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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

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

Although the weather was plainly vile, Stagg reported to the tense commanders there was a glimmer [my italics] 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.

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Stagg was bluntly questioned by the deputy supreme commander, Sir Arthur 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 dead 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 would it end.


Troops march to their transports

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 time had run out. He had to make a decision for or against, then and there. Ramsay announced that, “if Overlord is to proceed on Tuesday [June 6], I must issue provisional warning to my forces with the next half-hour.” One by one Eisenhower went around the room to poll his chief advisors. Leigh-Mallory remained troubled, calling it “chancy” and for once Tedder agreed with him. Overlord was do-able, 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 if its longer-term impact. There was utter silence in the room. The only sounds to be heard were the howling wind and rain. 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.” [3]

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 simulated predictions. Group-Captain Stagg John M. Stagg was one of the many unsung heroes of D-Day. In Stagg, Eisenhower had someone he could trust implicitly, “a scientist to his bones with all of the scientist’s refined capacity to pass unimpassioned judgement 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.” [4]

Although he later agonized over what he had wrought, it seemed clear what his decision must be. Like Stagg earlier, 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 that 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 upon 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?” [5] Despite the presence of men accustomed to making life and death decisions, it was as if Eisenhower’s query was 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.” [6] 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 upon 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 howling wind, rain, and muddy ground seemed to make a mockery of his decision. Nor could Eisenhower have been uplifted by Kay Summersby’s unseemly remark that, “If all goes right, dozens of people will claim the credit. But if it goes wrong, you’ll be the only one to blame.”

[continued on next page]

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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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