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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

Monday, June 5, 1944

At what turned out to be their final meeting, the Allied commanders-in-chief reconvened at 4:15 A.M. the morning of June 5 for another weather update. The atmosphere within the meeting was again palpable, decidedly somber and even tenser than at earlier meetings where 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.” [7] Stagg reported no substantial change nor, he cautioned any tilt toward a more optimistic forecast. Stagg’s prediction of the D-Day weather and beyond brought smiles all around from the grim expressions that had only moments before permeated throughout the room.

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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 needlessly be sacrificed. Eisenhower retreated to a sofa where, 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.” [8]

There was still time to postpone. Whatever Eisenhower decided would stand. Stagg noted that the tension evaporated and Eisenhower’s face now bore a broad smile. “Well Stagg, if this forecast comes off, I promise you we’ll have a celebration when the time comes.” After brief discussion Eisenhower’s reaffirmed his decision to launch Overlord. “O.K., We’ll go,” he said. The invasion was now unalterable. [9] A signal was quickly sent to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, which read: “Halcyon plus 5 finally and definitely confirmed,” code for June 6, 1944.

Eisenhower had made an historic decision that took considerable courage to set into motion the operation that would decide the victor and the vanquished of World War II. Had they been present, Eisenhower’s critics who have painted him in unflattering terms as a chairman of the board, beholden to many and in command of none, would have witnessed Eisenhower’s finest hour, and one of history’s greatest military decisions.

There was little to distinguish the profound impact upon both Stagg and Eisenhower of their pronouncements. Each had staked everything on their professional judgment that would soon be put to the most severe test imaginable. Once unleashed, the Allied genie could not be put back into the bottle to await another day. Yet, having made the most important decision of the war, Eisenhower was now incapable of either reversing his decision 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.”

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. “There were smoldering cigarettes in every ashtray . . . He would light one, put it down, forget it, and light another.” 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 his nemesis, Douglas MacArthur, who had once observed that, “A general’s life is loneliness.” [10] Once the decision had been reached, Eisenhower understood, perhaps better than anyone else, that the success or failure of the landings lay in the hands of others: the ordinary soldiers, NCOs and junior officers who were obliged to carry out the grand scheme planned on high. All the arrows on maps and millions of words of orders, instructions and plans came down to making it happen, if possible in the manner planned; if not, making it happen regardless of the circumstances. Although Eisenhower had spent far less time with troops than he would have preferred, he understood with perfect clarity the enormous responsibilities that would soon fall on ordinary men in the ranks.

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.”

Eisenhower would certainly have agreed with Rommel who, in April 1944, had defined the importance of the day the Allies invaded Europe when he predicted, “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.”


Troops crowd aboard their transport awaiting the signal to commence the invasion

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 seldom heard in a nation that had been at war for over four years. In the lush West Country of southwestern England 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.” [11] 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.

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (the commander-in-chief, OB West) nor Rommel believed the Allies would mount an invasion in such inclement weather that 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. [12] Von Rundstedt notified Berlin that, “As yet, there is no immediate prospect of the invasion.” General 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 near Ulm, early on June 4, Rommel was confident that nothing untoward would occur in his absence.
Rommel’s chief naval advisor, and later a respected postwar military historian, Vice Admiral 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.” [13]

Some 130,000 Allied troops, ships of every description, nearly 7,000 of them, manned by 195,000 naval personnel, and masses of military hardware were crammed on ships and landing craft that had embarked after Eisenhower’s “Go” order on what he would later term “the great crusade.” The cross-Channel operation that Churchill had envisioned in the dark days of 1940, but had secretly hoped would never be necessary, was about to be unleashed.

During a visit to the 101st Airborne Division the evening of June 5 to mingle with many of the troopers and to witness their departure, Eisenhower had remained until the sounds of the last aircraft faded away into the night. As he strolled back to his staff car, deep in thought, his shoulders sagging as they did whenever he was troubled, Kay Summersby thought him the loneliest man in the world at that moment. The knot of apprehension in his gut can only be imagined but the expression on his face revealed more than words. “Well, it’s on,” he said somberly, again looking up at the night sky, “no one can stop it now.”

(Portions of this account are extracted from the author’s Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life (Henry Holt, 2002 and Owl Books, 2003.)

Source Notes

1. W.S. Chalmers, Full Cycle: The Biography of Sir Bertram Home Ramsay (London, 1959), p. 216, and the diary of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, May 29, 1944.
2. Alan Michie, The Invasion of Europe (New York, 1964), pp. 120-1.
3. Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s Six Great Decisions (New York, 1956), p. 55.
4. Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe (London, 1952), p. 237.
5. Quote based on the notes and account of Air Vice Marshal J.M. Robb, in Gordon A. Harrison, Cross-Channel Attack (Washington, DC, 1951), p. 274.
6. Nigel Hamilton, Monty: Master of the Battlefield, 1942-1944 (London, 1983), p. 605.
7. Smith, Eisenhower’s Six Great Decisions, p. 53.
8. Ambrose, D-Day (New York, 1994), p. 189.
9. There are numerous versions of Eisenhower’s exact words, none of which the official U.S. Army historian, Forrest C. Pogue, could ever verify. Stephen Ambrose states that when he interviewed him in 1967, Eisenhower was certain that he had said, “O.K., Let’s go.” (Ambrose, The Supreme Commander, fn., p. 417.) Chester Wilmot used “O.K., We’ll go,” based on his interview of Rear Admiral G.E. Creasy, Ramsay’s chief of staff, and the written account of Air Marshal J.M. Robb. Eisenhower himself used the phrase in 1964 to New York Times reporter Herbert Mitgang, and thought that his decision had taken only about thirty seconds. (“D-Day plus 20 Years,” Look, June 1964.) Alan Michie, another of the four pool reporters permitted at Southwick, immediately began to reconstruct Eisenhower’s decision. “From Admiral Ramsay I extracted the hour-by-hour story of the meetings,” wrote Michie. Ramsay insisted Eisenhower did not use the term “O.K., we’ll go,” but thought it was “O.K., let ‘er rip,” which Michie says Eisenhower agreed was what he had said. (Michie, The Invasion of Europe, p. 196.) Whatever the semantics, the intent was unambiguous and the fact that it was uttered at the briefing held at 0415 hours, June 5, 1944, when Eisenhower merely affirmed his earlier decision to launch the invasion.
10. Quoted in Geoffrey Perret, Old Soldiers Never Die (New York, 1996), p. 192. Although MacArthur’s remark was made in another context, its application to Eisenhower was certainly apt.
11. John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy (New York, 1982), p. 15.
12. After he was captured in August 1944, Maj. Lettau and Stagg met to discuss their respective roles. The German meteorologist was anxious to know how the Allies pulled off the invasion in light of the forecasts. Stagg noted that the Germans “had failed to grasp the significance of a ‘weather front’ that passed through the Channel early on June 5, with relatively good weather following it.”
13. Admiral Friedrich Ruge quoted in David Eisenhower, Eisenhower: At War, 1943-1945 (London, 1986), p. 251.

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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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