Book excerpt

The Guns at Last Light

The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945

The Liberation Trilogy

Rick Atkinson

Henry Holt and Co.


A killing frost struck England in the middle of May 1944, stunting the plum trees and the berry crops. Stranger still was a persistent drought. Hotels posted admonitions above their bathtubs: “The Eighth Army crossed the desert on a pint a day. Three inches only, please.” British newspapers reported that even the king kept “quite clean with one bath a week in a tub filled only to a line which he had painted on it.” Gale winds from the north grounded most Allied bombers flying from East Anglia and the Midlands, although occasional fleets of Flying Fortresses still could be seen sweeping toward the Continent, their contrails spreading like ostrich plumes.

Nearly five years of war had left British cities as “bedraggled, unkempt and neglected as rotten teeth,” according to an American visitor, who found that “people referred to ‘before the war’ as if it were a place, not a time.” The country was steeped in heavy smells, of old smoke and cheap coal and fatigue. Wildflowers took root in bombed-out lots from Birmingham to Plymouth—sow-whistle, Oxford ragwort, and rosebay willow herb, a tall flower with purple petals that seemed partial to catastrophe. Less bucolic were the millions of rats swarming through three thousand miles of London sewers; exterminators scattered sixty tons of sausage poisoned with zinc phosphate, and stale bread dipped in barium carbonate.

Privation lay on the land like another odor. British men could buy a new shirt every twenty months. Housewives twisted pipe cleaners into hair clips. Iron railings and grillwork had long been scrapped for the war effort; even cemeteries stood unfenced. Few shoppers could find a fountain pen or a wedding ring, or bedsheets, vegetable peelers, shoelaces. Posters discouraged profligacy with depictions of the “Squander Bug,” a cartoon rodent with swastika pockmarks. Classified advertisements included pleas in the Times of London for “unwanted artificial teeth” and cash donations to help wounded Russian war horses. An ad for Chez-Vous household services promised “bombed upholstery and carpets cleaned.”

Other government placards advised, “Food is a munition. Don’t waste it.” Rationing had begun in June 1940 and would not end completely until 1954. The monthly cheese allowance now stood at two ounces per citizen. Many children had never seen a lemon; vitamin C came from “turnip water.” The Ministry of Food promoted “austerity bread,” with a whisper of sawdust, and “victory coffee,” brewed from acorns. “Woolton pie,” a concoction of carrots, potatoes, onions, and flour, was said to lie “like cement upon the chest.” For those with strong palates, no ration limits applied to sheep’s head, or to eels caught in local reservoirs, or to roast cormorant, a stringy substitute for poultry.

More than fifty thousand British civilians had died in German air raids since 1940, including many in the resurgent “Baby Blitz” begun in January 1944 and just now petering out. Luftwaffe spotter planes illuminated their targets with clusters of parachute flares, bathing buildings and low clouds in rusty light before the bombs fell. A diarist on May 10 noted “the great steady swords of searchlights” probing for enemy aircraft as flak fragments spattered across rooftops like hailstones. Even the Wimbledon tennis club had been assaulted in a recent raid that pitted center court; a groundskeeper patched the shredded nets with string. Tens of thousands sheltered at night in the Tube, and the cots standing in tiers along the platforms of seventy-nine designated stations were so fetid that the sculptor Henry Moore likened wartime life in these underground rookeries to “the hold of a slave ship.” It was said that some young children—perhaps those also unacquainted with lemon—had never spent a night in their own beds.

Even during these short summer nights, the mandatory blackout, which in London in mid-May lasted from 10:30 p.m. to 5:22 p.m., was so intense that one writer found the city “profoundly dark, like a mental condition.” Darkness also cloaked an end-of-days concupiscence, fueled by some 3.5 million soldiers now crammed into a country smaller than Oregon. Hyde and Green Parks at dusk were said by a Canadian soldier to resemble “a vast battlefield of sex.” A chaplain reported that GIs and streetwalkers often copulated standing up after wrapping themselves in a trench coat, a position known as “Marble Arch style.” “Piccadilly Circus is a madhouse after dark,” an American lieutenant wrote his mother, “and a man can’t walk without being attacked by dozens of women.” Prostitutes—“Piccadilly Commandos”—sidled up to men in the blackout and felt for their rank insignia on shoulders and sleeves before tendering a price: ten shillings (two dollars) for enlisted men, a pound for officers. Or so it was said.

Proud Britain soldiered on, a bastion of civilization even amid war’s indignities. A hurdy-gurdy outside the Cumberland Hotel played “You Would Not Dare Insult Me, Sir, If Jack Were Only Here,” as large crowds in Oxford Street sang along with gusto. London’s West End cinemas this month screened For Whom the Bell Tolls, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, and Destination Tokyo, with Cary Grant. Theater patrons could see John Gielgud play Hamlet, or Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now in its third year at the Duchess. At Ascot on Sunday, May 14, thousands pedaled their bicycles to the track to watch Kingsway, “a colt of the first class,” gallop past Merchant Navy and Gone. Apropos of the current cold snap, the Royal Geographical Society sponsored a lecture on “the formation of ice in lakes and rivers.”

Yet nothing brightened the drab wartime landscape more than the brilliant uniforms now seen in every pub and on every street corner, the exotic military plumage of Norwegians and Indians, Belgians and Czechs, Yorkshiremen and Welshmen and more Yanks than lived in all of Nebraska. One observer in London described the panoply:

French sailors with their red pompoms and striped shirts, Dutch police in black uniforms and grey-silver braid, the dragoon-like mortar boards of Polish officers, the smart grey of nursing units from Canada, the cerise berets and sky-blue trimmings of the new parachute regiments . . . gaily colored field caps of all the other regiments, the scarlet linings of our own nurses’ cloaks, the electric blue of Dominion air forces, sand bush hats and lion-colored turbans, the prevalent Royal Air Force blue, a few greenish-tinted Russian uniforms.

Savile Row tailors offered specialists for every article of a bespoke uniform, from tunic to trousers, and the well-heeled officer could still buy an English military raincoat at Burberry or a silver pocket flask at Dunhill. Even soldiers recently arrived from the Mediterranean theater added a poignant splash of color, thanks to the antimalaria pills that turned their skin a pumpkin hue.

