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D-Day Was Ike's Day

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Saturday is the 71st anniversary of D-Day. "Operation Overlord" was the largest amphibious assault in history, involving 160,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers who crossed the English Channel to the beaches of Nazi-occupied Normandy.

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower supervised the risky invasion. His grandson, David Eisenhower, is a respected military historian who enjoyed a privileged vantage on D-Day. He spent much of his first 21 years in Washington and Gettysburg in hundreds of conversations about life, politics and war with his grandfather. Ike named Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains, for his grandson.

David, who has written several books about his grandfather, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communications, where I also teach. (David has been a mentor to me.) What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with David about his grandfather (who he sometimes calls "DDE" here) and those momentous days in 1944.  

Hunt: David, you spent much of your childhood and young adulthood with your grandfather. What remembrances do you have of his feelings about D-Day?

Eisenhower: The war and D-Day were pervasive influences in our home (Gettysburg, Washington, the White House where DDE kept his decorations on display in the Trophy Room, which I believe is now called the "Yellow Oval Room"). But Granddad rarely talked about it. There is a story that I think illustrates DDE's true feelings about D-Day. In the spring of 1954, DDE delivered the commencement at Penn State -- his brother Milton was President of Penn State at the time. When weather threatened plans for the massive outdoors event, Milton went to work on moving the event indoors, a logistical feat which distressed Milton and caused a lot of commotion. According to Milton, DDE watched it all with bemusement, quipping at one point: "Milton, since June 6th 1944, I've never worried about the rain."

Hunt: He wrote a famous memo before Operation Overlord to be released if it failed, saying the responsibility was his alone. That showed principle and courage that I doubt we'd see today. From your conversations and your research into Eisenhower at War, how real was the possibility of failure for him?

Eisenhower: Worry about failure was magnified greatly by the consequences of failure. Having said that, the chances of failure were fair. In fact, according to most (and recent) accounts, many in the German high command expected to be able to defeat Overlord. As recently as January 1944 the Germans had come close to defeating the American landings at Anzio to break the stalemate in Italy. In 1942, the Germans had roundly defeated Canadian landings at Dieppe. All phases of the operation were dangerous -- getting ashore, expanding the beachhead and then averting stalemate.

Most Germans believed that landings could not be prevented but that the Germans would have an opportunity in the first 72 to 120 hours to destroy the invasion via armored counterattack.  German General Erwin Rommel famously believed that the invasion had to be stopped at the water's edge and that D-Day, therefore, would be "the longest day." 

The threat of a quick counteroffensive persisted for some time. There was also initial concern about the cohesion of the Normandy bridgehead, concern that the various beaches might remain isolated from one another and hence vulnerable to defeat in detail. This was not eased until the 101st Airborne secured Carentan around the 13th of June. A major effort to organize a later counteroffensive remained a real possibility until the third week of June when the Soviets unleashed their summer assault in Belarus, thus ending the possibility of major reinforcement from other theaters. The threat of containment grew each week and was not lifted until the breakout offensive of July 18-31. Allied air and naval superiority was a huge factor in allied success, but the Germans matched the allies on the ground and they fought very tenaciously.

In sum:

1) The threat of repulse at the beaches was high. Defeat almost happened at Omaha. Apparently, had the landings failed at Omaha, American follow-on units would have been routed through British beaches, enabling us to get our available strength ashore. Whether Allies could have developed a successful breakout from the British sector alone is questionable.

2) The threat of a successful counter-offensive, high at first, diminished steadily after June 8th or so, as the Germans decided against immediate reinforcement of Normandy and committed armored formations to take up defensive positions in an attempt to "contain" the beachhead. This began around June 9/10. Nor did the Germans commit the infantry necessary to relieve armor on the line so that armor could be collected for a determined counterattack.

3) The threat of stalemate was constant, not ending until the breakout.

4) Eisenhower believed that it was the responsibility of military command to make things as simple as possible for civilian leadership. He had proven this during the so-called "Darlan affair" in 1942, deflecting the heat for our policy of negotiating with Vichy to himself rather than political authority. (In Dad's opinion, this trait was a major factor in his selection for Overlord.)

In the event of failure, Eisenhower was prepared to accept full responsibility. In my opinion, had Overlord failed or become bottled up, the Allies would have mounted major landings elsewhere -- either in Brittany or along the southern French coast (where secondary landings took place in August), under General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff and Eisenhower's boss.

