The year 1944 was the climactic year of the war against Germany. It was not the last year of that war, as many had predicted and more had hoped. But it was, beyond all reasonable doubt, the last full year.
It was not a year in which the outcomethe question of who would win and who would losestill dangled precariously in the balance. The trend of the war had been reversed in 1942 at Stalingrad and El Alamein. By early 1944 the U.S. was almost fully armedthanks mainly to the Man of 1943, General George Catlett Marshall.
The promise of victory was bright. But the path to victory was highly uncertain. And the greatest single element of that uncertainty was the success or failure of the Anglo-U.S. invasion of western Europe, which Soviet Russia had been demanding since 1942, and which Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt now proclaimed as necessary and imminent.
The invasion was the greatest gamble, the most complex operation in the history of war. The design of it was the product of hundreds of brains. The responsibility of it fell on the shoulders of one manDwight David Eisenhower.
About two months before Dday, Eisenhower and his top commanders were gathered in a room, beside a sand-table model of the target beaches. After the commanders had spoken in turn, piecing together the total picture of the operation, Winston Churchill stalked on to the platform, clutching his lapels. He said: "I have confidence in you, my commanders. The fate of the world is in your hands."
This slice of Churchillian rhetoric was not necessarily an overstatement. If the invasion failed, the waste of time and effort, of men and material, would be incalculable, almost too staggering even to contemplate. If it failed, Russia might be so discouraged as to seek a separate peace with Hitler. In that case, when the western Allies were ready to mount another invasion, in 1946 or 1947, they would find three or four hundred German divisions manning the Atlantic Wall instead of 60.
To Grips on Land. The purpose of the invasion was not to knock out Germany at one blow. If the mere establishment and holding of Allied beachheads should discourage the Nazis to the point of capitulation, well and good. There were extreme optimists (later developments were to prove how extreme they were) who hoped for that outcome. But in the realistic battle plan, the purpose of the gamble was to bring the forces of the western Allies to grips with Nazi Germany on her western land approaches. When that purpose was completely achieved, affable, incisive, confident "Ike" Eisenhower became the Man of 1944.
A year ago, Eisenhower announced his conviction that Germany would be beaten in 1944. "Many persons of the highest technical attainments, knowledge and responsibility," said Winston Churchill, had shared this feeling. In their extenuation, it might be said that none of them knew that Soviet Russia's main military effort for the year, on the main highway to Berlin, would run its course in six weeks of the summer.
The notable fact about Eisenhower's prediction is not that it was wrong, but that it was based on a complete confidence that the invasion would succeed. In retrospect, his brilliant success made it seem like much less of a gamble than it had seemed before June 6.