The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive … the fate of Germany depends on the outcome … for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.
—FIELD MARSHAL ERWIN ROMMEL
After months of intensive planning and preparation, D-Day was set for June 5, 1944, and with the German supreme command still convinced that Patton was to lead the invasion against the Pas de Calais, the many complex pieces of the Overlord plan displayed every sign of cohesion. Now that Eisenhower had at last overcome the intense opposition to the Transportation Plan, involving months of stalling, argument, and bad blood, Allied air might was unleashed. Between them the RAF and USAAF bombed the French railway system into a vast “railway desert” of smashed rail lines, bridges, depots, and equipment, while Leigh-Mallory’s tactical aircraft shot up anything that moved. Convoys and trains were mercilessly shot to pieces, generating some of the most spectacular combat film footage of World War II. By mid-May the German Transport Ministry attested to the success of Allied bombing by noting that “the raids carried out in recent weeks [in Belgium and northern France] have caused systematic breakdown of all main lines … large-scale strategic movement of German troops by rail is practically impossible,” and the wide-scale destruction had caused “critical dislocation of traffic.” Spaatz’s greatest success came in carrying out his mandate to destroy the Luftwaffe, which by D-Day could barely muster a paltry one hundred sorties against the Allies in Normandy. “The achievement of air supremacy over France and the invasion area and of air superiority over Germany before D-Day was the decisive contribution of Spaatz and USSTAF to Overlord,” and was, wrote Spaatz’s biographer, “a turning point in the air war” that “ranked with the defensive victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain.”
Success came at a terrible price. With historical focus on the D-Day landings and the fight for a beachhead in Normandy, images of landing craft swarming ashore under heavy enemy fire have become the most acclaimed and remembered aspect of the war in Europe. The most devastating losses, however, were incurred by the valiant Allied air crews. Between April 1 and June 5, 1944, the Allies lost two thousand aircraft and twelve thousand air crew killed in action in pre-D-Day operations. By the time the Normandy campaign officially ended in August 1944, twenty-eight thousand air crew had been lost in air operations over France.
In the weeks leading up to D-Day Eisenhower traveled to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and all over England on inspection visits to British, American, and Canadian combat units; naval vessels; staging areas; hospitals; air bases; supply depots and logistical units; a Polish division; a graduating class at Sandhurst; the dedication of a B-17 bomber nicknamed “General Ike” in his honor; and mock invasion exercises, and took his first flight in a new fighter aircraft, all sandwiched around briefings, meetings, and the tiring, obligatory sessions with Churchill, whom he occasionally accompanied on similar trips. Though the foul weather contributed to his perpetual cold, away from his desk and among his men, Eisenhower was in his element. His usual mode of travel was aboard his personal railway carriage or by air or car, with Kay Summersby at the wheel. His handlers had the difficult task of keeping him on schedule to adhere to his mandate that troops should never be kept standing around awaiting his arrival. Inevitably delays occurred and the Eisenhower temper would erupt at being late or being hounded by reporters anxious to record his remarks. It was as if their presence infringed on his special relationship with his troops. Although he gave numerous informal pep talks when visiting large troop formations, Eisenhower managed to convey his message without repeating himself. Almost effortlessly he seemed to possess a magic touch when dealing with soldiers. No matter what they did in civilian life, Eisenhower seemed able to ask an appropriate question or produce a suitable comment that established an immediate bond. His only disappointment was in never encountering anyone from Abilene.
During these trying days Eisenhower’s only tenuous connection to his private world was his letters to Mamie. But even this was not always enough. Mamie’s comprehension of the extent of her husband’s grave responsibilities during their long-distance marriage was sometimes utterly bereft of forbearance. Deeply immersed as he was in the problems of the final, hectic days before D-Day, absolutely the last thing on Eisenhower’s mind was remembering Mother’s Day—a failure that landed him squarely in the doghouse with Mamie, who complained that he had failed to acknowledge the occasion. He quietly took the blame, saying, “I was just stupid about it,” but tactfully reminded Mamie that “you shouldn’t hold me guilty of negligence merely because I may be forgetful. God knows I am busy; and I do try to write to you often. … Please don’t get annoyed with me. I depend on you and your letters so much, and I’m living only to come back when this terrible thing is over.”
