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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:16 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative 5:16 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, what a privilege to follow that delightful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and an honour to welcome him to this House. It was a delightful, dignified and delicate speech, if I may say so, which is nothing less than we would expect from a noble Lord who is the clan chief of our own noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

I suspect it was always likely that the noble Lord would make an impact. He comes from a long line of Scottish lords, one of whom apparently was a legendary wizard who, having come out victorious from a clash with a local witch, was rewarded with a young gang of tireless fairies who liked nothing more than to work. I am not sure whether the noble Lord has that gang of fairies still at his disposal, but on the basis of that very fine maiden speech, we can all look forward to his tireless work for us in this House.

Earlier today, I had the great pleasure of showing some American friends round our Parliament—the former US Surgeon General, Admiral Richard Carmona and his family. I think they were impressed, particularly with the Royal Gallery, the most beautiful room in the kingdom in my opinion, dominated by those extraordinary murals of Waterloo and Trafalgar—ironically and exquisitely painted by an Irishman, Daniel Maclise.

The quiet corner of the Royal Gallery that spoke to the admiral and me more than any other is where we usually keep the books of honour recording our war dead, which for the moment are not in their place. Beside them, amid the glorious Gothic extravagance of Augustus Pugin, are two simple reminders of times past that touched both his and my heart: a chunk of stout oak that formed the jetty at Dunkirk, where we were hurled off the continent at the end of the beginning, and that small box which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, so eloquently reminded us of earlier, that contains handfuls of sand taken from each of the five beaches of D-day, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword —the beginning of the end.

They are such simple but intensely powerful reminders of what our fathers and grandfathers did. The outcome was no foregone conclusion—far from it. Churchill knew, after Gallipoli, the Norwegian campaign and Dieppe. Churchill certainly knew. And everything depending on that most mischievous of allies—the weather. Disaster hovered in the wings, looking for its chance. We can still see it today, in the old newsreel footage: the fear carved in the faces of those young soldiers as they ran from their landing crafts and up those bloody beaches, not knowing if it was the last step they would ever take. Their average age was little more than 20, with many of them still teenagers barely out of school.

More than 425,000 troops were killed or wounded in the battle for Normandy: there were between 5,000 and 10,000 allied dead on 6 June alone. They were not just British, of course, but Americans, Canadians, brave Poles and others, as the noble Earl so forcefully reminded us earlier. Mostly, however, they were American; we owe them an eternal debt. Many French civilians also died in the assault to liberate their country, and we should not forget the German dead, who were mostly young men and boys. I have a suspicion and a sense that they fought not with glory glinting in their eyes but with at least as much fear gripping their hearts as our own young men. “The glorious dead” is what we call them, but they would much rather have lived and grown old, like we who are left to grow old.

That brings me to a point I fear I must make—it needs to be made gently but firmly. The US President is here to help us commemorate D-day and the extraordinary sacrifices that were made to secure our freedoms. He is here not as Donald Trump but as the elected President of the United States of America, the greatest democracy on the planet. It offered up more of its young men on those beaches of D-day than any other country. They died for the freedoms that today we take perhaps too much for granted and which all too often we abuse. The protesters on our streets today are the same age as many of those who died on the beaches, and they of course have a right to protest—that is what their forefathers fought for. But oh how much happier I would be if that protest were conducted with dignity and thoughtfulness matching the moment we commemorate.

I am the first generation of my family for perhaps a thousand generations who has not had to face the prospect of fighting and dying on some battlefield of Europe. I have been given that most precious prize of all prizes: being able to watch my own sons grow to manhood in peace and freedom. How I would have welcomed the chance to listen to President Trump address us here in this Parliament and reflect on the ties of liberty and mutual interest that still bind us. The refusal was, I think, a mistake, and diminishes us all.

Now, more than ever, we need reminding of those links and of what price all of us, but particularly the young, have to pay for political failure. During this current political turmoil, it is often said that Britain is looking back, trying to regain lost glories. But if that was glory, let me have none of it. Let us instead take the lessons and look forward to a better world based on the liberties that so many brave young men fought and died for.

On Thursday, as old men gather on those beaches, let us honour the sacrifices that they and their comrades made for us and for future generations. In the morning—every morning—let us remember them.