MAJOR GENERAL JOSEPH T. DICKMAN

Joseph Theodore Dickman was a writer, thinker, chronicler, scholar, teacher, prophet, and soldier – the veteran of five American wars. He was born on 6 October 1857 in Dayton, Ohio to Theodore and Mary (née Weinmar) Dickman. The devout Catholic family moved to Minster, Ohio (near Wapakoneta, Ohio) when Joseph’s father left for service in the Civil War as a lieutenant in the 57th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, fighting in the western theater of the Civil War. He saw action principally at Shiloh and Vicksburg, and thus the Dickman military dynasty began, encompassing four generations of Army officers.

Joseph attended school in Wapakoneta, St. Mary’s Institute (now the University of Dayton), and the U.S. Military Academy. His education at West Point was interrupted by a suspension for involvement in a hazing incident. However, he was reinstated and graduated 27th of a class of 54 cadets in 1881. He was commissioned second lieutenant, 3rd Cavalry, and remained a cavalryman at heart throughout life. While training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he met Mary Rector and the two married on 26 September 1882.

Dickman was assigned to various posts with the 3rd Cavalry in Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and Illinois between 1883 and 1894. He participated in the capture of Geronimo and the suppression of public disorder during the Pullman Strike. After a stint at Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, Dickman was assigned to Fort Leavenworth in 1895 as head instructor at the Infantry and Cavalry School. Dickman had the opportunity to study military arts and impart this knowledge to other officers. He also found his voice through the pen, writing numerous articles for newspapers and military journals. He became a military scholar at precisely the time the U.S. Army was about to need thinkers and strategists.

When war erupted with Spain in April 1898, First Lieutenant Dickman reverted to a cavalryman and served as adjutant general under General Joseph Wheeler. This position recognized Dickman’s organizational capabilities. He later was promoted to captain and assigned as chief commissary, heading logistics and resupply for combat operations. Ever the cavalryman, however, Dickman participated in the Battle of San Juan Hill. He remained in Cuba until 1899 as part of the occupation force. Shortly after this, he was deployed to the Philippines, promoted to major in the 26th Volunteer Infantry in August 1899, then to lieutenant colonel in September, 1899. In 1900, he served in China as part of the American expedition to quell the Boxer Rebellion. He served on the staff of Major General Adna Chaffee.

In early 1901, Dickman was ordered back to the United States, mustered out of the volunteer infantry, and reverted to his Regular Army rank of captain. Nonetheless, during his brief time as a lieutenant colonel he had gained invaluable staff experience well beyond the level of his permanent rank of captain. He then returned to Fort Leavenworth as an instructor at the Infantry and Cavalry School, where he established a reputation as an accomplished writer and strategic thinker. His articles advocating a robust reserve component to augment the active component gained notoriety and he became a respected voice for the Army of the future.

Promoted to the permanent rank of major in March 1906, Dickman experienced a rapid succession of positions and promotions between 1906 and 1917, including commander of the 13th and 2nd Cavalry Regiments, inspector general of cavalry in the Philippines, and then for the entire U.S. Army. Dickman was promoted to lieutenant colonel in February 1912 and colonel in December 1914. While inspector general of cavalry, he made a grand tour of Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria, France, and Great Britain, observing their tactics. His experience with the future belligerents gave Dickman insights few American Army officers possessed.

Dickman waxed prophetic in an article for Free Press of Burlington, Vermont, exhibiting a strong grasp of European military affairs on the eve of the British declaration of war against Germany in August 1914:

In the general conflagration impending the nations concerned can place in the field no less than 15,000,000 trained soldiers of various arms. It is likely that on the open fields of eastern Prussia and the north of France there will be battles in which a million men will be engaged in mortal combat at the same time. There will be fierce fighting in the air, underground in sieges, and beneath the waters of the ocean. The cheapness of human life is likely to be illustrated on an enormous scale. Extensive use will be made of aviation, and the relative merits of the dirigible balloon and the aeroplane will be shown. The vast armaments of modern field artillery will have ample opportunity to establish its claim to preponderating influence on the field of battle.

America entered the war in April 1917. It then had the 17th largest army in the world and it was unprepared to enter a technologically advanced war. Dickman’s military experience, coupled with his knowledge of the belligerents, made him an invaluable asset. He was promoted to brigadier general in May, 1917. The enormity of the task facing the United States daunted the Army as it was woefully short of leaders at all levels. Men were promoted at a dizzying and even alarming rate. Dickman was promoted to major general in August 1917 and given command of the 3rd Division. He, like his colleagues and superiors, operated in leadership roles at least two or three ranks in advance of their experience levels. The 3rd Division embarked for France in early March, 1918 and made first landfall in the United Kingdom. He held the naïve American belief that the battlefield problem and the war itself would be solved by the young and bold American soldier. Nonetheless, there was a sense of trepidation at the prospects of the situation that awaited the Americans. They also resented what they saw as a sense of arrogance among the Allies that viewed the Americans as backward upstarts. Writing after the war in his book, The Great Crusade, Dickman complained:

A general air of pessimism and lack of confidence in the outcome of the war seemed to pervade the country [England]… Friction was also reported between the Americans and the English, the latter stating that the Americans had delayed coming across for fear of being licked, to which the Americans retorted that the British were already whipped, and that they had hurried over to help them out.

The British army was… three hundred thousand men short and unable to obtain replacements, unless the home defense army of over one million men could be drawn upon. A plan advocated at this time was to utilize the American battalions immediately and, under pretext of necessity for training and experience, to incorporate them in the British divisions in order to bring them up to war strength. Our attaché reported that the French also were “all in.”

The 3rd Division arrived in France by the end of April 1918 and went into a two-month training phase: one month of training and one month in a quiet sector of the trenches. The 3rd Division’s quiet sector was slated to be in the Vosges; however, the German Spring Offensives of 1918 diverted the division into the line about 25 miles west of Reims, near Château-Thierry. The 3rd Division was attached to the French XXXVIII Corps. As Dickman later wrote, “When the 7th Machine Gun Battalion of the 3rd Division arrived at Conde-en-Brie, at noon of May 31, the confusion of the general retreat was so great that it was difficult to locate the front and to find the higher commanders.”

With the support of the U.S. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions, the French managed to bring to a halt Operation BLÜCHER, the fourth of the five great German Spring Offensives. Dickman, however, expressed frustration with the parceling out of his division’s units to plug gaps in the line. Although he disliked being the caretaker instead of the commander, Dickman supported the Allies. He later wrote, “In conformity with the French policy of giving the American divisions instruction and experience, our regiments and battalions were scattered, laterally, over a wide area… and they performed a variety of duties, such as occupying front line positions, guarding bridges and constructing trench systems and other defensive works.”

After the Allies halted Operation BLÜCHER, the French high command assigned the 3rd Division to a consolidated sector in the line centering on Château-Thierry. In a letter to his brother-in-law, Dickman described the 3rd Division’s role in halting the German Operation MARNESCHUTZ-REIMS on 15 July, and the subsequent Allied counteroffensive starting on 18 July:

The River Marne flows in a deep valley, the bluffs on each side being more than 300 feet high… In this deep valley there are two good roads and a railroad which would be indispensable to the enemy in an advance towards the south and eventually towards Pairs. This valley was held by the right of my division and became the principal objective for the great attack of the Crown Prince, which at midnight of July 14th and 15th at 12:10, he turned loose all the artillery he had within reach – calibers of 77[mm], 150[mm], 210[mm] and Minenwerfers, which, for two hours and forty minutes, bombarded the front-line of my position and chewed up the ground and the forest. At ten minutes of three in the morning of July 15th, he commenced crossing the Marne in boats and on foot-bridges. The attack extended from near the left on my position [Château-Thierry] nearly all the way east to Dormans.

The artillery of my division immediately began its fire of counter-preparation directed against the north bank of the Marne and then against the bridges which he was trying to throw across the river. His troops were under fire as they approached the crossing, while in the boats and when they landed. I had over 200 machine-guns in selected positions, carefully camouflaged and protected, which opened a very destructive fire on the enemy as he came across.

However, on the right of my position, which was held by the 125th French Division and other divisions of the French Army, and towards Dormans, the enemy was more successful. The whole thing gave way and by early morning the German troops had gained the high ground five miles south of the river, and my division was fighting the enemy’s force five miles in the rear of its right flank. We lost a battery, which could not be carried off, as the French support disappeared early in the game. It was necessary to refuse the right flank a little to meet this attack, but the whole line held firmly and effectively stopped the invasion of the German forces, and as he was unable to gain possession of the Sumerlin Valley, he could make no headway.

Dickman was kind in his description of the French units on his right flank. The French 125th Division unceremoniously pulled back, leaving the 3rd Division’s flank completely exposed at the point of German penetration across the Marne. Swiftly, the 3rd Division “refused their right” by essentially forming a right angle, fighting along the Marne and on their right in the Surmelin River Valley. Tenacity more than expert execution enabled the 3rd Division to thwart the German advance. The attacks were disjointed and unsupported, resulting in high casualties. But the American propensity to fight tenaciously, almost to the last man, masked operational shortcomings. The 3rd Division held, and in the process earned the nickname it still bears, “Rock of the Marne.” During the battle Dickman famously said, “Nous resterons là” (“We shall remain here”). In August 1918 Dickman was given command of the U.S. IV Corps, which included the 1st, 3rd, 42nd, and 89th Divisions – all battle-tested and experienced units. After a reprieve, IV Corps deployed in early September to participate in the Saint-Mihiel offensive. The German-occupied Saint-Mihiel salient protruded into the Allied line and threatened the French ability to support Verdun. The salient also represented a threat to the American right flank and rear for the planned Meuse–Argonne offensive. AEF General John Pershing therefore insisted on eliminating the Saint-Mihiel salient before launching the Meuse–Argonne attack.

