“O.K., We’ll Go.” Part II

Charles de Gaulle arrived from Algiers that morning “to uphold the interests of France” and for the first time learned of the invasion. Indignant that Eisenhower would be the controlling authority in liberated France, rather than his French Committee of National Liberation, de Gaulle was chilly during his talks that day with Churchill. That afternoon Churchill escorted de Gaulle to Southwick, “where he was most ceremoniously received. Ike and Bedell Smith,” said Churchill, “vied with one another in their courtesy.” Eisenhower spent twenty minutes in the map tent describing to the Frenchman the Allied invasion plan. Eisenhower’s earlier experiences with the prickly de Gaulle did not dissuade him from an appreciation of his military wisdom. Flattered when Eisenhower asked him for his opinion, de Gaulle replied, “I will only tell you that if I were you, I should not delay.”

The problem began when Eisenhower informed de Gaulle with “evident embarrassment,” that “General, on the day of the landings, I will broadcast a proclamation to the French population, and I would like you to do the same.” De Gaulle later wrote that Eisenhower expressed a willingness “to alter it at your suggestion,” but the version of his defense chief of staff, Gen. Emile Béthouart, differed: Eisenhower said that his proclamation had been approved by his government “and he could make no alterations.” De Gaulle angrily asked how Eisenhower dared to presume this. Handed a copy of Eisenhower’s proposed remarks, de Gaulle found them unacceptable, particularly the phrase in which he “urged the French nation to ‘carry out his orders.’ … [H]e appeared to be taking charge of our country even though he was merely an Allied general entitled to command troops, but not in the least qualified to intervene in the country’s government.” De Gaulle left insisting that he would submit proposed changes. After de Gaulle spurned an offer of dinner, Churchill and his party returned to London “in an agony of uncertainty” over the fate of the invasion.

At the late-evening briefing “Eisenhower presided over one of the most important councils of war in military history.” The sounds of rain and the wind howling in rage outside could distinctly be heard by the assembled generals, admirals, and air marshals. Eisenhower’s trademark smile was missing, replaced by a unmistakable air of solemnity. As was their custom, the commanders were seated informally on couches and chairs, most with cups of coffee.

Although the weather was vile, Stagg reported to the tense commanders there was a glimmer of hope for June 6: While the weather would remain poor, visibility would improve and the winds decrease barely enough to risk launching the invasion. “A cheer went up. You never heard middle-aged men cheer like that!” recalled Strong.

Stagg was closely questioned by Tedder, who demanded to know: “What will the weather be on D-Day in the Channel and over the French coast?” For perhaps two minutes there was total silence while Stagg pondered Tedder’s question. Finally Stagg replied, “To answer that question would make me a guesser, not a meteorologist.” Others peppered the meteorologist with questions. Ramsay asked about the condition of the sea and the expected wind velocity, while Leigh-Mallory was principally concerned about the extent of the expected cloud cover. Eisenhower wanted to know how many hours of decent weather could be counted on for the invasion and when they would end.

This was arguably the most important weather prediction in history: A mistaken forecast for D-Day could turn the entire tide of the war in Europe against the Allies. After consulting with each of the invasion commanders, Eisenhower swiftly learned that time had run out. Then and there, he had to make a decision for or against. Ramsay announced, “[I]f Overlord is to proceed on Tuesday [June 6], I must issue provisional warning to my forces within the next half-hour.” Eisenhower went around the room to poll his chief advisers one by one. Leigh-Mallory remained troubled, calling it “chancy,” and for once Tedder agreed with him. Doable, but nevertheless risky. Pacing the floor, Eisenhower turned to Montgomery and asked, “Do you see any reason why we should not go on Tuesday?” The little British general replied emphatically and without hesitation, “No. I would say—Go!”

There was some further discussion of other issues and then, as usual, the staff officers left the room, none of them certain of Eisenhower’s final decision. He was obliged to weigh not only the decision itself but its longer-term impact. There was utter silence in the room, the only sounds to be heard were the wind and rain pounding Southwick House. Beetle Smith, a man rarely emotional about anything, was awed by “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 them with those other imponderables.”

In preparation for this very eventuality Eisenhower and his weather team had practiced at his Monday meetings for some weeks. Eisenhower would select a hypothetical D-Day and the weathermen would make what proved to be accurate predictions. Group Captain Stagg was one of the many unsung heroes of D-Day—a man whom Eisenhower could trust implicitly, “a scientist to his bones with all of the scientist’s refined capacity to pass unimpassioned judgment on the evidence, a man of sharp mind and soft speech, detached, resolute, courageous. In these trial forecasts Eisenhower had learned that the man whose opinion and nerve he could trust in the hour of decision was Stagg.”

