D-day: Its Approach and Aftermath

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

In England during the build-up for D-day under Ike’s command in January, 1944, the mishaps continued. An amphibious training exercise in the spring of 1944 at Slapton Sands on the south coast near Plymouth, involved nine LSTs (the large Landing Ship Tanks) and 30,000 troops. Unfortunately, 749 American army and navy personnel died — figures that were concealed at the time as a matter of wartime security. Summersby later described it. “Eisenhower and other allied commanders were” embarked “on an infantry landing craft to witness the exercise [codenamed “Tiger”] to simulate the one anticipated by the 4th infantry division on beach [Utah] at Normandy on D-day,” she recalled. “But the maneuver went sour. Bombers, navy vessels, airplanes, and special units fouled up in everything from timing to orders.” To ensure realistic battle conditions, Eisenhower had authorized live fire. Several troops were killed. But the major damage came from enemy action the following day. The LSTs came under attack by nine German fast patrol boats (e-boats) based on the other side of the Channel in Cherbourg. Poorly defended by just one Royal Navy destroyer, one LST was sunk, one abandoned, and another badly damaged.

The supreme commander’s worries increased as D-day — the deadline of deadlines — approached. On June 4, 1944 – the originally scheduled date for the assault but, as it turned out, two days before the actual invasion — SHAEF air chief, Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, recommended postponing the entire operation because of what he predicted would be unacceptable losses of paratroopers of the American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions. He believed their aircraft would be shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire or land behind Utah beach in flooded areas, where the troops would drown. He estimated seventy percent losses in glider strength and fifty in paratroop strength. The reduction in combat effectiveness, he said, would cause the Utah Beach landings, and thus the invasion, to fail. Two days earlier he had pronounced (and Ike knew) — and his subordinates had agreed — that Allied ground forces were not overwhelmingly powerful and that success depended upon allied air superiority. And Eisenhower was worried about the Allied Fortitude deception, which could have backfired if the German high command had caught on, and about heavy weather, which had caused a 24-hour delay.

When Ike got out of bed at 3:30 a.m. on the morning of June 5, he later recalled, the weather appeared unwilling to cooperate. “Our little camp was shaking and shuddering under a wind of almost hurricane proportions and the accompanying rain seemed to be traveling in horizontal streaks,” he said. “It seemed impossible that in such conditions there was any reason for even discussing the situation.” He was surprised when Captain Stagg, chief of the meteorologic staff, brought news. The captain said that the conditions on the Normandy coast currently were just as he had predicted the previous morning and thus would have caused a major disaster if the landing had been attempted. But the weather officer then, Ike said, “astonished” the gathered commanders by saying that the next morning, June 6, a heretofore unexpected period of “relatively good weather” would arrive on those same beaches lasting 36 hours after which another period of “really bad weather would arrive. “My fear,” Ike wrote in his memoirs, was “the possibility that we might land the first several waves successfully and then find later build-up impracticable, and so have to leave the isolated original attacking forces easy prey to German counteraction. However, the consequences of delay justified great risk and I quickly announced the decision to go ahead with the attack on June 6.”

He gave the order on 4:15 the morning of June 5. “OK, let’s go!” He then scribbled a contingency note taking personal responsibility and blame in the event Leigh-Mallory was correct. “The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do,” it said. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” Summersby recorded Ike’s mood that evening after she returned from driving him and his British military aide, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Gault, to the airfield to inspect the 101st Airborne Division as the paratroops readied their equipment and put on camouflage face paint. The supreme commander ordered them to break ranks so he could talk with them one-on-one. Then as the C-47s and gliders took off, Summersby heard him say: “‘It’s on. No one can stop it now.’ His shoulders sagging, [he was] the loneliest man in the world.”

