D-Day and General Eisenhower’s Greatest Decision

Generals don’t usually see off the troops. It’s not like Mom and Dad saying goodbye to Johnny at camp or college.

But there Ike was. At the airfield on the eve of D-Day, chatting up some of his soldiers.

He was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe on the eve of the invasion of France to drive Hitler and his German army out of France and the other occupied countries, back to Germany and unconditional surrender. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who dealt daily with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and France’s General Charles de Gaulle, was talking with men of the 101st Airborne Division, some of them with their faces already blackened for the night mission.

The paratroopers were about to board planes that would drop them over occupied France in the dead of night, hours before the D-Day landings on the beaches. And Ike was there to see them off.

Chatting. Asking questions. Seeing if there was anyone there from Kansas, his home state.

Later, as the planes lifted off, his driver saw tears in Ike’s eyes.

I know why.

And why he surprised everyone, including his aides, when he came out of his office as the minutes ticked down to D-Day saying he wanted to go out to the airfield and see the boys off.

He hoped desperately they would come back.

He was gambling they might not.

It was the greatest decision he had to make during the war. Not his decision to go on June 6 — after canceling the planned June 5 landings due to bad weather — but the one I heard him publicly reveal for the first time. It was to a group of 165 high school and college newspaper editors and photographers gathered in the ballroom of the Drake Hotel in Chicago on Saturday morning, January 18, 1947.

He had agreed to meet with the student press club sponsored by the Chicago Daily News, which, as a staff member at the newspaper, I had proposed, organized, and directed when I started writing a column for students in the Greater Chicago area the previous year. After introducing Ike, I took my place at a table at the front of the ballroom, facing the rows of students, as Ike stood at the end of the center aisle, hands clasped behind his back, military style.

He fielded questions on a variety of subjects, including the fact he’d originally planned to go to Annapolis, but then discovered he was over the age limit. He switched to West Point. Questions ranged from other aspects of his personal life and career to world affairs.

As President Harry S. Truman had done the year before, he doubled the allotted time scheduled. But as he closed in on an hour, he said he would take three more questions. The last one:

“General Eisenhower, what was the greatest decision you had to make during the war?”

He turned and started to pace three feet in front of me. A slow, measured step that matched the measured words as he spelled out the situation for the students.

From the earliest stages of planning, it was deemed vital to have a port that would enable the Allies to bring in the massive reinforcements needed, from tanks and trucks to artillery pieces and machine guns, not to mention men. That port would be Cherbourg, which led to selection of the landing points on the coast — five beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. And then the obvious:

“To ensure the success of the Allied landings in Normandy,” he said, “it was imperative that we prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. All roads and rail lines leading to the areas of fighting on and around the beaches had to be cut or blocked. If reinforcements were allowed to reach the areas of fighting there, in our first, precarious attempts to get a foothold on the continent, the whole operation could be jeopardized. The landings might fail.”

A factor in the planning: the countryside beyond the beaches in some places was not the usual meadows and fields, but bogs — low, swampy areas that the Germans would flood. The few causeways that traversed the area between the beaches and the inland area were the only means of getting from the beaches to the mainland. Or vice versa.

To seize key roads and crossroads, paratroopers would be dropped inland in the early morning hours of D-Day. Enter the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

But just days before, on May 30, a high-ranking, trusted aide came to Ike, asking him to call off the airborne landings. I learned later when I read his book, Crusade in Europe, the aide was British Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. He had been assigned to the Allied Forces with the title of Allied Expeditionary Air Force Commander in Chief, which made him the air commander of the invasion. He apologized for being so late with his concern. But he’d been going over it, and over it, and he felt the casualties would be too great.

“Casualties to glider troops would be 90 percent before they ever reached the ground. The killed and wounded among the paratroops would be 75 percent.”  Or 13,000 of the 18,000 men. Not only unconscionably high, but so high the mission would be doomed.

Ike thanked him for bringing his concern to him, said he would consider it. He had a few days to think about it, but then the time came to decide. And as Ike reached this point in his account of events, his step slowed ever so slightly, as if the weight of the decision settled over him again. As he put it in his book, “It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-wracking problem.”

