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British Paratrooper at Arnhem: An Interview With James Sims

WWII

British Paratrooper at Arnhem: An Interview With James Sims

Paratroopers assemble and gather their equipment immediately after landing.

James Sims of the British 1st Airborne Division recalls the battle of Arnhem of Operation Market-Garden and his fight for survival as prisoner of the SS.

By Eric Niderost

Q: Could you give us a little personal background before we talk about your war experiences?

SIMS: I was born on April 29, 1925, at Sheffield in Yorkshire. My father worked for a wholesale druggist called Burdalls of Sheffield, and moved to Brighton in Sussex to open new ground shortly before my birth. I had no career ambitions growing up, but had I stayed in Sheffield I would have probably ended up in a local steelworks. My grandparents had been in service [were servants] with the gentry and this appealed to me as a youngster. Eventually I ended up doing clerical work both in and out of the Army.

Q: When did you join the Army?


SIMS: I joined on January 29, 1943. For two years previous I had served in the Army Cadet Corps and Home Guard. There was an order that all children 15 and older must join some kind of youth organization so I joined the local cadet unit. We did mostly foot drill. This unit was at school and all the officers were teachers. School had very strict discipline, so there were no problems about that. There were Army, Navy, and air cadets and [it was] pretty similar to the Boy Scouts.

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James Sims.

James Sims.

Q: Was the Army your first choice?


SIMS: As soon as I was 17 I went to the local recruiting hall to join the Royal Air Force [RAF], as I was very air-minded, but was told I must wait until 18-and-a-half to join. Whilst recovering from this blow I overheard a chap joining up and he was going to Maidenstone in Kent to join the Royal Artillery. This was only 50 miles from Brighton so I volunteered and was accepted. The training in the RA was very intense and we trained with the 25-pounder gun howitzer, a very fine gun and backbone of the U.K. artillery.

Q: Why didn’t you stay with the Royal Artillery?

SIMS: There were two reasons I joined the Paras. Firstly, to get rid of the RA, because they treated the rank and file badly. The NCOs seemed bent on making your life a misery, and officers did nothing about it. As I said, I was air-minded, and firstly volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment, but at that time they were oversubscribed so the Paras were the only alternative. I joined the Paras on February 2, 1944. I certainly had my doubts about parachuting but thought if others could do it, then so could I. Until then I had never been in an aircraft.

Q: Describe your first experiences as a paratroop recruit.


SIMS: As “wingless wonders” we arrived at Hardwick Hall, Chesterfield. I was immediately struck by the different attitude of both officers and NCOs, and the enthusiasm of the recruits. We did two weeks of physical tests and had thorough medical inspections and we were amazed at the tough-looking types that failed and were returned to [original] units. We slept in two-tier bunks and it was bitterly cold but the food was plentiful and excellent. We carried out routine forced marches and the word “GO” was drilled into us.

Q: What was life like at Hardwick Hall?


SIMS: Everything at Hardwick Hall was done “at the double,” and those who conked out were RTU’d [Returned to Unit]. For light relief we had “paratroop football.” Dress was denims, boots, and steel helmets. I believe there were goals and a ball, but I cannot be sure. The whole object of the game was to get “stuck in.” It lasted about an hour until there was a cracked collarbone or broken arm!

Q: The course at Hardwick was supposed to be grueling …


SIMS: We carried out, or attempted to carry out, a 10-mile forced march with full battle order in two hours. A blizzard erupted and so many recruits collapsed the exercise was abandoned. However, since we had done seven miles in one hour and five minutes, and that in a blizzard, it counted as a “pass”!

The British patrol through ruined homes in Oosterbeek near Arnhem. By the 25th of September when this picture was taken, the British perimeter was small.

The British patrol through ruined homes in Oosterbeek near Arnhem. By the 25th of September when this picture was taken, the British perimeter was small.

Q: The next stage of training was parachute jumping. Could you elaborate on your experiences there?


