Squadron Leader Hugh James: Pilot whose plane was shot down carrying ‘Strafer’ Gott, leading to Montgomery’s hour of glory

The Second Battle of El Alamein would be won while James lay enduring four months and several operations, as well as interrogation by an official inquiry

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The Independent Online

Sergeant Pilot Hugh “Jimmy” James, staggering wounded across the sand and rocks of the Western Desert, might rather not have had the part destiny had him play in one of the most fateful events for Britain of the Second World War. His most important-ever passenger, a general, lay dead in the burning wreck of his shot-down plane. Another 17 people inside were dead, too. Only four besides himself had got out, three of them injured.    

Twelve minutes out of Burg-el-Arab on the way to Cairo, his Bristol Bombay transport had been swooped on by German Bf 109s. The first attack set both engines ablaze; a second made an inferno of his fuel tank. He grappled with a flaming joystick to control the machine, its  engines useless and undercarriage damaged.  Touching down, he had no means of bringing the aircraft to a halt without flipping it. It took 10 miles to slow it from flying speed to 20mph, at which point he yelled for everyone  to get out. Then the enemy fired on it again.    

His passenger, for whom the flight had been delayed that day, was General William  “Strafer” Gott, newly appointed to lead the British 8th Army against Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and due to meet Winston Churchill in Cairo.

Now James was waving his shirt to attract the attention of a Bedouin camel-driver. Though his hands were burned to the bone, his shirt stained red, shrapnel near his heart and his boots filled with blood, he had walked two and a half miles to get help. Soon, his arms roped around the hump of one of the  camels so as not to fall off each time he passed out, he hailed some British engineers with lorries and took them back to his plane. The way was open, though he did not know it, for Field Marshal Montgomery to take over 8th Army and defeat Rommel.

Some described the shooting-down as an “act of God”. Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote: “It seemed almost like the hand of God suddenly appearing to set matters right where we had gone wrong.” Churchill’s choice of General Gott was thought to have been over-hasty. The Second Battle of El Alamein, Monty’s hour of glory, would be won while James lay enduring four months and several operations, as well as interrogation by an official inquiry at his sick-bed. His mother received a telegram saying he was missing. 

“You hit the ground,” his questioners said, but he would not rest until the inquiry found his aircraft’s tyre-marks in the sand, indicating that this had not been a crash. Traces of ammunition were also found inside the fuselage. His passengers had died from bullets, not burns.    

A Distinguished Flying Medal and a citation saying, “he managed to make a good landing. At the end of the landing run, the aircraft was again fired upon,” and describing James as “one who, in a crisis, completely ignores his own personal safety and welfare and acts in a clear-headed and very courageous manner,” appeared conclusive.      

Yet he believed the attack no chance affair, but an assassination. A news black-out, and his questioners’ unwillingness to concur with his account, puzzled him. He had counted six Bf 109s, not the “two” of his citation, nor the opportunist single aircraft of Alanbrooke’s  mid-1950s re-telling. The need to find the truth about his forced landing – described by colleagues as “desperate, but superbly executed” – would dominate the rest of his life.

It would be 63 years before the Welsh mining engineer’s son, who had volunteered for the RAF at 17, got his answer. He pursued the cause with the same initiative that had enabled him to disguise his age as 18, when, having obtained a job in the Air Ministry Accounts Department job after doing well at Pontypridd Grammar School, he signed up. 

The boy who had wanted from the age of five to fly quickly demonstrated his aptitude. His first solo flight in an Airspeed Oxford drew such admiration from his commanders that they stopped a court-martial for low-flying and congratulated him for having retrieved his direction in snow by following a railway line.

He gained his wings in December 1941, and sailed round Africa to join 216 Sqn, supplying the Long Range Desert Group that was giving Rommel grief. In 1943, after recovering from his injuries, he was made Flying Officer and posted to Malta to join the Dodecanese campaign, his being the last aircraft to leave Kos. His Middle East service won him the Air Force Cross. By the war’s end he had flown for 2,750 hours. He came home to marry the girl he had met at a sixth-form dance in Pontypridd on the eve of his adventures, Beth Jones.

After flying with No 24 VIP Commonwealth squadron, he trained pilots for the 1948 Berlin Airlift, and himself ferried coal while “buzzed” by Soviet Yak fighters. West Germany awarded him a medal, and Britain a Bar to his AFC. 

By 1950 he was personal staff officer to the C-in-C Transport Command, but, yearning to fly fighters, converted to Mosquitos and became Senior Flight Commander, then Acting Commander, of 25 Sqn. Next came a two-and-a-half-year exchange in Alaska with the US Air Force flying Scorpion nightfighters. He returned to enjoy the Gloster Javelin as Commander of No 46 Sqn at RAF Odiham. His last posting was Master Ground Controller at the Cold War radar intercept station at RAF Wartling, East Sussex, before leaving in 1965 to carry on a business in Chobham, Surrey. He and Beth parted and in 1964 he married Juliet Laughton.

Still, the puzzle of Gott’s death exercised him. In 2005 he went to Bonn to meet Emil Clade, the Luftwaffe officer who had led the fighters. Clade told him he had not ordered the third strike. Two extra Bf 109s did it.Further, Clade made clear, the Germans knew before the British that Gott was dead: the German air crews had been greeted on their return to base with: “Congratulations, gentlemen. You have just killed General Strafer Gott, the new commander of 8th Army!” For James the discovery was cathartic. It is thought the Germans broke the code used by a loquacious American air attaché at Cairo, and intercepted an operational broadcast.

Hugh Glanffrwd James, RAF officer: born Pontypridd 3 October 1922; DFM 1943, AFC 1946, and Bar 1950; married firstly Beth Jones (divorced; died 2012; one daughter, three sons), secondly Juliet Laughton (died 2012; one daughter, one son, and one stepson); died Cardiff 7 January 2015.