Jim Radford, 1928-2020: folk singer, activist, D-day survivor

Jim Radford
Jim Radford at the Harwich Shanty Festival in 2008

Jim Radford, a folk singer and song­writer whose experiences at the ­Normandy landings aged just 15 turned him into a lifelong peace campaigner, has died aged 92 of pneumonia. Jim was a well-known face at south London sing­arounds and at sea shanty festivals across the country. He came to unexpected national attention in 2014 when he performed his song, The Shores Of Normandy, at the Royal Albert Hall for the 70th anniversary of the ­invasion, in which he was the youngest known participant.

Jim was born in Hull and his two older brothers both went off to sea during the second world war. The eldest, John Henry, known as Jack, was according to Jim the youngest wireless operator ever to be lost at sea, aged 18, when his ship, SS Cree, was torpedoed on 22 November 1940. The middle brother, Fred, had gone to sea in 1942 in T.124T rescue tugs; the men who sailed in them were known as the Tattie Lads.

During the war these deep-sea tugs brought in 3.5m tons of cargo in ships that had been patched up after their crew had abandoned them; often they were nearly in sinking condition. The tugs, of up to 1,000 tons, also saved 247 warships to be put together to fight again.

Jim wanted to follow his brothers to sea but when he went down to the shipping office in Hull in 1944 he was told that at 15 he was too young and should come back next year.

‘At one point Jim’s tug ran aground on a sandbank. The splashes around it were from German guns on the surrounding hills’

Next door was another office, that of the United Towing Company. 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, of 487 tons gross, and asked Jim if he would like to come with him. It meant more money, maybe sixpence.

To take navy orders, Jim returned to the shipping office with his new discharge book and told them he had joined the bigger tug. Without asking his age, they gave him a seaman’s book stamped with the letter V. He could now join anything and go anywhere.

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 70 old ships, rustbuckets, which they and other tugs escorted down the Irish Sea.

Their charges only had skeleton crews of perhaps a master, mate, engineer, a couple of firemen and stokers, and a cook. When they reached the Bristol Channel they sailed up towards Bristol and back, again and again – once more without any idea as to why.
This they did for 36 to 48 hours. All the while, Gen Dwight D Eisenhower had been deliberating the decision about when to launch the D-day landings.

Jim Radford in front of political posters
Jim was a lifelong peace campaigner including against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam war

Eventually Jim’s tug was directed to Falmouth and Poole harbour. On 5 June there was a rumour they would be sent to Calais. It was joked: “There are Germans there, aren’t there?” Then the orders came, and Jim and Empire Larch set off with block ships to form the outer breakwater for the temporary Mulberry harbour at Arromanches beach, codenamed Gold. It was to be the biggest harbour built anywhere in the world.

At one point they ran aground on a sandbank. The Royal Navy gunners who had been trying to shoot down Doodlebugs, the deadly V-1 flying bombs, said the splashes around the tug were from German guns on the surrounding coastal hills. “Can’t be very good, can they – they are not ranging us very well.”

Twenty minutes later they got a tow off. “There were bodies all around us caught up on wire and metal spikes and floating around us.” Jim said a vision comes to him from time to time of throwing a bucket of spud peelings over the side only for them to land on a dead lad floating by. “I could not help that,” he said.

“The big ships were two, perhaps three miles offshore, bombarding above the beaches and further inland. We were so close in we were under attack along with the hundreds of assorted landing craft, among which there were many shallow-draft landing craft all fitted with rockets which would go off with a whoosh! The backdraft from the rockets pushing down so hard that sometimes the craft launching the rockets sank under the pressure.

‘You pulled arms that had a hold of the bulwark and all you helped aboard was half a man. He had been cut in two. Terrible’

“After 14 days we were sent out to three ships in trouble, Sams and Liberties sinking. We went up to one where the lads had to jump when we were on the rise alongside. The tug has this great rubbing strake of timber around her outside a foot wide – it was like a step. Some leapt on to the timber and slipped so were crushed between the two vessels in the horrendous weather. As the ships separated you pulled arms that had a hold of the bulwark and all you helped aboard was half a man. He had been cut in two. Terrible!

