‘Hello, Jim!’: Amid bombs, a miracle moment for brothers
97-year-old veteran recalls how he was lucky to escape Second World War with his life
09 November, 2018 — By Emily Finch
James ‘Jim’ Harper
AMID fierce bombing from the Germans in Antwerp, 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 Tribune about his seven years in the RAF on the eve of Remembrance Sunday from his home by Highbury Fields.
“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,” said Mr Harper.
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.
“I could not believe it,” said Mr Harper. “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 later fighting in a fierce battle to capture Munster towards the end of the war.
The brothers would meet again after peace was declared but John’s life was tragically cut short.
“He became a brewer for Whitbread,” said Mr Harper. “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.”
Almost 80 years on, Mr Harper still finds it hard to think of his comrades who were injured or killed. “I don’t like talking about it,” he said. “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 recalled how the horrors of war followed him home while he was on leave after marrying his childhood sweetheart.
Jim’s wife Catherine
Mr Harper 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.”