My Lords, I thank the Government for giving time for this debate and the Minister for introducing the subject with his customary touch and eloquence. I am also a member of the Normandy Memorial Trust, so ably led by my noble friends Lord Ricketts and Lord Dannatt. I will turn to the work of the trust in a moment, but first I will say a word about the importance of commemoration.
As someone who worked at Buckingham Palace for over 20 years, I have witnessed commemorative events large and small in every corner of the United Kingdom and in many countries overseas. I cannot recall a single one which did not strike a powerful chord of grief or loss, of loyalty or pride, of community heritage or a deep sense of national identity. These events honour historic occasions, places and people, but they do more. They set the present in the context of the past, to the benefit of us all: young and old, those with direct memories and others just trying to understand a little better the world about us. They teach and they explain a little more of what defines us.
So it is with D-day. Others in the Chamber today are more qualified than I am to remind us of how relevant the events of 75 years ago are to the world of today. I have appreciated the contributions so far and I look forward to those to come. We all need reminding, as RUSI’s recent YouGov survey of public awareness of D-day so dramatically showed. The epic story of that great military operation illuminates and explains so much of today’s world: the importance of the special relationship on show at Buckingham Palace last night; the importance of NATO; our endlessly difficult and complex relationship with the French and with Europe; and Putin’s ambitions for post-Cold War Russia. None of these can be properly understood without knowledge of this story. We are right to remember and to learn.
We are right also to honour the people who were there. The 75th anniversary is probably the last time that many Normandy veterans will make the pilgrimage to the beaches, honouring lost friends and recalling moments that defined their lives. It has been the ambition of many of those veterans, led by George Batts, the former secretary of the Normandy Veterans’ Association, to see a national memorial built to the memory of their fallen comrades. The Americans have a national memorial above Omaha beach. The Canadians have one above Juno beach. Although there are many regimental memorials in Normandy, there is no single place which commemorates all the British forces, and all those nationalities fighting under British command, who died in the D-day campaign.
The Normandy Memorial Trust was created in 2016 to realise the dreams of those veterans to build a British national memorial. Generous initial funding has been provided from the Government’s Libor fund. Help and support have been given by the Royal British Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Land has been bought on the gently sloping hillside directly overlooking Gold beach, with the remains of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches clearly visible on the horizon. A design for the memorial has been submitted to and approved by the French planning authorities. It will record in stone and in perpetuity the 22,442 names of all those under British command who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign. There will also be a memorial to honour the thousands of French citizens who lost their lives during the bitter fighting through the towns, villages and countryside of Normandy.
The start of the construction and the statue which will be the centrepiece of the memorial, as the Minister mentioned, will be inaugurated in a short ceremony on Thursday morning by the Prime Minister and President Macron. We hope that the memorial itself will be completed by the summer of next year, and there is then an ambition to raise funds for an education centre and other facilities. Of course, as the Prince of Wales, the trust’s patron put it, the memorial is long overdue, but it is not too late. We owe it to the remaining veterans and their families to realise their dream and to honour their comrades. We owe it also to future generations to remind them of the extraordinary contribution made by the United Kingdom in 1944 to the restoration of liberty, democracy and the rule of law to Europe. We owe it to ourselves to understand better today’s news agenda by learning from those momentous events of 75 years ago.