General Eisenhower meets paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division in Newbury, England, prior to their boarding for the invasion, June 5, 1944. (U.S. Army)
ACCOUNTABILITY WITHOUT CAVEATS
On July 11, 1944, Dwight Eisenhower’s naval aide, Capt. Harry Butcher, asked his boss, supreme commander of Allied Forces Europe, if he could keep the note that Ike had carried in his wallet on D-Day. Operation Overlord was the mightiest amphibious military operation in history, and a turning point of World War II. Eisenhower was uncomfortable about relinquishing the short statement, and he did not understand why Butcher wanted it. Ike had written such a note, he told the captain, for every major military operation for which he had responsibility.
Our landings in Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone. July 5.
Ike thought so little of the historical significance of his simple “in case of failure” communiqué that when Butcher asked him to date it, he wrote “July 5,” thinking only of the current month—rather than June 5 when Allied forces were poised to storm the Normandy coast.1
This unused communiqué is often thought of today as a symbol of Ike’s leadership—the willingness to take full and complete responsibility for his decisions—even though one of the most important variables, in this case the weather, was out of his control. It is correct that Eisenhower would have released the statement had the invasion forces been thrown back into the sea; but they weren’t and Ike wanted to keep the note private. As he had told Butcher in 1942, when his naval aide began his duties as the headquarters diarist, there should be no effort to apply PR spin to things. “We are not operating or writing for the record,” Ike had told him. “[We are here] to win the war.”2
Eisenhower wrote such “communiqués” as much for himself as for any kind of public release, should the worst happen. He was not trying to burnish his reputation in writing it; he was reminding himself, and if necessary others, that he alone was responsible for the outcome of the mission. It was a personal and public form of accountability.3
* * *
Much has been written about D-Day and the vast undertaking aimed at the heart of Nazi German power. It is worth remembering that the Germans saw this endeavor as the existential moment of the war. The German High Command knew full well that the outcome of the war rested on making sure the Allies failed in any amphibious assault—for behind any successful beachhead lay the nearly unlimited military and industrial resources of the United States.
Before the fateful assault known as Operation Overlord, or D-Day as we call it, General Eisenhower was called upon to make an array of difficult decisions. Many of them would be life-or-death calls; all would have a lasting impact on the continent of Europe and across the United States.
In addition to the frightening uncertainties of the Normandy weather in launching any attack, General Eisenhower had to make a number of consequential calls, from the role of tactical and strategic bombing and their likely targets, to the resolution of various issues related to Allied squabbling and doubts about the mission.
Ike later wrote in his diary that on June 6:
There was no universal confidence in a completely successful outcome. Indeed, most people thought that even should we, in some two or three years eventually win, we would pay a ghastly price in battling our way toward Germany.… Some newspapers went so far as to predict 90 percent losses on the beaches themselves. Even Winston Churchill, normally a fairly optimistic individual, never hesitated to voice his forebodings about the venture.4
The assault on Normandy from across the English Channel, and the subsequent battles for France and Western Europe, were complex operations in which military strategy fused with geopolitical considerations. Since 1942, the Americans, most notably Gen. George C. Marshall—chief of staff of the army—argued for this direct approach. Eisenhower, too, favored it. The British, however, with the Dunkirk evacuation and the failed Dieppe raid still fresh in their minds, were skeptical, if not downright hostile to the idea.
There were a number of strategic considerations on both sides. But perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for mounting a direct assault, sooner rather than later, had rested on our eastern ally, the Soviet Union, and its attitude to the opening of a second front. The upper echelons of decision makers in the American war effort argued that there was a danger that the Soviet Union might make a separate peace with Hitler, not unlike World War I when the Russians withdrew from their alliance with Britain and the United States, to significant effect. No doubt this was a key factor when President Franklin Roosevelt promised Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that the Allies would open a second front that would include the Normandy landings and Operation Anvil, an invasion of southern France that would augment D-Day and post-D-Day forces. In return Stalin agreed to open an offensive on the eastern front, in support of our assault, to assure that the Germans could not relocate their forces to the West.