What he needed least of all during this grueling period was a nagging wife who displayed scant empathy and an even smaller grasp of reality.
Of the amphibious exercises witnessed by Eisenhower, the most controversial occurred on the night of April 27–28 off a stretch of the Devonshire coast near Slapton Sands that resembled the beaches of Normandy. Code-named Tiger, the exercise was a dress rehearsal for the landings on Utah Beach by troops of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Engineer Special Brigade. Suddenly a flotilla of eight LSTs was attacked by nine German motor torpedo boats (called E-boats, Schnellboote) based in Cherbourg. Painted an ominous black, the E-boats had found the Channel prime nighttime hunting grounds, and during earlier engagements had sunk eighteen ships off South Dorset and Devon. Such operations to seek out enemy shipping were routine, as they were that night when they encountered the Tiger flotilla in Lyme Bay.
Like foxes loose in a chicken coop, the marauding German boats succeeding in sinking two LSTs and heavily damaging another with their torpedoes, killing an estimated 191 sailors and 441 American troops,7 most of them combat engineers, some of whom drowned due to a lack of training in the proper use of their life preservers, which were strapped around their waists instead of being worn. Ironically the loss of life off Slapton Sands was twenty times greater than the actual D-Day losses on Utah Beach. Tiger was an example of poor planning, indecision, a lack of protection for the vulnerable landing craft, missed rendezvous, faulty equipment, poor communications, and an absence of rescue vessels, all of which contributed to a Murphy’s Law disaster. One of the E-boats was seen scanning the waters with a searchlight, and—most troubling of all—some American officers at sea that night had knowledge of Neptune, the code-name for the assault phase of the Normandy landings. Not all the dead could be accounted for. SHAEF sweated out the awful possibility of detection and carefully watched Ultra to determine if the Germans were making any changes in their defenses that would indicate knowledge of Allied intentions. Within a week Hitler ordered that Normandy be closely watched and fresh defenses prepared, none of which, it turned out, had resulted from the Tiger debacle. The VIPs assembled aboard an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) to witness the exercise—Eisenhower, Tedder, and Bradley—were deeply concerned over the clear absence of coordination between the army and navy. Butcher probably spoke for Eisenhower when he professed, “I came away from the exercise depressed.”
To further protect Neptune, Eisenhower directed that a veil of secrecy be thrown over Tiger to avoid any further damage from exposure. That secrecy was lifted in July when a SHAEF press release revealed what had occurred off Slapton Sands. Nearly forty years later the actions of several well-meaning but misguided individuals led to a rash of media coverage, most of which suggested that there had been a cover-up of the tragedy. In fact not only was there no cover-up by Eisenhower or anyone else, but accounts of Tiger appeared in numerous postwar publications, including the official histories of the army and navy. Unfortunately the tragedy of the most deadly training accident of World War II was eventually tarnished by an unseemly feeding frenzy in both the print and television media in Britain and the United States, most of which inaccurately alleged a cover-up and indifference on the part of the U.S. Army to the fate of the dead.
The final days of May were marked by clashes and jitters. Leigh-Mallory had concluded that with intelligence reporting a new German division in the Cherbourg region, the proposed airborne operations in the Cotentin would be an utter disaster. At a commanders’ conference on May 27, he warned Eisenhower of his misgivings that both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions faced annihilation and urged cancellation of the airborne landings, leading Bradley flatly to refuse to carry out the assault landings on Utah Beach without the airborne shield. Since Leigh-Mallory was Ike’s chief air commander and adviser, his misgivings were not only deeply worrisome but could not be ignored. Bradley and Montgomery both argued that Leigh-Mallory’s appalling prediction notwithstanding, the possible consequences of cancellation were equally, if not even more, dire. On May 29 Eisenhower affirmed that the airborne operations would proceed as planned.