Fortunately for Ike and his mission, Leigh Mallory had been wrong. Ike’s planning (and luck) held. The night of June 5 and dawn hours of June 6, approximately 23,000 allied (including British) airborne troops floated to the ground in Normandy. The 101st airborne Screaming Eagles, whom he had visited the previous evening, lost 1,500 killed or captured; but to his great relief, most of them landed as planned behind Utah Beach at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula. They, assisted by their sister division, the 82nd airborne, captured the causeways and bridges and forced the Germans to contend with broken communications with commanders and attacks from behind their trenches. Leigh-Mallory apologized for having caused worry. Casualties were heavy at Omaha because of the unexpected presence of an additional German division, failure of allied air to knock out key shore batteries, and loss of the tanks (and their heavy guns) when their flotation devices were swamped in the heavy sea. But the landings at Utah went smoothly, with few casualties. Despite a storm of almost hurricane force that stopped operations for four days on June 19, by July 2 the Allies controlled all landing beaches and had 1,000,000 men, 567,000 tons of supplies, 172, 000 vehicles ashore. They had taken 41,000 prisoners. However, they also had suffered 60,771 casualties of which 8,975 were killed.

Despite his virtually unchallenged control of the air and sea, it would take Eisenhower seven weeks for his troops — their backs to the sea and facing hardened machinegun nests, flooded areas, and German armored reinforcements — to penetrate the defenses of the German 7th Army. At the end of June, on D+24 – three weeks after the landings — he jotted in Kay’s desk diary (she had departed that day on furlough to the United States, so he made the entries himself) the following disheartening words: “Arrived in France about 6:50 p.m. . . . . Learned our new anti-tank equipment and our 76 mm. in [our] Sherman [tanks] are not capable of taking on [German] Panthers and Tigers. Sent long wire to Bedell to begin investigation . . . Attack goes very slowly. Bad weather [is] handicapping air. [The] Selection of artillery targets [is] most difficult in this close country.”

It was Ike’s miraculous good fortune that Fortitude — perhaps the most important deception in history — remained intact. Any breakout, Ike knew, depended upon the continued existence in the minds of Hitler of this imaginary threat in the north at Calais. Fortitude had passed to German spies in England (all of whom had been “turned” by British counter-intelligence officers and were thus working for the Allies rather than Germany) the existence in England of a fake “1st U.S. Army Group” under the command of either Patton or another friend of Ike’s, Lieutenant General Leslie McNair (administrative commander of U.S. infantry). The hoax included inflatable rubber structures visible from the air (but of course easily discovered by any enemy agents that came across them on the ground) of Sherman tanks and landing craft. And it was augmented by false radio transmissions consistent with the existence of an active army group. Thanks to brilliant British counter-intelligence work, the German high command took the bait. Hitler believed until much too late that the Normandy landings were merely diversionary attacks. He kept his 15th Army in place until late July, much too late, failing to discover the existence of two actual armies, Patton’s Third and the Canadian First, awaiting transit at the proper time, not to Calais but rather to Normandy.

On July 26, the day following the Allied breakout, came a grim reminder of war’s seemingly random destruction. Eisenhower learned of Allied troop deaths at St. Lo from errant “friendly” bombs dropped by the Allied heavy bombers. They killed 111 troops along with his friend, General McNair, and wounded 490 men of the American 9th and 30TH infantry divisions. “The boss,” said Mickey, had been with McNair “a good part of the [previous] day and he was very upset and shocked. He stayed by himself the rest of the evening.” Ike, Summersby recalled, “sank into the depths of despair when the Air Force messed up a coordinated assault by dropping its bombs ‘short,’ killing some of our own troops, including Lieutenant General L. J. McNair.”

The Allies, however, had control of the air, and once they had broken out, the enemy could do little. Patton’s Third Army entered the fray — a fact that Eisenhower announced to the public on August 1. The storied American general, whom the German commanders most feared, was, they suddenly learned, in their midst. His army swept south, west, and then east and north, threatening to encircle their defending 7th Army and the few elements of the 15th that had begun to move south. After an attempted armored counteroffensive into Patton’s left flank at Mortain — a thrust stopped by U.S. infantry supported from the air by U.S. P-51 Mustang, P-47 Thunderbolt, and Royal Air Force Typhoon rocket-firing fighter-bombers along with tanks and artillery — the battle of Normandy became a killing ground. The enemy withdrawal and pursuit by Allied forces, in the days that followed, brought quick liberation of Paris by free French troops and rapid departure of the German army from French soil.

 

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