75 years ago to this day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France was delayed one final time. Appropriately, it was in the face of the British weather that General Eisenhower pushed back the beginning of Operation Overlord – this time by just 24 hours – and on June 6, 1944, D-Day began.
Pilots and aircrew from 12 different nations led a 1200-plane airborne assault, preceding the largest seaborne invasion in history with nearly 7,000 vessels carrying 160,000 troops across the English Channel.
The historian Anthony Beevor records that General Eisenhower, without telling even his closest advisors, had prepared a brief statement to be made in the event of failure. It read: “the landings have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold, and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it was mine alone.”
If this extraordinary undertaking on D-Day had failed, the post-war map and the future of Europe would undoubtedly have been very bleak indeed.
But they didn’t fail. They gained the foothold they needed, and the five beachheads were connected six days later. In the course of that week, 54,000 vehicles and 105,000 tonnes of supplies were landed on the beaches of Normandy, and by the end of August more than two million Allied troops were in France.
Their sacrifice was great, with 226,000 Allied casualties and nearly 40,000 killed during the three-month Battle of Normandy. But a decisive victory was achieved. A victory that led to the liberation of Paris, laid the foundations for the Allied victory on the Western Front, and – together with the Soviet Union – the defeat of Hitler. The end of a war that claimed 70 million lives worldwide – the greatest manmade destruction in history.
In a war that revealed the very worst of human nature, the events of D-Day showed us some of the very best: their courage, sacrifice, and dedication makes us proud to this day.
We should forever be grateful for what those men achieved. Grateful for the peace in Europe they created. And grateful that because of them we are free to lead the lives we lead today.
My own grandfather played his part on the beaches of Normandy. He was a tank mechanic, helping to get the tanks out of the water and up through the sand. I don’t know how common this is, but he would never talk about his own experiences. He didn’t want to remember, all he wanted to do was forget.
There are now fewer than 500 veterans of D-Day left alive who can tell their stories, and with the passage of time there will one day be none. Yet I don’t believe my generation can even conceive of the apprehension those men, waiting to cast off in their landing craft – some on board for up to a week before departing – must have felt; nor even imagine their terror at the scenes that greeted them as they landed under heavy gunfire at their destination.
That those experiences are now so alien to our own way of life makes them harder for us to relate to, harder to appreciate the significance of, and all too easy to grow complacent about. So commemorating the events of 75 years ago should be an opportunity to show gratitude, an opportunity for remembrance, but an opportunity for education too.
The question for our generation is what we want these events to be remembered for – what role should they play in our national story?
The scale of sacrifice and destruction in the Second World War led many throughout post-war Europe to say never again, and they began to unite Europe economically and politically in order to secure a lasting peace. Arguably, without their energy and motivation, we would not be living in the sphere of peace and security that today we take for granted.
Now, as Britain seeks to remove itself from those institutions, it has become commonplace to hear the battles of the War used to invoke nationalist sentiment.
Yet it is surely completely wrongheaded to claim the events of 75 years ago for an isolationist cause. Britain recognised then that we were stronger when we worked as an alliance of countries, and that it was in our national interest to do so. It was the demonstration of a patriotic internationalism, a recognition that we can best succeed not by standing alone, isolated, but by co-operating and working together.
This failure by some to properly comprehend our past – the nature and scale of the alliance we were part of – and to properly understand our present – the nature of globalisation and the interdependencies it brings – is much more than just a harmless delusion. It has been harnessed to create the most profound policy failure, cutting ourselves off from our allies, and diminishing – internationally and economically – the country they profess to feel pride in.
Because D-Day didn’t just lead to a victory for our Allies, it led to a victory for our values. They didn’t just defeat a country, they defeated an ideology – not least a virulent nationalism, the demonisation of other races, and an intolerance of dissent. So it really must be said that you can’t put up a poster that says “Breaking Point” and then seek to appropriate the brave men who fought fascism.
It would of course be wrong to make the Second World War an instant reference point for all contemporary controversies, but there is a very real risk today that the ideology Britain fought against 75 years ago is not dead, just dormant. Whether it’s drawing up a list of Roma people in Italy, anti-gay purges in the Chechen Republic, or a Muslim travel ban in the US, the preservation of the values our ancestors fought for can never be taken for granted. We must never grow complacent that our way of life is somehow guaranteed.
And when these threats to freedom do re-emerge; where this ideology becomes resurgent; let us be clear. It won’t be defeated by aping or appeasing it. We will defeat it only by confronting it.
Let us hope that next time, if there is a next time, we can defeat it not with bombs and bullets, but with our words and our deeds.