Hugh Glanffrwd James (Jimmy), AFC*
Pilot whose mission to fly General Gott to meet Churchill ended in disaster in the Western Desert read Jimmys account
Squadron Leader Hugh "Jimmy" James, who has died aged 92, was the pilot of the RAF transport aircraft which was shot down in the Western Desert in 1942, resulting in the death of Lt-Gen William (“Strafer”) Gott.
On August 7 1942, the 19-year-old Sergeant James flew his pre-war Bombay transport aircraft on a resupply mission to an advanced landing ground at Burgh-el-Arab near El Alamein. After the cargo was unloaded, wounded soldiers were brought to the aircraft to be flown to hospital back in Cairo.
Instead of taking off immediately, in accordance with normal procedures, James was ordered to wait for two special passengers who had been summoned to meet Winston Churchill in Cairo. One was Lt-Gen Gott, who was to replace Gen Sir Claude Auchinleck as Commander of the Eighth Army.
With all 21 personnel on board, James finally took off and flew eastwards at 50ft, to avoid German fighters. But 20 minutes into the flight the Bombay's starboard engine exploded and stopped as tracer from two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters hit the aircraft. Two others then attacked the lumbering transport, setting the port engine on fire.
James was forced to find a place to land, but after he had come to a stop, a third pair of enemy fighters strafed the Bombay ; the fuel tanks exploded, setting the whole aircraft ablaze. Although wounded in the shoulder and arm, James managed to struggle out of the cockpit just before tracer destroyed the area where he had been sitting. He was horrified to see the fuselage burning; four of his 21 passengers lay injured by the wrecked aircraft.
Despite his wounds and severe burns to his hands and feet, James decided to seek help, and set off alone to trek north. He had covered two miles when a friendly Bedouin gave him a camel to ride, and not long afterwards he spotted a British Army vehicle and waved his blood-soaked shirt to attract attention. He was taken to an advanced Army post, where it took him some time to persuade the officers of the truth of his story.
By now James was drifting in and out of consciousness, yet he insisted on accompanying the rescue party. The wreckage was located, and it was found that 17 men, among them Gott, had been killed.
'Clear-headed and courageous'
James had to undergo three operations at a field hospital before being transferred to Cairo, where he underwent a further four months' treatment. He was awarded an immediate DFM, the citation concluding: “In a crisis he completely ignored his own personal safety and welfare and acted in a clear-headed and very courageous manner.”
For many years there was intense speculation about the circumstances of Gott's death. James was always convinced that he was assassinated, since the six German fighters had ambushed his aircraft over Allied territory and did not leave the scene until the Bombay had been completely destroyed on the ground – an unusual tactic in the desert war.
In 2005, James met one of the German fighter pilots involved, who confirmed that shortly after they had returned from the mission their commander had congratulated them for “killing General Gott”; this had been several hours before James had reached the British post to report the loss of the Bombay. As a result of Gott's death, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed to command the Eighth Army.
Hugh Glanffrwd James (always known as Jimmy) was born on October 3 1922 at Cilfynydd in the Rhondda and educated at Pontypridd Grammar School, where he excelled at singing and rugby (he would later represent the RAF at the sport). The minimum age for joining the RAF was 18, and James “adjusted” his birthday when he started training as a pilot as a 17 year-old. His ambition was to be a fighter pilot, but he was sent to the Middle East to join No 216 Squadron to fly transport aircraft.
After recovering from his wounds, James rejoined No 216, and for the next two years flew Dakotas in support of the Army in North Africa and on resupply flights to Malta. He parachuted supplies to the beleaguered garrison on Leros in the Aegean during the ill-fated Dodecanese campaign, and later flew from airfields in Italy to resupply the partisans in Yugoslavia and Greece.
On returning to Britain at the end of the war, James joined No 24 (Commonwealth) Squadron based initially at Hendon. Piloting Dakotas, he served as a training captain and flew VIPs. At the end of 1946 he was awarded an AFC.
James was one of very few captains allowed to fly royalty. He was the pilot on Princess Margaret's first solo official visit (to Northern Ireland). The prime minister Clement Attlee was a regular passenger, and James also flew Commonwealth leaders, among them Field Marshal Jan Smuts, whom he considered one of his most gracious and appreciative passengers.
Because such people usually had to arrive on time in order to meet crucial deadlines, James often had to fly in very difficult weather conditions; but he established a reputation as one of the best and most reliable captains in the role. During the Berlin Airlift, he was a training captain, overseeing pilots who had to fly in bad weather along the designated corridors into and out of Berlin. In January 1950 he was awarded a Bar to his AFC.
In 1952 James finally achieved his ambition of becoming a fighter pilot, converting to the Mosquito night fighter and joining No 25 Squadron. The squadron re-equipped with the Vampire jet, and after two years he went to Alaska to join the USAF's 10th Air Division. He was appointed chief training officer of the night fighter wing, which guarded the routes from eastern Russia and those over the North Pole. The wing flew the F89D Scorpion, an aircraft that did not impress James – and he was not afraid to say so.
In late 1956 he was appointed senior flight commander of No 46 Squadron, flying the Javelin, an aircraft he rated highly. After a period testing the latest air-to-air missiles and a staff tour at headquarters, he left the RAF in July 1965, a decision he later regretted. He worked for a number of years for an electronics company at Bracknell before retiring to Chobham, Surrey. He was immensely popular in the village, where he was a long-serving churchwarden. He was also a keen member of the Woking branch of the Aircrew Association.
His first marriage, to Beth Jones, was dissolved, and in 1964 he married Juliet Laughton (née Chapman), who died in 2012. He is survived by three sons and a daughter of his first marriage, by a son and daughter of his second, and by a stepson.
Squadron Leader Hugh “Jimmy” James, born October 3 1922, died January 7 2015
Source: Telegraph Thursday 29th Januray 2015