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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:13 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative 6:13 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, in congratulating my noble friend Lord Reay on his maiden speech, I have to add my apologies for attempting to leave the Chamber as he rose to his feet to deliver a most impressive maiden speech.

Several references have been made in this debate to the meticulous planning by the joint British, Canadian and American teams in the two years or so before D-day. There is one aspect of these preparations that, perhaps, has not had the attention it deserves: the intensive training given to all formations that were likely to be involved in the Normandy landings. I am most grateful to the Minister for highlighting this point. I pay tribute to Mr Peter Caddick-Adams, a summary of whose findings appear in this month’s BBC History magazine. Broadly, the main areas where this training took place were, for the British forces, that surrounding Loch Fyne in the Clyde estuary; and for the American forces, south-west England, particularly Devon and Cornwall.

In order to make the training as realistic as possible, normal safety procedures had to be bypassed. Live ammunition had to be widely used. The inevitable result was that casualties were high. Among the infantry there were a number of deaths through drowning, not helped by the heavy equipment that many would have been carrying. There is a chilling account of a mistake made by a landing craft in one of those exercises: they mistook landfall, and 10 heavily armed infantrymen vanished into the sea, never to be seen again. Inevitably, casualties were also heavy among the airborne troops.

Perhaps the best known training disaster was Exercise Tiger at Slapton Sands in north Devon in April 1944, involving 30,000 US servicemen. A fleet of German E-boats came across the assault convoy and, unaware of the true purposes of the exercise, loosed several torpedoes before they made their way back to France. The torpedoes and the ensuing chaos caused the deaths of just short of 1,000 US troops. Occurring as it did close to the date of the planned invasion, the disaster was hushed up at the highest level and whole villages in north Devon were placed in quarantine, to which my noble friend has referred.

In May 1944 there was a massive rehearsal, Operation Fabius, designed to be as near as possible to real thing. Nobody below the rank of lieutenant colonel knew that it was not. Mr Caddick-Adams wrote:

“Everything possible was rehearsed and umpired: minesweepers cleared the sea; aircraft dropped ordinance; the coast was bombarded with live ammunition; command ships issued orders and monitored frequencies. Alongside swimming tanks, landing craft tanks shipped armour onto the beaches”.

Obstacles and real minefields were laid. Here again, the operation was made as realistic as possible. Casualties were regrettably high.

Mr Caddick-Adams has come to the chilling conclusion that probably more lives were lost in the preparations and training for D-day than in the first 24 hours of the battle itself. He wrote:

The Allied servicemen who invaded northern France had experienced an incredible degree of rugged and realistic training that put them at the peak of physical fitness, acclimatised them to battle and equipped them mentally and physically to win”.