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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:59 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Burnett Lord Burnett Liberal Democrat 4:59 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin. I will be quoting from a book, and there is a rather fuzzy photograph of him in that book. It is an honour to speak in this debate and to pay tribute to all the people, not only from our country but from our allies and friends, who made such a mighty triumph of Operation Overlord.

The mammoth task of preparing for D-day, including training troops for amphibious operations, started well over 18 months before the invasion itself. The principal allies—ourselves, the United States and the Canadians—used all the valuable intelligence resources available to us. It is true to say, as other noble Lords have, that the code-breaking capacity at Bletchley Park was vital in helping to secure victory in the war and certainly shortened it by a considerable period of time. Our ability to gauge the Axis powers’ deployments, strategy and tactics was invaluable. Furthermore, the assistance we got from the French Resistance and its ability to disrupt Axis forces was also extremely helpful.

There was so much planning and co-ordination for this huge amphibious operation. Months before the invasion we had reconnaissance troops deployed all over the north coast of France, from Calais to Brittany, engaged in beach reconnaissance in an endeavour to confuse the enemy as to the invasion destination. Nearer the time of the invasion, decoy models were parachuted into different areas. The organisation and co-ordination had to involve all the main allies, particularly, as I have said, the United States, ourselves and Canada. It also involved all branches of our Armed Forces: we had to retain air superiority to be able to bomb and strafe the enemy from the air and co-ordinate ships, naval gunfire support, landing craft commando, and glider pilot and parachute troops for the assault itself. In addition to transporting troops, tanks, armoured cars and other vehicles, fuel, ammunition, food, water and medical supplies had to be delivered. In sustaining the assault and getting reinforcements and the main body of the Army ashore, there had to be a system of landing, especially for heavy armour. The Mulberry harbours, an invention of genius, had to be towed to northern France and assembled after the invasion when the beachheads had been taken.

The House will know that the First United States Army landed at Omaha and Utah beaches, whereas the British and Canadian forces, comprising the Second Army, landed on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. To gauge the massive scale and power of the initial result, it is instructive to look at the order of battle on D-day itself. The United States Army landed a division at Utah and two divisions, plus rangers, at Omaha. In addition to those forces, the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division were dropped inland. The 3rd Canadian Division was landed at Juno beach, and the United Kingdom’s 50th Division was landed at Gold, with the 47 Commando Royal Marines. The UK’s 3rd Division landed at Sword with two commando brigades; the United Kingdom’s 6th Airborne Division was dropped inland. Over 150,000 allied troops were landed or dropped on D-day itself. This initial assault was on a massive scale that had never before been seen. The crucial reinforcement of the bridgehead in subsequent days was also of a magnitude unsurpassed in history.

It should not be forgotten that there were large Australian, New Zealand, French, Czech, Belgian, Dutch, Greek and Polish contingents, sometimes as many as a division in strength. The success of the operation and the work of the beach-masters and others involved in this operation was a triumphant achievement.

The United Kingdom Second Army was responsible for our initial assault and subsequent land operations. The commander of the Second Army was General Sir Miles Dempsey, a quiet but highly respected and hugely admired officer. To give the House an example of the intensity of the combat and the terrifying casualties sustained by the assault troops, I have chosen General Dempsey’s selection of 47 Commando’s capture of Port-en-Bessin as one of two D-day actions he considered especially outstanding. He wrote:

“The capture of Port-en-Bessin was vital for two reasons: firstly, it formed a junction point between the British right flank on Gold Beach and the American V Corps landing on Omaha; secondly, it was essential as the main terminal of our petrol, petrol being the life-blood of a modern, mechanised army”.

I am indebted to the late Professor John Forfar MC for his book From Omaha to the Scheldt, in which the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, appears. Professor Forfar was the medical officer of 47 Commando and went on to have an equally distinguished career as a consultant paediatrician in Edinburgh. In a table in the book under the heading “Counting the cost”—this would include casualties that the unit sustained in the Scheldt some months later—63% of the fighting troop officers were killed in action and 75% of them wounded, giving a total of 138%. As to enlisted men, the total was 116%. Noble Lords might wonder how to get a figure of more than 100%; it is because the replacements and reinforcements were often killed or severely wounded as well.

One benefit of a debate of this nature is the chance to put on record our profound gratitude and indebtedness to the countless people from not only our own country but those of our allies and friends who were involved in this operation. We owe them all a debt of honour we can never repay.

Another advantage of the debate is the chance to emphasise the importance to this country of retaining and building on our amphibious capacity. In what I would loosely call the western world, the only countries with such a capacity are the United States—its amphibious capability is huge—ourselves and the French. Since World War II, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, often with Army and Royal Air Force ranks attached, have been involved in numerous amphibious operations, including the Korean War, Suez, Tanganyika—as it was—Limbang in Borneo, the first Kuwait threat from Saddam Hussein, the threat to Hong Kong in 1967, the Falkands campaign, operations in Sierra Leone, the invasion of Iraq and, the year before last, humanitarian operations in the Caribbean, as well as earlier operations.

In his speech at the Royal United Services Institute on 11 February this year, the then Secretary of State for Defence talked about the importance to this country of,

“increasing our global presence and building on our alliances”,

both east and west of Suez. Among other things, he stated:

“The UK is a global power with truly global interests”.

He talked at length about the “Littoral Strike Ship concept”, and praised the success of the Royal Navy and what he rightly described as our “world-renowned Royal Marines”. The point is that we need the capacity to retain these skills. Can the Minister confirm that the Government still have these aims? What exactly will they do to ensure that we continue to be able to mount amphibious operations throughout the world, with the necessary escort vessels, aircraft carriers and other vital support?

Finally, we should give thanks that we have had no western European war since 1945. I fervently believe that our membership of the European Union, with our European allies and friends, has made a great contribution to this ensuing peace.