Hunt: Eisenhower called off the cross-channel invasion on June 5 because of bad weather. The forecast for June 6 wasn't good but he went anyway. What would have been the consequences of waiting?

Eisenhower: As I understand it, there was one more day (June 7) in the early June window. Postponement beyond the 7th would have meant a delay until the third week of June. The consequences would have been several-fold. Advantages, surprise and so on, would have been lost. Second, Rommel was leading a frenetic effort to fortify the coast -- with two additional weeks, the Germans might have been able to emplace several million mines and move in more troops. Third, postponement until mid-to-late June would have confirmed cynics that the Allies would never hazard landings in advance of the Soviet summer offensive -- they would not, in other words, rely on Soviet assurances of a major offensive in mid-late June that would prevent the Germans from reinforcing France. Many Germans believed that the Allies would indeed await the Russians -- a mindset that probably helped the allies achieve surprise.

As far as I can see, because of these factors, Eisenhower was determined to launch in early June if given a choice by the weather. The choice the weather gave him was very difficult.  Group Captain Stagg's weather report given at the evening meeting on June 4 held out the possibility of OK weather for 12-24 hours, which Eisenhower seized as the opportunity to launch Overlord. This turned out to be a great military decision. At the meeting before dawn on the 5th at which he finalized it, witnesses say Eisenhower sat in complete silence for five minutes before saying "OK, let's go."

Hunt: To throw off the Nazis, there were a lot of feints that the invasion would center on a different place at a different time, even using General George Patton as a decoy. How important were these deceptions to the element of semi-surprise?

Eisenhower: "Semi-surprise" is probably a good term to describe the German reaction. Once the landings went forward, I'd say the Germans were "semi-deceived" into thinking that Normandy was the one and only invasion target.

There is a lot of debate as to how effective deception operations were. What deception undoubtedly accomplished was to confirm the "conventional wisdom" in German circles that the Allies would invade in the Pas de Calais area and that any other landing would be diversionary. With what effect? In my opinion, the "conventional wisdom" operated as a kind of default position in that no one, including Rommel and Hitler, would buck it unless absolutely certain the Allies were landing elsewhere. The catch is that until the Allies committed all of their reserves, no one could be certain there would not be other landings, and so the conventional wisdom worked for the Allies throughout the landings and subsequent campaign. And deception certainly helped delay the German response in the first 24 hours.  Whether "deception" operations succeeded in keeping the German 15th Army in place in the Pas de Calais for almost two months is very doubtful, in my opinion.

In other words, I think the Germans were "semi-deceived" in that  they anticipated Normandy and most saw Normandy as the main effort within several days of the landings, but they could not  effectively act on that belief.

But as long as the Allies had reserves anywhere, including in the U.S., landings in the Pas de Calais area were possible. And as long as landings there were possible, the Pas de Calais had to be defended in strength because of its strategic location and the advantages accruing to a successful landing there.

So as units of the German 15th Army left Calais, they would have to be replaced -- presumably by forces drawn from other theaters (Russia). From the 6th of June until fall of 1944, Hitler proved unwilling and/or unable to reinforce France because of the emergency he faced in Russia. The Pas de Calais was in fact thinned out toward the end of July. Interrogations of high-ranking Germans confirmed that German intelligence was not in doubt about a key variable -- the size of the U.S. army. They were aware of the overall number of U.S. Army divisions being mobilized for all theaters (89 or so), and claimed they could accurately estimate the number available for Europe.

A general comment: For two years, both sides had been studying the problem of invasion carefully. Perhaps the most basic requirement for invasion was that the beach(es) chosen not be so heavily defended as to all but foreclose landings. Pas de Calais was in fact defended in great strength, making successful landings difficult if not impossible. I'd say that the Germans, in addition to "expecting" landings in Pas de Calais also probably hoped for landings there. In Normandy, the Germans left the door ajar, reasoning that the consequences of Allied success in Normandy were less immediately fatal than the consequences of Allied success at Pas de Calais. The Allies attacked through the door left ajar.

Incidentally, practically all of the major German troop movements in the days and hours immediately before invasion suggest that the Germans guessed Normandy was the target. The German response to the landings, perhaps sluggish by Rommel's standards, was pretty prompt. But missing all along was a decision on Hitler's part to commit himself to the kind of reinforcement of France and priority for the west that would have permitted containment or defeat of Normandy, plus defense of the Pas de Calais. 

Hunt: Germans didn't realize this massive amphibious assault was heading across the channel until 2:00 a.m.?

