In 1944, Dwight Eisenhower launched history’s biggest military operation against Nazi Germany. He had planned exhaustively for every contigency, right down to the details, to throw the Germans off-balance and create a foothold in Europe. But all his planning was headed for failure because a new, impersonal, unexpected enemy had arrived. Now he had to shift his plans and gamble everything on a slim window of opportunity.
General Walter Bedell Smith, Ike’s chief of staff, described the situation in the first of a sic-installment series entitled, “Eisenhower’s Six Great Decisions.” The whole outcome of the war might rest on his first great decision, which was “forced on the Supreme Commander not by the action of the enemy, but by the weather.”
This was the irrevocable order, issued shortly after 0400 hours on June 5, 1944, to launch the invasion of Normandy during a twenty-four-hour break in the worst June weather the always un- certain English Channel had churned up in twenty years. We were at Portsmouth, where an Advanced Command Post bad been set up overlooking the harbor. Everything the planners could do to insure the success of the gigantic undertaking bad been completed. The troops were in the armada’s 5000 ships, ready to converge on Normandy from every port in England. Weather could wreck the expedition, and already the assult had been postponed a day because of the Channel gale.
No commander bas ever faced a more formidable decision than General Eisenbower at that dawn meeting of his commanders in chief and meteorologists. With the wind blowing rain against the window, it was one man’s responsibility to weigh all the factors and decide—twenty-four hours before H Hour on the beaches—whether he would give the order to go.
The Supreme Commander made the rounds of assaulting divisions and noted with satisfaction that the troops seemed bard and eager. The soft English spring moved toward June in a succession of beautiful days and long twilights which deepened into perfect nights. If the weather held, the Supreme Commander’s decision would be a routine confirmation of June fifth as D day.
It was comforting to remember that General Eisenhower was not only a great commander but a lucky one. Everyone had said so since North Africa, when the calmest seas in the oldest inhabitant’s memory bore our first invasion shoreward. His reputation had been confirmed off Sicily, when a sudden storm lashed the invasion fleet on its crossing and then miraculously died in time for H hour.
But as May wore out, June dawned dark and stormy with a gale over the Channel. Up at Shipmate—code name of the Advanced Command Post on the bluff—we shivered in our tents and trailers. The meteorologists in their Nissen huts near Admiral Ramsay’s headquarters worked desperately, searching the fronts for clearer skies. They were not only trying to predict the weather, they were trying to make it. Commanders’ meetings at Southwick House were charged with worry. The sober fact was that the worst June storm in twenty years was whipping the Channel.
By 1000 hours on June third, it was evident that the weather was worsening, not improving. The meterologists confirmed it. Periodically that day we listened to their forecasts, but they could promise no immediate change. There could be no invasion on June fifth—the ideal day. At a special commanders’ meeting at 0200 on June fourth. General Eisenhower accepted the certainty of delay. After discussing the matter gravely with his commanders, he issued orders to postpone the operation for at least twenty-four hours.
The timetable required slower elements of the fleet to be in motion well before the major force was launched. Some were already under way. Because radio silence was imperative for the security of our plans, destroyers were dispatched to round them up. That afternoon the Supreme Commander sent me down to the harbor to see the men who came back to Portsmouth. It was heartbreaking to watch their faces. The eagerness had gone out of them, now that the edge of their expectation was dulled. I have never seen more unhappy soldiers.
There was no promise of a break in the weather that evening. With all their alchemy, the weather wizards could not lift the blanket of cloud that hung over our heads and our spirits. We drove back through the blackout after the ten o’clock meeting June fourth with dull realization that if we could not go on June sixth, we should almost certainly have to postpone our assault for another two weeks, the earliest date when the tide would again be right. Although June seventh would still have met our conditions if the weather cleared, some of the ships which had come down from northern ports would have insufficient fuel to carry through the assault phase if it were postponed…
It was still drizzling outside the trailer when I got up to attend the meeting set for 0400 on the morning of June fifth… All the commanders were there when General Eisenhower arrived, trim in his tailored battle jacket, his face tense with the gravity of the decision which lay before him. Field Marshal Montgomery wore his inevitable baggy corduroy trousers and sweat shirt. Admiral Ramsay and his Chief of Staff were Immaculate in navy blue and gold.
The meteorologists were brought in at once. There was the ghost of a smile on the tired face of the tall Scot. “I think we have found a gleam of hope for you, sir,” he said to General Eisenhower, and we all listened expectantly.
“The mass of weather fronts coming in from the Atlantic is moving faster than we anticipated,” the chief meteorolgist continued. “We predict there will be rather fair conditions beginning late on June fifth and lasting until the next morning, June sixth, with a drop in wind velocity and some break in the clouds. Ceiling—about three thousand.”
But toward evening of June sixth, his charts showed, there would be a recurrence of bad weather, with high winds and rough seas. It was impossible for the experts to predict how much longer the bad weather would last. They were giving us about twenty-four hours of reasonable weather. That was all.
General Eisenhower inquired how many hours he could count on for the attack and just when bad weather would resume. The morning will be fair,” the Scot said. “Good weather may last through the afternoon.”
All the questions had been asked, and then there was silence. No one broke it, and I suppose all the men were thinking, as I was, that postponement now meant two week’s delay. It meant an almost insoluble problem of what to do with the thousands of troops in the ships. I remembered their dejected faces. It was impossible to keep them closed in for two weeks, yet to let them out of the beach areas would almost certainly convey information to the Germans about our attack. There was the problem of the press correspondents, too— almost 100 scattered through the invasion force. The very fact that they filed no dispatches for two weeks would arouse suspicion. Finally, there would be the reaction of our Russian Ally, whose great eastern offensive was to be co-cordinated with our assault.
The silence lasted for five full minutes while General Eisenhower sat on a sofa before the bookcase which filled the end of the room. I never realized before, the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his judgment alone. He sat there quietly, not getting up to pace with quick strides, as he often does. He was tense, weighing every consideration of weather as he had been briefed to do during the dry runs since April, and weighing with them those other imponderables.
Finally he looked up, and the tension was gone from his face. He said briskly, ‘Well, we’ll go!”
Eisenhower didn’t make the decision lightly. He was never blinded by the self-assurance and hubris that has spelled the ruin of many military commanders. As proof, we have this public statement, which an aide later found in Eisenhower’s pocket, written in case the invasion was turned back.
‘Our landings in the 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.’