August 7, 1942, around a quarter to three in the afternoon. Sergeant Pilot Jimmy James was pacing up and down anxiously on the rough landing strip at Burg el Arab, some thirty-five miles west of Alexandria. The tented headquarters of the British Eighth Army and the RAF’s Desert Air Force, Burg el Arab was well within range of marauding enemy aircraft, and so normally whenever Jimmy landed his lumbering Bristol Bombay transport plane, he kept the engines running and flew off again as quickly as possible. Five minutes was all it usually took to unload the mail bags and supplies and load up any return post and wounded troops. Straight in and straight out again – that was the safest way.
But nothing about the day was proving normal. Missions were usually flown early in the morning, before the heat of the day played havoc with the turbulence, but Jimmy had not been allowed to leave until two in the afternoon, and inevitably, the Bombay had lurched all over the place. And now he had been given direct orders to switch off the engines and wait for an â€˜important’ passenger.
Jimmy strode back to the Ops Tent, and had just learned that his passenger was to be none other than General â€˜Strafer’ Gott, when at last, two staff cars drew up. Jimmy immediately spotted the General – he was tall, smart and very alert and had remarkable presence. As he strode over, Jimmy suddenly felt conspicuously scruffy.
â€œAre you the captain? the General asked.
â€œYes sir, Jimmy replied. â€œI’m terribly sorry, sir, I don’t have a hat. I can’t salute you.
â€œMy boy, don’t worry about that, Gott smiled. â€œAre you ready to go?
â€œYes, sir, we’re starting the engines up now. And just as he said that, Jimmy heard the engines catch and whirr into life.
With relief surging over him, he showed the General to his seat, apologising for the squash and lack of comfort. Again, Gott reassured him. â€œDon’t worry about me, I’ll sit anywhere, he said. Jimmy was greatly impressed.
â€˜Strafer’ Gott, as he was known, was one of the most popular British generals of the North African campaign, and one of the few commanders whose reputation remained intact during the defeat and retreat of May and June 1942. After the sacking of General Auchinleck, Gott had just been appointed the new commander of Eighth Army. It was to be his job to defeat Rommel when battle was inevitably rejoined at El Alamein.
Jimmy had never flown such an important person before, and by now extremely anxious about the time they’d spent on the ground, and the even greater responsibility now resting on his young shoulders, he hastily opened up the throttles and took off as quickly as he could, warning his Canadian Second Pilot to keep a sharp watch on the engines. â€˜The engines were so hot they were in the danger zone,’ Jimmy explains. â€˜I was desperately hoping to get out of the battle zone where it would be safe to climb and find some cooler air.’
Jimmy was still only nineteen. From a coal-mining village in South Wales, he had joined the RAF aged seventeen in 1940 after lying about his age. â€˜I was so naÃ¯ve,’ he admits. â€˜The world’s most naÃ¯ve little boy.’ Nonetheless, he passed his wings with an â€˜above average’ score, and was almost immediately posted to the Middle East, where, in February 1942, he joined 216 Squadron. Although a transport squadron, the flying was challenging, and often both dangerous and exciting. The Bombay was â€˜the mother duck of the Middle East’ but appreciated by the troops, because they ferried to the front any number of much-needed supplies, such as fuel and ammunition, and, most important of all, the mail bags. Moreover, by June 1942, when he became captain of his own aircraft, Eighth Army was in retreat, and 216 Squadron could not have been busier.
Despite the danger, Jimmy was enjoying himself. He relished the gypsy life, constantly on the move and feeling like a buccaneer of old, and valued the intense camaraderie and fellowship within the squadron. It was, he says, â€˜the most wonderful schoolboy dream come true.’
But on that baking hot afternoon in early August 1942, events were soon about to take a catastrophic turn. Jimmy was still flying at just fifty feet off the ground when suddenly there was a loud bang and a whip-lashing noise, and the starboard engine stopped dead.
â€œYou fool! Jimmy shouted at his Number Two.
â€œBut look! the second pilot shouted back.
Jimmy did so and to his horror saw cannon and machinegun tracers whooshing past him and into and all over the plane. The starboard engine was now on fire, smoke billowing from it as it came to a dead stop. Jimmy felt utterly cornered. â€˜I’ve never felt tension like it,’ he says. â€˜I thought, what are you doing? You’re in charge!’ He then experienced a very strange sensation. He felt a yellow streak go from the back of his head, and run all the way down his body. â€˜It was a greenish-yellow. The most peculiar feeling. That is the best way I can describe it.’ Frantically searching for somewhere to land, and praying to God, he felt momentarily paralysed. All sound had gone. â€˜At that moment,’ says Jimmy, â€˜I changed from being a small, naÃ¯ve, little schoolboy on his adventures, into an aggressive man.’
