The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech at Opening of D-Day Celebrations – 6 January 1994

Below is Mr Major’s speech at the opening of D-Day Celebrations in London on Thursday 6th January 1994.


I don’t think, frankly, that the film could have put it very much more clearly. D-Day fifty years ago began the deciding battle for the future of Europe. The veterans present today – and I very warmly welcome them – were among the over 130,000 who took part in the invasion, the largest amphibious attack in history and the greatest combined land, sea and air operation of the whole of the Second World War and they did it – and you saw a glimpse of it from the film – in pretty dreadful conditions with extraordinary courage and with extraordinary determination. If they had lost, our world today would be immeasurably different but they didn’t and their success turned the D-Day landings into one of the great events of history.

We want to mark that achievement and to do so together with France and other countries which took part in the D-Day landings we intend to hold a massive programme of commemorative events both here and in Normandy between the 4th and 6th June this year.

Those events are going to involve heads of state or government from most of the allied nations plus many thousands of veterans of the D-Day landings together of course with service widows. Our commemorations in that period will remember the sacrifice made by some 10,000 British, Canadian and American troops who were either killed or wounded on D-Day. By September, the Allied casualties were to rise to 210,000 of which 37,000 were dead but by then, of course, most of France had been liberated and Operation Overlord was well on its way towards the restoration of peace right across Europe. The events that we are planning naturally will give pride of place to the men who suffered both the fear and the fire of that very remarkable day.

The final order to launch the invasion was issued by General Eisenhower at Southwick House outside Portsmouth. On the 4 June, therefore, at Southwick House we will entertain 1,000 veterans of the D-Day landings and we hope the guest of honour on that occasion will be Her Majesty the Queen Mother.

Also on 4 June, Her Majesty the Queen will hold a dinner in the Portsmouth Guildhall for 500 people, including the heads of state or government of those countries that took part in the operation. Other guests will include members of the Armed Forces, the civilian services, voluntary organisations and those who designed and built the specialist equipment such as the Mulberry Harbours which you have just seen in the film a few moments ago.

On the morning of 5 June, there will be an open-air commemorative service in Plymouth which will be open to all. That afternoon, a flotilla of ships will cross the Channel; it will be led by Her Majesty the Queen and heads of state or government from participating nations on board the royal yacht escorted by an armada of small craft. During the crossing, the flotilla will be overflown by an international fly-past including aircraft which took part either in the Battle of Britain or supported the D-Day landings from the air. Later that afternoon, approximately 1,000 paratroops, including servicemen from Canada, France and Poland, will parachute into the area of the Pegasus Bridge in Normandy.

On 6 June, there will be a national service of commemoration in the British cemeteries in Normandy. This will be followed by a march-past of veterans in Arramanche.

These events have been coordinated with the French government who are organising an international ceremony at Omaha Beach on 6 June and as in 1944, cooperation and joint planning will be the key to success. We therefore established close links and coordination with all the nations intending to commemorate D-Day in Normandy.

It is at the moment a little too early for us to have a full list of all those participating but we are expecting President Clinton, Prime Minister Chretien and of course President Mitterrand who will be hosting the events on French soil, to take part in many of the events and other heads of state or government, including President Walesa and King Harold of Norway will also be present.

I would like to emphasise to you that the events I have just spelt out are merely illustrative of many others that are being organised to commemorate the D-Day landings. During them, we will not forget the effort and the sacrifice of men and women throughout the forces, throughout industry and throughout our nation who contributed to that remarkable military success.

The 50th anniversary of D-Day is a huge national event and we intend that it should be celebrated on a national scale. Many towns and villages right across the United Kingdom are already organising their own commemorative events. We expect very many more will do so. Events are already planned in all parts of the United Kingdom and we will be announcing further events in the months to come.

Everyone, of course, under fifty will have no direct memory of these great events but it is to the success of D-Day that they owe the peace, the security and the freedom that we have enjoyed since 1945 and which all of us take for granted so we hope and we intend to stir the imagination of everyone at what was done.