Nowhere were the uniforms more impressive on Monday morning, May 15, than along Hammersmith Road in west London. Here the greatest Anglo-American military conclave of World War II gathered on the war’s 1,720th day to rehearse the death blow intended to destroy Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Admirals, generals, field marshals, logisticians, and staff wizards by the score climbed from their limousines and marched into a Gothic building of red brick and terra-cotta, where American military policemen—known as Snowdrops for their white helmets, pistol belts, leggings, and gloves—scrutinized the 146 engraved invitations and security passes distributed a month earlier. Then six uniformed ushers escorted the guests, later described as “big men with the air of fame about them,” into the Model Room, a cold and crepuscular auditorium with black columns and hard, narrow benches reputedly designed to keep young schoolboys awake. The students of St. Paul’s School had long been evacuated to rural Berkshire—German bombs had shattered seven hundred windows across the school’s campus—but many ghosts lingered in this tabernacle of upper-class England: exalted Old Paulines included the poet John Milton; the astronomer Edmond Halley; the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, who supposedly learned the rudiments of military strategy from a school library book; and the diarist Samuel Pepys, who played hooky to watch the beheading of Charles I in 1649.

Top secret charts and maps now lined the Model Room. Since January, the school had served as headquarters for the British 21st Army Group, and here the detailed planning for Operation overlord, the Allied invasion of France, had gelled. As more senior officers found their benches in rows B through J, some spread blankets across their laps or cinched their greatcoats against the chill. Row A, fourteen armchairs arranged elbow to elbow, was reserved for the highest of the mighty, and now these men began to take their seats. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, dressed in a black frock coat and wielding his usual Havana cigar, entered with the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Neither cheers nor applause greeted them, but the assembly stood as one when King George VI strolled down the aisle to sit on Eisenhower’s right. Churchill bowed to his monarch, then resumed puffing his cigar.

As they waited to begin at the stroke of ten p.m., these big men with their air of eminence had reason to rejoice in their joint victories and to hope for greater victories still to come. Nearly all the senior commanders had served together in the Mediterranean—they called themselves “Mediterraneanites”—and they shared Eisenhower’s sentiment that “the Mediterranean theater will always be in my blood.” There they had indeed been blooded, beginning with the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, when Anglo-American forces had swept aside feeble Vichy French defenders, then pivoted east through the wintry Atlas Mountains into Tunisia. Joined by the British Eighth Army, which had pushed west from Egypt after a signal victory at El Alamein, together they battled German and Italian legions for five months before a quarter million Axis prisoners surrendered in mid-May 1943.

The Anglo-Americans pounced on Sicily two months later, overrunning the island in six weeks before invading the Italian mainland in early September. The Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini collapsed, and the new government in Rome renounced the Axis Pact of Steel to make common cause with the Allies. But a death struggle at Salerno, south of Naples, foreshadowed another awful winter campaign as Allied troops struggled up the Italian boot for two hundred miles in one sanguinary brawl after another with entrenched, recalcitrant Germans at places like San Pietro, Ortona, the Rapido River, Cassino, and Anzio. Led by Eisenhower, many of the Mediterraneanites had left for England in mid-campaign to begin planning overlord, and they could only hope that the spring offensive—launched on May 11 and code-named diadem—would break the stalemate along the Gustav Line in central Italy and carry the long-suffering Allied ranks into Rome and beyond.

Elsewhere in this global conflagration, Allied ascendancy in 1944 gave confidence of eventual victory, although no one doubted that future battles would be even more horrific than those now finished. Command of the seas had been largely secured by Allied navies and air forces. A double American thrust across the central and southwest Pacific had steadily reversed Japanese gains; with the Gilbert and Marshall Islands recouped, summer would bring assaults on the Marianas—Saipan, Tinian, Guam—as the American lines of advance converged on the Philippines, and captured airfields provided bases for the new long-range B-29 Superfortress to bomb Japan’s home islands. A successful Japanese offensive in China had been offset by a failed thrust from Burma across the Indian border into southern Assam. With most of the U.S. Navy committed to the Pacific, along with almost one-quarter of the Army’s divisions and all six Marine Corps divisions, the collapse of Tokyo’s vast empire had begun.

The collapse of Berlin’s vast empire in eastern Europe was well advanced. Germany had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 with more than 3 million men, but by the beginning of 1944, German casualties exceeded 3.5 million even as Soviet losses quadrupled that figure. The tide had turned, red in all senses, and Soviet campaigns to recapture the Crimea, the western Ukraine, and the territory between Leningrad and Estonia chewed up German strength. The Third Reich now had 193 divisions on the Eastern Front and in southeastern Europe, compared to 28 in Italy, 18 in Norway and Denmark, and 59 in France and the Low Countries. Nearly two-thirds of German combat strength remained tied up in the east, although the Wehrmacht still mustered almost two thousand tanks and other armored vehicles in northwestern Europe. Yet the Reich was ever more vulnerable to air assault: Allied planes flying from Britain in May 1944 would drop seventy thousand tons of high explosives on Axis targets, more than four times the monthly tonnage of a year earlier. Though they paid a staggering cost in airplanes and aircrews, the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Forces had won mastery of the European skies. At last, after wresting air and naval superiority from the Germans, the Allies could make a plausible case for a successful invasion of the Continent by the ground forces currently gathering in England.

In 1941, when Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union first formed their grand alliance against the Axis, “the only plan was to persevere,” as Churchill put it. Perseverance had brought them to this brink: a chance to close with the enemy and destroy him in his European citadel, four years after Germany overran France and the Low Countries. The Americans had long advocated confronting the main German armies as soon as possible, a muscle-bound pugnacity decried as “iron-mongering” by British strategists, whose preference for reducing the enemy gradually by attacking the Axis periphery had led to eighteen months of Mediterranean fighting. Now, as the great hour approached, the arena would shift north, and the British and Americans would monger iron together.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: at ten p.m. that Monday, Eisenhower rose to greet the 145 comrades who would lead the assault on Fortress Europe. Behind him in the cockpit of the Model Room lay an immense plaster relief map of the Normandy coast where the river Seine spilled into the Atlantic. Thirty feet wide and set on a tilted platform visible from the back benches, this apparition depicted, in bright colors and on a scale of six inches to the mile, the rivers, villages, beaches, and uplands of what would become the world’s most famous battlefield. A brigadier wearing skid-proof socks and armed with a pointer stood at port arms, ready to indicate locales soon to achieve household notoriety: Cherbourg, St.-Lô, Caen, Omaha Beach.

With only a hint of the famous grin, Eisenhower spoke briefly, a man “at peace with his soul,” in the estimate of an American admiral. He hailed king and comrades alike “on the eve of a great battle,” welcoming them to the final vetting of an invasion blueprint two years in the making. A week earlier he had chosen June 5 as D-Day. “I consider it to be the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in the plan not to hesitate to say so,” Eisenhower said, his voice booming. “I have no sympathy with anyone, whatever his station, who will not brook criticism. We are here to get the best possible results.” The supreme commander would remain preoccupied for some weeks with the sea and air demands of overlord, as well as with sundry political distractions, so he had delegated the planning and conduct of this titanic land battle in Normandy to the soldier who would now review his battle scheme.

