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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

Saturday June 3, 1944: Eisenhower’s extensive diary entry for June 3, 1944 says 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. This night when he learned the film he was to see 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.”

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At the evening briefing, in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, one admiral cracked, “there 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. One by one, Eisenhower questioned his three invasion commanders. “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.” The air C-in-C, Trafford Leigh-Mallory replied that his aircrews would not be able to see what they were attacking. Of the three, only the ground force commander, Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery thought the invasion should proceed. “I’m ready,” he told Eisenhower, raising eyebrows among some for what they deemed Monty’s reckless response. Eisenhower’s final question before Stagg was dismissed and the star-studded jury convened to consider its verdict was if there was unanimity among the weathermen on what had been presented. For the first time, Stagg could reply, “Yes, Sir.”


Eisenhower briefing American Paratroopers prior to the invasion

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.”

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 treaded water, the participants had become virtual prisoners in their encampments, and aboard naval vessels; final briefings postponed and sealed instructions revealing their target remained 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 closeted alone in his caravan 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 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’s instinct was 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 author 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.”

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, talks that day between de Gaulle and Churchill were frigid. 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 de Gaulle for his opinion, he replied, “I will only tell you that if I were you, I should not delay.”

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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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