D-Day plus 70: what a pity the French misunderstood Churchill
Europe does not have to be run from Berlin: it would be better run from Paris and London
By midnight on 6 June 1944, 231 Brigade - commanded by Brigadier Sir Alexander Stanier, late of my old outfit, the Welsh Guards - that landed on the western part of Gold Beach early that morning near Arromanches, had fought their way six miles inland.
They were short of their primary objective, Bayeux. But they had succeeded in establishing the holy grail of opposed landings from the sea - ‘lodgement’, a substantial defended area with the depth to withstand a determined counter-attack.
Twenty-five thousand British troops were ashore on Gold, including tanks and heavy artillery. Even if Rommel’s request to Hitler to unleash the reserve Panzer divisions had been granted (he turned him down like a bedspread) the British on Gold Beach would not have been thrown back into the sea.
Earlier that evening, the cook responsible for feeding Stanier and his headquarters staff mess slipped out to a nearby farm in search of fresh supplies. While ‘liberating’ a couple of chickens he was challenged by the farmer. Explaining in pidgin French that they were for ‘La Messe’, he expected an argument. Instead the farmer, roaring with laughter, remarked “Quelle religion!” and handed him a bottle of Calvados. (‘La Messe’ means Mass. ‘Le Mess’ means officers’ mess).
Most modern coverage of D-Day concentrates on the experiences of the individual soldiers and units involved – grim stories mostly, since 2,700 of our countrymen died that day and nearly 1,000 Canadians. The Americans had it even worse: Omaha Beach (west of Gold) proved a nightmare, with over 3,000 GIs dying on the sands.
This coverage makes perfect sense because the individual stories offer the most drama. The strategic situation was predictable. Once American, British and Canadian troops had ‘lodgement’ on the coast of Normandy, it was game over for the Germans in the West. And in the East, the Red Army was about to launch Operation Bagration that was to destroy the Germans’ most potent and professional formation, Army Group Centre, and open the door to East Prussia.
But there was a deeper strategic picture in play - not about the future of Germany or Russian-conquered Eastern Europe in the Cold War; but the future of Western Europe into our own times. And the most significant and influential event for these purposes took place not on D-Day itself, but on D minus one, 5 June. And it didn’t happen in Normandy but in a railway siding outside Portsmouth.
Forbidden by the King from accompanying the invasion forces, Churchill was swanking around in an armoured train parked up near Eisenhower’s HQ at Southsea. On 5 June he insisted on informing De Gaulle about the imminent invasion, against the wishes of President Roosevelt who had long sympathised with the leaders of Vichy France and who distrusted the Gaullists as a security risk.
It had always been a British war aim to restore France’s great power status: Churchill would personally insist at Yalta that France be treated as a co-victor with a zone of occupation in Germany and a sector of Berlin.
Sadly, despite the charm of both Churchill and Eisenhower, the thin-skinned De Gaulle was furious at being excluded from planning the invasion of his own country, and humiliated that only a handful of French troops were earmarked to land on D-Day itself, although Free French Navy ships including, ironically, the cruiser Montcalm, assisted with the shore bombardment.
It was at this meeting that Churchill remarked: “Every time that we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we shall choose. Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt.”
At the time Churchill was right. The allies needed the economic and military might of the United States. British and Canadian military power was not going to be enough to force their way ashore against the Wehrmacht.
This sent De Gaulle into a ‘perfidious Albion’ hissy fit, misinterpreting Churchill’s characteristically over-blown rhetoric: he was merely stating the obvious about the war, not laying down his future vision for Britain or Europe. Churchill unfortunately later lost his temper too. As a result of De Gaulle’s chippiness France sought to control Germany in the post-war world by subsuming her in a French-run bureaucracy, now called the EU – and deliberately excluding the British.
But despite being half-American (through his mother, Churchill was descended from an officer who wintered with George Washington at Valley Forge, and another forbear was said to have been half Iroquois) Churchill hadn’t always been so enthusiastically reliant on the Americans.
Until very late in the day – early June 1940, as France was collapsing - Churchill had believed that an Anglo-French alliance would be sufficient to defeat Germany. Concerted, co-ordinated diplomatic and military action by both countries had defeated Germany in 1918 and would certainly have thwarted Hitler in the 1930s.
Now that the EU is a German-run affair, the French might look again at Churchill’s wider views. For most of his political life, the ‘special relationship’ was with France, not the United States. There are many of his countrymen who would rather it was that way again today.
Europe does not have to be run from Berlin. It would be better run from Paris and London.