June 6, 1944 was D-Day. In the early morning hours of the day the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe by the American, British, and Canadian armies began with the airborne landing followed at dawn by the assault on the Normandy beaches.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill had spent the night at 10 Downing Street. Before he had gone to bed the evening before he had been in the Map Room and remarked to his wife Clementine, “Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning twenty thousand men may have been killed?”
Churchill was provided with the first reports of the operation when he woke on June 6th and during the morning followed the battle on the beaches in the Map Room, where the progress was plotted minute by minute.
The news that the liberation of Europe had begun was announced on the 9 a.m. news in the General Forces Programme which reported that: “The German Overseas News has just put out the following flash: ‘early this morning, the expected Anglo-American invasion began when airborne forces were landed in the Seine estuary.” A later flash said that a combined landing had been made in the area of Caen on the French coast.
That morning the House of Commons met for the first time since the adjournment on 26th May, 1944 for the Whitsuntide Recess. The session began with oral questions which ended unexpectedly early and the Speaker announced there would be a short interval to allow for a statement by the prime minister. There followed a buzz of conversation and eager expectation in the chamber for about ten minutes as the members waited for Churchill. David Lloyd George arrived during the interval, while Clementine Churchill and her daughter Diana entered the Speaker’s Gallery. Despite the importance of the moment, there were many empty seats in the chamber which in itself reflected that secrecy around the invasion had been maintained.
At three minutes to noon, the prime minister entered the chamber from behind the Speaker’s chair and received a warm ovation. Harold Nicolson, M.P. recorded in his diary that Churchill looked pale and members feared he was about to announce some “terrible disaster.” The Speaker immediately called upon Churchill who placed two separate typescripts on the table before himself. He would speak for only seven minutes and the members would listen in “hushed awe” broken only by “bursts of cheering.”
Churchill began first with the liberation of Rome by the Allied armies under General Harold Alexander that had taken place on June 4, 1944. This received a “really tremendous cheer.” Churchill briefly detailed the war in Italy before ending with, “We must await further developments in the Italian theatre before it is possible to estimate the magnitude or quality of our gains, great and timely though they certainly are.” As Nicolson noted Churchill stressed the word “timely” with a rise of his voice.
There was then a slight pause as the prime minister then picked up his other page of notes and said:
“I have also to announce to the House that during the night and the early hours of this morning the first of the series of landings in force upon the European Continent has taken place. In this case the liberating assault fell upon the coast of France. An immense armada of upwards of 4,000 ships, together with several thousand smaller craft, crossed the Channel. Massed airborne landings have been successfully effected behind the enemy lines and landings on the beaches are proceeding at various points at the present time. The fire of the shore batteries has been largely quelled. The obstacles that were constructed in the sea have not proved so difficult as was apprehended. The Anglo-American Allies are sustained by about 11,000 first line aircraft, which can be drawn upon as may be needed for the purposes of the battle. I cannot, of course, commit myself to any particular details. Reports are coming in in rapid succession. So far the Commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred. It involves tides, wind, waves, visibility, both from the air and the sea standpoint, and the combined employment of land, air and sea forces in the highest degree of intimacy and in contact with conditions which could not and cannot be fully foreseen.
There are already hopes that actual tactical surprise has been attained, and we hope to furnish the enemy with a succession of surprises during the course of the fighting. The battle that has now begun will grow constantly in scale and in intensity for many weeks to come and I shall not attempt to speculate upon its course. This I may say, however. Complete unity prevails throughout the Allied Armies. There is a brotherhood in arms between us and our friends of the United States. There is complete confidence in the supreme commander, General Eisenhower, and his lieutenants, and also in the commander of the Expeditionary Force, General Montgomery. The ardour and spirit of the troops, as I saw myself, embarking in these last few days was splendid to witness. Nothing that equipment, science or forethought could do has been neglected, and the whole process of opening this great new front will be pursued with the utmost resolution both by the commanders and by the United States and British Governments whom they serve.”
Churchill then took three questions from Arthur Greenwood, Willie Gallacher, and Aneurin Bevan and left the chamber. In the afternoon of June 6th he went for an audience and luncheon with King George VI at Buckingham Palace and thereafter with the King went to the Allied Air Headquarters led by Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and later to the headquarters of General Dwight Eisenhower.
At 6:15 that evening Churchill returned to the House of Commons as promised earlier in the day to make a further statement on the progress of the invasion of Europe. He said:
“I can state to the House that this operation is proceeding in thoroughly satisfactory manner. Many dangers and difficulties which at this time last night appeared extremely formidable are behind us. The passage of the sea has been made with far less loss than we apprehended. The resistance of the batteries has been greatly weakened by the bombing of the Air Force, and the superior bombardment-of our ships quickly reduced their fire to dimensions which did not affect the problem. The landing of the troops on a broad front, both British and American—Allied troops, I will not give lists of all the different nationalities they represent or the States they represent—but the landings along the whole front have been effective, and our troops have penetrated, in some cases, several miles inland. Lodgments exist on a broad front.
The outstanding feature has been the landings of the airborne troops, which were on a scale far larger than anything that has been seen so far in the world. These landings took place with extremely little loss and with great accuracy. Particular anxiety attached to them, because the conditions of light prevailing in the very limited period of the dawn—just before the dawn—the conditions of visibility, made all the difference. Indeed, there might have been something happening at the last minute which would not have enabled airborne troops to play their part. A very great degree of risk had to be taken in respect of the weather.
But General Eisenhower’s courage is equal to all the necessary decisions that have to be taken in these extremely difficult and uncontrollable matters. The airborne troops are well established, and the landings and the follow-ups are all proceeding with much less loss—very much less—than we expected. Fighting is proceeding at various points. We have captured various bridges which were of importance, and which were not blown up. There is even fighting proceeding in the town of Caen, inland. But all this, although a very valuable first step—a vital and essential first step—gives no indication of what may be the course of the battle in the next days and weeks, because the enemy will now probably endeavour to concentrate on this area and in that event heavy fighting will soon begin and will continue without end, as we can push troops in and he can bring other troops up. It is, therefore, a most serious time that we enter upon. Thank God, we enter upon it with our great Allies all in good heart and all in good friendship.”
After Churchill finished speaking, there was “loud and prolonged cheers.”