A wiry, elfin figure in immaculate battle dress and padded shoes popped to his feet, pointer in hand. The narrow vulpine face was among the empire’s most recognizable, a visage to be gawked at in Claridge’s or huzzahed on the Strand. But before General Bernard L. Montgomery could utter a syllable, a sharp rap sounded. The rap grew bolder; a Snowdrop flung open the Model Room door, and in swaggered Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., a ruddy, truculent American Mars, newly outfitted by those Savile Row artisans in bespoke overcoat, bespoke trousers, and bespoke boots. Never reluctant to stage an entrance, Patton had swept through London in a huge black Packard, bedizened with three-star insignia and sporting dual Greyhound bus horns. Ignoring Montgomery’s scowl, he found his bench in the second row and sat down, eager to take part in a war he condemned, without conviction, as “goddamned son-of-bitchery.” “It is quite pleasant to be famous,” Patton had written his wife, Beatrice. “Probably bad for the soul.”

With a curt swish of his pointer, Montgomery stepped to the great floor map. He had just returned from a hiking and fishing holiday in the Highlands, sleeping each night on his personal train, the Rapier, then angling for salmon in the Spey without catching a single fish. Even so, he was said by one admirer to be “as sharpened and as ready for combat as a pointed flint.” Like Milton and Marlborough, he had been schooled here at St. Paul’s, albeit without distinction other than as a soccer and rugby player, and without ascending above the rank of private in the cadet corps. Every morning for four years he had come to this hall to hear prayers in Latin; his office now occupied the High Master’s suite, to which he claimed never to have been invited as a boy.

Glancing at his notes—twenty brief items, written in his tidy cursive on unlined stationery—Montgomery began in his reedy voice, each syllable as sharply creased as his trousers. “There are four armies under my command,” he said, two comprising the assault force into Normandy and two more to follow in exploiting the beachhead.

We must blast our way on shore and get a good lodgement before the enemy can bring sufficient reserves to turn us out. Armored columns must penetrate deep inland, and quickly, on D-Day. This will upset the enemy plans and tend to hold him off while we build up strength. We must gain space rapidly, and peg out claims well inland.

The Bay of the Seine, which lay within range of almost two hundred fighter airfields in England, had been designated as the invasion site more than a year earlier for both its flat, sandy beaches and its proximity to Cherbourg, a critical port needed to supply the invading hordes. True, the Pas de Calais coastline was closer, but it had been deemed “strategically unsound” because the small beaches there were not only exposed to Channel storms but also had become the most heavily defended strands in France. Planners under the capable British lieutenant general Frederick E. Morgan scrutinized other possible landing sites from Brittany to Holland and found them wanting. Secret missions to inspect the overlord beaches, launched from tiny submarines during the dark of the moon in what the Royal Navy called “impudent reconnaissance,” dispelled anxieties about quicksand bogs and other perils. As proof, commandos brought back Norman sand samples in buckets, test tubes, and Durex condoms.

Upon returning from Italy five months earlier, Montgomery had widened the overlord assault zone from the twenty-five miles proposed in an earlier plan to fifty miles. Instead of three seaborne divisions, five would lead the assault—two American divisions in the west, two British and one Canadian in the east—preceded seven hours earlier by three airborne divisions to secure the beachhead flanks and help the mechanized forces thrust inland. This grander overlord required 230 additional support ships and landing vessels such as the big LSTs—“landing ship, tank”—that had proved invaluable during the assaults at Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. Assembling that larger fleet had in turn meant postponing the Normandy invasion from May until early June, and delaying indefinitely an invasion of southern France originally scheduled to occur at the same moment.

As he unfolded his plan, Montgomery meandered across the plaster beaches and the tiny Norman villages, head bowed, eyes darting, hands clasped behind his back except when he pinched his left cheek in a characteristic gesture of contemplation, or when he stressed a particular point with a flat stroke of his palm. Often he repeated himself for emphasis, voice rising in the second iteration. He was, one staff officer observed, “essentially didactic by temperament and liked a captive audience.” No audience had ever been more rapt, the officers perched on those unforgiving benches, bundled in their blankets and craning their necks. Only Churchill interrupted with mutterings about too many vehicles in the invasion brigades at the expense of too few cutthroat foot soldiers. And was it true, he subsequently demanded, that the great force would include two thousand clerks to keep records?

Montgomery pressed ahead. Hitler’s so-called Atlantic Wall now fell under the command of an old adversary, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. German divisions in western Europe had nearly doubled since October, from thirty-seven to almost sixty, one reason that Montgomery had insisted on a heftier invasion force. He continued:

Last February, Rommel took command from Holland to the Loire. It is now clear that his intention is to deny any penetration. overlord is to be defeated on the beaches. . . . Rommel is an energetic and determined commander. He has made a world of difference since he took over. He is best at the spoiling attack; his forte is disruption. . . . He will do his level best to “Dunkirk” us—not to fight the armored battle on ground of his own choosing, but to avoid it altogether by preventing our tanks landing, by using his own tanks well forward.

Some officers in SHAEF—Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force—believed that German resistance might collapse from internal weaknesses, with the result that overlordwould quickly become an occupation force. Montgomery disagreed, and he ticked off the expected enemy counterpunch. Five German divisions, including the 21st Panzer Division, would oppose the invaders on D-Day; by dusk, two other panzer divisions could join the fight, reinforced by two more at the end of D+1, the second day of the invasion, for a total of nine German divisions battling eight Allied divisions ashore. “After a sea voyage and a landing on a strange coast, there is always some loss of cohesion,” Montgomery said, swatting away the understatement with his palm. A death struggle to amass combat power would determine the battle: overlord’s plan called for Allied reinforcements to land at the rate of one and one-third divisions each day, but a bit more than a week into the fight, two dozen German divisions could well try to fling eighteen Allied divisions back into the sea.

Montgomery envisioned a battle beyond the beaches in which the British and Canadian Second Army on the left grappled with the main force of German defenders, while the American First Army on the right invested Cherbourg. Three weeks or so after the initial landings, Patton’s Third Army would thunder into France, swing through Brittany to capture more ports, and then wheel to the river Seine around D+90, three months into the operation. Paris likely would be liberated in mid-fall, giving the Allies a lodgement between the Seine and the river Loire to stage for the fateful drive on Germany.

