The Great Decision: Eisenhower Makes The Call

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.’

Introducing Ike: “The Army’s Favorite General”

On this day in 1890, Dwight David Eisenhower was born on a farm in Abilene, Kansas. He was probably the last American president to take the mythical path to the White House. Though not born in a log cabin, he did grow up on a small farm far from the city, enlisted in the army, rose through the ranks,  achieving a brilliant victory, and then moved into politics.

As late as 1942, though, Eisenhower was still unknown to America. That year, Post writer Demaree Bess wrote “The Army’s Favorite General” to introduce him to the country that would soon be entrusting him with their sons.

The toughest assignment in the world today is the opening of a second front. Meet the soldier who has it, Ike Eisenhower, of Kansas and London.

A few weeks ago, talking in Washington with a veteran Army colonel, I remarked that I was gathering material for an article about Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who has been sent to England to organize the American share of the second front against Germany.

“Well, you’ll find it hard sledding to write an exciting article about Ike Eisenhower,” commented the colonel. “There’s nothing romantic about him. He’s never done anything spectacular. The public never heard of him until a few months ago, and most of the politicians have never laid eyes on him. But there is one thing about Ike Eisenhower—he’s the Army’s favorite general.”

That phrase—”the Army’s favorite general”— stuck in my mind. I decided to find out whether it was true and, if so, why. Now, having talked with dozens of officers and men who know General Eisenhower, I have concluded that it probably is true. Certainly his appointment is unanimously approved by the soldiers—from generals to privates— who have worked with him and over him, and under him, during his twenty-seven years in the regular Army of the United States.

The exciting part of General Eisenhower’s story lies, not in his personal life, but in his professional career. A little more than a year ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower was just one of several thousand colonels in our regular Army; and, so far as the American public knew, he was no different from the rest. But today he is one of our Army’s sixteen lieutenant generals, holding rank equivalent to the highest that George Washington attained. He has been advanced more rapidly than any other American officer. More than that, he has been handed the toughest assignment at the disposal of the War Department—that of cracking German defenses on the continent of Europe.

Bess assured the country that this young (52 years old that year) general had risen without influential friends or powerful connections. He had risen through the ranks on merit alone. He had graduated in the upper half of his West Point class. During the First World War, he had earned a brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel for his work in training America’s fledgling tank corp. General MacArthur was so impressed by this unassuming young man, he chose him as his top military aide in the Philippines. The top brass were impressed with this young officer’s ability to see the big picture without losing sight of practical matters.

One reason why General Eisenhower was selected for his present post is that he was perhaps the first of our staff officers to suggest a second front… when asked for his plans, he submitted details which persuaded his superiors that his plans are both brilliant and sound. He was able to create these plans because, for more than a quarter of a century, he has been an inspired student of mechanized warfare and because, in recent large-scale maneuvers in this country, he revealed extraordinary originality in his direction of this type of combat.

What Bess couldn’t know at the time of this article was that Eisenhower also had a genius for diplomacy.  Time after time, Ike was able to win cooperation from Allied generals and politicians. He spent years was negotiating, arguing,, pleading, cajoling, and manipulating such prickly men as Churchill, General Bernard Montgomery, George Patton, Charles de Gaulle, and the Russian General Zhukov, to keep the great alliance alive.

Perhaps his great accomplishment was successfully landing 24,000 soldiers on the French coast, directly in sight of massive German defences. It was an extraordinary feat of planning, which called for the kind of military genius needed in modern war, as described by British essayist Walter Bagehot:

The soldier—that is, the great soldier—of today is not a romantic animal, dashing at forlorn hopes, animated by frantic sentiment, full of fancies as to a love-lady or a sovereign; but a quiet, grave man, busied in charts, exact in sums, master of the art of tactics, occupied in trivial detail; thinking most of the shoes of his soldiers, as the Duke of Wellington was said to do; despising all manner of éclat and eloquence; perhaps, like Count Moltke, silent in seven languages.

General Eisenhower is not exactly a grave and quiet man; he likes plenty of good conversation and his share of fun. But he certainly is no “romantic animal, dashing at forlorn hopes.” Being an infantryman, he knows the importance of shoes for his soldiers; and, being a tank expert and a qualified pilot, he fully appreciates the role of tanks and air- planes in modern warfare. For more than a year he has been “busied in charts” which directly concern his present mission; and his associates can attest to his passion for “trivial detail.”