Let’s make one thing clear from the outset: Jim Stirling, who died on October 15, was no hero.

During my two visits to the 96-year-old Second World War veteran’s home at Douglas Haig Court, Hawick, he insisted that his words were not to be twisted or manufactured to make him sound remotely boastful or headstrong. He was not the sort to show up to the opening of an envelope nor did he dine out on stories of his wartime exploits.

Far from it, Jim was a conservatively proud yet humble man. He was Hawick’s last surviving D-Day veteran and one of the last gentlemen of his generation to have been on active service when the war drew to a close on the deck of the USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, on September 2, 1945.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

James Alexander Stirling was born on October 25, 1924, in Old Cumnock – prime Burns country – to parents John and Isabella; although he assured me that since he “escaped from the womb” he has never actually been called James. It’s Jim.

In his early years he attended Cumnock Primary School and Cumnock Academy, where he was “a reasonable pupil” but a “bit of a loner”. He was a fairly good sprinter and achieved all the necessary qualifications to go on to university. However, with there being no bursaries or financial assistance in Jim’s day, his parents simply couldn’t afford it. Very few working class families could.

Cumnock Chronicle: Jim in the RN, aged 17Jim in the RN, aged 17

Instead, aged 15, he sat the civil service exams and passed them first time. Normally you had to be 16 to do this but because so many men of working age were involved with the war effort, the age limit was lowered.

When he turned 16, Jim was taken on by the General Post Office, which at that time was part of the civil service.

His first month was taken up with training at Cathedral Street, Glasgow, which involved getting up early to catch the morning train from Cumnock. Afternoons were spent at the head office in the city’s George Square.

“We each took a drawer at the counter there and were not allowed to leave until the balances were dead on,” Jim explained.

The fresh-faced teenager was then offered the job of clerk, effectively running the post office in his native Cumnock.

“It was quite a responsibility,” he recalled. “Ridiculous, really. I was in charge of all the registered mail which came directly to me, was recorded, and then sent out.

“We also organised bags of mail directly from the train, which again was stamped and sorted into dookets for the seven sub post offices under us.”

Even without the luxury of automation, he pondered – “eventually I could almost do it blindfolded.”

Cumnock Chronicle: Jim at the TattooJim at the Tattoo

As the war rumbled on, Jim jumped at the idea of volunteering. His father John had served in the horse artillery during the First World War, but his mother Isabella knew not of his eagerness to sign up. He made his way to a Royal Navy recruitment office in Glasgow because he “didn’t fancy sitting in a trench”, was asked which branch he wished to join and opted for communications.

Following six weeks’ initial training at Chatham naval barracks, Jim sat six exams over six months. If you failed any of them, you were transferred out – such was the importance of the wireless telegraphist. Jim finished in the top three of his class and was held back for a more intensive course which he saw through to achieve a slight promotion to Telegraphist Trained Operator. By the end of his training, he successfully mastered the equipment to a point he could take and receive coded messages at 26 words per minute.

Even for someone of Jim’s skill level, however, there no sign of a draft. Two or three months passed by before he overheard a colleague say there was a shortage of telegraphists at Skegness. He made some enquiries about joining the minesweeping fleet and was told to report the following morning to HMS Royal Arthur at Ingoldmells – a requisitioned Butlin’s holiday camp. This move necessitated a transfer to the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS), a separate branch of the navy with its headquarters at Lowestoft.

Informally the RNPS was a navy within a navy, known cheekily as ‘Churchill’s pirates’. Jim elucidated: “We were dressed down usually and seldom wore uniform as the job required comfortable and warm clothing. Winston Churchill [First Lord of the Admiralty] paid an unexpected visit to the base one day and remarked he had never seen such a scruffy bunch of cutthroats in all his life!” – Hence the name.

The RNPS contained ex-fishermen who were already well-versed in nets and other equipment used in clearing mines, while the fleet comprised converted trawlers from Grimsby before specially built motor minesweepers with wooden hulls were introduced in 1942.

Their work was serious business, clearing muckle mines laid out by the Germans from the Bristol Channel to the North Sea to disrupt shipping. Each minesweeper had a beat and Jim’s extended from Dover to Margate and the Thames estuary. There were three kinds of mines: contact, activated by touch; magnetic, triggered by a ship’s magnetic field; and acoustic, set off by the noise of a ship’s propellers. The aim was to break the casing without setting off the charge or the explosives, which allowed sea water to flood in and ultimately sink the mine. If they failed in their task, or one false move, and the 400 lbs of explosive could easily blow a ship in two.

