I gave this speech on the subject of 3rd September 1939 at an Armistice Day event 10 years ago.
Honoured Guests, Ladies, Gentlemen, and Colleagues:
I recently came upon some effects belonging to my late father. What perfect material for an evening such as this! Among the ration books, badges of rank, photographs and drawings was this order, bearing the date 9th September 1939. Poland had been invaded by Germany just a few days before on the 1st and Neville Chamberlain had declared to the people of Great Britain on the wireless — as was – on the 3rd of September that: “This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11.00 a.m. that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
These are the Part 1 Orders of the 6th Battalion the Seaforth Highlanders, at that time a Territorial Army unit in Elgin in the North of Scotland, in which my Father was at that time a fresh-faced subaltern.
Autumn comes early that far north and so the trees in the Cooper Park where the drill hall stood – until it made way for a shopping mall just a few years ago – would already bearing the orange, yellow and gold of the season. Morayshire is the most wooded county in the British Isles and September always provides a glorious pageant of colours.
This is what it says: “The Commanding Officer will address all Officers and Men of the Battalion on the grass on the South side Of the Elgin Academy at 16:45 hours today”.
Imagine the atmosphere that September evening. The men on that parade were told that they were to embark for France, as part of the 51st (Highland) Division in the British Expeditionary Force. They were volunteers — farm workers, distillery workers, fishermen and tradesmen. Many would die and many were to be captured; the Scottish Country Dance ‘The Reel of the 51st” was composed in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, by two Highland Officers of the 51st, Peter Oliver and Jimmy Atkinson, who were captured along with many others at St. Valery-en-Caux on the 12th June.
Some of the remaining 51st were evacuated at Dunkirk; others, including my father, were evacuated from St Nazaire in a historically-neglected operation known as Operation ARIEL. The fortunate ones — Dad among them – were aboard a coal ship and not aboard His Majesty’s Troopship Lancastria. The Lancastria was sunk by a German dive-bomber on the 17th June, by means of a direct hit through the ship’s funnel and into the engine room. More than 7,000 troops, RAF personnel, and civilian refugees, including women and children were aboard; just 2,477 of those on board were saved. Survivors clinging to the upturned hull were heard to sing “There’ll always be an England”. The Lancastria remains Britain’s worst maritime disaster. More lives were lost than from RMS Titanic twenty years previously. The fact that little is known of the Lancastria, even now, is due to the fact that Winston Churchill, by then Prime Minister, forbade publication of the news of the loss in the interests of public morale. Indeed, the official report on the Lancastria is still sealed until the year 2040 under the Official Secrets Act.
The 51st Highland Division, Seaforth Highlanders among them, landed at Ouistreham on Sword beach in the Normandy landings. If you travel over what has become known as Pegasus Bridge and drive a few miles to the east, on the high ground there, in the village of Ranville – which has commanding views of the Orne Valley from Caen to the beachhead – you will find a Commonwealth War Graves Commission military cemetery with row upon row upon row of graves marking the final resting places of British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives in the early days of June 1944. Many are from the 51st and many of those are Seaforth Highlanders. My son Alexander was struck by how many headstones our own surname. The British were criticized by the Americans for their failure to take the city of Caen in the first few days of the invasion. When the 51st went on to cross the Rhine at Rees on 23rd March 1945, in the face of three German parachute divisions, their progress was again criticised in comparison to that of the US XVI Corps who were opposed by a single German division, the 180th, made up of reservists. The historian Peter Allen puts it nicely when he says: “Once again the British and Canadians had been used as an anvil to prepare the way for an American breakthrough and triumph.” Familiar?
The sacrifice of ordinary men in conflicts of the last century is worthy of our recognition and respect now as much as at any time. Relief from oppression was the justification for the significant conflicts of the second half of the 20th Century. The Royal Marines who retook Stanley on the 15th June 1982 after their surrender there in April that year — we are proud to have one of their number among us tonight – understood their mission just as the men of the Seaforth Highlanders in Normandy and on the banks of the Rhine understood. There was a belief among those of us who served there that the invasion of Kuwait by a predatory and far larger Iraq was an act of oppression which justified the military actions which restored Kuwaiti Sovereignty. There are three justifications for a nation going war. First, when the territory of that nation has been violated; when that of a nation who is an ally is violated; thirdly, when there is a clear and immediate threat to that nation’s security.
My father and solders of his generation understood that. So did the servicemen in Korea, Malaya, Aden, Ulster and the Falklands. But what of the servicemen in the Suez campaign? And, more pertinently, what of the campaigns of the 21st century? Were these justified? I do not pretend to know the answers. I do, however, look forward to reading how the historians interpret the adventures of Iraq and Afghanistan. I, for one, was at the time convinced that there was a real and present danger posed by Iraq. Now I am in no doubt that I was not told the whole truth.