It was not until the Tehran Conference in December 1943 that a full commitment was made to cross the English Channel and storm the French coastline. By this stage of the war some of the most significant battles of the European theater had already been fought on the eastern front, in Kursk, in Moscow, and in Stalingrad. The pressure was now on the Western Allies to move quickly to secure Western Europe, in conjunction with the Soviet advances in the East, in a chokehold movement that would bring the end of Nazi power.
Many things were at stake. The survival of the Jewish people, the necessity to bring an end to Germany’s increasing use of advanced weaponry on Great Britain, including the V1 and V2 rockets, and the urgent necessity to halt Germany’s research and development of an atomic bomb. Before end-of-the-war political decisions were made, there were also legitimate concerns, especially in London, about potential Soviet advances into Western Europe.
Within weeks of the Tehran Conference, at the insistence of Marshal Joseph Stalin, the Western Allies named a supreme Allied commander of the Normandy campaign. While many had assumed that Gen. George C. Marshall would take on this crucial role, President Roosevelt requested that Marshall stay in Washington at his side, and he appointed General Eisenhower instead.
Up to this point Eisenhower had commanded forces in North Africa and also in Sicily, and he had weighed in on the Normandy concept. In 1943, while still in Africa, Brig. Gen. William E. Chambers of the Combined Chiefs of Staff (COSSAC) brought a copy of the Normandy invasion plan to Eisenhower for his opinion—as he was the only Allied general who had already launched large-scale amphibious operations. On reading the document, Ike told Chambers that in his view the attack on a three-division front was fatally weak. “Were this my operation,” he said, “I would insist on broadening it to a five-division front with two divisions in floating reserve.” Ike had no idea that this mission would later become his own.5
Chambers returned to London and reported on Eisenhower’s critique to Gen. Frederick E. Morgan, the plan’s author. The Combined Chiefs rejected Eisenhower’s suggestions and adhered to the original plan because of troop and sea-lift limitations.
Not long after Christmas 1943, Eisenhower—now appointed supreme commander—was sent back to Washington by General Marshall to have a few days’ rest and to attend meetings before returning to London. Ike was understandably concerned that time had been lost with regard to enlarging the plan.
* * *
The strategic decision to land in Normandy, rather than somewhere else along the French coast, was not in contention. Considerable analysis had already been undertaken to determine the best place to strike. Among a number of factors, Normandy was chosen because it was in some ways an illogical place to land, thus enhancing the chance for a surprise attack. Pas de Calais, farther east along the coast, was actually considerably closer to Great Britain, thus requiring a shorter time for naval vessels to cross the Channel. Normandy may have also been seen by the Germans to be a less likely place for the assault since there was no port along that coast, an asset vital for the arrival of men and supplies. Little could Berlin imagine that the Allies would bring with them their own artificial ports, called Mulberries.
There were many complicated considerations for selecting the actual landing sites, such as the texture of the sand, the topography, the German defenses, including deeply embedded bunkers and mines, and Hitler and the German High Command’s perception of where the Allies were likely to attack.
With the invasion beaches identified and agreed to, Eisenhower remained adamant that the weakness of the Allied forces envisioned in the plan threatened their success in meeting Allied objectives—the city of Caen for the British and Canadians, and Cherbourg, a major port, for the Americans. Time was short, however, and Eisenhower’s proposed change in plan would basically double the force, requiring further surveys, more mapping, a new logistical plan, and the acquisition of additional shipping, probably from the Far East.
