This is the extraordinary tale of a Second World War Airman shot down and taken captive. Although never a successful escapee (he was caught down a tunnel and was sent to ‘the cooler’ for his efforts), his skills as an artist enabled him to help others by forging vital documents.
Jim Hunter’s war took a turn for the worse when he succeeded in hunting down the German battleship Scharnhorst and her escorts in the Atlantic. Displaying almost reckless bravery he and his fellow Beaufort crew members pressed home their attack before succumbing to the inevitable; a swim in the Atlantic. Rescued after a mercifully short time, Jim became a POW but his war was by no means over.
Fortunately he kept a diary throughout his captivity, in itself a hugely risky thing to do and it is this that forms the basis of this evocative memoir. Throughout it we gain a fascinating insight into ‘kriegie’ life; the comradeship, the frustration, the monotony and, above all, the restless urge of human spirit for freedom with the associated risk and excitement. Jim Hunter was not only a gifted writer but an artist of talent, as witnessed by the reproduction of a selection of his paintings which like his diary somehow survived the war. His draughtsmanship was also put to good use as a master forger of escape documents. He created the papers for Oliver Philpott, one of the ‘Wooden Horse’ escapers – and they were good enough to help him make his way back to England. Jim’s description of the hardships suffered during the closing stages of the war make for poignant reading. Although six foot tall, Jim weighed a mere 90 lbs when liberated.
From Coastal Command to Captivity is a superb read and a late, but great, addition to the bibliography of POW life during the Second World War.
Find out about the story behind the story! Read the article below on how this memoir came about.
Teamwork Brings Memoir to Publication
From Life Notes, the newsletter for the Blue Hills Writing Institute at Curry College
Sometimes even a really good story needs a helping hand. That’s exactly what happened with Jim Hunter’s memoir From Coastal Command to Captivity, to be published this July by Leo Cooper Books. In fact the memoir almost didn’t get written at all. Jim rarely spoke to anyone about his World War II experiences and resisted writing about them for years. “I knew there were important stories he needed to tell, but I didn’t know what they were,” said his son, Allan. “It was quite a challenge.”
Fortunately this is familiar territory for Allan, who leads this year’s “Finding Your Voice” concentration. It wasn’t exactly a smooth ride, however.
In fact it took several years of persuasion before the memories began to emerge. When they did the drafts filled three manuscript volumes. While not all of this was intended for publication-some are simply personal or family history – the Hunters, father and son, knew they had struck gold when looking at the war years. “My father began to write with unbelievable energy. He had found the heart of what he needed to write.”
The resulting memoir focuses on one day that changed forever the life of a Royal Air Force flier. On that overcast summer’s morning in 1941, Jim Hunter’s bomber made a lone attack against a German battleship and her six escorts. It was an act as heroic as it was foolhardy. On their second run at the battleship the aircraft was hit repeatedly and crash-landed into the sea. It was the sort of action that Britain’s airmen had been called upon to do all too frequently in those grim days of the war. Jim was lucky. He survived being shot down. He was also fortunate to be picked up before he succumbed to hypothermia. Then followed a different war: nearly four years of POW life. Through this time he kept a diary and – fortunately for us – a watercolor book in which he painted the details of prisoner life. Many of the pictures are reproduced in the memoir. His artistic masterpiece, however, was destroyed. This was the series of documents he forged for a fellow escaper who made it back to England. Each document represented untold hours of labor.
“My father was a modest man,” Allan said. “Without help he probably wouldn’t have taken the time to revisit his life story. As he did so he began to make sense out of a frightening and chaotic time. And his writing gives us an important truth. For he shows us that there is something far stronger even than the evil of a Hitler. It’s called human decency, and it exists when people look after each other and do what they know to be right, even in near impossible circumstances. His writing brought him to a place of peace, of understanding.”
Jim Hunter died before he could complete his memoir. He left instructions that Allan might like to ‘do something’ with it. The book is the result, in which Jim’s original narrative remains largely unaltered, but is prefaced by the background information necessary to a full understanding of the events. As Allan notes, like any memoir it is never really finished, for the more we learn about another’s life the more we want to know. Sometimes the memoirist glides over the very things a reader would like to stop and explore. In that sense every good story needs a helping hand.