SIMS: After successfully “surviving” Hardwick Hall we were posted to Ringway Airport, Manchester, there to earn our wings. We were to be at Ringway for two weeks. The first week would be carried out in a huge hangar, using a lot of equipment that would help us prepare for the eight jumps we needed to qualify as a Para. While at Ringway we had RAF instructors. There were several items of equipment in the hangar; for example, a children’s slide cut in half. The recruit slid down the chute backwards and landed in thick mud. This was supposed to simulate landing on a Drop Zone (or DZ as it was known).

Another item was the “fan.” You had to climb onto the roof of the hangar, and once there you’d see this equipment. Each “fan” would consist of a harness that was attached to what looked like piano wire that was wrapped around a drum. A fan was sticking out of it; hence the name. You put the harness on, and on the command “GO!” you jumped and hit the deck about 40 feet below. The attached “fan” was supposed to slow your descent similar to the use of a parachute. There were several fans; the first fan—the one I usually got—was worn, and so your descent was a bone-shaker. In fact, you hit so hard all your loose pocket change jumped out of your pockets. The RAF instructors collected this, regarding the cash as their beer money! I believe I lost more coins than any other recruit did.

Another piece of equipment was the “overhead railway.” This consisted of a wire leading down from the roof of the hangar to a “railway sleeper” sunk in the ground. These “sleepers” were wooden posts and used under railroad tracks. The idea was that you slung a toggle rope and wheel over this wire, and then jumped. Your weight and momentum carried you down this slanting wire toward the “sleeper.” Just before you reached the end you were supposed to let go on command, hitting the deck and rolling like a real parachute landing. However, some recruits became mesmerized by the sleeper, forgetting to let go and slamming into it with some force. Such incidents caused endless amusement for the rest of us.

Q: What was the next stage of training?

SIMS: Those of us who had survived so far had to next complete eight parachute jumps to qualify for our red beret and wings.

The jumps would be done at Tatton Park in Cheshire, the first being three balloon jumps, two by day and one by night. The day before we were to do our first jump we were taken by an RAF bus to see the balloon jumps. They were done from a basket suspended beneath an old barrage balloon. One recruit jumped and plummeted earthwards with his chute strung out behind him. He screamed as he fell the 700 feet with an undeveloped canopy, then fainted just as his chute developed! Our RAF instructor, a former Welsh rugby player named Ike Owens, casually said, “Damp chute—it often happens.” Not reassured by these remarks, about 10 men withdrew from the course! You could withdraw from the course [i.e., quit the Paras] at any time until you were awarded your wings. It was a much disheartened bunch that returned to Ringway!

Q: Describe your very first parachute jump.

SIMS: The next day we were taken out to Tatton Park for our first jump in a tethered balloon. We jumped in “sticks” of four, one on each corner of the basket. Our instructor Ike Owens came up with us to supervise our exits. The basket came to a jolted halt and we got ready. “Action stations—GO!” was the cry. I made a good exit but fell 100 feet out of the 700 before my chute developed, quite an ordeal. We all made good landings and after a cup of tea from a mobile canteen we returned to camp. One jump down—seven to go! It was quite a contrast—whereas on the outward journey we all clutched our chutes silently, on the return journey we were “full of it—” talking, etc.

Q: How did you feel about these balloon jumps?

SIMS: Some people loved the balloon jumps, while some found it terrifying, including me! The next day we were to repeat the performance, but as it was quite windy we all expected this second jump to be canceled. Much to our surprise it wasn’t! Once again, it was the long RAF bus journey to Tatton Park. When we got there the balloon was racing around like a zeppelin! We got into the cage and were winched aloft. When it came my turn to jump I sort of fell out instead of pushing off; my chute had caught on the exit. I was somersaulting into space, as Ike Owen was shouting, “You bloody fool, you don’t deserve to live!” from the ground.

When the chute developed I was upside down with both feet entangled in the rigging lines. I did not panic, but remembered the training films showing how to get out of this predicament. I managed to make a good landing and Ike never mentioned my lousy exit.

Our third balloon jump was at night. Everyone said the night balloon jump was the best. This proved true as one could see and hear nothing. It was like lying in a black velvet bed—until you hit the deck. Many preferred balloons, but not me. I preferred an aircraft’s slipstream, which developed your chute instantaneously. After the balloon jumps came five more jumps from the bombers, and after successfully completing the course you were rewarded with your wings and red beret. You were a Para!

