Hemel Hempstead you have sat in the first building ever designed by Flight lieutenant J.E Pearson (Rtd.).

P.S And after all he saw and went through Jim's most cherished memory, other than Marjorie of course, is seeing Sir Donald Bradman playing for the Australian tourists against Sussex at Hove when 'The Don' scored a century in 100 mintes.

I'm sorry it's so long: I could have done it as a sort of 'shopping list' but felt Jimmy deserved better (and loads have been left out I'm afraid). Hope this is O.K.

PPS. Don't go looking for the Odeon, Hemel Hempstead, it's bee converted into a pub called 'The Full House'. Sacrilege!!


  • I managed to miss the first three parts of this and have just been catching up. A fascinating read; thank you for sharing.
  • Any chance of bumping the other three ?
  • edited July 2014
    Yes, they could be bumped I think but I'm not sure how popular they'd be second time around but I'll try to track down the dates.

  • O.K Mister President, the dates are as follows:

    Pt. 1 :December 2013
    Pt. 2 :Jan. 1st 2014
    Pt. 3 :Feb. 3rd 2014

    Hope this helps.
  • Great stuff March. Thanks for posting
  • Thanks Sixa, good to hear from you. It involved the sinking of quite a few 'snifters' but I hope it was worth it. I do enjoy chatting to him though. In fact on a Saturday, if I haven't turned up for a nip or two by 6.30 p.m he comes round to fetch me!
  • What an interesting story, should have been a black and white film and I do watch them quite often on TCM channel, might sound sad to some people but some contain reality such Jim's. My father in law was a commando labeled Churchill's gangsters during the war and has told me many stories. It shows how everybody had an important role to play in this period. Good post.

  • Wonderful, wonderful memories and you've certainly done them justice, young man. Many thanks as before for a terrific story excellently written.
  • Just read all 4 parts, it's so good to hear accounts of days gone past. The trials of war are quite frightful. It's so refreshing to here of the morals and strength of us Brits back in the day, today's society has lost it's way so much.
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  • edited October 2014
    My Mum was sorting through some stuff and found a copy of a diary that my great Uncle had given to me some years ago. He was a wireless operator in Wellingtons in WW2 and the diary was written by his pilot (strictly against regulations)

    It's an account of the 40 tours they did in 1944 and includes details of all the ops. I've added a few of the interesting parts below. For anyone who was at Hillview school, my uncle was Mr Williams the headmaster.

    No 2 Op 26th March.

    Got a new parachute harness, Mae West & helmet to replace mine burnt when Geoff inadvertently boiled 100 octane fuel in mistake for water.

    No 5 Op 3rd April

    S/L Beale and Chas Davie missing from this raid. Chas' navigator, was Harry Johnson, a very pleasant South African whose wife had their first baby only a month ago. Harry & I were discussing names only recently.

    No 9 Op 19th April

    Navigation a bit iffy on the way back on the needles in time to see dawn over the Adriatic. The trip a sad disappointment, especially as my 21st began on the climb fro Foggia. Didn't realise until long after we landed

    No 40 (last) Op 3rd August

    ...smooth landing and taxied back with mutual congratulations ringing over the intercom - a great occasion of which we have been tentatively dreamed for a long time - a happy moment when I cut the engines. Debriefed by our twit of a CO and the groupie and off to bed.

    Friday 4th August

    I feel bloody proud of that crew - had a cheery time chatting with them all and thanking the ground lads for their work - they were pleased to see us there . Went to Andy's tent for some eggs. I was only slightly cooted, Geoff was more so, and steered a very mean but happy course home at 11:30
  • Thanks March, been a fascinating series.

    Nice one DaveMehmet, stuff like that passed down the family is very special.

  • Heroes one and all !! Marvellous and precious memories ....
  • Thanks for posting the next bit of this March!
  • Thanks chaps, see the other thread if you'd like to wish Jin a happy birthday, (a celebration in the mess)
  • This is simply brilliant stuff, wonderful to read the human histories behind these major historical events.

    My biggest regret in life is that we never properly recorded my Grandfather's personal history, he was in the Polish army and was captured by the Germans and escaped twice from POW camps - but all his family (apart from two sisters who ended up in the US) died in the death camps.

    He made his way to northern France in 1945 as the war was being won and the British Army picked him and his best friend up and they ended up in a Re-settlement camp in Ayrshire - where he met my Scottish Grandmother.

    For many, many years he would not talk about the war or what he had gone through, although towards the end he did open up a little bit and some of the things he said were extraordinary.

    For instance, at one POW camp he was in he got called in to see the Camp Commander (who he had got to know quite well) and he was expecting something really bad, but instead the CC told him that before the war he had been a school headmaster and that he just wanted to get back to his school and his old life, so he actually said to my Grandfather that they could help each other, meaning that if my Grandfather helped stop any prisoners do anything stupid (like mass escapes) then he would, in turn, do his best to save them.

    Interestingly, he never hated the Germans after the war, he said that as he and his friend escaped across Germany that many Germans actually helped them out with food and shelter - and at great risk to themselves.
  • Ormy, my grandad was exactly the same. Wouldn't hear a bad word said against the Germans and would say what lovely people they were. Different era, different class.

  • I hope he will not mind me mentioning this, but newcomers should be aware that March51 is still fighting the consequences of a hefty stroke two years ago, and even with the help of his lady wife Pam keeping up with and recording Jim's exploits is a major exercise. Two real heroes for the price of one !!
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