D-Day. 6 June. 0430 hours Zulu. As I write 61,715 British troops alongside 57,500 Americans and some 21,500 Canadians supported by 6939 ships and craft of various sorts together with some 11,600 aircraft are three hours off the Normandy beaches. They are together with the air, sea and land forces of many free nations – Australian, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, Greek, New Zealand, Norwegian, Polish and, of course, the Free French on their long, dangerous and distinguished way home.
Just over four hours ago at 0015 hours 6 platoons of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry attacked and took the critical bridge (Pegasus Bridge) over the Caen Canal that protects the eastern flank of the five landing beaches Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah. The glider-borne force landed less than 100 metres/150 yards from their target and by 0026 hours had sent the coded success signal “ham and jam”.
At 0058 hours the 7th (light infantry) Parachute Battalion of the British Army began the first of the massed American, British and Canadian drops of some 13000 paratroopers behind enemy defences to help secure the landing beaches. And, in just over an hour at 0545 hours a massive naval bombardment will begin from the huge fleets off the beaches, which includes seven battleships 4 of which are British and 3 American.
At 0725 hours troops of the 50th Northumbrian Division, 69th and 231st Brigades and the 8th Armoured Brigade will be the first of the six American, British and Canadian infantry divisions to set foot on the beaches. They are being preceded by Special Forces of the Special Boat Service and Royal Marine Commandos.
Later today Prime Minister Winston Churchill will rise to speak in the House of Commons. “I have…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. In this case the liberating assault fell upon the coast of France. An immense armada of upwards of 4,000 ships, together with several thousand smaller craft, crossed the Channel. Massed airborne landings have been successfully effected behind the enemy lines, and landings on the beaches are proceeding at various points at the present time”.
Under the ‘Supreme’ command of US General Dwight D, Eisenhower Operation Overlord is a truly multinational effort. The Allied Expeditionary Naval Forces is led by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay of the Royal Navy, the air forces by RAF Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory and 21st Army Group by General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, victor of El Alamein.
Seventy years on I had the honour Tuesday to watch Beating the Retreat on Horseguards Parade in central London as a guest of the First Sea Lord. This is an ancient British military parade that was performed meticulously by the massed bands of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines, the band of the Royal Netherlands Navy and the band of the United States Marine Corps. As I watched I reflected that my life today would not be possible without D-Day – I am a Brit, I am married to and live with the Dutch, I am a passionate believer in the United States and the continuing need for American leadership, I am soon off to Ottawa and I am a European. To that end, the precision of the military bandsmen of three great democracies marching and wheeling around Horseguards reminded me of the enduring importance of the military alliance of the Western democracies forged on those magnificent but bloodied beaches. Indeed, both NATO and the EU were born in Normandy.
Later, as I looked down on Horseguards from the Duke of Wellington’s famous office with a nice glass of Royal Naval Chablis in my hand I was also struck by the enduring need for democratic values and liberties to be underpinned by hard military power in an unforgiving world. Indeed, if there is one testament to the men who put their lives on the line on Normandy’s beaches it is that the West is no longer a place but an idea – a global idea that must be defended globally. However, today as then sound defence means hard-nosed political realism and on occasions the same sad sacrifice by the same sort of young citizen-soldiers the bodies of whom could be seen strewn sadly across the D-Day beaches by the end of that fateful day.
D-Day also holds a mirror up to today’s European leaders. They should take a long, hard look into it as not a few of them gathering in Normandy today should do so in chagrin if not a little shame. This week President Obama came to Europe to pledge yet more American money in defence of Europe. America’s $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative will enhance the training, exercising and (vitally) education of NATO European forces whilst the 67,000 US military personnel currently stationed in Europe will be reinforced. Frankly, as a European I felt a little ashamed by the President’s announcement. Indeed, with only three Europeans currently spending the agreed NATO target of 2% GDP on defence (Britain, Greece and Estonia) it is shocking that in 2014 an American president should be giving American money to relatively rich Europe in pursuit of its own defence. Echoes of the 1930s.
D-Day also reminds all of us engaged in security and defence of another strategic verity – the importance of the sea to our collective defence. After a decade of land-centric operations in Afghanistan and Iraq it would be easy for military planners to try and fight the last war better. That would be a mistake. There will be no more Afghanistan-type operations in which small forces are sent into distant places at great expense for long periods in pursuit of uncertain political and social ends. Indeed, with much of the world’s population moving ever closer to the sea and congregating in huge cities in the littoral much of future security will come ‘from the sea’.
Therefore, D-Day is not some relic of irrelevant history but the marker for future coalitions of free peoples and a beacon of excellence (in spite of its many problems) for future operations. However, such lessons will resonate only so long as political and military leaders have the political courage and strategic vision to confront the many lessons D-day still has to teach us about will, intent, cohesion and innovation.
Above all, D-Day reminds of the need to stand up for what is right. Clausewitz said that “War is the continuation of policy (politics) by other means”. The presence of Germany’s Chancellor Merkel today on the Normandy beaches is testament to that. Indeed, D-Day was about the liberation of all Europe including Germany from Nazism. Dr Merkel’s presence today not only graces the commemoration but is powerful proof of a Germany that stands at the heart of Europe and the heart of freedom as a model democracy - friend Germany, not enemy Germany.
And, for all the current turbulence in the West’s relations with Russia and whatever one’s views on President Putin and his Machiavellian machinations one must never forget that the defeat of Nazism owes much to the sacrifice and suffering of the Russian and other peoples in Eastern Europe. What a shame Moscow simply fails to grasp the possibilities for great (not Greater) Russia in a free Europe. Apparently preferring instead to live in fear of freedom in a strange, new Cold World War in which no-one will win least of all Russia.
In his D-Day message to the troops General Eisenhower wrote, “The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of the Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world”.
As the boots of those first American, British, Canadian and other troops set foot ashore on Normandy’s long, golden beaches democracy, liberty and security came with them. It is therefore incumbent on the rest of us to ensure that neither democracy nor security is frittered away by those who too often seem to have forgotten that liberty can never be taken for granted and must be invested in then as now.
Operation Overlord was quite simply stunning both in vision and commission. A few years ago I stood on the cliffs above Arromanches looking down on Gold Beach where the famed British XXX Corps came ashore. To my right lay Juno and Sword beaches and to my left the American beaches Omaha and Utah. The sheer length of the front was stunning - some 100kms/60 miles in length. However, D-day was not without cost and although by the end of D-Day the beaches were secured and the bridgehead on French soil established some 9000 Allied personnel lay dead killed-in-action. Therefore, today must be seen for what it is; a day of remembrance for the American, British, Canadian and other forces that began Europe’s long journey back to democracy many never to return.
How can we honour these brave, ordinary men and the veterans who still honour us and remind us with their presence? We must complete a Europe whole and free and reinvest in the defence of liberty and democracy for which my grandfather and my great-uncle (killed) fought.
In November 1942 speaking of the British Commonwealth’s victory at El Alamein in Egypt Winston Churchill said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, however, the end of the beginning”. D-Day was the beginning of the end of World War Two in the European theatre of operations.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.
Thank you, Gentlemen.