D-Day 70th anniversary travel guide: events and tours in Normandy

April 17th, 2014

Only a privileged few can attend the governmental ceremonies, but the anniversary week will also see several large-scale public events. The most spectacular is likely to be a huge firework display on the evening of June 5, which will be visible from 24 beachfront towns. There will also be a massive picnic on Omaha Beach on the evening of Saturday June 7, featuring a Glenn Miller tribute band, while that same evening Bayeux, which became the first town in France to be liberated on June 7, 1944, will mark the anniversary with a Liberation Ball and an open-air jazz and gospel concert. Other events will include an outdoor film screening and concert at Arromanches on June 6; a children’s international football tournament in various coastal towns on June 7 and June 8; and 1940s flash mobs dancing in the streets of Carentan on June 7, and Ste-Mère-Église on June 8.

The crucial role of parachutists in the Allied invasion will be honoured by mass parachute jumps over Carentan at 1pm on June 4; Ste-Marie-du-Mont at 7.30pm on June 5; near Ranville, close to Pegasus Bridge, later that evening; and over Ste-Mère-Eglise at 11am at June 8. Members of the public can even join tandem parachute jumps at Ste-Mère-Eglise on June 6 and June 7 (€365 per person; 0033 233 21 00 33), while the Patrouille de France, the French equivalent of the RAF’s Red Arrows, will perform above Arromanches at 4pm on June 7.

Vintage military vehicles will parade along Omaha Beach from Vierville-sur-Mer on June 5; in Ste-Mère-Église on June 6; between Grandcamp-Maisy and Isigny-sur-Mer on June 7; through the streets of Bayeux and Carentan on Sunday June 8; and in Arromanches on June 9.

During the anniversary week, several communities will host reconstructions of Allied camps. The Arizona camp in Carentan is expected to welcome 420 participants and 150 military vehicles, and similar encampments will open in Colleville-sur-Mer, St-Laurent-sur-Mer, Vierville-sur-Mer and Ste-Mère-Église.

Accommodation is already over-subscribed for the anniversary week itself, though places are still available on some of the tours listed below. Visit at any other time during the summer, however, and it shouldn’t be hard to find a place to stay in the low-key resorts that line the invasion beaches, or the towns of Bayeux and Caen just inland.


Pegasus Bridge

Telegraph Travel’s D-Day drive

You don’t need a special itinerary through Normandy to see the impact of the 1944 Allied invasion. The effects are everywhere, from the reconstructed hearts of bombed-out cities like Cherbourg, Caen and Le Havre to countless damaged village churches. That said, for anyone interested in tracing the course of the Battle of Normandy, honouring the soldiers who took part, and learning more about how and why the D-Day landings took place, driving westwards along the Invasion beaches is an immensely rewarding experience and our Normandy guide includes an ideal itinerary to follow.

Before you start your tour, it’s well worth visiting either or both of the museums, a few miles back from the coast, that best explain the overall story. The Caen Memorial, just off the ring road that circles Caen, documents the build-up to war and life in occupied France as well as the invasion itself, and also covers postwar attempts to bring about world peace. The Musée Mémorial, on the edge of Bayeux, describes the battle itself, using easy-to-follow graphics as well as genuine artifacts.

Organised Tours

A selection of UK-based tour operators offering D-Day themed tours and cruises this year can be found here. They include: Holts Tours (01293 865000; holts.co.uk), Leger (0844 504 6251; visitbattlefields.co.uk), Travelsphere (0800 112 3313; travelsphere.co.uk), Trafalgar (0800 533 5616; trafalgar.com), Titan (0800 988 5823; titantravel.co.uk), Shearings (0844 824 6351; shearings.com), Martin Randall (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com), Remembrance Travel (01473 660800; remembrancetravel.org.uk) and The Cultural Experience (01935 813700; theculturalexperience.com). Other operators offering bus or van tours of D-Day sites include the Caen Memorial museum (memorial-caen.fr), Normandy Sightseeing Tours (d-daybeaches.com), Victory Tours (victorytours.com), and Normandy Tours (normandy-landing-tour.com). The D-Day Academy (ddaca.com) explores the Landing Beaches in vintage military trucks, with some trips including adventurous drives over rough battlefield terrain and tastings of 1944 foods, while Les Vedettes de Normandie run boat excursions from Port en Bessin to the Pointe du Hoc, Arromanches, and along Omaha Beach (lesvedettesdenormandie.fr).

A great resource for active travellers, randonnees-normandes.com details self-guided walking routes along the Landing Beaches as well as guided hikes to battlefields and monuments on weekends throughout May and into June. The programme continues all summer, featuring organized hikes to different destinations each Wednesday during July and August.

That same website also itemizes seven self-guided D-Day cycling itineraries of varying lengths, with links to cycle-friendly accommodation, plus four organized one-day cycling excursions between May and August. On six dates in July and August, anyone aged ten or over can also join an offshore kayaking trip from Grandcamp-Maisy to see the fearsome heights of the Pointe du Hoc, as stormed by American commandos at dawn on D-Day. The site also details a three-day horse-riding trip from Utah Beach to Mont-Ormel, starting on August 20, and Nordic walking expeditions along Sword and Omaha beaches on September 20 and 21.