Although Ike later agonized over what he had wrought, it seemed clear what his decision must be. As with Stagg earlier, he recognized that the time for equivocation was long past. In retrospect it may appear to have been almost casually made, but it was in fact a decision he had long since prepared himself to make. His heart and his head told him that he must trust Stagg and his weather forecast. The invasion must go ahead. It was a very slender thread on which to base the fate of the war, but it was all Eisenhower had, and he embraced it. “Finally he looked up, and the tension was gone from his face.”

Still pondering, Eisenhower said, “The question is, just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there?”31 Despite the presence of men accustomed to making life-and-death decisions, it was as if Eisenhower’s query were merely rhetorical. No one in the room responded; it was equally clear to them that the time for discussion had passed and that the matter rested solely with Eisenhower.

“I am quite positive we must give the order,” he said. “I don’t like it but there it is. … I don’t see how we can do anything else.” With that low-key pronouncement, the invasion of Normandy would take place the morning of June 6, based on the most important weather forecast in history. As Montgomery’s official biographer has noted, “It was Eisenhower’s moment of trial—and he responded with what can only be called greatness.” Someone noted that the mantelpiece clock had just registered 9:45 P.M. Within seconds the room emptied as men scrambled to set the invasion in motion.

Yet the decision to go was still only conditional on a last minute weather update the following morning.

All but spent, Eisenhower was the last to emerge and remarked to Stagg, who was waiting outside the library, “Well, Stagg, we’re putting it on again: for heaven’s sake hold the weather to what you told us and don’t bring any more bad news.” As Eisenhower emerged from Southwick House there was not the slightest hint of improving weather to come; to the contrary, the blasting wind, rain, and muddy ground seemed to be mocking his decision. Nor could Eisenhower have been uplifted by Kay Summersby’s remark: “If all goes right, dozens of people will claim the credit. But if it goes wrong, you’ll be the only one to blame.”

As if Eisenhower and Admirals Ramsay and Cunningham did not confront enough problems, in the critical week before D-Day they had to contend with Churchill’s insistence on viewing the invasion from a British warship, the cruiser HMS Belfast. Exasperated, Eisenhower forcefully told the prime minister that he would not sanction his presence in harm’s way. Not to be outdone by a mere general, Churchill insisted that as minister of defense he had a duty to take part, insisting he would circumvent Eisenhower’s authority by going as a crew member; “it is not part of your responsibilities, my dear General,” he said, “to determine the exact composition of any ship’s company in His Majesty’s Fleet.” Eisenhower could only concede his helplessness to stop Churchill, even as he “forcefully pointed out that he was adding to my personal burdens in this thwarting of my instructions.” King George VI learned of the prime minister’s intentions and put a stop to it. In a letter hand-delivered from Buckingham Palace, the king pointed out that of course he would never presume to interfere in the affairs of his government’s principal minister. However, should Churchill carry out his intentions, the king would likewise feel obliged to witness the invasion as the (titular) head of Britain’s armed forces. “Mr. Churchill gave in … bitterly disappointed and not a little resentful.” In his postwar memoirs Churchill described his disappointment and abiding defiance in terms that left no doubt that he had “deferred to the Crown, not to Eisenhower.”

In an example of the kettle calling the pot black, Eisenhower himself had not only been thinking along similar lines but, until dissuaded by his horrified staff, had planned to watch the landings and possibly go ashore to visit with his troops. If he was killed, he said, Tedder would do the job, pending Marshall’s arrival to replace him. The notion of Eisenhower on any Normandy beach on D-Day is chilling. At heart Eisenhower was still an infantry soldier whose training had ingrained in him the spirit of sharing the same hardships as his men.

Monday, June 5, 1944

At what turned out to be their final meeting, the Allied commanders in chief reconvened at 4:15 A.M. on June 5 for another weather update. The atmosphere was again palpably somber and even more tense than at earlier meetings, at which there had been informal small talk between the participants. As he entered the room Beetle Smith detected “the ghost of a smile on the tired face of Group Captain Stagg.”36 Stagg reported no substantial change, and he cautioned against any tilt toward a more optimistic forecast. Stagg’s prediction of the D-Day weather and beyond brought smiles all around, instead of the grim expressions that had only moments before permeated the room.