Precisely how that titanic final battle would unfold was difficult to predict even for the clairvoyants at SHAEF. The Combined Chiefs of Staff—Eisenhower’s superiors in Washington and London, whom he privately called the Charlie-Charlies—had instructed him to aim northeast from Normandy toward the Ruhr valley, the German industrial heartland. SHAEF believed that loss of the Ruhr “would be fatal to Germany”; thus, an assault directed there would set up a decisive battle of annihilation by forcing the enemy to defend the region. Eisenhower also favored an Allied thrust toward the Saar valley, a subsidiary industrial zone farther south; as he had cabled the War Department in early May, a two-pronged attack “would oblige the enemy to extend his forces.” To agglomerate power for that ultimate war-winning drive into central Germany, some forty-five Allied divisions and eleven major supply depots would marshal along a front south of Antwerp through Belgium and eastern France by D+270, or roughly early March 1945.

But that lay in the distant future; the immediate task required reaching the far shore. If overlord succeeded, the Normandy assault would dwindle to a mere episode in the larger saga of Europe’s liberation. If overlord failed, the entire Allied enterprise faced abject collapse. It must begin with “an ugly piece of water called the Channel,” as the official U.S. Army history would describe it. Known to Ptolemy as Oceanus Britannicus and to sixteenth-century Dutch cartographers as the Engelse Kanaal, this watery sleeve—only twenty-one miles wide at its narrowest—had first been crossed by balloon in 1785, by passenger paddle steamer in 1821, and by swimmer in 1875. Yet for nearly a thousand years invading armies facing a hostile shore across the English Channel had found more grief than glory. “The only solution,” one British planner had quipped, “is to tow the beaches over already assaulted.” The U.S. War Department had even pondered tunneling beneath the seabed: a detailed study deemed the project “feasible,” requiring one year and 15,000 men to excavate 55,000 tons of spoil. Wiser heads questioned “the strategic and functional” complexities, such as the inconvenience of the entire German Seventh Army waiting for the first tunneler to emerge. The study was shelved.

Montgomery closed with his twentieth and final point, eyes aglint. “We shall have to send the soldiers in to this party seeing red,” he declared. “Nothing must stop them. If we send them in to battle this way, then we shall succeed.” The bravado reminded Churchill’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hastings Ismay, of the eve of Agincourt as depicted in Henry V: “He which hath no stomach to this fight, / Let him depart.”

None departed. In quick succession other senior commanders laid out the naval plan for the invasion; the air plans in both the battle zone and across the Reich; the logistics plan; and the civil affairs scheme for governing Normandy. Staff officers scurried about after each presentation, unfurling new maps and swapping out charts. At 1:30 p.m. the assembly broke for lunch in the St. Paul’s mess. Patton sat across from Churchill, who asked if he remembered their last meeting in the Mediterranean. When Patton nodded, the prime minister ordered him a tumbler of whiskey to commemorate their reunion. Of Patton a comrade noted, “He gives the impression of a man biding his time.” In fact, he had revealed his anxiety in a recent note to his wife: “I fear the war will be over before I get loose, but who can say? Fate and the hand of God still run most shows.”

At 2:30 the warlords reconvened in the Model Room for more briefings, more charts, more striding across the painted Norman terrain, this time by the commanders who would oversee the landings, including the senior tactical U.S. Army officer in overlord, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley. Then they were done. Eisenhower stood for a few words of thanks, noting that Hitler had “missed his one and only chance of destroying with a single well-aimed bomb the entire high command of the Allied forces.” Churchill gave a brief valedictory, grasping his coat lapels in both hands. “Let us not expect all to go according to plan. Flexibility of mind will be one of the decisive factors,” he said. “Risks must be taken.” He bade them all Godspeed. “I am hardening on this enterprise. I repeat, I am now hardening toward this enterprise.”

Never would they be more unified, never more resolved. They came to their feet, shoulders squared, tramping from the hall to the limousines waiting on Hammersmith Road to carry them to command posts across England. Ahead lay the most prodigious undertaking in the history of warfare.

Shortly after six p.m., Eisenhower sped southwest through London in his chauffeured Cadillac, drawing deeply on a cigarette. In these fraught times he often smoked eighty Camels a day, aggravating the throat and respiratory infections that plagued him all spring. He also suffered from high blood pressure, headaches, and ringing in one ear; he had even begun placing hot compresses on his inflamed eyes. “Ike looks worn and tired,” his naval aide, Commander Harry C. Butcher, noted in mid-May. “The strain is telling on him. He looks older now than at any time since I have been with him.” The supreme commander was fifty-three.

As the drear suburbs rolled past, the prime minister’s final confession at St. Paul’s gnawed at Eisenhower. I am now hardening toward this enterprise. The tentative commitment and implicit doubt seemed vexing, although Churchill had never concealed either his reluctance to risk calamity in a cross-Channel attack or his dismay at the cautionary experience of Anzio, where four months after that invasion a large Anglo-American force remained bottled up and shelled daily in a pinched beachhead. Yet for overlord the die was cast, spelled out in a thirty-word order to Eisenhower from the Charlie-Charlies: “You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other united nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” Now was the time, as Eisenhower put it, for “ramming our feet in the stirrups.”

For years he had pondered just how to successfully enter the continent of Europe—first as a War Department planner, next as the senior American soldier in London in the spring and summer of 1942, then as the general superintending those other invasions in North Africa, Sicily, and mainland Italy, and now as SHAEF commander. No one knew the risks better. No one was more keenly aware that three times the Germans had nearly driven Allied landings back into the sea—on Sicily, at Salerno, and at Anzio.

Planners had even coined an acronym for the task at hand: PINWE, “Problems of the Invasion of Northwest Europe.” Many PINWE issues had been aired at St. Paul’s, but countless others required resolution. Some were petty—“folderol,” Eisenhower said—yet still demanded the supreme commander’s attention: for instance, a recent complaint from the U.S. Army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, that motion picture coverage of the invasion could unfairly favor the British under a proposed “Joint Anglo-American Film Planning Commission.” Of greater weight on the long PINWE list: a plan code-named circon that ordered military and civilian police to arrest hundreds of absent-without-leave troops wandering across Britain. Also: a “fog dispeller,” inspected by Eisenhower personally, that blew flames into the air to burn off mist from British airstrips, though it required sixty thousand gallons of gasoline an hour. Also: military replacements for civilian workers hired to assemble military gliders, which were critical to the invasion plan. The civilians had so botched the job that fifty-one of the first sixty-two gliders were deemed “unflyable”; another hundred, improperly lashed down, had been badly damaged by high winds.