No single website lists the full programme of events, but useful options include ddayfestival.com; normandiememoire.com; the70th-normandy.com; bayeux-bessin-tourisme.com; andsainte-mere-eglise.info.

Getting to Normandy

The following ferry operators offer crossings to Normandy ports. For full details see telegraph.co.uk/ferries. Newhaven-Dieppe

DFDS Seaways (0800 917 1201; dfds.co.uk, operated with LD Lines); Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400; brittanyferries.com) and Condor (0845 609 1024; condorferries.co.uk).

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World War Two

Battle of Britain hero’s medals to go under the hammer

April 14th, 2014

Air Cdre Berry was so highly esteemed that he was one of few airmen chosen to lead Winston Churchill’s coffin at his funeral 20 years after World War Two.

He was awarded the CBE for his services along with the Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar.

The medal group, along with his log books covering the war and several aviation maps, are now being sold for the first time at auction.

They are tipped to sell for a six figure sum, not least because they belonged to one of the so-called “Few” who Churchill famously credited with saving Britain for a Nazi invasion.

In a speech to the Commons on August 20, 1940, the wartime Prime Minister said: “The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Oliver Pepys, a medals expert at London auctioneers Spink, said: “Ronald Berry was one of the Few who distinguished themselves in World War II.

“He did have such an amazing tally of kills and probable kills.

“His medals are very significant, in the fact you have a DSO and a DFC with Bar – three superb gallantry awards for World War II.

“The DFC is for the Battle of Britain. He was very much one of the Few who stopped Operation Sea Lion – Hitler’s plan to invade Britain from happening.

“The medals have never appeared on the market before.

“Prices for gallantry medals are very strong at the moment and now is as good a time as any to sell.

“It is a very good fighter pilot’s group but with these it is more about the man behind the medals.”

Air Cdre Berry, who died in 2000 aged 84, was born in Hull and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1937.

Two months after the outbreak of the war he was sent to Montrose in Scotland to help protect the airfield there and served in 603 Squadron.

Days later he was involved in one of the earliest interceptions of the war when he damaged a Heinkel III bomber.

He went on to shoot down a Junkers 88 bomber into the North Sea and have three shared kills during his time in Scotland.

Due to increasing RAF casualties, 603 Squadron was sent to south east England on August 1940 during the height of the Battle of Britain.

In September 1940 Air Cdre Berry was involved in up to four dog-fights a day and accounted for 14 different enemy aircraft in that time, earning him his first DFC.

After the Battle of Britain he was one of only eight out of the 24 original pilots from 603 Squadron left.

He was promoted from Sergeant Pilot to Squadron Leader and took part in a convoy patrols as well as providing air cover for the disastrous Dieppe Raid in 1942.

His 81 Squadron was the first to land in French North Africa in November 1942 where he had a farcical exchange with a French commander, with each claiming the other as his prisoner.

He continued to wreak havoc with the Luftwaffe, claiming more kills.

By the end of the Tunisian campaign in May 1943, he had accumulated a total of 14 enemy aircraft destroyed, 10 shared destroyed, nine probable kills, 17 damaged and seven destroyed on the ground.

After the war he was in charge of the Air Fighting Development Unit at West Raynham in Norfolk, made OBE in 1946 and CBE in 1965.

He retired with wife Nancy to Hornsea, East Yorkshire.

His medals are being sold in London on April 24.


World War Two

Survivor of WW2 crew who fought in Antarctica reveals life in ‘alien’ waters

April 13th, 2014

For 70 years, little has been known about this most peculiar episode of the Second World War. Even the men involved never quite knew what they were doing there, improbably told that their secret mission, codenamed Operation Tabarin, was designed to deter German U-boats from lurking in Antarctic waters.

Now, for the first time, Mr James, the last surviving member of the Scoresby’s crew, has spoken to the Telegraph about the expedition. Mr James, the youngest on board the ship, discloses the harsh conditions endured by the crew as they spent two years in the Southern Ocean.

He has broken his silence as a new book, Operation Tabarin: Britain’s Secret Wartime Expedition to Antarctica, argues that the operation’s true objective was to assert Britain’s claim to the continent and defend whaling revenues against incursions by Argentina.

A copy of George James’ book, Operation Tabarin (Dimitris Legakis/ Athena)

Foreshadowing the Falklands conflict four decades later, the book charts how a rumbling territorial dispute between the two nations erupted at the height of the war as Argentina claimed the South Shetland and South Orkney islands, 800 miles south of the Falklands.

The heroic age of exploration, of course, had seen British missions to the Antarctic long before Tabarin. In the early 20th century, explorers including Scott and Shackleton regularly explored the islands. But Britain saw no value in the territory and did little to formalise or entrench its claim, letting Argentina take over one of its meteorological stations in 1904.

All this changed when overfishing depleted Arctic waters and the lucrative whaling industry largely transferred to the Antarctic. It soon took off, and the Treasury began charging for whaling licenses, swelling Britain’s coffers.

