Only the Supreme Commander could give the order to attack. The vast power of an Allied army 2.5 million strong lay coiled in England, ready to spring across the Channel into German-occupied France. Some of the more than 5,000 ships accompanied by an additional 4,000 small craft of the invasion armada had already put to sea. On that June morning in 1944, screaming winds rattled the windows of the British naval headquarters near Portsmouth, where the D-day commanders were meeting. The rain, as General Dwight D. Eisenhower later recalled, lashed down in "horizontal streaks." A Royal Air Force meteorologist, however, cautiously predicted clearing skies for the next day, June 6. Eisenhower conferred with the generals and admirals gathered around him. He thought for less than a minute, then stood up. "O.K.," he said, "let's go."
Eisenhower stayed behind, alone, as his commanders rushed out to transmit the order that commenced Operation Overlord, the invasion of Western Europe. His own duty was done for the day. He went down to a pier in Portsmouth to watch British soldiers board their landing craft. The biggest fleet in history -- 59 convoys strung over 100 miles, led by six battleships, 22 cruisers and 93 destroyers -- set sail toward the beaches of Normandy between 60 and 100 miles away.
The general drove to nearby Newbury to say farewell to some of the 23,000 Allied paratroopers who would take off before midnight to drop behind the Germans' beach defenses. Operation Overlord's British air commander, Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, had warned him repeatedly that the troopers might suffer casualties as high as 75%. Eisenhower chatted with men of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, wished them luck and shook hands with their commander, Brigadier General Maxwell Taylor. As their C-47 transports roared off toward France, the Supreme Commander, who had envisioned this moment for more than two years, stood with his staff on the roof of a headquarters building and saluted them. When he turned away, he had tears in his eyes.
Fifty years later, veterans of the Allied forces who defeated Nazi Germany are invading Normandy again to gaze at the beaches they stormed, walk the sunken roads they fought over, mourn at the military cemeteries, but most of all, celebrate their triumph. On the next big anniversary 10 years hence, most of these old soldiers -- and many of those who lived through the cataclysm of World War II -- will be gone.
Presidents and generals and ordinary folk will come to pay homage in Europe this week, to remember a great battle in a good cause. Bill Clinton, who begins an eight-day visit, will meet the leaders of the other Allied nations who share credit for the victory and dine with Queen Elizabeth II in Portsmouth, then sail on an aircraft carrier for a sunrise ceremony off the Normandy coast on June 6. Some may question his credibility as Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces because he avoided military service during the Vietnam War. But if past anniversaries of the invasion are any indication, the emotion of the moment will carry the day. "That war," Clinton told the , graduating class at the U.S. Naval Academy last week, "marked the turning point of our century, when we joined with our Allies to stem a dark tide of dictatorship, and to start a flow of democracy and freedom that continues to sweep the world." While peace is far from universal even in Europe, Western Europe is more prosperous and more unified than it has ever been. The cold war proved to be only a temporary faltering. The success of the wartime alliance gave birth to the United Nations and NATO and made America a permanent leader of the global community.
If the war was the century's turning point, the turning point of the war was D-day. The Normandy landings might have been thrown back if the German command had not been so thoroughly surprised or so unusually slow to counterattack. But once the Allied forces were successfully ashore, Hitler was doomed, caught between armies advancing against him from the west and the Soviet east.
After those first tense 24 hours, the Allies knew they had reached the beginning of the end. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose anxiety about the attack never completely subsided, was jubilant. "What a plan!" he raved to Parliament. The Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, who had been demanding the opening of the second front for years, paid tribute: "The history of warfare knows no other like undertaking from the point of view of its scale, its vast conception and its masterly execution."
That same extraordinary undertaking reverberated into American politics, securing the reputation of an indifferent student from Kansas as a great military leader and propelling him into the White House eight years later. This was Eisenhower's invasion, the one he had planned and argued for and believed in wholeheartedly. He meant every word of the order of the day he addressed to the servicemen he was sending into Hitler's Festung Europa: "Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months . . . "
On the morning of June 6, Eisenhower carried in his wallet another message he had written, to be issued only if the Allies failed to gain a foothold in France. "My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available," it read. "If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone." For several hours after the landings began, some of the commanders feared that statement might have to be released. &
Operation Overlord was the toughest of military propositions: an attack by sea against a fortified enemy defense line. The very thought gave Churchill nightmares. He told Eisenhower, "When I think of the beaches of Normandy choked with the flower of American and British youth, and when in my mind's eye I see the tides running red with their blood, I have my doubts. I have my doubts." The Prime Minister was both right and wrong: the scenes of death he envisioned occurred, but the Allies seized the beaches and held them.
