A lifetime friendship: Jim Bourn

The adventures while on the run of Jim Bourn, who died in January 2012 aged 94, led to a lifetime friendship with an Italian family who gave him refuge. At one point, Jim and three others were walled up in a hiding place in the cellar while Germans occupied the rooms above.

Jim was born in Darlington, Co. Durham, where he also lived later in life. He served as a signal officer with the Fifth India Division but was captured in Libya in 1941. He was a prisoner at Padula, in south Italy, and then at PG19, Bologna.

In 1943, at his third attempt, he escaped through a network of sewers and was sheltered for about a year before breaking through the Gothic Line to rejoin the Allies in September 1944.

His benefactors were the Prati family, who lived at the “Lagune” of Bisano, in Monterenzio, near Bologna. In a moving tribute at Jim’s Memorial Service, the recollections of Aldo Prati, who was a boy of 13 at the time, were read out by Silvia Prati.

Aldo recalled: “At the time he arrived I was playing football with my brother when I heard a rustle that came from the wood that surrounded the house. I saw two people coming towards us, they were speaking a strange language, they were tired, suffering, unkempt, they had travelled a long way on foot and were soldiers. One of them spoke a few words to me in Italian, he asked me for water as they were extremely thirsty. This was Jim. The other was called Bernard [Henman].”

Aldo’s father advised them against joining the partisans and gave them food and blankets for their journey south, assuring them they could return to the Prati home if necessary. That indeed happened. Eight days after leaving, Jim and Bernard returned, in heavy snow, with Bernard ill.

The family sheltered them all winter, along with two American soldiers. The children were told to refer to them as “hunters”, so as not to give them away. When Germans were billeted there and used the house as an anti-aircraft battery, the house was bombed and badly damaged, but the cellar and hiding place resisted. The inhabitants were then liberated by US forces.

After the war, Jim joined the diplomatic service and became ambassador to Somalia. He returned frequently to see the Prati family. Aldo’s tribute concluded: “Jim, I thank you for your charisma, your ability, your friendship and affection that you have given to me and my family during your adventurous life.”