Jim puts down the toasted soldier he’s just dunked into a soft boiled egg to serenade us – in the middle of the breakfast room in a smart London hotel – with Lili Marlene in fluent Italian, while Garth scrapes the last of the marmalade out of a small jar with his knife and licks it clean.
Having just returned from a trip over to France in the company of Joshua Levine – author, historian and recent historical advisor on Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s epic 2017 film – veterans Garth Wright (98) and James (Jim) Baynes (97) are in high spirits.
“We spent the last few days in Dunkirk on the beaches”, says Jim when his ditty – applauded by all at the surrounding tables – is complete. “It was nice to reminisce, to see the place again – but without the Jerries”, he laughs.
Plenty has changed in Dunkirk in the last 78 years. “Going back was very memorable and I enjoyed it immensely” says Garth, “but it didn’t trigger any memories of the actual Dunkirk event to me because I didn’t recognise a thing about it – not any of the buildings or anything at all like that.
“The first time I went back to Dunkirk, about 20 years ago, it took me right back. The surroundings of Dunkirk then were more like they were during the war. I remembered the sickly smell of death... rotting corpses. But now? It’s completely different.”
The spirit and joviality of both men seems to confirm the depiction of Second World War soldiers from countless books, films and TV series. They recount their personal experiences with harrowing poignancy before cracking a smile and making a flippant joke.
Jim, Garth and Joshua travelled out to France along with veteran Edward (Ted) Oates earlier this month to join an Exclusive Telegraph Tour, The miracle of Dunkirk with Joshua Levine, and share their memories of the events of 1940.
“It was wonderful for the people on the tour to have these gentlemen with them,” says Joshua. “They kept breaking into song”.
Taking this as his queue, Garth ditties “Mademoiselle from Armentières, she hasn't been kissed for forty years, Hinky-dinky parlez-vous” and Jim follows up with “there's a long, long trail a-winding, into the land of my dreams, where the nightingales are singing and the white moon beams”.
As they pause for breath, Joshua laughs. “Can you imagine what it was like for the people on the tour? To be taken back there like that with songs from the time? It was like getting into a time capsule – these men are living history. We were incredibly lucky. We wouldn’t be here today if these men hadn’t got back. Dunkirk is that important.
“When I gave a talk to the tour group, the chaps were sitting in a row next to me and we started with each of them telling their story. You could hear a pin drop. It was an absolute honour.”
Dark tourism has fascinated travellers for centuries and war tourism has been in the spotlight recently, with some critics bemoaning the commodification of such sites. But when asked what they think of war tourism, as men who have lived through the horror that is being commemorated, the veterans were endlessly positive.
“I think it’s a good thing”, said Garth. “It gives a perspective on the time and on what’s happening now. Us and Germany were enemies back then. But I think we could be the best of friends really. We are more like the Germans, I think, than any other nation.
“It was a bad war, but it was a good war in many ways. We learnt something from Dunkirk. We were at our lowest ebb then. That was the turning point. It’s more important, I think, than any other battles. We were at our lowest but the phoenix rose from the ashes.
“I’m sure this must be one of the last occasions, or near the last occasion, when we’ll have a Dunkirk veteran in Dunkirk and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep this sort of thing alive. To show that we are a nation that can look after each other.”
Prior to the war, neither Jim nor Garth had been abroad. “It was my first time,” Jim recalls. “I collected a lot of souvenirs. All of which I had to leave on the beach. Back then it was just days out – down to Southend, that sort of thing.
“After Dunkirk we were redistributed. We mucked about in France and that before going back to Europe and on to North Africa. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria. We went all the way up the North African coast. Then over to Italy. It was a venturesome career and I was an unusual tourist.”
After the war, Jim went on to work for the Ministry of Defence and travelled often – visiting Kenya, Nairobi and America.
“I’ve always wanted to go over to America – 42nd Street”, says Garth. “I’ve been nowhere more exotic, I’m afraid, than Italy, but I love that country. Particularly around Sorrento. I’ve been back there a few times on holiday and I still love it now. I can recall driving down the lanes. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”
As for Jim, as well travelled as he is, it's France that has won his heart – despite Dunkirk. “After the war you could drive abroad. We went across the Channel into the country and toured all round. It’s a beautiful country.”
After living through Dunkirk, as well as Monte Cassino, it is somewhat surprising to learn that France and Italy are the favourite travel destinations of two British Second World War veterans. These countries occupy the very best of their memories, and the very worst.
So where to next for Garth and Jim? With the 75th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Monte Cassino coming up next year (May 18, 2019), making the trip for a special service is a priority – to remember those lost. “I’ll be knocking on 100 then”, says Garth, “but I’ll get over there if I can”.
One of Britain’s most renowned historians, Sir Antony Beevor has turned his attention to the airborne invasion of the Netherlands for his latest work, Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944. Utilising previously unpublished sources, Anthony’s book focuses not just on the events of this historic battle, but also on its significance to the wider war as a whole, both in factual and symbolic terms. On this special four-day tour, you will travel from London to some of the most significant sites of the battle. In addition, we are proud to announce that Sir Antony will join readers in Arnhem itself for an exclusive dinner and lecture, which will be among the highlights of a special tour exploring the true story behind the battle and its bitter aftermath. Operation Market Garden, as it was named, was the unsuccessful Allied attack in the Netherlands and Germany, designed to secure key positions across the Rhine and precipitate a rapid conclusion to the conflict. The subject of a major Hollywood film, A Bridge Too Far, the battle is well known as a result - but is it widely understood?
Accompanied by a military historian throughout, this tour will explore the true story of the military operation, the real-life stories behind the conflict and what happened in its wake, with a special guest contribution from Sir Antony Beevor himself. He writes: “The British fascination for heroic failure has clouded the battle for Arnhem in myths, but there is so much more to this story than just the desperate attempt to get across the Rhine and finish the war in 1944. I hope you can join me in the city itself to hear about researching this dramatic episode in Second World War history - and the terrible reality behind it.” With three nights at a four-star hotel in Arnhem, travel by Eurostar and luxury coach, and in-depth excursions to key sites, this promises to be a memorable way to discover the true stories behind this historic operation.
In the landmark BBC comedy series Blackadder Goes Forth, Captain Edmund Blackadder reports for duty in the claustrophobic trenches of the First World War. An unlikely setting for a sitcom, the series was acclaimed as darkly comic yet remarkably sensitive. This tour examines the real events behind ‘Blackadder’s war’ with historians Nigel Jones and Professor Gary Sheffield and a special appearance from John Lloyd, the series producer for all four Blackadders