For every PINWE item resolved, another arose. At Oxford, officers now studied Norman town construction to determine “what parts would burn best,” a knowledge useful in dispensing scarce firefighting equipment. Intelligence officers were compiling a list of eighteen “leading German military personalities now in France [and] particularly ripe for assassination,” Rommel among them. Given the stout security protecting such eminences, a top secret SHAEF edict instead gave priority to disrupting enemy transportation networks through the “liquidation of senior German civilian railway officials.” A suitable target list, with addresses and phone numbers, would be smuggled to Resistance groups, with instructions “to concentrate on this particular class of person.”

As the invasion drew nearer, anxieties multiplied. One intelligence source warned that German pilots planned to drop thousands of rats infected with bubonic plague on English cities; Allied authorities now offered a bounty on rat carcasses to test for signs of infection. Another agent, in France, claimed that German scientists were producing botulinum toxin in a converted Norman sugar-beet plant, as part of a biological warfare plot. An officer recently sent to London by General Marshall informed Eisenhower of both the top secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb and of new fears that Germany could use “radioactive poisons” against overlord. SHAEF consequently stockpiled Geiger counters in London; earlier in May, military doctors were told to report “photographic or X-ray film fogged or blackened without apparent cause” and to watch for “an epidemic disease . . . of unknown etiology,” with symptoms that included nausea and a sharp drop in white blood cell counts.

Perhaps less far-fetched were concerns that Hitler might use poison gas when Allied troops were most vulnerable: in embarkation ports or on the Normandy beaches. Although a SHAEF consensus held that “Germany is unlikely to begin chemical warfare,” never far from mind was the grim experience of World War I, when the warring powers—beginning with a German chlorine attack at Ypres in April 1915—used more than two dozen kinds of gas to inflict more than a million casualties.

Fifteen hundred British civilians had been trained in decontamination procedures. The United States alone stockpiled 160,000 tons of chemical munitions for potential use in Europe and the Mediterranean. A secret SHAEF plan, to be enacted only with Eisenhower’s approval, called for retaliatory air strikes by Allied planes that would drop phosgene and mustard gas bombs. One target list, described as “involving risk to civilians,” included telephone exchanges from St.-Lô to Le Mans, as well as fortified French villages used as German garrisons and rail junctions at Versailles, Avranches, and elsewhere. A second list, intended to minimize civilian casualties, targeted half a dozen German headquarters and many bridges across northwest Europe. Storage bunkers at two British airfields now held a thousand mustard bombs and five hundred more filled with phosgene.

“Everybody gets more and more on edge,” Eisenhower had recently written a friend in Washington. “A sense of humor and a great faith, or else a complete lack of imagination, are essential to the project.” He could only ram his feet deeper into the stirrups.

Thirty minutes after leaving St. Paul’s, the supreme commander’s Cadillac eased past a sentry box and through a gate in the ten-foot stone wall girdling Bushy Park, an ancient royal preserve tucked into a Thames oxbow. Majestic chestnut trees swept toward nearby Hampton Court Palace in a landscape designed by Christopher Wren, with rule-Britannia charms that included the Deer Pen, the Pheasantry, and Leg-of-Mutton Pond. An entire camouflage battalion ministered to this site with garnished nets and green paint, but the shabby, tin-roof hutments on brick piers and a warren of slit-trench air raid shelters proved difficult to hide. Code-named widewing, the compound served as SHAEF’s central headquarters.

Here hundreds of staff officers, including countless colonels wearing World War I service ribbons and described by one observer as “fat, gray, and oldish,” puzzled over PINWE issues great and small. Plastic window sheeting, cracked linoleum, and potbelly stoves proved no match for the river-bottom damp; most officers wore long underwear and double socks. A general officers’ mess in Block C provided amenities to major generals and above. For others, French language classes at a nearby night school offered hope for a better day in a warmer clime.

Eisenhower’s office, designated C-1 and guarded by more Snowdrops, featured a fireplace, a pair of leather easy chairs on a brown carpet, and a walnut desk with framed photos of his mother, his wife, Mamie, and his son, John. His four-star flag stood against one wall, along with a Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. Visitors sometimes found him putting an imaginary golf ball across the floor, but now he sat in his swivel chair at the desk. A brimming in-basket and the maroon leather logbook of cables and intelligence digests occupied him into the evening as the furrows deepened on his brow and the mound of butts grew higher in the ashtray.

Vernal twilight lingered in the west when at last he let himself be driven down Kingston Road to a slate-roofed five-room Tudor bungalow. The ten-acre property came with a bomb shelter near the front gate, where a one-armed Great War veteran stood vigil. This, Telegraph Cottage, was the only place in the United Kingdom where Ike Eisenhower could relax, slipping on the straw sandals he had worn as a young officer in Manila under Douglas MacArthur. Here he played bridge and badminton, or thumbed through his Abilene High School yearbook, class of 1909. In nearby Richmond Park, amid purple rhododendrons and the cuckoo’s cry, he occasionally rode horseback with Kay Summersby, his beautiful Irish driver and correspondence clerk. Such outings fueled so much salacious gossip about them that she sardonically referred to herself as “a Bad Woman.” In the cottage this evening a stack of cowboy pulp novels awaited Eisenhower; stories of gunslinging desperadoes entranced him, he told Summersby, because “I don’t have to think.”

But how hard not to think, particularly in the late hours after a very long day. “How many youngsters are gone forever,” Eisenhower had written Mamie in April. “A man must develop a veneer of callousness.” British Empire casualties in the war now exceeded half a million; the sixteen divisions to be committed under Montgomery, including Canadians and Poles, amounted to Churchill’s last troop reserves. British casualty forecasts, calculated under a formula known as Evetts’ Rates, projected three levels of combat: Quiet, Normal, and Intense. But the anticipated carnage in Normandy had led planners to add a new level: Double Intense. According to a British study, enemy fire sweeping a two hundred-by-four hundred-yard swatch of beach for two minutes would inflict casualties above 40 percent on an assault battalion, a bloodletting comparable to the Somme in 1916.

American casualties, projected with an elaborate formula called Love’s Tables, would likely reach 12 percent of the assault force on D-Day, or higher if gas warfare erupted. The 1st Infantry Division, the point of the spear on Omaha Beach, estimated that under “maximum” conditions, casualties would reach 25 percent, of whom almost a third would be killed, captured, or missing. The admiral commanding bombardment forces at Utah Beach told his captains that “we might expect to lose one-third to one-half of our ships.” Projected U.S. combat drownings in June, exclusive of paratroopers, had been calculated at a grimly precise 16,726. To track the dead, wounded, and missing, the casualty section under SHAEF’s adjutant general would grow to three hundred strong; so complex were the calculations that an early incarnation of the computer, using punch cards, would be put to the task.

