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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Brennan Lord Brennan Labour 6:24 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, this and other acts of commemoration this week about the D-day landing and its aftermath are important and necessary. Memory, it has been said, is the architecture of our identity and sense of belonging, both individually and collectively. Embedded in our memory, individually and collectively, are often the powerful effects of great historical events. Some are likely never to be forgotten and continue to provide the basis for the maintenance and, I hope, development of our national character.

D-day was such an event. As has been said, it was the largest seaborne invasion in history, with landings spread over 50 kilometres of the Normandy coast. As the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, emphasised, there were over 150,000 allied troops on D-day 75 years ago. As my noble friend Lord Anderson pointed out, there were thousands of sea vessels and aircraft. These are not just numbers; they are a physical expression of national unity and determination. They impress now as, no doubt, they impressed then. The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, pointed out intelligence. Some have mentioned the French Resistance. All must have felt a sense of destiny. It was marked in particular by allied co-operation, probably greater than ever before in numbers and in such a mighty conflict as began this Normandy campaign.

To illustrate at a small level numerically, but nevertheless an equal standard of bravery, there were two outposts on the Normandy coast. One at Merville, during the night before the boats left the UK, was the subject of an intended attack by 600 UK paratroopers. They landed in various parts during the night. Only 120 of the 600 reached their target. That is attrition. On the US side at Pointe du Hoc, this and Merville being places where the Germans had spread artillery and gunfire along the beaches, 200 US Rangers took on that outpost. One hundred and thirty of them were dead or wounded. That is attrition. At small and large level, they exhibited the qualities which we should be not only proud of, but grateful for.

As numbers grew after D-day, as I understand it there were pretty soon 39 divisions in Normandy—22 US, 12 UK, three Canadian, one French and one Polish. That illustrates the allied nature of the invasion. They fought as one army, commanded by General Eisenhower, an American, the commander-in-chief, and led in the field by the general in charge of the army on land, General Montgomery. With such casualties and such a determined attack, only someone with no understanding of nation, history or duty could fail to appreciate its importance, as a result of alliance. There are no better allies—not only the ones who will sign a defence treaty, but the ones who will join you on the battlefield.

As Her Majesty said last night in her speech,

“we owe an immeasurable debt to the”,

United States and to our other allies. It would be helpful to be reminded, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, pointed out, that in the Asia theatre, similar allied action was taking place—the British were in southern Asia and the Americans were attacking across the Pacific—with the same results, albeit with an entirely different enemy.

Those who died, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, pointed out, were young—at the beginning of their lives, which ended. Oratorical words such as duty, honour and country come to mind, but these ordinary young men from ordinary backgrounds exhibited service, loyalty and sacrifice. I remember the day when the local British legion man in my village in the Cotswolds read out the name of every young man killed in both wars from that village—a quarter of its young men over two wars. It is very moving. None of us in this great metropolis or in our great cities should ever forget that throughout this country—in our villages, families and communities—families, friends and descendants do not forget.

Historical ignorance is an ever-present danger. It produces cultural superficiality and an unjustified belief that, in the modern world, military alliances are outdated and unnecessary—dangerous thinking. With all this in mind, on this day of remembrance, let us give respect and gratitude, especially to those who died, in this initial step towards the ultimate victory of freedom and democracy and the end of totalitarian rule in Europe.