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News > General > D-Day 80th anniversary thoughts from Berwick Coates

D-Day 80th anniversary thoughts from Berwick Coates

WBS Archivist and historian Berwick Coates gave a thoughtful assembly on the anniversary of D Day. Here is his speech in full...
14 Jun 2024
Written by Kate Fenton (How)

D-Day 80th anniversary thoughts

We have by now taken a good bite out of the twenty-first century.  On this anniversary I thought it might be a good idea to tell you just a little about the greatest event of the twentieth century.

Eighty years ago, early in the morning of Tuesday, 6th June, 1944, troops from the USA, Great Britain, Canada, and France, landed  on the coast of Normandy to begin the liberation of Europe from domination by Nazi Germany.

Most of us know that.  Well, I thought I did.  But I have discovered that in one detail I was wrong:  I had always thought it was a Wednesday.  But no – the net is adamant: it was a Tuesday.  And who are we humble mortals to argue with the great god Google, or his high priest Wikipedia?

This is particularly shameful for me, for two reasons.  One – I call myself a historian, so I really should have known.  And two – I was alive on 6th June, 1944, and I actually remember listening to the eight o`clock news on the wireless, before I left home to walk to school.  It told us about the landings – what the French have always referred to as the  ‘Débarquement’.   D for ‘Débarquement’   You would think the day of the week would have stuck, wouldn`t you?

While I am about it, I had better make a clean breast of something else:  as I prepared  this talk I was forced to face the uncomfortable fact that I could not tell you why D-Day was called ‘D-Day’. Another black mark for this historian.  ‘VE-Day’, yes.  ‘Victory in Europe’ Day.  Obvious.  And  ‘VJ-Day’ – ‘Victory over Japan Day’.  Easy.  But why ‘D-Day’?

So I had to kneel once again before the great altar of the net.  If I had had to guess, I should have suggested that it might have been christened by the French.  After all, it was their country that was being liberated. And, as I said, they have always referred to it as the  ‘Débarquement’.  Every bookshop and newsagent in Normandy, to this day, has shelves groaning under the weight of books about the ‘Débarquement’.

But no.  Another theory was ‘Delivery’ Day.  But that struck me as a bit feeble.  Sounds like a milk round.  Surely the propaganda department could have done better than that.  A third solution apparently came from one of General Eisenhower`s staff officers.  Eisenhower was the general commanding the invasion.  Eisenhower – known to one and all as ‘Ike’.  Ike said it was the day the liberating army departed to begin its crusade.  ‘D’ for ‘departed’.  Eisenhower`s book about it published after the War was called ‘Crusade in Europe’.  But I didn`t think much of ‘Departed’ Day either.  Almost like a remembrance service.

The truth, apparently, as I understand it, is almost too prosaic for words.  It is straight out of strategic planning manuals.  War Office bumf.  Whenever the military sit down to prepare for an operation – like, say, an invasion – they have to start jotting down their ideas, naturally, long before they decide on the date for it; that depends on a host of unknown quantities like army training schedules, factory output of tanks, weather, tides, phases of the moon, seasonal winds, solidity of sand on beaches, and I don`t know what.  They haven`t a clue when the invasion will start.  But they have to call it something.  It`s just a label.  D-Day, QED.  By the same token, the actual time of the start becomes ‘H-Hour’. ‘D’ for ‘Day’.  ‘H’ for ‘Hour’.  Not very imaginative, is it?  Not very exciting.  Bit of a let-down really.

It was events, obviously, which made it legendary.  The greatest combined operations military expedition in the history of the world. And the stakes could not possibly have been higher.  If we should fail, said Churchill, the Prime Minister – if we messed it up and lost the War – ‘the whole world. . .will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science’. Concentration camps for ever.

D-Day then had ‘epic’ written all over it.  Anybody who lived through that time was never going to forget it.  Year could follow year, decade could follow decade, and for those who remained and who remembered, it would be like yesterday.

Nevertheless, those survivors would have to accept the fact that later generations would not see those events – the hardship, the horrors, the losses, the danger of total annihilation, the whole damned War – they would not see them in the same way.  It was not their war.

Understandably, therefore, members of my generation often ask themselves questions like: ‘These younger people, are they aware of the enormity of the issues that were at stake?’  ‘Can they possibly sympathise?’  ‘Do they even know, now, what actually happened before, on, and after D-Day?’   ‘Do they care?’  For that matter,  ‘Should they care?’  ‘Are those who do remember – who know what they know – are they, now, nothing more than a gaggle of old men and old women muttering into their bibs and whiskers, fit only to be humoured, parked in a soft chair in the corner, and given another cup of tea?’

I don`t know the answers to these questions, but a few years ago I was given an interesting glimpse of them.  For twenty years, I used to speak at the school debating society – the Phoenix.  One night, the motion before the house – I can`t remember the actual phrasing – was words to the effect that it was time we stopped lingering over the War.  Yes, they were great days, and great things were done, and many of those people were heroes.  But that was three quarters of a century ago; it is time to put away our little Brownie-camera snaps and our crumbling airmail letters from the Front, shut the history books, and get on with the twenty-first century.’

Well, that was the motion:  it was time to forget. Forget six years of world war, the gas chambers, six million dead Jews, over 50 million other men, women, and children dead.

What happened?  One member of that debating society after another stood up and said emphatically that we must not forget.  They were seventeen and eighteen years old.  Like many of you.  I found it oddly moving at the time, and I still do; it was as if, for one moment, the whole human race was standing together.  The motion was comprehensively defeated.

I think that is encouraging, which I suppose is hardly surprising, coming from somebody like me.  I remember the London Blitz, the evacuation of children (I was one of them), food rationing, the dambusters, D-Day, the atom bomb.  If we wanted to see any news, we went to the cinema; there was no television.  It was in those cinema newsreels. that we saw the first films of the concentration camps – Dachau, Treblinka, Auschwitz – and the others.

You remember things like that. But you don`t stew on them...  Don`t brood; just remember. Then – look at me – I would say that, wouldn`t I?  If you were me, so would you.

Berwick Coates, 6th June 2024

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