Writing his brother-in-law on 11 September, Dickman described the plans and preparations for the Saint-Mihiel offensive:

The command of a corps of over 100,000 men now under my control is a serious business. When orders are prepared the operation is prescribed for D day and H hour. These are kept secret as long as possible. It is just not D-1 and H-10hr. The artillery bombardment of 800 guns from my corps alone begins at H-4 and lasts until H hour at which time the infantry leaves the jumping off trench and starts for the enemy. In this case H hour is 5 in the morning of Sep. 12th. My corps, as you will have seen in the papers, is the 4th and consists of the 1st, 3rd, 42nd and 89th divisions. I also have several hundred tanks, 5 balloons, and it is reported that 1,700 airplanes are to take part in the show. All the preparations are made, the die is cast, I am waiting for the few remaining hours for the beginning of an affair, the effect of which will be felt around the world. If it succeeds, it must convince the German people that they cannot win this war.

Dickman also described the uncomfortable situation a senior commander finds himself in just before the start of a battle: the plan is set, the orders are issued, and the corps commander can only wait. Dickman spent the hours prior to the attack playing the card game solitaire. Once the attack started, the combined American and French forces reduced the salient in just two days. At the time, it appeared to be a stunning feat of arms, but the Germans were already in the process of withdrawing from the Saint-Mihiel salient, and the attack caught them just as they were starting their retrograde action.

The Meuse–Argonne offensive kicked off on 26 September 1918. Most of the units that had fought in the Saint-Mihiel offensive were still in the process of redeploying, and were not available for the first phase of the Meuse–Argonne operation. Thus, mostly new, untested American divisions were committed, and the initial results were not good. The French had not been able to pierce the German first-line Kriemhilde Stellung in three years, yet Pershing required almost impossible objectives and accepted nothing less than success. But the Meuse–Argonne offensive stalled quickly and the casualties were exceedingly high. Pershing’s determination to fight a maneuver battle of “open warfare” and reliance on the verve of the untested American soldier risked catastrophic failure. Pershing sacked officers who failed to meet their objectives, no matter the casualty rate or the impossibility of their missions. In a letter to his wife, Dickman expressed his concern: “So many generals are being reduced in rank or sent home that I sometimes wonder when my turn is coming… As somebody says, all this may build up a back-fire and if anything should go wrong, somebody else’s head might go into the basket.”

LIEUTENANT GENERAL ROBERT L. BULLARD

Lieutenant General Robert Lee Bullard belonged to a small circle of U.S. Army officers, which also included Hunter Liggett and Joseph Dickman, who rose to field army command during or immediately after the Great War. Bullard established a reputation as one of the senior officers upon whom Pershing could rely to implement the standards the AEF’s commander-in-chief expected of American troops in France. A devotion to Pershing’s emphasis on discipline and offensive-mindedness helped propel Bullard through the AEF’s hierarchy at a rapid pace, elevating him to the command of a brigade, a division, a corps, and a field army in less than a year. He played a major role in some of the AEF’s pivotal engagements, including Cantigny, the Aisne–Marne offensive, and the climactic fighting in the Meuse–Argonne. Overshadowed by more flamboyant officers and largely forgotten today, Bullard nonetheless emerged as a mainstay of the AEF’s combat leadership structure, and typified both the strengths and weaknesses of the officers that dominated the AEF’s higher-echelon combat commands throughout the war.

Born on 15 January 1861 near Opelika, Alabama, into a struggling farming family, Bullard sought to overcome his circumstances through higher education. He attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (today Auburn University) for one year, but his family’s inability to pay for additional studies prompted him to seek and accept admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1881. Bullard graduated with a second lieutenant’s commission in 1885, placing 27th in a class of 39 graduating cadets. Assigned to the 10th Infantry Regiment in New Mexico, Bullard participated in the campaign to capture the Apache leader Geronimo. After this, Bullard’s career settled into the routine of peacetime garrison duties on the Western frontier. Desperate to escape the stasis into which his career appeared to be sinking by the mid-1890s, Bullard attempted to obtain a transfer from the line to one of the U.S. Army’s powerful staff bureaus, a move that promised faster promotion, an increase in pay, and proximity to the Army’s centers of institutional power and influence in Washington.

Bullard’s efforts paid off with his appointment to the Subsistence Bureau, but before he could take up his duties as a staff officer, the outbreak of the Spanish–American War dramatically altered the course of his career. Commissioned a major in the wartime U.S. Volunteers, Bullard organized and trained a battalion (subsequently expanded into a regiment) of African-American volunteers from Alabama. Although the regiment was disbanded without ever being deployed overseas, Bullard gained experience as a troop leader, sufficiently impressing his superiors to warrant further promotion and to gain command of another regiment of U.S. Volunteers that he led in the Philippine War in southern Luzon, and in the Moro Insurgency in Mindanao. Returning to the United States after an assignment as an administrator of a district in the Philippines, Bullard reverted to duty with the infantry. Over the next few years, he served in a variety of assignments that included temporary duty with the Provisional Government in Cuba, command of a Regular U.S. Army infantry regiment, and a year as a student at the Army War College (1911–12).

Over the next five years, Bullard’s military career was bound up with events on the Mexican border. The political instability during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) prompted the Wilson Administration to maintain a military presence in the Southeast for much of the decade. Bullard took command of one of the infantry regiments deployed to the Mexican border. By 1916, with the crisis in Mexico threatening to spill over into U.S. territory, Wilson ordered the mobilization of the National Guard for deployment to the southern border. As an officer with command experience, Bullard was a natural choice to lead one of the National Guard brigades.

While on the Mexican border, Bullard had given little thought to the possibility of the United States actively intervening in the war that had been ravaging Europe since 1914. All of that changed in April 1917, when the United States entered that war. Confronted with the need for a massive expansion of the peacetime U.S. Army into a force capable of making a meaningful impact on the course of the war, the War Department authorized the organization of several officer training camps to produce a cadre for the wartime army. Within a few days of America’s declaration of war against Imperial Germany, Bullard was assigned the task of organizing and commanding one such facility, at Little Rock, Arkansas. In May, he was promoted to brigadier general, and assigned to command the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, the formation that comprised the nucleus of what would become the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

Arriving in France in mid-June 1917, Bullard spent several months overseeing the establishment and operation of the AEF’s school system. That assignment reflected Pershing’s high estimate of Bullard as an officer capable of implementing what the AEF chief envisioned as a key element of his command’s future success on the Western Front. Pershing viewed AEF schools as crucial to imbue his subordinates with the offensive spirit he believed America’s European partners lacked. In spite of the AEF high command’s determination not to emulate French or British warfighting methods, Bullard took care to inspect and observe the French Army’s approach to organizing instructional facilities. His responsibilities were subsequently narrowed down to establishing four schools for training infantry platoon leaders. While willing to observe his hosts’ best practices, Bullard was careful not to imitate their tactical precepts, thus remaining well within the parameters of Pershing’s guidance concerning military instruction in the AEF.

Notwithstanding his contribution to setting the foundations of the AEF school system, Bullard’s work in that sphere soon came to an abrupt end. Determined to restrict the AEF’s higher command echelons to officers who conformed to the strictest standards of professional competence, mental agility, and physical fitness, Pershing proved uncompromising in culling the ranks of his divisional and corps commanders of officers he believed failed to measure up to those standards, and replacing them with men of greater promise. Among the first to fall short of the mark was Major General William Seibert, commander of the 1st Division, whose unsatisfactory performance resulted in his being sent back to the United States. Pershing designated Bullard as Seibert’s replacement.

Given the privileged place that the 1st Division – “Pershing’s Pets,” as its soldiers became known in the AEF – occupied in Pershing’s mind, Bullard’s assignment spoke volumes about the professional regard the AEF’s commander had for the erstwhile brigadier general. But it also placed on Bullard a considerable burden of responsibility. As commander of the 1st Division, Bullard became a key player in Pershing’s efforts to transform it into an organizational template for the AEF as a whole, a formation whose high standards of discipline, training, and combat effectiveness would serve as a benchmark for all American combat divisions. Bullard threw himself into the task of molding the 1st Division into an organization capable of operating effectively in the challenging combat environment of the Western Front. Toward that end, Bullard supervised the implementation of an AEF-prescribed training program designed to get his division ready to take its place in the front line.

By January 1918, Bullard’s division was proficient enough to enter the line in a “quiet” sector of the front located in the Saint-Mihiel salient. Here, the troops honed their tactical skills by conducting raids against German positions and learning infantry–artillery cooperation and aerial observation in support of ground operations. In addition, this helped Bullard address lingering deficiencies in staff work and communications with his command, while providing valuable experience in working with French commanders.

Although much work remained, events unfolding on the Western Front ensured that the 1st Division would never complete its training regimen. The onset of Operation MICHAEL, the first of the great offensives that the German high command launched in the spring of 1918, forced the AEF to commit its partially trained units to battle. Accordingly, Bullard received orders to proceed with his division from the Saint-Mihiel salient to Picardy, where it could assist the French in stopping the German advance. In late April, the 1st Division took up positions opposite the German-occupied village of Cantigny, northwest of the town of Montdidier. Although the expected German hammer blow against the sector did not materialize, Bullard’s troops remained in place. Both the American and French high command had something more ambitious in mind for the 1st Division, however. In early May, the division began preparations for the first major American offensive operation of the war: a well-rehearsed attack to capture and hold Cantigny to improve the Allies’ tactical position in the sector, but also to show to America’s French and British allies the AEF’s maturation as a military force.

