Churchill makes a day trip to Normandy

Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, chats with Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, on the bridge of a warship (HMS KELVIN) during their voyage across the English Channel en route to General Bernard Montgomery's Headquarters in Normandy, France, 12 June 1944.

Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, chats with Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, on the bridge of a warship (HMS KELVIN) during their voyage across the English Channel en route to General Bernard Montgomery’s Headquarters in Normandy, France, 12 June 1944.

Winston Churchill with Field Marshal Jan Smuts, of the Imperial War Cabinet, (right) and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), on board the destroyer conveying his party to Normandy, 12 June 1944.

Winston Churchill with Field Marshal Jan Smuts, of the Imperial War Cabinet, (right) and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, CIGS (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), on board the destroyer conveying his party to Normandy, 12 June 1944.

Winston Churchill had wanted to accompany the invasion forces on D-Day itself, and had to be dissuaded by the King. He would not allow the visit to be delayed much longer.

On the 12th june the bridgehead in Normandy was still only a matter of a few miles deep and still under intermittent shellfire, and occasional air attack. Inland the clashes with the Panzer units were becoming more serious. Less than a week after the invasion the commanders in the field might be presumed to be fairly busy.

None of this deterred Churchill. He was accompanied by Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff who recorded the day in his diary:

[The Prime Minister’s party left the train at] 7.30 am to catch the destroyer Kelvin and leave Portsmouth at 8 am. The Americans had already started in a separate party. We had a very comfortable journey over and most interesting. We continually passed convoys of landing craft, minesweepers, bits of floating breakwater (Phoenix) being towed out, parts of the floating piers (Whales) etc. And overhead, a continuous flow of planes going to and coming from France.

A concrete caisson

Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches: A concrete caisson weighing 7,000 tons being towed into position in the main breakwater off the coast at Arromanches. These formed part of the Mulberry harbour.

About 11 am we approached the French coast and the scene was beyond description. Everywhere the sea was covered with ships of all sizes and shapes, and a scene of continuous activity. We passed through rows of anchored LSTs and finally came to a ‘Gooseberry’, namely a row of ships sunk in a half crescent to form a sort of harbour and to provide protection from the sea.

A Gooseberry, a line of block ships

A Gooseberry, a line of block ships laid off the beaches at Ouistreham to form a reef before the rest of the Mulberry Port was assembled. The Gooseberry includes the old HMS DURBAN and the Netherlands ship SUMATRA. Two DUKWs can be seen moving amongst the block ships.

Here we were met by Admiral Vian (of Mediterranean fame) who took us in his Admiral’s barge from which we changed into a DUKW (amphibious lorry). This ran us straight onto the beach and up onto the road.

It was a wonderful moment to find myself re-entering France almost exactly 4 years after being thrown out for the second time, at St Nazaire. Floods of mem- ories came back of my last trip of despair, and those long four years of work and anxiety at last crowned by the success of a reentry into France.

General Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding 21st Army Group, guides Winston Churchill to his jeep after the Prime Minister had come ashore to begin his tour, 12 June 1944.

General Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding 21st Army Group, guides Winston Churchill to his jeep after the Prime Minister had come ashore to begin his tour, 12 June 1944.

Winston Churchill lights a cigar in the back of a jeep as he and General Montgomery, commanding 21st Army Group, set out on a tour inland, 12 June 1944.

Winston Churchill lights a cigar in the back of a jeep as he and General Montgomery, commanding 21st Army Group, set out on a tour inland, 12 June 1944.

Monty met us on the beach with a team of jeeps which we got into and drove off on the Courseulles-Bayeux road, to about 1/2 way to the latter place. There we found Monty’s HQ and he gave us an explanation on the map of his dispositions and plans. All as usual wonderfully clear and concise.

Left to right: The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke; Mr Winston Churchill; and the Commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at Montgomery's mobile headquarters in Normandy.

Left to right: The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke; Mr Winston Churchill; and the Commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at Montgomery’s mobile headquarters in Normandy.

We then had lunch with him and my thoughts wandered off to 4 years ago when I was at Le Mans and Laval waiting for Monty and his 3rd Division to join me. I knew then that it would not be long before I was kicked out of France if I was not killed or taken prisoner, but if anybody had told me then that in 4 years time I should return with Winston and Smuts to lunch with Monty commanding a new invasion force I should have found it hard to believe it.