Cumnock Chronicle: Legion d'Honneur presentationLegion d'Honneur presentation

Outlining his experience of motor minesweepers, Jim matter of factly said: “We were paid 1/- extra per day in danger money. Minesweeping was just minesweeping. Every time you went to sea, you knew you might not come back. Simple as that. We just cleared them up before they blew us up! The ships were 119 feet long with a crew of 19 on board, mainly volunteers and specialists in their field.”

Indeed, Jim was the only telegraphist on his ship. Only he and the captain had access to top secret naval codes. It was not a job for the faint of heart. During one of his first sorties, Jim happened to ask the coxswain about shifts. “What shifts?” came the curt reply; “When we get back to harbour you can bloody well sleep!” For a telegraphist, duty dictated unimaginably long and arduous hours in solitary confinement.

The minesweepers were out on patrol every day to tackle the thousands of mines. “The Germans were always one step ahead of us,” stated Jim. “As soon as we found out what they were doing in terms of detection and deployment, they changed tactics. They were often out at night setting more mines.”

By the spring of 1944, Jim’s flotilla was sweeping a wide area along the French coast, keeping the opposition guessing at where any potential landings might be. He continued: “There was quite a bit of activity in the channel at that time. We’d throw them off the scent by going up and down it.”

Come the evening of June 5, 1945, Jim had already been on duty for 24 hours. His ship was part of a flotilla of eight minesweepers waiting in the English Channel on word to proceed with Operation Neptune. A weather front briefly brought high winds, heavy seas and low visibility – delaying their deployment until the early hours of June 6: D-Day. The RNPS’s 42 minesweepers were given the daunting task of clearing a safe passage to five landing sites for the largest armada in history. All while in complete darkness.

Their main objective was to clear two lanes of mines up to the one fathom line (6 feet depth) at Gold Beach, between Le Hamel and La Rivière on the Normandy coastline. This had to be done against the clock before the naval bombardment commenced at 05:30 and the amphibious landings at 07:25. The lanes were then to be widened and the in-shore anchorages cleared.

Jim recalled: “Half a flotilla was used to sweep each lane. The faster landing craft used one lane, the slower ones the other. Not many people realise that the infantry landing craft were actually being dropped from a mother ship some 10-12 miles offshore.”

His vessel made light work of the lanes and reached the beachhead by 4am, two hours before low tide when the defences would be fully exposed. But according to Jim, their work was far from over: “By daybreak the Germans threw everything they could at us, bloody big shells and machine gun fire. They’d wakened to find masses of ships and people.” The minesweepers then had to contend with fresh mines being dropped by German aircraft, well into D-Day +1. That’s when Jim managed a brief respite.

Moving forward to July 1944, every crewman’s worst fear was realised when Jim’s own craft was hit by a mine off the coast of France. He and his surviving crewmates spent a few hours in the water before being picked up. Remarkably, they were granted just five days leave. Jim chose to visit his parents in Cumnock, with travel time eating up most of his reprieve. Survivors were ordered to report back to base.

By late October 1944, Jim was back in the telegraphist’s chair to orchestrate the clearing of mines from the deep water port at Antwerp. Field Marshal Montgomery had given the order to take these lanes “at all costs”, no matter the casualty rate – as it was a vitally placed deep water port between Normandy and the Rhine.

Cumnock Chronicle: RNPS silver badge, Treasure BunkerRNPS silver badge, Treasure Bunker

The Germans continued to sabotage ports as they left them, and the Scheldt estuary on which Antwerp sits was one of most heavily-mined and defended areas. And the estuary itself stretched 75 miles inland. It was no mean feat. “At all costs” became a deadly badge of honour for the RNPS which lost approximately 15,000 men and 600 ships before the end of the war.

Jim and his colleagues were tasked with a pivotal role in Operation Infatuate, clearing the estuary nearest Walcheren, and managed to rid the area of a record 500 mines and other explosive devices. On slightly drier land, Hawick men were among the ranks of the 4th and 5th KOSB which met with fiercely contested assaults across rooftops and back gardens when they landed on the badly-flooded island fortress. Ironically, landmines caused them a greater number of casualties.

