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.
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.
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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)