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Making History for the Good of Mankind - Eisenhower's Role in D-Day - A Guest Post

A Guest Post by M. B. Zucker, author of the award-winning novel "The Eisenhower Chronicles"


Dwight Eisenhower (Ike) viewed WWII in idealistic terms. He said, “No other war in history has so definitely lined up the forces of arbitrary oppression and dictatorship on the one hand against those of human rights and individual liberty.” He saw the war as a holy war, a religious “crusade” against demonic Nazi tyranny. He would later refer to God as the “Supreme Overlord,” sharing the codename of the Normandy invasion, signifying a connection between the Allied effort and basic morality.

His emphasis on Allied unity, particularly between the Americans and the British, was perhaps his greatest contribution to Allied victory. An inability to cooperate would have doomed the Allies on the Western Front. There was no precedent for the degree of Anglo-American integration under Ike’s leadership. Successful coalitions had always had a dominant partner. Most fell apart. Even Napoleon’s reputation declined when it was realized he always fought coalitions and could therefore divide his enemies.

Ike said the title “Supreme Commander” was too extravagant for a “Kansas farm boy.” It “sounds like ‘Sultan.’” He established SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in January 1944 in London. His core group of aids included Chief of Staff Major General Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, LCDR Harry C Butcher, USNR, and Major Ernest R “Tex” Lee. Most of his immediate subordinates were British, to emphasize Allied unity.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff decided on Normandy as the invasion site because they thought it would fool the Germans, who believed the Allies would land at Pas de Calais. The invasion was scheduled for May 1944, but was delayed until June because of bad weather. Ike wanted the Germans to believe that Pas de Calais was the real target, so he appointed Patton as commander of a fictitious army positioned to invade Pas de Calais. A second fictitious army threatened Norway. The Germans defended both regions, weakening the forces in Normandy. It took days for Hitler to realize that the Normandy landing was not a diversion.

Ike had little authority over the American and British air forces during most of the war. He said this was unacceptable and he needed to direct them at will in the months before and after Overlord. He threatened to resign if this demand was not met. Churchill relented. Ike first used the American Eighth Air Force to gain aerial superiority over Western Europe. He directed a large group of B17 Bombers to bomb Berlin, forcing the Luftwaffe to defend Hitler’s capital. American P51 fighter planes then swooped down to destroy the German planes. This occurred several times in March and April 1944 until the Luftwaffe was a shadow of its former self. Ike’s next aerial strategy led him into conflict with Tooey Spatz, the commander of the American Eighth Air Force. Ike called for a Transportation Plan, which meant using the Anglo-American air forces to target French infrastructure to limit Germany’s response to Overlord. He ignored the strict line between air and ground forces and wanted to use them for a single objective. Spatz, on the other hand, wanted to use the air force to target German oil reserves. Ike, with his temporary command of the air forces, got his way. He used his ground and air forces in synergy, instead of sending them in two different directions.

The invasion was scheduled for June 5. Ike delayed it for 24 hours because of the weather. His weather team predicted the storm might break by June 6. Ike sat down with his advisors on June 4 to discuss another postponement. If the weather prediction was wrong, the invasion would be destroyed by the storm. But another delay would push the invasion back to July at the earliest (it would have been delayed again because the fallback days saw the worst storm in fifty years strike the English Channel). His advisors could not agree on what to do. Finally, Ike said, “Ok, let’s go.” The invasion would take place on June 6. It was the climactic moment of the war. Failure may have permanently delayed an Allied attack from the west. Churchill feared a vote of “no confidence” in Parliament. FDR feared losing the 1944 election to a candidate promising to turn America’s attention against Japan. Ike told Bradley, “This operation is not being planned with any alternatives. This operation is planned as a victory, and that's the way it's going to be. We're going down there, and we're throwing everything we have into it, and we're going to make it a success.”

Ike and Montgomery spent June 5 visiting Allied soldiers to see them off. Ike visited the 101st Airborne Division, who was excited to see the Supreme Commander. He walked from group to group, shaking hands and asking what they did before the war. Ike returned to Kay Summersby (his driver) when the paratroopers were ready to go. “It’s very hard really to look a man in the eye when you fear you are sending him to his death,” Ike said. “I hope to God I know what I’m doing.” He wrote a letter that he would give to the press if the invasion failed. 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 on 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 the greatest military operation of all time, a head-on assault against Hitler’s Fortress Europe, whose defenses were commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The operation involved 10,000 planes and 7,000 ships. 160,000 Allied troops stormed the five Normandy beaches – Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. The airborne stopped German reinforcements from destroying the Allied troops before the beachheads were secure. Ike sent his troops into a situation from which there was no retreat. They had to penetrate the German fortresses or else die on the beaches. Such brutal tactics horrified Eisenhower; Kay Summersby said he shook so violently on D-Day that he could not light a cigarette.

