Earl Howe: This D-Day we must pause to remember the courage and sacrifice of the Allied personnel to whom we owe our freedom

Posted On: 
5th June 2019

This week marks the 75th anniversary of an unprecedented event in the history of warfare. We owe a debt of gratitude to the heroes of D-Day, writes Earl Howe

Troops wading ashore from a landing craft during the D-Day invasion of France on 6th June 1944
PA Images

This month marks the storming of the beaches in Normandy 75 years ago with major commemorations across the globe. On 6 June, tribute will be paid to the hundreds of thousands of brave individuals who took part in that operation – from Portsmouth’s Southsea Common and Staffordshire’s National Memorial Arboretum to Bayeux Cathedral and the Cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Normandy. Movingly, hundreds of surviving veterans will sail to Normandy on MV Boudicca escorted by a Royal Navy flotilla, their costs funded by the Royal British Legion, its commercial partners, and HM Treasury.

Despite the decades that have passed, D-Day still strikes anyone who studies the event as a truly remarkable feat.

First and foremost, we should remind ourselves of the sheer scale of the operation. It was unprecedented in the history of warfare: nearly 7,000 naval vessels transporting and protecting over 160,000 ground troops, under a shield of 11,500 aircraft. Moreover, this was a truly combined operation: 62,000 British Army ground troops helped storm Gold, Sword and Juno Beaches, and 138,000 UK RN and Merchant Navy personnel were involved in Operation NEPTUNE – the name given to the masterpiece of planning which was the combined naval operation. And let’s not forget the RAF’s 5,600 aircraft deployed and the fact that, before anyone set foot on the beaches on 6 June, Bomber Command had already lost 300 aircraft and 1,500 aircrew attacking invasion targets.

In fact, so enormous were the demands on the supply chain that our brilliant engineers had to initiate a revolution in logistics. Special landing craft were created to transport armour and tanks across rough seas. The famous Mulberry harbours were assembled to swiftly load and unload cargo. Altogether some 16m tonnes of supplies were delivered; a statistic that takes the breath away.

Next we must reflect on the truly international nature of D-Day. Almost all of the first troops on the beaches came from the UK, the United States and Canada. However, thousands of soldiers, sailors and aircrew from Australia, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland and Norway were also involved in the wider operation. Indeed, the Norwegian destroyer Svenner was the first Allied vessel lost to enemy action on the day.

But finally and fittingly we must reflect on the quite extraordinary courage of those who took part; from the British 6th Airborne’s legendary capture of Pegasus Bridge, to Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis’ singlehanded attack on two enemy pillboxes on Gold Beach – an effort for which he was awarded the VC. The deeds of our warriors on those beaches – and the seas around them and the skies above them – will never be forgotten.

Nor will their sacrifices: 4,144 Allied personnel lost their lives on that day, with thousands more seriously wounded. And that was only a beginning – the start of the long haul to Berlin. Today ‘hero’ is an often-overused word. But this band of brothers truly deserve that title. Had they not succeeded in liberating the continent from Nazism, we would not enjoy the freedom we have today.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings on 6 June, it is fitting to end this article with something said in Parliament on that remarkable day. Alongside Churchill’s stirring report to the House of Commons, Hansard also records Lord Addison’s response to the Government in the Lords. He said: “Success has so far crowned this brilliant undertaking … the great adventure which will make the sixth of June a memorable date.”

Posterity has shown how right he was. The D-Day generation lit a great beacon of hope for humanity. Our gratitude for their sacrifices, and our respect for their enormous achievements, show no sign of fading. They were told as they left these shores that the eyes of the world would be upon them. They did not let us down.

Earl Howe is Deputy Leader of the House of Lords and a Defence Minister