‘We started each day thinking we were going to die’ - Asterby war veteran shares his memories of the Second World War

War veteran Jim Auton

War veteran Jim Auton

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A quiet hamlet, tucked away in the heart of the beautiful Lincolnshire Wolds is probably the last place you would expect to find a highly decorated war veteran who bravely fought in the liberation of France during the Second World War.

But Asterby is where you will find Jim Auton.

At the age of 91, this amazing man is still learning about life.

As he talks about his war-time service, there’s a pile of language books nearby, mainly about Italian dialects and dictionaries. He’s visiting Italy later this year and wants to be prepared.

Jim’s written two books on his war experiences – and is hard at work on his third.

Inside his quaint country home, which he shares with his wife Peggy – they have been married for 67 years – Jim proudly talks about his latest achievement.

He’s already an MBE but has now received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur’ – the highest French honour – that is testament to his war-time heroics.

Jim has the French medal pinned to his navy blue suit jacket.

It is displayed alongside 12 other medals he has already received, including the Polish Cross of Valour and Czech Military Cross.

His is an incredible story – his memories of training to become a pilot and the 37 missions he flew behind enemy lines.

He talks freely about the night he was shot so many times he was left 80 per cent disabled. The injuries put an end to his RAF flying career.

Born in Bedfordshire, Jim was to follow in the ‘flightpath’ of his father, who served in the RAF, and Jim found himself growing up at numerous bases.

He went to school in Grantham and left at 16.

Within months, he volunteered for the RAF.

He says: “Being a pilot in the Royal Air Force was the only thing I wanted to do with my life.

“As a youngster, I used to pretend I was flying a plane and as soon as I could I joined up.

“It’s all any lad my age wanted to do...to become part of that elite members’ club – the flyers, the men at the very top of the chain.

“We were not old enough to drive or get married – but we were old enough to fly planes.

“We lived each day like it was our last, smoking and drinking anything we could lay our hands on.”

Little did Jim know that years later, he would be commended for his heroism.

The threat of German bombers meant many pilots were trained overseas.

Jim spent time in South Africa, with ‘stop offs’ in Egypt, the Middle East, Algeria and Italy. It took him two years to qualify.

He explains: “It was a long-winded wait to get trained fully. All we could do was sit around and wait. It was very frustrating as all we wanted to do was fight for our country and at the same time towns around us were being bombed and there was nothing we could do about it.”

Once he qualified, Jim joined the 178 squadron, flying B24 Liberators.

It was a heavy bombing squadron which was handed the task of bombing German transport lines in an attempt to delay reinforcements arriving during the invasion of southern France in August 1944.

Jim and his fellow airmen also supported the underground resistance in France – and partisans all across Europe. They often flew at below 200 feet, dropping off supplies.

He recalls: “I spent seven years in the RAF helping with the resistance and bombing Germans. I spent time as a pilot, but then went on to become a bomb aimer.

“We flew out most days, in broad daylight and at night. I never felt scared as you go out so many times, you get used to it and focus on the job in hand.

“We started off each day thinking we were going to die, but we lived for each day. I never hated the Germans. At the end of the day they had a job to do and so did we.

“The night I was shot in my plane multiple times, I thought I was going to die. It was the 37th time I had flown out and before then so many other people I knew had already died.

“I was shot just above my ear and my chest, and I am blind in one eye.”

Jim’s flying days ended then. He explains: “Due to the amount of wounds I had – and my general health – they said I couldn’t fly again, which made me very angry.

“I couldn’t progress to the rank of Warrant Officer. I had to settle for Flight Sergeant and, because I could no longer fly, my pay was cut down as well.”

But Jim’s life was far from over. Helped by his ever loyal and loving wife Peggy, he settled in Lincolnshire.

He carried on learning, built a profession in engineering and spent 30 years working alongside both the Polish and Czech presidents.

He launched his own companies – in the UK and abroad – buying and exporting goods. It wasn’t until many years after the war that Jim started to think about recording memories – but only for personal reading.

He adds: “When all my memories in the RAF came back, it was upsetting. The only way I could think of to get all of those thoughts out of my head was to write them down – not for anyone else, but for me. Many of my friends said I should write a book.

“I kept saying ‘no’, but after years and years of asking I finally gave in.”

The recollections of events in Jim’s books bring those war-time memories to life. After all, it is thanks to the dedication and bravery of men like him that we will never forget.