Recent exercises and rehearsals hardly gave Eisenhower cause for optimism. Since January, in coves and firths around Britain, troops were decanted into the shallows, “hopping about trying to keep our more vulnerable parts out of the water,” one captain explained. A British officer named Evelyn Waugh later wrote, “Sometimes they stood on the beach and biffed imaginary defenders into the hills; sometimes they biffed imaginary invaders from the hills into the sea. . . . Sometimes they merely collided with imaginary rivals for the use of the main road and biffed them out of the way.” Too often, in exercises with names like duck, otter, and mallard, the biffing proved clumsy and inept. “Exercise beaver was a disappointment to all who participated,” a secret assessment noted. “The navy and the army and the airborne all got confused.” When 529 paratroopers in 28 planes returned to their airfields without jumping during one rehearsal, courts-martial were threatened for “misbehavior in the presence of the enemy,” even though the enemy had yet to be met.

The imaginary biffing turned all too real in Exercise tiger on April 28. Through a “series of mistakes and misunderstandings,” as investigators later concluded, troop convoy T-4 was left virtually unprotected as it steamed toward Slapton Sands on the south coast of Devon, chosen for its resemblance to Normandy. At two p.m., nine German E-boats eluded a British escort twelve miles offshore and torpedoed three U.S. Navy LSTs with such violence that sailors on undamaged vessels nearby believed they had been hit. Fire “spread instantly from stem to stern,” a witness reported. Two ships sank, one in seven minutes, disproving latrine scuttlebutt that torpedoes would pass beneath a shallow-draft LST.

Survivors on rafts sang “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” at first light, but sunrise belied that too. Hundreds of corpses in GI battle gear drifted on the tide until salvage crews with boat hooks could hoist them from the sea. Forty trucks hauled the dead to a cemetery near London, where all twenty-three licensed British embalmers—their practice was not widespread in the United Kingdom—agreed to help prepare the bodies for burial behind a tarpaulin curtain in a cedar grove. Drowned men continued to wash ashore for weeks; the final death toll approached seven hundred, and divers searched the wrecks until they could confirm the deaths of a dozen missing officers deemed “bigoted,” which meant they had been privy to overlord’s top secret destination. For now the Slapton Sands calamity also remained secret.

Eisenhower grieved for the lost men, and no less for the lost LSTs: his reserve of the vital transports now stood at zero. “Not a restful thought,” he wrote Marshall.

The supreme commander often quoted Napoléon’s definition of a military genius as “the man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” Less than eighteen months earlier, even before the debacle at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, Eisenhower had expected to be relieved of command, perhaps even reduced to his permanent rank of lieutenant colonel. Equanimity had helped preserve him then and since. Growing in stature and confidence, he had become the indispensable man, so renowned that a Hollywood agent had recently offered $150,000 for the rights to his life (plus $7,500 each to Mamie, his mother, and his in-laws). “He has a generous and lovable character,” Montgomery would tell his diary before the invasion, “and I would trust him to the last gasp.” Other comrades considered him clubbable, articulate, and profoundly fair; his senior naval subordinate, Admiral Sir Bertram H. Ramsay, asserted simply, “He is a very great man.” Franklin D. Roosevelt had chosen him to command overlord as “the best politician among the military men. He is a natural leader who can convince other men to follow him.”

Yet he had not convinced everyone that he was a Great Captain, a commander with the ability to see the field both spatially and temporally, intuiting the enemy’s intent and subordinating all resistance to an iron will. Montgomery, whose sense of personal infallibility and ambivalence toward Eisenhower’s generalship would only intensify, offered private complaints as well as praise: “When it comes to war, Ike doesn’t know the difference between Christmas and Easter.” And on the same evening that Eisenhower thumbed absently through his pulp westerns at Telegraph Cottage, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, confided to his diary an assessment of the supreme commander’s role at St. Paul’s:

No real director of thought, plans, energy or direction! Just a coordinator—a good mixer, a champion of inter-allied cooperation, and in those respects few can hold a candle to him. But is that enough? Or can we not find all the qualities of a commander in one man?

Eisenhower sensed such doubts, and perhaps harbored a few himself. In his own diary he lamented the depiction of him in British newspapers as an administrator rather than a battlefield commander. “They dislike to believe that I had anything particularly to do with campaigns. They don’t use the words ‘initiative’ and ‘boldness’ in talking of me,” he wrote. “It wearies me to be thought of as timid, when I’ve had to do things that were so risky as to be almost crazy. Oh, hum.”

He needed sleep. Tomorrow would be hectic, beginning with morning meetings at Bushy Park; later he would decamp for another inspection trip aboard Bayonet, the armored rail coach he used for extended journeys. (Two adjoining boxcars, known as Monsters, carried five sedans, two jeeps, and a small arsenal of tommy and Bren guns, while the dining car could seat thirty-two.) By the end of the month he intended to visit more than two dozen divisions, a like number of airfields, and countless warships, depots, and hospitals. With luck, he would encounter another soldier from Kansas—such meetings always made him smile.

He had indeed taken risks, crazy risks, but more lay dead ahead. Eisenhower was neither philosopher nor military theorist. But he believed that too few commanders grappled with what he called “subjects that touch the human soul—aspirations, ideals, inner beliefs, affection, hatreds.” On such broken ground during the coming weeks and months his captaincy and his cause would be assayed. For more than any other human enterprise, war revealed the mettle of men’s souls.

By the tens of thousands, souls in olive drab continued to pour into Britain. Since January the number of GIs had doubled, to 1.5 million, a far cry from the first paltry tranche of four thousand in early 1942. Of the U.S. Army’s eighty-nine divisions, twenty now could be found in the United Kingdom, with thirty-seven more either en route or earmarked for the European theater. Through Liverpool they arrived, and through Swansea, Cardiff, Belfast, Avonmouth, Newport. But most came into Glasgow and adjacent Greenock, more than 100,000 in April alone, 15,000 at a time on the two Queens—Elizabeth and Mary—each of which could haul an entire division and outrun German U-boats to make the crossing from New York in five days.

