Final salute to one of Blackpool's finest citizens
A D-Day veteran who was one of Blackpool's most highly decorated war heroes has died after a short illness.
Tributes have been paid to ex-Royal Marine Jim Baker who died peacefully with his family around him on Wednesday, aged 93.
He took part in the first wave of landings in Normandy in 1944 when his small assault boat was the only survivor out of a flotilla of 24.
Despite being badly injured by a mortar explosion, he went on to do 22 more landings.
During his later years, he led many of the commemorations in Blackpool and was a firm fixture at the annual Remembrance Day service at the town’s cenotaph.
Ron Bell, national chairman of the Royal Marines Association, said: “Jim was one of the most highly decorated veterans in Blackpool.
“But he was also a character and a real charmer.
“He was a Royal Marine through and through and very proud of his history in the corps.
“He was one of nature’s gentlemen who will be sorely missed.”
Mr Baker held the Distinguished Service Medal which recognises exceptional service and is one of the highest military honours, and recently received the Legion d’Honneur from the French government.
Ian Coleman, president of the Royal British Legion Club in Blackpool, said: “Jim was a fantastic fellow. He was very proud of his service for his country and of what he was doing for Blackpool.
“I don’t know anyone who didn’t take to him.
“He was a true serviceman of the highest degree who was well respected wherever he went.”
Mr Baker was a founder member of the Blackpool branch of the Royal Marine Association, a former president of the Fylde Ex-Service Liaison Committee and was involved in the town’s popular Veterans Week.
He regularly returned to Normandy to mark the anniversary of the D-Day landings including the 70th anniversary commemorations in 2014, often accompanied by Neville Ayrton, secretary of the Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Royal Marine Association.
Mr Ayrton said: “He had plenty of stories and was the life and soul of the party.
“Everywhere he went someone recognised him. You couldn’t walk more than three paces in France without people recognising him and throwing their arms round him.
“During the D-Day landings he was a landing craft commander. His craft was overturned and everyone had to swim to shore through a hail of bullets but he kept all the troops going.
“He got wounded by shrapnel but they sent him back out a few days later and he did another 22 landings.”
Closer to home, he was a big fan of Blackpool Football Club, and counted former manager Ian Holloway among his friends. He joined the team on board the bus for the victory parade down the Promenade when they were promoted to the Premier League in 2010.
Blackpool Mayor Coun Peter Callow said: “The country owes so much to people like Jim for what they did.
“We should never forget their bravery.
“Jim took part in the D-Day landings facing up to the German positions, and came through it to live to a great age.
“He will be sadly missed by all the people in Blackpool who knew him, and people far and wide who knew him.”
Jacqui Longden, manager of the BLESMA Home, said although not a member of the association for limbless veterans, Mr Baker, who previously lived in North Shore, had asked to be cared for at the home on Lytham Road as his health failed.
She said: “It was a pleasure and privilege to care for him in his final days.”
He was born in Blackpool and brought up in Marton, where he met his childhood and lifelong friend Cyril Ellis who died several years ago.
An air cadet with 177 Squadron as a youngster, he joined the Royal Marines and made 23 landings on Omaha beach.
Speaking to The Gazette in 2010, he recalled escorting supply vessels carrying live explosives and going below deck one day then feeling “the ship jump out of the water.”
“That’s me gone, Jim”, I said to myself”.
The neighbouring vessel had gone.
“Ship, men, vaporised. The lads we’d taken the mick out of just gone, dead fish floating in their place,” Mr Baker recollected.
If he had not experienced enough, Mr Baker then went on to serve in the Far East after the war ended in Europe.
After the war finished, he worked at various jobs including as an officer in the British Transport Police, and as a security guard.
He was married to his wife May for many years until her death, and the couple had two children Paul and Shelly, and several grandchildren.
Mr Baker’s zest for life continued into his eighties, appearing on TV show Secret Millionaire in 2010, and taking part in a zip wire stunt from the top of the Imperial War Museum in Manchester when he was 86 to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
Details of his funeral are yet to be finalised, but a service is expected to be held at St John’s Church in Blackpool.