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Incredible escape of SAS hero: Daily Mirror

SAS Band of Brothers: Daily Express
May 7, 2014

Incredible escape of SAS hero who jumped from train after losing eye in mission - from The Daily Mirror


 
H alf-blinded after parachute mission to blow up a Nazi airfield, SAS hero and Liverpudlian James Quentin Hughes escaped firing squad by jumping from a train, trekking to Italian resistance... and nearly drowning at sea

Former 80 years ago, in July 1941, the very first SAS undertook daring covert operations behind enemy lines during the Second World War. A new book, SAS Great Escapes, by Damien Lewis, charts seven SAS survival stories. One of them, Liverpudlian James Quentin Hughes, 23, succeeded in his mission, but once captured, escaped captivity and death repeatedly, despite being blinded in one eye, later receiving the Military Cross. Hughes returned home and became a famous architect. He died in 2004. In this extract, Damien recounts what happened after a mission, in January 1944, to sabotage planes in Italy. Separated from their team, James ‘Jimmy’ Quentin Hughes, a young lieutenant, and troop commander, Major Antony Widdrington chose to continue their task alone and set off on a 60 mile journey to the airfield . . .

Once it was well and truly dark, they crept towards the northern boundary, laden with explosives and timers. Hughes reported, ‘At 23.00 hours we prepared our bombs and placed them on the starboard wings...’

Once they were clear, Hughes flung himself down and began to deactivate his unused charges. Nearby, Widdrington doing the same. At that moment there was a flash of blinding white light and heat. One of Widdrington’s charges had blown up even as he was deactivating it. Dazed and bloodied, Hughes struggled to stand. He touched his face. It was crisscrossed with deep lacerations, and when he felt for his eyes all he could sense was ‘a mass of pulp.

“I was blinded and nearly completely deaf,” Hughes recalled, of the nightmarish moment. He sank to his knees, patting the ground ahead of him and shouted his commander’s name. Over the ringing in his ears he heard a moan. As he pawed the man’s body, he smelled the scent of burning flesh. Shortly, he realised the explosion had blown off both of Widdrington’s hands.


 

At that instant, the airfield all around them erupted into flames. As aircraft after aircraft exploded, Hughes realised that against all odds, their objective had been achieved. Realising that there was very little chance of saving his commanding officer’s life, unless he could be rushed to a hospital, he took his pistol and raised it above his head. Shakily he fired every bullet, hoping he could draw the German sentries’ attention. When eventually he came back to his senses, he found himself in a German military hospital just outside Perugia. Sadly, the guards had been unable to save Widdrington. With both eyes bandaged and his hearing severely damaged, Hughes was still of great interest to the Gestapo agents who were keen to interrogate him. He could hear the arguments in German raging at his bedside. The head doctor was refusing to allow the Gestapo to get near his patient before he was well enough.

Once it was well and truly dark, they crept towards the northern boundary, laden with explosives and timers. Hughes reported, ‘At 23.00 hours we prepared our bombs and placed them on the starboard wings...’

Once they were clear, Hughes flung himself down and began to deactivate his unused charges. Nearby, Widdrington doing the same. At that moment there was a flash of blinding white light and heat. One of Widdrington’s charges had blown up even as he was deactivating it. Dazed and bloodied, Hughes struggled to stand. He touched his face. It was crisscrossed with deep lacerations, and when he felt for his eyes all he could sense was ‘a mass of pulp.

“I was blinded and nearly completely deaf,” Hughes recalled, of the nightmarish moment. He sank to his knees, patting the ground ahead of him and shouted his commander’s name. Over the ringing in his ears he heard a moan. As he pawed the man’s body, he smelled the scent of burning flesh. Shortly, he realised the explosion had blown off both of Widdrington’s hands.

The Gestapo had decreed Hughes, a potentially dangerous paratrooper-raider, not be allowed near any of the other Allied prisoners. But his German military physician, Dr Hansgunger Sontgerath, was to become a friend. The doctor did everything he could to save Hughes’ sight. Gradually, Hughes’ vision returned in one eye. But as Hughes’ health improved, Sontgerath could no longer prevent the Gestapo from getting access to him. He was not to be considered a Prisoner of War – instead, a Kommando Order had been issued by the Führer, under which all “saboteurs, whether wearing uniform or civilian clothes, will be shot”. He was told once he made a full recovery, the Gestapo would return to execute him.

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