“Once more a supreme test has to be faced. This time the challenge is not to fight to survive, but to fight to win the final victory for the good cause. Once again what is demanded of us all is something more than courage, more than endurance.We need the revival of spirit, the new unconquerable resolve”.
His Majesty King George VI, 6 June 1944
6 June. D plus 75 years. At 20 minutes past midnight on 6 June 1944 Lieutenant Herbert Denham (Den) Brotheridge, Commander, 25 Platoon, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry became the first Allied soldier to give his life on D-Day as he stormed a German machine-gun nest at Pegasus Bridge.
As I write this, 75 years ago British, American and Canadian forces were storming ashore along a 50 mile/80 kilometre front on the five landing beaches of Normandy – Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah. ‘D-Day’ was a true effort of alliance with men taking part from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland and, of course, France. Others were also present. Much has been made this year about the 70th anniversary of NATO. Much of the alliance that was to become the Alliance was forged on those five historic Norman beaches.
D-Day was also the high-water mark of British strategic influence and military strike power. Contrary to much of the theatre that has ensued ever since D-Day, Operation Overlord was primarily a British-led operation and success. Whilst US General Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, all of his operational commanders were British. The Deputy Supreme Allied Commander was Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Royal Air Force. Commander-in-Chief Air was Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory, Commander-in-Chief Sea was Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, whilst Commander-in-Chief Land (21st Army Group) was Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery. The operational plan was British as was the air campaign to isolate Normandy from German reinforcements (Operation Transportation), as well as the massive deception campaign (Operation Bodyguard) that convinced the Nazis that the real objective for any invasion force would be the Pas de Calais.
Of the 156,000 troops that were landed on D-Day 73,000 were American, whilst 83,115 were under British command, of which 61,715 were British and some 21,000 were Canadian. Of the 1213 principal warships supporting the landings 892 were Royal Navy ships, whilst the British supplied 3261 of the 4126 landing craft deployed, with only 200 US craft present, mainly due to pressures in the Pacific theatre. In the air, 70% of the almost 12000 aircraft that took part were either Royal Air Force or Royal Canadian Air Force.
D-day was also a triumph of British innovation. Without the two giant floating Mulberry Harbours the campaign to free north-west Europe simply would not have been possible. The British also successfully deployed-in-strength specially-adapted tanks, known as Hobart’s Funnies, which helped clear a path for the invading British and Canadian troops. American commanders had, for a range of reasons, eschewed the use of such innovation. British Airborne Forces and Special Forces were particularly effective, with the famous and vital midnight glider assault on Pegasus Bridge by Den Brotheridgeand his colleagues merely the most celebrated.
These facts in no way underplay the US contribution to D-Day. The two US beaches Omaha and Utah were tough nuts to crack and, together with their Airborne colleagues, US forces demonstrated American valour and courage that Day of the highest order. It is what happens after D-Day that truly shines a light on the American future and begins a story of American power and leadership that has secured freedom in Europe ever since. From D+1 the Americans pour men and materiel into the fight for Normandy on a scale that was unimaginable for their war-tired British ally. By June 1944, the British are beginning to reach the limits of their manpower and industrial capacity, whilst the Americans are only just beginning to exploit their own such capacity, in spite of fighting two major wars simultaneously in the Pacific and Europe.
Churchill had once said of Montgomery’s 1942 victory over Rommel at El Alamein that, whilst it was most certainly not the beginning of the end, it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning. With Soviet forces sweeping in from the east D-Day was clearly the beginning of the end for Hitler.
D-Day: the forging of an alliance
Something else takes place on D-Day: the building of foundations for a multinational alliance of democracies. Take the Dutch. The number of Dutch personnel at D-Day itself was relatively modest, with many of those who had escaped to Britain in 1940 on the fall of The Netherlands (the so-called ‘Engelandvaarders’) embedded in British forces. However, on August 6 1944, the 2000-strong Royal Netherlands Motorised Infantry Brigade (Prinses Irene Brigade) landed at Graye-sur-Mer in Normandy. First under Canadian command, and then under the command of General Dempsey’s 2nd British Army, the Dutch fought their way from Normandy back to their homeland, joined in the liberation of Tilburg in October 1944 alongside their British allies, before entering The Hague in triumph at the very end of the war, on 9 May 1945.
