JIM Simpson's extraordinary war story begins with a pair of knitting needles, writes RICCARDA BURLEY
Jim Simpson would have to be the toughest man to ever pick up a pair of knitting needles.
The former prisoner of war, who spent more than 19 months in Germany's World War II prison camps, not only survived interrogations and torture but managed to knit arguably Australia's most valuable war artefact, outside a museum.
Jim's rug is a perfectly preserved 1.83m x 1.9m knitted woollen blanket, featuring the map of Australia and the Coat of Arms.
"I knitted it with straightened handles from the camp's cooking pots; they looked like pieces of number eight wire," Jim says.
"The cook agreed to give them to me if I knitted him a pair of socks."
Jim credits his mum and his practical bushman's upbringing in the Nariel Valley, near Corryong, for his knitting skills.
"It's one of those things, if you put your mind to it, you can do it. I could even turn the heel of a sock as a kid," he says.
Jim left the family farm and joined the Air Force at 25 - not for the glories of war but because "I couldn't stay home and have people dying on my account".
He did flight training in Tasmania, was made an observer after being told he couldn't follow orders and ended up flying over Germany in a Lancaster Bomber.
"We were about eight or 10 miles (12-16km) out of Hanover and a kite (plane) went down 300 yards (274m) from us portside.
"I yelled to the pilot to swing hard or we'd be next. He argued and 30 seconds later we were hit."
For the farm boy from Nariel, the next few minutes were the stuff of nightmares.
"The bullets opened up both sides of the plane, all of a sudden I could see both engines. It was all happening so quickly your eyes couldn't transfer to your mind what was happening," Jim says.
"We had a great fire in the back - the mid upper gunner and wireless operator were roasted - and the rest of us parachuted. The navigator was shot dead when he hit the ground."
Jim, who injured his back and hips when the chute opened at such high speed, landed undetected but was later picked up by a German guard.
After a brief ruse of pretending he was French, Jim was incarcerated at Hildesheim and suffered starvation, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.
He was later moved to Stalag IVB.
"When I got there the other prisoners pointed to my white pullover, beautiful thing it was, and said 'you'll lose that'. The Germans were confiscating all warm garments and sending them to the Russian front."
With that, he went to the toilet and dismantled his jumper, earning himself another stint in solitary confinement.
The white jumper, once Jim had procured his "knitting needles" became the map of Australia and ensuing Red Cross parcels of woollen socks made up the rest of the blanket.
"It was great, once it was half done I slept under it. It was lovely and warm."
Although huge, Jim says the rug took only six weeks to knit and it survived numerous attempts by others to take it.
When peace was declared, German infrastructure collapsed and prisoners had to forage for food.
"I was out getting food when our compound was marched out to Riesa," Jim says.
"Luckily, my good friend Rudd Penny collected the rug and all my belongings, took them with him and left us a note to catch up.
"By the time we got back, the place was being ransacked, I would have lost it all for sure."
For Jim the next few days were a desperate bid to get to Liepzig and to safety and, despite having to fight for his life more than once, he never lost sight of his precious rug.
Sixty-four years later, his rug is still in a military duffle bag at his Nariel Valley home and is highly coveted by the Australian National War Memorial.
He will display it at the Corryong's Man from Snowy River Museum, which recently won a $50,000 grant to build a climate-controlled room to house the rug, where it can stay for future generations to enjoy and in the ownership of the Simpson family.
- Man from Snowy River Museum, Corryong Ph: (02) 6076 2600 or go to www.manfromsnowyrivermuseum.com