A sense of resolve suddenly gripped him. Shouting at the Second Pilot to duck down and get the Medical Orderly from the back, he then saw the other engine stop dead. Although the cockpit was now rapidly filling with smoke, Jimmy used what remaining speed there was to climb to about a 120 feet. Two Messerschmitt 109s hurtled past his wing, then another roared through the smoke, and two more opened fire. On this second pass, the enemy punctured his main fuel tanks in the high wing. Fuel began pouring into the stricken aircraft between the cockpit and the passenger area. As he looked back momentarily he could see that his Wireless Operator had had his arm badly shot up. His Second Pilot had also been wounded but managed to bring back the Medical Orderly, jumping through the flames that were burning between the cockpit and the main body of the plane.
â€œGet all the wounded off the stretcher hooks and lie them on the floor, Jimmy ordered. At this time no-one in the back was injured.
By now, Jimmy was merely gliding the plane. Ahead the desert sloped slightly downwards in a long and very gradual descent, and by a fine piece of flying, he managed to glide the heavy old Bombay down gradually so that they touched down quite gently. But although the front two wheels were now on the ground, he couldn’t get the tail to lower as he was landing in a crosswind. â€˜It just wouldn’t drop and so I dared not use my brakes without risking a turnover.’ There were other problems: the desert was strewn with rocks, which he tried to swerve around by kicking his rudders one way and then the other; and in between the sand was very soft. If the wheels had dug themselves in at any point, the Bombay would have been beyond control and crashed. Concentrating as hard as he possibly could, he had to manhandle the control column and rudders as the Bombay continued to rumble forwards. â€˜It was like driving a ten-ton truck over sand,’ says Jimmy.
Eventually, however, the tail came down, but when Jimmy then finally applied the brakes he discovered they no longer worked, so still the Bombay sped forwards down the long desert incline. Only when they had slowed to about forty miles per hour did he tell his Second Pilot to warn the passengers to stand by to evacuate. â€˜Get the door off and make sure it’s right off its hinge,’ he told him, â€˜and then when I give the word, drop them out onto the sand.’
By now, the flames had spread into the cockpit. Jimmy was in a bad way: his face, but particularly his hands, were badly burned. Smoke choked his lungs. And at that moment, he saw through the windscreen his attackers circling low down in the distance. â€˜The bastards,’ he thought with horror, â€˜they’re going to come back!’ This was unusual. The Bombay was clearly never going to fly again and normally the 109s would have disappeared as quickly as possible in case there were any British fighters about. â€œStand by! he yelled at his Second Pilot and Medical Orderly, who had come back through the flames and smoke for more instructions. â€œOpen the hatch on the cockpit floor, Jimmy told him, conscious that his Wireless Operator would not be able to get to the back of the plane with only one arm. The Medical Orderly did so, then the Second Pilot confirmed that everyone in the back was ready.
â€˜And I looked back,’ says Jimmy, â€˜and through the smoke I could see some of them and they were giving me a thumbs-up.’ Hitting some softer sand, the Bombay slowed down to about 20mph. â€œNow! shouted Jimmy, and suddenly he was alone in the cockpit.
Desperately hoping he’d done everything he could, he slid sideways off his seat to go back and help the evacuation, and as he did so, the 109s unleashed their second attack. Bullets and cannon shells tore through the cockpit and blew up the instrumental panel; had they come just a second earlier, Jimmy would have been torn to shreds. â€˜There were bits of shrapnel whistling and crashing all over the place,’ says Jimmy, â€˜the smoke and noise was dreadful.’ Glancing at his feet, he noticed the heels of his desert boots were on fire. In front of him, the Perspex of the canopy was melting. Somehow, however, he pulled himself together and tried to get to the back to check that everyone was safely off the aircraft before finally making his own leap for his life. As the 109s made another pass, their guns broke up the Bombay’s fuel tanks completely. A surge of flame blew Jimmy back into the cockpit and although he tried twice more to get through, the flames were now too thick.
The plane had finally come to a halt, so Jimmy lowered himself through the cockpit hatch. Instead of falling six feet, however, the drop was little more than a foot – on the last pass, the Bombay’s landing gear had finally buckled. Crawling blindly underneath the aircraft amidst the thick smoke, Jimmy passed one of the blazing main tires and realised that the moment it burst he would be crushed to death. Scrambling out, he emerged through the smoke into brilliant, blinding sunshine. As he stumbled clear, there was a loud bang and a grinding crash as the Bombay collapsed completely.
Staggering around the wing to the rear of the plane, he expected to see twenty-one people waiting there. Instead there were just four. Utterly stunned, he could scarcely believe it. â€œWhat the hell have you done with all the passengers? Where are they? Where are they? he asked incredulously.
â€œIn there, they told him, pointing to the plane. Jimmy looked. The entire aircraft was now a ball of fire, and changing shape with the heat; melting before his eyes. It had been the job of the two ground crew, who always came on every desert flight, to take the door off its hinges. Unknown to Jimmy, one of these experienced men had been taken off at the last minute and replaced at base just before take off by a new boy. â€˜Had we gone at 11am, as we were supposed to,’ says Jimmy, â€˜we would have had two very experienced ground crew on that flight.’ But it was not to be. Instead of taking the door off as Jimmy had ordered, it had merely been latched backwards and during the long, wild, landing run, the latch had broken and the door jammed shut. It was only a matter of a few minutes before the second attack started, and the passengers at the back, with General Gott nearest the door, were trapped and unable to get out. The only survivors had been those who had escaped out of the front floor hatch: the badly wounded Wireless Operator, the Second Pilot, a very sick and disorientated soldier, and the Medical Orderly.
