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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:09 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Reay Lord Reay Conservative 5:09 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, before I begin I offer an apology to several noble Lords, who over the past few weeks were led to believe—largely by me—that my maiden speech would address broadband connectivity in rural areas. It is an issue close to my heart, but I am happy to save that speech for another day.

I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Howe for introducing this important debate. How great an honour it is to participate and pay tribute to the allied troops who took part in the D-day landings. I thank noble Lords from across the House, who have been most welcoming and helpful during my initial few weeks, as have the staff and doorkeepers. As Mackay clan chief, I am delighted to join my distinguished kinsman, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Some noble Lords may recall my father Hugh, who—like my grandfather, Shimi Lovat—served this House. I am proud to follow in their footsteps.

It is almost 390 years since my ancestor Donald Mackay was raised to the peerage. His was a doughty spirit, typical of the highlanders he lived among, and he loved a battle. Charles I was wise enough to harness rather than resist Donald’s energies, and he sent him and his men to fight overseas in the Thirty Years’ War on the side of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. Thanks to their many victories, most notably at the pass of Oldenburg, Mackay and his men became known as the “Scottish invincibles”. I point out, however, that while Charles I was generous with titles, he was not so ready with his cash. The lack of payment for troops left Mackay in severe financial difficulties, from which he barely recovered. I trust a similar fate will not befall me as a result of my service to Parliament.

For several centuries the Mackay clan colonised Sutherland on the north coast of Scotland, an area of the country renowned for majestic scenery and excellent salmon rivers. It has recently become the prospective site of Britain’s first international space station. Large numbers of the clan were soldiers. Since it was easier in those days to travel to Scandinavia and the Netherlands by sea than to go inland, they fought abroad. Many married into Dutch families and one member of the family, Aeneas Mackay, became Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

The Frasers of Lovat shared a similar fondness for military adventure. Shimi Lovat was integral to the establishment of the Commandos in 1940, having been given the personal blessing of not only Churchill but the highly decorated General Carton de Wiart. The latter gave approval while reclining in his bath-tub, revealing World War I injuries including the lack of a hand and just one good eye—the other, alarmingly, uncovered. The Commandos played a key role during the Normandy landings. Lovat conducted his troops to Sword beach accompanied by his bagpiper, Bill Millin. When asked to pipe the men ashore, Millin hesitated, saying that the practice had been outlawed by the War Office. However, Lovat insisted that the Scottish war office had no such qualms. Years later Millin was to play at Shimi’s funeral. Aptly, Lovat’s Free French soldiers were the first to make land.

Five years ago, with about 100 Fraser relations, my family visited the Normandy beaches for the unveiling of a statue to my grandfather. Afterwards, at Pegasus Bridge, the wonderful Madame Arlette Gondrée, whose parents had played a prominent role in assisting the allied forces, hosted a magnificent lunch. It was at this scene on D-day that the Commandos achieved their primary objective of reinforcing Major John Howard’s Airborne Division. Café Gondrée remains a hallowed destination for Normandy veterans to this day. Since the liberation, as a token of appreciation the veterans have not been permitted to pay for food and drink. Unfortunately this generosity does not extend to relatives.

The amphibious assault on D-day and the ensuing two and a half months of battle to secure Normandy resulted in over 200,000 allied casualties. Some 2 million crossed the channel and 20,000 French perished, as well as over 200,000 Germans. Thankfully, out of this tragedy a more peaceful Europe emerged.

It is particularly important that younger generations are reminded about the courage and selflessness that was shown during this time to preserve our freedom and independence. As a nation we owe a debt of gratitude to the United States; likewise for the sacrifices made by their nation on our behalf. Having spent over 11 years in America at university, and working in the financial sector, I feel particularly strongly that the vital role the United States played in our support during World War II should not be overlooked.

I would like to conclude with the address that Lovat made to his troops in Southampton on the eve of the landings. He spoke first in English and then French, and ended as follows: “I wish you all the very best of luck in what lies ahead: this will be the greatest military venture of all time, and the Commando Brigade has an important role to play. A hundred years from now, your children’s children will say: ‘They must have been giants in those days’”.

Indeed, they were.