ATTEMPTS to find a way to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day, when allied forces landed in France in the closing stages of the war against Nazism, have mired the British government in embarrassment.
Under criticism from veterans' organizations and the opposition Labour Party, Prime Minister John Major has been forced to retreat from plans to celebrate the June 6, 1944, landings with street parties, cookout competitions, and an extravaganza in London's Hyde Park.
Instead, he has bowed to demands that the military operation in which 37,000 allied troops were killed be marked by official ceremonies in which the keynote will be decorum and restraint.
Mr. Major and his national heritage secretary, Peter Brooke, found themselves in hot water last week when it became known that a public relations firm had been paid 62,000 ($92,470) British pounds to suggest how to observe the 50th anniversary of what most historians regard as the most complex operation in the history of war.
Sir Tim Bell, formerly Margaret Thatcher's public relations guru, proposed a mixture of events, including sand-castle building contests; dances to the music of the wartime American band leader Glenn Miller; and spam fritter competitions. Spam was a widely derided canned meat used by British housewives during the war.
Amid a rising mood of derision and dismay, leaders of veterans' organization complained they had not been consulted about the D-Day commemorations.
At first Major tried to defend the D-Day plan by arguing that it should be ``a mixture of fun and seriousness'' that would appeal to young and old alike.
No Vera Lynn?
The uproar reached a crescendo when Dame Vera Lynn, a singer famous for her rendition of ``There'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover,'' said that if the veterans did not wish to take part in the planned D-Day events, she would not turn up either.
A television poll showed that more than 80 percent of viewers wanted D-Day to be marked seriously. A poll conducted by the Independent newspaper among readers over the age of 18 indicated that 62 percent favored ``solemn national ceremonies of commemoration.''
Major decided to put the D-Day question on the April 21 Cabinet agenda. A day later the government announced that the national heritage department was ``rethinking'' the June 3 plans.
Downing Street officials said the prime minister was giving the veterans a virtual veto over the commemoration plans.
On June 6 half a century ago, troops under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower crossed from England and landed in Normandy. From the beachhead they established, the allies drove on through Europe and mounted their final assault on Germany. The onslaught involved 1.5 million troops.
Major's mistake, according to Peter Mandelson, who led the Labour opposition's assault on the commemoration plans, was to imagine that D-Day was the end of World War II.
``In fact, 11 more months of hard slog were needed to defeat Hitler,'' Mr. Mandelson says. ``The day to celebrate is V-E [Victory in Europe] Day: May 9, 1945.''
`Not a jamboree'
The same theme was taken up by John Keegan, a leading war historian. ``This is not time for a jamboree,'' he said. ``D-Day was not a victory in itself. It heightened rather than quelled suspense. It was the fear of disaster that animated the British nation.''
``The event should be given due dignity,'' Mr. Keegan added. Conservative members of Parliament said they were embarrassed by the way Major's attempts to devise a suitable way of celebrating D-Day had gone awry. One said World War II veterans in his constituency were blaming the prime minister for ``making a mess of it all.''
``This row has detracted from the dignity of the occasion,'' said Sidney Goldberg, a D-Day veteran. ``It is a great pity.''
For Major, who is battling to improve his image in the run-up to next month's important local government elections, the furor unleashed by the D-Day debacle is politically unwelcome.
Some critics charged the prime minister with trying to extract political advantage from the D-Day commemoration.
The furor was a gift to Britain's cartoonists.
And in a scathing April 22 editorial, the Guardian said Major had tried to wrap himself in the Union Jack (the British flag).
The fiasco had happened because ``the modern Conservative Party has lost both the will and the ability to distinguish between itself and the nation.'' A sense of opportunism surrounds the prime minister, the paper said, and this ``leads to bad, opportunistic decisions.''
Lord Healey, the former Labour defense secretary, said that if anyone saw a pin flying through the air, Major would be found nearby with the hand grenade in his mouth.