Ike became depressed after D-Day. He ran out of steam and had little to do as his subordinates directed the operation. The Allies and Germans were locked in a stalemate in Normandy for six weeks. Montgomery kept pressure on Caen while Bradley and Patton broke through the German line at St Lo, further south. Hitler launched an offensive toward Avranches in an attempt to divide the American and British. This gave Ike the opportunity to trap a huge group of German soldiers in the Falaise Pocket. He personally wrote all of the Allied soldiers in Normandy asking for their best efforts. Ike and Bradley coordinated Allied air power and artillery to protect their flank as Bradley’s forces swung around the German salient from the south. Montgomery moved too slowly, letting over 40,000 German soldiers escape. Nevertheless, Ike’s move captured 50,000 German soldiers and killed 10,000. The Falaise Pocket devastated the German army, which reeled out of Normandy. Eisenhower ordered his forces’ advance. He initially wanted to bypass Paris to pursue the retreating German army, a notion he learned from Ulysses Grant.

Hitler ordered his generals to destroy Paris before the Allies reached it. They refused to do so, and de Gaulle convinced Ike to liberate Paris before Hitler had another chance. French and American forces entered Paris on August 25. Ike believed that victory in Europe was inevitable. FDR and the State Department ordered Ike to not allow de Gaulle to enter Paris. They feared he could become a dictator. Ike ignored them and sent him anyway, believing that de Gaulle could unify the French people and prevent a civil war. Ike let de Gaulle have two days in Paris before entering the city with Bradley. This gesture of respect won Ike the French people’s adulation.

The Allies spent the autumn of 1944 pushing the Wehrmacht back to the German border. Thus began one of the most controversial strategic debates of WWII, pitting Eisenhower against Montgomery. Ike supported the strategy used by Ulysses Grant in the Civil War. Previous Union generals had targeted Richmond, the Confederate capital, as their goal. Grant targeted Lee’s army directly. Grant spent eleven months in 1864-65 incessantly attacking Lee’s army with overwhelming force, trying to kill as many Confederate soldiers as possible. Grant believed that this would guarantee the Confederacy’s surrender. The result was horrific, but this strategy ended the Civil War.

Montgomery wanted to outsmart the Germans by unbalancing them and then punching a hole in the German line with a narrow thrust. He would push his army through this hole and make a beeline for Berlin, ending the war. Ike wanted to outfight the Germans. He thought capturing Berlin would not end the war, and criticized Montgomery’s plan for leaving the German army intact. He said, “People of the strength and war-like tendencies of the Germans do not give in; they must be beaten to the ground.” Ike’s strategy was to push the Germans back across a broad front. The German army was slowly destroyed in a war of attrition. It was an unimaginative, cold-blooded strategy, but Ike believed that the Wehrmacht had to be destroyed to end the war. He only threatened symbolic targets, like the Ruhr or Berlin, because he knew the German military would defend them, giving him the opportunity to destroy the German forces.

Allied supply lines were stretched to their breaking point as they approached the German border in late 1944. The Allied advance slowed. Ike’s broad-front strategy left certain sections of the front vulnerable. No place was more vulnerable than the Ardennes Forest, in Belgium, which separated the American and British armies. Hitler had planned for a counter attack since Paris was liberated. He seized his chance on December 16, 1944, while a blizzard grounded Allied air power. Like a cornered, dangerous animal, he lashed out one last time. Hitler’s plan was to attack through the thinly held Ardennes Forest, cross the Meuse River, and capture the port of Antwerp, which was the Allies’ most important supply center. The Allied advance would be crippled, Hitler would win the war on the Western Front, and everything the Allies worked for since D-Day would be undone.

