Veteran: I was lucky to escape with my life
James Harper signed up as an 18-year-old at a recruitment centre in Euston Road
08 November, 2018 — By Emily Finch
AMID fierce bombing by the Germans in Antwerp which saw dozens of his comrades cut down, James “Jim” Harper witnessed one of the most “wonderful” moments of the war.
He had signed up as a fresh-faced 18-year-old to the RAF Volunteer Reserve at a recruitment centre in Euston Road just eight months after the start of the Second World War.
Mr Harper, now 97 years old, spoke to the New Journal about his seven years in the RAF on the eve of Remembrance Sunday.
“When my squadron were going to the Antwerp docks, the Germans were bombing it. Someone shouted, ‘hello Jim!’ from another boat. The officers asked who was calling me but I couldn’t see who it was,” he said. When his boat docked he found his older brother John, who he had not seen for four years. John had joined the Royal Norfolk Regiment and the two men were separated with little news of each other’s welfare available.
He said: “I could not believe it. It was wonderful to see him. We were allowed 24 hours with each other, remembering home.” The brothers were then separated once again with Jim travelling through Belgium and he later fought in a fierce battle to capture Munster, Germany, towards the end of the war.
The two would meet again after peace was declared but John’s life was tragically cut short.
“He became a brewer for Whitbread. While playing football in Blackheath with his colleagues he collapsed and died. He was only 27, he left a wife and two little children. He would be 99 years old today,” said Mr Harper.
Almost 80 years on, Mr Harper still finds it hard to think of his injured or killed comrades. “I don’t like talking about it. I was lucky to escape with my life. After I came back so much had changed, so many of my friends had died or had moved away,” he said.
He recalls how the horrors of war followed him home while he was on leave after marrying his childhood sweetheart.
He said: “I’d just got married to Catherine. My wife’s father, he was about 50, was also on leave at the time for the wedding. They dropped a landmine, in Nash Court, Copenhagen Street, while we were in the Pembroke Castle pub. My father-in-law came in and shouted ‘Get yourself in a shelter as quick as you can. There’s a bomb coming down.’ I think they were targeting King’s Cross station.”
He added: “It was terrible. We didn’t have time to panic. It was strange to think it was safer fighting than at home.”
His love for Catherine, who worked as a printer during the war years, helped him survive.
“I thought about her all of the time,” said Mr Harper, who remained devoted to his wife until her death five years ago.
Asked what he thought about the war he said: “The war shouldn’t have happened. So many people were killed, but that’s just my opinion.”