The D Day Story: Winston Churchill and the D-Day landings

    churchill and D-Day
    Churchill crossing the Channel on his way to visit the Normandy landing beaches, 12 June 1944. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy

    Allen Packwood, co-author of a new book, tells the D-Day story, 80 years on from the Allied invasion

    Winston Churchill and D-Day

    Friday 2 June. D minus 3. Just 48 hours to go before the launch of the proposed liberation of France, now scheduled for Monday 5 June. The United Kingdom is in a state of virtual lockdown. But where is the Prime Minister? He is not to be found in 10 Downing Street or his offices in Parliament or even in his war rooms. At a time when travel around England was being severely restricted, Churchill has made his way to the south coast aboard his private train.

    In fact, he is hoping to go even further. At his request, Admiral Ramsay has drawn up plans for him to board HMS Belfast on D minus 1, before transferring to a destroyer for a short tour of the beaches on D-Day itself. This is not a popular plan. 

    churchill and D-Day
    Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill smiles to the press as he makes his way to Parliament to announce the planned D-Day invasion, 6 June 1944. Credit: SuperStock / Alamy

    The Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, and the other military leaders do not want the added burden of Churchill anywhere near the action. The King has already written him a letter, dated 31 May, urging him to reconsider. Now George VI follows up with a second appeal “not to go to sea on D-Day”. He points out that his Prime Minister will “see very little … run a considerable risk”. He will also “be a very heavy additional responsibility to the Admiral and Captain”.

    So nervous is the King that he asks his Private Secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, to follow up his appeals with a late-night telephone call to Churchill’s train carriage. Winston finally and grudgingly defers to the Sovereign’s wishes. He admits to Lascelles that “if that poor ship should go to the bottom, you will all say, ‘I told you so’”. 

    His written reply, dictated in the early hours of that Saturday morning is more revealing of his mental state. He reluctantly deferred to “Your Majesty’s wishes and indeed commands”. But, he made it clear that “as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, I ought to be allowed to go where I consider it necessary to the discharge of my duty…”. 

    D-Day landings
    The US army unloads British tanks in the early hours of 6 June 1944, in preparation for the invasion. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library 2015

    Winston Churchill was now as close to the frontline as he was going to get, for the time being. His office and bedroom were a railway carriage. His hotel was a secluded wooded siding outside the sleepy Hampshire village of Droxford. At first glance, it seems an incongruous location for the Prime Minister’s headquarters at such a time. In fact, it had been carefully chosen precisely because its location combined both isolation and security with proximity to the main D-Day embarkation points.

    The Prime Minister’s desire to get close to the action imposed huge practical difficulties on his staff. It also did not make things easy for himself.

    D-Day day by day

    On Saturday morning, General Ismay awoke to find himself faced with a Prime Minister who wanted to speak to everyone – “to the President in the White House, to [Anthony] Eden at the Foreign Office, and to the Chiefs of Staff in Whitehall” – from a train in a remote siding that was only connected to the outside world by a single line through the local exchange.

    D-Day landings
    Just hours before H-Hour (invasion hour) on D-Day, Air Service Command soldiers file onto awaiting British aircraft. Credit: Superstock

    During the day, Churchill travelled to the port city of Southampton. There, he witnessed the huge armada assembled in the Solent. Ships of all sizes and functions filled the narrow stretch of water between the mainland and the Isle of Wight, stretching away as far as the eye could see. He watched the embarkation of Tyneside troops, part of the 50th Northumbrian Division, shortly to land on Gold Beach.

    That evening he dined in his railway carriage and the weather forecasts continued to deteriorate. He heard the news that General Eisenhower had postponed the operation for 24 hours. There were very real prospects of a much longer delay if conditions did not improve. 

    The stakes were high. Enormous invasion forces had been assembled in Britain. They could only be kept in a state of readiness for so long. There were elaborate security measures in place. This restricted Britain’s contacts with the rest of the world. And, the complex plans and deception plans were at risk of being compromised. For those who want an impression of the enormous scale of the operation,
    it is admirably conveyed by a visit to The D-Day Story in Portsmouth.

    churchill and D-Day
    Churchill reviews American troops on the eve of D-Day. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy

    Charles de Gaulle and Churchill

    Churchill needed the refreshment of action. He also needed the consolation of sharing some of the risks faced by those he was sending into danger. He hated waiting on events. His mood was further tested by the arrival of General Charles de Gaulle. The leader of the Free French forces had flown from his headquarters in Algiers. 