Q: After earning your wings you were posted to the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, one of the more famous units of the airborne forces.

SIMS: In the spring of 1944 about 30 of us paraded outside Stoke Rochford Hall, replacements for battalion casualties incurred in Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy. A signals sergeant formed us up and said, “Welcome to the 2nd Battalion, a battalion living off its past glories!” An officer emerged from the hall and I was thrilled to recognize Lt. Col. John D. Frost, famous for the Bruneval Raid [1942, France], one of the most successful airborne actions ever. [Interviewer note: Frost was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far.] On reaching me, Colonel Frost asked my parent unit, and on learning it was the RA said I would be well suited to the Mortar Platoon.

Q: Describe Colonel Frost.

SIMS: Colonel Frost was a tall, heavily built man and behaved accordingly. He always had a lugubrious expression and the only time I ever saw him smile was in a burning house near the “Bridge Too Far” at Arnhem. We soon learned he was a strict disciplinarian. The colonel had a lot to put up with, and I can give you one example.

We were given leave passes on Friday evenings, but Grantham Station was about six miles from where we were, and we had no transportation. With no buses or lifts it was a problem, but it was soon solved by one of our platoon. He waited for a civilian car to come along, and then stood out in front of it until it halted. “We are on an exercise and I am commandeering your vehicle. Drive us to Grantham Station,” said our bloke. The driver obeyed; he wasn’t going to argue with Paras. Eight of us jammed into the car and off we went.

We used this “scam” for some time until we stopped Colonel Frost’s car in error! The old man was furious but we still got our passes.

Q: Describe the Mortar Platoon and its equipment.

SIMS: The Mortar Platoon was commanded by Lieutenant Woods; the platoon sergeant was Sergeant Jackson. There were four section sergeants and about 40 men. We were equipped with four mortars. The 3-inch mortar was used by infantry as portable artillery and both British and Germans were highly skilled in its use. When carrying the weapon the mortar was divided into three parts, namely the barrel, the legs, and the baseplate. Each part weighed about 40 pounds. Those not carrying mortar parts had to carry six 10-pound mortar bombs on top of the usual gear. In addition, I was assisting my officer, Lieutenant Woods, look for suitable targets, then I passed down to our two mortar positions. Only two out of four mortars ever reached our positions at the Arnhem bridge.

Q: Your outfit was part of the British 1st Airborne Division, which felt frustrated when it did not take part in D-Day. Even after D-Day, the 1st Airborne suffered through the ups and downs of operations being constantly canceled. Can you describe the feelings of the private soldier during this period?

SIMS: Our division felt “out of it” when the 6th Airborne Division went on D-Day instead of us. Of course they did extremely well, which was even more upsetting. Then, operation after operation was canceled, but our officers told us we were being kept for “something special.” There was a lot of speculation; jumping on Berlin and snatching Hitler was one rumor.

Q: What happened when you finally got the green light for Operation Market-Garden, the taking of the Rhine Bridge at Arnhem? Weren’t you almost left at home?

SIMS: When Arnhem was looked to be “on” everything changed completely and training intensified. In a couple of days we would land in Holland to take a town we had never heard of. Three of us, “Young Geordie”(I can’t recall his full name), “Brum” Davis, and myself, were brought before the colonel who told us because we were only 19 years old we would not jump into action. Instead, we would go with the sea-party and as the colonel put it, “see something about what war is all about before rejoining the 2nd Para north of Arnhem.”

I remember feeling somewhat relieved now that the operation was on, but suddenly three veterans went missing. Not on purpose, I believe, but because we had already “stood to” [went on alert] for 19 operations, only to see them canceled. NCOs in jeeps scoured districts in Grantham and Nottingham for these absentees but to no avail. That was it; we youngsters were put back in our platoon and told we would go the next day.

Arnhem was the distant and ambitious goal of the Allied plan.

Arnhem was the distant and ambitious goal of the Allied plan.

