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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:29 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 4:29 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Earl, who put the Normandy landings so well in context. It is right today to mark the D-day landings and right to pay tribute to the meticulous planning of General Morgan and his team, based on Lord Mountbatten’s earlier planning. It was quite a feat—apart from the soldiers, the land forces—to organise 12,000 aircraft and 7,700 ships in the greatest amphibious operation of all time. It is right to recognise the success of the measures of deception and the work of Bletchley Park. Above all, it is right to salute the bravery of our air, sea and land forces. We should remember the sacrifice of so many lives, which will be commemorated in that memorial to be unveiled on Thursday at Ver-sur-Mer. With hindsight, of course, we can see hesitations, blunders and miscalculations, as shown by Antony Beevor in his perceptive Sunday Times article—but this happens in any military operation. Overall, the longest day was a total success; some say now that the victory was inevitable, but that is with the benefit of hindsight with 20/20 vision.

Paris was, of course, liberated by August. Casualties were severe on all sides. We should remember that 20,000 French civilians died in the fighting. They suffered then, and many also suffered as so much of the infrastructure was destroyed, such as the Seine and Loire bridges. The SS Division Das Reich came from the Mediterranean and up through France, wreaking havoc on so many French civilians, such as those in the Martyr village at Oradour-sur-Glane, the village of Dunes, and others. They left a trail of destruction en route to Normandy. There was so much destruction of towns—Caen, Saint-Lo, Falaise and Villers-Bocage. The terrain, the Bocage landscape, the Normandy farmhouses, the hedgerows and the ditches were ideal for defence. Above all, it was, as the noble Earl has said, an allied victory. Nine countries provided ships and nine provided aircrew, apart, of course, from the land forces. Perhaps President Trump should be reminded of this triumph of multi-nationalism when he visits Omaha beach and sees that magnificent US memorial at the cemetery there.

At the risk of appearing self-indulgent, I have two personal memories to recall. In 1957, after sixth form, I worked for three weeks on a farm near Caen. Everywhere, there were still memories of the war, particularly the cemeteries, maintained so well by our War Graves Commission. I recall that in my village, the annual fete was preceded by a parade to the local British cemetery, where more than 200 men were buried. What struck me as a 17 year-old was that many of the men who died were roughly the same age as myself, perhaps a year or two older. I was proud to be invited by a group of villagers to head the procession with the French veterans, with their berets and medals. In spite of the deaths and enormous destruction in that part of Normandy, what was clear to me was that there was nothing but immense gratitude and good will among the people for the contribution of our British forces to the liberation of France.

Fast forward 50 years. I was taking a school party from my native Swansea around Parliament. Present was the head of the West Wales branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association, Doug Gausden. When he saw in the Royal Gallery the memorial to Dunkirk, he remarked, “What about us Normandy boys?” I promised to do my best to remedy the omission. A year or so later, with the help of the then Black Rod, whose father-in-law I think took part in the landings, we had a ceremony with a piper to mark the gift from the West Wales Normandy Veterans’ Association of a casket made by a local woodwork teacher with sand from each of the five beaches: Omaha and Utah for the US forces, Juno for Canada, and Gold and Sword, our British beaches. That casket is still there to remind us of the 22,000 and more British men and women who died during the Normandy campaign. I hope noble Lords will visit that casket and reflect, as I have just done.

I cite these stories to give some small personal tribute to the veterans and those who took part in those Normandy landings 75 years ago.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them”.

We will remember them.