Airborne Engineers Association

Roll of Honour



Major PH James - Memoir by Pat Munro (formerly of 411 (R Bombay) Para Sqn RIE)


Major P H James - Born 17 June 1924 died 19 May 2009, aged 84

Author's note: An obituary of Major James was published in the Daily Telegraph on 11 June 2009. This was concentrated on his post army career, and did no justice to his army service.

Phil James' army career started in March 1942, when he started on a "Short University Course" for candidates for commissions in the RA, RE, R Sigs (and REME when it was formed). He volunteered to do his OCTU in India, and was commissioned in September 1943 from the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners (RBS&M) OCTU at Kirkee to serve with the RBS&M. He volunteered for AB Forces —The Para Sqn in Ind Para Bde was a RBS&M unit — but it was refused somewhere in its application path. A long time later he found out that paternal influence was the cause. He was then posted to 482 (R Bombay) Fd Coy, the Coy was initially stationed in Peshawar, but later moved to Razmak with a detachment subsequently in Wana, which Phil commanded. Life on the frontier was certainly no sinecure. The tribesmen would punish any error with live bullets. Whilst at Wana, Phil passed a Regular Commissions Board, but had to wait until his 21st birthday to be gazetted.

Late in 1944 the Ind Para Bde was expanded into a full AB Div. Phil heard that the CRE (Eric Kyte) had been appointed, so he visited Peshawar to see him, explaining that he had volunteered for 411 in 1943, but his application had been blocked somewhere in the procedural chain. The CRE offered him the appointment of IORE, which Phil readily accepted. In 1945, just before VE Day, Phil was transferred to 33 (KGV's 0 Bengal) Para Sqn as a Tp Comd, moving on to be the 2ic a few months later. In 1946 the OC, a pre war regular, returned to the UK, and his successor was deemed "Unsuitable for AB Forces" by the new CRE (Lt Col Henniker DSO OBE MC, the first CRE of 1 AB Div and a pre war Bengal Sapper), who then offered Phil the appointment of OC, at the ripe old age of 22!

In 1947, only 10 weeks notice was given by the Viceroy of the date of partition, when two independent countries, India and Pakistan would be created. Lord Mountbatten arbitrarily chose the date (the second anniversary of the surrender of Japan) without reference either to London or New Delhi. Intercommunal disturbances, particularly in the Northern Punjab, had already broken out, albeit at a low level, but they immediately intensified. Troops were deployed to keep the peace under the auspices of the "Punjab Boundary Force" (PBF). It was hopelessly inadequate (the inhabited border in the split Punjab was as long as the English/Welsh border). As part of the PBF, 33 Para Sqn was deployed from Quetta to Amritsar, being based at the Railway Station. Their task was to collect terrified Muslim refugees, protect them and escort them to the railway station where they would go, under protection, by rail to Pakistan. A troop was based at the station, the other two operated in mobile sections herding the refugees to the station.

On 14 August 1947, two of Phil's officers, who were involved in refugee collection and escorting, were informed that Muslim refugees were been shot at from a police post on the city's outskirts. They drove to the post, which was located in a tower in the city's walls, dismounted and walked towards the post. The detachment in the post, opened fire and threw grenades. The officers were killed instantly. The Havildar (Sgt) escort and the driver were not wounded, drove off and reported the incident to Phil. Phil collected a tp pf 33 and drove to the post, intending, if need be, to eliminate the post. On arrival he met a British Officer who asked Phil if he would let him sort it out. There had been a detachment of 5 Raj Rif in the post, commanded by an officer who had served in the Indian National Army (INA), and had participated in the shooting. The INA had been recruited, not successfully, from Indian POWs captured in Malaya and Singapore. Most of them had been recruits hardly out of basic training (some had not even completed it). This officer had been classified as a "Grey" (case of collaboration not proven), and, somehow, had been allowed to remain in the service. That night Phil was woken up by the noise of vehicle engines being started. He got up and found that the Pathan element of 33 wanted their revenge, and were formed up to "Visit" 5 Raj Rif. It took Phil almost an hour to talk them out of taking their revenge. Luckily he had been in the Sqn quite a long time, spoke Urdu fluently and could get by in Pushtu (the mother tongue of Pathans), and, lastly, he was very highly respected by the Sqn. The consequences of a Muslim tp (60+ strong) attacking a weakened Hindu company and a Sikh police post would have been calamitous. After this incident, 33 were moved to Sialkot in Pakistan.

Phil returned to the UK in October 1947 and was posted to 6 AB Div Engrs in Palestine. Following an engineering degree course, his postings included a Fd Engr Regt in BAOR, Staff College, a staff appointment in Singapore (where, on completion, Phil and his wife drove back to the UK, calling in Pakistan to visit his Subadar from 33 (Saif Ali, then a major if the Pakistan Engineers), and finally the OC of an I ndep Fd Sqn in the UK.

He married Rosemary in 1948, having previously met her on leave from India, and is survived by her and four of their five children. One son is a Lt Col in the Queen's Royal Hussars, and a grandson is a Capt in the Army Air Corps.



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