He reviewed the planning process for the invasion that had begun months before. The mission had been reviewed countless times as Allied officers and their aides went over every aspect of the massive invasion. Hundreds of planes on airfields ready to take off for their respective missions. More hundreds of troopships, landing craft, tanks, trucks, machine-guns.  Some 5,000 ships, the largest armada ever assembled.  A military operation with myriad moving parts.

As Ike weighed Leigh-Mallory’s request, he kept coming back to the fact that the mission had been reviewed countless times. And, as he put it, “The success of the landings on the beaches might well turn on the success of the paratroopers behind the lines.”

What Ike also made clear that Saturday morning in Chicago was that he couldn’t let the boys land on the beaches without having done everything he could to keep the Germans from bringing up reinforcements.

Still pacing, almost thinking out loud, he said it: “I couldn’t permit that, either.”

Step slowing to a stop, he turned to face the students. “I let the order stand.”

Silence.

Then, a little less somber: “The airborne boys did their job. And, I am happy to say, the casualties were only 8 percent.”

With that, and an exchange of formalities, he was gone.

It was the following year, the Fall of 1948, that I learned how surprised his aides were when, on the eve of D-Day, as the tension mounted with each sweep of the second hand around the clock, Ike came out of his office and said he wanted to see the boys off.

His driver, a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) Captain in the U.S. Army mentioned this when she met with the student editors. And so Kay Summersby drove Ike out to see them off. “We covered three separate airfields before night fell,” she said. She also said he ordered the unit commanders to order each group to break ranks and forget about military formalities.

By chance some years later, I met a woman who had been a Red Cross worker in England during the war, and was one of those at the airfield passing out coffee and doughnuts to the boys when Ike drove up. She handed him a cup of coffee, then noticed his hand was shaking so badly she was afraid the hot coffee would spill over and burn him. Gently, she eased the cup out of his hand.

Stephen E. Ambrose reported the mingling and chatting with the 101st Airborne paratroopers — Ike at one point asking if anyone was from Kansas — in his book D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle Of World War II. He concluded his segment on Ike’s visit with the lift-off:

The planes started their engines. A giant cacophony of sound engulfed the airfield as each C-47 in its turn lurched into line on the taxi strip. At the head of the runway, the pilots locked the brakes and ran up the engines until they screamed. Then, at ten-second intervals, they released the brakes and started down the runway, slowly at first, gathering speed, so overloaded that they barely made it into the sky.

When the last plane roared off, Eisenhower turned to his driver, Kay Summersby. She saw tears in his eyes. He began to walk slowly toward his car. “Well,” he said quietly, “it’s on.”

Five years after Ike stood mere feet from me, answering the student editor’s question, I was watching the noon news on the TV set in my living room. Another Saturday. The Republican National Convention had wrapped the night before with Ike’s speech to the delegates accepting the Republican nomination for President of the United States. To my surprise, the studio announcer broke into the news coverage to report Ike had surprised everyone by leaving his suite at the Blackstone Hotel.

He’d gone down to the street, turned the corner, and started walking up South Michigan Avenue, with an ever growing flotilla of media. He went into the Congress Hotel and headed straight to the ballroom, where there was a luncheon in progress: A reunion of men of the 82nd Airborne Division.

When they saw him, they were on their feet. Cheering. Clapping. Whistling. Smiling as broadly as he was. No longer in military uniform, the soon to be 34th President of the United States, had dropped in on his boys once again.

He moved to the dais and stopped behind the podium, the famed Eisenhower grin as wide as I ever saw it. A TV camera zoomed in until Ike’s face filled the TV screen.

And I saw the tears start down his cheek.

Featured image: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses paratroopers before they board their planes for Europe on D-Day. (Library of Congress)

This Is It! The Dawn of D-Day

All over the south of England, on the night of June 5, 1944, people awoke and went outside to listen. They had become used to noisy nights. The noise had changed through the past four years, from the distinctive beat of German bombers and the din of air raids, to the sound of British bombers outward bound at dusk and homeward bound at dawn. But people who heard the noise on the fifth of June remember it as different from anything that had ever been heard before. As they listened that night, with increasing excitement and pride, they knew that the greatest fleet of aircraft they had ever heard — the greatest fleet that anyone had ever heard — was passing overhead from north to south.