From March into April 1945, only a few weeks before the German surrender, Jim helped to clear mines from the Dutch port of Ijmuiden – North Holland’s gate to the North Sea. “The place was still full of Germans,” he explained. “We had orders to secure the port and take it over. They gave up willingly. A two-man submarine surrendered to us.

"We also came upon a German training vessel tied up in port: the Pollux. One of my mates spray-painted the ‘P’ to a ‘B’…”

It was Jim’s job thereafter to drive a 3-ton truck through the streets of Ijmuiden. The Kriegsmarine (German navy) followed behind with machine guns trained on them from the back of the truck should they decide to abscond. He was still based in the port city on VE Day, which he remembered as “A very merry occasion. I was delighted, it was a relief that the war was more or less over in Europe.”

Victory brought new concerns, though, when it was rumoured his flotilla would be handed over to the Dutch navy, and less minesweepers would naturally be required. Ever one to volunteer, he instead took up a post on the HMS Cuillin Sound, a newly-built aviation repair ship on sea trials out of Rosyth. The move was like “heaven” for Jim, who was used to working in a confined space for long hours with no rest. His new ship was no trawler, weighing a colossal 6,924 tons with a crew compliment of 450. “It was going from the ridiculous to the sublime,” he recollected. “We only worked four hours on and eight hours off.”

Although he enjoyed his new post, Jim’s wandering eye led him to volunteer for the Pacific Fleet in the fight against Japan. While awaiting his draft, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his services were no longer required. He finished his wartime service aboard the Cuillin Sound as part of the reserve fleet at Harwich, and was demobbed in June 1946.

When he returned to shore, Jim understandably steered away from office jobs and applied to join the police. He was invited for interview at Edinburgh and given a stare-down by five chief constables across a desk. One gruffled, “Do you want the city or the county?” Another barked, “What about Berwickshire?” It was a good a place as any he thought, and off Jim went to start a new life in the Borders.

“There were 32 officers there at the time,” recalled Jim, “and 48 across the whole of Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire constabulary. Our headquarters was in Duns. Because I wasn’t married I was shunted about a fair bit. Every once in a while the furniture jumped up and down and I knew it was time for another flit! You were usually given 10 days’ notice.”

During a successful career in the force, Jim both walked the beat and bided in Duns, Coldstream, Yetholm, Jedburgh and Hawick. And it was in her native Duns where he first met his future wife Jean Weatherston. Her parents had recently died and Jim was living in digs in Coldstream, so they brought forward their wedding at the Old Parish Church Manse to December 1948. The Reverend A.M. Douglas presided and Jim’s groomsman was his cousin John Allison. Jean was on the office staff of Duns Town Council. Completing the couple’s dinger dynasty, their daughter Anne was born in the town’s Knoll Hospital.

In 1953 the Lowestoft Naval Memorial to the RNPS was erected overlooking the service’s former base. It contains the name of 2,385 personnel with no known grave but the sea, and would be the first of hundreds of engagements attended down the years by Jim in honour of those he served with.

He spent much of his remaining police career in the training department at Jedburgh, and finally, with the move of the divisional headquarters to Wilton Hill following its extension in the late 1960s, as a police sergeant in Hawick. He was put up in a council house in McLagan Drive upon arrival, staying there for around three years, before buying a house for his family in West Stewart Place.

Come the 1975 local government re-organisation, Jim received a call to join the education department at council headquarters in Newtown St Boswells. Never one to turn down a challenge, he passed an interview the next day, typed his resignation letter and used all of his leave and holidays to get out of the police early. “I was put in charge of transport for schools and things like organising manual workers,” he said, staying in the role for 12 years until his hard-earned retirement in 1987 (the year this writer was born, for perspective).

Upon moving to West Stewart Place, Jim joined Wilton Bowling Club – “as I could see the greens from my sitting room window.” Although now a life member, he was given a crash course in the sport by ‘Jock the Dog’ – the particulars of which are unrepeatable here! Jim was also once an active member of Minto Golf Club and joined at a time when ladies were not allowed to play on Saturday, Sunday or Tuesday lest they prevented shopkeepers from playing on their days off! In addition, Jim was the oldest ex-president of the Probus Club and was a valued and respected friend to many in the town, especially at Douglas Haig Court.