Q: Market-Garden started on September 17, 1944. Could you describe your feelings at that time, knowing you would be going into action for the very first time?

SIMS: We were taken to airfields throughout Lincolnshire to enplane on Sunday, September 17, 1944. Everyone was in top form; it was like a Sunday School outing. Loads of newsreel camera footage was taken, but I never saw any of it afterward. Finally we climbed aboard [a USAAF C-47 “Dakota”] and were airborne. I remember saying to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” but was reassured by the cheerful attitude of my comrades.

Q: Could you describe the equipment the Paras were carrying into battle?

SIMS: When one considers what we carried into action it is amazing we ever got to Arnhem. There was battle dress and red beret, denison smock, six 10-pound mortar bombs, 40 rounds of .303-caliber rifle ammunition, two .36 grenades, one antitank grenade, one phosphorus grenade, water bottle, and 24-hour ration pack. And, of course, Dutch occupation money, maps, escape saws, a pick and shovel. Altogether it must have weighed one hundred pounds or so.

Q: Your immediate commander was Lieutenant Woods. What kind of a man was he?

SIMS: Woods was a tall and slim man of 25 who, like Frost, didn’t smile much. He was a typical Airborne officer in that he ignored some behavior but was very strict with important things. The men held him in the greatest respect and his nickname was “Lakari,” which I believe is Hindi for “wood.”

Q: What was the flight to Holland like?

SIMS: We crossed the Dutch coast where we were fired upon by a German Naval vessel [MTB, Motor Torpedo Boat], but it was soon dealt with by one of our fighter escorts, a rocket-firing Hawker “Typhoon.” Our aircraft dived to level off at operational height, 400 feet. The route to Arnhem was marked by blazing German flak posts.

Q: Then, finally it was the time to jump …

SIMS: We stood up and shuffled down our Dakota C-47 toward the open door in which Lieutenant Woods was framed. The man behind me plucked at my chute. “What the hell are you doing?” I shouted. He said, “It’s not a chute—it’s an old Army blanket!” The lamp blinked green and Lieutenant Woods vanished out the door. I made an awful exit and when my chute opened it was twisting closed. Luckily it finally untwisted, but then I couldn’t release my kit bag that was secured to my left leg. We were told that if you landed with your kit bag on it could break your leg. In the few seconds I had I would find out if this was true! Luckily for me my leg didn’t break, but it was a very hard landing. It was my 13th jump, and my worst!

Q: The drop zones were some eight miles from Arnhem bridge, a factor that compromised the operation from the start. Different units were to converge on the objective from different routes, thus advancing on a broad front. For example, Lt. Col. J.A.C. Fitch’s 3rd Battalion was to go on a northerly road through the village of Oosterbeek. Your own 2nd Battalion under Lt. Col. Frost took the most southerly road that partly hugged the Rhine.

SIMS: Yes, and we were the only unit to reach the objective. In hindsight it might have been better if we had dropped north of the bridge; a glider-borne coup de main at either end of the bridge might have succeeded.

Q: German reaction was swift, wasn’t it?

SIMS: Yes, the SS troops reacted rapidly and held up our advance with lone machine-gun teams, who proved highly effective. [These were elements of the 9th SS Panzer Division, reformed as the Kampfgruppe Hohenstauffen.] Our platoon was ambushed and men killed, including “Brum” Davis, but we pushed on.

Q: There was sporadic fighting, but at times the march into Arnhem resembled a triumphal parade.

SIMS: The Dutch came out and applauded, gave us fruit, and marigolds. They kept repeating, “We have waited four years for you.” They thought the war was practically over. They also offered us gin, and Lieutenant Woods threatened to shoot them if they persisted. What surprised me was the quality of Dutch civilian clothes and shoes. As an ex-shoe salesman I noticed this and was surprised, since our propaganda told us the Dutch were starving and in rags. This was not the case at Arnhem.

Q: At one point British 1st Airborne Division commander Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart came up to 2nd Para in a jeep … By this time there were some communications problems with the various units.