Argentina was appalled, but did little besides sending a few furious diplomatic notes asserting their territorial claim. Then, when war broke out in 1939, the neutral country seized the chance to reinforce its claim while the Colonial Office had rather more pressing occupations.

“By 1941, Argentina quite rightly thought the war was going the way of the Axis powers,” said Stephen Haddelsey, the book’s author. “Would Britain have either the will or the resources to challenge them if they staked a physical claim to the territories? They thought not.”

So, in early 1942, the Argentines sent a ship to Deception Island, a tiny volcanic whaling station in the South Shetlands, where they flew the Argentine flag and buried a cylinder with a formal note proclaiming their territorial rights.

When the Colonial Office heard of this, however, our mandarins’ response was not at all what Argentina had predicted. The War Cabinet was determined to respond, to protect vital revenues in the region and prevent a precedent being set that might encourage incursions elsewhere in the Empire.

The war was still at too delicate a point to provoke outright conflict with Argentina, however, especially as Britain was dependent on substantial cargoes of beef from South America. So the U-boat myth was put about to provide cover for the operation.

“They used the war as a front for aims that had nothing to do with the conflict,” said Haddelsey. “They were trying to avoid an escalation on the ground, but at the same time achieve an unambiguous statement of British intentions.”

To the crew of the Scoresby, however, those intentions could hardly have been more ambiguous. As the trawler set sail from the Falklands on 29 January 1944, few of the men on board knew why the Antarctic had suddenly become so crucial. When Captain Andrew Taylor assumed command of the operation from its original leader, James Marr, a year later, Marr left him with no instructions.

George James (R) with other crew members on HMS William Scoresby circa 1944 (Dimitris Legakis/ Athena)

“A few reasons were put out. We were told it was to do with the Germans but when it came to it, the first party to go down were mainly scientists,” said Mr James. “Now that’s not going down to fight off Germans, is it?”

The crew’s first months in the Antarctic, where the average temperature is minus 10 degrees centigrade, were tough. They moved from island to island constructing rudimentary bases from timber and depositing a handful of scientists at each. But they spent most of their time adjusting to the conditions.

“It was completely alien to all of us,” said Mr James. “Life was in the raw. It was hard going at times but it was a bit of a thrill to think you were there. It was a magical place – we’d be breaking through the ice with ice cliffs on either side.”

As the Scoresby charted new territory, Mr James took photographs on a Box Brownie he had smuggled aboard. Last week, he dug them out again. In one, a colony of penguins climbs up the ice from the ocean, huddling together for warmth. In another, a young Mr James shivers, despite wearing several pairs of gloves and a windcheater.

Mr James – known to the crew as “Sparks” – would rewire lights and send messages as the ship sailed. The war was at its height but there was no conflict here. There were no Argentines to be seen, and Mr James had to face another enemy entirely. “I was once chased along a beach by a sea leopard, with its mouth wide open,” he said. “The penguins would get a bit shirty, too, and have a nip at your legs.” On one occasion, a colony of 10,000 penguins took over one of their bases, entirely surrounding it. Rather than face them down, the crew built another hut.

At last, a year into the mission, the Scorseby spotted its first – and only – Argentines, defending their meteorological station on Laurie Island, part of the South Orkneys. Yet the crew could not have had a more hospitable reception. Six of the original Argentine party of 10 men had died, and were buried by their fellow men with wooden stakes behind the hut. After being cut off with no supplies for 18 months, they were delighted to meet the advancing Brits.

“They were lovely to us,” explained Mr James. “They came down to the beach to meet us, crying. We gave them cigarettes and edam cheese. The wireless operator got so excited that he put his arms round me. He took all the badges off his uniform and gave them to me.”

In fact, boredom was a much more persistent danger. “It upset some people a lot. One man got quite scary about it and tried to influence the skipper to turn back. But that didn’t happen, of course.”

To buoy morale, the men amused themselves. Sparks had his knitting; others took up drawing or draughts. In the evenings, they would play records on an old gramophone.

Food was tinned – but there was one exception, which was strictly forbidden and which Mr James is still reluctant to disclose seven decades later. “We weren’t supposed to take them but we used to get penguin eggs. We made omelettes out of them, which were bloody awful. The yoke was blood red and the ‘white’ was grey.”

They kept track of the war back home over the wireless, and soon learnt of the Allied breakthrough. On VE day, the engineer was disciplined for blowing the ship’s whistle in celebration without permission.

In 1946, Mr James returned to Cardiff, where he still lives. He was finally able to tell his mother, Annie, who thought her son had served in the Falklands, about the expedition. But he quickly resumed his old job at the builders’ merchants, and has only now thought to tell anyone else his story.

This was not, however, the end of Operation Tabarin. With Germany defeated, Whitehall could no longer rely on the excuse of U-boats to justify its Antarctic presence. At the end of 1945, Tabarin was rebranded the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, using the same bases and many of the same personnel. In 1962, it became known as the British Antarctic Survey.

Over the years, the survey has been responsible for some of the most important breakthroughs in modern science, including the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer – which plays a crucial role in explaining climate change – in the Eighties.