Down the gangplanks they tromped, names checked from a clipboard, each soldier wearing his helmet, his field jacket, and a large celluloid button color-coded by the section of the ship to which he had been confined during the passage. Troops carried four blankets apiece to save cargo space, while deluded officers could be seen lugging folding chairs, pillowcases, and tennis rackets. A brass band and Highland pipers greeted them on the dock; Scottish children raised their arms in a V for Victory. Combat pilots who had fulfilled their mission quotas, and were waiting to board ship for the return voyage, bellowed, “Go back before it’s too late!” or “What’s your wife’s telephone number?” Each arriving unit was listed in a master log called the Iron Book, and another manifest, the Forecast of Destination, showed where every company would bivouac, momentarily, in Britain. As the men fell four abreast into columns and marched from the dock to nearby troop trains, no one needed a forecast to know that they were headed for trouble.

“You are something there are millions of,” the poet Randall Jarrell had written without exaggeration. Just over eight million men had been inducted into the U.S. Army and Navy during the past two years—eleven thousand every day. The average GI was twenty-six, born the year that the war to end all wars ended, but manpower demands in this global struggle meant the force was growing younger: henceforth nearly half of all American troops arriving to fight in Europe in 1944 would be teenagers. One in three GIs had only a grade school education, one in four held a high school diploma, and slightly more than one in ten had attended college for at least a semester. War Department Pamphlet 21-13 would assure them that they were “the world’s best paid soldiers.” A private earned $50 a month, a staff sergeant $96. Any valiant GI awarded the Medal of Honor would receive an extra $2 each month.

The typical soldier stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed 144 pounds, but physical standards had been lowered to accept defects that once would have kept many young men out of uniform. A man with 20/400 vision could now be conscripted if his sight was correctable to at least 20/40 in one eye; toward that end, the armed forces would make 2.3 million pairs of eyeglasses for the troops. The old jest that the Army no longer examined eyes but instead just counted them had come true. A man could be drafted if he had only one eye, or was completely deaf in one ear, or had lost both external ears, or was missing a thumb or three fingers on either hand, including a trigger finger. Earlier in the war, a draftee had had to possess at least twelve of his original thirty-two teeth, but now he could be utterly toothless. After all, the government had drafted a third of all the civilian dentists in the United States; collectively they would extract 15 million teeth, fill 68 million more, and make 2.5 million sets of dentures, enabling each GI to meet the minimum requirement of “masticating the Army ration.”

A revision of mental and personality standards also was under way. In April 1944, the War Department decreed that inductees need have only a “reasonable chance” of adjusting to military life, although psychiatric examiners were advised to watch for two dozen “personality deviations,” including silly laughter, sulkiness, resentfulness of discipline, and other traits that would seemingly disqualify every teenager in the United States. In addition, the Army began drafting “moderate” obsessive-compulsives, as well as stutterers. Men with malignant tumors, leprosy, or certifiable psychosis still were deemed “nonacceptable,” but by early 1944, twelve thousand venereal disease patients, most of them syphilitic, were inducted each month and rendered fit for service with a new miracle drug called penicillin.

But what of their souls? What of those ideals and inner beliefs that intrigued Eisenhower? Few professed to be warriors, or even natural soldiers. Most were “amateurs whose approach to soldiering was aggressively temporary,” one officer observed. An April survey in Britain polled enlisted men about what they would ask Eisenhower if given the chance; at least half wanted to know what even the supreme commander could not tell them: When can we go home? A paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division wrote, “I never will get used to having some other person do my thinking for me. All of these months and I am still a civilian at heart.” And thus would he die, a few months hence, in Holland.

Skepticism and irony, those twin lenses of modern consciousness, helped to parse military life. A GI who saw As You Like It at Stratford-on-Avon pasted a quotation from Act II into his scrapbook—“Sweet are the uses of adversity, / Which, like the toad . . . / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head”—along with an annotation: “Sums up my attitude to the Army.” Soldier slang, always revealing, grew richer and more profane by the week. “SOL” meant “shit out of luck”; the U.S. military had become “Sam’s circus”; infantrymen were simply “feet”; and “SFA”—borrowed from the Australians—stood for “sweet fuck-all.” The amphibious force was the “ambiguous farce.” As one officer wrote, “If it’s not ironic, it’s not war.” Most tried to keep their cynicism in check. “I expected the Army to be corrupt, inefficient, cruel, wasteful, and it turned out to be all those things, just like all armies, only much less so than I thought before I got into it,” wrote a Signal Corps soldier and novelist named Irwin Shaw. Another novelist-soldier, Vernon Scannell, found that among those who had fought in North Africa or Sicily, “a kind of wild hilarity would explode in the ranks of the veterans . . . so irrational as to verge on madness.”

“War is all foreground when you’re in it,” the fighter pilot Samuel Hynes observed. Even soldiers who sensed that “history grew near and large,” in the phrase of the glider infantryman and poet Louis Simpson, would undoubtedly share Simpson’s feeling that “no more than a hod-carrying Egyptian slave do I see the pyramids of which my bricks will be part.” Few voiced enthusiasm for yet another American intervention in northwestern Europe—“that quarrelsome continent,” as one GI called it in a letter home. A recent Army survey in Britain found that more than one-third of all troops doubted at times whether the war was worth fighting, a figure that had doubled since July 1943 but would rise no higher.

Certainly they believed in one another. Camaraderie offered a bulwark against what Scannell called “this drab khaki world” with its “boredom, cold, exhaustion, squalor, lack of privacy, monotony, ugliness and a constant teasing anxiety about the future.” Like those at Kasserine and Cassino—or, for that matter, at Gettysburg and the Meuse-Argonne—they would risk all to be considered worthy of their comrades. A Japanese-American soldier who had fought in Italy and would fight again in France told his brother, “I have been greatly affected by the forces of love, hate, prejudice, death, life, destruction, reconstruction, treachery, bravery, comradeship, kindness, and by the unseen powers of God.” Here indeed was the stuff of the soul.

And so four by four by four they boarded those troop trains on the docks to be hauled to 1,200 camps and 133 airfields across the British Isles. “This country reminds one constantly of Thomas Hardy,” an overeducated lieutenant wrote his mother, but in truth it was a land of white swans and country folk who bicycled to ancient churches “in the old steady manner and unsmilingly touched their caps,” as the journalist Eric Sevareid reported. Prayers tacked to parish doors in 1940 still pleaded, “Save our beloved land from invasion, O God,” but no longer did the Home Guard expect to battle the Hun at Dover with decrepit rifles or with the pikes issued to those without firearms. Even some road signs, removed early in the war to confound enemy parachutists, had been put back after complaints that lost American truck drivers were using too much gasoline.

