‘DESPITE appalling weather conditions, we were given the go-ahead. We left harbour in failing light and picked up our group of landing craft. They fell into line behind us, twelve ships enormous in bulk compared to us, as we set course for Sword, the most easterly of the Allied beaches on the Normandy coast.
As no ship was allowed to show a glimmer of light, it appeared to us that we were the only craft steaming in this direction. It was a very eerie sensation. As dawn broke on 6 June 1944 the contrast was complete. All around us were dozens of ships of all sizes and shapes. It seemed miraculous that we had managed to avoid each other throughout the darkness of night. Very soon after first light we sighted the French coast and it looked just as expected from the photographs except that by now the big guns were firing. Destroyers and rocket ships were closer in, dealing with positions just above the beach line.
We led our group to their landing positions and drew aside to allow them to proceed to the beaches. Our immediate job was complete but we were sent off with despatches to deliver to the adjoining sector, Gold, and were then ordered to patrol on the northern side of the anchorages against attack by submarines or E-boats. We spent several days on this and were then ordered back to the Solent to pick up another batch of landing craft and escort them across the Channel. Several times we visited the famous Mulberry harbour at Arromanches and there we saw the terminal of Pluto, the pipeline under the ocean.’
This D-Day eyewitness was my father, serving in the Royal Navy’s coastal forces as a navigating officer. He was just 20. The long-term future was hardly on his mind because he was miserably seasick from gazing intently at the radio navigation system screen. He later admitted that at the time he failed to appreciate the enormity of the occasion and its place in history. But the following year he and hundreds of thousands of service personnel voted in a general election for the first time. It was a landslide victory for Labour, which was to form one of the three great progressive governments of Britain’s twentieth century. It established the welfare state and promoted the social contract that endured until the 1980s when it was wrecked by Margaret Thatcher’s Tories.
For 35 years, under both Labour and Conservative governments, Britain gradually became a prosperous, more equal and just society, shed its imperial pretensions and cautiously joined Europe, and embraced multiculturalism. Whatever their specific political allegiance, a consistent majority of Britons supported this progressive agenda. It would perhaps be exaggeration to argue that this is what World War II service personnel were fighting for. Much of it could not be foreseen. But it was recognised as a logical and desirable outcome. And we can say without a shadow of doubt that those who fought in the war did so in the hope of a far better world.
The naval sub-lieutenant who wrote the words above died in 2005, before the banking failures that accelerated today’s widening socio-economic inequality and the rise of populism. If he were alive now at the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord he would be appalled by the words of the bigoted Essex MP Mark Francois (whose favourite retort is the unseemly “Up yours”, which passes for erudition in his circles): “My father was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son.”
This is the British version of alt-right ideology, a politics of anger, aggression, xenophobia, defiance, misplaced nostalgia and bitterness that offers no future other than bleak self-aggrandising nationalism and divisiveness. It’s about building barriers, not bridges; about denying basic humanity and commonality. It broadcasts lies and stereotypes and dresses up prejudice in the false clothes of common sense; then rejects intellectual effort to address the complexity of our times. The answers to questions that are never fully articulated are vacuous: just “get on with it”. “It” does not have to be clearly defined because the driving force is emotional, not essentially political.
And there is always another grievance to fuel the right-wing bandwagon. The truth is mutilated, language contorted, and honest people pilloried. Among the drivers of contemporary far-right British politics one can see the faces of those who marched in black shirts before World War II with Oswald Mosley’s fascists. A Guardian columnist once described them as ‘whey-faced men in grey suits’. For their female equivalents look no further than the ludicrous Anne Widdicombe and Annunziata Rees-Mogg. Paul Mason has colourfully described right-wing Brexiters as ‘toe rags’, a distinctively British word for contemptible people; and more pointedly as ‘that bloke who nicked your bike when you were a kid’, which indeed happened to this writer. These are people who frequently use wartime imagery to promote their populist and authoritarian agenda that wants to drag the world back to competitive, divisive and potentially dangerous nationalism. Not for nothing has Vince Cable labelled Nigel Farage of the Brexit Party as ‘Trump’s little helper’.
A clear distinction must be made between patriotism and nationalism. Francois junior is a nationalist exploiting patriotic sentiment for his own devious ends. The invasion of Normandy was designed to destroy Nazism, not Germans, liberating Europe (and Germany itself) from its evil grip. There are those who argue that military anniversaries should not be commemorated at all. This form of faux pacifism is misguided; trivialising and disrespecting history. Within a few years there will be no D-Day participants left alive to mark the occasion. One can but hope that their patriotism, and all the lost and shattered lives, can be honoured by a positive message of international co-operation, harmony and prosperity, liberal democracy, environmental responsibility, and human rights.
Those at and on the D-Day beaches were on the right side of history. Let us not allow that history, or any other, to be used by the venomous doctrine of right-wing populism and the ugliness of its crass, two-fingered, simplistic messages. And there is a broader canvas. It is the struggle against political thuggery and involves dedication to and promotion of truth, and the employment of careful and considered thought to prevent entanglement with lies.