Preceded by elaborate and carefully rehearsed preparations intended to minimize the possibility of failure, the attack consisted of a limited operation by a single regiment of the 1st Division heavily supported by French artillery and aerial reconnaissance assets. Determined that nothing be left to chance, Bullard delegated the burden of developing the plan to liberate Cantigny to his G-3 (operations chief), Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall. Marshall’s brilliance shone forth with his singular ability to develop complex plans and present them in a manner that subordinates could execute them. Such acumen caught the attention of not only Bullard, but General Pershing as well. Bullard’s trust in Marshall paid off, and on 28 May, the 28th Infantry Regiment captured Cantigny with only about a hundred casualties. Consolidating the gains and defending the village from German counterattacks proved significantly more problematic, however, with the 28th Infantry losing a third of its strength while fighting off repeated German counterattacks before being relieved by the 18th Infantry. A relatively minor engagement by the standards of the Western Front, Cantigny was the first American offensive victory of the war, and provided Pershing with the evidence he needed to demonstrate that his troops were capable of operating effectively on the Western Front.

In early July Bullard was elevated to command the AEF’s newly established III Corps. Bullard was tasked with coordinating the preparations of the 1st and 2nd Divisions for the Franco–American counterattack at Soissons, but critical shortages of staff meant that Bullard had to delegate effective tactical control of the two AEF divisions to the French XX Corps, while Bullard and his staff observed the attack from the sidelines. Only a few days later, however, III Corps received control of three AEF divisions (3rd, 28th, and 32nd) operating in the Aisne–Marne sector as part of the French Sixth Army.

Bullard’s experiences in July and August 1918 proved among the most challenging and frustrating of his time in command. For several weeks, his divisions were bogged down in the vicious fighting focused on the valley of the Vesle River, where they fought to dislodge the retreating Germans from their defensive positions along the northern bank. In addition to the tenacity of the German opposition, Bullard had to contend with an array of problems that constrained his ability to exercise effective command. Serious friction characterized Bullard’s relationship with General Jean Degoutte, commander of the French Sixth Army, with the latter professing impatience with what he saw as his American divisions’ deficient aggressiveness. Bullard also clashed with Colonel Alfred W. Bjornstad, his abrasive and at times insubordinate chief of staff. Poor staff work, compounded by logistical and communications problems, exacerbated Bullard’s frustrations. These issues culminated in the painful episode at Fismette, a small hamlet on the north bank of the Vesle that became the focal point of some of the bitterest fighting that American troops endured that summer. Convinced that retaining the small bridgehead his troops held in Fismette in the face of fierce German counterattacks was futile, Bullard ordered the bridgehead evacuated, only to have his orders countermanded by Bjornstad and Degoutte, resulting in the killing, wounding, or capture of the better part of a company of the 28th Division clinging to Fismette.

The impasse along the Vesle came to an end in early September, when the Germans abandoned their positions because French successes further to the northwest had made their positions untenable. Bullard’s troops followed the retreating defenders for a few days, but on 8 September, III Corps turned its sector over to a French headquarters and proceeded east to join the U.S. First Army. Bullard’s men did not participate in the reduction of the Saint-Mihiel salient (12–15 September), but would play a key role in the great offensive that Pershing intended to launch between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River later that month. The plan for what would become the Meuse–Argonne offensive envisioned III Corps operating on the right of the line, its eastern boundary along the Meuse itself. Bullard’s task was to advance alongside and protect the eastern flank of General George Cameron’s V Corps. The latter, positioned in the center of the U.S. First Army’s three-corps front, had the decisive task of capturing the dominant German defensive position at Montfaucon. Bullard’s orders lacked clarity. While they required III Corps to advance against and capture German defensive positions east of Montfaucon and subsequently take the latter terrain feature under enfilade fire, they provided little indication about whether Bullard’s units were expected to turn Montfaucon from the east by crossing into the V Corps zone of advance. In the absence of explicitly articulated guidance, Bullard and his staff elected to treat divisional and corps boundaries as binding, a decision that would have profound implications for the attack’s execution.

When the Meuse–Argonne offensive began on the morning of 26 September, Bullard’s attack initially went well. All three of his frontline divisions (from west to east the 4th, 80th, and 33rd) moved forward despite suffering from enfilading artillery fire directed at them from the German batteries on the east bank of the Meuse. Problems soon developed on Bullard’s left, where the 4th Division’s initial rapid advance to the corps objective soon slowed down when it became clear that the German defenders of Montfaucon were holding out against the attacks of V Corps’ 79th Division, while pouring enfilading fire into the 4th Division’s left flank. General John L. Hines, commander of the 4th Division, sought permission from Bjornstad to swing his division west, into the V Corps sector, to link with the 37th Division north of Montfaucon, thus enveloping the troublesome strongpoint and severing its defenders from sources of supply and reinforcements. Bjornstad balked at the audacity of Hines’ proposal, but in Bullard’s temporary absence from headquarters, authorized the 4th Division commander to make a limited advance into the V Corps zone beyond Montfaucon. Before the movement could begin in earnest, however, Hines received orders from III Corps headquarters countermanding this limited attack.

The cancelation of the order remains one of the most controversial episodes of the Meuse–Argonne offensive, not in the least because the person on whose authority it was issued has never been conclusively identified. Historians have variously singled out both Bullard and Bjornstad as responsible for the revocation of the order. Regardless of who bore the blame, III Corps continued to attack straight ahead toward the First Army’s objective line, instead of maneuvering to support the 79th Division. The strongpoint did not fall until the following day, slowing down the First Army’s advance and contributing to its loss of momentum, while allowing the Germans to bring up reinforcements that further slowed the tempo of the offensive as a whole.

Over the next few days, III Corps continued to push against rapidly hardening German defenses. Typical of the conditions all along the American line, Bullard’s troops found their progress hampered not only by the enemy but also by deteriorating weather and the logistical gridlock that threatened to overwhelm the sparse road network upon which the entire First Army depended for its sustainment. Even so, Bullard’s command advanced farther than either V Corps or I Corps (the latter on the extreme left of the line), reaching the second German defensive line by the time Pershing called an operational pause on 30 September. When the offensive resumed on 4 October, III Corps focused its efforts on capturing German positions between Cunel and Romagne, sustaining 8,000 casualties in two days of fighting in exchange for relatively limited gains. For nearly a week thereafter, Bullard’s attacks conformed to a similar trend. By 12 October, III Corps had pushed through the Kriemhilde Stellung, the mainstay of the German defensive network in the Meuse–Argonne sector, but at the cost of mounting casualties, with Bullard and Pershing increasingly compelled to goad unit commanders into action they perceived as inadequately aggressive.

On 10 October 1918 Pershing activated the U.S. Second Army, with Bullard in command as a lieutenant general. Once the new formation was ready for combat, its mission would be to advance up the eastern bank of the Meuse, screening the right flank of the U.S. First Army. Arriving at his new headquarters at Toul in mid-October, Bullard threw himself into the task of preparing his new, and still largely notional command for a major attack. With the Meuse–Argonne offensive in full swing, Bullard did not have much to work with. The Second Army’s order of battle never exceeded six divisions, including units that had suffered heavy losses in the Meuse–Argonne or, conversely, had little to no combat experience. Bullard’s army also lacked a sufficient number of specialized combat support and transport units, though in contrast to his previous experience as a corps commander, it did have an efficient staff, including a chief of staff, Colonel Stuart Heintzelman, whose professionalism offered a refreshing contrast to Bjornstad’s controlling tendencies.

Apart from organizational and logistical considerations, Bullard’s tenure as Second Army commander embroiled him in the controversy surrounding the treatment of the 92nd Division, an African-American formation assigned to his sector. Like many other detractors of black troops, Bullard exaggerated the substandard performance of one of the division’s four infantry regiments in the Meuse–Argonne, while overlooking the impressive combat records of its other elements. He also ignored the role that the racist mindsets of the division’s white officers played in hampering the unit’s ability to function effectively in combat. Bullard’s own racial outlook may also have contributed to the jaundiced view he expressed on the division’s combat effectiveness in particular, and African-Americans’ soldierly qualities in general.

The Second Army finally went on the offensive on the morning of 10 November, when Bullard ordered his divisions to make limited attacks against German positions in preparation for a general offensive that Pershing directed Bullard to commence the following day. The Armistice put an end to that operation before the Second Army had had a chance to make more than limited advances along its front, although Bullard insisted that his troops press on with their attacks even after he had learned, early on the morning of 11 November, that a ceasefire would take effect later in the day. The decision reinforced Bullard’s reputation, in the eyes of contemporaries and future historians alike, as a commander whose dedication to Pershing’s insistence on aggressiveness in battle bordered on a callous disregard for his soldiers’ lives.

The anticlimactic conclusion of Bullard’s Great War experience foreshadowed the remainder of his long life. Returning to the United States in March 1919, he was attached to the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Peyton March, and participated in discussions about the postwar structure of America’s defense establishment. In October 1919, he received command of the Eastern Department (designated the II Corps area in 1920) with headquarters on Governors Island in New York harbor. Rapid demobilization soon stripped Bullard’s command of troops and units to a point where his duties became largely ceremonial. Though he continued to influence debates related to national defense policy and advocated universal military training, the decline of popular interest in such matters rendered his proposals moot. Following his retirement from the Army at the mandatory age of 64 in January 1924, Bullard struggled to find a useful role. The following year he became president of the National Defense League, a civic organization dedicated to the promotion of causes close to his heart, including higher defense budgets, universal military service, and patriotic instruction in the nation’s schools. A prolific writer, he authored three books, including his own wartime memoir, intended to highlight the American contribution to the Allied victory in 1918, as well as newspaper articles on military subjects. In spite of his knack for publicity and tireless involvement in veterans’ organizations, Bullard slipped out of public consciousness within a few years of his retirement. He died on 11 September 1947 in New York City, World War II having erased from popular memory what little recognition he may have once had.