The following day Leigh-Mallory visited Eisenhower to protest once again “the futile slaughter” of two first-class divisions. “It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-racking problem,” Eisenhower later wrote. Although he said nothing directly to his chief airman, he was frustrated that Leigh-Mallory had waited until the last minute to muddy the waters. However, if his air chief’s prediction was to prove correct, “the attack on Utah Beach was probably hopeless, and this meant that the whole operation suddenly acquired a degree of risk, even foolhardiness, that presaged a gigantic failure, possibly Allied defeat in Europe.” Instructing Leigh-Mallory to convey his misgivings in writing in order to protect him in the event he overruled him, Eisenhower promised an answer in several hours and retreated to his quarters to mull over his decision alone. Finding himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, whichever way he decided portended disaster. In the end Eisenhower refused to be swayed and decided that, Leigh-Mallory’s misgivings notwithstanding, the Utah landings simply could not be abandoned. He telephoned Leigh-Mallory that the airborne landings would proceed as scheduled, a decision as difficult as the one he would make a short time later. The airborne commanders were infuriated that Leigh-Mallory had doubted their capabilities and would have left them behind, but relieved that Eisenhower believed in their mission.
Cast in a role that would keep his Third Army in England until summoned to Normandy at an unspecified date after the invasion, Patton was becoming restless in the role of bridesmaid. Shortly before D-Day word reached Eisenhower that Patton was grumbling about not playing a role in the forthcoming invasion. Once again Eisenhower employed the good offices of John J. McCloy to rein Patton in. “You go down and tell Georgie,” he directed McCloy, “I’m going to get him in where he’s going to have all the fighting he wants, but in the meantime you … tell him to keep his God damn mouth shut!” McCloy duly repeated Eisenhower’s order word for word to Patton. Ever the actor, Patton puffed himself to his full height and complained, “You’re taking a good deal of responsibility to come here on the eve of battle and destroy a man’s confidence.” McCloy retorted, “Listen, George, if I thought I could destroy your confidence by anything I might say, I would ask General Eisenhower to remove you,” whereupon Patton immediately stopped emoting.
The Fateful Days: Thursday, June 1, 1944
The weather in May 1944 was exceptional—and deceptive. Admiral Ramsay wrote in his diary on May 29, “Summer is here and it is boiling hot!” However, as an experienced sailor Ramsay knew better than to trust this as an especially good harbinger for D-Day. At the end of May it was not the condition of the sea but rather the cloud cover over the Channel and Normandy that was of primary concern. There was only a three-day window in early June on which the operation could commence. The moonlight required by the three airborne divisions that were to be landed by parachute and glider the night before the invasion to secure the vital flanks, and the low tides necessary to carry out the landings and the demolition of Rommel’s underwater obstacles in the forty minutes after first light, would only be present during the three-day period from June 5 to June 7. Any delay due to inclement weather meant postponement for a minimum of another two weeks—a possibly fatal delay that might threaten the Allied foothold if the notoriously bad Channel weather prevented resupply through Cherbourg and over the beaches before a breakout.
Every element of the Overlord plan could be controlled except the volatile weather. With Group Captain Stagg as the chief meteorologist and spokesman, Eisenhower’s team consisted of experts from the Admiralty, the air forces, and the U.S. and British weather services. What Stagg and colleagues saw on their charts that day and were receiving from signals from the United States was portentous. Weather aircraft flying over Newfoundland and ships at sea were gathering weather data for the SHAEF meteorologists, and what they began reporting noted the first major change in the previous weeks of clear weather. The combination of a high-pressure system moving southward from Iceland was resulting in the formation of several deep depressions in the mid-Atlantic. The problem, other than growing uncertainty, was that the members of Stagg’s team were unable to agree among themselves as to the extent of the change of weather or what the impact would be on the invasion on June 5. Stagg reported their disagreement to the SHAEF G-3, Pinky Bull, who said, “For Heaven’s sake, Stagg, get it sorted out by tomorrow morning before you come to the Supreme Commander’s conference. General Eisenhower is a very worried man.” In the coming days Bull’s stipulation must have served to remind Stagg of how General Morgan had wished him well before his departure for Southwick, with the admonition, “May all your depressions be nice little ones: but remember, we’ll string you up from the nearest lamp post if you don’t read the omens right.”
