An adventurous spirit

Paratrooper John Jeffries not only had an amazing war story to tell but just three years ago, at the age of 95, he completed his first sky dive since he dropped into the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden in 1944. His exploits gained national attention and led to conversations with Prince Charles, the Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment, about which was the scariest way to jump – they concluded that it was from a hot air balloon because the atmosphere was so still. “Since he died, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of messages from all over the world,” said his daughter, Lynn Tomkinson. “He would be so overwhelmed that so many people are making a fuss over him.”

Mr Jeffries was born in Warrington in Lancashire in 1922, but both his parents died within a couple of years and he grew up in an orphanage. He joined the Royal Signals in November 1941, and fought in North Africa Syria, Palestine and Italy, but came to consider wireless work a little boring. When he read about Winston Churchill forming a parachute regiment, he knew it would be more exciting and so volunteered.

Training was near Cairo, and rather basic: there were jumps from aircraft, but the men threw themselves out of the back of moving trucks to teach themselves how to land. It was all gearing up for Operation Market Garden, where the largest airborne force ever assembled was to land behind German lines in the Netherlands, capture bridges over the Rhine and so establish a new invasion route into Germany. Although 35,000 parachutists and glider pilots were involved in the operation, it was not a success.

Mr Jeffries landed on September 18, 1944, the second day, when all elements of surprise had gone. He was shot in the buttock by a sniper as he jumped from his aircraft, and as he landed on Ginkel Heath, the heavy wireless set crashed onto his ankle, leaving him unable to move. With the heathland alight around him, burning with thick acrid smoke, he lay there believing his number was up.

However, Dutch girls ran over to him, and asked for his parachute to make into dresses. Then he was spotted by a British captain, who relieved him of his wireless set and sent over the medics. In a field hospital, a Dutch doctor placed a wad of cotton wool soaked in iodine into his wound and, still bleeding, he was taken to a large house at Oosterbeek and lain on an upstairs floor.

The house had its side blown off by a mortar bomb, so he could see the Germans coming to capture him. Then he realised to his horror that he still had the secret codebook, printed on magnesium paper,that had been issued to wireless operators. Behind the backs of his captors, he persuaded a smoking soldier to put his lit cigarette to the magnesium paper, which went up with a bang.

After four days on the floor of a filthy cattle truck without food or water, and with injured men dying around him, he went by train to Stalag XI-B in Lower Saxony. To his relief, he was given prison clothing – he was still wearing the blood-encrusted uniform he’d been shot down in – and then medical attention. The prison doctor ripped out the pad which had been placed in his wound ten days earlier, causing immense pain.

Despite the poverty of meals – he was reduced to eating grass and weeds to supplement the meagre diet of cabbage or potato soup – he slowly regained his strength. When out on a route march, a pre-arranged fight broke out among the British prisoners to distract the guards, allowing Mr Jeffries and his friend, Sandy Powell, to make a break for it. After four days on the run, they stumbled into a clearing in the forest.

It appeared to be a deserted German airfield, with planes stacked on top of each other. Desperately tired, they fell asleep inside a plane, only to be awoken by members of the Luftwaffe pointing guns at them. It was only after the war that they released they had stumbled upon the Germans’ secret Mistel experiment – a small, piloted plane above a large plane packed with explosives that the pilot would release and then guide, like a drone, to its target.

Back in prison, Mr Jeffries was set to work in a sugar factory, where he narrowly survived an attempted assault by female Russian prisoners of war who tried to push him into a vat of molasses. He was liberated back to Lancashire, where he became an art teacher and met his wife, Mona. They teamed up so that John could teach at an “approved school” and Mona would be the housemother, and they crossed the Pennines to work at Richmond Hill School – the boys’ school in the former barracks in Gallowgate.

When that closed in 1982, he utilised his artistic skills to set up Rustic Crafts, making garden furniture and painting signs – his handiwork can be seen in the film A Woman of Substance and the TV series All Creatures Great and Small. In later years, he volunteered at the Broadacre Able Day Centre in Colburn, run by his daughter, Lynn, and in 2016, wrote a book of his wartime exploits entitled A Spirit for Adventure. About 15 years ago, he returned to Arnhem for the first time and in 2017, with the help of the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans and the Red Devils display team, he performed his first leap since 1944 at the Peterlee Parachute Centre.

“It was absolutely fantastic – it was a mixture of fear and elation,” he told The Northern Echo, and then a week later repeated the feat at Arnhem as part of the 73rd anniversary commemorations of the operation where he also met Boris Johnson. He was in Arnhem only last September for the anniversary where he unveiled the monument to the battle on Ginkle Heath. He died on August 30, surrounded by his family – his children Lynn and Paul and their partners, and his three grandchildren.

His funeral will be next Thursday at 1.30pm at St Mary’s in Richmond. Because of pandemic restrictions, only family members can attend, but it is hoped that standard bearers will be present outside. Donations are requested in lieu of flowers for the Kumi Community Foundation in Uganda, which provides prosthetics for children.

It is hoped that a proper memorial service will be held next year.

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