In our film a few moments ago, you heard General Montgomery say: “In the better times that lie ahead, men will speak with pride of our doings!” Next June, fifty years on, we will redeem that promise and do exactly that.

I would now like to invite Robert Cranbourne to elaborate on some of the arrangements and then in a few moments Field Marshall Lord Bramall will speak on the involvement of the veterans.


Prime Minister, you have explained why D-Day matters and why we should commemorate the events of June 1944, you outlined the programme of national commemorative events that will take place in June later this year. You asked me, Prime Minister, last year to take overall responsibility for planning the commemoration and to bring our plans to fruition. I hope and believe that on 7 June next the nation will be able to say D-Day has been properly remembered and those that fought, whether they died or survived, have received the honour that is their due. I suspect, Prime Minister, unless the nation can say that you will be looking for my resignation – quite right too!

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is still a great deal to be done. We will have to rely on the help and cooperation of many organisations to make sure that we remember this great event of fifty years ago in the way that it should be and I would like to give you an instance of the sort of difficulties that we will face and overcome and how other organisations can help us do that.

The Royal British Legion, the Royal Naval Association, the RAF Association have kindly agreed to act as agents for our ticketing organisation, to help us ensure that there is a fair representation of veterans particularly attending all the national events, but of course space is a difficulty. It seems difficult to believe this but Normandy, particularly that particular piece of coast, is going to be extremely crowded on the 5th and 6th of June this year and of course the events at the Guildhall in Portsmouth and at Southwick House will only accommodate a limited number of veterans. I think this makes the drumhead service on Southsea Common at Portsmouth all the more important. It will be open to all but of course particularly to veterans of Normandy who have not managed to book a ticket for other events and there will be a special veterans centre there to try and make sure that their needs are looked after as well as possible.

There will also be, as you yourself have said, Prime Minister, a very large number of other events nationwide, not the official national events. They are growing every day and we produce a large wadge of paper every week which grows as people use their own initiative to try and make their contribution to these national events. We would encourage people to continue with this and we will do whatever we can to cooperate to make your own local events as successful as we can.

Prime Minister, I have been very lucky in my team who so far have done a magnificent job. However, in order to make this event a truly national affair, we shall above all be relying on the media – the press, television and the radio. We will be looking to you to unite the nation and do honour to the veterans as they deserve.

I would like to say how extraordinarily grateful I am to all of you so far who have been prodigal in your suggestions and in the cooperative and constructive way in which you have approached this very substantial project. I look forward very much to your suggestions and your help over the coming months and particularly on the 5th and 6th of June this year. I hope you will be able to use the D-Day team’s press office as fully as possible and that if you have beefs or worries that you will come to us so that we can address them because one thing is absolutely certain, we will not be able to think of everything and with your help we will try and make sure as little falls between the cracks as possible.

If I may, Prime Minister, I would now like to hand over to one of my advisory team. Field Marshall Lord Bramall is our host here today and more important perhaps, he landed in Normandy himself in 1944. He has been a most valuable link with the veterans and their organisations in our planning so far, helping us to make sure that we get it right as far as they are concerned.


I would just like to say that I think that the veterans, that is those of us who in one way or another fifty years ago took part in this great enterprise which, as the Prime Minister said earlier, forged the course of history, will feel I believe that all the events planned are very fitting ones to commemorate this special anniversary.

The emphasis, rightly I think, starts in the south of England – Hampshire, Portsmouth, Southampton, the Solent – where although the whole country of course was involved in some way, so much of the vital planning and mounting of Operation Overlord took place and which was of course the launching pad for the great armada of ships which was to cross the Channel and I remember myself I sailed in a United States-manned tank landing craft from what is now the present Southampton ferry terminal to the Isle of Wight.

