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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!