Jimmy tried to approach the jammed doors of the burning aircraft several times but on each attempt was blown back by the billowing flames and heat. Eventually, the Medical Orderly grabbed him and held him back. Aghast, Jimmy looked at the survivors. â€˜Most were in a state near to death,’ he says, and although there was nothing but open desert in all directions, he instinctively decided to go for help. He told the Medical Orderly to do his best for the others, and placed him in charge with orders not to move under any circumstances. Then having taken some swigs of water, he left the rest of water bottles behind for the others, and set off to the north-west in an effort to try and get help.
In a numbed state of shock, Jimmy had not really considered how badly wounded he was. His shoes and socks were burned, his shorts frayed and his shirt in shreds. And although he had not realised at the time, he had also been shot in the back. Alternating between walking and jogging, he covered at least three miles until he looked down and saw that one of his boots was full of blood. Although he felt no pain, he stumbled as he clambered over a sandhill and fainted.
Help was at hand, however. A nearby Bedouin strapped him to a camel and eventually they ran into an army truck that was being tested by the Royal Army Service Corps. The RASC men took Jimmy to their camp but having told them that Gott had been killed, he insisted on leading them back to the burning plane before being taken to hospital. â€œI promised my crew I’d be back, he told the major in charge, â€œand only I know the way.
â€œDon’t be a damn fool, said the major, but Jimmy was adamant. â€˜I had a sense of duty to the others that was entirely instinctive,’ he explains. â€˜I don’t know where it came from, but I did feel it – very strongly.’ Not until they spotted the column of smoke rising into the sky dead ahead did Jimmy finally pass out.
He was in hospital for four long months, and for a time was close to death. But he was young and strong and made it through the ordeal. During this time, he was told he’d been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, the second highest award in the RAF to be given for valour – after the Victoria Cross. He then returned to the squadron, taking part in a number of campaigns throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, eventually receiving a commission and staying with them until the very end of the war. In fact, Jimmy was one of the few pilots chosen for a permanent commission after the war, and went on to command his own jet squadron.
He’s had a full and varied life, yet has always been dogged by the events of that August day in 1942. Gott’s replacement was none other than General Montgomery – and as it happened, working alongside General Alexander, Monty did achieve the emphatic battlefield victory Britain so craved.
Yet in the aftermath of Gott’s death, an immediate news clampdown was put in place, and in doing so, the facts were never widely revealed. â€˜I kept getting fed up hearing I was dead from various people,’ says Jimmy. Historians would make the same mistake. He lost count of the different versions of what was supposed to have happened, none of which were ever close to the real truth. He made several efforts to persuade the RAF Air Historical Branch that they had got it all wrong, but to no avail.
Then incredibly, sixty years later, Jimmy finally found the witness he had needed for so long. In a book about wartime fighter tactics, Herr Emil Clade recounted shooting down the Bombay exactly as Jimmy had remembered. â€˜I was flabberghasted,’ he admits, â€˜because many years before I’d been told that none of the pilots that had been in that particular unit at that time had survived the war.’
Two years later, he eventually tracked down Herr Clade, and in March 2005 they met at Bonn airport in Germany,
sixty-two-and-a-half years after the events of that fateful August afternoon. Herr Clade greeted Jimmy with the emotion normally reserved for an old friend. Although over ninety, he remembered well what had happened that day – and his memories coincided almost exactly with Jimmy’s.
Herr Clade then told him something else. After they had landed, they had been greeted by a senior officer – a â€˜kommandant’ – who said, â€˜Congratulations, gentlemen! You have just killed General â€˜Strafer’ Gott, the new Commander of Eighth Army!’
Jimmy reckoned that must have been at about five o’clock at the very latest. Neither he nor anyone else in the Bombay had sent a radio signal about the catastrophe, and at that time he had still been stumbling across the desert. In other words, the Germans had known Gott was dead before the British. The Germans must have found out that the Army Commander was going to be on board. Somehow the news had been intercepted. Gott had been assassinated.
â€œHow many were killed? Herr Clade asked. â€œFive?
No, Jimmy told him. Eighteen. And all had died because of the second strafing attack. â€˜When I told him that,’ says Jimmy, â€˜he burst into tears and could not be consolled.’
Despite this, Jimmy assured him he bore him no grudge and they embraced as friends. Herr Clade’s family had arranged for them to then fly together, so up they went, over Germany, two former enemies now taking to the skies side by side. â€˜He was a good man,’ says Jimmy, â€˜and he had done his duty and done it well.’ Their meeting was, Jimmy admits, â€˜a staggeringly emotional experience.’ But at last he feels he has learnt the truth about what happened that day – a day that changed his life forever, and possibly even the course of the war.