Before leaving for Washington, Eisenhower sought and received British general Bernard Law Montgomery’s endorsement of his revised plan, and in London “Monty” and American general Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, argued for these revisions: “You will be right in telling them [the Combined Chiefs] I will not yield on this matter,” Eisenhower told the two generals.6
Monty and Smith called upon Prime Minister Winston Churchill and made Eisenhower’s case. But even by the time Ike had returned from Washington for the final invasion preparations, this crucial question was still unresolved. According to army historian Gen. S. L. A. Marshall, “Eisenhower stood firm” on the necessity for a revised plan, “and the opposition had either to yield or to relieve him. Of the yielding came the addition of the Utah Beach operation and the two-division U.S. airborne strike inland from it, which together proved decisive.”7
American forces were to land on Utah Beach, establish a beachhead, then pivot north and proceed up the Cotentin Peninsula to capture Cherbourg. To facilitate that landing, American paratroopers would drop behind Utah Beach and secure the single-lane causeways that crossed marshland, now lakes that had been flooded by the Germans as part of their coastal defenses. If the paratroopers were unable to secure these causeways, the Utah Beach segment of the operation would be in trouble. In that case the troops landing on Utah Beach would be unable to move inland, thus jeopardizing other oncoming troops who would land on the beaches in synchronized groups every half hour.
The success of Operation Overlord depended on establishing a solid beachhead. Eisenhower outlined the objectives of each of his services. Airpower would be deployed to curtail and wear away the Luftwaffe, the German Reich’s air force, and bomb vital transportation depots and rail lines to assure that the Germans could not use them to reinforce their positions. The naval plan was to provide for minesweeping, bombardment of the coast, and protection against submarine forces.8
The logistical plan depended on the capture of the port of Cherbourg, but also on the utilization of glider forces that would deliver men and equipment, along with the artificial Mulberries to be assembled at Arromanches and Omaha Beach. The plan was comprehensive; every detail had been considered and worked out.
Eventually Eisenhower and his generals won the argument with COSSAC to enlarge the force, but time was running out until the most advantageous landing dates arrived. The invasion required a full moon, relatively calm seas, and skies clear enough to assure that the aircraft could find their targets. The assault had to occur in partial light because the Germans had reinforced mines and other obstacles along the beach.
Despite preparations, jurisdictional matters continued to be hard-fought battles. Some of the disagreements revolved around key strategic elements of the plan, such as the critical shortages of troop landing craft. To amass enough for the expanded plan, Eisenhower had to “beg, borrow, and steal” from other operations and military theaters. This critical shortage was the reason for a monthlong delay of the assault.
Another concern was the so-called Transportation Plan—an effort to redirect strategic bombing away from industrial targets in Germany to transportation and depot targets in France. Eisenhower and his deputy commander, British air marshal Arthur Tedder, were insistent that the Transportation Plan was necessary if the Allies were to stop a German counterattack after the landings. Since the strategic bombing forces were resistant to taking orders from an overall supreme commander, the issue was whether or not Eisenhower would be given full control over all the forces. Military tradition, culture, and national pride were the sticking points. Eisenhower, exercising what S. L. A. Marshall described as “clear vision and tough-mindedness,” finally prevailed by issuing the order to proceed with the Transportation Plan over the persistent reservations of the British War Council. Eisenhower’s order stood.9
* * *
On May 15, a month later, and less than three weeks before the invasion date, Eisenhower’s SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) held a conference at Saint Paul’s School in London to brief the British chiefs of staff and the War Cabinet on D-Day preparations. This was the highest-ranking group of attendees at any briefing of the war to date. It offered the opportunity to iron out any last-minute details or difficulties, and that day both Churchill and King George VI spoke.
What struck the Americans, Eisenhower later wrote, was that Churchill, while giving a rousing speech, said, “‘Gentlemen, I am hardening toward this enterprise,’ meaning to us that, though he had long doubted its feasibility and had previously advocated its further postponement in favor of operations elsewhere, he had finally, at this late date, come to believe with the rest of us that this was the true course of action in order to achieve the victory.”10
All matters seemed to be set for the deployment of this vast armada, scheduled for June 5. And Eisenhower thought that the last remaining issue he would have to deal with was making the decision on the actual date and hour of the assault. This would be dependent on lunar windows and, of course, the weather forecast for the few vital days necessary for establishing a beachhead.
