Thursday, 8 September 2011

Leading from the front

6 June 1944 was D-Day. Operation Neptune saw the Allied forces of the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Free France cross an unusually calm English Channel and begin the invasion of Europe. The Normandy landings saw some of the most intense and brutal fighting of the Second World War as over 150,000 Allied troops landed across five beaches.

Amidst the chaos and confusion, the death and destruction there was little time for anything other than direct military engagement. It is therefore somewhat staggering that in the days leading up to D-Day both King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill made plans to be with the attacking forces on the Normandy beaches.

During their usual lunchtime audience on Tuesday 30 May 1944, Churchill mentioned that he intended to watch the invasion of Normandy from HMS Belfast. The King was enthusiastic, and suggested he would accompany the Prime Minister.

The King’s enthusiasm had diminished by the next day, and was entirely reversed when Sir Alan Lascelles, his Private Secretary, voiced serious concerns over the unnecessary risk. The King set about changing the Prime Minister’s mind, but Churchill was not easily dissuaded. His obstinacy was met with constitutional shadow boxing. As a Minister of the Crown, Churchill could not travel abroad without the King’s consent. But, came the inevitable if infuriating reply, HMS Belfast was a British warship and thus he would technically remain on British territory.

Eventually, news of the plan reached General Eisenhower. Churchill’s request to accompany the invasion fleet was immediately turned down by the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces. The PM shot back that Eisenhower was not in a position to prevent his adventure, responding:

"Since this is true it is not part of your responsibility, my dear General, to determine the exact composition of any ship's company in His Majesty's Fleet by shipping myself as a bona fide member of a ship's complement it would be beyond your authority to prevent my going."

Eventually, the King consigned his frustration to paper and wrote a letter urging Churchill not to undertake the voyage. A combination of threats, pleading and stroking of the PMs ego were ultimately enough to make Churchill back down.

Churchill was the first of the two to make it across the Channel, visiting Normandy on D +6, or 12 June 1944 on what he called his ‘jolly day’. He was followed four days later by the King, whose 16 June 1944 voyage was defended by a flotilla of Royal Navy warships.

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