“I was given charge of two badly injured men. I was given a handful of phials of morphine and told: ‘Watch, and whenever they come round find somewhere to put another shot in, a leg or an arm.’ Both had died by the morning. I had to wash out the galley which was full of red water.”

Jim’s politics were well to the left and he became a campaigner for many causes from the 1960s. He was a founder of Veterans for Peace and an early member of, and occasional spokesman for, the Committee of 100 group campaigning for nuclear disarmament.

He was arrested during the group’s Fill the Jails campaign of mass civil disobedience in 1961 and taken to West End Central police station in London several times in the same day. All the cells were full so “we were told: wait in reception. I did just as I encouraged others to: just walked out and sat in the road again, all nice and peaceful.”

He was arrested again in 1966 for heckling the prime minister over British support for the Vietnam war. Jim and other campaigners organised a disturbance in Dorset Gardens Methodist church, Brighton, where Harold Wilson and his foreign secretary, George Brown, were reading lessons at the start of the Labour party conference.

Jim and eight others were arrested and Jim was sentenced to two months for “indecent behaviour”, the penalty under an obscure law against creating a disturbance in church.

He also campaigned for the homeless and helped launch the Squatting Campaign, which grew out of the Committee of 100. He was part of the successful 1966-67 direct action at Kings Hill homeless hostel in West Malling, Kent, a former wartime airfield where conditions were poor and authorities had a policy of separating families.

“We formed an organisation, went into the hostel against the wishes and instructions of the staff running it, organised meetings, got the families together and persuaded them with their help, took over the hostel,” he told the Morning Star recently.

Jim was part of the direct-action group who occupied the Centrepoint tower in ­central London in 1974, to highlight that it had stood empty for eight years during a housing crisis. There were also various Shelter campaigns. He was often to be seen fronting protests in Trafalgar Square, and was a long-time supporter of the Mayday Tugs of War association.

On one occasion he, with a determined group using only wristwatches to coordinate them, invaded the stages and stopped every central London theatre production. His ­theatre had royalty in attendance – stymieing any chance of an MBE, no doubt.

‘He wrote Ryan Air “on the back of an envelope – some songs take a little longer”’

Jim started to write his seminal song, The Shores Of Normandy, after attending the 25th anniversary of D-day, when he was moved to tears seeing “kids with sandcastles” on the beaches where he had witnessed such horrors.

It took him 20 years to finish it but the song has become iconic and even topped the charts above Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran in 2019 when released as a single to raise money for a British D-day memorial overlooking Gold beach.

In 2004 I was with the Shanty Crew at the Walton-on-the-Naze, now Harwich, shanty festival. In the Three Mariners at the after-session. All doors locked, curtains drawn, lights turned down low, the bar smoke-filled, Jim was asked by Malcolm Ward for The Shores Of Normandy.

The Dawning Of The Day was just the perfect melancholy tune to set it to; by the time he had finished there was a room full of people in tears, including Jim.

His other songs included Tattie Lads, written for the rescue tugs, and The Merchant Seaman – a memorial to his brother Jack and the 30,000 others who have no grave but the sea. He wrote another of his songs, Ryan Air, “on the back of an envelope in 20 minutes – some songs take a little longer”.

In 1946 Jim joined the Royal Navy unskilled and left as a leading seaman, having served eight years as a radar plotter/operator. He circumnavigated South America through the Magellan Strait and was in Valparaiso in HMS Superb.

The navy taught him a trade – a fitter’s mate in engineering. The associated noise of large jackhammers gave him tinnitus, “a bloody pain”.

Among other jobs Jim was the advertising manager for the London Weekly Advertiser and made tow-ropes for cars – hand-spliced, of course. Jim attended Goldsmiths college for two years with another leftwinger, Derek Hatton.

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. This article appeared in Folk London 310, December-January 2020-21