The Supreme Command and Allied Success

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

By the time he received his fifth star in December 1945, Eisenhower had been responsible for the success of four amphibious operations (which Clausewitz called the most difficult tactical maneuver). The last, at Normandy, involving 156,000 men in one day, was the largest in history. It was part of a larger assault codenamed “Overlord” — with its D-Day naval phase codenamed “Neptune.” The former included not just the landings but the ensuing campaign on the European continent to destroy the German army and Hitler’s regime. It thus met Clausewitz’s definition of “an offensive for the total overthrow of the enemy,” an undertaking recalling Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812 – that was the most difficult strategic military undertaking. The enemy is on the defensive, always the stronger mode of battle. He is behind fortifications on familiar terrain, protecting his home soil, and if he retreats, he has ever shorter lines for reinforcement and supply.

Lieutenant General Sir Humphry Gale, British Deputy Chief of Staff and chief administrative officer for Overlord, was perhaps the most experienced officer at SHAEF and an expert in logistics. He recalled Ike’s masterful approach to his D-day decision, how he was able to gain confidence in his weather expert’s prediction for June 6 — a 24-hour break in the front sweeping the French coast. Gale recalled that beginning in March the supreme commander initiated rehearsals involving “dummy decisions.” He would say “I want to move on Thursday” and ask his meteorologist to predict the conditions for that day. Then he would ask his various commanders how such weather would affect their operations—sea, air, and land. The following Monday he would ask the weather expert how his prediction had turned out. The expert would report he had been “right about this but wrong about that, etc.” Ike then would pick a day in the following week when he said he now wanted to move and repeated the process. When the night of June 4th came, having ordered his invasion force to their embarkation place four days earlier, Eisenhower was thus reasonably confident that the 5th would not be a good day for the invasion, but because of the break in the front, the 6th could work.

As he made his decision to delay for just 24-hours more, the psychological pressure was immense. He had numerous worries. They included the diplomatic pressure caused by having failed to keep the Allied promise to Stalin to open a “true” second front (to bring relief on the Soviet Union’s western front) in May. At the same time he needed both to keep the D-day landing site a secret from the Germans (via the deception plan entitled Operation Fortitude South aimed at keeping the German Fifteenth Army at Calais), and to ensure the invasion force kept its fighting edge despite long hours of waiting in landing craft. Even after D-day, said Gale, the Normandy battle was “a close thing. . . .The storm played hell with the landing of supplies and for a few days it was nip and tuck. If the Germans had counterattacked heavily, they’d have driven us into the sea.” “Just keep the Fifteenth Army out of my hair for the first two days,” Ike had told the Fortitude deception team. “That’s all I ask.”

Sir Humfry credited the breakout from the beachhead that occurred the third week in July to Eisenhower’s leadership. “SHAEF was distressed with the slowness of operations . . . . Tedder and the others were sure that there was too damn much timidity over there. Ike finally gave a flat order to move and move they did, and with tremendous success.” The ingenuity of American G.I.’s was important. One of them invented a steel bracket they welded on the front of their Sherman tanks to bulldoze a path through the Normandy hedge rows. Another G.I. devised a makeshift proximity fuse for hand grenades using metal from a mess kit spoon and a piece of aluminum. (The latter jury-rigged device allowed grenades to explode above and rain shrapnel down on the German trenches.) But most importantly, said Gale, Ike monitored the situation closely and thus knew when the time had arrived for a breakout. General Montgomery’s continued pressure against German panzers on the left flank and the abundant supplies by then available on the beaches for allied troops meant that the U.S. 1st Army could move on the right. Eisenhower later revealed his thinking in terms that cast no blame but indicated that he was prepared to be flexible. “We were strictly rationed on artillery ammunition and had a tough time getting together sufficient ammunition to make and sustain a breakout and pursuit.” He said later, “We had never wanted to attack south, on our right. It became apparent that we would have to do this” but “before starting a ‘breakout’ we had to get a line of departure south of the lakes and swamp. This took long tough fighting.”

Finally, to open the door for the breakout through the fortified hedgerows to the south, Eisenhower once again — as at Salerno — repurposed for tactical operations bombers (B-24s and B-17s) designed for strategic attacks on the enemy’s heartland. He had seen the value of Tedder’s recommended use for the “heavies.” The supreme commander also was comfortable in the use of concentrated tank assaults in coordination with tactical fighter-bomber aircraft serving as mobile artillery to knock out any enemy tanks and gun emplacements.

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