Obituary: Jim West, war veteran and charity worker

Jim West, who has died at 98, served as a member of Winston Churchill’s “underground army”, the Special Operations Executive, during the Second World War and went on to complete an ambitious motorcycle tour of post war Europe before settling in Leeds to a lifetime of charitable work.

Jim West
Jim West

Jim West, who has died at 98, served as a member of Winston Churchill’s “underground army”, the Special Operations Executive, during the Second World War and went on to complete an ambitious motorcycle tour of post war Europe before settling in Leeds to a lifetime of charitable work.

A native of Dublin, he saw service in North Africa, Italy, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Durban and at the Allied codebreaking base at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. After the hostilities he was made an honorary member of the prestigious and secretive Special Forces Club.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

It was a service career that began at 19, when he volunteered to join the tank regiment. Turned down on account of his eyesight, he found himself instead on a troop ship from Liverpool en route to North Africa, with the 78th Division of the Royal Corps of Signals. The Allied invasion of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia was about to begin, and Mr West’s unit was called to reinforce the Americans on the front line.

It was around then that he was recruited to the Special Operations Executive as a communications specialist. The SOE had been formed to wage war and support the resistance behind enemy lines. Initially they were outside Algiers, mainly focused on training signalmen to be dropped behind enemy lines in Southern France, but also in China and the Far East – and Mr West recalled seeing Chinese paratroopers practicing at the Algerian headquarters. In Italy, coded messages were passed behind enemy lines on silk handkerchiefs, which could be burned in the event of capture.

One message had only five words on it. It was from Randolph Churchill, then serving in Yugoslavia, and read: “Happy Birthday, dad. Son

Randolph”.

In October 1944 Mr West – by now a Sergeant – travelled the length of Italy in a three-ton truck from Monopoli, via Rome, which had been liberated a week earlier, to Siena, and worked in a mobile signal van outside a farmhouse,camped in tents. With the hostilities over, he travelled by troopship from Naples and disembarked in Southampton before reporting to Bletchley Park.

But after only two months in the UK he was posted to Kenya, to relieve older troops who were in an earlier release group. He was then sent to Somalia for three months, dealing with tribal conflict in Ethiopia.

After demob he settled in Leeds, and in 1951 set off with his friend, Derek Saul, on a motorbike and sidecar across Europe. They had got only as far as the A1 at Wetherby before the sidecar grounded, forcing Mr West to make the rest of the journey riding pillion.

Travelling via Holland, Germany and Austria, they eventually entered the Russian zone by way of the Semmering Pass through the Alps.

Back home Mr West forged a career in the paper industry and in 1959 became founder member of Leeds Skyrack Lions, which raised money for the less privileged. He became president and served with the organisation until his death, receiving last year its highest award for 60 years’ service.

He was also a playing member at Headingley Golf Club until four ago and served as captain and president.

His wife, Joyce, died in 2015 and he is survived by his daughter, Barbara, son, Nigel and five grandchildren. Another son, Julian, predeceased him.