Jim was born in Hull. His two brothers both went off to the war at sea. The older, John Henry known as Jack, born in 1922, was at 17 the youngest to qualify as a wireless operator, and Jim said the youngest wireless operator to be lost at sea at any time, when at the age of 18 his ship, S.S. Cree, was torpedoed on 22nd November 1940. Jim’s middle brother Fred had gone to sea in rescue tugs in 1942; called T124T, the men who sailed in them were known as the Tattie Lads! In 1944 Jim had wanted to go to sea, but when he went down to the Shipping Office in Hull was told that, at 15, he was too young and to come back next year. Next door was another office, that of the United Towing Co. Jim asked if there was a job and after hearing the reply, “of course,” he got a berth on the Hull river tug, Bureaucrat. He was on about 2s 6d an hour - not bad money as a Galley Boy. After about three weeks, the captain was transferred to the Deep Sea Rescue tug, Empire Larch, 487 tons gross, and he asked Jim if he would like to come with him. It meant more money, maybe sixpence… Jim then returned to the Shipping Office with his new discharge book and told them he had joined the bigger tug, and without asking his age he was given a seaman’s book - he could now join anything and go anywhere - he was a galley boy at the age of 15.
Empire Larch left the Humber in the worst weather seen in 40 years - so bad a destroyer capsized and sank. They sailed north without any clear idea as to why, and on a long north about voyage round the tip of Scotland gathered up some 70 old ships, rust-buckets, which they and other Tugs escorted down the Irish Sea. When they reached the Bristol Channel they sailed up towards Bristol and back, again and again, without any idea as to why. This they did for 36 to 48 hours (Eisenhower had been deliberating the decision as to when to go) before being directed to Falmouth and Pool Harbour. Then the orders came, and Jim and his tug set off with what were to be block ships to form the outer breakwater for the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanche beach, code named Gold.
From the 1960s, Jim, whose politics were left of Genghis Khan, became a campaigner for many causes. He was an early member of the Committee of 100 and became their spokesman on occasion when fighting against British support for the Vietnam war. He fought for the homeless and was arrested and served time in prison - two months for the Brighton Church protest. He was arrested during the ‘Fill the Jails’ campaign in 1961 and taken to West End Central police station several times in the same day. All the cells were full and he recollected, “We were told to wait in reception. I did just as I encouraged others to - we just walked out and sat in the road again, all nice and peaceful.” Jim was a founder member of Veterans For Peace and was also involved in the Kings Hill Hostel for the homeless campaign at West Malling, Kent in 1966/7, when the conditions in former wartime accommodation at the airfield were in dispute. There were also various Shelter campaigns. He was often to be seen fronting protests in Trafalgar Square, and he was a long-time supporter of the Mayday Tugs of War association. On one occasion, he was with a determined group at the appointed hour who, with only wrist watches to coordinate them, invaded the stages and stopped every Central London theatre production. His theatre had royal attendance, stymying any chance of an MBE, no doubt.
Jim was, at the time of his passing, the youngest D-Day veteran. It was after attending the 25th anniversary, when he saw kids with sandcastles on the beaches, that he started to write his seminal song which was not finished for 20 years and is now an iconic reminder (having been a chart topper ahead of Bieber and Sheeran when raising funds for the belated British D-Day Memorial). I was with The Shanty Crew in 2004 at the Walton-on-Naze (now Harwich) Shanty Festival when, in the Three Mariners at the afters session, with the doors locked, curtains drawn, lights turned down low, and the bar smoke filled, Jim was requested by Malcolm Ward to sing his song, The Shores Of Normandy (The Dawning Of The Day was just the perfect melancholy tune to set it to). By the time Jim had finished, there was a room full of people in tears, including Jim. At another time I had occasion to sit with Jim in the camper van, and we being wrapped round a bottle of rum I asked about the song. Jim said, “I don`t get quite like that now.” He also said, “I wrote Ryan Air on the back of an envelope in 20 minutes - some songs take a little longer.” He spoke about one of his other songs, Tattie Lads, written for the Rescue Tugs, and of another, Merchant Seamen, as a memorial to his brother Jack and the 30,000 such who have no grave but the sea. You will find Jim singing these and others of his songs on YouTube.
The navy taught Jim a trade - Fitters Mate in engineering - but the associated noise of large jack hammers gave him tinnitus - “a bloody pain.” Among his other jobs, Jim was the advertising manager for the London Weekly Advertiser, as a self-employed man he made tow ropes for cars, hand spliced of course! Jim attended Goldsmiths College for two years with another left winger, Derek Hatton. He was a talented man whose life was, above all, shaped so much by what he saw as a youngster and should not have…
Jim Radford - Born 1 October 1928 – died 6 November 2020.