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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:32 pm on 4th June 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 5:32 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, how fortunate we are that my noble friend Lord Reay chose to make his maiden speech in this debate so that he could remind us of the wonderful exploits of his grandfather Lord Lovat, who was so distinguished a figure in the Second World War.

In opening this important debate my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House reminded us powerfully of the truly breathtaking scale and extent of Operation Overlord, whose 75th anniversary we are commemorating today. By happy coincidence, it comes a few days after the 225th anniversary of the Battle of the Glorious First of June, when my noble friend’s renowned forebear, the 1st Earl Howe, smashed the fleet of republican France in the Atlantic.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham of Droxford, referred to a fine sailor of the Second World War, Admiral Ramsay. I strongly agree that his huge contribution to victory should be more widely known and recognised.

I shall devote most of my remarks to the great man who was indispensable to victory: Winston Churchill. He agonised over the opening of a new front in northern France. He was haunted by the memory of the long, bloody, inconclusive battles of the First World War and feared their repetition. He told the King, and his indispensable Soviet ally Stalin, that he was prepared for casualties of around 10,000 on the first day alone, but as,

“the supreme climax of the war”,

as he described it, drew near, the great man was in buoyant mood. His principal military adviser, General Alan Brooke, a man much given to gloom, recorded on 5 June that,

“I found him over optimistic as regards prospects of the cross Channel operation and tried to damp him down”.

The doubt-ridden general did not succeed.

Churchill, who was also Minister of Defence, wanted to be associated as closely as possible with his troops as the greatest armada in human history sailed to its destination. So, too, did the monarch, King George VI. On 30 May, they agreed that they would both be present on D-day, aboard HMS “Belfast”. The King was quickly dissuaded. His Private Secretary, Alan Lascelles, asked him whether he was seriously prepared to advise Princess Elizabeth on the choice of her first Prime Minister in the event of her father and Churchill being sent to the bottom of the English Channel. The King then told Churchill that his life was far too precious to be put at serious risk. For several days his entreaties had no effect. Lascelles noted,

“the trouble is that none of those who have access to Winston can influence him once he is set on a course, not even Mrs Churchill nor, apparently, his anointed King”.

The Prime Minister eventually gave way with the utmost reluctance. He made his feelings plain later in his war memoirs:

“As a result of what I saw and learned in the First World War, I was convinced that generals and other high commanders should try from time to time to see the condition and aspect of the battle-scene themselves”.

Was it not only right and just, he added, that,

“when sending so many others to their deaths he may share in a small way their risks?”.

It was here in this Chamber, then being used by the Commons, that Churchill delivered the first official statement on the events of D-day. Harold Nicolson, a National Labour MP and a marvellous diarist, recorded the scene here on 6 June 1944:

“I go down to the House, arriving there at about ten to twelve ... Questions had ended unexpectedly early and people were just sitting there chatting, waiting for Winston. He entered the Chamber at three minutes to twelve. He looked as white as a sheet. The House noticed this at once, and we feared he was going to announce some terrible disaster”.

Two pieces of typescript were placed on the Dispatch Box. Churchill spoke first of the liberation of Rome two days earlier by General Alexander’s conquering army.

“Alexander gets a really tremendous cheer”,

Nicolson noted. Churchill took up his second sheet:

“I have also to announce to the House that during the night and the early hours of this morning the first of the series of landings in force upon the European Continent has taken place”.

He spoke for some seven minutes in confident terms:

“Everything is proceeding to plan. And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place ... Complete unity prevails throughout the Allied Armies. There is a brotherhood in arms between us and our friends of the United States”.

To these stirring remarks, the House listened “in hushed awe”, in Nicolson’s words.

Does not awe remain the right emotion 75 years later—awe at the precision and attention to detail with which this vast operation was put so successfully together; and awe, mingled with gratitude, at the courage of those drawn from many different countries in Europe and around the world who served under D-day’s banner of freedom?

I was one of a small group who submitted a rough draft for Margaret Thatcher to consider as she prepared a speech for the 40th anniversary of D-day in 1984. She stressed the importance of retaining for ever the great war-time alliance that was later to be enshrined in NATO.

This is a moment above all for honouring our fellow countrymen for their valour in June 1944. My noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood, who pressed for this debate, is sadly unable to take part in it today. He is in Normandy, accompanying one of the veterans we are still lucky to have among us. My noble friend has asked me to say this on his behalf: Corporal, later Sergeant, Les Birch of the Royal Engineers landed at Asnelles on Gold beach on D-Day+1 to begin the work of building the Mulberry harbours, commissioned personally by Churchill, which were so vital for the success of our early operations in France. In recent years he has returned faithfully on 6 June to pay a silent tribute to those of his friends who fell and to give thanks for the success of Overlord. He will be doing the same again on Thursday. On 6 June 1944 Les Birch was one of many thousands to whom General Montgomery sent this message:

“To us is given the honour of striking a blow for freedom which will live in history; and in the better days that lie ahead men will speak with pride of our doings”.

That pride will surely be safeguarded faithfully by those who follow us throughout the generations to come.