Tuesday, June 6. I turned on the radio for the eight a.m. news. The announcer spoke about special warnings which had been broadcast to our Allies in Western Europe. There was even a mention of German reports of Allied invasion barges off the French shore. But I was staying in a hotel in a quiet and comfortable little town between the wild country of Exmoor and the Bristol Channel, and most of the hotel guests were either elderly retired people whose days of struggle were over or people who had been bombed out of their homes and had taken refuge in this peaceful part of the world. Four years ago, night after night, one heard aircraft flying overhead to South Wales and one could see the fires blazing along the northern shore of these narrow waters that stretch up to the ancient port and city of Bristol. But four years is a long time. And escapism is a very contagious disease. So nobody at breakfast had much to say about the news.
Nevertheless D-day has come. Yesterday I was told flatly and firmly by an elderly and querulous ex-official from one of the remoter British colonies that there would be no invasion of Europe. He was indignant when I reminded him that this view was shared by many of the Communists. Another “phony war” legend has been destroyed.
The calmness of it all! I was told later that in London many people who did not hear the morning news bulletins knew nothing of the invasion until midday. Even at Allied headquarters one young man of my acquaintance heard the news only when it was more than three hours old. There was no shouting, no cheering, no excitement, and little comment.
Everything went on so much as usual that a puzzled American officer grew quite angry with his English secretary. “Don’t you care?” he demanded. She cared. But with us in Britain probably more than with you in America, tension has relaxed but anxiety has taken its place. We are so much nearer the fighting. So many of our homes have already been bombed. Above all, we have had so many setbacks that we dare not be jubilant.
Four years ago yesterday Mr. Churchill made his great speech of defiance in the House of Commons. “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets, and in the hills. We shall never surrender.” Yes. We care. But experience has taught us to be cautious. Four years ago, in the lazy warm June weather, those of us who live in southern England could hear the guns across the Channel pounding the beaches of Dunkirk. Ever since those days, all the preparation in our training camps, all the work in our factories, has been carried out with the intention of somehow and some way sending another expeditionary force across the Channel to France to begin the liberation of Europe and remove the humiliation of our own defeat. Now that expeditionary force has sailed. But as on September 3, 1939, so on June 6, 1944, there is a strange feeling of anticlimax.
Then we expected immediate and terrible air raids and gas attacks; now we expect the immediate use against us of some of the secret weapons of which preliminary and unpleasant details have reached us through neutral countries. In these first hours of invasion there is no such disturbance. But, much more than that, the sense of anticlimax comes from the fact that there is nothing immediate and new that we civilians can do. Life goes on too much as usual.
As a member of Parliament I am visiting my constituency, which contains some of the richest agricultural fields and also some of the wildest moorland in the south of England. D-day has come, but there is nothing I can do to help. So, in common with most other people in this country, I set out today to fulfill my normal program.
I spent the morning in a remote little village through which the Romans, whose example in invasion Hitler failed to follow, used to bring the iron ore from the great range of hills that overshadow it: a village so remote that in it one is tempted to look upon the war as an annoying act of God or the devil which has added immensely to the work and also to the wealth of the farmers but has robbed them of their sons and workers. Two land girls, felling trees with great lumber axes, were the first people who told me definitely that Allied troops were on French soil. They had heard the news when the normal radio program, blaring out from a neighboring cottage, had been interrupted so that this announcement could be made.
Until the war turned them into incipient experts in forestry, both these girls had served in stores in large cities. One of them had a husband who, she believed, would now be on his way to France. Their foreman, an ex-soldier of the last war, who had been bombed out of his home at the naval base of Portsmouth, said something that, I think, is at the back of most people’s minds in England today. “This is the end of Jerry, but I expect he will take a lot of punishment before he’s knocked out. And so shall we.”
From an account published in the August 1944 issue of Harper’s Magazine, several weeks after the Allied landing at Normandy. Bartlett was a British journalist and broadcaster elected to the House of Commons in 1938 on an anti-appeasement platform. His complete diary is available here.