Ike’s Activities During the Battle

Excerpt from an early draft of the manuscript for a book entitled: “Eisenhower and Summersby:  The General and His Wartime Aide.”

Colonel Jimmy Gault of the British Army became, among other things, the supreme commander’s “advance man” to locate sites for — and supervise setting up — AFHQ’s advanced command posts. His duties also included accompanying the supreme commander on troop inspections and official visits of various kinds. Fortunately for historians, Gault kept a diary, noting in it that in the weeks leading up to D-day, Ike departed SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) each Monday evening for dinner with Churchill. On May 26, however, he recorded that Ike had lunch alone with the king and queen at Buckingham Palace. After D-day but before establishing on August 7 his advanced command post in France, Gault wrote that Ike visited Normandy eight times. The first of these, on D+1 (June 7, 1944) while attempting to view the fighting at Omaha Beach—“the supreme commander kept telling them to go in closer”– the fast mine layer Apollo carrying him and his party, including Admiral Ramsay and Butcher, went aground on a sandbar. After numerous insistent orders to the engine room to move the vessel first forward and then backward in reverse gear, the captain was able to get the ship back into open water. It had to limp at slow speed to the flagship with bent propellers and drive shafts. A destroyer then came alongside and carried the supreme commander and his party back to Portsmouth. The event delayed Ike’s return by six hours.

On D+6 (June 12), the day of the first buzz-bomb attack on London, Eisenhower went ashore for a brief time on the beachhead. He landed on Omaha with General Marshall; Hap Arnold, commanding general of the United States army air corps; and Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations. They rode in a jeep for a distance down the beach, observing the evacuation of casualties and off-loading of men and equipment; and then, returning to sea, by PT boat to Utah where Ike went ashore for 40 minutes. Soon after he departed, a German artillery shell exploded just 400 yards away. Ike returned to Omaha on June 24, this time by air with his son, John; Lee; and Tedder. By the end of the month Allied forces, although now installed firmly and with increasing supplies and numbers of troops, remained well short of the phase/time lines drawn by the planners. As mentioned, a costly stalemate seemed possible.
Back in England the attacks from the air were unrelenting. On mid-morning, Sunday June 17, a V-1 fell on the Guards Chapel in London — where Gault usually attended Sunday services — killing 480 people including many of Gault’s friends. Eisenhower hurriedly telephoned about the whereabouts of his military assistant. Fortunately, the conscientious Brit had gone that morning to the office instead to church. Several months earlier, Gault in a fall from his horse had suffered a fractured collar bone and had to be hospitalized for a week. At that time, Ike had had Kay drive him to the hospital for an unannounced Sunday visit, a thoughtfulness that Gault and his wife never forgot. The supreme commander was thus especially pleased not to have to repeat the visit or to find out something worse.

On June 30, 1944, as mentioned – with John, Kay, Tex and others having departed on his custom B-17 for the United States—Ike again made his own diary entries. “Lee phoned from Prestwyck [the London airport] but neither J. [John] or K. [Kay] came to the phone,” he scribbled. “Saw Tedder who just returned from beachhead. Monty [is] momentarily expecting heavy counter-attack, which he is confident in defeating. Meanwhile he is just waiting. Bradley’s attack to South (sic) now postponed to July 3. How I suffer! In shelter 5 times today on ‘Imminent danger.’”

The next day, he traveled again to the continent for a four-day stay at General Bradley’s headquarters. On July 2, he visited units of the British and Canadian 21st Army Group and six U.S. divisions. On the 3rd he visited the U.S. XVIIIth [Airborne] Corps, surveyed the battlefield from an abandoned German flak tower – a position that received an enemy shelling soon after he left — and viewed the kick-off of a U.S. offensive to move allied lines southward in the direction of St. Lo.
His last day at the front was enjoyable. He helped his forces celebrate the 4th of July by jerking a Howitzer lanyard, firing the weapon toward German lines simultaneously with all other available Allied field guns at noon. Then, that afternoon, the supreme commander climbed into a P-51 fighter in a makeshift second seat behind the pilot. “The plane was not armed,” Gault noted cautiously. “He flew with Brigadier General [Elwood] “Pete” Quesada [commander of the IXth tactical air command]. Great thrill. Marshall would have raised hell had he known.” Ike’s own calendar entry was a simple, less than positive tactical observation: “Visited VII Corps HQ which has the 83rd Division attacking today. Poor progress but [Corps Commander, Major General J. Lawton] Collins was on the job in person this p.m. to pep things up. Went up in a P-51 (modified to carry a passenger) this afternoon to see ground from air. Attack is difficult!”

Clearly the supreme commander was not happy, this despite the fact that by this time his commanders had landed approximately one million men. Butcher noted in the headquarters diary that “Our whole attack has to fight its way out of narrow bottlenecks flanked by marshes and against the enemy, who has a double hedgerow and an intervening trench almost every fifty years as ready-made strong points. Bad weather limits air support and produces mud, reminiscent to Ike of Tunisia in the wintertime. Location of enemy artillery targets is difficult, yet we have plenty of guns available to deal with them. Clear weather would help.” Ike’s P-51 flight — Butcher and McKeogh noted less cautiously than had Gault — was with an escort of six fighter planes and involved scouting for forty-five minutes over enemy positions. Mickey characterized the flight as “strictly not just observation; it was a fighter patrol . . . . Those were the longest forty-five minutes, just about, that I ever lived through.” Ike returned to Portsmouth on July 5, but he was back to France on the 22nd. He needed to confer with his commanders. And on the 25th he arrived to witness, finally, the breakout by American forces at St. Lo. He therefore witnessed the heavy bombing that paved the way for it and, as mentioned, also killed both American troops and General McNair with errant bombs.

 

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