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Posted on Feb 27, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 3

By Carlo D'Este

Eisenhower, firmly backed by Tedder, refused to allow the Transportation Plan to be held hostage by the warring airmen with their own agendas. Not for the first time thoughts of resignation crossed his mind. He had long since wearied of dealing with "a lot of prima donnas," and although the notion of an actual resignation only weeks before the most critical operation of the war was unthinkable, Eisenhower seemed fully prepared to use the mere threat of resignation to gain control of the airmen. "By God," he told Tedder, "you tell that bunch that if they can’t get together and stop quarreling like children, I will tell the Prime Minister to get someone else to run this damn war! I’ll quit."


B-26 Marauders of the Ninth Air Force bomb a road junction behind German lines in Normandy. Date is early July 1944. Photo from National Archives.

Eventually, he turned to Marshall, recommending that "a word be adopted that leaves no doubt in anybody’s mind of my authority and responsibility for controlling air operations . . . during the critical period of Overlord." Eisenhower was so frustrated by the in-fighting and its consequent lack of a favorable decision that he wrote in his diary if the matter of the Transportation Plan and the control of the air barons were not approved, "I am going to take drastic action and inform the combined chiefs of staff that unless the matter is settled at once I will request relief from this command."

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On April 19, Spaatz and Eisenhower, two men who greatly respected one another, had a furious confrontation over a decision by Tedder that the bombing of V-1 launch sites would take priority over German industrial targets and the fulfillment of his mandate to destroy the Luftwaffe, a policy that Spaatz argued was self-defeating. At one point Spaatz was thought to have threatened resignation. When tempers cooled, Spaatz and Tedder reached a compromise, but the incident was a prime example of the passions that drove the debates over air operations before Overlord.

Throughout April the debate raged, estimates were revised, targets altered and the plan limped forward when Churchill and his committee endorsed provisional approval for the bombing on a week-to-week basis, until early May when the plan was grudgingly approved. Nevertheless, Churchill never lost his distaste for the scheme, and his demands for repeated consultations were a perpetual source of irritation for Tedder and Eisenhower. In early May Churchill complained to a sympathetic War Cabinet that he had failed to understand "that our use of air power before ‘Overlord’ would assume so cruel and remorseless a form." Clearly, "a great slaughter would inevitably result" unless Roosevelt intervened to stop it. FDR pointedly refused to interfere or to imperil Overlord, a strong endorsement of Eisenhower. It was, noted an official British historian, one of the few examples of War Cabinet involvement in a strategic military decision. While Eisenhower had the necessary authority to have proceeded without their approval, the issue was so incendiary that prudence dictated it be resolved by means of compromises. At long last Ike’s perseverance prevailed and the plan was implemented.

After months of intensive planning and preparation D-Day was set for June 5, 1944, and with the German Supreme Command still convinced that Lt. Gen. George S. Patton was to lead a large army group in an invasion of the Pas de Calais, the many complex pieces of the Overlord plan displayed every sign of cohesion. [6] Now that Eisenhower had at least overcome the intense opposition to the Transportation Plan involving months of stalling, argument and bad blood, Allied air might was unleashed. Between them, the RAF and USAAF bombed the French railway system into a vast "railway desert" of smashed rail lines, bridges, depots and equipment, while Leigh-Mallory’s tactical aircraft shot up anything that moved. Convoys and trains were mercilessly shot to pieces, generating some of the most spectacular combat film footage of World War II. By mid-May, the German Transport Ministry attested to the success of Allied bombing by noting "the raid carried out in recent weeks [in Belgium and northern France] have caused systematic breakdown of all main lines . . . large scale strategic movement of German troops by rail is practically impossible," and the wide-scale destruction has caused "critical dislocation of traffic." [7]


A B-26 Marauder of the Ninth Air Force flies over UTAH Beach on D-Day. Photo from National Archives.

Spaatz’s greatest success came in carrying out his mandate to destroy the Luftwaffe, which by D-Day could barely muster a paltry 100 sorties against the Allies in Normandy. "The achievement of air supremacy over France and the invasion area and of air superiority over Germany before D-day was the decisive contribution of Spaatz and USSTAF to Overlord," and was, wrote Spaatz’s biographer, "a turning point in the air war" that "ranked with the defensive victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain." [8]

Success came at a terrible price. With historical focus on the D-Day landings and the fight for a beachhead in Normandy, images of landing craft swarming ashore under heavy enemy fire have become the most acclaimed and remembered aspect of the war in Europe. The valiant Allied aircrews, however, incurred the most devastating losses. Between April 1 and June 5, 1944, the Allies lost 2,000 aircraft and 12,000 airmen killed in action in pre D-Day operations. By the time the Normandy campaign officially ended in August 1944, 28,000 airmen had been lost in air operations over France.

Had Eisenhower not gained control of the strategic air forces Operation Overlord, the great cross-channel invasion of France on June 6, 1944 might have turned out very differently. (Portions of this account of the Eisenhower-Churchill relationship are extracted from the author’s Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life (Henry Holt, 2002 and Owl Books, 2003.)

Source Notes:

[1] Geoffrey Perret, Eisenhower (New York, 1999), p. 265.

[2] Prior to the creation of SHAEF and the appointment of Eisenhower to command it, the initial planning for Overlord was carried out in London by an Anglo-American planning group called COSSAC (an acronym for Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander). With no supreme commander in place the Overlord planning was carried out under the aegis of British Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan.

[3] Max Hastings, Bomber Command (London and New York, 1979), p. 327.

[4] Solly Zuckerman, From Apes to Warlords (London, 1978), p. 236.

[5] Hastings, Bomber Command, pp. 328-9.

[6] Various factors had combined to require changing the date for D-Day from late May to the first full moon period of June.

[7] "Report of Recent Attacks on Railways," issued by the German Transport Ministry, May 15, 1944, cited in L.F. Ellis, Victory in the West, Vol I, (London, 1962), p. 111. At the end of May 1944 the Germans were only able to operate twenty trains per day in France. No bridge over the Seine below Paris was intact and the SNCF (French National Railway) was barely operating at 10% of capacity. The road system was in equally bad shape.

[8] Richard G. Davis, Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe, (Washington, 1993), pp. 413-14. Arguments continued after the war over the Transportation Plan, with its proponents convinced it made a significant contribution and its critics claiming it was unnecessary. "The outstanding factor both before and during the invasion was the overwhelming air superiority of the enemy," wrote the historical staff of the Luftwaffe. (Ellis, Victory in the West, Vol. I, p. 110.) Once the decisions were made over the Transportation Plan, Bomber Harris proved surprisingly cooperative. Zuckerman wrote in his journal that, "The amazing thing is that Harris, who was even more resistant than the Americans to the idea of AEAF domination, has in fact thrown himself wholeheartedly into the battle, has improved his bombing performance enormously, and has contributed more to the dislocation of enemy communications than any of the rest." (Journal of Prof. Solly Zuckerman, July 9, 1944, Zuckerman Papers, University of East Anglia.

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