The essential success of D-Day was precisely because it was a team effort, forged from an alliance that, in time, forged THE Alliance of today. Very different and differing cultures and personalities (Montgomery and Patton!!!!) learned to work together for the common good under by and large enlightened American leadership. it was that team effort, and the shared culture it created, that lay the foundation for the creation of NATO in April 1949. What made it a success was not just American power, or the immense investment of brains, men and material by the British and Canadians, but the shared sense of mission, as burdens and risks were shared on that Day in pursuit of a cause that was the very antithesis of nationalism. Above all, D-Day saw a force of, and for, democracy and liberty land on those beaches. A force, that by its very democratic nature also enabled in time former enemies – Italy first, and then the Federal Republic of Germany – to join the Alliance once they had been freed from Fascism and Nazism.
Action this Day!
Today, the lessons afforded us by the great citizen armies of Tommies, GIs, Canucks et al that battled so bravely to gain those first, fledgling footholds on the sweeping, machine-gunned, machine-mortared sands of Normandy 75 years ago are no less poignant. If we do not wish to put our young men, and increasingly women, through the horrors of some twenty-first century D-Day (a digital D-Day or DD-Day?) somewhere, sometime, then our leaders must stop appeasing the dangerous reality of today and face down together latter day destroyers of democracy and would-be slayers of freedom.
To mark D-Day, British Prime Minister Theresa May led the leaders of Allied and Partner nations in the signing of a D-Day Proclamation. It called on the Free World to again find common cause in the face of new challenges to democracy and stability. Words are not enough. Action this day is needed.
This week I was on a US-German military base in deepest Bavaria attending a meeting of the Loisach Group, co-organised by the Munich Security Conference and the George C. Marshall Center. The Group’s mission is to consider the forging of a renewed, deep, twenty-first century strategic freedom partnership between the US and Germany. The eloquence of this week’s history was loud and clear at the meeting and rang in my ears. It led me, a proud and patriotic Briton, to tell senior Americans and Germans to get their act together and build a Special Relationship between Americans and Germans. It is precisely because of D-Day we need Americans and Germans to help lead our great community of freedom together if peace is to be preserved. No more pretence, no more petty shortsightedness. Britain? In spite of my country’s many current challenges Britain will be there…as always.
The irony of the Loisach Group mission was thus made stark by memories of D-Day. Much of the effort to preserve freedom in this century will depend not only (and again) on American leadership. It will demand of all Europeans the collective strategic vision and fortitude that has been so lacking these thirty years past. Such European leadership will only come if, as King George VI suggested, we can find ‘endurance that is more than courage’. It is leadership that also calls upon modern, legitimate, democratic Germany to be at the beating heart of freedom and its defence. Free Germany must now show its commitment to freedom’s cause by sharpening its swords, as well as its many ploughs. It is time.
In honour of a very special Band of Brothers
This blog is dedicated to Lieutenant Den Brotheridge and the brave men of many nations who on D-Day began the long march to a free Europe which continues to this day. In particular, I honour and salute the 6603 Americans, 2700 Britons and 946 Canadians and others who watched the sun rise on D-Day, but not its setting. Not only did they forge a path to freedom, they forged on the anvil of unity an enduring Alliance that must be preserved, both in their name and our own.
Therefore, let those of us to whom our Fallen gave this precious gift of freedom not squander it through inadequacy and indifference. A freedom that I am exercising right here, right now in my freely-expressed thought. A freedom which could so easily be lost if we dishonour the sacrifice and memory of brave men through ignorance and wilful weakness.
D-Day: the forging of THE Alliance.