Although Mr Stirling was not a man who measured his worth by the weight of his medals, he had a literal bagful of them accrued through the decades. In accordance with his will, one day these will form part of a collection at Hawick Museum, alongside photographs and other memorabilia from his life.

His most noteworthy medal had to be the Chevalier (Knight) de la Legion d’Honneur – the highest French order of merit – which was bestowed upon Jim by Emmanuel Cocker, the French Consul General in Scotland, at a reception of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, in December 2015.

Jim was also the only ex-RNPS serviceman to be awarded the Netherlands Liberation Medal, in June 2004, by the Dutch Honorary Consul. For the occasion, an ex-minesweeping vessel was deployed to Glasgow. Both his wife and daughter were present but Anne was barely aware of her father’s contribution to the cause. She thereafter resolved to record his experiences on tape and helped Jim put together a booklet of his life story, which he treasured dearly.

Other notable medals of his, in no particular order, include: the 1939-1945 Star (for Second World War service); the Atlantic Star (for combatants in the Battle of the Atlantic); the France and Germany Star (for combatants in the period from D-Day to VE Day); the Defence Medal (for civilian war service); the War Medal 1939-1945 (for at least 28 days’ naval service); and the Médaille du Jubilé (presented by the French Government on the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Landings).

In addition, Jim also possessed a Normandy Campaign Medal which surprisingly wasn't an officially presented one but was commissioned commemoratively by the Normandy Veterans Association. It remained at home during commemorative events, along with dozens of others, so Jim wasn't decorated like a Christmas tree.

During his time in the Borders he also received a Police Long Service and Good Conduct Medal – a process by which the Chief Constable would have to have made a recommendation to the Home Secretary to vouch for his officer’s efficient long service and good character.

“To have these medals is a great honour and does mean a lot” stated Jim, “but the most important to me, more than the others combined, is the Royal Naval Patrol Service silver badge, one that was suggested by Winston Churchill”. Indeed, Churchill told the RNPS that “no work has been more vital than yours; no work has been better done. The ports were kept open and Britain breathed.” Officers and men of the Patrol Service were awarded this badge after a total of six months service at sea or, in Jim’s case, a combined total of more than 365 days. When displayed, it is proudly worn six inches from the cuff on his left arm.

The design of the badge, measuring roughly the size of an old shilling, was created by Kruger Gray, a well-known artist and medal designer. It had to symbolise the work of both minesweeping and anti-submarine personnel, so the finished design took the form of a shield upon which a sinking shark (i.e. a U-boat), speared by a marline spike, was set against a background made up of fishing nets with two trapped enemy mines. This was flanked by two examples of the nautical knot and, at the top, the naval crown. Never before was one section of the Royal Navy similarly honoured.

Jim had returned many times to the battlegrounds of his youth. He continued: “On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, some of us met up and formed a Scottish branch of the Normandy Veterans Association. At the 50th anniversary I was proud to be the Scottish branch standard bearer. The Queen and just about every living royal were present on that occasion.

“I have also carried the flag on the castle esplanade at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo on several occasions, and had the opportunity of being on-stage at the Royal Albert Hall (twice) where the sergeant major kept me in step.”

For the 60th anniversary, Jim adorned the front page of the official brochure and revisited the continent as part of the Heroes Return campaign. “Each seat in London had one!” he quipped. “It was a privilege to bear the standard for twenty years until the association was dissolved [in 2014] and the flag was laid up in Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh. The number of veterans was simply getting less and less by the year.” And sadly, after proudly attending so many events by his side, Jean and Anne are both deceased.

Jim spent VE 75 at the First Light veterans’ café in Hawick and earlier this year commemorated D-Day at the war memorial before a sparse and socially-distant gathering.

In summing up his longevity and legacy, Jim was at pains to remind me: “Do not make me out to be the Lord High Commissioner! I was just an ordinary telegraphist doing an ordinary job. James Alexander Stirling was one of these bloody idiots who volunteered for everything. Everything I did was through choice, however, and I was never forced into anything, so I can have absolutely no complaints.”

Poignantly, during our brief but fascinating conversations he reflected: “Very few people care these days. We’re forgotten.”

I can assure you Mr Stirling that our readers will remember you and your generation for many years to come.