Eisenhower: In terms of surveillance, the Allies had a huge advantage and this undergirded the tactical surprise. Because of the allied strategic bombing campaign and because of Germany's unwillingness to risk the Luftwaffe in the early stages of any invasion, German aerial surveillance was almost non-existent in the weeks leading up to D-Day. Moreover, according to historian Max Hastings, every active German agent in England had, by June 6th, been "turned" by MI-5. The Germans were pretty blind, in other words, and left to make their calculations based on their knowledge of overall Allied strength and obsolete information regarding the actual troop numbers in southern England. They were not even watching the coast with U-boats for some reason.

They did see the concentrations of troops and Navy gathering in southern England (the placement of troops in southern England persuaded Hitler that Normandy was probably the Allied target). But the Germans did not detect the force when it headed to sea. As the story goes, the invasion armada (5,000 ships of all kinds) crossed the channel unobserved, an intelligence lapse comparable to our lapse in not seeing the Japanese fleet approach Pearl Harbor. 

The Germans did have several early signs of invasion:

1. They read and understood BBC messages beamed to the underground, and they successfully interdicted the invasion alert sometime on the evening of the 5th.

2. They could trace the pattern of Allied bombing missions in the weeks before D-Day, which was consistent with either Normandy or Pas de Calais, and they recognized its intensification.

Beyond that, the first real evidence of invasion that they had was when it began: Three airborne divisions alighted on Normandy the night of June 5/6. By 2:00 a.m. or so, the 15th Army in the Calais area was on alert. Von Rundstedt's HQ was monitoring reports of invasion as early as 4:00 a.m. Army Group B (Rommel's command) responded less alertly. Rommel's absence was a factor, which, possibly, suggests the "treachery" of Hans Speidel, Rommel's chief of staff who was an anti-Hitler conspirator and a future NATO commander.

By the afternoon of the 6th, again, most of the panzers were on the move to Normandy while infantry reinforcements were held back to a) be sure of Pas de Calais and b) to await a general decision to reinforce France that never came despite Hitler's "Directive 51" of November 1943, which accorded a top priority to the defense of France. Yet from January to June 1944, only six or so German divisions augmented the 53 divisions already in France and the lowlands. The big shift of forces to the west came in December, 1944.

Hunt: There were 150,000 in the invading force and 4,000 lost their lives that day. Eisenhower had anticipated larger casualties hadn't he?

Eisenhower: Eisenhower had been warned (in writing) by his Air commander-in-chief that the airborne alone would lose that many; that as many as 80-90 percent men of the U.S. 82nd and 101st divisions would be lost, upward of 10,000 men. DDE also knew that the German 352nd Division had moved into the Omaha sector 96 hours or so before the landings, so heavy losses were anticipated there. In May, Hitler had reinforced the base of the Cotentin Peninsula significantly, within easy reach of Utah beach. Casualties could have been a lot higher.

Hunt: There also were some bad miscalculations. For instance, the air assault really didn't take out much of the German defense, especially on Omaha Beach, did it?

Eisenhower: The preliminary air attacks did not help the landing forces, apparently. The reason was low cloud cover and the unwillingness of the Air Force to risk "shorts" (dropping bombs on our own troops) by bombing close to the beaches. Therefore the early waves went ashore against defenses that had been barely touched. The preliminary bombings may have degraded the enemy's second and third echelons. Most of the bombing happened about two miles inland as far as I know.

Hunt: You've written that D-Day gave Eisenhower a self-confidence that he previously had lacked. Please explain -- and did he ever reveal that in conversations with you?

Eisenhower: DDE's decision to launch OVERLORD has been called one of the greatest military decisions in history. He had commanded other landings, but none of the significance of D-Day. According to several people I interviewed, the success of the landings "cemented" his confidence in his ability to make decisions. But he must have had a lot of faith in his ability to make correct judgments before then. And I imagine that during the war, commanders felt themselves to be as good as their most recent decision. The confidence Eisenhower gained via D-Day probably lasted longer -- indeed, long enough for him to be promoted to the very front rank of war leaders and long enough to be reinforced by subsequent judgments, which "cemented" his stature and proved decisive for his politics. 

Hunt: The preparation for June 6 was meticulous, but some critics say the post-invasion campaign was less well planned.

Eisenhower: The post-invasion battle did not go according to plan. It ultimately went much better than planned. The idea was to get ashore, move inland quickly and then develop operations aimed to secure a "lodgment" in northwest France bounded by the Loire and Seine rivers. This was to be achieved by D + 90, in anticipation of a later offensive to liberate eastern France and then a subsequent one to invade Germany.