Winston Churchill watching air activity with other senior officers above General Sir Bernard Montgomery's headquarters, 12 June 1944. Left to right: Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O'Connor, commanding VIII Corps; Churchill; Field Marshal Jan Smuts; Montgomery; Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

Winston Churchill watching air activity with other senior officers above General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s headquarters, 12 June 1944. Left to right: Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor, commanding VIII Corps; Churchill; Field Marshal Jan Smuts; Montgomery; Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

After lunch we drove round to Bimbo Dempsey’s HQ. I was astonished at how little affected the country had been by the German occupation and 5 years of war. All the crops were good, the country fairly clear of weeds, and plenty of fat cattle, horses, chickens etc. (As usual Winston described the situation in his inimitable way when driving with me. He said, ‘We are surrounded by fat cattle lying in luscious pastures with their paws crossed!’ This is just the impression they gave one.)

Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, commanding British Second Army, pointing out a section of the front to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Also in the picture are the Lieutenant General G G Simonds (left), commanding II Canadian Corps and the 21st Army Group commander General Sir Bernard Montgomery (right), Normandy, 22 July 1944.

Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, commanding British Second Army, pointing out a section of the front to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Also in the picture are the Lieutenant General G G Simonds (left), commanding II Canadian Corps and the 21st Army Group commander General Sir Bernard Montgomery (right), Normandy, 22 July 1944.

And the French population did not seem in any way pleased to see us arrive as a victorious country to liberate France. They had been quite content as they were, and we were bringing war and desolation to the country. We then returned to Courseulles, having watched a raid by Hun bombers on the harbour which did no harm.

We re-embarked on Vian’s Admiral’s Barge and did a trip right along the sea front watching the various activities. We saw ‘Landing Crafts Tank’ unloading lorries, tanks, guns etc onto the beaches in a remarkably short time.

German POWs help unload a jeep from a tank landing craft near Ouistreham, Courseulles, 11 June 1944.

German POWs help unload a jeep from a tank landing craft near Ouistreham, Courseulles, 11 June 1944.

A DUKW bringing ammunition ashore at Arromanches, 22 June 1944.

A DUKW bringing ammunition ashore at Arromanches, 22 June 1944.

We then went to the new harbour being prepared west of Hamel.

There we saw some of the large Phoenixes being sunk into place and working admirably. Also ‘bombadores’ to damp down waves, ‘Whales’ representing wonderful floating piers, all growing up fast.

Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches: The floating breakwater [bombardons] consisting of hollow steel structures, each weighing 1000 tons, with the waves breaking over them as Britain's Mulberry Port at Arromanches begins to operate as a harbour.

Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches: The floating breakwater consisting of hollow steel structures, each weighing 1000 tons, with the waves breaking over them as Britain’s Mulberry Port at Arromanches begins to operate as a harbour.

Close by was a monitor with a 14″ gun firing away into France. Winston said he had never been on one of His Majesty’s ships engaging the enemy and insisted on going aboard. Luckily we could not climb up as it would have been a very risky entertainment had we succeeded.

HMS Roberts had 15 inch guns and was primarily designed for naval gunfire support.

HMS Roberts had 15 inch guns and was primarily designed for naval gunfire support.

Then we returned to our destroyer and went right back to the east end of the beach where several ships were bombarding the Germans. Winston wanted to take part in the war, and was longing to draw some retaliation. However the Boche refused to take any notice of any of the rounds we fired. We therefore started back about 6.15 and by 9.15 were back at Portsmouth after having spent a wonderfully interesting day.

HMS KELVIN off the Normandy beaches.Winston Churchill is boarding the ship from the Admiral's barge of HMS BELFAST (?) after visiting troops on shore.

HMS KELVIN off the Normandy beaches.Winston Churchill is boarding the ship from the Admiral’s barge of HMS BELFAST (?) after visiting troops on shore.

We got on board the PM’s train where we found Marshall and King. We dined on the way back to London where we arrived shortly after 1 am dog tired and very sleepy!

See Alanbrooke War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke

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