SIMS: General Urquhart caught up with us on the way into Arnhem and asked us where Colonel Frost was. We told him he was up ahead, so off he raced [Urquhart never managed to see Frost]. Urquhart was a burly, tough-looking soldier. Most impressive.

Q: What was your impression of Arnhem?

SIMS: Arnhem was a beautiful town surrounded by fields and bisected by the Lower Rhine. When we reached the lower end of the bridge we were allocated either to two mortar pits or one of the surrounding houses.

Paratrooper Sims fought with Colonel Frost in these houses near the north end of the bridge.

Paratrooper Sims fought with Colonel Frost in these houses near the north end of the bridge.

Q: What were your first hours at Arnhem like?

SIMS: “Slapsie” [a paratrooper from London] and I shared a slit trench, and things quieted down since we dominated the immediate area. Up on the bridge a German ammunition wagon was exploding. It sounded like a fireworks display. I fell asleep and slept right through the first enemy counterattack. Once I woke up, “Slapsie” drew my attention to the dead Germans nearby. He thought I was a cool customer when in fact I was absolutely exhausted.

Q: Any general observations on the Arnhem siege?

SIMS: I have always held the view that at Arnhem you got the best defensive fighters in the world against the best attacking soldiers, the SS. It was the national characteristics that counted. The Germans made one or two all-out assaults in AFVs [armored fighting vehicles]. The Paras dealt with all such attacks by knocking out the leading vehicles, which then blocked the road, tunneling the remaining AFVs into cramped areas between buildings where they could be also dealt with.

Q: One of your most dangerous assignments was to try and get water to make a stew from dehydrated meat tablets. Since water was at a premium, you couldn’t use liquid from your water bottles.

SIMS: Yes, I had to get fresh water to make a stew. I discovered that the only working tap was on a standing pipe in the middle of the yard. It was an area where a furious exchange of shots was going on. I crawled on my belly until I was under the tap. The enemy could not see me but as soon as I turned the tap they realized where I was. I dared not turn the tap off, and the mess tin I had soon filled with water, half of it was spilled on the return journey. On rejoining Lieutenant Woods I heated up the stew, but it tasted so foul the lieutenant shared a slab of chocolate with me.

Q: You ran into Colonel Frost during the siege.

SIMS: Colonel Frost visited our positions, smiling and radiating confidence. Although surrounded and cut off from the main part of 1st Airborne Division we still believed that we would be relieved. Originally we had been told we would be relieved within 24 hours (from Sunday). When Tuesday passed we realized something had gone wrong.

Q: You found yourself on an island of trees and shrubs in the center of a road right in the heart of Arnhem. German attacks increased as time went on.

SIMS: I was caught in a bombardment by German mortars in a slit trench and it was terrifying. Eventually the explosions seemed to merge into one never-ending bombardment. I curled up in the bottom of this trench when something hit my boot. I died a thousand deaths, believing it was a bomb. It turned out only to be the tail fin of a German bomb. Despite frightening us to death the bombardment caused no casualties.

Toward the end I was the only one left out in the street; the rest were withdrawn to the houses and gardens still held by our lads.

British fighters use a three-inch mortar to fend off Germans.

British fighters use a three-inch mortar to fend off Germans.

Q: How were you wounded?

SIMS: As things got worse Lieutenant Woods was cut off, and Sergeant Jackson took over. The sergeant picked some veterans to hold the house and ordered the rest of us into the garden. I raised a pick to make a trench when a shell hit a wall about a yard away. It killed and wounded about six of us. I was wounded in the left leg. When I realized I was hit I fell down. I was eventually picked up and dragged to a building where the cellars were packed with the dying and wounded.

Q: The cellars must have been literally hell on earth, what with no supplies, little or no water, and pitch darkness, since the Germans had cut the power. Exhausted medics had to treat the wounded under flashlight beams.

SIMS: Conditions in the cellars were dreadful with the dying and the wounded huddled together. The medics did their best to alleviate our suffering. There were reckoned to be at least 300 men in those cellars.

Q: Describe the end of the ordeal.

