How the future Queen Elizabeth II played a small but vital role in the preparations for D-Day

The future Queen Elizabeth II played a small but vital role in the preparations for D-Day.

On 19 May 1944, two and a half weeks before the ‘Operation Overlord’ landings took place the princess spent the day with her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, inspecting airborne troops in the north of England. 

The presence of the Heiress Presumptive guaranteed blanket media coverage of the event which included one of the biggest glider landings ever made in Britain. By the time the display had finished the aerodrome was crowded with hundreds of the small aircraft. Earlier in the day the royal party watched as several hundred parachutists dropped from the sky in formation.

The previous March Princess Elizabeth had also joined her parents on a two-day tour inspecting Scottish troops and armoured and infantry units. The Times reported that the royals ‘watched troops scrambling down high scaffolding as a rehearsal for disembarkation from big invasion crafts into landing crafts.’

Coverage of both visits appeared in all the main newspapers as well as in the Court Circular. What the readers wouldn’t have realised is that it was all part of an elaborate ruse to confuse Adolf Hitler and the German high command into thinking an invasion was imminent and likely to be at different locations.

The decision to involve the King and his family in what turned out to be a major deception was made by Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, who was appointed Private Secretary in 1943 and who was a former secret service officer. George VI was briefed on Operation Overlord and the invasion of France as early as October 1943. The following February, two MI5 officers visited Buckingham Palace to meet Lascelles. They explained to him ‘how the King’s visits in the next few months could assist in the elaborate cover scheme whereby we are endeavouring to bamboozle the German Intelligence regarding the time and place for ‘Overlord.’

This military deception was known as ‘Operation Fortitude’ which involved the US military commander George Patten building up a huge bogus army in the SE of England. Captured German agents fed back inaccurate information to the Nazis that the landings would be at Calais. In May 1944 King George reviewed these troops which was again documented by the press. Details of the king’s visits, including road closures, was fed back to Germany to pinpoint the exact location of these manoeuvres.

More strategic deception took place on 10 May when King George visited Scapa Flow, near the Orkney Islands, a hazardous journey since this body of water was regularly patrolled by German U-Boats. Again, the visit was reported. The front page of the Daily Mail on 15 May had the headline: ‘The King takes leave of his fleet’ as the ship sailed for battle. This gave the impression to Hitler that an invasion of Norway would be the first attack. [Harry please check this with the archives as I have not seen the newspaper, the date, or its headline]

On 15 May the King attended a briefing at St Paul’s Church, Kensington, with the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander in charge of Overlord.

Before the landings there was one thorny problem to be resolved. Both the king and Churchill wanted to be present to witness the landings. No British king had led his troops into battle since George II at Dettingen in 1743, which was of course far less of a danger than modern day warfare. Lascelles shocked George VI into reconsidering when he asked the king if ‘he was prepared to face the possibility of having to advise Princess Elizabeth on the choice of her first Prime Minister, in the event of her father and Winston being sent to the bottom on the English Channel.’ To make sure he wasn’t the only one to stay in London. George wrote to Churchill saying it was very unjust that the PM, having advised the king not to go, should then go himself and steal the king’s thunder. The old war horse grudgingly backed down.

Instead, the two men met up with Eisenhower at this headquarters at Bushey hours after the invasion began on the morning of 6 June to study outsize maps showing where the artificial harbours were being built on the beaches of Normandy.

That night Lascelles wrote in his journal: ‘It is too early to feel anything in the nature of jubilation; but the relief of feeling that the thing is at least under way, and that all the immense and complicated preparations for it have been well and truly laid is very great.’ No doubt the king was very much on his mind when he concluded ‘all those who have been entrusted with the very well-kept secret, look ten years younger.’

The future Queen Elizabeth II played a small but vital role in the preparations for D-Day.