On June 6, just after midnight, 16,000 paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions dropped chaotically into the dark coastal countryside to protect the western flank of the incoming army against counterattacks. Lost in low clouds, many of the planes missed their drop sites by miles, but the scattered paratroopers, snapping cricket noisemakers to find each other, gradually regrouped and moved toward the beach. An additional 8,000 men from the British 6th Airborne jumped in to guard the eastern flank, catching the Germans guarding key bridges by complete surprise.
H-hour on the beaches, code-named Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah, came at 6:30 a.m. Thousands upon thousands of infantrymen packed into 1,500 boxy, flat-bottomed landing craft called Higgins boats churned toward shore. The weather had cleared, as predicted, but the wind still kicked up heavy waves that made most of the troops violently seasick. As the coastline appeared in the gray, misty light, the soldiers, each laden with almost 70 lbs. of wet battle gear, jumped neck-deep into the waves and scrambled ashore.
All battles are remarkable for their chaos: at Normandy the deafening noise, sudden explosions, invisible gunfire and jagged beach obstacles turned a carefully orchestrated plan into a thousand extemporaneous fragments. And still, the plan worked. At Gold, Juno and Sword beaches a force drawn mostly from Lieut. General Sir Miles Dempsey's British Second Army, and including a Canadian division and Free French, Polish and Dutch troops, moved steadily onto the sand and into the countryside. On the western end at Utah Beach, the U.S. 4th Division waded ashore under protective naval fire and linked up with the paratroopers.
But at Omaha, right in the center of the entire front, soldiers of the 1st and 29th Infantry divisions walked straight into heavy German machine-gun and artillery fire. Bodies piled up in the shallows amid wrenching cries for help. Officers struggled to rally those pinned down on the beach, but there were only four exits through the bluffs along the shore, and they were well covered by German guns. As a few Rangers managed to scale the heights, Navy ships steamed close along the shore to blast the German gun emplacements.
Lieut. General Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. contingent, watched through his binoculars. He feared that "our forces had suffered an irreversible catastrophe" and considered holding back the reinforcements headed for Omaha. That could have spelled disaster for the whole invasion if the Germans had attacked Omaha Beach in force. Then at 1:30 p.m. Bradley received a radio message that the Americans were inching up the bluffs. Another wave of troops rushed in to bolster those on the shore. Said Bradley later: "Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero."
By nightfall more than 156,000 Allied soldiers -- 57,000 of them Americans -- were on the ground in Normandy. The total number of killed, wounded and missing was estimated at fewer than 5,000. It was a much lower toll than the 75,000 some planners feared would become casualties. There might have been far more if the Germans -- who were without their commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, or any air cover -- had not waited 10 hours before sending the first tanks of the veteran 21st Panzer Division into action against the invaders.
It was August before the Allied forces were able to break out of Normandy and speed toward Paris. Yet some of Eisenhower's trickiest battles were not with the Germans but with British military leaders who tried repeatedly to take away his control over strategy, troops and supplies. The British complained that Eisenhower lacked military finesse in battle, that he was a "mass- production general" who thought too much about logistics.
Americans who remember Ike at all tend to recall a do-little President or a mangler of sentences at press conferences. Military writers sometimes portray Ike the General as a genial and soothing Alliance board chairman at best, or at worst a glad-handing bumbler. Eisenhower the Supreme Commander was none of those. He was a driving, demanding man of terrific energy: up before dawn, to bed after midnight, chain-smoking four packs of cigarettes, drinking 15 cups of coffee a day. He was a military perfectionist, impatient with his subordinates and a peerless, lucid briefer. He had a volcanic temper he struggled to control but sometimes used as a tool. He was naturally friendly, with a famous grin, and he inspired trust. But he was patient only when he had to be: to keep peace among the Allies, since he believed the war would be won only if the Americans and British worked together.