SIMS: Men started to cough because the building was on fire and all of us were in danger from this burning building finally collapsing. I suppose Colonel Frost gave the order to cease fire and the Germans were contacted. A German officer entered and a Scot near to me grabbed his Sten gun to shoot him. Luckily, he was overpowered. It would have been a simple thing for the Germans to throw hand grenades down into the cellars.

The German officer rapped out some orders and the cellar filled with Germans who commenced to evacuate us. In my case a Canadian press man smashed up his camera, lifted me up, and carried me out of the cellars. Some flaming roof debris just missed us. The enemy formed a half-circle facing us when someone fired from a cellar, just missing us and our guards. We shouted “British wounded! Cease fire!” and the firing stopped. The Germans seemed as interested in us as we were in them. They all spoke English and gave us coffee, sausage, and sour black bread. They were pleased to have won, and the atmosphere was rather like that of a football match that has just finished. In fact, they seemed so friendly I originally thought they were Regular army, not SS. In those days we were not so familiar with enemy uniforms and badges. Some SS wore khaki trousers, British boots, and some even carried British Sten guns. They did have, however, their usual German helmets and tunics.

A German photograph of a German position during the battle.

A German photograph of a German position during the battle.

Q: What were the first moments of captivity like?


SIMS: When captured we were sat down on either side of the road, the wounded on one side, including me. A young SS man shot dead one of our lads because he tried to hang on to his wallet. When this same German reached me I had already emptied out all my pockets and put the contents on my lap. The young SS man smiled and said, “You are not supposed to have anything of military importance, but you will be searched again, and if anything is found, you will be shot.” He was not interested in personal belongings.

We had a young Dutchman, a member of the underground, whose arms were badly burned when he had tossed a phosphorous grenade out a window. He was dragged out and made to kneel down and shot through the back of the neck. As his body slumped down an SS officer said, “That is how we treat traitors to the Third Reich.” I only remember seeing this one Dutch Resistance man, and he was shot out of hand.

Q: Where did they take you then?


SIMS: We ended up in Soestdijk Palace, the summer residence of the Dutch royal family, which had been converted to an SS front-line hospital. The food was excellent and the surroundings very comfortable, but medical treatment was poor, and drugs were not delivered owing to Allied bombing raids.

Q: Wasn’t there an escape during your time in the hospital?


SIMS: Yes, 12 walking wounded, aided by the resistance, escaped and made it back to Allied lines. The hospital was run by the Luftwaffe; in fact, there was a picture of Göring in one of the rooms. After the escape, Luftwaffe security increased dramatically. In fact, some later escapes failed and the men were shot. The SS medics seemed to be amused that the Luftwaffe had been thwarted.

Q: How were you eventually transferred to a POW camp?


SIMS: Toward the end of October we were told we would all be moved to an all-British hospital. Many actually believed this and got a nasty shock when, arriving at the railyard, we were rifle-butted into waiting cattle cars.

Q: The cattle cars are reminiscent of the ones that transported victims of the holocaust to concentration camps.


SIMS: There were 40 men to a car and no rations, save a jug of water. The trip was a nightmare. Some wounded died as a result of the journey, and every car jolt was agony. The dead were not removed until arrival in the Stalag; every body had to be accounted for, the list duly signed by the Stalag commandant.

Captured British paratroopers photographed by a German.

Captured British paratroopers photographed by a German.

Q: Wasn’t there an escape attempt on the trip?


SIMS: Yes, three glider pilots in the next car used escape saws that had been hidden in their uniforms to cut a hole in the roof and try to escape. Two vanished but as a third emerged he was hit by machine-gun fire from the rear of the train. We could hear him roll off the roof and fall on the track moaning in pain. We then heard a guard come up, cock his rifle, and then there was the sound of a shot. The moaning ceased. A guard dog got the second escapee, and the third gave himself up when he heard a German officer threaten to shoot every third man if he didn’t surrender. The escape hole was sealed, and off we went again.

Q: Describe your first impressions of Stalag XIB.


SIMS: Stalag XIB was near the town of Fallingbostel, Germany. It had taken us about three or four days of hell to travel the hundred miles or so from Holland. The Stalag was a large complex that had thousands of men of many different nationalities, including Russians, Poles,

Q: Describe the daily POW camp routine.