Two weeks later, on May 29—and a week before D-Day was actually launched—Eisenhower’s commander in charge of airborne forces, Britain’s air chief marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, approached Eisenhower about the paratroopers and glider units, which would land with troops, equipment, and supplies. Leigh-Mallory had been concerned about this element of the operation for some time, but now he put it more bluntly. He strongly recommended that the airborne operation, specifically behind Omaha and Utah Beaches, be abandoned. He argued that the drop zones were unsuitable and that the airborne troops would meet heavy resistance, as intelligence had noted that the Germans were reinforcing the area where the 82nd Airborne would be dropping; similar concerns entailed the 101st Airborne, which were to link up forces behind Omaha and Utah Beaches.
Leigh-Mallory warned that given these hazards, the result of dropping the airborne units would be a “futile slaughter” of these young Americans. He predicted the loss of at least 70 percent of the glider forces and 50 percent of the paratroopers, leaving the few surviving men without tactical power and no capacity to affect the outcome of the invasion.
Eisenhower took Leigh-Mallory’s recommendation very seriously. The British air chief marshal was commander of airborne operations, his technical expert, and the person whom he had empowered with the planning of this phase of operations. Eisenhower believed in the importance of delegation and the requirements of assembling a team on which he could count. Leigh-Mallory was one such person. Ike described him as a man “noted for his personal courage” as well as his “frankness” and “sincerity.”11
Nevertheless, “It would be difficult to conceive a more soul-racking problem,” Eisenhower later wrote. “If my technical expert was correct, then the planned operation was worse than stubborn folly, because even at the enormous cost predicted we could not gain the principle object of the drop … this meant that the whole operation suddenly acquired a degree of risk, even foolhardiness, that presaged a gigantic failure, possibly Allied defeat in Europe.”12
Eisenhower asked Leigh-Mallory to put his recommendation in writing to “protect” him in case he, Eisenhower, disregarded his advice. In those days generals were being fired left and right for errors of judgment, and if Eisenhower decided to use the airborne troops anyway and Leigh-Mallory was correct, then he did not want the air chief marshal to be blamed for the fiasco since there would be no written record of his warning.
Ike told Leigh-Mallory that he needed two hours to assess his recommendation and that he would write him with his final decision. He retreated in solitude to his trailer.
Once there, Eisenhower ran through each argument to assess the implications, one way or the other. He reminded himself that if Leigh-Mallory was right, and he went ahead with the drop, he would likely carry to his grave “the unbearable burden of a conscience justly accusing me of the stupid, blind sacrifice of thousands” of men. Aside from this personal burden, Ike recalled, given the critical importance of GI morale, the effect of such a disaster would ripple through the entire invasion force.13
After a thorough assessment of each of the factors, Eisenhower concluded that if he cancelled the airborne operation then he would have to cancel the Utah Beach segment. Without taking such a step he would condemn the troops landing on Utah Beach to a greater catastrophe than the predictions for the airborne troops.
“In long and calm consideration of the whole great scheme we had agreed that the Utah Beach attack was an essential factor in prospects for success,” Eisenhower later reflected.
The supreme commander could do nothing, he thought, but trust that the two years of careful planning and the insistence he had placed on greater forces and resources would carry the day. He reminded himself that Leigh-Mallory’s assessment was just an estimate. Some of his other senior generals, especially generals Omar Bradley and Matthew Ridgway, expressed considerably more confidence in the outcome of these operations than did the British officer. Still, Eisenhower faced, in effect, a deadlock among the high echelons of his command.
A few hours later Eisenhower telephoned Leigh-Mallory and told him that the airborne operation would proceed as planned and that he would confirm it in writing.
May 30, 1944
To Trafford Leigh-Mallory
Copyright © 2020 by Susan Eisenhower