Some exclaimed, “This is it!” Many heard the sound with such deep emotion that they did not try to speak. It was the invasion, as everybody knew or guessed; and the invasion, if it succeeded, would redeem the defeat of Dunkirk and justify the British refusal to admit defeat. It would be a reward for the four years’ grinding labor by which they had dragged themselves up from the depths of 1940 to a state of national strength. And if it succeeded, it would mean the beginning of the end of the sorrow, boredom, pain, and frustration in which they had lived so long. People could not bring themselves to imagine what would happen if it failed. They went to sleep that night, if they slept at all, knowing the day would bring news of a battle which would influence all their lives forevermore.

The next morning, the main news in the papers and on the radio was still of the fall of Rome, which had been announced the day before. Nothing was said of events nearer home. But just after 9:00, the bare announcement came: “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the coast of France.” Within a few minutes, this news was repeated all round the world.

[In the longer excerpt in our special publication D‑Day (see page 61), the author here details the months of concentrated planning and preparation invested in the Allied invasion of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord. With a fleet of 5,333 ships and 9,210 aircraft — the largest assembled anywhere — mobilized and in place, the success of the operation depended on an element no military commander could control: the weather.]

Absolutely everything was organized except the weather. For a landing on Monday, the fifth of June, some naval units had to sail on Friday the second. These included the heavy ships for the bombardment, which were starting from Scotland and Northern Ireland. The movement of men and materials out of the camps and into landing craft and transports also had to start on that day.

It would still be possible on the third to postpone everything for 24 hours, but by dawn on the fourth, the leading ships would have gone too far to be recalled. Weather, which was reasonably calm and clear, was regarded as absolutely essential for the landing.

All through May, the weather had given no reason for worry. But on June 1 it turned dull and gray, and on June 2 the meteorologists reported a complex system of three depressions approaching from the Atlantic. On June 3 they forecast high winds, low clouds, and bad visibility for the fifth, sixth, and seventh — the only three days when low tide was at the right time in the morning.

This forecast was presented at 9:30 p.m. on June 3 in Southwick House at a conference of Eisenhower, his deputy, his three commanders in chief, and their chiefs of staff. The first ships had sailed, tens of thousands of men were cooped up in landing craft and transports, and the camps they had left were being filled by follow-up troops; the whole immense machine was in motion. The problem at that moment was whether to let it go on or to stop it for 24 hours. Either way, the possibilities of disaster were clear.

Final preparations: American troops march through the streets of Weymouth, England, on their way to the docks, where they will be loaded into landing craft for the big assault. (National Archives)

At the meeting on Saturday evening, June 3, the report of the meteorologists and the advice of the commanders in chief made him almost certain that the operation would have to be postponed. It was an unwelcome prospect. Plans had been made by which everything could be brought to a standstill for 24 hours, but Eisenhower was sure that postponement would be hard on the morale and the physical condition of the troops already at sea. And any delay would add to the risk of the secret’s leaking out.

He decided to hold another meeting at 4:30 the next morning, Sunday, June 4, in the hope of some improvement in the forecast.

The next morning, the forecast was just as bad. At this meeting Adm. Ramsay doubted whether his smaller craft could cross the channel in the seas that were predicted. Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory was certain the air forces would not be able to play their full part in the plan. By then, the main forces were due to sail in two hours’ time. Eisenhower gave the order to postpone the sailing for 24 hours and recall the ships at sea.

But the postponement had not solved Eisenhower’s problem. On Sunday evening, he faced the same terrible choice in an even more difficult form. The forecasters offered a chance, and only a chance, of a slight temporary improvement on Tuesday morning. The choice was therefore between launching the invasion on Tuesday, the sixth, in weather which was nothing better than a gamble, or postponing it for two weeks till the tides were right again. And so Eisenhower put off the final decision till early the following morning.

During that night he carried as heavy a burden as has fallen to the lot of any man. Everyone who had been at the evening meeting remembered one phrase he had used: “The question is, how long can you hang this operation out on a limb and let it hang there?” The troops could not stay in their ships for two weeks. But they had been briefed and told where they were to land. If all of them were brought ashore again, it was impossible to hope that the secret would not leak.