Today, the survey employs 400 staff, studying rises in sea level and biodiversity. “This is the legacy from Operation Tabarin,” said Linda Capper, the survey’s head of communications. “They opened up the continent for science. It is a unique laboratory that tells us so much about how our world works.”

The Argentines are still there, too. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1961, named the continent as an international region of science, but it suspended rather than annulled territorial claims over the islands, which both Britain and Argentina still assert.

“I don’t think that failure to scotch the Argentinean claims can be said to make Operation Tabarin a failure,” said Haddelsey.

“The important thing was it re-established Britain in competition with Argentina. Seventy years later, I think the men would be amazed at the legacy they have left. It is one continuous thread.”

As for George James, he still gets a Christmas card from the scientists at the base every year. “All is well and the ship visits have been numerous even in November,” read the latest one. “It is going to be a long season.”

He regrets never having returned to the islands. But, a few years ago, his grandson, Rhys, served as second officer on the first cruise liner to tour Deception Island. Mr James has spent many happy hours with Rhys swapping notes.

All these years later, Mr James is fiercely proud of our continuing commitment to the continent. “If Tabarin was really to do with ambition, it seems the ambition has come to fruition,” he said. “It was the start of something big.”

Operation Tabarin: Britain’s Secret Wartime Expedition to Antarctica 1944-46 (The History Press, RRP £18.99) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £16.99 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 8711514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk


World War Two

Royal tour: WW2 Spitfire pilot tells story of New Zealand fighter ace

April 9th, 2014

Mr Bunt will tell the Duke and Duchess the extraordinary story of his former station commander Lt Keith “Grid” Caldwell, New Zealand’s highest-scoring fighter ace of the Great War.

Caldwell, who survived the First World War, served as an officer in the Second World War and lived until 1980, was facing certain death when his biplane was damaged at 7,000ft, but managed to guide it down towards the ground by stepping out onto the wing and using his body weight to stabilise it while leaning into the cockpit and holding the joystick.

Mr Bunt gave The Telegraph a preview of the story he will tell the Duke on a visit that he is sure the Duke, himself a pilot, will thoroughly enjoy.


World War Two

Dame Vera Lynn interview: ‘People used me to achieve something. I was just doing my job’

April 6th, 2014

But there is much more on her mind than music. The album is timed to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. She is determined to honour “the boys” as long as she can draw breath. “The memories have nearly all gone now,” she says. “A lot of the boys never used to speak about the war.”

READ: Dame Vera Lynn, 97, to release new album

During wartime they used her songs to express things they could not say, about the longing to be home. “Don’t know where, don’t know when …” Then, as the decades slipped by, the songs became powerfully nostalgic. If they couldn’t tell their children what they had been through, at least they could sing along with Dame Vera together. Now, as the last of her peers begins to slip away, there is a fresh poignancy about We’ll Meet Again.

“Yes, there is that to it,” she says. “The youngsters wouldn’t know about any of this. It is only people of my age who remember the war. Unless you have experienced it, you have no idea what it was all about. There are not many of us left now. Very few.” The important thing to her is that their sacrifice should not be forgotten. “People should still remember the war. They shouldn’t forget. It’s up to the schools to teach the children what it is all about.”

They do, and she features heavily. Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and Vera Lynn are the people who stick in the minds of boys and girls studying the war. They don’t think of her like she is today, of course, sharing tea and cake in a parlour full of paintings and old photos.

Vera Lynn with British troops in Burma, 1942 (Bill Lovelace)

“She looks like someone’s granny,” says my son later when I show him a snapshot of her dressed in a blue-green plaid shirt, with a necklace of heavy green beads. He is taken aback because he knows her as a major historical figure. If Florence Nightingale is The Lady of the Lamp, Vera Lynn is “The Woman of the War”, dressed in khaki with a military cap, smiling as she leads the people of Britain in the anthem that will get them through. “We’ll meet again, some sunny day …”

Why does she think that song meant so much to people? “It was optimistic,” she says. “Everyone was separating, going to war. It spoke of hope, you know. Because you never knew what would happen, from one day to another. A bomb could hit any house, any night.” She sang it, time after time, for half a century, whenever people gathered to remember. “Wherever I was, it was always a must.”

The last time was a spontaneous singalong at a charity event in 2010 and she will never sing it in public again now, but her recording of We’ll Meet Again still conveys a powerful sense of longing. Sue Lawley once told Dame Vera on Desert Island Discs that she was the last veteran of the war still on active service. She gave a little laugh and said: “You could say that, yes.”

The new record means she has been in showbusiness for 90 years, having first sung for money in a working men’s club opposite East Ham town hall at the age of seven. She was the daughter of a docker and a dressmaker, and went to work in a factory at 14, but lasted only one day. Talking was banned and she was miserable sewing on buttons. Her father said she would earn more money singing in the clubs, and he was right.

