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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

The only air plan that existed for Overlord in January 1944 vaguely proposed minimal measures for air support during a two-three week period before D-Day in order to knock out coastal defenses and soften the way for the invasion force. When first briefed on air operations in January 1944, Eisenhower and Spaatz were shocked by the prediction by Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (the commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force [AEAF]) that it was still uncertain if the Allies would even gain air superiority before Overlord was launched.

Professor Solly Zuckerman was a renowned British zoologist who, during World War II, became a bombing expert and an advisor to Tedder in the Mediterranean. Tedder had Zuckerman brought back to England specifically to help devise bombing policy for Overlord. Zuckerman was horrified at the inadequacy of the original (1943) air plan, and its failure to consider how the air forces could possibly provide the necessary support in the (likely) event of bad weather over Normandy. [2] Nor had a great deal of consideration been given to the fact that targeting only Normandy would have easily alerted the Germans that it was the site of the Allied landings. A Bombing Committee representing all players in the air war convened under the auspices of Leigh-Mallory’s AEAF and began drafting alternative proposals that called for a wide-ranging, systematic bombing campaign to knock out the entire French railway transportation system throughout all of Northwest Europe. Thus was unveiled what has been called the Transportation Plan, a scheme that quickly exploded into one of the most rancorous, controversial strategies of the war.


The gravest danger was not the D-Day landings but German reinforcements speeding to Normandy to seal off the Allied beachhead with greater numbers of forces than the Allies could insert across the English Channel. Eisenhower and Tedder quickly realized and accepted that Zuckerman’s plan was the right strategy for preventing the Germans from reinforcing Normandy. The essence of the Transportation Plan was a massive strategic bombing campaign to destroy the French rail network, bridges and choke points to paralyze Normandy from reinforcement after D-Day while, at the same time, providing the Germans with no indication of where the invasion would occur.

British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder points out something of interest to Marshal Zhukov during a fly past of 1,000 American and British aircraft over Frankfurt am Main in June 1945. Photo from National Archives.

The bomber chiefs, backed by most in the Air Ministry and Churchill’s personal Rasputin, Professor F.W. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), arose as one in fierce and formidable opposition, proclaiming that such operations would be a gross misuse of the strategic air forces. Harris gained Churchill’s attention by refusing to offer an endorsement that the Transportation Plan would not produce high civilian casualties. Neither Spaatz nor Harris would renounce their wildly inaccurate "private conviction that Overlord was a vast, gratuitous, strategic misjudgment, when Germany was already tottering on the edge of collapse from bombing." [3] An escalating war of words between the airmen and Churchill on the one side, and Eisenhower, Tedder, Zuckerman and the chief of the air staff, Sir Charles Portal on the other, turned the controversial Transportation Plan into an intra-Allied free-for-all. More than thirty years later Zuckerman would write of still being "utterly amazed by the nonsensical arguments about the plan." [4]

There were two points over which Eisenhower refused to back down: Anvil (the invasion of Southern France) and control of the air forces, both of which brought him into direct conflict with Churchill, who, along with the members of his War Cabinet, despised the plan. It took until the end of March 1944 for a compromise to be brokered that effectively cut Leigh-Mallory from the air chain of command when Eisenhower agreed to appoint Tedder to control air operations as his designated "executive." Spaatz believed with good reason that, as a fighter commander, Leigh-Mallory was ill-suited to control bomber operations, and made it clear to Eisenhower that while he would, however reluctantly, accept SHAEF control, he could not work under the authority of the AEAF commander. With Harris in the background damning Leigh-Mallory to Churchill that he should not be given control of the strategic bombers, the circle was complete. Eisenhower was not only in the middle of a monumental intramural war but no closer to resolving his problems. "Just when Ike thinks he has the problem of air command solved," wrote his naval aide Harry Butcher on March 3, "as he put it today, ‘someone else’s feelings get hurt and I have another problem to solve.’"

Haggling over the date Tedder would actually take control further delayed matters. The only certainty was that the controversial Leigh-Mallory lost most of his autonomy and would now fall under Tedder’s direction. What perplexed Eisenhower was the extent of British loathing for Leigh-Mallory, the airman approved for his post by the same men who were determined to keep him from exercising any control over the strategic bombers.

By early April, shortly before the plan was to have been implemented, it had yet to be approved. Outside of SHAEF almost no one liked the Transportation Plan. Its formidable critics included, Churchill, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, the majority of the War Cabinet, Harris, Spaatz, Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the new commander of the Eighth Air Force, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and a host of other critics in the Air Ministry.

On April 5 the plan was debated before the Prime Minister’s Defence Committee. If it were adopted, an animated Churchill charged, it would inevitably result in the "cold-blooded butchering" of French civilians, his anger turned up several degrees over arguments about the accuracy of a prediction of 80,000-160,000 casualties. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, also opposed the plan for the same reason, although admitting after the war he had made a mistake in not backing Tedder. During the most rancorous confrontation yet, a testy Winston Churchill, when informed that Montgomery was insisting on bombing, exploded in fury. "Who is Montgomery that he can insist" on bombing, complained Churchill who then turned his hostility on Tedder. Having decided if the plan were rejected he would resign his post as Eisenhower’s deputy, Tedder wondered if he would soon be a civilian growing tomatoes.

Senior Staff members of the Allied Expeditionary Force prior to the Normandy invasion. Standing from left to right are: Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, Senior Commander American Ground Forces; Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Allied Naval Commander; Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Air Commander in Chief; Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Seated from left to right are: Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Deputy Supreme Commander; General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, and General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, Commander in Chief British Group of Armies, Allied Expeditionary Force. Photo from National Archives.

Both Tedder and Eisenhower stubbornly insisted that, risky or not, the Transportation Plan was vital. Eisenhower disputed the British casualty figures as "grossly overestimated. The French people are slaves. Only a successful OVERLORD can free them," he wrote to Churchill. He also wrote to Roosevelt and Marshall, "I have stuck to my guns because there is no other way in which this tremendous air force can help us, during the preparatory phase, to get ashore and stay there." As for the French, when queried about the possibility of heavy losses, Maj. Gen. Pierre Koenig, the commander of Free French forces in the United Kingdom replied, "This is war and it is to be expected that people will be killed . . . We would take twice the anticipated loss to be rid of the Germans." The normally stubborn Charles de Gaulle also signed on and in so doing, effectively undermined Churchill’s arguments against the bombing.

Both Spaatz and Harris not only fought hard to avoid implementing the Transportation Plan, but clashed with each other as well. Harris’s single-minded obsession that destroying Germany’s cities would end the war was in direct opposition to American beliefs that precision bombing of German industrial infrastructure was the correct approach. The infighting within the ranks of the air forces was as bitter as their joint opposition to SHAEF control of their bombing operations, and the Transportation Plan that a senior air marshal in the Air Ministry decried as "a national disaster."

Spaatz argued that the Overlord bombing violated the Pointblank directive and countered with what was called the Oil Plan, a scheme for the systematic destruction of Germany’s synthetic petroleum capacity which he said would win the war. Spaatz’s Oil Plan was also designed to steal the limelight from Harris. "He was haunted by fear that Bomber Command might somehow win the laurels while his Fortresses were reduced to running a bomb shuttle for Eisenhower," while Harris would be permitted to "go on bombing Germany and will be given a chance of defeating her before the invasion, while I am put under Leigh-Mallory’s command . . ." [5]

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