He made the coalition work, and some of his ablest and most loyal deputies were British. But the two top British generals -- Sir Bernard Montgomery, who commanded the Allied ground forces on D-day, and his boss, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Alan Brooke -- ridiculed Eisenhower and conspired against him, sometimes with Churchill's compliance. Brooke and Montgomery argued that Ike was "no real director of thought, plans, energy or direction." Montgomery told Brooke: "He knows nothing whatever about how to make war or to fight battles. He should be kept away from all that business if we want to win this war." But Eisenhower brought to his job a modern sense of its management responsibilities: how to equip and move millions of men in large-scale campaigns that showed a mastery of the mass-production arsenal.
What really lay behind the complaints of Montgomery and Brooke was their belief that Britain was the senior partner in the Alliance and ought by rights to command its armies, even though American troops soon outnumbered their own. Britain's generals longed to preserve the waning strength of the Empire and postpone America's rise to dominance. But by the end of the war, the U.S. had 61 combat divisions -- more than 1 million men -- in Europe; the British, who had been fighting for five years and exhausted their reserves, never had more than 20.
Almost from the day America entered the war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. military leaders wanted to fight Hitler by invading through France. It would be risky, but if it succeeded it would open the most direct route across Europe into the heart of Germany. Eisenhower was one of the earliest and most determined advocates. In March 1942, when he was chief of the War Department's Operations Division in Washington, he sent a memorandum on strategy to the austere, brilliant head of the U.S. Army, General George Marshall. It urged that "the principal target for our first major offensive should be Germany, to be attacked through Western Europe." Eisenhower pointed out that in order to pull together the troops, training, transport and weapons for such a huge effort, the British and American governments would have to commit themselves formally to a cross-Channel attack.
President Franklin Roosevelt approved and in April 1942 dispatched Marshall and presidential adviser Harry Hopkins to persuade Churchill in London. The great war leader of Britain and his generals certainly wanted the U.S. to defeat Germany first, before turning to Japan, and did not want to put off the Americans by disputing strategy. So the British agreed to the invasion of Europe as something they intended to do -- only not right away. With searing memories of the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940 and of horrifying losses at the Somme and Passchendaele in World War I, the British shrank from binding themselves to another all-out effort on the European mainland. They much preferred to attack the Germans around the periphery -- in the Mediterranean and southern Europe.
The eager American warriors were getting ahead of themselves. The Allies had neither the troops nor the landing craft needed to carry out Operation Sledgehammer or Roundup or the other code-named plans to invade France in 1942 or 1943. Yet to boost morale and reassure their voters, both Churchill and Roosevelt were determined to mount an offensive somewhere against the Germans before 1942 ended. They decided to invade North Africa to drive out the Italians and the German Afrika Korps, though Marshall and Eisenhower opposed the move as a diversion of resources.
Eisenhower, now a lieutenant general based in London, was chosen to command Operation Torch, which went ashore in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942. His forces then moved into Tunisia to link up with Montgomery's Eighth Army, freeing all North Africa from the Axis. By the time the U.S. persuaded Churchill to undertake a Normandy attack, Eisenhower had commanded two more seaborne invasions during 1943: Sicily and mainland Italy. They were sideshows in his eyes -- and the Italian campaign quickly bogged down into a bloody mile-by-mile struggle up the peninsula -- but they taught him a great deal about the complexities of such operations. Equally important, he and Generals Bradley and George Patton emerged from the North African and Italian battlefields as first-class combat leaders.
On a night of pea-soup fog in January 1944, Eisenhower arrived in London as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force that would invade the Continent. Roosevelt had decided he simply could not spare Chief of Staff Marshall, the man everyone assumed would command D-day. Instead the order signed by Britain and the U.S. went to Eisenhower: "You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces."
Almost immediately, Eisenhower picked up the sounds of criticism. He noted in his diary that British columnists were sniping at him and talking up their own generals, especially the star of North Africa: Montgomery, victor over Germany's General Rommel, the Desert Fox. "They don't use the words initiative or boldness in talking of me," Eisenhower wrote. "It wearies me to be thought of as timid, when I've had to do things that were so risky as to be almost crazy. Oh hum."
Under Eisenhower's direction, southern England turned into a massive arsenal and a jumping-off point. The Allies built 163 airfields -- from which 12,000 warplanes flew in support of Operation Overlord. They stockpiled 2 million tons of weapons and supplies, mountains of food and fuel. The Channel ports became sprawling tent cities housing tens of thousands of soldiers.