READ: Dame Vera Lynn says national service will fix broken society

Joe Loss recruited her to sing with his Orchestra on the radio, but her first solo recording was released in 1936. It was Up The Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire – a song my nan used to sing to me when I was a boy. Gladys had the same accent: East End posh, the nearly-lost sound of Cockneys who grew up listening to received pronunciation on the radio. She was a fire warden during the Blitz and her husband, Frank, was a Desert Rat; they saw a lot of suffering but never spoke of it. The songs did that for them. The last time I saw Gladys was during a singalong at her care home. We held hands; you can guess what the song was. “We’ll meet again …” Tears prick my eyes when Dame Vera sings.

Her wartime songs were all recorded live, directly on to wax. “If the trumpeter cracked on the last note, you had to do it all over again. You had to make sure your take was perfect.”

She was glad when “the new system” came in allowing them to correct mistakes, but is not impressed by modern singers who break a song down and record it line by line. “It disrupts the thought. I don’t know how they can do a song in bits. You lose the flow, don’t you?” Her performances were all about the feeling, she says. “I don’t think the singers take it as seriously as we used to. The words, the meaning, the phrasing, the feeling of the song. They see the words, they know the tune and they just sing it.”

She is astonished to hear of computer technology that keeps even the most terrible singers in tune. “What? Keeps them in tune?” Yes, it’s called Auto-Tune, and corrects each missed note automatically. “Really? Oh God. We had nothing like that. We never sang out of tune.” She prides herself on that: “They used to call me One Take Lynn.” So she wouldn’t mime if she had the chance, like Beyonce or Britney Spears? “I never mimed,” she says. “I would find it too difficult. I sang the song the way I felt it in that moment.”

What modern music does she listen to? “I don’t listen to music. I never have done.” That’s a startling thing for a legendary singer to say. “The only time I used to listen to it was when we recorded a song, to see if it was OK. I don’t listen to the radio. I’d rather watch the television.”

Vera Lynn, turning heads in Burma (courtesy Virginia Lynn)

The first number-one single in Britain is often said to be Here In My Heart by Al Martino in 1952. But a book released last year detailed sales figures all the way back to the start of January 1940. She had three 78rpm singles in the Top 10 that week, and the first British number one was actually We’ll Meet Again.

The whole country seemed to listen to her radio show, Sincerely Yours, on Sunday nights after the news and Mr Churchill. Abroad, it was the sound of resistance. One Dutchman wrote to say he had hidden with his radio in a haystack, knowing the Germans would shoot him if they found out. She also gave concerts, and received a letter from a Londoner who had spontaneously attended one on the way home from work. “His house was destroyed by a direct hit while he was there. He said I saved his life.”

LISTEN: Vera Lynn presents Sincerely Yours

She usually drove across London on her own in a little Austin 10, hoping to reach the theatre before the next raid began. “It had a soft canvas roof. That’s why I always carried a tin helmet with me, in case the shrapnel came through the roof.” Once, she skidded and the car overturned. “People righted it and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to be on my way.’ But it went de-doyng-de-dong … I’d broken the axle.”

Once there, did they stay on air even if the bombs were falling? “Oh, yes. Nothing stopped if there was a raid on.”

Her most daring act of the war was to go to Burma, where the fighting was fierce. “I was getting letters from the boys and I thought I would like to go and see who I had been singing to on the radio.” After a gruelling 11,000-mile trip via the United States, she performed in a camp near the battle of Kohima. How close was the fighting? “The battle was up the hill. I was at the bottom.”

She smiles at my look of horror. “I knew I was well ­protected, although I did wake up one morning and find four Japanese prisoners leaning against the little grass hut that I was in.” The soldiers had been captured in the night. “They were horrible looking. I had to step over their legs to get by them. The look I got! I was this young girl walking by in khaki shorts. I shouldn’t think they had ever seen a white girl.”

Modern stars require a stylist, a hairdresser, an entourage and a battalion of bodyguards. “I went with a bag slung over my shoulders. That was it,” she says. “Make-up was no good, it would run. All I had was a lipstick. I washed my hair in a bucket and left it like that, because what else could I do? I had a perm before I went, so it was all frizzy.”

She performed using an old microphone plugged into searchlight batteries, while soldiers stood guard on the edge of the jungle. Her pianist had a pistol. “I had no lady companion or anything. I only had 6,000 men.” Presumably she had to fend them off? “No. They treated me with the greatest respect.”

By now she was married to Harry Lewis, a member of the RAF band the Squadronaires, but he was not on the trip. She dressed in a pair of borrowed khaki shorts. The photographs show the men looking dazed in the company of this 27-year-old, bare-legged beauty. “I was never the glamorous type like Betty Grable,” she says, but in the circumstances she was gorgeous. “Thank you. They behaved like gentlemen.”

By accident she found herself in an operating theatre with a wounded soldier. “The surgeon said, ‘Here’s a souvenir for you.’ He gave me a bullet on a little piece of lint, with all the blood still on it. I kept it for donkey’s years, then lent it to the Imperial War Museum, but I never got it back.” The boys in Burma loved White Cliffs of Dover, a syrupy piece of propaganda written by an American who had never been there. Bluebirds don’t even live in Britain, but Dame Vera is impatient with such talk. “Well, it’s a symbol. Bluebirds of happiness. That’s what it’s all about.”

