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Posted on Apr 11, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 4: The Great D-Day Decision

By Carlo D'Este

Great commanders have all at one time or another faced excruciating decisions. In wartime, such decisions can not only affect the outcome of a battle or campaign, but also occasionally even the outcome of a war. During World War II the Allied Supreme Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced just such a critical decision. It came in early June 1944 in a cavernous British mansion overlooking England’s south coast near Portsmouth, and it changed the course of the war.

The weather in late May 1944 was exceptional – and deceiving. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the naval commander-in-chief for Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel invasion of Normandy 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. [1] At the end of May it was not the condition of the sea but rather the cloud cover over the English Channel and Normandy that was of primary concern. There was only a three-day window in early June upon 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 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 closed down re-supply through Cherbourg and over the beaches before a breakout.

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Southwick House, Eisenhower’s Headquarters
Every element of the Overlord plan could be controlled except the volatile weather. Eisenhower’s weather team consisted of experts from the Admiralty, the air forces, and the U.S. and British weather services, and was headed by RAF Group Captain Stagg, the chief meteorologist and spokesman. What Stagg and his colleagues saw on their charts 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 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, Maj. Gen. Harold R. 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 Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick 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.”

The countdown began on June 2, when Eisenhower first moved from Bushy Park to Southwick House, where an unpretentious, concealed caravan 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 trailer devoid of heat except for the tiny bedroom whose only adornments were a jumbled pile of Westerns novels and photos of his son, John, in his cadet uniform, and of his wife, Mamie. His staff worked and lived in nearby tents. Beginning this day Eisenhower and his chief advisors 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 assured by his naval aide, Harry 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.” [2]

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 to 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 civilian 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 inwardly uneasy, this time there could be no equivocation. What Stagg 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 of 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 of five-hundred feet to as low as zero. The seriousness of the occasion could be read in their faces and in the almost deathlike silence. Eisenhower ruled there would be no change of plan that day and authorized the Navy to proceed with all necessary preliminary operations.


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1 Comment

  1. That was some damn good writing. Had me on the edge of my seat. Props to you Mr. D’Este.

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