SIMS: Daily routine in the camp was started with a 7 AM roll call. The Germans counted us off in fives, and sometimes we shifted place to confound them. The enemy reacted by keeping us standing for hours and some men passed out or died. Then we were detailed for fatigues. Other than that, one walked the perimeter of the lager. Twice around and you were all in.

About midday the [rations] cart came around. We lined up and were given about a half-pint of watery soup and three small potatoes. After all was distributed there might be two or three potatoes left. The NCO stepped back and the fit men dived into the container, fighting over the potatoes. Following rations one might seek out old friends in a different hut, but then at 4 PM would be roll call before lights out. The electricity was on all day and off all night so we made small lights from a small tin container of fat and a bit of string as a wick.

Q: You went on work details outside the camp.


SIMS: Once I was selected for a large Kommando, or working party. The selection was arbitrary. Those with open wounds—like myself—had to go, while other able-bodied men stayed behind in the Stalag.

Sims made this sketch of the prison camp where he was held through the fall, winter, and spring of 1944-1945.

Sims made this sketch of the prison camp where he was held through the fall, winter, and spring of 1944-1945.

We were taken to a railway center at Uelzen, near Hanover. At first we thought escape would be easy but soon discovered that being wounded, coupled by lack of food and dysentery, put a stop to such notions. The main drawback, though, was not being able to speak the language. All of us suffered from malnutrition and other ailments.

Q: Describe the events that led to your liberation.


SIMS: Suddenly it was mid-April 1945, and it was obvious the war would soon be over. Still we marched to work on the railway, which was now a ruin. One day we were on a hill when we heard a strange noise in the sky. Looking up we saw a German aircraft without engines, just two pods under the wings [probably an Me-262, the first operational jet in the world]. Two USAAF Thunderbolts dived on it, and suddenly it was just a dot in the sky. We had never seen such speed—it must have been 400 mph plus. It left the Thunderbolts far behind. When the guards saw our bewilderment they boasted that this was another one of Hitler’s secret weapons that would drive us into the sea.
 It was finally decided that we would all be marched to Berlin. The British Scots sergeant who headed our Kommando gave us a talk to the effect that it was important to keep as a group and not go off on our own as the SS were even killing their own people who “deserted.” A fellow Para of the 2nd Battalion came up to me and asked me if I was going to escape with some others. “Didn’t you hear what the sergeant said?” I asked him. “But Jim,” he replied, “this will be our last chance for a medal.” “Bugger the medals,” I said, “I just want to get home to my folks.” I heard the SS caught that group, and they slit their throats and left their bodies in a ditch. You might think that one might have rejoiced in the fall of Germany but it was a terrible thing to witness.

Q: What are your recollections of the march?

SIMS: Firstly we marched along the main road and at one point we came across a burned-out bus filled with charred corpses. We arrived at a hamlet called Vinstedt and were told to dig slit trenches and take cover in them. Most of us were exhausted by the day’s events and had no spades anyway.

We were joined by Germans fleeing from the Red Army and its excesses. Our German guards surrendered to us, but when we saw vehicles coming we handed the guns back to them. This was just as well, as the vehicles were a half-track towing an 88mm gun. It was manned by an SS officer and fanatical Hitler Youth. He ordered us all to be gathered together and locked in a barn for the night, and gave instructions that we would continue our march to Berlin. As soon as he left we took charge again. It was a riotous night; when some of the POWs caught one of the worst of our guards who had deserted, they dragged him back before a kangaroo court and sentenced him to be hanged. They prepared to hang him, as we watched with no particular interest. Luckily for him the Durham Light Infantry arrived, part of the British 2nd Division. The next morning a British Bren gun carrier emerged from some woods and the whole Kommando swept toward it, nearly lifting it off the ground! We were free!

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Reassessing Rommel: Anti-Nazi Hero or Opportunist?

Reassessing Rommel: Anti-Nazi Hero or Opportunist?

Seventy years later, should the “Desert Fox” be considered an anti-Nazi hero or a faithful soldier turned opportunist?

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