top of page

D-Day Remembered: A Soldier's Story

D-Day Remembered: A Soldier’s Story

On this day let us remember the bravery and the sacrifice made by so many of the Greatest Generation. A total of 4,414 Allied soldiers were killed on this day storming beaches in Normandy and another 5,000 were wounded. In the ensuing days of the Battle of Normandy a total of 73,000 Allied soldiers would lose their lives and another 153,000 would be wounded. In the midst of all of this chaos was a solitary soldier who had ultimate responsibility to give the order to go or not go on this day. Here is part of his story on that day. (Taken from excerpts of the book: Essentials of Leadership: A Systemic Approach to Effective Leadership.)

History would be written in the next 24 hours. This was a certainty; though the outcome was yet to be determined it would be one of the biggest success stories in the history of the world or one of the worst failures in military history. Not only history would be made, but also direction for the world hung in the balance. As months of intense planning and preparation, D-Day was set for June 6, 1941 and Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Ike”, was in the “eye of the storm” as the Supreme Allied Commander in charge of the invasion plan and execution. The decision “to go” was his and his alone. Carlos D’Este writes in his book “Eisenhower: A Soldiers Life” that “No commander in military history faced a more daunting task than the one he did in 1944. Not only was he charged with welding together the largest force ever assembled for an amphibious invasion, but it had to work the first time: There would be no second chance.”

Operation Overlord had been in planning for months and involved hundreds of people including strong personalities and the egos of generals like George Patton and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, “Monty”. In addition Ike had to engage and navigate through the politics of world leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, and Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain as well as Charles De Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces. All of these people had their own ideas for the invasion as well as personal agendas. Ike had to navigate through all this to put together a staff of knowledgeable capable experts and leaders to not only develop a viable invasion plan but who could also assure all the logistics, people and training was in place at the time needed. The complexity was astonishing.

Eisenhower dealt with problem after problem throughout the planning and preparation. The problems ranged from heated strategy disagreements over use and control of airpower to obtaining enough landing craft to support the invasion. The logistics alone were staggering. The navy had to plan not only the sealift of 156,000 troops but also choreograph the employment of nearly seven thousand Allied naval vessels, fifteen of which were hospital ships, and 195,700 naval and merchant marine personnel in the waters off Normandy on D-Day. Eight thousand Doctors supplied 600,000 does of penicillin, 100,000 pounds of sulfa, and 800,000 pints of plasma had been assembled to treat the wounded. In all, nearly two million soldiers, sailors, and airmen would be involved in carrying out Operation Overlord (D’Este).

Eisenhower knew that he needed operational control of both tactical and strategic air forces to be successful in Operation Overload. He wrote later in Crusades in Europe that, “ when a battle needs the last ounce of available force, the commander must not be in a position of depending upon request and negotiation to get it…. I stated unequivocally that so long as I was in command I would accept no other solution.” Eisenhower felt so committed to this position that in the ensuing internal battle for control between generals and world leaders he threatened to resign his position and “go home” if not given control of air power.

Eisenhower also dealt with various political struggles in the critical weeks leading up to the invasion. One such instance was his discovery that Churchill insisted on viewing the invasion from a British warship off shore of the landing beaches. Carlos D’ Este writes; Exasperated, Eisenhower forcefully told the prime minister that he would not sanction his presence in harm’s way. Not to be outdone by a mere general, Churchill insisted that as minister of defense he had a duty to take part, insisting he would circumvent Eisenhower’s authority by going as a crew member; “it is not part of your responsibilities, my dear General,” he said, “to determine the exact composition of any ship’s company in His majesty’s Fleet.”…. King George VI learned of the prime minister’s intentions and put a stop to it. In a letter hand-delivered from Buckingham Palace, the king pointed out that of course he would never presume to interfere in the affairs of his government’s principle minister. However, should Churchill carry out his intentions, the king would likewise feel obligated to witness the invasion as the (titular) head of Britain’s armed forces. Churchill gave in grudgingly but such was the life of Eisenhower in the days leading up to the invasion.

After months of planning and incredible logistical efforts to position over a million soldiers, sailor and airmen for the invasion the final “go” order was being controlled by the weather. There was only a three day window in early June in which the operation could commence based on the needed moonlight by the three airborne divisions that were to be landed by parachute and glider the night before the invasion This window must coincide with the low tides needed for the beach landings. The weather was now the controlling factor.

The weather had everyone on Eisenhower’s staff stressed. The invasion force was in position with soldiers on ships at sea but weather had simply made an invasion on the fifth of June impossible. The delay only increased the stress and uncertainty for everyone. At a late night meeting on June 4th Eisenhower convened a council of generals, admirals and air marshals to assess the situation and hear the weather forecast. In what has been deemed arguably, “the most important weather prediction in history”. A mistaken forecast for D-Day could turn the entire tide of the war against the Allies. The weather forecast indicated there would be a lifting of the bad weather. Though not perfect conditions, it would offer an opportunity. After discussions with the invasion commanders many of the staff left the room and Eisenhower and a small group remained. Time had run out and a decision must be made. Carlos D’Este wrote that, “there was utter silence in the room, the only sounds to be heard were the wind and rain pounding Southwick House. Bettle Smith, a man rarely emotional about anything, was awed by “the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his judgment alone. He sat there quietly, not getting up to pace with quick strides as he often does. He was tense, weighing every consideration of weather as he had been briefed to do during the dry runs since April, and weighing them with other imponderables.”

D’Este continued; Still pondering, Eisenhower said, “the question is, just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there? I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it but there it is…. I don’t see how we can do anything else.” With that low-key pronouncement, the invasion of Normandy would take place the morning of June 6th. Based on the most important weather forecast in history.

Eisenhower had done all that he could do.

In the days leading up to the invasion Eisenhower had recorded a broadcast to the world to be played on the day of the invasion.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces!

You are about to embark on 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 ….

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.

On June 5th Eisenhower had written a different document that reflected little of this same inspiration. He folded it and placed it in his wallet. It was to be used if the unthinkable occurred. It read:

“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 – June 5”.

Leadership can be a lonely place and carry many burdens. Eisenhower was the leader the world needed at a critical time in history. The Allies had resources and soldiers, sailors and airmen to execute an invasion but critical to success was a leader who could bring people together from different nations and different branches of the military. Eisenhower was able to navigate through the politics, egos and strong opinions to build a plan for invasion. He was able to keep everyone focused on the objective and built a multinational team to quickly react and address problems as they arose.

Eisenhower is a valuable example of the value and importance of strong leadership. Today we deal with a vast array of leadership needs. All kinds of endeavors need leadership including financial institutions, industry, military, governments and education. They all need strong leadership.

Thank God for General Eisenhower and every member of the Greatest Generation who stood up to face tyranny and in many cases make the ultimate sacrifice for liberty and democracy.

bottom of page