Seventy-five years ago, on the day before the Allied landings on the coast of France were to begin, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces prepared a short statement to be read in the event the landings proved a failure. He wrote it out in pencil and began with the words, “our landings in the Cherbourg have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold…” He closed by saying “…if any blame is found to attach to this attempt it is mine alone.” It’s a haunting note to read. And while we know through the hindsight of history that D-Day was a success, at the time, Eisenhower fully appreciated that this was one of the riskiest and most dangerous military operations in history.
The Allies had committed their full might to the D-Day landings. The numbers are staggering. The invasion would be launched from multiple ports all over the south coast of Britain. It would involve a massive armada of over 4,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft. But most importantly 150,000 men – some having experienced battle before and most facing it for the first time – were waiting to be the first ones to land in France.
One of the biggest risks to the operation was that the Germans would find out when and where the landings would take place. The longer the Germans were kept guessing the more difficult it would be for them to concentrate their forces for a counterattack. Hoping to create a deception, the Allies, created a shadow army. One that actually didn’t exist.
They even appointed General Patton to be its commander. There was the buzz of daily radio traffic, all fake and there were even inflatable tanks and vehicles positioned so that German reconnaissance aircraft would think something was up. It was ingenious, and it was designed to reinforce Hitler’s belief that the blow would fall at Calais and not Normandy. The Allies did everything they could to keep Operation Overlord a secret. As the landing day approach, wide regions along the coast of England were closed to private and commercial traffic. Roads were blocked and rail service was suspended. Telephone and mail services were shut down. The bases holding our forces were heavily guarded. The gamble, of course, was whether or not the secret had been kept.
The other gamble was the weather. Conditions over the English Channel were unusually bad. With a rapid series of rain filled storm systems it was more like winter in the Channel than it was spring. Unfortunately, the early June timeframe was critical. The Allies needed the high spring tide to support the landings. The next one wouldn’t be until July. If the Allies had to wait that long the Germans were sure to figure out what the Allies were up to. With the expectation that the weather would improve Eisenhower had given the order to proceed with a landing on June 5. However, in spite of his best hopes, conditions remained poor. He delayed the operation for 24 hours. The situation was tense. Over one hundred thousand men were waiting aboard ships. Eisenhower’s chief weatherman, Group Commander John Stagg, said he could predict a lull in the weather. A fast moving, high pressure system, one that Stagg was able to forecast based on a single report, would give the Allies adequate weather for 48 hours. It wasn’t much to go on, but Eisenhower took the risk and gave the order to go.
At first it looked like Ike’s fear that the invasion might fail might become reality. While conditions improved, visibility remained poor and the Allied Air Forces missed most of their targets on the beach. Also, most of the tanks and heavy vehicles that could have supported this initial wave were lost in the rough surf. The soldiers reaching the beach had to fight it out by themselves. The British fared well at their beaches, Juno, Gold and Sword, and U.S. forces managed a foothold on Utah beach. But Omaha Beach was a different story and for several hours the situation was so dire that further landings were suspended.
However, with a growing resolve, facing incredible danger, American troops along this narrow battlefield began to breach the German defenses and started moving inland. Ike didn’t need his other statement.
Instead, he was able to tell the world that D-Day was a success. While it can be argued that it was history’s biggest gamble, and it probably was, there was more to it than that. What carried the day, particularly as the outcome remained in question, was the determination and bravery of the men who made that initial landing on DDay.
They’re the ones who sealed the fate of Hitler’s Europe.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.