Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
The great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz noted: “It is now quite clear how greatly the objective of war makes it a matter of assessing probabilities. Only one more element is needed to make war a gamble – chance: the very last thing that war lacks. No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through through the element of guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war…. If we now consider briefly the subjective nature of war – the means by which war has to be fought – it will look more like a gamble. The highest of all moral qualities in time of danger is certainly courage.”
For a year General Dwight D. Eisenhower had worked to marshal the largest force possible to launch the long awaited invasion of Nazi Occupied France. Eisenhower surrounded himself with an exceptional staff, but had to fight for what he would need for the coming invasion. He had to struggle with Admiral Ernest King for the landing ships and crafts he needed, against the competing needs of Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur’s Forces in the Pacific Theatre of operations. He had to battle Allied bomber commands, British Bomber Command, and 8th Air Force for bombers to support the invasion, taking them away from the strategic bombing command against the heart of German industry; and finally he had to battle Winston Churchill to be in overall command of the multi-national force being assembled to attack.
The invasion was in fact his baby. He had the ultimate responsibility for its success or failure. He knew the dangers. In 1942 the British launched a raid using Canadian troops on the English Channel port of Dieppe. It was a disaster. With all the work he had done to get his forces ready for the invasion, Eisenhower knew that he owned the result.
Eisenhower understood that everything in war is a gamble and that success is not guaranteed. The weather conditions of the English Channel are unpredictable and only offer a few month window of opportunity to successfully mount a cross channel invasion. The Germans found that out in 1940 when after their failure to clear the skies of the Royal Air Force that the a favorable opportunity for Operation Sea Lion had passed.
The Allied invasion required a full moon for a nighttime paratroop drop, and favorable weather for the landing craft to get ashore. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. High winds, seas, and rain forced a cancellation of the planned June 5th invasion, the open question was whether conditions would be on the 6th would be favorable. If not the next opportunity would not be for at least two more weeks.
The German weather forecasters, having lost the ability to observe weather in the western and mid-Atlantic anticipated that the weather would continue to be unfavorable for an invasion. With this in mind, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B which had operational control over the potential landing beaches, decided to make a visit to his wife for her birthday and a trip to Berlin to plead for more resources. Other Senior German Commanders departed to inland areas to conduct war games and were not with their units.
Meanwhile, forecasters at Eisenhower’s headquarters who had access to weather data from the mid-Atlantic, predicted a brief lull, not perfect weather, but acceptable. Eisenhower met with his staff and made the decision to go ahead with the invasion in the night of June 5th and June 6th.
But the weather was but one factor, the Allies did not know the latest German deployments, including the movement of the crack 352nd Infantry Division to Omaha Beach. Likewise, a prompt German response with heavy Panzer units could throw the invaders back into the sea if they moved fast enough. However, neither Eisenhower or his staff knew of the conflict in the German High Command and Hitler regarding the deployment of the Panzer Divisions. Rommel argued that the Panzer Divisions should be deployed near the potential invasion beaches, but traditionalists in the German command and Hitler decided that most of the Panzer Divisions should be held back awaiting the point that they could make a decisive counterattack. Rommel, a veteran of Africa and the West knew the power of allied tactical air assets, and the havoc they could inflict on the Panzers. Rommel believed that the invasion had to be defeated on the beachheads and not given the chance to advance inland.
Eisenhower also knew that the success of the invasion depended on the success of the landings. A disaster at any of the landing beaches could doom the invasion. In light of this and so many other ways that could fail, Eisenhower, wrote a letter to his troops and the world when the invasion commenced. It read:
“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.
The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations1 have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory.
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
However, prepared for any eventuality he also also wrote a letter in case the invasion failed, as it nearly did on Omaha Beach. That letter noted:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
It was dated July 5th, not June 5th, the mistake obviously due to the pressure of what he was feeling for his soldiers, the mission, and if the mission failed, his adversaries in the United States military and in Britain would have seen to his relief. It also could have aided those in the United States and Britain willing to make peace with Germany, which could have destroyed the allied alliance that ended up defeating Germany and rebuilding a democratic Europe, establishing NATO, the United Nations, and many other international organizations that have done much good for America and the world, but which are now under threat from leaders in the United States and Europe who would rather go back to the days of Hitler than advance into a better future.
Eisenhower did not make excuses if the invasion failed. He was ready to take full responsibility if Overlord failed, regardless of how it happened.
Likewise, he knew that the failure of the invasion would have made it possible for the Nazis to divert needed forces to the Eastern Front, where they might have been able to turn back the Soviet Operation Bagration which destroyed the German Army Group Center and opened the way for the Soviets to drive the Nazis from Soviet territory, advance to Warsaw, and knock key German allies out of the war. Before long, Hungary, Romania, and Finland were abandoning the Germans.
The fact that the invasion succeeded was as much as luck as it was the careful planning, and the exceptional courage, and dogged determination of the Allied troops.
Eisenhower’s willingness to take responsibility for defeat as well as give his troops credit for the eventual victory over the Nazis sets him apart from so many others then, and now who would deflect blame for a failed operation to their subordinates and lie about the results achieved.
In the age of Trump it is something to remember.