A century after the Great War, historians remain ambivalent about Bullard’s legacy. His biographer Allan R. Millett views Bullard’s significance largely in terms of his stature as the archetype of a senior U.S. Army officer whose career reflected in microcosm that institution’s transition from a “frontier constabulary” to a professional military serving an industrialized world power. A more recent historiographical strain emphasizes Bullard’s willingness to conform to Pershing’s injunctions about leadership, organization, and operational and tactical doctrine as the key to his dazzling career trajectory during the war. Whatever the verdict, there is no doubt that Bullard’s consistent, and at times ruthless, commitment to acculturating his various commands to the spirit of Regular Army discipline and aggressiveness in battle was instrumental in shaping the AEF as a whole in the mold Pershing continually sought to impress upon it.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL HUNTER LIGGETT

Hunter Liggett was the personification of a soldier-scholar. He studied the character of war and considered its ramifications on the future. Liggett studied campaigns of old, constantly reading books of history that highlighted the campaigns of Grant, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Napoleon, and endeavored to pass this knowledge on to his subordinates. His keen eye and understanding were evident in a staff ride that he led in 1914 in Luzon, Philippines, where he intuitively identified the Lingayen Gulf as the best location to conduct an invasion. This beach would be used by Japanese Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma in 1941 and by General Douglas MacArthur in 1945 during World War II. Such foresight would serve Liggett well in World War I, especially in the Meuse–Argonne campaign of 1918.

Liggett was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on 21 March 1857. He graduated from West Point in 1879 and was assigned to the 5th Infantry Regiment, serving along the frontier in the Dakota and Montana territories, pursuing groups of Lakota Indians. Most of the frontier was secure in July 1881 after the surrender of Sitting Bull (the Apache Wars continued in the southwest for several more years). After this, Liggett and the 5th Regiment served in Texas and Florida. He deployed briefly to Cuba during the Spanish–American War and then to the Philippines. While there, Liggett met John J. Pershing, an acquaintance who would play an important role in his life during World War I.

In 1903, Liggett returned to the U.S. as a staff officer at the Department of the Great Lakes in Chicago and then held battalion command at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1907. Although not officially a student, Liggett furthered his military education at Leavenworth by monitoring classes at the School of the Line and the Staff School, thanks to the help of Lieutenant George C. Marshall. In 1909, Liggett reported to the U.S. Army War College as a student and was subsequently selected to serve as a member of the faculty. Liggett updated the curriculum with historic studies in the context of the changing character of war, as well as developing war plans for regional interventions.

Liggett’s career continued to prosper when he was selected to command the Department of the Great Lakes in 1913. This was followed by brigade commands in Texas and the Philippines. In 1916, Liggett was given command of the Department of the Philippines and by that time was one of the most experienced officers in the United States Army. When war was declared in April 1917, Hunter Liggett was quickly given command of the 41st Division and would rise rapidly to corps and army command.

On 22 September 1917, a group of 14 American division commanders, including Hunter Liggett, sailed from Hoboken to France to get a firsthand view of the war. After a tour of the British and French lines, they reported to Pershing’s headquarters at Chaumont where he briefed them on his vision for fighting the war. Pershing commented on the quality of the senior officers in the group, writing in his memoirs, “Quite a number of the division commanders… were either physically unfit or had reached the age when new ideas fail to make much of an impression and consequently, I recommended that both classes be left home for other duty or retired.”

Liggett, very overweight and 60 years old, seemed to fit into this class of officers. However, Pershing knew him from the Philippines and saw that, even in 1917, he was both an innovative thinker and a tireless leader. Nonetheless, the group of officers returned to Bordeaux for transport back to the States to prepare their divisions for deployment to France. However, Liggett’s 41st Division was soon to arrive and he remained in France to await them. When the unit arrived in December 1917, it was broken up and the men assigned largely to the 1st and 2nd Divisions. (The 41st was a designated replacement division.) Liggett later took pride in the performance of the 1st and 2nd Divisions, knowing that he had trained many of the men.

Pershing personally selected Liggett to command I Corps on 15 January 1918. His excellent character as an officer, and his reputation as a critical thinker and a brilliant student of history, continued to bless his career with success. I Corps was comprised of the 1st, 2nd, 26th, 32nd, 41st, and 42nd Divisions. The corps deployed to the Vosges, with the remnants of the 41st assuming training duties. The units assigned to Liggett’s I Corps were spread across France in various French training areas or supporting Allied operations. He organized his staff and did all that he could to ensure that they would be ready to plan and conduct corps-level operations.

Liggett’s chief of staff when he commanded the 41st Division was Colonel Malin Craig, a future chief of staff of the U.S. Army. They had met at the Army War College. Due to their friendship, Craig announced to Liggett that he would serve as the chief of staff, to which Liggett readily agreed. Liggett said that he “gave [Craig] a free hand and charged him with responsibility in selecting his section chiefs and otherwise building the machine.” Liggett diverged from Pershing’s penchant for micromanagement, and instead demanded that the staff sections “relieve [him] of all detail… permitting [him] to concentrate entirely on [his] job as commander.” Liggett’s guidance to his staff was that he wanted a “harmonious family” and that any troublemakers would be removed. This gave Liggett time to contemplate how best to employ his troops in the ever-changing environment without getting bogged down into unnecessary details.

Hunter Liggett also disagreed with Pershing’s cult of the bayonet view on how to fight in 1918. Pershing believed that the French and British had become flaccid during the years of trench warfare. To overcome this, he believed that the Americans should not train for trench warfare and rather focus on open “maneuver” warfare. This led to the over-emphasis on bayonet and rifle training, in the belief that once the American solider arrived, the AEF would break out of the trenches and drive the Germans back. This resulted in Pershing issuing orders to not heed the lessons learned from the Allies’ experience, as he feared this would take the aggressive fighting spirit from his Doughboys. Liggett disagreed with Pershing on this. Although he supported the idea of training the men in maneuver, he also thought it foolhardy to ignore the realities of the trenches. Liggett rightly believed that it was essential that the Americans were trained in both areas and used his position as commander to make this happen. The French and British were happy to accommodate this and eagerly accepted the rotation of American units into the trenches.

The collapse of the Russian Empire in November 1917 gave Germany an opportunity to knock the French or British out of the war before the late-arriving American Army could swing the balance against them in mid-1918. Ludendorff wrote of this:

With the American entry into the war, the relative strengths would be more in German favor in the spring than in late summer… unless we had by then gained a great victory… Only a far-reaching military success which would make it appear to the Entente powers that, even with the help of America, the continuation of the war offered no… prospects of success, would provide the possibility of rendering our embittered opponents really ready to make peace. This was the political aim of the Supreme Command in 1918.

With that in mind, Ludendorff transferred nearly a million men to the Western Front over the winter of 1917–18 to participate in a series of offensives that began in March 1918. The German hammer blows achieved some deep penetrations into the Allied lines, but never achieved a breakthrough. In the end, Ludendorff’s offensives failed to achieve the strategic success needed to win the war.

Liggett rushed his units to various parts of the Western Front to backstop British and French divisions as well as to occupy large segments of the line to free up additional troops to deploy to threatened sectors. As the American 1st Division launched an impressive attack against the Germans at Cantigny, the fourth German offensive (Operation BLÜCHER) kicked off north of the Marne, driving a 30-mile wedge south into the Allied lines at Château-Thierry. Liggett’s American I Corps joined the French Sixth Army to blunt the German attack and then drive them back in an audacious counteroffensive in July. The legacy of this campaign is still with the United States Army and Marine Corps. During the defense of the Marne River, I Corps’ 3rd Division absorbed a series of fierce German attacks and then drove their enemy back, earning the moniker “Rock of the Marne.” Meanwhile, the 2nd Division, comprised of one Marine brigade, dashed into Belleau Wood and drove the Germans back; earning the moniker “Devil Dogs.”

As the last of the German attacks faded in July, Liggett was ordered to support the French to drive the Germans back from the Marne. Liggett was given tactical command of the French III Corps in addition to his own I Corps – the first time that French soldiers served under American command since the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. The attack kicked off on 18 July 1918 and the Franco–American attack drove the Germans back. Liggett’s force included nearly 200,000 men from nine American divisions. The debut of the first American corps-level attack since 1865 showed immense promise. Liggett remarked, “Our officers, with very few exceptions, had measured up the most exacting requirements of modern warfare in the open.” With this impressive start of large American operations, Liggett’s corps was moved south of Verdun to prepare for the reduction of the Saint-Mihiel salient.

The Saint-Mihiel salient had existed since 1914 and was 25 miles wide and 16 miles deep. This wedge gave the Germans several advantages, chief of which was threatening the vital French Paris–Nancy rail network. Pershing planned this operation, with the approval of Foch, to test the American First Army. Liggett’s I Corps would fight here with two other American corps (the IV and V) and the French II Colonial Corps. The operation kicked off on 12 September and included 550,000 Americans, 110,000 French, 1,481 aircraft, 3,000 pieces of artillery, and 400 tanks.

Liggett’s I Corps was responsible for reducing the eastern flank of the salient and he appealed to Pershing for a more aggressive attack to cut off the Germans before they were able to escape. He also pushed for the element of surprise with a less lengthy preparatory barrage. Unfortunately, Liggett’s proposals were disregarded, denying the opportunity for what might have been an even more successful operation. B. H. Liddell Hart remarked on Liggett’s astute understanding of war:

Liggett’s early perception of the essential value of methods which the best of his allies only reached after years of trial and error, and which many of his contemporaries never arrived at, is a testimony to the superiority of study and reflection over mere experience, and to the value of a mind nourished on military history.