Seven of the events, including the drumhead service of commemoration and remembrance on Southsea Common, do appropriately symbolise those build-up phases, the actual embarkation and generally I think the feeling of great adventure which we all felt with a mixture of apprehension and excitement as the committed forces set sail across the Channel and headed for Normandy. In 1994, of course, fifty years afterwards, this armada will be represented by an international flotilla with the royal yacht and the Sovereign.

Then, the focus – and I think we would feel again appropriately – turns to Normandy itself where so many men fought and so many died to seize and secure the vital bridgehead and this, as you have heard, will be graphically and very movingly recalled first by twelve hours before the actual time a parachute drop by 1,000 British, Canadian, French and Polish parachutists onto the general area of the Pegasus Bridge across the Caen Canal and then by commemorative services in all the various war cemeteries where stand the graves of tens of thousands of British, Canadian, American and Allied forces who died on that day and in the subsequent very bloody battles of Normandy which lasted another three months.

Finally, Ladies and Gentlemen, there will be that proud march-past of representative Normandy veterans at Arramanche, Gold Beach, where 50th Tyne & Tees Division landed and where the Mulberry Harbour was installed, as you saw in the film and they will be watched over by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as indeed they were on that longest day.

I do believe that these events really will stir the hearts, swell the pride and most particularly remember the fallen not only in respect of the veterans who I think will be more than satisfied particularly when you take all the other events of commemoration which the Minister has mentioned which will take place all over the country but also for all the people throughout the land who watch and listen through the various wide range of the media and so I believe the nation will be remembering and expressing its gratitude and thanks to all those who helped to make Operation Overlord possible and will be doing it in a truly fitting and proud manner.




Prime Minister, will there be any official German presence and how would you respond to unofficial Germans turning up if they so desire?


This is essentially an occasion for the wartime Allies. I discussed this matter previously with Chancellor Kohl and he said that he wouldn’t be attending those commemorations. What will be the case in future is that Germany will be invited to play a full part in the continuous programme of commemorative events leading to those marking the end of the Second World War but I do not envisage an involvement in these particular celebrations. I am not anticipating an unofficial presence of Germans.


This is largely to Lord Bramall, there has been considerable correspondence in I think both the “Times” and the “Telegraph” from various veterans and the argument seems rather generously split. Some veterans are saying that the Germans did fight very gallantly and died gallantly and they were a proper foe and were recognised as such by many veterans; others are very strict and say they do not want any representation official or otherwise. What are your personal feelings, Lord Bramall, as a veteran yourself, of any unofficial German representation because I feel sure many would want to turn up to mark that day themselves?


I think the general question has been answered by the Prime Minister. I have no feeling against the Germans but this is a rather special thing. Remember, this was an invasion of an occupied country and you have got to take very much into consideration the feelings of the French in this matter and I think that, as the Prime Minister said, the proper time to get together and forget war and just look to the future is the ending of world War II in the following year, that is when I hope the Germans will play a very large part.

I don’t think this comes from the veterans themselves; I think if they saw a German there they wouldn’t take offence but I think because the landing was in an occupied country it makes it slightly different.


I notice that Polish servicemen will be taking part in the drop on Pegasus Bridge. Until recently, of course, we would have expected them to be on the other side. Could perhaps the Field Marshall tell us how cooperative the Polish government has been in this matter?


Perhaps I can argue from the specific to the general here. All the Allied governments have cooperated together in planning these events and that has been not only one of the pleasures because it leads to extremely good lunches in Paris quite apart from anything else – you weren’t supposed to hear that, Prime Minister! Sorry! It has also been one of the things that has convinced me that it is going to be a success.

All the Allied governments who have taken part in the run-up to the commemoration so far have been extremely constructive and cooperative and that of course includes the Poles.


You kept saying “all the Allied governments”, Lord Cranbourne. Does that include the former Soviet Union?


No. They weren’t involved in D-Day. They didn’t provide formed bodies of troops and that is the criterion we have used. I think we have to try and draw the line somewhere. I think we could probably find people from almost every nation on earth who took part but it is the nations who provided formed bodies of troops that we have concentrated on.


