Why truth is a casualty of war in the battle of 'Obama Beach'

The D-Day anniversary has become a battleground with politicians accused of plotting to exclude the Queen. Nonsense, says John Lichfield: this so-called scandal has been a cock-up rather than a conspiracy

Tuesday 02 June 2009 00:00

In the history of British bloody-mindedness, "Obama Beach" is one of the greatest calamities. Rarely have so many people been sent all verbal guns blazing into an all-out assault on a scandal whose basic facts have been so wilfully misrepresented.

False fact one: The French have "snubbed" the Queen by failing to invite her to celebrate the 65th anniversary of D-Day on Saturday. President Barack Obama and President Nicolas Sarkozy will attend an "international ceremony" but not the British/Canadian head of state.

False fact two: The British government, and diplomatic service, have behaved despicably because they failed to ensure that the Queen was sent an invitation by the French.

False fact three: The French government has traduced the memory of British and Canadian troops – more then half of the forces engaged on 6 June 1944 – by describing D-Day as "mainly a Franco-American affair."

None of these "facts" are true. The history of the celebrations of the 65th anniversary of D-Day is a history of cock-ups, false-starts and changed minds by the British Government (Obama Beach mirrors Omaha beach to that extent.)

But it is also a history of the winding-up of British public opinion. This heated and vacuous row has nothing to do with the British D-Day veterans themselves. Their views and interests are largely being ignored by those who claim to venerate them.

Fact one: There was an enormous "international event" to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day five years ago, to which the Queen was invited. There were similar events for the 50th and 40th anniversaries, to which the Queen was invited. There was no sizable, official celebration, except by the veterans themselves, of, say, the 45th or the 55th anniversaries.

Fact two: The "international ceremony" at the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach on Saturday is not an "international ceremony" on the same scale as the 60th anniversary celebration. It was something put together in relative haste after President Barack Obama let it be known a few weeks ago that he would like to attend the D-Day commemoration this year. For a young, recently elected President, Omaha was an important box to tick.

President Nicolas Sarkozy let it be known that he would also like to attend. If he had not done so, he would have been accused, rightly, of ignoring the heroism of the young Americans who died on Omaha Beach.

Fact three: The Obama-Sarkozy event is a commemoration in an American military cemetery beside an American invasion beach in France. When the French government said that it was "mainly a Franco-American affair", that is what they meant. British Normandy veterans – if anyone bothers talking to them, rather than just pontificating in their name – have nothing but praise for the help given to them by the French authorities in their June pilgrimages to the three British invasion beaches – this year and every year.

Fact four: There is no British official ceremony to match the event at Omaha Beach because the government is following the practise of successive governments, Labour and Tory. Big military commemorations should be relatively sparing or such events become so banal that public interest fades. Years ending in 10 yes; years ending in five no. There is something to be said for such a policy, if the government had only stuck to it. British D-Day veterans themselves understand the policy and broadly support it.

Fact five: Over twelve months ago, the secretary of the Normandy Veterans' Association, Peter Hodge, wrote to every newspaper in Britain. He pointed out that the government had decided that it could not pay for British veterans to go to Normandy for the 65th anniversary in June 2009. Although disappointed, the veterans accepted this decision and expressed their gratitude for the generous government help given – for the first time – by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to allow former soldiers and their relatives to go to the 60th anniversary D-Day commemorations in 2004.

Mr Hodge asked nonetheless that newspapers should appeal to the British public to raise money for those veterans who were still fit enough to go in 2009. The 65th anniversary was important to them, not as an official event, but as a personal pilgrimage, he said. This might be the last time that many of these old men, average age 84 years and nine months, would be alive or well enough to visit the beaches. Mr Hodge estimated that 1,000 British Normandy survivors would want to go at the cost of about £300 each.

No newspaper replied to Mr Hodge except The Independent. We published a front-page appeal on 6 June last year. Through the generosity of our readers, and the efforts of Mr Hodge and the advertising executive Trevor Beattie, this appeal raised almost all the money needed to send the British veterans and their helpers by the beginning of March this year. Belated appeals in other newspapers have also, it must be said, helped to raise some extra cash. As a result, 800 British veterans, plus many helpers,will attend ceremonies on the D-Day beaches this weekend.

Fact six: The Prime Minister came under intense media pressure in March (when it was too late to do much) to explain why there was no big, official British D-Day event planned this year. The pressure did not come from the veterans. They prefer, on the whole, to be spared the security nightmare of big, "official" events. Gordon Brown ultimately performed a U-turn and said that he would go to Normandy and that Lottery funding would be offered to the British veterans (too late to make any practical difference).

The French government asked whether Britain wanted, after all, to organise a substantial event on the British and Canadian beaches, Sword, Juno and Gold. The answer from London was "no". There would, however, as every year, be the ceremonies organised by the veterans themselves.

The upshot: Gordon Brown will attend these veteran-led ceremonies on Saturday. He also decided to attend the Franco-American ceremony at Omaha Beach. This was a mistake. It was his decision to go to the US-French ceremony, without the Queen, which made the event "international" and produced the barrage of sanctimonious disapproval last week.

Should the Queen have gone as a last-minute guest to a ceremony to celebrate American heroism on an "American" beach? If she had done so, she and the government would also have been criticised (and with more justification).

It was media pressure which pushed Mr Brown into half abandoning the long-standing UK policy against commemorations in years ending in the figure 5. The Government should either have stuck to its policy or have organised a proper rival commemoration. It did neither. It tried to tag on to the Obama-Sarkozy event at Omaha, with calamitous PR consequences.

In France, government officials are looking on with bemusement. "The planning for the original D-Day was mostly British, I believe," one official said. "We can only be grateful that there was a different British Government and a different mood in the British media in 1944."

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