Shortly after 3pm on August 7th 1942, a Bristol Bombay transport plane took off from the desert airfield of Burg-el-Arab, the tented headquarters of the British Eighth Army. It was heading across the desert to the Heliopolis military hospital on the banks of the Nile.

At the controls was Jimmy James, a nineteen-year-old pilot from a coal-mining village in South Wales. The summer heat of the Sahara had turned James’s cockpit, a bubble of thin Perspex, into an oven; but James was relieved to be airborne. His main concern at that moment was to get out of the battle zone as quickly as possible. For although the Bristol Bombay was held in considerable affection among the troops of the Eighth Army, who dubbed her the “mother duck” because she was the chief deliverer of the troops’ mail, she was an antiquated plane that had been withdrawn from service in Europe, and her fixed undercarriage and slow speed made her an easy target for enemy fighters. 

On that hot summer’s day Jimmy James was making his journey back to the hospital later than usual. He had only  arrived at the front line at about two thirty and had then been further delayed when, waiting on the runway for the mailsacks to be offloaded, and the wounded soldiers to be ferried onto the plane on their stretchers, he had suddenly been told to wait.

“Switch off your engines!” a voice had yelled at him from the hut. “There’s an important passenger on his way you’re to take with you.”  
Just then two staff cars pulled up. Out of one of them emerged General “Strafer” Gott. James recognised the tall bear-like figure immediately; Gott was one of the most popular generals in the desert, a large, rugby-playing, former infantry battalion commander.

With a loud voice and pugnacious spirit. What James didn’t know was that Churchill had just appointed him commander of the Eighth Army. After being told of his promotion, Gott had asked Churchill for a few days of leave in Cairo before taking up his new command.

Then, rather than demand his own plane, he had insisted on hitching a ride on the first troop carrier he could find.

“Are you the captain?” the General asked James.

“Yes sir,” replied the coalminer’s son. “I’m terribly sorry, sir, I don’t have a hat. I can’t salute you.”

“My boy, don’t worry about that,” Gott smiled. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yes, sir.”

With relief, James showed the General to his seat in the back among the stretchers swinging from the hooks in the ceiling, and apologised for the lack of space and comfort. Again, Gott reassured him: “Don’t worry about me, I’ll sit anywhere.”

That August, Hitler and the Third Reich were invincible. In the space of three short years, all of Western Europe with the exception of Britain had fallen under their control, and it seemed only a matter of time before Britain too would be forced to bow  before Berlin. Morale within the British army was very low. Having been driven out of Europe at Dunkirk the previous year, there was now only one place on earth that the British army was actually engaging German forces, and that was in the desert sands of North Africa. Yet here, too, defeat piled upon defeat.

The German commander in North Africa, Erwin Rommel, and his Afrika Corps had attained an almost mythic status among German and British troops alike. In little more than seven months they had pushed the mighty British Empire back a thousand miles, from Tripoli through Libya and Egypt, right to the gates of Cairo.  Beyond that lay Palestine and the rich oil fields of Iraq and Iran; if Germany could secure access to the oil of the Middle East it would have enough fuel to run its armies indefinitely and the Allies would be crippled.

Churchill was acutely embarrassed by the performance of his desert forces. Two months earlier, in June 1942, Rommel had captured the key city of Tobruk in a single day, taking 35,000 British soldiers prisoner. When the Germans then crossed into Egypt, the Middle East Command drew up plans to evacuate into Palestine. In the streets of Cairo, Egyptians jeered the British imperialists, chanting “Advance Rommel”.

Desperate to prove to his American allies that Britain could stand up against the Germans, Churchill bombarded his generals with telegrams, ordering them to stop retreating and to go on the offensive. “Defeat is one thing: disgrace is another,” he wrote despairingly in his diaries. In an attempt salvage the situation, General Claude Auchin- leck, the commander of the Eighth Army, ordered a defensive line to be built at the tiny village of El Alamein; it was a well chosen spot with the sea on one flank and the vast salt marsh of the Qattarah Depression, which was impenetrable to all vehicles, on the other.

By August, he had forced the Afrika Corps to a standstill.

Rommel’s huge advance had taken him far from his supplies and his troops were beginning to suffer; he lacked petrol for his tanks, and some days the German soldiers were having to survive in the desert heat on half a cup of water a day. The Germans still had the momentum, however, and among the British troops there was a mood of defeatism; Auchinleck was so in awe of Rommel’s reputation that he banned all mention of his name around his headquarters.

