Jimmy Kyles, Gentleman: Pit boy to Wing Commander

James Kyles talks to Rachael Grealish about how he went from Keekle pit boy to RAF wing commander and the book of all his tales.

James Kyles, now 94, with his map of everywhere he’s been in Britain - photos by Robert Haile

James Kyles, now 94, with his map of everywhere he’s been in Britain
– photos by Robert Haile

IN 1942 a 20 year old miner stood with letter in hand as the he tried to enlist in the RAF. He had been accepted previously but had been told he couldn’t as he was a miner. But this time he had made sure he was going to war.

As he approached 55 in 1977 this ex-miner was about to retire as a Wing Commander.

James ‘Jimmy’ Kyles from Keekle is now 94 and has written about his life in the RAF.

Starting with his life in the village, Jimmy was only 14 when he became a miner, he went down to the mine, in his Sunday best, with his father when he had someone stop him.

Jimmy said: “This chap looked me up and down and said ‘Well, well, well; Jimmy Kyles, Gentleman!’”

From this early on this would be one of moments in Jimmy’s memories that would represent the significant moments in his life and make up his emotive and compelling book.

Jimmy had short employment in the mines, it was only six years, but was still long enough to be involved in one of the many mining accidents.

Jimmy said: “You don’t think about how frightening it can be, it was a matter of survival. You just get on with it. I was in the bottom of the pit one day and there was a set of tubs, about 12 tubs to a set, linked to a rope and for some reason the links got severed or disconnected and this set of tubs came rolling down the hill. Somebody heard it and yelled, but it was too late, I was hit by the tubs and ended up buried underneath this hole.”

Miners had reserved occupation in the war, but Jimmy wanted out of the pits and into the air.

Jimmy said: “By 1940 most of the men, the fit men, had gone to war and I said to a friend one day ‘I’m going to get out of the pits’. I tried to get release for two years – in 1940 and 41 – and they said we’d like to accept you, but we can’t as you’re in a reserved occupation. In ’42 I tried again, but this time I persuaded the pit manager to give me a letter saying: if they took me he would release me.”

He then added with a chuckled: “and it worked.”

There was many occupations for young men during the war, but flying had always called to Jimmy since he was young.

“There used to be a chap who was an aviator for a flying circus that came to Moresby and we went to see them. We had no money, of course, but you could’ve got a flight for a few shillings. But that really helped me with my decision for the RAF – it was the right choice too.”

Three years training done and he was off in the air, or as Jimmy said: “We had a month in England to teach us our left foot from our right – then off to Canada.”

Jimmy was primarily a navigator and bomb aimer once he was trained.

After the war Jimmy decided to stay in the RAF and not got back to pit work.

Because Jimmy was married at the time he decided to stay in for a short service commission then after four years, then once that was up he applied for a full position.

Throughout his years in the pits, the war and the RAF, Jimmy said his greatest partner in all his adventures with his wife as she and his two boys travelled everywhere with him.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“Dorothy [Jimmy’s wife] was my next door neighbour when I lived in Keekle – that’s how we met.” Jimmy explained. “But she hated me at first. When I used to get up early in the morning for the bus to work, she used to go mad at my clog dance on the door step – though she didn’t tell me that ’til later.”

Jimmy took his wife and his two sons to as many of the destinations, for work, as he could – his family favourite being Cyprus.

“Cyprus was one of my favourite places. It was wonderful to take Dorothy and the boys around the island, exploring. We got to see it all, it was before the time of tourism. When we first got there they’d only started excavating these Roman ruins, by time we were leaving it was dug up and you could go see it.”

Stand out moments in the book include Kyles deployment in Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis and having a £25 bounty on his head to the occasional Cumbrian wit such as “Everyone said how lucky we were – with Anglesey’s lovely mild climate. Guess what? We had the snowiest, coldest spell on record.”

Jimmy spoke of some of his memories from these times.

He said: “It was difficult with the troubles in Egypt and it eventually got to the point we had to send our families home as we wouldn’t be able to get food for them. Though we noticed at the time, because it was a difficult time, local families cottoned on it was safer for them to go shopping when we did.”

Jimmy started to write his book after his wife passed away when he was 80.

He said: “People used to say: “Why don’t you write a book?” And at the time I would say I don’t have time, but as I began to slow down I decided I would start putting it together.

Jimmy’s books paints a fantastic colour about life in West Cumbria pre, during and post-war.

It’s a fascinating coming-of-age true story a new must-read for the area.

The book costs £5 with proceeds going to Cancer Research, Keekle Village Hall and St. John’s Church, Hensingham. Contact: 10946 694957