So far the German air force seemed to have spotted only a small proportion of the fleet and had never ­attacked it. That luck was too astonishing to last. In postponement for a fortnight, there were such risks of confusion, of loss of security, and of counterattack that the whole plan might have to be abandoned.

But the alternative of launching the invasion in uncertain weather was risky too. If the forecast was only slightly overoptimistic, landing craft would be swamped, naval and air bombardment would be inaccurate, German bombers might be able to take off while Allied fighters were grounded, and the invasion might end in the greatest military disaster which either the United States or Britain had ever suffered.

And finally, if the invasion failed, it would be impossible to try again that summer — perhaps impossible ever to try again. All the hopes and power of the United States and Britain had been put into this one attempt to bring the Germans to battle in Western Europe. If it failed, hope might also fail, not only in America and Britain but also in the countries which the Germans had occupied; the Russians might decide their allies were useless and make a separate peace. Eisenhower, with expert and dispassionate knowledge, knew that if the invasion failed, it might be impossible ever to win the war.

Reprinted from Dawn of D-Day by David Howarth by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Story originally ran in The Saturday Evening Post March 14, 1959.

This article is featured in the May/June 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Inspiring words: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order for the day: “Full victory — nothing else,” to paratroopers in England, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of continental Europe. (U.S. Army)

Why D-Day Still Matters

Acclaimed historian John McManus began his book The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach with these words: “Desperate. Hellish. Disastrous. Catastrophic. Traumatic. Shocking. Bloody. Anyone who was at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 … is likely to have used one or more of those powerful words to describe it. At Omaha Beach, the stakes were so high, and the fighting so bitter, that the very name involves something legendary, even iconic.”

McManus reminds us that continuing to explore the events around that invasion reveals much about what has shaped our role in wars to come. With the help of years of research and personal interviews with those who fought, the author shares his thoughts with the Post’s West Coast editor.

Jeanne Wolf: As the war in Europe raged on, our country was strongly isolationist. Was D-Day, at least symbolically, a watershed moment where we began our commitment to becoming a leader of Western Europe and the free world?

John McManus: It was really one of the key moments for America in World War II as it ended our determination not to get deeply involved. I really think that a great realization happened after the fall of France in 1940. It was stunning. I think that most Americans felt that at that point, “Well we don’t want to be in the war formally just yet, but we better get ready.”

This soon led to a shift in outlooks, a shift in values and perspective toward more of an American involvement in Europe, and more internationalism. And D-Day was the logical outgrowth of such thinking.

JW: It’s not too much to say that one day made such a momentous change?

JM: No. What’s so compelling about the Normandy invasion is that there aren’t that many actual single dates in history like that which you could look at and say, “Wow, this is a day that you know that sets the tone for decades.” D-Day was definitely one of those days. I mean there was so much on the line if the invasion failed. For America, it was kind of an emblematic commitment because D-Day was the first day of almost a year of very heavy fighting. From that day forward, the campaign to defeat Nazi Germany would be about two-thirds American in terms of manpower and especially material power. There was an enormous blood-cost.

JW: In planning the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower was named the leader. Why was an American in charge of a war that had already been going on for five years? And did this foreshadow our leadership role in Europe?

JM: There was no doubt that an American would be in charge of Operation Overlord because only one country out of the Western coalition could lead this invasion and, more importantly, the campaign that followed. If we pull the lens back further from an American point of view, D-Day was just one of our massive operations going on globally at that point. There were huge operations in the Pacific and the bombing campaign of Germany. All of this stuff was happening, so it was like, “Wow, look what America is capable of.” We had become a military and economic superpower. That’s why the Normandy invasion was not possible until 1944, because among the Western countries, only the United States really had the kind of power to lead the invasion and the subsequent campaign. What you’re seeing there is the beginnings of NATO. I think there was no question there would be an American commander.

What the American people always have to ask themselves is: “Is this worth it?” It is a very serious question.

JW: There’s a lot of talk today about “wasting money” on military support of other countries and, more specifically, the cost/benefit of supporting NATO and whether we’re paying too much or whether others aren’t paying their fair share. But some argue that the benefit of allying with Europe, even at great cost, is priceless.

