Centurian Jim's skills in the desert gave him vital role during World War 2
Published on: 11 Apr 2017
by Rebecca Day
“Don’t take the lift, run up the stairs.” These are the wise words of advice from Second World War veteran Edward James Perrett, who has just celebrated his 100th birthday.
Known to many as ‘Jim’, the local resident marked the special occasion alongside family and friends at his home in Filton Avenue.
Reflecting on the past century, Jim can recall events in his life as if they happened yesterday. Particularly fond memories were purchasing his first motorcycle, a 1923 Douglas, and riding off into the countryside for long weekends camping.
When the Second World War broke out, it was Jim’s passion for motorbikes that secured him a job in the armed forces as a dispatch rider, where he was responsible for transporting urgent orders and messages between military units on his bike.
Born on March 30 1917, Jim grew up in Bedminster before moving to Filton at the age of 10. His parents bought the home he now lives in for just £400.
“There were new homes being built on the outskirts of the city, so we would go on the tram every Sunday to look at houses. I remember coming to look around this place and my parents being taken aback by the garden,” he said.
Back then, Filton Avenue was a narrow lane which went up as far as Jim’s next-door neighbour’s house. Opposite, were vast swathes of countryside where Jim would venture on his bicycle or go tobogganing in the winter. Jim also recalled collecting cricket balls for a tuppence after cricket matches at the civil service club across the road.
When Jim was 15, he bought his first motorcycle, which he taught himself to fix and maintain. In 1937, he joined Fishponds and District Motorcycle Club, where he took part in various racing trials.
When the Second World War broke out, experienced motorcyclists were guaranteed jobs in the army as dispatch riders. Jim was one of three motorcyclists from the club to volunteer for the role.
He was posted out to North Africa, where allied forces were fighting against Axis powers – the Germans, Italians and Japanese. It was while he was transporting messages across North Africa on his motorbike that he was caught up in the siege of Tobruk, where German and Italian forces beleaguered the Libyan port for almost eight months.
“We had no clue what was happening in the rest of the world – I was totally oblivious to the situation in London. We were kept in the dark about a lot of things because they wanted to keep our moral high.”
Jim was held there for four month before being rescued by HMS Phoebe and taken back to the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt. “We were snuck out to the ship at midnight – it was real darkness, we couldn’t see a thing. I also remember the sailors on board bringing us cups of tea.”
HMS Phoebe was crossing the perimeter into Tobruk when it was hit by a German shell, blasting a hole in the bowel of the ship. The boat was later returned to the United States to undergo repair. “We had a joke on board the ship that when it zigged, water came in and when the boat zagged, the water came out.”
Back in Egypt, Jim spent some time as a telegraph operator, sending and receiving Morse code. “I could send Morse code quite well, but when the person on the other end would return the message at the same speed, I wouldn’t be able to understand it. I didn’t get on with it very well at all.”
Jim then took a test to become a mechanic and acquired a German sidecar, which he would use to carry out various repair jobs on broken down vehicles.
Shortly after, Jim was struck with a bout of jaundice and was hospitalised for a week. Once recovered, he was posted to Wadi Halfa in Sudan where he carried out breakdown maintenance for the Long Range Desert Group – he was assigned the role because of his expertise in desert navigation.
After four years and 10 months serving in North Africa, Jim was sent back to England where he was granted a month’s leave. “I arrived back in Temple Meads around midnight. When I turned up at home, my father answered the door and said, ‘I knew you were coming, your friend popped by to say to expect you’.”
The remainder of Jim’s army career was spent in Wrotham, Kent where he became a motorcycle instructor at a cadet training unit.
“I fought a lucky war I’d say – there was a bomb that should have got me, but it never went off.”
When Jim’s army career came to an end, he returned home to work at the Bristol Omnibus Company – the city’s dominant bus operator at the time – as a semi-skilled engine fitter and later on, an engineering training officer.
Jim was also a member of the local badminton club, where he met his wife Betty. Together, they had two children Christine and David, who gifted the couple with five grandchildren.
Jim recollects many happy memories bringing up his family in Filton. Once the children flew the nest, Jim and Betty enjoyed memorable camping holidays in the Outer Hebrides and weekend sailing trips across to Beaulieu on the edge of the New Forest.