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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:23 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour 5:23 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and look forward to hearing from him many times in the future, especially on rural broadband connectivity.

We approach this 75th anniversary of D-day in sombre mood, not only for the anniversary itself, with its huge significance for the war and the scale of sacrifice involved, but because, as our own Lords Select Committee report, UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World, put it:

“We are living through a time of worldwide disruption and change”.

The report, debated on 21 May, reminds us that today’s trends include populism, identity politics, nationalism, isolationism, protectionism and mass movements of people. It goes on to warn that the global balance of power is shifting and fragmenting in a way not experienced since the Second World War, undermining the rules-based international order that was so properly set up at the end of that war. Therefore, while we commemorate and reflect this week, we must also attempt to learn some of the painful lessons of the war, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, said. It is my deep and personal belief—some might say heresy—that, for instance, going ahead in a cavalier fashion with Brexit is not really learning those lessons, but may be flying in the face of them.

The veterans of the D-day landings and the bloody battle for Normandy that followed are in their very old age now and fewer are able to return to the beaches of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. To see the 250 veterans preparing to sail from Portsmouth with their families this week was an absolute joy and I am very pleased that the Minister will be accompanying them. Our gratitude for their participation in the most ambitious military operation that the world has ever seen is boundless, as it ensured our present freedom and democratic way of life, as noble Lords said. That democratic way of life is so easily and so often taken for granted.

On the matter of veterans, I was contacted recently by the family of a surviving World War II veteran, Harold Mason, from another theatre of that war. Harold joined the Royal Navy aged 17 and is a survivor of the Arctic convoys. His extraordinary personal bravery in rescuing Norwegian men, women and children in one incident from the Arctic water is yet to be officially recognised and I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, as Minister of State for Defence, for agreeing to discuss Mr Mason’s case with me even though I am aware that a resolution would be extremely difficult and that the family’s MP, Mr Philip Hollobone, has already worked on their behalf in this matter.

While we remember and honour our veterans today, it is also important to remember our war widows. I was delighted and humbled to be asked this year to become a vice-president of the War Widows’ Association under the wonderful presidency of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and I follow in the footsteps of the late, much-missed, Baroness Dean, who would definitely have been speaking today. The War Widows’ Association is a most extraordinarily brave and feisty group of mainly women and some men, who should be considered veterans by anyone’s measure. I was very moved to read the recollection of one of the war widows, Bernice Lois Bartlett, of the day the letter came to tell her that her husband Harry had been killed in 1944. She said:

“I just didn’t expect it. The letter came, the ordinary blue envelope and I put it on the dresser. I didn’t open it because it was the children’s teatime … and I thought, get them done, put them to bed, then I’ll read my letter. Of course I didn’t realise what the letter contained. You just don’t think it’s going to be you”.

No doubt that scene was played out time and again across the country and, unfortunately, it still is.

The WWA was originally set up to fight for the rights of those widows and especially to put right the fact that their war pension was being taxed by the Inland Revenue. Once that campaign was won, there was a further push to ensure that war widows did not lose their pension if they remarried or cohabited, and that was resolved in 2015. However, those 300 or so war widows who were affected before 1 April 2015 are still cut off from their pension. Will the Minister meet me in coming weeks to discuss this unresolved and very important issue for the War Widows’ Association? I am testing his patience. Like buses, he does not see me for months, and now I am asking to see him twice in one week.

Finally, I am thinking today of Bob Maloubier, a French SOE agent who I was proud to have known and call a friend. Bob died in 2015. He was awarded the DSO in 1945. He came to lunch here in the Lords as my guest not long before his death and was a famous Anglophile. Bob was twice parachuted into France and carried out a series of daring sabotage missions with fellow SOE agents, including the courageous Violette Szabo, whose daughter Tania is a good friend, whom he attempted to rescue from the Gestapo. In the early days of the battle for Normandy, Bob Maloubier was parachuted back into France after being injured and went on to play his part in weakening the German response to D-day. Bob and all the brave SOE agents should be in our thoughts today because their fearless work as saboteurs behind enemy lines throughout the war did so much to bring about the final victory.

As the allied veterans return to the beaches of Normandy one last time this week, they will know that the gratitude of a grateful nation and indeed of the free world is with them. What is less known is whether we, who have not had to face war on such a scale, are paying proper attention to the shifting world we live in.