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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stoneham of Droxford Lord Stoneham of Droxford Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:35 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Portsmouth D-day museum. I begin by thanking the British Legion for all the work it does with the surviving veterans of all our wars, and the War Graves Commission for its magnificent work maintaining the amazing cemeteries commemorating those who lost their lives on D-day and in all our recent wars.

I have lived eight miles north of Portsmouth for the past 30 years, having worked in Portsmouth for 10 of them. In the South Downs National Park, as it is now, most of the troops for Sword, Gold and Juno beaches assembled awaiting embarkation. Hardly a day passes when I am out walking in those fields and woods in my area that I do not think of the men, principally Canadians, who camped out, some for many weeks, and what kept them going. What were their aspirations and hopes? What happened to them on D-day? From looking at the graves in Normandy, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, just said, one realises how young they all were—18 to 20 seems to be the normal age—and how remarkable it was that they were prepared to give their lives to liberate Europe, where they now remain.

For Portsmouth, the centre of the planning and command for D-day, the anniversaries are always marked with great dignity and respect. Every principal anniversary seems to be bigger than the last. Not only do we honour those who died, we celebrate two things. We celebrate an amazing enterprise, a remarkable partnership of many nationalities, principally British, American and Canadians but, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said, also many nationalities in Europe whose countries were occupied, particularly the Poles. We also should celebrate the peace that determination and partnership have brought us for the past 75 years in Europe.

Looking ahead to the debate, with its great experts and speakers, I will briefly and modestly talk about three themes. First, I will talk briefly about a meeting that took place in the village I live in, Droxford, in the preparations for D-day. Secondly, I will say something about the amazing planning and logistics of the D-day operation. Thirdly, I will talk about the important legacy of D-day and its great international partnership, which should be how the young should understand and appreciate what was done in June 1944.

Droxford was, in 1944, a small rural village, which it largely is today, with a railway station and a small freight siding. On Friday 2 June 1944, a train carrying Churchill, Ernest Bevin and Field-Marshal Smuts arrived in the station siding. It is often speculated why Churchill came. Some think he was still trying to board HMS “Belfast” to take part in the invasion, others that he wanted to be involved in the final decisions on embarkation. Personally, I think it was his way of resolving the tension, stress and worry about whether D-day would be successful or a disaster. It was better to be out among the troops than worrying about them in London. He used the two days to visit the troops, see the embarkation, meet with Eisenhower—but not with Montgomery, who was fiercely opposed to his visit—and invite de Gaulle down to be told he would neither be leading nor going on the initial invading force.

It was not a happy meeting—a fierce argument ensued. Choosing a railway carriage for a meeting with a French general was not very politic. Telling de Gaulle this news in a crowded meeting, rather than alone, was not very tactful. Eventually, the argument exploded, and Churchill said that whenever in future there was an argument between France and the USA, the UK would side with the USA. It soured relationships for years afterwards and de Gaulle’s memory was one of the grounds for him refusing us entry into the EEC in the 1960s.

This was, though, very much an argument between Roosevelt and the USA and France. We were initially sidelined until it resolved in September 1944 when de Gaulle’s Government were recognised. It shows that even the best partnerships are not without divisions, arguments and disagreements. Perhaps we as a country have never resolved that conundrum of whether we should be closer to France and Europe or the USA, but perhaps it is always better to be involved with both sides of the Atlantic.

D-day witnessed many heroic actions and great bravery by all those who took part. Sometimes when the history of wars is written, it understandably concentrates on the battlefield stories and the developments there, ignoring the preparation, planning and build-up that gave victory to one side. D-day took many months and years to plan. The scale and logistics were incredible. There were no computers. Everything had to be planned manually and if those plans were changed, they had to be prepared manually again.

One man should have had more recognition for what he did: Admiral Bertram Ramsay, whose HQ at Southwick House was where the decision to go, eventually, was made. Probably because he was killed at the beginning of 1945, before he could publish his memoirs, he is more remembered for Dunkirk than the landings at Sicily, Anzio and those on D-day, which he brilliantly planned and organised. His statue is in Dover, but he needs more recognition in the Navy’s home in Portsmouth. We should recall Churchill’s comment: you cannot achieve victory through a glorious retreat. We should do more to remember Ramsay’s role in D-day and its success.

As we raise money for education at the D-day museum in Portsmouth, I try to think what D-day legacy young people should remember. It was a remarkable operation. People unselfishly gave their lives for freeing Europe; but I have to say, quietly and as unpolitically as possible, that this was a partnership where no country solely sought to follow their national interest. There was a wider international agenda and objective. America might well have sought to defeat Japan first if it had not followed Churchill’s advice and had the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt. It was certainly not an example of “America first”. The partnership set up for D-day succeeded and put in place the institutions that have kept the peace going in Europe for the past 75 years. As we seek to change these institutions, I hope we will make sure that we create sound and long-standing institutions before we destroy what we have. The young men who gave their lives and remain on the European mainland deserve that respect, combined with our ever-lasting gratitude.