What plans do you have for war widows to attend the celebrations and secondly, fifty years on from D-Day, what will be the next big celebration?


Shall I take the first part and Lord Cranbourne will take the second?

As far as war widows are concerned, amongst the things that we are doing – I don’t suggest that this will be exclusive but it will give you an illustration – any widow whose husband is buried in Normandy and who has not visited her husband’s grave before will be able to claim the cost of a visit under a scheme financed by the Government and apart from that, any widow will be eligible to take part in the events just like the widows of the veterans but there will be a whole range of things that widows will of course be entitled to attend and I have no doubt will wish to attend.


That is absolutely right, Prime Minister. Perhaps I could just underline the importance we attach to widows participating in this event. They made a tremendous sacrifice and it is important that we should pay them as much honour as the people who took part.

As far as the next great celebration is concerned, I think it all rather depends on what you define as a “great commemoration”. There will be a series of commemorative events mirroring the events of the liberation of Europe fifty years ago. They will not by their very nature perhaps be as great as this one until we reach next year when we commemorate the end of the War. As the Prime Minister has said, we have taken the view – and I think our allies agree with us wholly – that this should be an opportunity for us really to make an act of reconciliation with all combatants and we very much look forward to all the allied nations taking part in a series of events which we are just beginning to plan and which we are not ready to talk about yet but also to make sure that our former enemies are well represented and that we can make the point that we are all in the world boat together and that the events of 1939 to 1945 are well and truly in the past.


The flotilla of ships that will be sailing across the Channel with “Britannia” in the van, will they be warships?


There will be some warships and some civilian vessels as well and they will come from a number of allied nations. We are not absolutely certain what the final composition of this flotilla will be but very broadly it will reflect [Inaudible].


With reference to war widows, when will this information be trickling down to my level which is a branch level of the Normandy Veterans? What is the drill?


We are launching what we are proposing to do today. Thereafter the information will be disseminated as speedily and as comprehensively as possible. The arrangements are under constant examination. Lord Cranbourne and Lord Bramall are both part of the arranging committee and I think I can give you an assurance that as soon as we have more detailed information we will make sure that that is very widely disseminated. We do so essentially for two reasons: firstly – to pick up the point that Robert Cranbourne made a moment or so ago in respect of widows – they made a very great sacrifice indeed and we wish to make sure they are fully involved but secondly – to revert to the point that I made earlier – we do intend that this should be a truly national celebration and commemoration of what happened. That war was the largest war that the world has ever seen. We will never again see a war of that sort fought again. At the moment, fifty years on, very large numbers of the people who fought in that war, who helped win that war and the wives and widows of the people who fought and helped win the war will wish to take part in those commemorations. After 75 years, there will obviously be less; after 100 years none so this is the great occasion when we can both express our thanks and commemorate what was achieved and if it had not been achieved I very much doubt that any of us would have been here today so please have no doubt that we will do all we can to disseminate the information and make sure that there is the widest possible participation in the commemorative events between the 4th and 6th June.


Is there any possibility of cash assistance for the areas of the country, particularly Portsmouth, who have to meet the cost of the commemorations?


A large amount of the costs of the commemorations are actually being met centrally. I am not sure what costs will be borne by Portsmouth but some parts of the country will add to the celebrations with their own commemorative arrangements. That will be true not just in Portsmouth but is already evidently going to be true in places right up and down the United Kingdom and those costs I anticipate they will meet themselves.


Can I ask what figure the Government is contributing to the commemorative events this year?


The overwhelming costs will fall upon the Government. It will be a figure of some millions, precisely how many millions it is almost impossible to tell. I don’t suppose it is going to be a huge and outrageous sum but it will certainly be a sum in the low figures of millions and it may rise a little but this is a unique event. Certainly it will be in the millions and it will be contributed by the Government.