Nearly 400,000 prefabricated huts and 279,000 tents had been erected to accommodate the Yank horde, supplementing 112,000 borrowed British buildings and 20 million square feet of storage space. GIs called this new world “Spamland,” but the prevailing odor came from burning feces in U.S. Army School of Hygiene coal-fired incinerators. Despite improving logistics, confusion and error abounded: the American juggernaut included 23 million tons of matériel, most of it carried across the Atlantic in cargo ships that arrived days if not months after the troops on their fast Queens. Truck drivers were separated from their trucks, drummers from their drums, chaplains from their chalices. Thousands of items arrived with indecipherable bills of lading or without shipping addresses other than GLUE (the code for southern England), or BANG (Northern Ireland), or UGLY(unknown). The Ministry of Transport allocated 120 berths for U.S. Army ships in May, but an extra 38 had arrived. Despite negotiations that reached the White House and Whitehall, almost half the cargo from these orphan vessels eventually was dumped outside various ports—including five thousand tons of peanuts and fifty thousand portable radios—and was subsequently lost “due to exposure to weather.” Wags asserted that the Army was cutting red tape, lengthwise.

No alliance in the war proved more vital or enduring than that of the English-speaking peoples, but this vast American encampment strained the fraternal bond. “You may think of them as enemy Redcoats,” each arriving GI was advised in a War Department brochure, “but there is no time today to fight old wars over again or bring up old grievances.” Detailed glossaries translated English into English: chemist/druggist, geyser/hot water heater, tyre/tire. Disparities in pay caused resentment; a GI private earned triple what his Tommy counterpart drew, and the American staff sergeant’s $96 was equivalent to a British captain’s monthly salary. The Army tried to blur the difference by paying GIs twice a month. But British penury was as obvious as the pubs that required patrons to bring their own beer glasses, or the soap shortage that caused GIs to call unwashed Britain Goatland, or the fact that British quartermasters stocked only 18 shoe sizes compared to 105 provided by the U.S. Army. American authorities urged tolerance and gratitude. “It is always impolite to criticize your hosts,” A Short Guide to Great Britain advised. “It is militarily stupid to insult your allies.” Not least important, British producers stocked the American larder and supply depot with 240 million pounds of potatoes, 1,000 cake pans, 2.4 million tent pegs, 15 million condoms, 260,000 grave markers, 80 million packets of cookies, and 54 million gallons of beer.

The British displayed forbearance despite surveys revealing that less than half viewed the Americans favorably. “They irritate me beyond words,” one housewife complained. “Loud, bombastic, bragging, self-righteous, morals of the barnyard, hypocrites.” Meet the Americans, a manual published in London, included chapters titled “Drink, Sex and Swearing” and “Are They Our Cousins?” An essay written for the British Army by the anthropologist Margaret Mead sought to explain “Why Americans Seem Childish.” George Orwell groused in a newspaper column that “Britain is now Occupied Territory.”

Occasional bad behavior reinforced the stereotype of boorish Yanks. GIs near Newcastle ate the royal swans at the king’s summer palace, Thomas Hardy be damned. Paratroopers from the 101st Airborne used grenades to fish in a private pond, and bored soldiers sometimes set haystacks ablaze with tracer bullets. Despite War Department assurances that “men who refrain from sexual acts are frequently stronger, owing to their conservation of energy,” so many GIs impregnated British women that the U.S. government agreed to give local courts jurisdiction in “bastardy proceedings”; child support was fixed at £1 per week until the little Anglo-American turned thirteen, and 5 to 20 shillings weekly for teenagers. Road signs cautioned, “To all GIs: please drive carefully, that child may be yours.”

Both on the battlefield and in the rear, the transatlantic relationship would remain, in one British general’s description, “a delicate hothouse growth that must be carefully tended lest it wither away.” Nothing less than Western civilization depended on it. As American soldiers by the boatload continued to swarm into their Spamland camps, a British major spoke for many of his countrymen: “They were the chaps that mattered. . . . We couldn’t possibly win the war without them.”

The loading of invasion vessels bound for the Far Shore had begun on May 4 and intensified as the month wore away. Seven thousand kinds of combat necessities had to reach the Norman beaches in the first four hours, from surgical scissors to bazooka rockets, followed by tens of thousands of tons in the days following. Responsibility for embarkation fell to three military bureaucracies with acronyms evocative of the Marx Brothers: movco, turco, and embarco. Merchant marine captains sequestered in a London basement near Selfridges department store prepared loading plans with the blueprints of deck and cargo spaces spread on huge tables; wooden blocks scaled to every jeep, howitzer, and shipping container were pushed around like chess pieces to ensure a fit. Soldiers in their camps laid out full-sized deck replicas on the ground and practiced wheeling trucks and guns in and out.

In twenty-two British ports, stevedores slung pallets and cargo nets into holds and onto decks, loading radios from Pennsylvania, grease from Texas, rifles from Massachusetts. For overlord, the U.S. Army had accumulated 301,000 vehicles, 1,800 train locomotives, 20,000 rail cars, 2.6 million small arms, 2,700 artillery pieces, 300,000 telephone poles, and 7 million tons of gasoline, oil, and lubricants. shaef had calculated daily combat consumption, from fuel to bullets to chewing gum, at 41.298 pounds per soldier. Sixty million K rations, enough to feed the invaders for a month, were packed in 500-ton bales. Huge U.S. Army railcars known as war flats hauled tanks and bulldozers to the docks, while mountains of ammunition were stacked on car ferries requisitioned from Boston, New York, and Baltimore. The photographer Robert Capa, who would land with the second wave at Omaha Beach, watched as the “giant toys” were hoisted aboard. “Everything looked like a new secret weapon,” he wrote, “especially from a distance.”

Armed guards from ten cartography depots escorted 3,000 tons of maps for D-Day alone, the first of 210 million maps that would be distributed in Europe, most of them printed in five colors. Also into the holds went 280,000 hydrographic charts; town plats for the likes of Cherbourg and St.-Lô; many of the one million aerial photos of German defenses, snapped from reconnaissance planes flying at twenty-five feet; and watercolors depicting the view that landing-craft coxswains would have of their beaches. Copies of a French atlas pinpointed monuments and cultural treasures, with an attached order from Eisenhower calling for “restraint and discipline” in wreaking havoc. The U.S. Fi Rick Atkinson is the bestselling author of An Army at Dawn (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history), The Day of Battle, The Long Gray Line, In the Company of Soldiers, and Crusade. His many other awards include a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, the George Polk award, and the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award. A former staff writer and senior editor at The Washington Post, he lives in Washington, D.C.