Early progress was much slower than anticipated. Some say that British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was too cautious in the early days of the Normandy campaign, but this too was said of American commanders. The slow initial progress had an unforeseen consequence that apparently worked to Allied advantage. Having succeeded in "containing" the bridgehead initially, the Germans attempted to deepen the stalemate of the "second front" in Normandy. As a result, unit by unit, the German army in northwest France (bereft of reinforcements from Russia) was drawn into a decisive battle west of the Seine. Thus, when the German position in Normandy collapsed, the Germans lost most of their troops in France -- hence their position in all of France. In sum, the Allies were way ahead of projections by late August, causing them to modify the Overlord concept significantly to include the liberation of all of France -- not just Paris-- by D +90. 

Hunt: You've told me during many dinner discussions that your grandfather didn't talk about World War II a great deal, but often regaled you with stories and strategies of the American Civil War, which he was taught at West Point. Are there Civil War analogies to this last campaign to defeat the Germans?

Eisenhower: It is true that Granddad and Dad shared the Civil War as a hobby, and there is no doubt in my mind that Civil War history provided a "medium" through which DDE looked at the European theater. Indeed, the analogies I think he always drew were implicit in his choice of a home in 1950, Gettysburg. Though exposed to the Civil War routinely as a kid and teenager, I have never formally studied it. I have read the multi-volume books on the Civil War. I would say that analogies might include:

1. Command personalities: that is, European theater commanders who resembled Civil War commanders, (George Patton and William Tecumseh Sherman).

2. Gettysburg and Normandy as battles, which may or may not have been "decisive' in the entire contest, but which came to symbolize victory.

3. The "pursuit" of the enemy controversy of August-September 1944, which is similar in my mind to the controversy surrounding the aftermath of Gettysburg.

4. The fall offensives in Europe and Grant's Wilderness campaign.

5. Kasserine Pass and Bull Run 1 and 2.

Hunt: Longer term, there was big debate over Eisenhower's broad-front strategy to end the war after Normandy. It was criticized by Montgomery, who argued for a quicker thrust to Berlin. Montgomery derided Ike as "nice chap, no solider." What was Eisenhower's reaction?

Eisenhower: In the wake of the Normandy victory, Montgomery urgently advanced the argument that victory in France had opened the door to immediate and complete victory over the Germans. This argument took the form of the proposed "Market Garden" operation in which the British 2nd Army (more or less), with the support of the U.S. First Army on its southern flank, would invade across the Rhine and take the Ruhr/Berlin. Montgomery believed, or claimed he believed, that his spearheads (XXX Corps of 3-4 divisions plus three Allied airborne divisions) could seize bridges across the Rhine and that Allied reinforcements could push on to Berlin or presumably to any point in Germany.

Factoring in the length of supply lines and shortages, Montgomery was not talking about a military operation that was large enough to defeat the German army still in the field, but a probe that would apparently signal the end of the war and induce the still-vast German army to lay down its arms. When "Market Garden" was proposed, Montgomery's main source of supply was "Mulberry A" in Normandy, and Allied supply lines were very stretched on all fronts. All in all, a dash to Berlin would have extended Allied supply lines to 700-plus miles, double the maximum. Put another way, Monty was not proposing an attack to subdue a German army that consisted of 250 divisions on all fronts backed by an additional 60 divisions forming in Germany as of mid-late September.

Many Germans did favor surrender to the West and were prepared to open the western front to the British and American armies in hopes of preventing occupation by the Soviets. This would happen in April, 1945. Was it happening in late August 1944?

1. The German front in France was shattered and the Germans -- observing the Prussian maxim "There is but one line in battle and it must be held" -- had not prepared defensive lines along the Seine or the Somme. The next German line was the Siegfried line covering Germany, but even it was in disrepair.

2. The Germans were clobbered by the Russian summer offensive and thrown all the way from Vitebsk to Warsaw, more than 300 miles with the loss of an entire Army Group.

3. In August to early September, the Germans were in full retreat up the Rhone in the face of secondary allied landings in southern France.

4. On July 20, German army leaders attempted to assassinate Hitler.

Thus, given the thoroughness of the victory in Normandy, and because of the German proclivity to seek peace with the West (in lieu of the Soviets), there was a feeling a Rhine crossing would touch off a surrender or insurrection in Germany. By September 1944, although the German war was "won" on paper, Germany itself had not been invaded and the Germans continued to possess half of Poland, all of Norway and much of the Lowlands, most of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and so on.