Friday, June 2, 1944
The countdown began on June 2, when Eisenhower first moved from Bushy Park to Southwick House, where an unpretentious, concealed trailer he dubbed “my circus wagon” would be his home for the next several weeks. As was his custom, Eisenhower eschewed more spacious quarters in Southwick House in favor of a Spartan existence in a mobile home devoid of heat except for the tiny bedroom, whose only adornments were a jumbled pile of Western novels and photos of Mamie and of John in his cadet uniform. His staff worked and lived in nearby tents. Beginning that day Eisenhower and his chief adviser would convene at least twice daily for weather briefings in the library—a large, rather plain room with dark oak bookcases, easy chairs, and sofas, its windows hidden behind heavy blackout drapes. With his typical disdain for any special treatment, one day he returned to find that a camouflage battalion had rigged netting over the entire SHAEF command post. Eisenhower was furious, demanding to know how many man-hours had been wasted, until he was assured by Butcher that it had been valuable training for the unit. “All right, as long as it was only practice. I don’t want any time wasted making a fuss over me.”
The weather that day provided no hint of what was to come. At the morning briefing the SHAEF weathermen had already wrangled for hours over the Atlantic depressions and their probable impact on D-Day. Other than note that the present good weather would begin changing over the weekend with increasing winds and clouds, the Friday-morning briefing offered no assessment of its impact on D-Day, nor was one demanded by Eisenhower or the other participants. The weathermen had bought themselves nearly twelve hours to refine their own conclusions. The wrangling continued until shortly before the evening briefing, and still there was no consensus. As Stagg would later write, “Had it not been fraught with such potential tragedy, the whole business was ridiculous. In less than half-an-hour I was expected to present to General Eisenhower an ‘agreed’ forecast for the next five days … [when] no two of the expert participants … could agree on the likely weather even for the next 24 hours.” Like it or not, it was now up to Stagg what to report. What made his task all the more difficult was that he had been warned by Britain’s premier meteorologist that predicting the weather in the Channel for even a one- or two-day period was virtually impossible.
The second briefing convened at 9:30 P.M. that evening, again attended by all the key players and senior staff officers. “Well, Stagg, what have you for us this time?” said Eisenhower. Although Stagg was inwardly uneasy, this time there could be no equivocation. What he had to report was troubling. The chief meteorologist disclosed that a series of depressions moving in from the west would make the weather in the Channel for the next three or four days “potentially full of menace” in the form of completely overcast skies and winds of up to Force 4 or 5, and a cloud cover ranging from as high as five hundred feet to as low as zero. The seriousness of the occasion could be read in their faces and in the almost deathly silence. Eisenhower ruled that there would be no change of plan that day and authorized the navy to proceed with all necessary preliminary operations.
Saturday, June 3, 1944
Eisenhower’s extensive diary entry for June 3, 1944, reveals little of a personal nature with the exception of this cryptic comment: “Probably no one who does not have to bear the specific and direct responsibility of making the final decision as to what to do can understand the intensity of these burdens.” Kay Summersby recorded in her new diary only that her boss was “very depressed.” Eisenhower ate little and slept even less. Although he enjoyed watching movies on the rare occasions when time permitted, Eisenhower imposed an inviolable rule that no film be shown to him that otherwise deprived or delayed GIs from seeing it. That night, when he learned that if he was to see a film it would conflict with its showing to the men and women working in Southwick, Eisenhower “turned on me and gave me a good cussing out,” noted Butcher. “I knew then he really had the pre-D-Day jitters.”
On June 3 Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts were inspecting British troops along the south coast, and that evening the PM unexpectedly visited Eisenhower, primarily to “pour the heat on Ike” for refusing to countenance his participation in D-Day, and to take one last crack at persuading the supreme commander to change his mind. Eisenhower, though sympathetic, refused, and Churchill left as “peevish” as he had arrived. The visit was hardly welcome; “last night,” wrote Butcher, “the P.M.’s caravan of cars and dashing cyclists swirled in behind. Filled their gas tanks and diminished our small supply of Scotch like the devil,” before departing as abruptly as they had arrived.