Exasperated and impatient for results, Churchill flew out to Cairo on 3rd August 1942, intending to instil some backbone into the British forces. He was looking for a larger than life figure, someone with swagger and self-confidence, who believed he could beat Rommel and drive a dagger through the bogey of retreat. He settled on General William Gott.


Behind the perspex canopy in the “mother duck”, James sweated even more than normal; he had never flown a VIP before. But he barely had time to focus on the implications. As he lifted off the desert floor, the temperature gauge showed that his engines were overheating. He needed to climb quickly up to the cooler air, but until he was out of enemy range he was forced to fly at 50 feet to avoid detection. The Bristol Bombay was not only flying alone, it was virtually unarmed. The Royal Air Force was so short of weapons that they had replaced the two Vickers guns in the tail turret with wooden dummies. Its normal complement of two gunners had been replaced by a single medical orderly.

James had been airborne only three or four minutes when two Messerschmitts appeared from behind. He heard a loud bang and looked out to see the starboard engine stuttering. Then came  cannon tracers ripping through the wing. Flames sucked out of the engine, filling the cockpit with oily black smoke. James began searching frantically for somewhere to land and at the same time yelling at the Second Pilot to get the Medical Orderly from the back. There was another bang and the propeller on the port side started to slow. The plane was now gliding without power. James pulled back the controls to gain as much height as he could while he still had speed. He saw the pair of Messerschmitt 109s hurtle past once more; this time they punctured his main fuel tanks and fuel began pouring into the stricken aircraft between the cockpit and the passenger area. As he looked back he could see that his wireless operator had been badly injured in the arm.

“Get all the wounded off the stretcher hooks and lie them on the floor,” James yelled.
Ahead, the desert sloped away in a long descent. James glided the plane down and with flying skill well beyond his years gently touched the front wheels onto the desert floor. The crosswind held up the tail, preventing the rear wheels from landing. He dared not use his brakes in case the plane flipped. Struggling to see through the smoke in the cockpit, he tried to swerve between the rocks strewn over the sand, kicking his rudders one way and then the other. It felt as if he was driving a ten-ton truck. He could see his charred hands on the control stick but the pain seemed far away. Slowly the tail came down; he began to apply the brakes. There was no response. The brake cables had been shot away. All he could do was to keep the plane upright and wait for the soft sand to slow the plane’s momentum.

Gradually his speed dropped: 70, 60, 50 miles an hour. When the dial reached 40, James told the Second Pilot to warn the passengers to stand by to evacuate. “Get the back door off and when I give the word drop them onto the sand.”

Smoke choked his lungs. The Messerschmitts were returning for a third run. 

“Stand by! Open the hatch on the cockpit floor,” James yelled at the medical orderly.

The “mother duck” hit a patch of soft sand and the speed dropped sharply. Peering back through the smoke James thought he saw someone in the back giving a thumbs up. “Now!” he shouted.

The wireless operator, Medical Orderly and Second Pilot disappeared through the hatch in the floor and suddenly James was alone. Hoping he’d done everything he could, he slid off his seat and crawled towards the hole in the floor as cannon fire ripped open the Perspex canopy above his head.

The plane groaned to a halt and he sank onto the desert floor.

He was surprised to find that, instead of making a six-foot fall, he hit the sand only a foot away – the Bombay’s landing gear had finally buckled. It had bumped along the desert floor for over eight miles. He scrambled out of the smoke into the searing afternoon sun, expecting to find 20 people scattered behind, but there were just four: the wounded Wireless Operator, the Second Pilot, a wounded soldier and the Medical Orderly.

“The passengers – where are they?” he asked incredulously.

They pointed at the burning plane which was beginning to change shape, twisting and buckling in the heat.

“The rear door is jammed.”

James stared at the door, watching as the camouflage paintwork blistered. Flames billowed furiously in the wind. When he tried to approach, he was blown back. The new commander of the Eighth Army was being incinerated. Telling the Medical Orderly to look after the others, James set out across the desert to try to find help. His shoes and socks were burned, his shorts frayed, his shirt in shreds. He could see that one of his boots was full of blood. Alternating between walking and jogging, he covered about three miles, before passing out on top of a sand ridge. Several hours later, some passing Tuareg tribesmen spotted the figure. Picking him up, they laid him across one of their camels  and brought him to a nearby Army post. From there a rescue party was sent out, guided by the column of smoke on the horizon, but by the time they reached the plane, it was a charred shell.