Friday, 12 November 2010
HAPPY BIRTHDAY BILLY
By Paul Myles-Kelly
AS the nation commemorated Armistice Day yesterday, a Tyneside hero revealed for the first time in almost 70 years his part in one of the great naval disasters of the Second World War.
Billy Jager, who today celebrates his 90th birthday, has finally spoken publicly on the sinking of the battleship HMS Barham by a German U-boat in the eastern Mediterranean on November 25, 1941.
When the vessel perished, an estimated 861 seamen lost their lives.
And of the 450 who survived, Mr Jager, of The Lonnen, South Shields, is one of only a handful still around to tell the tale.
The former pitman, who had just turned 21 at the time, jumped from the battleship after the first of three torpedoes hit, and was later picked up by a fishing vessel.
Minutes later, two further torpedoes struck, causing devastation captured on remarkable film footage shot by a journalist on another vessel sailing close by.
But for Mr Jager, the events that followed the tragedy proved just as remarkable.
The German U-boat scuttled off immediately after the bombing, and its crew was unaware if the torpedoes had struck their target.
As a result, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered a media blackout, and the fate of the Barham was kept out of the British press.
In the aftermath, Mr Jager's parents, Annie and Charles, of St Cuthbert's Avenue, Horsley Hill, South Shields, were informed their son was among those to have perished.
It was a belief they held for almost another year – until their son walked up their garden path.
Mr Jager recalled: "My brother Tommy looked out of the window and told my parents that I was coming up the path.
"My mother told him not to be silly, that I was gone. When they opened the door, my mother collapsed when she saw me."
The sinking of the Barham remained a secret for another month – under Government instructions.
Now not a day goes by when widower Mr Jager, father to nine daughters, grandfather to 21 and great-grandfather to 22, does not think of the day the Barham, sunk almost 69 years ago. Mr Jager, who finished his working life as a caretaker at South Tyneside College, added: "I can never believe they are so sure how many died on the Barham. So many weren't even meant to be on board that day. I was only on the ship because HMS Formidable, which I had been on, was struck by heavy bombs and I was transferred. The memories of that day will never fade."
Mr Jager's granddaughter, Joanne Clark, 39, of Seaburn, Sunderland, said: "My grandfather doesn't like to make a fuss.
"He's a very private man – he's not even having a party for his birthday. But he went through so much in the service of his country, and it's right that he's speaking out now on Remembrance Day. He represents everything that's great about this country."
Log on to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HSY94QVIss to see footage of HMS Barham sinking.