At the evening briefing, in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, one admiral cracked, “[T]here goes six feet two of Stagg and six feet one of gloom.” Stagg’s face reflected no encouragement. Eisenhower sat motionless throughout his presentation. Without preamble Stagg delivered the bad news: “Gentlemen, the fears my colleagues and I had yesterday … have been confirmed,” he said. His latest forecast offered little but wind, waves, and clouds lasting until at least June 5. Eisenhower questioned his three invasion commanders one by one. “Could the Navy manage it? Ramsay thought not. The assault might go ashore all right, but if the weather worsened there could be no adequate build-up.” Leigh-Mallory replied that his air crews would not be able to see what they were attacking. Of the three, only Montgomery thought the invasion should proceed. “I’m ready,” he told Eisenhower, raising eyebrows among some for what they deemed Monty’s reckless response. Before Stagg was dismissed and the star-studded jury convened to consider its verdict, Eisenhower’s final question was if there was unanimity among the weathermen on what had been presented. For the first time Stagg could reply, “Yes, Sir.”
Eisenhower had no choice except to provisionally postpone the invasion for twenty-four hours. The armada waited in grim anticipation of some glimmer of hope from the weather gods. Some of the troops crowded aboard landing craft like cattle were already seasick from the heavy tides without ever having embarked from their harbors and ports. A short time later Bull emerged to announce, “The Supreme Commander has made a provisional decision to hold up the operation on a day-to-day basis. Some of the forces will sail tonight but General Eisenhower and his commanders will meet again at 4:15 A.M. tomorrow [Sunday] morning to hear what you have to say.” At that time Eisenhower would have to decide the fate of Overlord. As Stagg left the building for another sleepless night of grappling with the latest weather data, Tedder, who was known for his puckish sense of humor, was lighting his trademark pipe on the steps outside; with a smile he said, “Pleasant dreams, Stagg.”
Sunday, June 4, 1944
Some naval forces had to be recalled, and there was a measure of disarray and some loss of life when several landing craft overturned in the rough seas. At the 4:15 A.M. meeting Stagg reported no change. As if to confirm the prediction, Admiral Ramsay noted that the weather outside was then virtually windless and clear. Stagg assured him the predicted bad weather would arrive within four to five hours. “In that case, gentlemen, it looks to me as if we must confirm the provisional decision we took at the last meeting,” said Eisenhower. “Compared with the enemy’s forces ours are not overwhelmingly strong: we need every help our air superiority can give us. If the air cannot operate we must postpone. Are there any dissentient votes?” None were offered. Overlord was officially on hold. After the meeting broke up, the meteorologists met to assess the latest weather reports before snatching a few hours’ sleep. As Stagg headed to his tent, there was no hint of what was to come shortly; “a peaceful dawn glow was already showing … with little cloud.
As predicted, a full-blown gale not only rendered any hope of launching the invasion the morning of June 5 unthinkable, it now threatened to wreck the entire invasion timetable.
While the armada literally trod water, the participants had become virtual prisoners in their encampments and aboard naval vessels, final briefings postponed and sealed instructions revealing their target unopened.
A mood of pessimism prevailed among many senior Allied commanders that in spite of the detailed preparations and training, things might still go wrong on the beaches of Normandy. The atmosphere was not lightened by updates from Allied intelligence that Rommel had strengthened the Normandy front by several new divisions, with more possibly on the way.
During the day the winds rose. Eisenhower spent most of June 4 either alone in his trailer or outside pacing aimlessly, his hands deep in his pockets, kicking small stones much as he had as a boy in Abilene, a lighted cigarette continually in his hand as he scanned the skies seeking some sign, any indication that the weather might change for the better. During one of his strolls he recognized NBC’s Merrill “Red” Mueller and beckoned to him. “Let’s take a walk, Red.” As a newsman, Mueller instinctively wanted to ask questions of the supreme commander. But not this day; it would not have been appropriate, even for a seasoned reporter. “Ike seemed completely preoccupied with his own thoughts. … It was almost as if he had forgotten I was with him,” Mueller later told Cornelius Ryan. When they parted company it seemed to Mueller that Eisenhower was “bowed down with worry … as though each of the four stars on either shoulder weighed a ton.”