Major Jim Almonds

Original member of the SAS - 'Gentleman Jim' - for whom 'reality beat fiction'
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The Independent Online

Jim Almonds was one of the original members of the SAS handpicked in 1941 by the founder of the regiment David Stirling. Almonds was involved in many of the SAS's daring raids behind enemy lines in North Africa before being captured and shipped to Italy, where he escaped twice. He parachuted into France on D-Day and wreaked havoc on the Germans, blowing up trains and bridges. A born adventurer and an outstanding soldier, he re-enlisted when the SAS was reformed in Malaya in 1951.

John Edward Almonds was the son of a Lincolnshire smallholder who lost his farm to foot-and-mouth disease - John was later nicknamed "Gentleman Jim", because he never swore and his dugouts in North Africa were always immaculate. In 1932, aged 18, he joined the Coldstream Guards and soldiered at the Tower of London. He then joined the Bristol Police in 1936 and served with them until the outbreak of the Second World War when he reported back to the Coldstream Guards at Pirbright. Determined to get into action, he volunteered to be a gunner on a trawler and a rear gunner on a bomber.

Eventually, the ideal situation came along when the Guards created their own commando unit. In between intensive training in Scotland, Almonds shot a couple of stags, for which he was to be court-martialled, but this was quashed as he sailed with his unit as part of the newly created "Layforce", under the command of Colonel Robert Laycock. It was originally intended that they would go to the Middle East but the situation drastically changed when Rommel successfully drove the Allied forces to the Egyptian border, leaving the coastal town of Tobruk totally surrounded.

Although Layforce fell slowly into a backwater, Almonds linked up with the redoubtable Lieutenant Jock Lewis and was involved in a number of night raids behind enemy lines to spike the guns of the Germans attacking Tobruk. Shortly after that, in July 1941 the charismatic Captain David Stirling began recruiting for the newly established L Detachment Special Air Service Brigade to create a raiding force in order to reach behind enemy lines, to blow up vital installations and aircraft on the runway. Almonds jumped at the idea and along with Jock Lewis became one of the 65 originals to begin SAS training at Kabrit, which was then little more than a patch of sand near the Suez Canal.

Stirling told his new brigade to steal whatever they wanted to construct the camp, which they did from a nearby New Zealand camp. As Almonds was to recall: "If you have the option of beg, borrow, buy or steal, invariably the most interesting one was stealing." At Kabrit he was given the task of building up the camp, which included three towers for parachute jumping. Short of parachutes, the recruits, facing backwards, would jump off the back of a truck moving at 30mph to practise their landings. Parachuting began from an ancient Bristol Bombay prior to the first raid on 17 November.

Stirling stood Almonds down from the raid at the last minute so that he could write a letter home because his baby son was dying - the raid was a disaster and only 21 out of the 64 returned. As Almonds waited for their return, he confided to his diary:

I am not there. I sit back here in the safety of the camp and wish I was with them. One more would make the load lighter. Reality beats fiction for sheer, cold calculating courage. Some of these lads cannot be beaten. Films and books of daring and adventure fall short of this, the real thing . . .

When his comrades returned, he noted:

It is difficult to get a story out of these people. They are a tight-lipped lot and never go into detail. But from their appearance, the last 10 days in the desert must have been hell.

Not long afterwards, Almonds learned that his 20-year-old wife had discharged their son from the hospital where he was receiving no treatment and was expected to die. The doctors said he would "always be a weakling" but at home the boy quickly recovered and later went on to command an SAS squadron at Hereford.

David Stirling abandoned any further parachute operations and for the remainder of the SAS's time in the desert worked with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) which had brought many of the survivors back from the first raid.

Almonds and 40 others accompanied Jock Lewis on a daring attack on Nofilia airfield on Christmas Eve 1941 where they destroyed two aircraft. The LRDG came in to pick them up but they were strafed by an Me110. In the attack Lewis was killed. Almonds took over command and, in the one remaining truck, he and his men covered the arduous 200-mile journey back to their camp, sheltering by day and travelling by night. Exhausted, they reached Jalo on New Year's Day 1942. Almonds immediately received a Military Medal for his courage and resourcefulness.

