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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:08 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 6:08 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and his most eloquent speech; I will echo many of his arguments and sentiments.

D-day marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War; we should never take that subsequent victory for granted. Modern scholarship tells us that, fighter for fighter, the Germans were the most ferociously effective force in the field in that war but Hitler, thank goodness, made a number of critical errors that would hasten his demise. He took on the Soviet Union, a huge, populous country with a hostile climate. His biggest error was to declare war unilaterally on the United States two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and thus propel America into the war.

Before Hitler’s declaration of war, President Roosevelt had wanted to intervene in Europe, but the mood in Congress was isolationist and hostile—let us note the warning. The US began the war against Germany with much diminished military capacity, but it quickly swung into action and, with its industrial might, soon constructed ships faster than the Germans could build U-boats. America went on to transport vital materials and supplies to the UK.

We had begun the war strategically exposed: two-thirds of our food, one-third of our iron, 90% of our petroleum and 100% of our rubber all came from across the sea. The Battle of the Atlantic, however, would now be won: 3 million US troops and a mass of materiel would arrive in the UK before and immediately after D-day. That was only possible because we were an offshore island from which an attack on mainland Europe could be successfully launched.

Hitler’s final mistake had been not to attempt to invade and conquer the UK when we were at our weakest, post Dunkirk. Without our independent island status, it is inconceivable that the US could have launched an invasion on mainland Europe direct from America. In the east, the Soviets fought Hitler to a standstill, but at a price we should never forget. Of the 50 million who died in World War II, 25 million were Russians. As my noble friend Lord Bilimoria reminded us, the invasion of Italy had begun a year earlier in 1943. By the time of D-day, Hitler was extended on every possible front, and persistent bombing from the UK by the RAF and the United States Air Force weakened his defences in Europe even further.

Therefore, let us give thanks today, as others have said, to the British men and women of my father’s and my mother’s generation, who fought bravely to protect us on the land, sea and air. Let us thank the Russian people for their great sacrifice. Above all—and here I echo my noble friend Lord Hannay—let us thank the US for coming to our aid a second time and with concomitant sacrifice in this most cruel and destructive of wars. Let us recognise that, while we may not all concur with President Trump’s policies and attitudes, he is the Head of State of our greatest and most important ally and should be honoured accordingly. Let us secondly recognise that if the US had not entered the war, Hitler might have ultimately vanquished the Soviets and ruled all of Europe, including—eventually and inevitably—the UK itself. Alternatively, if the Soviets had prevailed, western as well as eastern Europe might have ended up under the Soviet yoke. Either way, the UK would have tumbled into a totalitarian nightmare.

Let us finally recognise—and many have said this, as Her Majesty did last night—the genius of those after the war who created an institutional framework, including the UN, NATO and eventually the EU, which has underpinned the stability of our continent for 75 years after centuries of war and strife. D-day, 6 June, is a day for us to be intensely grateful, to proclaim that we take nothing for granted and to speak up in support of those very institutions which have underpinned our peace and prosperity for so long.