According to Strong, “Eisenhower got up from his chair and walked slowly up and down the room. … His head was slightly sunk on his chest, his hands clasped behind his back. From time to time he stopped in his stride, turned his head quickly and jerkily in the direction of one of those present, and fired a rapid question at him … then resumed his walk. Montgomery showed some signs of his impatience, as if to say that had he had to make the decision it would have been made long ago.” Leigh-Mallory had his usual gloomy countenance, and Strong thought it was the face of a brave man having to confront his fears that many brave men would soon have to be needlessly sacrificed. Eisenhower retreated to a sofa, on which, most recalled, he sat for some five minutes to ponder his decision. Eisenhower thought it was only forty-five seconds: “Five minutes under such conditions would seem like a year.”

There was still time for another postponement. Whatever Eisenhower decided would stand. Stagg noted that the tension evaporated and that Eisenhower’s face now wore a broad smile. “Well, Stagg, if this forecast comes off, I promise you we’ll have a celebration when the time comes.” After a brief discussion Eisenhower reaffirmed his decision to launch Overlord: “O.K., we’ll go,” he said. The invasion was now unalterable. A signal—which read “Halcyon plus 5 finally and definitely confirmed,” code for June 6, 1944—was quickly sent to the Combined Chiefs of Staff.

Having made the most important decision of the war, Eisenhower was now incapable of either reversing it or altering in any way the outcome of the invasion, which was now in other hands. For the time being his immediate role was all but irrelevant. “That’s the most terrible thing for a senior commander. He has done all that he can do.”

On June 5 the limelight shone briefly on the capture of Rome. Newspaper headlines trumpeted the fall of the Eternal City to Mark Clark’s Fifth Army. There was considerable irony in the date. From the time of Salerno, Mark Clark had been obsessed with being the triumphant liberator of Rome; the following day the world’s focus on its liberation would all but disappear with the launch of Overlord.

With nothing more to be done at Southwick, on the morning of June 5 Eisenhower inspected British assault troops embarking aboard landing craft at nearby Portsmouth, who greeted him with cries of “Good old Ike!” The day dragged on interminably. When he discerned the sun peeking briefly through the clouds his spirits rose.

In early May the SHAEF staff drafted an order of the day to be given each member of the AEF. Eisenhower made numerous changes and placed his personal imprint on a one-page document that could conveniently be carried in everyone’s wallet or breast pocket. The words were quintessential Eisenhower, a heartfelt statement of his personal beliefs. Shortly before D-Day he recorded the same words as a proclamation to be broadcast to the world on the day of the invasion.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces!

You are about to embark on the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. …

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!

Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

Little of the spirit of Eisenhower’s inspiring message was evident on June 5, 1944. An indication of Eisenhower’s state of mind can be inferred from a far different document he scribbled that afternoon, tucked in his wallet, and carried unremembered until July, when he gave it to Butcher. It read: “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 upon 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.—June 5.”

Eisenhower’s smoking had increased incrementally as D-Day grew closer. Calm on the outside, inside he was seething with the gravity of the invasion. His health again deteriorated from a plethora of ailments that included headaches, recurring throat infections exacerbated by his heavy smoking, a mild eye infection, insomnia, and high blood pressure. “Ike looks worn and tired,” wrote Butcher on May 12. “The strain is telling on him. He looks older than at any time since I have been with him but fortunately he has the happy faculty of bouncing back after a night’s sleep, or a ride on a horse or some exercise.” On rare occasions when he was in London, Eisenhower stole an hour or so for a ride in Richmond Park, but as Kay Summersby noted, he had “far less social life than the most lowly member of his staff.”

In public Eisenhower continued to exude confidence. In private, however, he was a seething bundle of nervous energy. “Ike could not have been more anxiety ridden,” noted Kay Summersby. As D-Day neared his smoking had increased to four packs a day and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand. On this day he drank one pot of coffee after another and was once heard to mutter, “I hope to God I know what I’m doing.” For once Eisenhower would have sympathized with Douglas MacArthur, who had once observed, “A general’s life is loneliness.”

June 5 was a supreme test of his generalship and his ability to keep his nerve under the most trying circumstance he would ever face as a commander. There would be other crises ahead, but none approached the magnitude of D-Day. Mamie once asked him how in the world he ever had the nerve to do what he did. He replied simply, “I had to. If I let anybody, any of my commanders, think that maybe things weren’t going to work out, that I was afraid, they’d be afraid too. I didn’t dare. I had to have the confidence. I had to make them believe that everything was going to work.”

