A Giant Amongst Giants on D-Day

On the 75th anniversary of D-Day let us remember all those that dedicated their lives so we could have ours.

Lord 'Shimi’ Lovat led the Commandos ashore on Sword Beach on D-Day, 6th June, 1944.

On the eve of D-Day, Shimi, then 32, addressed his troops after prayers. The service was over, and the men had been kneeling on sodden turf in driving rain in a Hampshire field.

“I wish you all the best of luck in what lies ahead. This will be the greatest military venture of all time; the Commando Brigade has an important role to play and 100 years from now your children’s children will say, 'They must have been giants in those days’.”

This was a generation of tough, brave young men, only a little older than our scampering children. They had leaped into those icy seas on D-Day, sometimes out of their depth and unable to swim, bowed down by their mountainous backpacks. They had fought their way up the beaches, seeing friends being blown to smithereens around them. Operation Overlord had begun. These indomitable young men had come to liberate Europe.

As the 15th Chieftain of Clan Fraser, Shimi – MacShimidh to give him his Gaelic title – was born into leadership. It was in his genes (David Stirling, his cousin, founded the SAS). Resilient, tough, charismatic, he believed in public service and in serving his country, but he also had a literary, almost poetic bent. Commanding and dashing, he exuded confidence that instilled courage in those around him. Winston Churchill once described him as, “The handsomest man to cut a throat”.

Shimi’s leadership qualities were tested to the limit on D-Day. As Lord Lovat waded ashore he instructed his personal piper to pipe the commandos ashore, in defiance of specific orders not to allow such an action in battle. When the piper demurred, citing the regulations, he recalled later, Lord Lovat replied: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”

The mission of 1st Commando Brigade – or 1st Special Service Brigade, as it was known in June 1944 – was to break through German defences on the eastern side of Sword Beach. At lightning speed, they were to fight their way four miles inland to Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal, and bring reinforcements to the 6th Airborne Division, relieving the glider-borne troops who had taken the bridge at dead of night.

Shimi and his commandos arrived just after the appointed hour of midday, to the swirl of pipes. He famously apologised for being two minutes late which was captured in the Hollywood film, ‘The Longest Day’. The bridges were crucial; at the push of a detonator, the Germans could have destroyed them. With the Allied supply lines cut, the invasion could have foundered.

Plunging into further battles, Shimi was nearly killed four days later by Allied shrapnel and was given the last rites by Father René de Naurois. His last words as he handed over his brigade were: “Take over the Brigade and not a step back; not a step back!”

Arlette Gondrée, whose family owns the café beside Pegasus Bridge, remembers D-Day vividly; playing in the garden beside the canal, hearing the bagpipes as they came ever closer. The French had been so traumatised by the Occupation but it dawned on her, even at the tender age of five, that this was an extraordinary moment. Perhaps the end of hunger was in sight.

Her father started digging up the champagne that he had hidden from the Germans – 1,000 bottles in all. As Shimi arrived, during a lull in the crossfire, he was offered a glass. He thanked his host profusely but declined, explaining he was at work.

Today, as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, many will gather at Sword Beach where a statue of Shimi faces three-quarters towards France and a quarter back to Britain. At the unveiling of the statue on the 70th anniversary, Virginia Fraser, daughter-in-law of Shimi said, “I couldn’t have had him turning his back on us. Nor us on him, and the many like him who on D-Day dedicated their lives so we could have ours.”

Lord Lovat (1911-1995) died at Beauly, Inverness-shire.

This article is adapted from the one written by Virginia Fraser and first published by The Telegraph on 6th June, 2014.

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