General Hodges, the commander in charge of the Ardennes, suffered an emotional breakdown. Ike kept his cool and saw the offensive as an opportunity. He always looked for ways to destroy the German army, and here it was revealing itself from behind the defensive Siegfried Line. In a bold move, he did not reinforce the Ardennes, allowing the Germans to stretch their supply lines as they, through the fiercest fighting of the war, pushed American armies back to within eight miles of the Meuse. When the blizzard passed, Eisenhower launched air strikes against the Germans, crippling their oil supply. He moved the 101st Airborne to Bastogne, denying Hitler control of a major road-system. Ike gave control of all American forces north of the Bulge to Montgomery, Ike’s high point as a true Allied commander. He ordered Patton to attack the southern part of the Bulge and fight his way to Bastogne. They were so in-sync that Patton had already moved his army before Ike gave the order. Montgomery and Patton’s armies met in mid-January 1945, ending the battle. This time, the Germans did not recover from their defeat. The end game of the European Theater had arrived.

1945 began with the Americans and British invading Germany from the west while the Soviets invaded from the east. Eisenhower had Montgomery and Bradley encircle and capture the Ruhr, an industrial stronghold for Germany. His plan was based on Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in the Second Punic War. Hitler insisted on fighting west of the Rhine River. Ike took the opportunity to crush as many German units as possible. Churchill, Brooke, Montgomery, and Patton demanded that Ike get to Berlin before the Soviets. But Ike and Bradley believed that Berlin was a symbolic, rather than a strategic, target. Bradley estimated taking Berlin could cost 100,000 lives, which was a lot for a symbol. Ike decided to let the Soviets capture Berlin and instead directed his forces to destroy what was left of the German army. This final, controversial decision, once again showed Grant’s influence on Ike. Political opponents in the 1952 election claimed Ike made a mistake in letting the Soviets capture Berlin. Ike asked for a volunteer to pick the 100,000 mothers whose “sons would have been sacrificed for Berlin.”

Ike heard rumors of the Holocaust during the war. He wrote to Mamie in 1942, “What is going on in German-occupied Europe, under the cover of war, almost defies belief, and makes me glad that I am in a position, or will be, to punish it. I have never believed in revenge, but I have the strongest possible belief in justice, and the need to impose it on evil doers. We are engaged in a crusade.” Patton liberated a camp near Gotha. He told Ike to come see. Ike was visibly shaken and Patton vomited. Ike wrote to Mamie, “I visited a German internment camp. I never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality, and savagery could really exist in this world! It was horrible.” Ike cabled home to ask for reporters and legislators to witness the camp. He recorded evidence for the Nuremberg Trials and for future generations. He predicted there would be Holocaust deniers. The mayor of Gotha and his wife committed suicide when they saw the camp. Ike said there might be hope that Germany could be redeemed.

Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Ike refused to believe his nemesis was dead. He thought it was a Nazi plot and that Hitler had escaped Europe. But Ike said it did not matter. Hitler as a political force was dead. German General Jodl came to Eisenhower’s headquarters at Reims to surrender on behalf of the Third Reich. Ike refused to attend the surrender ceremony. Walter Smith, Ike’s Chief of Staff, presided. Attending would have meant having to shake Jodl’s hand, and Ike refused to shake hands with a Nazi. Ike met Jodl immediately after the surrender, saying that Jodl would be held responsible if the surrender terms were not met. Ike’s face seethed with contempt. He was not a gracious victor. Even Telek, Ike’s dog, growled at Jodl. Nazi Germany, the most significant threat to world peace in human history, ceased to exist.

Ike’s staff tried to put together a dramatic message to announce the war’s end. Ike rejected their proposals. Like Grant’s message to Lincoln at Appomattox, Ike’s telegram to Marshall was short: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.” Marshall congratulated Ike: “You have completed your mission with the greatest victory in the history of warfare. You have commanded with outstanding success the most powerful military force that has ever been assembled… You have made history, great history for the good of mankind and you have stood for all we hope for and admire in an officer in the United States Army.”

Eisenhower had come a long way from being a barefoot boy in Abilene, Kansas. His military career, pursued to acquire a free education, had reached heights beyond his imagination. He no longer worried about making his family proud. He dedicated his life to world peace, which took him to the presidency. Building the conditions to prevent World War III would prove his greatest challenge of all.


Get "The Eisenhower Chronicles" by M. B. Zucker here:


Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda

Eisenhower: In War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen Ambrose

General Ike by John Eisenhower

The Most Reasonable Of Unreasonable Men: Eisenhower As Strategic General by Lt.-Cmdr. Todd A. Kiefer

Mrs. Ike by Susan Eisenhower

Hitler vs Stalin: The Eastern Front by John Mosier

The Eisenhower Diaries

Crusade in Europe by Dwight Eisenhower

A Time For Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge by Charles B. MacDonald

America: the Story of Us by Kevin Baker


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