This reduction of the Saint-Mihiel salient was an astounding success, as Pershing remarked:

The rapidity with which our divisions advanced overwhelmed the enemy, and all objectives were reached by the afternoon of September 13. The enemy had apparently started to withdraw some of his troops from the tip of the salient on the eve of our attack, but had been unable to carry it through. We captured nearly 16,000 prisoners, 443 guns, and large stores of materiel and supplies. The energy and swiftness with which the operation was carried out enabled us to smother opposition to such an extent that we suffered less than 7,000 casualties during the actual period of the advance… After seventeen months… an American army was fighting under its own flag.

As the attack ended, Liggett’s I Corps, and most of the other American units, began a 60-mile move west to be ready for the Meuse–Argonne campaign, slated to kick off on 26 September 1918. The Meuse–Argonne campaign would be the largest battle in American history, and over the course of its 47 days included 1.2 million Americans and several hundred thousand French troops. The initial attack would include three American corps. Liggett’s I Corps was on the left third of the Meuse–Argonne area of operations; in the center was V Corps (under General George Cameron); and on the right, III Corps (under General Robert L. Bullard).

This area of operations was not new to Liggett’s staff; he had ordered them to study it eight months before as the best place for the American Army to attack. His thinking was precise; it was the narrowest part of the line along the Western Front where a successful offensive could threaten the vital German rail network at Sedan–Mézières. Germany had an extensive lateral rail network behind the lines along the Western Front, where it could shuttle some 20 reserve divisions to blunt Allied breakthroughs. Foch needed the German strategic reserves committed to fighting the Americans in the Meuse–Argonne region to open the way for a British and French breakthrough in the north. After the American attack in the region commenced on 26 September 1918, three other Allied Army converging attacks would follow in sequence.

Liggett’s I Corps was given difficult terrain to attack through. With a sector about 10 miles in width (west to east), the western half encompassed the entire Argonne Forest along the American boundary with the French Fourth Army. The Argonne is one of the rare ancient forests in Western Europe that withstood time, empires, and the industrial revolution. It is simply too rugged to navigate or exploit. The forest juts up above the western flank of the Meuse Valley along a north–south axis. It is filled with deep ravines, artesian wells, steep cliffs, and thick groups of trees. Control of the Argonne affords the occupant extensive observation and control of the Meuse Valley to the east, and was therefore considered key terrain for both the Germans and Americans in 1918. Everything about this forest gave the defender the advantage.

The eastern portion of I Corps’ sector was in the western Meuse Valley, intersected by the narrow L’Aire River and a series of hills and ridges running west to east (favoring the German defenders). The key terrain in the Meuse Valley facing Liggett’s men was the devastated hill of Vauquois. The hill once had a village on top of it, but it was completely destroyed as French and German engineers exploded more than 500 subterranean mines under the hill in an effort to drive each other off of it. A massive scar split the hill along what became no man’s land as a result.

Liggett had three divisions in his corps for the main attack. The 77th Division occupied the western half of the Argonne with its western boundary along the French Fourth Army area of operations. The 77th was a National Guard division mostly recruited from New York City; the division had the nicknames of “Metropolitan Division” and “Liberty Division.” It was commanded by Major General Robert Alexander who had a reputation for pushing blame down the line to his brigade and regimental commanders when things went wrong. The 77th was one of the AEF’s most experienced divisions, but had suffered heavy casualties and was in the midst of incorporating 4,000 new soldiers into the unit.

Given the mission of clearing the eastern half of the Argonne and the western edge of the Meuse Valley was the 28th Division. The 28th was also a National Guard division, had an excellent reputation in the AEF, and was commanded by Major General Charles Muir. The 28th likewise had suffered significant casualties earlier in the summer and was integrating green replacements before the attack kicked off. The 35th Division occupied the eastern third of I Corps’ area of operations and was given the daunting task of liberating Vauquois. The 35th was also a National Guard division comprised of men mostly from Kansas and Missouri. Captain Harry S. Truman commanded a battery of artillery in the 35th. The division was commanded by Major General Peter Traub and was one of the most inexperienced in the AEF.

As the Meuse–Argonne attack kicked off, Liggett’s men pushed ahead, meeting stiff German resistance especially in the Argonne Forest, where American gains were negligible at best. The forest was defended by the German 76th Reserve Division and the 2nd Landwehr Württemberg Division. The Württembergers spent most of the war in the Argonne and said that it was like a second home to them. They made the Americans pay dearly in blood and held them at bay in the Argonne. However, the 28th Division had success in driving the German 1st Prussian Guards back in the valley east of the Argonne, forcing the Württembergers in the Argonne to fall back to avoid encirclement.

The inexperienced 35th Division managed to secure Vauquois in just a few hours. This was due largely to the heroic action by several small-unit leaders, such as a battalion commander Major James Rieger, and a squadron of tanks led forward by Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton. But the 35th began to fall apart as German resistance stiffened when the strategic reserves arrived. A series of German counterattacks threatened to punch a hole into the 35th Division, but this was averted by several of the unit’s chaplains who took command of broken units and the swift arrival of the 110th Engineer Regiment. The 1st Division arrived on 30 September to take over the 35th’s area of operations.

Meanwhile, things were not going well in the Argonne. Neither the 77th nor the 28th Division had made significant headway in the forest. To make matters worse, a joint push of the French Fourth Army to the west of the Argonne and I Crops in the Argonne failed on 2 October 1918. However, a mixed command of just under 700 Americans from the 77th Division found a gap in the German lines and penetrated about half a mile behind the enemy. Under the command of Major Charles Whittlesey, this element would be called the “Lost Battalion” by the Americans and endure a five-day siege, with every frontal attack by the 77th Division trying to save them being driven back. Liggett saw his opportunity. Borrowing a page from Stonewall Jackson’s brilliant flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville in 1863, Liggett ordered the 82nd Division to advance up the Meuse Valley, and, together with the 28th Division, attack in a westerly direction to cut off the Germans in the Argonne from the rear. If this worked, the Lost Battalion would be saved.

The American attack kicked off in earnest on 8 October 1918 and initially failed to make headway, until Corporal Alvin C. York from Pall Mall, Tennessee, rose to the occasion. Alvin was a Christian from a pacifist denomination and struggled with the morality of killing for one’s country. However, facing a hail of German bullets, and in an endeavor to save the lives of his fellow soldiers, Alvin York eliminated a German machine gun, fought off a bayonet attack, killed 25 of the enemy, and captured 132. His actions helped to break the German control of the Argonne and triggered their withdrawal from the forest.

Although making small gains in mid-October, the American First Army was facing stalemate and stagnation. Pershing was too caught up in the details of running the First Army and dealing with the Allied leaders as AEF commander-in-chief. Additionally, he planned on establishing a U.S. Second Army, and therefore decided to relinquish command of First Army to Hunter Liggett on 16 October 1918. The First Army was in bad shape after three weeks of continuous attacks and Liggett accepted command contingent on being given a free hand in reorganizing it, putting off the next major offensive until 1 November (in conjunction with the French Fourth Army), and not having constant interference from the AEF commander. To his credit, Pershing agreed, knowing that Liggett was the best man for the job.

The plan was for First Army units already in the line to maintain pressure on the Germans until the 1 November push. Liggett ordered integration of artillery, aviation, and tanks in the big push. He called for troops to use small-unit tactics to bypass enemy strongpoints and to maneuver to their designated objectives. Liggett wrote of this:

There was a lull of two weeks in the major operation while we tightened up. My staff and I traveled constantly among the troops, making every effort to profit from my past mistakes and to encourage the fighting spirit of the army for the impending attack on the enemy’s main positions, and never was the response more immediate or effective.

His view of Pershing’s handling of the First Army was not a positive one: “The defects of the American operation in this battle were such as were humanly inescapable in a not yet fully seasoned army…” Reflecting on the first large battle of the American Civil War, Liggett wrote, “I know that [Union General] McDowell had a perfect plan of battle at the First Bull Run [1861], but that he made the mistake of assuming that he had an army instead of a well-intentioned mob…” Liggett’s First Army attack, which began on 1 November 1918, progressed superbly. Artillery fire was maximized, coordination with aviation improved, and the use of tanks was brilliantly executed. He managed to do in one day what the AEF had not been able to do over the previous five weeks – drive the Germans back into open warfare. For the next ten days Liggett’s First Army was largely in pursuit of the enemy. Pershing’s dream of open warfare had at last arrived.

Liggett’s more flexible leadership style had the added benefit of encouraging risk and individual initiative. In one case, the Army brigade in the 2nd Division used its native German speakers to advance on the flanks and in front of the unit at night to tell the enemy to “join the formation” whereupon they were captured. This ruse enabled the 2nd Division to advance 4 miles behind enemy lines and drive them off the last defensible terrain in the area.

The waning days of the war were not without its controversies. First Army issued orders to continue the attack on 11 November, and these orders were not rescinded when word of the Armistice going into effect at 1100 hours arrived. This resulted in men falling in the final minutes of the war and costly river crossing operations over the Meuse River and Meuse Canal. Then there was the disastrous order to seize Sedan that resulted in the 1st Division countermarching across the I Corps sector and thereupon stopping the advance of a third of the First Army. Liggett’s reaction was nothing short of furious, calling the entire affair a “tactical atrocity.”

After the war, Liggett took command of the U.S. Third Army during its brief occupation of the German Rhineland. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1921. He died on 30 December 1935 in San Francisco, after writing two noteworthy books on his experience as a leader in the AEF. Of his experiences, Liggett wrote, “I took command of the First Army on the sixteenth [October 1918]. It then consisted of seventeen American and four French divisions… a total of more than 1,000,000 men,” and “The war was a succession of lost opportunities on both sides.”

