Why we should never forget D-Day

Robert Lee, of The Royal British Legion, explains the significance of the upcoming anniversary, and why it should be in our thoughts in June (and beyond).

Normandy LandingsWhy should we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day on 6 June? Does the invasion of Normandy have any significance any more? We certainly believe so. 

There are many aspects to the D-Day narrative. But what is particularly striking about the events of 6 June 1944 is the huge collaboration across nations and across all sections of society to make it happen. 

It may sound like a cliché, but the facts of the D-Day story really speak for themselves.

How it began

This crucial operation began the liberation of German-occupied France (and later Europe) from Nazi control. The D-Day assault on 6 June 1944 remains the largest naval invasion in history. By the beginning of 1944, over two million men and women were in Britain preparing for the invasion of Normandy. They were primarily from Britain, America and Canada, but personnel also came from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, Zimbabwe, and Poland. It was a truly international effort. 

They served as combat soldiers, paratroopers, sailors, aircrew, or in support and logistical roles. The landings included over 5,000 vessels and ships, nearly 11,000 aeroplanes, and over 160,000 ground troops. D-Day marked the beginning of the Battle of Normandy, which would result in the loss of over 50,000 Commonwealth and Allied lives, in a little over a month of fighting. But it would ultimately lead to the liberation of Paris in August 1944.

Sword, Gold, Juno, Omaha and Utah

Men, some as young as 18 years old, landed on the five beaches of Normandy – Sword, Gold, Juno, Omaha and Utah – and most were facing the enemy for the first time. 

After delays, bad weather and a very rough crossing, these young men, tired, sick and cold, had to wade through rough surf, before running up on to exposed, mine-strewn beaches raked by withering German fire from Atlantic Wall fortifications. But, despite the relentless enemy fire and the chaos of thousands of men, tanks and pieces of equipment crashing on to the beaches, the Allies were able to break out from their beachheads to link up with the airborne divisions dropped inland, and by the end of the day, had secured a foothold in France.

The man in command of German forces in France, Field Marshall Rommel, said in anticipation of the landings, that: “The first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive…. For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.” This was a prophetic statement and demonstrates the importance placed on successful landings by the Allies. 

We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the men and women involved in the D-Day landings.

Never forgotten

It's crucial that the sacrifices made by those young men and women, 75 years ago, are never forgotten. We can honour them by emulating their example of collaboration across nations, and across all sections of society. The international cooperation, the inventions, the contribution of those not only on the frontline, but also playing many different roles, led to peace and democracy across Europe. 

Within this wider team were the WRNS operating out of Bletchley Park and the Cabinet War Rooms, the secret services that ran a daring campaign of deception with double agents, misinformation, and dummy radio traffic, which convinced Hitler that the invasion would happen at Calais. The French Resistance fought a highly-effective guerrilla campaign across France – destroying railways, power lines, and sabotaging the road system. 

There were the inventors who designed innovative equipment, such as Hobart’s Funnies, tanks that could swim and clear mines from the beaches, the artificial movable ‘Mulberry’ harbours with floating roadways, and a pipeline under the channel known as Pluto, providing petrol directly from Britain to Europe. There were the meteorologists predicting the precise weather conditions without whom General Eisenhower could not have been able to order the landings, and many civilian men and women who all played their parts in bringing the operation together.

June commemorations

The Royal British Legion, in partnership with the Ministry of Defence, is leading the UK’s commemorations in France to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day with a series of events in the UK and Normandy. The Legion is taking 300 Normandy veterans to these events on a specially chartered ship, so they can take part in the commemorations in Bayeux this year.

On 6 June they will wake up looking at the Normandy coastline, as they did 75 years ago. This will be a poignant time for these veterans to come together and reflect on the service and sacrifice that they and their fallen colleagues made. It may be one of the last times that they will be together. We are proud to have made this possible for them.

There will also be a service of remembrance at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, in Portsmouth, and in many other places across the UK, to mark this historic day.

Remembrance

The Royal British Legion wants to make the concept of remembrance understood and available to all, and to pass it on to the next generation. It's important that young people understand the significance of events such as D-Day. It was a triumph of international collaboration, planning and ingenuity, and it gave the Allies a springboard from which they were to free Western Europe from the tyranny of fascism. It was the turning point of World War 2. 

We all need to appreciate that freedom of choice, democracy, pluralism and other values we enjoy today were bought at a price through the service and sacrifice of the international alliance. We want to pass remembrance on to the next generation, and in so doing, keep alive a sense of national identity. The stories which are shared between generations form the fabric of individuals, families, cities, regions and the nation. 

We should never forget the enormity of the events of 6 June 1944. Let us all remember and pay tribute to the D-Day veterans this year.

About the author

Robert Lee is assistant director of remembrance at The Royal British Legion. The Legion's work is encapsulated in its motto: 'Live On – to the memory of the fallen and the future of the living'. It is the nation's biggest armed forces charity, providing care and support to all members of the British armed forces, past and present, and their families.

The Legion champions remembrance, and safeguards the Military Covenant between the nation and its armed forces. It is well known for the annual poppy appeal, and its emblem, the red poppy. 

Image: British troops landing on Queen Beach, Sword Area. Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

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