The death of Lewis had deeply disturbed Almonds, who recorded in his diary:

Yes, in many homes the Old Year is being watched die and new hopes rise with the prospect of the New Year. I thought of Jock, one of the bravest men I ever met, an officer and a gentleman, lying out in the desert barely covered with sand. No one will ever stop by his grave or pay homage to a brave heart that ceased to beat. Not even a stone marks the spot.

Now stronger in numbers and better equipped, with well-armed jeeps, the SAS undertook a number of raids behind enemy lines. Much to the consternation of the Germans, airfields were raided and at Fuka, on 12 July 1942, 22 aircraft destroyed. Two weeks later at Sidi Haneish, 40 more were destroyed. With Rommel's supplies coming through Benghazi harbour, the port became a natural target for the SAS. This operation was led by Stirling. Almonds's task was to seize a ship and sink it in the harbour mouth. Stirling ran into a manned roadblock and summoned Almonds. Under heavy fire, Almonds broke through to reach their objective, enabling Stirling to withdraw. The following day, Almonds was captured and, manacled and with a rifle to his head, was paraded around the town in an open truck, before ending up in an Italian POW camp in Puglia.

From there he masterminded a successful escape with four others, but, when one of them developed pneumonia, they decided to give themselves up. As the leader, Almonds was threatened with execution, but was sentenced to solitary confinement in a POW camp in Ancona. He exercised his mind designing in his head a 32ft ketch, each day reciting the details to himself. (In 1956, whilst serving in Ghana, he began building the boat in his garden and sailed back to England in this craft in 1961.)

When Mussolini was deposed, Italy sued for peace. The camp commandant gave Almonds a set of civilian clothes and asked if he could go out to report where the Germans were in the area. After a walk around, he telephoned the commandant, reported that there were no Germans in the area, then told him that he was going home and made for the mountains.

Travelling south towards the Allied advance, he met up with an American pilot who had been shot down and they made off together, passing through a minefield which Almonds mapped; he led, telling the airman to walk in his footsteps. They were eventually picked up by some American soldiers at Benevento. For his escape, Almonds was awarded a bar to his MM.

After reaching England, he was posted to Chequers as part of the guard on Winston Churchill but managed to rejoin the SAS back in Scotland where they were preparing for D-Day. During this period some of the human cost of war became apparent in Almonds's gaunt appearance and difficulty in readjusting to normal family life. Out shopping one day, he turned on his wife and three-year-old son, and asked them why they were following him. His wife wisely took the boy home.

On D-Day, Almonds and his section parachuted by night into the forests of Orléans. They blew up railway lines, bridges and ammunition dumps, and disrupted essential supply lines. Almonds rescued a captured German from death at the hands of the French Maquis, called him Fritz and kept him as a cook for two months. Jeeps and supplies were dropped in by air at night and the local French Resistance ably co-operated. There was about it all, Almonds said later, an air of the faintly comical: "not a million miles away from 'Allo 'Allo". For his contribution, France awarded Almonds the Croix de Guerre.

The citation recorded that,

despite being attacked by the enemy, he demonstrated magnificent personal courage and the indisputable qualities of a leader. Without any losses, he redeployed his unit and with no concern for the danger involved, led an attack on the Germans. He then returned alone to his old base headquarters to destroy his code book and other secret documents. He did not cease during his mission to set a magnificent example to his men.

He was at one point captured in his jeep by the Americans and taken in front of a general whom he believed to be George Patton, who wagged a pearl-handled pistol at him and snarled: "If you're British, you'll be OK. If not, you'll be shot. And I'll do it myself." Before he returned home, Almonds visited Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery with the CO of the SAS, who recommended that Almonds should be commissioned and this was agreed on the steps of the Field Marshal's caravan.

After the war, Almonds served with the British Military Mission to Ethiopia and with the Eritrean Field Force. He rejoined the SAS when it was reconstituted, and commanded "B" Squadron 1st SAS, clearing terrorists from the Malayan jungle in 1953. He finally resigned his commission after four years in Ghana.

He returned to his home in Stixwould and was delighted to see his son join the SAS and his twin daughters both serve as officers in the Army. Almonds's daughter Lorna wrote about her father's remarkable life in the book Gentleman Jim (2001).

Max Arthur