With the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, we can perhaps, for a few days, avoid the stream of inappropriate comparisons that have been made between Brexit and the Second World War. Frankly, some of them have been insulting to those who were killed, murdered and suffered during that war – and afterwards.
Amid the current plethora of British cock-ups, missteps, mishaps and simple thoughtless errors committed by politicians, businessmen and many others besides – including almost every scheme to which the Home Office turns its careless hands - we can, however, take a worthwhile lesson from that war, from the planning that led to D-Day itself.
The National Archives hold a multitude of files concerning the highly secret preparations for the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Europe. There are searches for appropriate British beaches on which men could be trained. There is the secret mission to watch the invasion of Sicily to see how efficient the landing craft were during a mass seaborne invasion.
There are endless discussions and endless orders about secrecy. And many exercises to be arranged – including, of course, the disastrous one off Slapton Sands in Devon with such terrible loss of life.
And amongst the ordering of air, sea and land forces from so many nations – and their equipment, arms and ammunition – there is staggering attention to detail.
21 Army Group was the headquarters formation in command of two field armies – the British Second Army and the First Canadian Army which would be part of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
21 Army Group was assigned to Operation Overlord – they were preparing for D-Day. Their files bulge with amazing detail – as you might expect for HQ staff in charge of over a million officers and men.
Take for example the memo of 12 March 1944 from 21 Army Group’s Major-General i/c Administration to the Under Secretary of State at the War Office – ‘Subject:- Sea Sickness Remedies’.
This ‘MOST SECRET’ memo gets straight to the point: ”It is now possible to state the requirement of 21 Army Group of boiled sweets, biscuits and chewing gum for the alleviation of sea sickness”. The War Office would have to find out whether, in time of rationing, these vital supplies could be found.
Vital? Very much so – what use would soldiers be if they landed on the beaches incapacitated by seas sickness? Something to chew, something to eat and something to suck would keep men’s minds off the roiling seas and their not entirely sea-worthy landing craft
The amounts look perfectly reasonable – each man would need one ounce of boiled sweets, two ounces of biscuits and one packet of chewing gum. The total quantities the War Office was going to have to find were more alarming: 6,250 pounds of boiled sweets, 12,500 pounds of biscuits and 100,000 packets of chewing gum.
The Major-General’s shopping list was not finished yet. They also needed boiled sweets, biscuits and chewing gum for “…a full scale trial of the use of these items [to] be carried out in exercises taking place not before 30th April” – six weeks away and the manufacture of such items gravely reduced by rationing and lack of ingredients.
This took the total ‘requirement’ to 10,625 pounds of boiled sweets, 21,250 pounds of biscuits and 170,000 packets of chewing gum.
So in place of the present day norm of dressing plans up in fine words, blue sky aims, abstract concepts and grand promises, we have in wartime practical attention to detail – if only in terms of ration-busting amounts of boiled sweets, biscuits and chewing gum.
Attention to practical matters and to detail, is surely the lesson from this tiny entry among those files that record the preparations for D-Day. A lesson that should be heeded by those spouting ludicrous and demeaning opinions such as that if ‘we’ survived the Second World War ‘we’ can survive Brexit. Dear me…