Despite Liggett’s advanced age and ponderous appearance, Pershing recognized a leader who had a brilliant mind, and whose grasp and understanding of history was unmatched in the AEF. Indeed, Liggett was a model of what a scholar-soldier could do as a senior leader. His keen mind was quick to apply the lessons of history in the context of modern warfare. His leadership and vision perfected the First Army and he was responsible for its superb performance in the waning days of the war.

Forgotten Hero of World War I

Vitus Jonassen Bering I

RCHKG8 Fur Traders of the Russian-American Company. Museum: State Central Navy Museum, St. Petersburg. Author: Pshenichny, Igor Pavlovich.

On November 5, 1724, Peter the Great waded waist-deep into the icy waters of the Gulf of Finland to help rescue some sailors whose boat had capsized. Fever and chills followed, later developing into pneumonia; his friends and advisers gathered round. Yet even as he lay dying, he made one last grand gesture, which – in keeping with a monarch who seemed incapable of any inconsequential act – would lead to discoveries of imperishable renown. Andrei Nartov, an associate, recalled:

I was then almost constantly with the Emperor, and saw with my own eyes how eager this Majesty was to get the expedition under way, being, as it were, conscious that his end was near. When all had been arranged he seemed pleased and content. Calling the general-admiral (Count Apraksin) to him he said: “Recently I have been thinking over a matter which has been on my mind for many years, but other affairs have prevented me from carrying it out. I have reference to the finding of a passage through the Arctic Sea. On the map before me there is indicated such a passage bearing the name of Anian. There must be some reason for that. In my last travels I discussed the subject with learned men, and they were of the opinion that such a passage could be found. Now that the country is in no danger from enemies we should strive to win for her glory along the lines of the arts and sciences.”

On December 23, as the expedition assumed final shape in his mind, Peter drew up brief instructions to the Admiralty College for the selection of its chief personnel. He wanted geodesists with first-hand knowledge of Eastern Siberia, hardy shipwrights, experienced mariners, and, if possible, “a navigator and assistant navigator who have been to North America. If such navigators cannot be found in the [Russian] Navy, then immediately write to Holland via the Admiralty Post and request two men who are familiar with the sea north toward Japan.”

The Admiralty opted for their own and immediately settled on Vitus Bering, a Dane in Russian service, as the expedition’s commander. They assigned him two lieutenants: Martin Spanberg (also a Dane, who ran the packet boat that shuttled regularly between Lübeck and Kronstadt), and Alexei Chirikov, an instructor of cadets at the Naval Academy. None of these men had ever been to America, but Bering had been to the East Indies in his youth, and all three were exceptionally capable and expert seamen.

Bering hastened to the capital from Vyborg, where he had a small estate, and on January 26, 1725, Peter signed his orders and scrawled terse instructions to various officials to give Bering and his staff whatever help they required. The tsar’s instructions to Bering himself, however, though no less imperious and brief (according to his style), were cryptically phrased:

1. In Kamchatka or some other place build one or two boats with decks.

2. On those boats sail near the land which goes to the north which (since no one knows where it ends) it seems is part of America.

3. Discover where it is joined to America, and go as far as some town belonging to a European power; if you encounter some European ship, ascertain from it what is the name of the nearest coast, and write it down and go ashore personally and obtain firsthand information, locate it on a map and return here.

Two days later, Peter died. In his place, the empress Catherine I, his widow and successor, confirmed the orders and had them conveyed to Bering on February 5, 1725, inaugurating one of the most remarkable sagas in the history of exploration.

Born at Horsens, Denmark, in 1681, Vitus Jonassen Bering had joined the Russian Navy as a sublieutenant at the age of twenty-three, and had served in the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and the Baltic with distinction during the Great Northern War. His direction of transport and logistical operations earned him steady advancement, and by the end of the conflict he had made captain of the second rank. Under the patronage of two fellow Danes with considerable standing in the Admiralty, Peter Sievers and Cornelius Cruys (both primary architects of Peter’s new navy), Bering’s future prospects seemed bright. But at the conclusion of the war he was unexpectedly passed over for promotion, a casualty of the developing struggle in the naval high command between a faction led by Sievers and another (momentarily favored by the tsar) headed by Thomas Gordon, a Scot. Gordon’s star subsequently waned, and that of Sievers rose, with the support of Admiral Apraksin. But meanwhile, in disappointment, Bering had retired from the navy and withdrawn to his Vyborg estate.

Eight weeks later he was recalled to active duty, elevated to captain of the first rank, and given the assignment that was to govern the remainder of his days. At the time, he was forty-four years old.

Bering departed St. Petersburg upon receipt of his instructions and hastened to catch up to an advance contingent of the expedition which had left the capital twelve days before. From Vologda, they proceeded together across the Urals to Tobolsk, before embarking down the Irtysh River in May 1725. After pausing at Yeniseysk, where the party grew to ninety-seven with the addition of thirty carpenters and blacksmiths, they worked their way up the shoals and rapids of the Yenisey and Upper Tunguska rivers to Ilimsk. There the party divided, Spanberg going overland with the heavier supplies to Ust-Kut, where he supervised construction that winter of fifteen barges for conveying men and supplies down the Lena River to Yakutsk; and Bering heading south to Irkutsk, to assemble provisions for the next stage of the expedition and to plot the best route from there to Okhotsk.

Thus far, over the course of a year, and in spite of transport difficulties and little or no cooperation from Siberian officials, Bering had managed to move his men and equipment across 4,500 miles of mountain, forest, and steppe. But a still more trying road lay ahead. In the spring of 1726, more carpenters, blacksmiths, and two coopers were added to the force, and the whole party (reunited at Ust-Kut) embarked down the Lena River to Yakutsk. They made good time with sails and sweeps, and when the wind blew against them used an ingenious device called the watersail, made of larch logs lashed together and sunk lengthwise under the boats where the current acted upon it like the wind upon a sail. At Yakutsk, it was agreed that Chirikov remain for the winter to collect additional provisions, while Spanberg conveyed the heaviest and most unmanageable materiel (like rigging, tackle, iron, and tar) by boat to Yudoma Cross (at the headwaters of the Yudoma River). Bering himself, with two thousand leather sacks of flour, among other supplies, was to proceed on horseback directly to Okhotsk at the head of a baggage train.

The Yakutsk-to-Okhotsk Track – a deadly obstacle course of forests, rapids, marshes, icefields, bogs, and crags – was the roughest in Siberia, and after a forced march in which most of his packhorses died and tons of flour had to be cached along the way, Bering barely reached his destination before winter set in. Meanwhile, in early November Spanberg’s boats became ice-bound near the mouth of the Gorbeya River, short of Yudoma Cross and 350 miles from Okhotsk. The men disembarked, built dogsleds to carry the most vital stores (which they had to haul themselves), and to fend off starvation “consumed not only their horses, but their leather harness, clothing and boots.” From the raw horsehide itself they made new coats and shoes, having first “burnt off the Hair from their Skins with Lime.” Even so, they survived only because they found the flour Bering had cached, and because, when Bering learned of their predicament, he immediately dispatched dog teams for their relief. Meanwhile, to make better time, Spanberg had stored his own supplies in four different locations along the uninhabited trail. “And during his whole Passage,” Bering later recalled, “the poor People had no other Relief in the Night-time, or when the cutting icy Winds blew, than to cover themselves as deep as they could in the Snow.” The following spring the stashed provisions were retrieved, but there was no way to salvage the materiel which had been left on the boats, despite all the effort it had taken to bring them 5,000 miles from St. Petersburg.

And there was no way to make up for them either in Okhotsk, which was a refuge only in name. Located on “a current-ridden, empty waste of water,” the settlement consisted of eleven huts housing ten Russian families, a meager stock of powdered fish, and no home-grown foods, for not even rye, it was said, could ripen on its damp and windy shores. The men managed to build their own shelters, but construction of a proper ship was difficult because no stout trees like oak or elm grew in the vicinity, and the whole remote area “lacked all marine and other stores.” As a result, the decked boat they built for themselves (the Fortuna) was tied or “sewn” together with leather strips instead of being hammered together with nails. Such makeshift craft were common enough in Siberia because of the scarcity of technical supplies, but it was not the kind of vessel the naval officers were used to, or in which they had intended to cross the Okhotsk Sea. Nevertheless, in two trips with full cargos in the hold, the Fortuna served to convey them in July 1727 safely across to Bolsheretsk, the “capital” of Kamchatka. Located on the north side of the Bolshaya River, Bolsheretsk itself was still scarcely more than a stockade, garrisoned with about forty-five troops. Outside the fort there was a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, a lodging belonging to the church, and about thirty houses on the various islands of the delta, among them a saloon and a distillery. The settlement was no place for a dockyard, so with the help of natives impressed into transport duty with their sleds and dogs, the expeditionary force crossed the rugged mountains to Nizhnekamchatsk, 600 miles away, on the eastern coast. Furious blizzards beleaguered the operation and clouds of sleet “rolled like a dark smoke over the moors.” At night, “or when-ever they had a Mind to rest,” they slept in deep trenches without cover, which they dug in the snow.

At Nizhnekamchatsk, Bering paid off the surviving Kamchadals with a little tobacco and train oil extracted from a whale that had washed up on the beach.

After years of unrest, a period of calm had ensued on the peninsula. Government agents, furnished with comprehensive written instructions, annually came and went; priests arrived to provide spiritual guidance for the unruly Cossacks and to convert the heathen; attempts were made to regularize yasak collection; and a census was taken of the native population and their property. But resentment toward the Russians smoldered underneath, and order would not be completely established until the 1730s, after many of the Kamchadals and Koryaks had been decimated by epidemics and new insurrections crushed.

