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D-Day marked by new book and release of Montgomery's papers

Published 06/06/2016

Accounts by members of HMS Belfast's crew of the part the ship played in the D-Day invasion are given in a new book
Accounts by members of HMS Belfast's crew of the part the ship played in the D-Day invasion are given in a new book
General Bernard Montgomery commanded the land forces in the D-Day invasion to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany

Naval crew accounts and personal papers of military leader General Bernard Montgomery are being revealed on the anniversary of D-Day to shine new light on the largest seaborne invasion in history.

A new book, Firing On Fortress Europe, from the Imperial War Museums is published to coincide with the anniversary on June 6.

It presents first-hand, personal accounts of members of HMS Belfast's crew alongside her log books to bring to life the role the ship played in the invasion in 1944.

The IWM are also releasing from their archives handwritten battle plans drawn up by Montgomery.

The prominent British general was one of the key figures on D-Day as commander of the 21st Army Group which initially controlled all the ground forces - US, British, Canadian and others - in Operation Overlord to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

The battle plan, which is headed "Most Secret", breaks down the armed forces into separate sections, lists the special armoured vehicles to be used by the first units ashore and notes that "The key note of everything to be SIMPLICITY".

A handwritten first draft of "Monty's" speech to the troops, which was read out by officers to their men just before the invasion, has also been released.

In it, he tells them "the time has come to deal the enemy a terrific blow in western Europe".

The message, which he altered as he was writing it, ends: "Good luck to each one of you. And good hunting on the mainland of Europe."

Anthony Richards, head of documents & sound at IWM, said: "While the official nature of much of Monty's papers has already formed the basis for historical studies of the operations in which he was involved, the opportunity now exists for people to look more closely at his personal documents and see Monty as a more human figure.

"The draft of his personal message shows his desire to connect directly with the troops under his command in order to inspire them.

"And it was his reputation as the victor of Alamein (in 1942) which certainly motivated the Allied troops landing in France as well as the sailors present in HMS Belfast who were supporting the vital operation."

HMS Belfast, the most significant surviving Second World War Royal Navy warship, fired one of the first shots in D-Day as the fleet sought to support the men landing on the Normandy beaches in the operation.

The thousands of Allied troops involved in the operation landed on five invasion beaches, codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

Accounts, images, journals and recorded interviews reveal stories from King George VI visiting before HMS Belfast left British waters, to narrowly avoiding explosions, rescuing and treating the wounded and going ashore to clear the beaches.

Nick Hewitt, author of Firing On Fortress Europe, said HMS Belfast's role in events was very important and went on long after the initial invasion.

"There is a separate naval story to D-Day that is often totally overlooked.

"It was the naval forces that first brought the troops into the invasion area, then supported them with gunfire so they could get ashore, kept them supplied with food and ammunition, and took them away when they were wounded."

Among the personal stories revealed in the book is that of Senior Engineer Lieutenant-Commander Charles Simpson, who allowed his men to each take a two-minute break from working in the engine rooms to go on deck and witness the battle.

"His account of what he saw during his own two-minute break is incredibly vivid. I felt like I could almost see the troops going ashore and the soldiers on the beaches."

And although HMS Belfast's crew were mostly offshore, Mr Hewitt said the ship was still an "incredibly dangerous" place to be, with a constant threat over many weeks.

"The ships and men were constantly under attack from German aircraft, explosive motorboats, human torpedoes, shore guns and energy warships."

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