    De Gaulle clearly had to be briefed on the liberation of French soil. However, he was angry at the American refusal to recognise his committee as the legitimate government of France. 

    Sunday lunch in the railway carriage did not go well. De Gaulle refused to cooperate with the Allies’ new arrangements for the civil administration of France. Churchill made it very clear to him that he would side with President Roosevelt. The meeting was a failure. The two leaders dined separately. General de Gaulle refused to travel back to London in the prime ministerial train that evening. He left Churchill brooding and nursing ill feeling towards his erstwhile ally.

    The D-Day landings

    Arriving back in London late on Sunday 4 June, Churchill worked into the night. A narrow window in the weather allowed Eisenhower to give the order to go. D-Day would now be Tuesday 6 June. Churchill dined alone with his wife Clementine on the Monday evening and told her, “Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning 20,000 men may have been killed?” 

    Churchill visits an anti-aircraft battery in Kent in June 1944. Credit: Fremantle / Alamy

    This was a defining moment in the Second World War. One that is now associated with images of American troops storming ashore. This is depicted in the dramatic opening sequence of the Hollywood blockbuster Saving Private Ryan.

    It’s not a moment normally associated with the wartime Prime Minister. He made two short, succinct statements to the House of Commons on 6 June. Neither rose to the levels of his famous oratory from the summer of 1940. There was no equivalent of “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, no “fight on the beaches”. There was no broadcast to the people.

    Indeed, when it comes to the D-day story, Churchill has often been portrayed negatively. The 2017 movie, Churchill, starring Brian Cox, opens with Winston nervously pacing a British beach and looking out across the English Channel, as, in his mind’s eye, the waves turn red with blood. He is presented as a man who is haunted by the ghosts of his past. He has seen it all before – at Gallipoli in the First World War – and the script has him doing all he can to prevent it happening again, working to obstruct the D-Day landings with only hours to go.

    D-Day landings
    Women of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service eat in the open at No 79 General Hospital near Bayeux, 20 June 1944

    He was certainly anxious, as were many others. There is no doubt that the build-up to the launch had been a particularly stressful time. He did not have the same reserves of energy as he demonstrated in 1940, and he had reservations about prioritising D-Day above all other operations, but he still managed to throw himself into inspecting and supporting the final preparations. Ultimately, there were fewer casualties than his worst-case scenario, while he would set foot in Normandy just six days later on 12 June.

    For more on this dramatic story, read ‘Churchill’s D-Day’ by General Sir Richard Dannatt (former chief of the British Army) and Allen Packwood (director of the Churchill Archive Centre), published by Hodder & Stoughton,

    D-Day anniversary 2024 events

    Here are some of the best ways to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day in 2024

    National D-Day commemorations, Portsmouth

    On 5 June 2024, Portsmouth’s Southsea Common will play host to the UK’s official commemorations, which will see D-Day veterans and members of the Armed Forces joined by military musicians and special guests who will deliver moving tributes. There will also be a Royal Air Force flypast.

    The D-Day Story, Portsmouth

    Throughout the year, there will be lots of commemorative events at this Portsmouth museum dedicated to the events of June 1944, so check the website for more details. The museum specialises in personal accounts of those who were there, and if you can’t visit in person in 2024, you can still explore its online anniversary exhibition, D-Day in 80 Objects.

    The Castletown D-Day Centre, Portland, Dorset

    This visitor attraction in former Admiralty buildings is reminiscent of a wartime dockyard and will be holding a special commemorative event to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day on 6 June 2024. Visitors on this date can hear talks from expert speakers, interact with passionate reenactors, watch regular displays of rare vehicles, and listen to live 1940s music.

    Churchill War Rooms, London

    On 4 June 2024 at the former war cabinet’s headquarters, a special talk by historian Dr Tessa Dunlop, IWM in Conversation: Women of D-Day, will explore the role of women, who have so often been overlooked, in the D-Day landings.

    Read more:


    Leave a Reply