At midday on June 5 Churchill assembled his chiefs of staff for lunch. Brooke found him in a “very highly-strung condition,” but was astonished at Churchill’s “over-optimistic” mood “as regards prospects of the cross-Channel invasion.” Admiral Cunningham recorded that the prime minister was “very worked up about Overlord and really in almost a hysterical state. He really is an incorrigible optimist.” It was all an act, befitting a leader in a time of crisis. Churchill was actually beset by doubt. The night of June 5 was easily the most nerve-racking of the war. As Eisenhower smoked his way through pack after pack of cigarettes, Churchill was still on edge, all his long-standing fears of a bloodbath rushing back in a nightmarish vision. Before retiring for a sleepless night, he somberly said to Clementine, “Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning twenty thousand men may have been killed?”

Brooke’s own sense of gloom on the eve of D-Day was reflected in his diary: “I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very short of the expectation of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing about its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over.”

Only Montgomery, Ramsay, and Franklin Roosevelt displayed no outward signs of strain. Monty’s principal military assistant remembered him as “supremely confident” that all would turn out well. As was his custom, Montgomery was in bed by his usual hour of approximately nine-thirty. One of the most important events in military history would not deprive Monty of his sleep.

Admiral Ramsay had been stalwart in backing Eisenhower, but once the decision was taken he too knew that matters were in other hands. When asked by Montgomery what he intended to do, he replied, “There is wireless silence and we can expect no signals. I am therefore going to bed.” When he arose Ramsay wrote in his diary, “I am under no delusion as to the risks involved. … We shall require all the help that God can give us and I cannot believe that this will not be forthcoming.”

FDR too remained calm, in large part, thought Eleanor Roosevelt, “because he’d learned from polio that if there was nothing you could do about a situation, then you’d better try to put it out of your mind and go on with your work at hand.”

That evening Eisenhower made his spur-of-the-moment, emotional visit to the 101st Airborne Division in Newbury, Wiltshire, before returning to Southwick to wait out the night.

Other than the sounds of friendly aircraft, all over Britain the night of June 5, 1944, was unusually calm. For once there were no Luftwaffe raids or the mournful wailing of air raid sirens, simply a peaceful stillness rarely heard in a nation that had been at war for more than four years. In England’s lush West Country a young boy named John Keegan stood awestruck in the garden of his home as the sky suddenly filled with the roar of airplanes. “It seemed as if every aircraft in the world was in flight, as wave followed upon wave without intermission.” Had they been merged together nine planes wide, the aerial train ferrying the three Allied airborne divisions to Normandy on June 5 would have extended two hundred miles in length.

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Across the English Channel, at the headquarters of Army Group B, at Château La Roche Guyon, situated in a tiny hamlet on the river Seine, forty miles west of Paris, there was also tension and anticipation that the invasion would not be long in coming. The bad weather that had so dogged Eisenhower also served to mislead the Germans. Neither Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (the commander in chief, OB West) nor Rommel believed the Allies would mount an invasion in such inclement weather, which their forecasters had predicted would be as high as Force 7 in the Cherbourg sector and Force 6 in the Pas de Calais. In Paris, at OB West, Stagg’s counterpart, the chief German meteorologist, a major named Lettau, advised his superiors that any invasion after June 4 was unlikely due to the bad weather. Rundstedt notified Berlin, “As yet, there is no immediate prospect of the invasion.” Gen. Walter Warlimont, the deputy chief of operations for the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW—the German armed forces high command), later wrote that Berlin “had not the slightest idea that the decisive event of the war was upon them.”

The German weather forecast for June 6 concluded: “Invasion possible, but not probable.” Rommel used the bad weather to return to Germany for his wife, Lucie’s, birthday on June 6 and, he hoped, to see Hitler, to whom he intended to make a personal plea for greater priority for his army group. When he departed by automobile for his home in Swabia, near Ulm, early on June 4, Rommel was confident that nothing untoward would occur in his absence.

For months the BBC had been broadcasting innocuous nightly coded messages to the French underground. June 5 was no different, with the exception of one particular message from “Chanson d’automne” a poem by Paul Verlaine: “Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone”—“Pierce my heart with monotonous languor,” the signal that invasion was imminent. The intelligence officer of the German Fifteenth Army, headquartered in the Pas de Calais, knew exactly what the message meant, but his warnings were ignored by both his commanding general and by von Rundstedt, who dismissed the BBC announcement as a red herring. “Does anyone think the enemy is stupid enough to announce his arrival over the radio,” exclaimed one German officer.

Rommel’s chief naval adviser, and later a respected postwar military historian, Vice Adm. Friedrich Ruge, marveled that Eisenhower made such an important decision without recourse to higher authority, noting that no one in the German chain of command would have dared. It was, Ruge believed, “one of the truly great decisions in military history.”

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