Contrary indicators included:

1. The Germans were withdrawing from France, not surrendering in place. Indeed they were withdrawing SS first, then panzers, then infantry. German formations were disorganized for a while after the battle of Normandy, but formations defeated in Normandy were racing for the German frontier where they quickly reformed.  

2. The Nazi regime had nothing to lose by extending the war, and possessed sufficient terroristic control over Germany to extend it.

3. By late August, the plotters (thousands of them) against Hitler had been rounded up and they were being tried and executed -- the plot was dead.

4. By late August, the Red Army offensive had stalled. The eastern front had in fact stabilized. The Red Army in Poland was entering a prolonged "rest and refit" mode that would last six months.

5. The Germans were engaged in frantic and effective efforts to recruit and mobilize their reserves of manpower. The autumn mobilization, underway by September, was supposed to yield upward of 60 Volksturm divisions -- undertrained but effective in defense.

6. By late August and early September, supply difficulties were imposing a partial halt to the Allied advance. One reason is that the Germans effectively held all of the ports in France and the lowlands and had no intention of abandoning them. An important point Montgomery offered in support of his plan was the seizure of Antwerp on September 4th, with its docks intact. But even as Market Garden was proposed, the Germans had successfully withdrawn to positions that blocked the approaches to Antwerp, rendering the port useless until a Canadian operation in November, the largest amphibious assault next to D-Day, could dislodge the German garrisons in one of the worst battles of the war.

7. Montgomery's assault force in Market Garden encountered 20-plus divisions, many of which had been defeated in Normandy and supposedly "written down." The lead elements were annihilated. Montgomery's "advance" into Holland became what amounted to an exposed Allied salient, drawing in the U.S. 9th Army to support Montgomery's southern flank.

Most say that Eisenhower's basic approach -- to exploit German disarray following Normandy to gain defensible positions for the winter while denying these same defensible positions to the Germans -- was vindicated by Market Garden. His premise was that victory in Normandy, which proved tantamount to the liberation of France, was not tantamount to complete victory over Germany on all fronts, or even victory on the western front. As of September 1944, the Germans still had one card to play: going all-out in the west in hopes of repeating their 1940 victory over Britain and France. 

Hunt: This campaign did reflect Eisenhower's remarkable political talents, juggling not just his boss, FDR, but also Churchill, Stalin and some of the most headstrong generals, Patton and Montgomery. Did he view this subsequently as good preparation for the presidency?

Eisenhower: Eisenhower was dealing with more than the egotism of other generals or the vanity of political higher-ups. The problem after Normandy was to sustain the fighting power of his armies and to keep the focus on defeating the Germany army.

Eisenhower was criticized because he was not a military artist, because his policy was "attack everywhere." That was Grant's concept too, and it worked.

As I see it, it is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to be president than Eisenhower was in 1952, having commanded the Allied force in northwest Europe. Eisenhower was experienced. He had made and carried out far-reaching decisions. The national and international postwar agenda of reconstruction and consolidation cried out for someone with his background and experience.

Hunt: Describe Ike the politician. Why were his skills underestimated and under-appreciated?

Eisenhower: Leonard Hall, chairman of the 1960 Nixon campaign and a Republican National Committee chairman and GOP activist dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, told me in an interview when I undertook my book that the two greatest "natural" politicians he ever saw were Al "The Happy Warrior" Smith and Dwight Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was indeed a "political" general, the most successful electorally since Washington. He was popular with the troops who served under him in Europe, who, some say, elected him to the presidency. DDE inspired his troops to victory in a difficult campaign. He understood people, and he was good at making big decisions. One of his maxims (quoted by my Dad) is that as president, he was paid to make roughly six important decisions every year (and get them right). At least six of his decisions in 1944-1945, the final year of the war, could be termed presidential in scale, and they were certainly successful. 

1. Launching D-Day when he did.

2. Setting in motion the annihilation of the German 7th Army in Normandy, entailing great risk.

3. The broad-front decision of September 1, 1944, which positioned the Allies to withstand the supreme German military challenge in December.

4. His willingness to pass command of the "northern shoulder" of the Ardennes to Montgomery at the height of the Battle of the Bulge, achieving a coherent defense of the Meuse.

5. Closing the Rhine along its entire length before launching an invasion of Germany, which multiplied the effectiveness of his invading force many times over.

6. His determination to obtain unconditional surrender as quickly as possible, as soon as it became clear that Germany wanted to surrender on the western front, beginning around April 1, 1945. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net