Three weeks before D-day, King George VI, Churchill and the British chiefs of staff gave the plan a last review. Eisenhower's deputy for ground forces in the invasion was to be British, and Churchill had picked Montgomery for the post. As he briefed the distinguished gathering, Montgomery tramped across a huge relief map of Normandy spread across the floor. He said he intended to capture the city of Caen, eight miles from the beaches, on the first day. He might even get to Falaise, 32 miles inland. He would "crack about and force the battle to swing our way."
That was Montgomery's style: colorful and quotable but imprecise. His penchant for old sweaters and big berets helped foster a folksy image that made him popular with his troops and the public. Behind the image, however, he was a thoroughly professional soldier who paid attention to almost nothing but his profession, living and eating alone in a trailer in the midst of his army. With an ego nearly as large as General Douglas MacArthur's, he was good at public relations but bad at human relations.
On D-day Montgomery did not get his troops well inland; in most places they advanced only four to six miles along the 60-mile beachhead. He did not seize Caen the first day; in fact, he did not occupy the whole city until July 20, after it had been pounded to rubble by Allied bombing. As men and supplies poured across the Channel, Montgomery could not seem to push through the German armored divisions blocking the road to Paris. American troops farther west were fighting their way very slowly through farming country lined with dense hedgerows -- tall earth embankments complete with trees, shrubs and Germans.
Montgomery was always slow and cautious in mobile fighting, but this was a set-piece battle of the sort he was expected to win. As he remained at a standstill week after week, Churchill was worried that Normandy would turn into a replay of the ghastly trench warfare of World War I. Many senior officers, including Eisenhower's British deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, thought Montgomery should be either forced to attack or fired. Some Americans suspected Montgomery was trying to conserve his strength and let U.S. units take the casualties.
Much of the 50-day battle of Normandy was a reinforcement race: Could the Germans bring in enough armored divisions to destroy the Allied army before it was strong enough to break out of the peninsula? By the beginning of July the Allies had landed more than 1 million troops, 566,000 tons of supplies and 171,000 vehicles. Having failed to drive the Allies back into the sea, Hitler chose to throw all he had into a decisive fight in Normandy rather than withdraw to another defense line along the Seine. But when U.S. forces under Bradley did finally surge out of the peninsula at the end of July and sweep south and east, 21 German divisions were outflanked and almost destroyed. Their retreat over the Seine became a rout, and the victorious Allies reached Paris in a week.
At the end of August, Eisenhower opened a series of discussions on future strategy with Montgomery, the British general's Chief of Staff, Major General Sir Francis de Guingand, and Bradley. The talks turned into a bitter, almost unending debate over whether to carry the attack forward on a broad or narrow front. The Allied Expeditionary Force was about to drive on into Germany right up to the Rhine. After bringing units and equipment back up to strength there, Eisenhower said, he would launch a "sustained and unremitting advance against the heart of the enemy country."
Montgomery argued that the best approach was to send the bulk of the forces north through Belgium and into the Ruhr under one commander -- himself. "This is a whole-time job for one man," he said. He was determined to avoid handing over command of the Allied ground forces to Eisenhower, as planned, on Sept. 1. In a direct challenge, he told Eisenhower that "to change command now would be to prolong the war." He was convinced that "one really full-blooded thrust toward Berlin is likely to get there and end the German war."
Eisenhower said, "Monty's suggestion is simple: give him everything, which is crazy." Roosevelt and Marshall would not have stood for an arrangement that left a British general in charge of the much larger American forces. Eisenhower did not trust Montgomery to carry out the kind of swift, dashing warfare he was promising; the British general had shown no flair for it in his slow but successful tracking of Rommel across North Africa or his long pause in front of Caen. Nor could Eisenhower have shut down the hard-charging U.S. First and Third Armies to let the senior British general on the Continent claim sole credit for taking Berlin.
Yet Eisenhower was always patient and long-suffering with Montgomery, the most visible representative of British pride, and resisted the temptation to fire him. With support from Roosevelt and Marshall, Eisenhower knew he could force Montgomery's ouster, but he feared such an intramural brawl would severely damage U.S.-British trust. After the war, Montgomery's own chief of staff, De Guingand, looked back at the heavy fighting in Germany during 1945 and decided that the British could not have made it to Berlin, even with U.S. reinforcements. "My conclusion," he wrote, "is that Eisenhower was right."
