A diplomatic tiff over Queen Elizabeth II’s omission from the guest list for this week’s D-Day commemorations has reopened a divide over who should share credit for the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany.
Britons are grumbling that the nation does not get its due either from its wartime ally, the United States, or from the French whom it helped to liberate.
On Saturday, President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are due to stand side by side in Normandy to remember the Allied landings 65 years ago, when more than 150,000 troops swam, waded and parachuted onto Nazi-occupied French soil, turning the tide of the war.
The queen Britain’s head of state, the supreme commander of its armed forces and a veteran of the wartime women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service won’t be there. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was invited to represent the country instead.
“Sarkozy hijacks Longest Day,” said The Times of London, which ran a slew of letters from outraged Britons. The Daily Mail said the queen had been “betrayed” by the “sorry shambles” over the event. After days of diplomatic dallying, Buckingham Palace said Tuesday that Sarkozy had sent an invitation to the queen’s son and heir, Prince Charles a royal compromise that helped soothe ruffled British feathers.
Military historian Peter Caddick-Adams of Britain’s Cranfield University said the spat “says a lot about Britain and France.”
“There is a concern in Britain that France is keen to diminish the role of the British,” he said. “(And) there is this concern in French minds about their liberation at the hands of their Anglo-Saxon rivals.”
The French insisted no slight was meant, and said Saturday’s ceremony is intended primarily as a US-French event, rather than a full-blown commemoration of the Allied effort like those held on the 50th and 60th anniversaries of D-Day.
That has left Britons feeling slighted. More than 60,0000 British troops landed on June 6, 1944, alongside 73,000 Americans, more than 20,000 Canadians and a small number of Free French commandos. The total includes more than 130,000 soldiers who came ashore at five Normandy beaches and 23,000 airborne troops. Many of the ships and planes that supported the landing force were British, too.
Fatality estimates for the Allied forces vary, but range from 2,500 to more than 5,000 dead on D-Day.
Agnes Poirier, a London-based French political commentator, said the attempt to recast D-Day commemorations as a Franco-American affair “is not only the rewriting of history, it’s lunacy.”
“Many French people are really embarrassed about this,” she said.
Britain, France and the United States have always seen the war rather differently. In The Guardian newspaper, humorist Simon Hoggart summed up the British view with tongue only slightly in cheek as “the Americans took their own good time to join us (fighting Hitler), but when they did, between us we rescued the useless French. And are they grateful? Don’t be silly.”
Some blame Hollywood for distorting popular perceptions of the war. While 1962 D-Day epic “The Longest Day” had a multinational cast, there are few Brits in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” or the 2001 TV series “Band of Brothers,” both of which dramatized the Normandy campaign from an American point of view.
As far back as 1945, the Errol Flynn film “Operation Burma” _ which recast the liberation of Burma as an American, rather than British, feat _ sparked angry demonstrations in Britain. The movie was pulled from screens after only a few days.
Caddick-Adams said the Americans have always been better at martial myth-making than the British.
“During the Normandy campaign, there were about 10 American photographers for every British one,” he said. “So most of the footage of the campaign features American soldiers, rarely British.”
Historian Antony Beevor, author of “D-Day: The Battle for Normandy,” said the conflicting views began while the war was still raging.
“There have been misunderstandings,” he said. “One was that (British commander) Field Marshal (Bernard) Montgomery’s attempts to take so much of the credit exasperated the Americans. As a result the Americans tended to downplay the British contribution.”
The differing views also reflected a shifting global balance of power. The war all but bankrupted Britain, hastening the breakup of its empire and its decline as a world force.
“The British were very sensitive at the time,” Beevor said. “They knew their power was diminishing very rapidly, while American power was increasing rapidly.”
As for who won the war, many historians think it was neither Britain nor the US, but the Soviet Union, who played the decisive role.
“The British and the Americans only killed one in five Germans that were killed on the battlefield,” said Andrew Roberts, author of the World War II history “The Storm of War.” “Four out of every five German deaths took place on the eastern front. Us arguing among ourselves over the glories of D-Day is squabbling over the scraps.”