Shropshire Star

'He was the war's greatest escape artist. His feet never stopped itching' – Great Escape hero remembered

He was the Harry Houdini of Hitler’s prison camps, a man who the Third Reich simply couldn’t keep behind barbed wire.

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In all, the remarkable PoW who possessed a racing pigeon’s desire to return home gave the slip, or attempted to give the slip, to his Nazi guards 13 times.

And one of those daring disappearing acts was from Stalag Luft III, a veritable fortress where security was as tight as the skin stretched across a bass drum.

Yes, Shropshire’s Bertram 'Jimmy' James was part of The Great Escape, immortalised by the 1963 big screen blockbuster of the same name.

Leaping over fences on a motorcycle – as Steve McQueen did in the film’s most famous scene – wasn’t the RAF bomber pilot’s style, however. He preferred more cunning, covert methods. Tunnels were his forte. Let Jimmy get his hands on a knife, fork or spoon and he’d start digging – deep and long.

A trolley in the famous 'Harry' escape tunnel originally built by Allied airmen at the German Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, in Zagan, Poland

It’s a little unjust none of the film’s big stars were given the named role of Jimmy James, because he was in the thick of it. He orchestrated scattering the soil from one of three tunnels.

Disguised as a Yugoslav labourer, Jimmy breached the Stalag perimeter and trudged through deep snow to a rail station five miles away. That’s where the Gestapo caught up with wartime’s greatest escapologist.

During the 80th anniversary of D Day, our nation has paid homage to the men and women who broke the Fuhrer’s evil war machine.

British Squadron Leader Bertram 'Jimmy' James, left, with Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, alongside a reproduction of a trolley used to transport sand out of tunnels during their Second World War escape from the German Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp

There was no greater hero than our own Bertram 'Jimmy' James whose exploits read like something from Boys’ Own. They are the stuff of paperback novels and scripts for John Wayne.

Jimmy, who received the Military Cross and rose to the rank of Squadron Leader, was a Rambo in blue serge.

For the German soldiers tasked with keeping him under lock and key, it was a Groundhog Day nightmare. They’d capture him, he’d break out. They’d capture him, he’d break out…

Those guards soon learned you didn’t leave a door or window open with Jimmy around.

Survivors of the Stalag Luft III camp in Sagan, Germany – Squadron Leader Bertram 'Jimmy' James, left, and Flight lieutenant Sydney Dowse

His Military Cross citation reveals the insatiable thirst for freedom.

It reads: “He was sent to Stalag Luft I at Barth from which camp he made an attempt to escape during an air raid on October 21, 1941. His attempt, which was made after a tunnel had been constructed, was unsuccessful and as a punishment he received 14 days solitary confinement.

“In November, 1941, he was discovered while engaged in the construction of a second tunnel and was sentenced to another 14 days solitary confinement. While at Stalag Luft I, he worked on the construction of at least five other tunnels.

“His next attempt was made at Stalag Luft III in July, 1942, when he and another prisoner managed to slip away from a sick parade…”

The list goes on and on and on.