Vera Lynn pictured with British servicemen in Burma during World War Two

In 2009, she sued the British National Party for using the song, not wanting to be associated with its far-right views. That is not sur­prising when you hear what she did when the war ended. “The day after peace was declared, they phoned up and sent me to Germany.” So she sang for the troops who had liberated the concentration camps. “They took me around the ovens. I saw the gas chambers. They were like a row of garages with steel doors. No birds were flying. They said the gas was still in the air.”

After the war she was the first British performer to top the charts in the US, with Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart in 1952. Her last number one here was My Son, My Son, two years later. As it happens, she and Harry had a daughter, Virginia, who now manages her mother’s affairs. Presumably, she is worth millions? “We wish,” says Virginia. “When mummy was really working hard, the money was thruppence ­compared with now.”

She can’t have done badly, though. For 50 years after the war she made radio and television programmes, recorded albums and toured the world. She also worked for service charities, and was made a dame in 1975. The Queen said, “You’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

LISTEN: Dame Vera Lynn sings Little Bit (exclusive)

Dame Vera’s last major engagement was outside Buckingham Palace in 1995, in a concert to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. The ­celebrations were huge but felt like the end of an era. Dame Vera gave a remarkably strong performance for a woman pushing 80. She kissed some of the boys in Chelsea ­Pensioner red, then headed off into retirement in her East Sussex village. Harry died four years later, after 58 years of marriage. Many of those who sang along with her have gone too.

I have to ask, when she looks around at the world today, is this the future they were fighting for? “We didn’t think about the future,” she says tersely. “We lived from day to day. When you’re young, you think the way things are is going to carry on forever.”

Dame Vera Lynn, at home in Sussex (Decca)

She is sometimes mystified by what she sees on the news. “If my grandparents were to come back now and see how people behave, they would be ­horrified. They would say, ‘How could you live in a world like that?’ All the violence and the problems.’ If anybody was murdered in my young days, it was unheard of. Now it’s the norm. If somebody doesn’t like somebody, they kill ’em.”

The irony is that she lived through the most murderous war in history. But Dame Vera is not one to dwell on the negative. “Every generation has a different way of behaving. The world changes.”

She is tired, understandably. I have one last question, which is delicate. She is 97. Long may she live, but nobody can go on forever. What does she think comes next? “I think there has to be something. What it is, I don’t know,” she says. “I wasn’t brought up to pray.” There is a long pause. “It’s a difficult subject.” I dare to ask because for a singer of sentimental songs, Dame Vera has always been remarkably unsentimental. She’ll face whatever comes next like she faced the Blitz and Burma, by just getting on with it.

“When they write about the war, will they include me in it?” The question comes out of the blue and is rather ­staggering, until a smile suggests that she knows the answer. “I am glad that people will remember. I’m proud to think that they will link me in some way with the epic things of the war.”

Lives and memories fade, but the songs remain. She is captured in time now, as the voice of a generation almost lost. Whatever happens, she will always be a young woman with a bright smile and a strong, clear voice, giving people hope. “Well, that is lovely. I didn’t set out to be anything like that,” she says. “People used me, in a way, to achieve something, and I was glad of it. I was just doing my job.”

READ: Oh, What a Lovely War: why the battle still rages


World War Two

Royal Mint to cast coins from bullion recovered after 70 years on ocean floor

April 5th, 2014

The ship spent 70 years lost beneath the waves before being found in 2011, 300 miles off the Irish coast, at a depth of three miles, half a mile deeper than the Titanic.

The deepest rescue operation in maritime history was carried out by a US company and the silver bullion was recovered from the seabed.

A portion of it was passed to the Royal Mint which began striking the coins on Friday, edged with the name SS Gairsoppa.

Shane Bissett, the Royal Mint’s director of bullion and commemorative coin, said: “This incredible story marks yet another exciting moment in the Royal Mint’s fascinating 1,000-year history.

“The traditional Britannia coin design, Philip Nathan’s elegant portrayal of a windswept Britannia looking out to sea, is the perfect image for the coins struck from SS Gairsoppa’s long-lost cargo.

“We are so pleased to be able to bring these coins to the market at long last, albeit more than 70 years later than expected.”

In December 1940 the Royal Mint was running dangerously low in stocks of silver due to the onset of war and called in emergency supplies from India.

The SS Gairsoppa sailed from Calcutta carrying the silver under the protection of a naval convoy.

But after battling a heavy storm it began running short of coal off the coast of Southern Ireland and was forced to break free and head for the safety of Galway Harbour.

The slow merchant ship was spotted by a German U-boat patrolling the British waters and was torpedoed at 12.08am on 17 February 1941.

It sank within 20 minutes.

Three lifeboats were launched but only Second Officer Richard Ayres made it to land and survived to tell the tale.

His lifeboat started with 31 men but after spending 13 deadly days he was the only sailor to make it to dry land alive.

He was awarded an MBE in recognition of his heroic efforts to keep fellow survivors alive, as well as a War Medal for bravery at sea, and amazingly returned to sea nine months later.

The 412ft ship was eventually found sitting on the seabed 300 miles off the Irish coast in September 2011 by US marine exploration company Odyssey.