JM: A hundred and ten thousand Americans died in World War I. World War II was even bloodier. Then we went through a decades-long commitment to protecting Europe through the emblem of NATO during the Cold War and even beyond. There’s bound to be some weariness and bound to be waste, and when we have so many social problems in this country, a lot of people are quite rightly thinking, Well, shouldn’t we be worried about those too? But the world is a small place. What happens in Europe tends to really matter for us too, and that hasn’t changed. So the Americans have been going round and round with their NATO allies for decades about whether we’re carrying too much of the cost and the responsibility. It’s not a new issue.

JW: Because not helping can be so disastrous?

JM: Just think, what if Europe became a key part of the world that was hostile to the United States and its values. What would that mean for the hundreds of thousands of lives that the U.S. expended to make sure Europe was free in World War II and the millions, yes millions, of lives that were affected by the Cold War. It is a question of whether America really represents freedom internationally or if it’s not as important to us.

JW: Aren’t we the world’s police force, in a sense, protecting civilization every day?

JM: Whether you like it or not, there’s a lot of truth in that. And whether you’re a soldier or not doesn’t matter because the American people are ultimately paying for a lot of this in so many ways. So yeah, it affects you whether you know it or not, and that’s part of what I tell all my students. It’s certainly in your interest to know more and understand more because you’re affected by this.

U.S. and British soldiers disembark their landing boats into the shallow waters of the Normandy shore, braving heavy machine gun fire and sniper bullets.
Into the jaws of death: American invaders spring from the ramp of the Coast Guard-manned landing barge to wade those last perilous yards to the shores of Normandy. (U.S. Coast Guard)

JW: The debate goes on. Is our engagement — in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, even Iraq — is it on moral grounds? Or is it self-interest?

JM: I think the answer is “yes” and “yes.” It’s both. You had that even after World War I. The American government told us we were fighting to save the world for democracy, and actually what we saw was that there was a lot of hardcore economic value there, too. Well, welcome to American conflict around the world, because it’s the same thing as it was in World War II and the Cold War. It’s the same thing in Iraq or the Korean War or wherever it might be. But one theme you do see as a historian in a lot of these places is that when the Americans go, and they’re willing to stay in for the long haul, you tend to see a kind of better country come out of that. I’m alluding obviously to Germany, Japan, Korea — you do tend to see this. Or, when the Americans leave — Vietnam would be a really good example of another kind of outcome. So what the American people always have to ask themselves is: “Is this worth it?” It is a very serious question. I would never say otherwise. D-Day is just one example of that. There’s always a tremendous blood investment. The title of my book comes from Colonel George Taylor, who was commanding the lead assault at Normandy and said to his men, “Only two kinds of people are going to be on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now get moving.”

JW: We hear all the time that those who fought the battle of D-Day were members of what has been called the “greatest generation” — men willing to stand up and sacrifice for the greater good. How do you explain that spirit?

JM: There was definitely an understanding of how crucial D-Day was and that it had to succeed. But I think what really caused them to go on is a kind of a camaraderie. All the higher-minded patriotic stuff that they may feel after you get through about 80 layers of cynicism is not why people really fight. They fight because of the guys next to them. I talked to survivors who explained that they thought in the midst of the chaos, I know a lot of people are relying on me. I’ve got to do my part. And that kept many of them continuing to risk their lives.

JW: In the end, wasn’t it easier to fight that battle on Omaha Beach and the war because we had the moral clarity of being on the right side?

JM: World War II is unique in that it is a mass participation war, though, believe it or not, two-thirds of those who served were draftees and only one-third volunteers. Still, it was a popular war. And that’s very rare in American history. Most of our wars have either been or become incredibly unpopular with some Americans. But World War II was a linear war; you could look toward a concrete series of steps that would lead you to victory. It was a war that was waged against nation-state actors whom you could identify and fight — and fight to victory. And it’s one of the rare times in American history where both parties came together on this idea — well, let’s work together toward the victory.

John McManus’ newest book is Fire and Fortitude: The U.S. Army in the Pacific War, 1941-1943, July 30, 2019.

This article is featured in the May/June 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.