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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:18 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench 6:18 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, my father landed on Sword beach at about 8 am on 6 June. He was not in the first wave, but he arrived very soon afterwards, after a long night feeling seasick and very scared. He was finally back on French soil, soil he had left earlier in the Dunkirk retreat. He was a major in charge of a battalion with the Suffolks and their mission was to take a bunker, nicknamed Hillman after the popular car. My father’s first job was to secure the small village that lay between the coast and the bunker. This he did, and it went without a hitch, the sole enemy being a sniper in a church tower, whom Dad and his men dealt with easily. The bunker, however, was another story. Hillman, as I was to discover for myself, was virtually impregnable. It was entirely underground, defended by gun turrets which peaked above the grass. My father’s role was to provide covering fire for the company undertaking the assault. Shots were exchanged and time passed—time that had not been scheduled into the battle order of the day. It was, for the Suffolks, a grim time, one my father would worry about for the rest of his life, because their failure to take the bunker quickly had somewhat delayed the advance on Caen.

Seventy years later, my father long dead, I stood at the entrance to that bunker. It seemed incredibly insignificant to have caused so much trouble. I was there for the anniversary celebrations and a group of us had hired a guide. We had asked him to retrace my father’s footsteps from the beaches to where he was wounded. From Hillman we walked inland, arriving at the bottom of a long hill which led up to a chateau wall. My father had been tasked with taking the chateau, but he had no armour or artillery support. There were panzers in the chateau’s grounds, concealed behind the walls, their guns pointing down the hill.

Our guide, a retired major-general, told me that my father was leading his men up this hill when he was wounded, “Somewhere round here”. He waved his hand towards a stretch of grass. “Actually,” came a voice, “it was right here. I was next to him”. We had not noticed an elderly chap coming up behind us. He told me that my father had been taken down to the field hospital—here he pointed down the hill at a barn—while he had somehow gone on up to the chateau wall. On arrival, he turned around and looked back, aghast to discover that he was the only member of C Company to have made it up to the wall. The tanks stationed behind it were spraying bullets across the hillsides. “What on earth did you do?” I asked. He grinned. “I beat it back down again and I lived to tell the tale. But this was carnage.” My father, meanwhile, was patched up and shortly afterwards returned to his regiment.

As it was the 70th anniversary year, there were re-enactments all along the Normandy coast. We went back to Hillman, where there were veterans in uniforms mingling with German officers and men in uniforms. I was introduced to the grandson of the bunker’s commander, who was an Austrian. The grandson is a lawyer in Germany and a reservist in the Germany army. In fact, he had done a spell at Sandhurst, part of an army exchange. We talked. It was very sunny. We were getting on very well, remembering my father and his grandfather. I really liked him, and I suspect I would have liked his grandfather, and that my father would have done too. I told him that Dad had always been puzzled about something: why did his grandfather, when he finally surrendered from the bunker, come out carrying both his leather suitcases in his hands, his batman walking behind? The grandson was puzzled. He said, “I don’t have a clue, but there is someone here who can answer this question”. He pointed me towards an elderly German soldier, dressed up in his uniform. He said, “This is the batman”. It was an extraordinary moment. The answer was translated. He was smiling. He said, “Well, the commander carried his cases because he did not want to come out with his hands up”. I stood there, feeling goose bumps on my arms, just wishing that Dad had known this. It would have made him laugh; it would have given him enormous pleasure. I shook the batman’s hand and thought how immensely lucky I have been.

After that almost endless conflict was over, Europe resolved that it would do everything possible not to end up fighting each other again; that trading and co-operating could avert future wars; and that sending a young reservist in the Germany army to Sandhurst for a spell could cement ties that were very strong and durable. NATO and the UN resulted, as, of course, did the wonderful European Union. It has been fundamental to the peace, prosperity and security that I and all of us have been so privileged to enjoy.

I still have the lump of shrapnel dug out of my father’s calf that day. It is a quite horrid bit of metal. It is jagged and very spiky. It is a reminder of what neighbour can do to neighbour, of what potential friend can do to potential friend. I am extremely proud of my father, as is my daughter, and I know that he, like me and Daisy, would find the prospect of leaving this extraordinary Union both very sad and very alarming. I bet that the commander’s grandson and the retired batman, if he is still with us, feel the same.