Page last updated at 15:45 GMT, Saturday, 19 January 2008

Escape veteran was 'true legend'

Sqn Ldr Jimmy James
Sqn Ldr James led a project to rebuild the 'Great Escape' hut
Tributes have been paid to Bertram "Jimmy" James, one of the veterans of the Great Escape, who has died aged 92.

Sqn Ldr James was one of 76 men who broke-out of Stalag Luft Three, the supposedly escape-proof Nazi prisoner-of-war camp.

Despite being recaptured he was one of the lucky ones - fifty of the men who escaped were executed.

The daring mission was recreated in The Great Escape, which became an iconic World War II films.

Military historian Howard Tuck, a close friend of the legendary veteran, said Sqn Ldr James had dug the first RAF escape tunnel of the war, at Stalag Luft One, at Bart, in 1941.

That was just one of 13 attempts to escape from Nazi captivity.

To me he represented not only an era, but a type of Englishman you rarely meet
Howard Tuck, historian

"He was the country's greatest living war hero. He had a truly remarkable life," Mr Tuck said.

"This guy was truly unique and he was the finest gentleman anyone could ever meet.

"To me he represented not only an era, but a type of Englishman you rarely meet.

"He was honest and funny and I used to talk to him like he was 25."

'Past ghosts'

In March 2004 Sqn Ldr James returned as guest of honour to Zagen, in Poland, to revisit the Great Escape camp.

Speaking at the time, he said it had brought memories flooding back.

Jimmy James
Sqn Ldr James was held in high esteem around the world

"The huts have been razed to the ground but you can see where we dug, the route of the tunnel and you can still feel the atmosphere of the camp," Sqn Ldr James said.

"Having lost 50 comrades, ghosts of the past are inevitably going to rise up.

"I feel a great loss. I never thought that 60 years ago when I crawled out of the snow there would be a ceremony in Poland to commemorate the event."

After the war Sqn Ldr James remained in the RAF before eventually retiring in 1954.

Fluent linguist

His actions won him international recognition and he was held in the highest regard by many military and political figures, Mr Tuck said.

The historian said he introduced former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

For the last 30 years of his life Sqn Ldr James lived with his wife, Madge, in the Ludlow area of south Shropshire.

A linguist, Sqn Ldr James founded the Anglo/Russian Friendship Association and regularly gave lectures to young people about the escape.

He was also president of Project 104, an initiative to rebuild the hut in Poland from where the men broke-out.

"He was a legend, there's no doubt about it," Mr Tuck added.

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