D-day: 75th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:18 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:18 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, 75 years ago today, military forces in the United Kingdom stood poised to embark on the largest invasion—the greatest combined operation—in the history of warfare. I say “forces in the United Kingdom” quite deliberately because these were, of course, not only British forces. The largest elements of the armies that were to land in Normandy in the following days were drawn from American, British and Canadian forces, but other allied forces—in particular, from European countries whose homelands remained under occupation—also participated.

Among the first troops to land on the eastern flank of the invasion, as part of the 1st Special Service Brigade, were commandos of the Free French Forces. Naval vessels manned by personnel of the Free French, Polish, Royal Netherlands and Royal Norwegian navies formed part of the bombardment forces supporting the landings, and airmen from France, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as from Commonwealth realms, operated with the allied air forces, providing cover for the invasion.

Of course, events in Britain and France were not the sole focus of military activity at the time. In Italy, allied forces had just occupied Rome, following the hard-fought battles at Monte Cassino; on the Eastern Front, our Soviet allies were preparing to launch Operation Bagration, one of the largest operations in an area where the numbers involved far exceeded those deployed in the West; in India, the siege of Imphal was drawing to its end; while in the Pacific theatre American forces were preparing to invade Saipan, in the Mariana Islands, as the next stage in their island-hopping campaign. This latter activity explains why the majority of the naval forces supporting the landings were operating under the White Ensign, rather than the Stars and Stripes.

However, it is of D-day itself—the landings on the coast of Normandy—that we speak today. This, despite the invasion of Italy in 1943, was the long-awaited Second Front, pinning large numbers of the enemy’s forces in western Europe and making possible a direct attack on Germany’s industrial heartland. The ultimate success of the invasion, in conjunction with the ongoing operations on the Eastern Front, is reflected in the destruction of Germany’s ability to continue the war and its end, in Europe, just 11 months later. Many noble Lords will be conversant with this history—indeed, there are Members of this House, although retired or no longer sitting, who themselves took part in those events—and I do not propose to rehearse the campaign in detail.

However, it is worth noting that there were very particular features of the campaign and the allied effort that have few, if any, parallels in our history. Although it is the anniversary of D-day itself that we are marking, preparation and training began much earlier and had a much wider impact. I will highlight just a few aspects. The accommodation and training of the large numbers of British, Canadian and American personnel meant the occupation of significant areas of the country and the evacuation of the civilian population from those areas. The most famous, perhaps, was the South Hams of Devon but many other areas became, in effect, closed, armed encampments.

The intelligence and propaganda efforts involved were remarkable. The story of Bletchley Park and Enigma, and the invaluable information that was provided to allied commanders, is well known. The tremendous effort that went into deceiving the enemy about where and when the invasion would take place, called Operation Bodyguard after a comment by Churchill that the precious truth should always be accompanied by “a bodyguard of lies”, is known in part—for instance, the story of Monty’s double—but some parts are still less familiar. The creation of a wholly fictitious First United States Army Group in southern and eastern England, commanded by the absolutely not fictitious General Patton, was intended to persuade the German high command that the real invasion was to be in the Pas-de-Calais. This deception was continued for several weeks after 6 June, until the general actually deployed into Normandy to command the American Third Army in July.

The last unusual aspect I would like to mention was the importance of weather forecasting. The invasion needed particular states of moon and tide times to offer the greatest chance of success. The original intention of General Eisenhower was that the invasion should take place on 5 June, in which case today would have been the anniversary of the start of the operation—indeed, 75 years ago today, some parts of the invasion fleet were already at sea and were recalled—but he was advised that weather on the invasion beaches would be so bad as to prevent the operation of landing craft. However, the RAF meteorological team had analysed the forecasts and predicted that conditions on 6 June would provide a suitable window. After much discussion, Eisenhower gave the order. This was particularly fortunate as in the next suitable period for tide, two weeks later, weather conditions were again so bad that the landing would have been impossible. The storm that took place completely wrecked the Mulberry harbour at Omaha beach.

This week we should speak not only of the past but of what we are doing in the present day. This 75th anniversary of the invasion is perhaps our last opportunity to mark such a significant milestone while we have a relatively large number of veterans still with us. Five years ago, when the 70th anniversary events were held in Normandy, we had about 400 British D-day veterans in attendance. The assumption was that this represented the majority of survivors. We were therefore surprised, although delighted, when the offer in 2014 by the President of France to honour all living veterans of the liberation with the Legion d’Honneur was met, within six months, by some 3,500 applications. In the years since, they have continued to come in—they are still being received—and we have now dealt with about 5,800 cases.

This year, we have significant commemorative events where, once again, our veterans will be centre-stage. We expect to have about 600 veterans present during the national commemorative event in Portsmouth and at events in Normandy. In Portsmouth, in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen and other world and European Heads of State and Heads of Government, those veterans from the UK and allied nations will form a thread of living history. The veterans and their memories are a direct link to the events of 75 years ago, and the assembled leaders will have the opportunity to hear directly from them.

About 250 of the veterans will then travel to Normandy on the “MV Boudicca”, a cruise vessel that has been chartered by the Royal British Legion, paid for by Libor funding, to take part in the events in Normandy on 6 June. I will have the honour and pleasure of joining the veterans for the crossing to Normandy, although regrettably I cannot stay for the whole week’s cruise that the veterans will be enjoying.

In Normandy, we will join the annual service held at Bayeux Cathedral and an event in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. But perhaps the most significant event of the day will be the inauguration of the new British Normandy memorial at Ver-sur-Mer, overlooking Gold Beach where the 3rd Infantry Division landed. I should like to pay tribute to Members of this House, in particular the noble Lords, Lord Dannatt and Lord Ricketts, who have played a major role in organising the creation of this memorial. It will bear the names of all those who lost their lives under British command from D-day through to 31 August, when the Normandy campaign was considered to be over.

I look forward to listening to the contributions of noble Lords in today’s debate, not least that of my noble friend Lord Reay, whom we welcome warmly to this Chamber. In conclusion, I should like to say to the House that we, who are fortunate to be living at a time when, despite other difficulties, we are not faced by mass war, should never forget the debt we owe to those who faced the dangers of crossing the Channel in frail aircraft and ships, and went ashore in the face of enemy fire to free Europe from the shadow of a tyranny whose like had never been seen before and, we can hope, will never rise again.