And after a five-year rescue operation on behalf of the Treasury they recovered the silver bullion from SS Gairsoppa at an astonishing depth of three miles.

Odyssey’s senior project manager Andrew Craig holds a Gairsoppa Coin (Wales News)

Andrew Craig, who project managed the five-year rescue operation, said: “Nobody has ever done anything like this before at this depth.

“There were so many unknowns and when you took a step back it looked incredibly daunting – but we just took each challenge as it came.

“Finally bringing the silver bullion back to the Royal Mint, 72 years after it should have arrived, will bring the incredible story of the ship and its crew to light.

“Not many people have heard about the SS Gairsoppa since it sank but now it will be one of the most famous wrecks to be worked on and those sailors will never be forgotten.”

The rescue operation recovered 2,792 silver bars totalling approximately 3.2 million troy ounces of silver – worth around £38,272,000 at current prices.

Mr Craig said the record-breaking depth of the salvage operation left them with unique challenges to overcome and some eye-watering operational costs.

He said: “For the final stage of the project to retrieve the silver bullion we chartered a boat at a cost of £100,000-a-day – and were there for two seasons for around 180 days.

“It took three and a half hours to send out remotely operated submersible down to the sea bed and then we had to work our way through the boat to find where the silver was stored.

“Up until the last 10 years the technology hasn’t been there to do anything like this.

“But after silver prices rocketed it became financially worhtwhile to give it a go and we believed we had the technology and skill to do it.

“This has been a great challenge for us but now we know we can work any depth of water.

“Coming to The Royal Mint and seeing the silver bullion coins struck was quite emotional – now after 72 years we have seen the story come full circle.”

Odyssey kept 80 per cent of the silver bullion they recovered and the Treasury were given 20 per cent.

Some of this is being used for the striking of the 99.9 pure quarter ounce silver Britannia bullion coins.

Royal Mint historian Dr Kevin Clancy added: “This shipment of silver bullion should have got here 72 years ago and now it has finally come home.

“I don’t think anything like this has happened before – bullion destined for us which didn’t make now finding it’s way here.”

“It’s a very romantic and evocative story.”


World War Two

German minister compares Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler

April 5th, 2014

The Russian foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador to complain on Thursday.

“We consider this kind of pseudo-historical excursion from the German minister to be a provocation,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. “This analogy is a crude distortion of historical events and facts. An official occupying such a high placed position must give an account of his words,” the statement added.

Bernd Reixinger, the leader of Germany’s Left Party, demanded that Mr Schauble apologise to Russia for his “tasteless” remarks. Ralf Stegner, a senior Social Democrat MP described the finance minister’s comparison as “definitely not useful”.

Chancellor Merkel has said that the annexation of Crimea is in clear breach of international law. However, she has distanced herself from Mr Schauble’s comparison and insisted that it is an action which “stands for itself”.

Pro-Russian activists wave Russian flags during a rally in Donetsk, Crimea (AFP)

Mr Schauble told the German television channel ARD on Thursday: “I am not so stupid as to compare someone with Hitler.” He said his remarks had been quoted “in isolation” and out of context.

But in Russia that was cast as a “refusal to apologise”.

In March a Russian history professor lost his job after making direct comparisons between the Crimean annexation and Hitler’s take over of Austria in 1938.

Andrei Zubov, a professor at Moscow’s Institute of International Relations, wrote in an article in the Vedomosti business daily headlined “It’s Happened Before” that Russia could be on the brink of war and that “we must not behave the way Germans once behaved, based on the promises of Goebbels and Hitler”.

The university, which is formally part of the Russian foreign ministry, said Mr Zubov’s public comments about the Crimean affair were “harming the learning environment,” and he was fired for “knowingly and repeatedly” violating the institute’s charter and code of conduct.


World War Two

The tragic tale behind the Second World War’s silver shipwreck

April 4th, 2014

It steamed around Africa to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where, in January, it joined Convoy SL64 for the perilous voyage across submarine-infested waters to Liverpool.

Then two misfortunes stuck. Heavy storms forced the captain, Gerald Hyland, to burn extra coal to keep up with the convoy. Fearing he would not have enough fuel to reach Liverpool, he was forced to split off and head for Galway, on Ireland’s west coast.

But two days after setting off alone, the crew spotted a German long-range reconnaissance plane, a Focke-Wulf Condor circling above them, and their fate was sealed.

The airmen directed the nearby U-101, captained by Ernst Mengersen, towards the lone, unprotected vessel and in darkness on the evening of 16th February 1941, the submarine attacked, around 300 miles from the Irish coast.

The impact of the torpedo brought down the radio antennae preventing the crew from sending out a distress signal. The submarine then surfaced and sprayed the deck with machine-gun fire, the bullets cutting the ropes of a lifeboat and sending it crashing into the sea.

Silver from the SS Gairsoppa shipwreck, which lies approximately 4700 meters deep in the North Atlantic (AFP)

Thirty one men: eight Europeans and 23 Indian seamen — known as Lascars — leapt overboard and managed to get into the lifeboat and away from the submarine and sinking ship. Second Officer Richard Ayres, 31, took command and set sail eastwards, steering with an oar because the rudder had been lost.