In 1726, Bering’s overwhelming impression of Kamchatka was of a “strange place, which lies so far out of the Reach of the rest of Mankind, that it could never have been visited, much less planted and possessed by any but the Russians.” He realized its potential strategic importance, but conceded it had little to attract colonists, and in a rather backhanded compliment supposed that “if a sufficient Number of People were sent thither to cut down the vast Forests with which it is incumber’d, and enabled to till, manure, and cultivate the Earth, it might be render’d a Place far enough from being despicable.” At the time, the Russian presence was still pitifully small. There were only seventeen dwellings in Verkhnekamchatsk, and fifty in Nizhnekamchatsk, the two main settlements after Bolsheretsk. During the whole time Bering was there, no more than 150 servitors lived in all three forts, and their primary function was not to colonize but to collect the fur tribute from the Kamchadals. Native and Russian alike lived on fish, roots, berries, and wild birds, and the only agricultural initiative Bering could discover was at a local hermitage, where monastics had managed to coax turnips, barley, radishes, and hemp from the soil. In the spring, after working all winter on a new seaworthy vessel for the voyage, his vitamin-starved workmen frantically scrounged for wild garlic beneath the melting snow.

To provision the expedition and meet its other needs, Bering had to improvise. Hauling lumber for the ship on dogsled, he made a tar substitute from the sap of the local larch, and “instead of Meal or Corn, he furnished himself with Carrots or other Roots. By boiling the Sea-water, he procured as much Salt as he wanted. Fish Oyle served instead of Butter, and dry and wet Salt-fish took the Place of Beef and Pork. Having collected a vast Quantity of Plants and Herbs, he also distilled from them a pretty strong Spirit, upon which he was pleased to bestow the Name of Brandy, and of this he laid in a plentiful Stock.”

Vitus Jonassen Bering II

Post-mortem reconstruction of Vitus Jonassen Bering’s face.

On July 14, 1728 – three and a half years after leaving St. Petersburg – Bering’s newly constructed ship, the St. Gabriel, stocked with enough food to sustain its crew of forty for a year, sailed from the mouth of the Kamchatka River. Following the coast of the peninsula northward for five days, Bering turned northeast, and on the next day encountered land again just above 60 degrees north latitude. This was the underside of the Chukchi Peninsula (not clearly delineated on his map), and with some perplexity he coasted along it for about two weeks. On August 1, he lingered to explore a bay, but a week later encountered eight Chukchi, who approached the ship in a hideskin boat. “When we invited them to come aboard,” recalled Bering, “they inflated the bladder of a large seal, put one man in it and sent him out to us to converse.” Later, the Chukchi brought their own boat alongside and through the two interpreters Bering had brought with him learned that the land, trending in a northeasterly direction, soon turned back to the west, and that there was an island nearby in the sea. On August 10, Bering sailed past it, noticing dwellings but no people, and named it St. Lawrence, “since it was his feast day.”

By August 13 the ship had rounded the southwesternmost point of the Chukchi Peninsula. A few days later, without realizing it, Bering passed through the narrow strait between Asia and America which now bears his name. Although in clear weather (at the strait’s narrowest point) it is possible to glimpse both continents at the same time, on that historic day fog hid the American coast, and as far as Bering knew, it was 1,000 miles away. Without pause he steered due north (into the Bering Sea), but after the Asiatic coast disappeared from sight on the 15th, he decided to consult with Spanberg and Chirikov as to whether to continue the voyage or return to Kamchatka before cold weather set in. It was Spanberg’s advice that the expedition sail on for no more than two days, “because we have reached 65 degrees 30’ of the northern region and according to our opinion and the Chukchi’s report have arrived opposite the extreme end and have passed east of the land.” And so, “what more needs to be done?” Chirikov, on the other hand, argued that they could not know with certainty whether America was separated from Asia unless they went “to the mouth of the Kolyma River,” or at least until their path westward around the peninsula was blocked by ice. So they ought to follow the land, if possible (and as their instructions required), to see if it led to America.

Bering agreed with Spanberg. The Chukchi had told him the coast turned north, then west, and was surrounded by the ocean – and in fact, as Bering could see, the coast bent away to the west as he proceeded farther north. It seemed pointless to him to verify the obvious, at mortal risk to his ship and crew. Further delay might oblige him to winter among the Chukchi on the peninsula’s forbidding coast, which, so far as he could tell, consisted of nothing but great ridges of snow-covered rocks quite bare of trees with which to build winter huts.

Bering turned south. Once again the coast of Asia came into view, but by an unlucky chance, as he threaded the strait, Bering failed a second time to see America through the mist, though he discovered one of the Diomede Islands. Four days later the crew bartered rather profitably with forty Chukchi who came out to the ship in boats – the Russians trading pins and needles for “a good Quantity of dry’d Flesh, Fish, Water contain’d in Whale Bladders, 15 Fox Skins, and four Narval’s Teeth.” Without further incident, on September 2, the St. Gabriel returned safely to port.

Despite apparent confidence in having accomplished his mission, Bering had misgivings, and throughout the winter he consulted with a number of Cossack veterans and others knowledgeable about the local geography. Advised by several that land was supposed to lie not far off the coast – as evidenced by birds flying eastward and unfamiliar trees floating in the sea – toward the end of June 1729 he steered the St. Gabriel due east from the mouth of the Kamchatka River, and explored the seas for a radius of about 130 miles. He might have ventured farther, but storms cut short his quest. That done, from Nizhnekamchatsk he sailed around Cape Lopatka at the peninsula’s southern tip – “which Thing was never done before” – crossed over to Okhotsk, and began the long overland trek back to St. Petersburg, where he arrived on March 1, 1730.

While bering and his men had been in Kamchatka, a companion expedition of sorts, with tasks resembling those given originally to the Great Kamchatka Command, had been authorized by the Senate and the newly created Supreme Privy Council. Led by Afanasy Shestakov, a Cossack leader based in Yakutsk, it involved an army of fifteen hundred men (huge by Siberian standards) in a bid to strengthen Russian control over the entire northeast. Part of the force was placed under the command of Dmitry Pavlutsky, captain of dragoons in Tobolsk and Russia’s foremost Chukchi fighter, but the results of the expedition were not commensurate with the efforts made. Quarreling between Shestakov and Pavlutsky hindered the operation, and Shestakov’s attempts to pacify the Koryaks ended in disaster when he was killed in a battle in March 1730, and a contingent coming to his support was wiped out. Shestakov’s dried head was preserved long afterward by the natives as a trophy of their victory.

Encouraged by these developments, some Kamchadal leaders also began to consider ways to drive the Russians from their land. Bering, it seems, had left Kamchatka just in time. Although the area had never been free of lawlessness and misrule, the transport burdens placed upon the native population by his expedition had certainly contributed to the unrest. In 1731, rebellions occurred in the vicinity of Bolsheretsk and Verkhnekamchatsk; and then, around Nizhnekamchatsk, the Kamchadals coalesced under a baptized native named Fyodor Kharchin and captured the fort. A few survivors managed to make their way to a Russian ship about to sail for the Anadyr, and the crew hastily disembarked and dragged their cannon to the fortress walls. When the Russians began blasting through, the defenders panicked, and Kharchin himself made his escape disguised as a girl. Others, however, fought on, until a shot ignited the powder magazine and the entire fort blew up. Enraged by the rape of their women (mostly native concubines), the Cossacks killed their prisoners to a man. A month later Kharchin himself was seized, but some of his accomplices and their families chose mass suicide rather than fall into Russian hands.

In St. Petersburg, the authorities decided that Kamchatka was too remote from Yakutsk to remain under its effective jurisdiction, and transferred responsibility for the peninsula to Okhotsk. An official was also dispatched from Tobolsk to restore order; after investigating the causes of the revolt, he executed and otherwise punished with impartial justice a number of Russians as well as Kamchadals.

Meanwhile, after Shestakov’s death, Pavlutsky had taken over the expedition’s command and had made Anadyrsk his base for a conquest of the Chukchi. Although the Russians defeated these indomitable warriors in several battles, they could not subdue them, and the most tangible (yet elusive) result of the expedition turned out to be geographical – the search for the “Big Land” supposed to lie opposite the East Cape of the Chukchi Peninsula. Pavlutsky organized an expedition to find it, and placed the expedition under the direction of Mikhail Gvozdev, a metallurgist, with Ivan Fedorov as pilot. They appropriated Bering’s St. Gabriel for the purpose and assembled a crew of thirty-nine. Sailing from the mouth of the Anadyr in July 1732, they paused briefly at one of the Diomede Islands, and then continued eastward, apparently coming within sight of Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska. Drawing near, they saw that it was quite large and covered with forests of poplar, spruce, and larch. After skirting the coast for several days, they found “no end to it in sight.” At one point, “a naked native paddled out to the vessel from shore on an inflated bladder,” and through their interpreter asked them who they were and where they were going. They replied that they were lost at sea and were looking for Kamchatka. The native promptly pointed in the direction from which they had come. They did not make a landing, however, and because after their return they failed to collate their notes and make an adequate map, their voyage did not come to official attention until a decade later, in 1743. By then the priority of their discovery had become a technicality, since far more momentous events had transpired.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg in March 1730, Bering had reported to the Admiralty. From that moment on, criticism of his voyage began. Until quite recently, the consensus of posterity was that he had failed, out of excessive caution bordering on cowardice, to fully carry out his instructions. He had found the strait he was supposed to find, but had not absolutely proved that Asia and America were not joined by land – as he might have had he followed Chirikov’s advice. The passions expressed on this point for many years reflected the intense interest of statesmen, merchants, and academicians in a Northeast Passage; but a reexamination of the fundamental documents suggests that a very different conclusion should be drawn. As a leading scholar points out, the orders Peter the Great drafted “say nothing about a strait or a search for one,” but rather in their own somewhat cryptic but definite fashion demand that Bering follow “the land that goes to the north,” which “it seems is part of America.” If it led to America, he was to proceed if possible to a European settlement, and also reconnoiter the coast. What land was Peter talking about? To fully understand his orders requires a map – the one, that is, that Bering was given on February 5, 1724.