The Supreme Commander thought a swift, narrow-front drive straight into Germany was a bad strategic idea. He was certain it would be cut off, counterattacked and defeated. He never even considered deviating from his own strategy: an advance to the Rhine along a front stretching from Holland to the Swiss border. That way the Nazi forces would be defeated west of the Rhine, and the Allies would cross into Germany proper with relative ease.
The broad front might be slower, but Eisenhower, the student of logistics, could make no other choice. In their race across the Seine, the Allied units outran their stocks of gasoline, ammunition, spare parts and food. To maintain itself in the field, an infantry division required 650 tons of supplies every day. The supply planners assumed that they would not have to support any U.S. divisions north of the Seine until 120 days after D-day. But within 90 days, 16 divisions were 150 miles beyond the Seine. Both Montgomery and Bradley had to halt to let supplies catch up.
Hitler seized on the Allied hiatus to organize a 24-division counteroffensive through Belgium's Ardennes Forest in December -- and Eisenhower came into his own as a combat general. He issued the orders that cut off the Bulge -- a German penetration westward into Allied lines 45 miles wide and 65 miles deep -- and made certain it would fail. He sent the 101st Airborne to hold the key city of Bastogne, put three other divisions into the battle and ordered Patton to turn his Third Army 90 degrees to the north to cut the advancing Germans' supply lines. The German counteroffensive was, Eisenhower said later, "a dangerous episode." At the time, the Supreme Commander was unruffled. The situation, he told his generals, "is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster."
The destruction of Hitler's last reserves in the Battle of the Bulge flung open the door to the German heartland, just as Eisenhower had planned. "The war was won before the Rhine was crossed," he said later. But his strategic arguments were not over. Churchill was suspicious of the Russians and detected the first signs of the coming cold war. He told Eisenhower it was important to capture Berlin, to symbolize the Allied role in victory over Germany and to counter the strength of the Soviet Union. Eisenhower felt the city no longer held any military significance. He told Montgomery, who was clamoring for the chance to take it, that the German capital was "nothing but a geographical location" and that "my purpose is to destroy the enemy's forces." Churchill disagreed and appealed to Roosevelt, who was ill and about to die. Washington said the decision on how best to destroy the enemy's forces should be left to the Supreme Commander.
Eisenhower asked Bradley, who would have to lead an advance on Berlin, for his views. Bradley advised that taking the city might cost an additional 100,000 casualties, which he thought "a pretty stiff price to pay for a prestige objective" -- especially since the heads of the Allied governments had already agreed on postwar occupation zones at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Eisenhower told the British and American Chiefs of Staff, "I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims," so if the chiefs decided "that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs purely * military considerations," he would revise his plans and carry out the operation. Such an order never came.
Eisenhower really had no choice in the matter. American generals, then and now, are expected to make decisions solely on military grounds and leave politics to their civilian chiefs. Bradley was right about the occupation zones: U.S. forces captured large portions of Czechoslovakia and what later became East Germany but reaped no political advantage from it. They simply had to pull back 125 miles to get inside their occupation boundaries.
The Germans surrendered to Eisenhower on May 7, 1945, but in some ways the war never ended for him. He wrote his memoirs, and so did the other generals. A surprising number claimed they could have done a better job as Supreme Commander. Eisenhower confessed in 1967, "I was annoyed by carping criticism." Not that his actions were above criticism, he said, but "as the postmortems have gone on, it looked as if we had blundered throughout the campaign and had been defeated."
In his old age and retirement, Eisenhower reflected on the fact that when he was planning D-day, most of his colleagues thought the war would last two more years. His own bet -- the end of 1944 -- was four months too optimistic. But he took pride in the fact that only "11 months from the day we landed in Normandy, the surrender took place."
The perspective from 50 years matches Eisenhower's assessment. He may not have handled his crusade in Europe perfectly, because nothing in war goes precisely according to plan. But those who look back and say he could have defeated Hitler sooner are playing games with history and hindsight. In the tumult of battle, with colleagues second-guessing him and comrades dying by the hundreds every day, Dwight Eisenhower made decisions that won the war in Europe and established a peace that prevails today.