Their food supplies consisted of some tins of condensed milk, some drinking water and dry biscuits. Each man was limited to half a pint of water a day, and half a pint a night. Some of the crew began drinking salt water, which made them go mad and fight each other. Then, after seven days, the water ran out, meaning those left alive had to rely on rain for drinking water.

Towering waves and winter gales battered the boat but finally, 13 days after the sinking, the seven men left alive sighted the Lizard lighthouse on the southernmost tip of Cornwall, 300 miles from where their ship had sunk.

However, as they headed towards a rocky cove to land, a wave capsized the boat drowning all but Ayres, Robert Hampshire, the 18 year old radio operator and Norman Thomas, 20, a gunner.

Another wave righted the boat and the three were able to get back on board, only for another breaker to capsize them again and drown Hampshire. The last two made it to nearby rocks where another wave knocked Thomas back, drowning him only yards from safety.

Ayres only survived after three young girls, evacuees from London, who had been walking along the cliffs, spotted the boat flip over and managed to summon help to recover him from the water.

The vessel was discovered in 2011 after the Department for Transport contracted the US firm Odyssey Marine Exploration to locate it, as well as a second British merchant ship, this one sunk by a German submarine in the First World War, only about 100 miles from the Gairsoppa site, at a depth of one and a half miles.

SS Mantola was travelling from London to Calcutta with 18 tons of silver on-board when it was sent to the bottom in February 1917, 143 miles from Ireland, with the loss of seven lives.

Its wreck was also found in 2011, and the Florida-based firm combined the recovery of its cargo with that from the Gairsoppa.

The wreck of the Gairsoppa – named after a waterfalls in India – was found at a depth of three miles, half a mile deeper than the Titanic. The recovery of its 2,792 silver bars – totalling approximately 3.2 million troy ounces of silver, worth around £38 million at current prices – involved using a remote-controlled robot to cut open the ship’s cargo holds, search inside them and then individually remove each item.

Under the terms of a deal struck with the DfT, Odyssey is entitled to 80 per cent of the value, once it recovers its own costs. The remaining 20 per cent goes to the Treasury. A portion of the haul is being used to make a limited number of 20,000 coins, costing £30 each, available from April 21, aimed at collectors and anyone interested in maritime history. This week, the Royal Mint began striking the coins, which are edged with the name SS Gairsoppa.

It comes more than two decades after the death of Richard Ayres, who died in 1992. Speaking to the Telegraph during the recovery phase, his niece Jane Harbidge, 73, from Old Newton, near Stowmarket, Suffolk, said: “It was a story we knew in the family, but not one that was talked about very much. My uncle seemed to be an upright, maritime sort of person. It is fascinating that they have now found this silver.”

Rev Margaret Mulraine, 90, a cousin of Thomas’, from Broadstone, near Poole, Dorset, said: “He seemed to be viewed as quite a hero in the family because he had kept everyone going in the boat, then died so tragically in sight of land. I can well remember stories being told about him.”


World War Two

Second World War bomb kills seven in Bangkok

April 2nd, 2014

At least seven people died and 19 others were injured Wednesday when a massive Second World War bomb exploded at a scrap metal warehouse in Bangkok as workers tried to cut it open, officials said.

The 500-pound shell was found at a construction site by builders who then sold it to a suburban scrap metal merchant believing the bomb had been defused.

“The workers at the warehouse thought the bomb was no longer active so they used a metal cutter to cut into it causing the explosion,” said local police commander Virasak Foythong, adding the ordnance was probably left over from the war era.

“Seven are now confirmed dead and 19 injured,” the city’s Erawan emergency centre said, updating the toll. It reported that five people were killed at the scene.

Confirming the number of deaths, a police explosives expert said the blast created a large crater and damaged homes within a 1,600-feet radius.

“It was (a) 500 pound bomb dropped from the air during the Second World War,” Colonel Kamthorn Ouicharoen, of the police bomb disposal unit, told AFP after visiting the scene.

Television footage showed debris and twisted metal at the destroyed workshop as thick smoke choked the sky, while local reports said dozens of nearby homes were also damaged by the blast.

The allies conducted bombing raids on the Thai capital in retaliation for the kingdom joining the Japanese war effort in south-east Asia.

Edited by Barney Henderson


World War Two

Kevin Spacey to play Winston Churchill

March 31st, 2014

Kevin Spacey has enraptured thousands of House of Cards viewers with his portrayal of machiavellian congressman Frank Underwood, and now the American Oscar winner is going to take on Winston Churchill in a new film.

Captain of the Gate will follow the former Prime Minister ahead of his first term, as he campaigned in Parliament to defend Britain from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in the run-up to the Second World War.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film will have a budget of around $ 20 million and will be produced by StudioCanal, the producers behind films such as JFK, Frost/Nixon and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Although the project is yet to find a director, it has been written by Ben Kaplan, who wrote the screenplay for a History Channel biopic of the late President Ronald Reagan.


World War Two