In all probability, this was the so-called “Homann map,” created around 1722 at Peter’s request byjohann Baptiste Homann, a German mapmaker and copyist in his employ. It included the first printed presentation of Kamchatka as a peninsula, and two unknown lands (cut off by the frame) off the North Pacific coast of Asia. One was apparently meant to represent the “Big Island” in the sea of which the Chukchi spoke, the other “Juan de Gama Land,” sometimes portrayed as being linked to America. So, depending on how Peter’s orders were interpreted, “the land which goes to the north” could be the land off Kamchatka (Da Gama Land), the finger of land north of that off the Chukchi Peninsula, or the coast of Asia itself. Actually, no one knows for sure, but Bering seems to have tested all three hypotheses. He sailed north along the Kamchatka coast, then northeast in search of the Big Island (only to run into the Chukchi Peninsula, not known to project as far out into the ocean as it did), and then, the following summer, subsequently sailed east of Kamchatka where the other land was supposed to be.

In fact, the location of a strait (which Peter was already sure existed) was subordinate to his larger mission, which was to find the way to the western coast of America. Bering didn’t go to America because the coast he followed to the north didn’t lead there; and if he failed, it was because the cartographical information he’d been given was imprecise. Bering had followed the Homann map as best he could, but found it completely erroneous in placing the Chukchi Peninsula directly north of eastern Kamchatka, instead of projecting far to its east. In trying to make his experience fit with the map he had, which was supposed to guide him, Bering correctly assumed that he had passed the utmost part of East Asia and that the two continents were not joined.

“Having become a naval power,” as one authority notes, “Russia need no longer look on the ocean as a barrier to continued eastward expansion. Other powers had to sail halfway around the globe to reach the North Pacific. The Russians were already there.” Peter’s secret long-range intention was colonial conquest – to reconnoiter the American coast with a view to gaining a foothold (as the French, Spanish, and English had already done) in the New World. The supposed geographical objective, as publicized to foreign ambassadors, cartographers, and others (like Andrei Nartov, who dutifully spread the word), was part of what today would be called a disinformation campaign, designed to mislead other governments by appearing to pursue the question with which they were preoccupied. “There is no doubt,” remarks a student of Bering’s voyage, “that Peter looked upon the annexation of the unknown lands of the northwest coast of North America as a continuation of the colonization of Siberia.” Nevertheless, he had to proceed covertly, so as not to prompt other powers to block his designs.

Bering had explored and mapped the coasts of both Kamchatka and the Chukchi Peninsula, and he had confirmed the existence of a strait. Although criticized by some for not having rounded the Chukchi Peninsula westward to the Kolyma River (to prove a Northeast Passage did exist), and by others for not having been more venturesome in attempting to discover how far America actually was from Siberia’s coast, posterity’s grumblings have little to do with the Admiralty’s own estimate of Bering’s accomplishment, for he was promoted to the rank of captain-commander (the third highest rank in the Russian Navy) and given a 1,000-ruble reward.

A new map of the Siberian northeast prepared by his staff also more accurately depicted that corner of Asia as a large double-headed peninsula, shaped like a “bull’s horn.” As for the land he had conjectured slightly to the east of Kamchatka, and which he had sought in vain in the summer of 1729 – it was, in fact, there. But it was not the “Juan de Gama Land” of the speculative maps, nor the America of which he dreamed. It was a lonely, uninhabited little island. And it would be the land where he would die.

“A CUNNING AND PRUDENT VIRAGO”

For three decades, the seventeenth-century Mbundu queen, Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba, defended her West African kingdom against the Portuguese with an in-your-face combination of warfare and diplomacy. In short, she was what one observer described, with admiration, as “A Cunning and Prudent Virago.”

When the Portuguese established a trading colony on the coast of what is now modern Angola in 1575, the kingdom of Ndongo was the second largest state in central Africa. Its population of roughly one hundred thousand people lived under the rule of local lords called sobas, who owed their allegiance to the central ruler, the ngola, who lived in the capital city of Kabasa.

At first, relations between the Portuguese and Ndongo were friendly. The ruler at the time, Ngola Kiluanji, welcomed trade with Europeans and his kingdom flourished in the early days of the Portuguese slave trade. By the time Njinga was born in 1582, Ndongo was at war with Portugal. The two states would remain in conflict for her entire life.

Njinga was a granddaughter of Ndongo’s founder and the kingdom’s fourth ruler. According to her biographers, she displayed intellectual and physical prowess as a child. She showed particular talent for wielding the battle-axe that was the royal symbol of Ndongo. With her father’s approval, she sat in on his judicial and military councils and studied the military, political, and ritual arts taught to the sons of Mbundu rulers. At the same time, as a privileged young woman at court, she paid careful attention to her appearance, which she would use as a weapon of another sort throughout her career. At some point during the reigns of her two immediate predecessors—her father, Mbande a Ngola, and her brother, Ngola Mbande—Njinga became a war leader in her own right.

In 1617, Ngola Mbande overthrew their father and named himself ngola. In order to consolidate his position, he killed all potential rivals, including Njinga’s only son. To prevent the birth of new rivals, he ordered Njinga and her two sisters sterilized: a horrifying process in which oils combined with various herbs were thrown “while boiling onto the bellies of his sisters, so that, from the shock, fear & pain, they should forever be unable to give birth.” It appears to have worked: none of the three women gave birth thereafter.

With his position as ruler secure, Ngola Mbande set out to restore his kingdom to the wealth and power it enjoyed under his predecessors. He fought a losing battle against the Portuguese for four years.

In 1621, a new Portuguese governor, João Correia de Sousa, arrived in Luanda, in the colonial capital. Hoping a change of governor offered a chance for peace, Mbande sent Njinga to Luanda to negotiate a treaty with the Portuguese.

Fully conscious of the power of symbols, Njinga arrived with an impressive entourage of soldiers, musicians, slaves, and waiting women, and a new title, Ginga Bande Gambole—Njinga Mbande, official envoy.

Governor de Sousa was equally aware of the value of symbols in diplomatic situations. When Njinga entered his audience chamber, he greeted her from the governor’s throne and gestured for her to sit on a cushion on the floor before him—the typical arrangement when African notables met with the Portuguese governor. Njinga refused to take the posture of a supplicant. She gestured for a female slave to come forward. The woman knelt on her hands and knees. Njinga sat on the woman’s back as if she were a human chair. She was ready to negotiate, equal to equal.

Njinga remained in Luanda for several months and negotiated a peace treaty on her brother’s behalf. For a brief time, her mission appeared to be a success, but neither side honored their agreements. Soon Ndongo and the Portuguese were at war once more.

In spring of 1624, Ngola Mbande died. Everyone agreed he was poisoned. The Portuguese said it was murder and pointed at Njinga. Angolan oral history claims he committed suicide in a moment of despair. Either way, Mbande made arrangements before his death for the care of the young son who was his heir. Recognizing the dangers of a child ruler, for both the young king and the kingdom, Ngola Mbande divided the responsibility in two parts. He named Njinga regent, with the power of governing Ndongo in the boy’s minority. He put the boy under the guardianship of an ally named Kaza. In theory it was a brilliant solution to an age-old problem, but it didn’t take into account Njinga’s ambition. Njinga convinced Kaza to turn the boy over to her, using a combination of lavish presents and an offer of marriage. Once she had control of the child, she poisoned him, then pushed through her immediate election as the new ngola of Ndongo.

Njinga spent the next thirty years in warfare and diplomatic wrangling with the Portuguese. Between 1626 and 1655, the queen commanded her own forces against the Portuguese army. In 1630, she conquered a new kingdom, Matamba, which she used as a base for attacks on settlements under Portuguese control.

A new player entered the political and economic scene in 1641: the Dutch East India Company.

On April 20 of that year, twenty-two Dutch ships attacked and conquered the Portuguese colonial capital of Luanda. Njinga celebrated as soon as she heard the news, then sent ambassadors to propose an alliance. The Dutch were willing allies. Together Njinga and the Dutch almost brought Portuguese rule in Angola to an end.

By August 1648, Njinga and the Dutch seemed on the verge of driving the Portuguese out of Angola. But reinforcements were on the way from Rio de Janeiro in the Portuguese colony of Brazil. A fleet of fifteen ships and nine hundred men arrived in Luanda’s port and bombarded the city with cannon fire. After a few days of heavy shelling, the Dutch East India Company surrendered all Dutch positions in Angola to the Portuguese.

With the Dutch defeated and in flight, Njinga retreated to her base at Matamba, from which she continued her guerilla campaign against the Portuguese and their African allies until 1654. According to one Portuguese observer, she launched at least twenty-nine invasions against sobas in Portuguese Angola and surrounding kingdoms between 1648 and 1650 alone.

Njinga was forty-two years old when she succeeded her brother as the ngola of Ndongo. In December 1657, when she was nearly seventy-five she led her army into battle for the last time. Before the battle she prepared her soldiers—many young enough to be her great-grandchildren—by leading them in the customary war dance, a rigorous military exercise with arrows and spears.

When Njinga died in 1663, she left behind a thriving kingdom, which survived as an independent state until 1909, when the Portuguese finally succeeded in making it part of the colony of Angola.

In the 1960s, Angolan revolutionaries turned to oral traditions about Njinga for inspiration and celebrated her as a national hero who had united her people in an epic struggle against the Portuguese.

“O.K., We’ll Go.” Part I

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.”

“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.”