75th Anniversary of D-Day: How Ike Led the Allied Invasion of Normandy
How do you feel about Eisenhower's leadership on D-Day?
by Countable | 6.6.19
This Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day ― the invasion of Nazi-occupied France by primarily American, British, and Canadian forces on June 6, 1944, which marked the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe. With ceremonies being held to honor the heroes of D-Day not only in Normandy but around the world, here’s a look at how D-Day was carried out under the leadership of Supreme Allied Commander Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, who would later serve as the 34th U.S. president.
How was D-Day planned?
Before attempting an invasion of continental Europe across the English Channel, which the Nazis had fortified heavily during years of occupation, the Allies sought to secure vital shipping lanes in the Mediterranean. Eisenhower led successful Allied invasions of North Africa in 1942 and Sicily in 1943 to accomplish those goals, before launching a campaign to drive the Germans up the Italian peninsula.
To open a new front against the Nazis in Western Europe, Eisenhower and the allied commanders planned an invasion across the English Channel into the teeth of Hitler’s heavily fortified “Atlantic Wall”, codenamed Operation Overlord.
A 50-mile stretch of beach in Normandy was chosen to serve as the focus of the landings, which was broken up into five beachheads where Allied troops would land that were given codenames (from west to east): Americans at Utah and Omaha; British troops at Gold; Canadians at Juno; and British troops at Sword. In the morning darkness before the landings, American and British airborne troops would drop behind the beaches via parachutes and gliders to secure vital roads, bridges, and towns while fighting off German reinforcements.
The Allies wanted to launch Operation Overlord in the spring, so that their forces would have several months of reasonably good weather to launch offensives to liberate France and the rest of Western Europe. General Eisenhower and his staff identified a narrow time period from June 5-7, 1944, in which the tides, moonlight, and weather would be satisfactory.
Initially set to launch on June 5th, Operation Overlord was delayed by a strong storm that brought heavy winds, high seas, and low clouds to Normandy that would’ve made it impossible to disembark. The Allied command’s meteorologist indicated that he expected the skies to clear and winds to ease somewhat, but couldn’t guarantee the forecast would hold. Further cancellations on June 6th and 7th would’ve delayed the invasion until late June ― giving the Germans more time to reinforce their positions and potentially jeopardizing the security of the plans.
After consulting with his commanders, Eisenhower gave the order to launch the invasion on June 6th despite the marginal forecast. He then drafted a private note and stuffed it in his wallet, as he had before previous major operations, which said that “any blame or fault” for the failure of the invasion “is mine alone.”
On the evening of June 5th, Ike visited American troops from the 101st Airborne Division who were to be among the first Allied troops to set foot in France after the invasion began only hours later (pictured above). Despite his personal anxieties about the operation, Ike provided the following “Order of the Day” to all members of the Allied Expeditionary Force on the eve of D-Day:
What happened on D-Day?
The largest amphibious invasion in history began on June 6, 1944, as 156,000 Allied troops ― supported by 7,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft ― crossed the English Channel to establish a beachhead in German-held Normandy. Word that the long-awaited invasion was finally under way quickly spread around the world and President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Americans to join him in the following prayer:
“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.”
In Normandy, the airborne troops were largely successful in securing their objectives despite many paratroopers missing their designated drop zones in the early morning darkness. Allied forces over the course of the day secured most of the key objectives at the Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword beachheads.
On Omaha Beach, however, American forces faced stiff resistance and experienced heavy casualties as the first two assault waves struggled to clear obstructions and move inland. Progress was slow, but after more than two hours of heavy fighting American troops began moving inland from and by the evening two footholds were established to get tanks and artillery ashore. It wasn’t until June 9th that Omaha was linked with the Utah and Gold beachheads, and all five beachheads weren’t linked up until June 12th.
With the beachheads unified into a cohesive front, the D-Day landings’ objectives were met and the Allies began amassing the troops, equipment, and supplies needed to liberate Western Europe from Nazi occupation. By June 11th, more than 54,000 vehicles had come ashore in Normandy.
Within one year of D-Day, the Allies would defeat Nazi Germany and bring World War II in Europe to an end, but the Normandy landings that made final victory possible came at a high cost as 4,414 Allied troops were killed in action, including 2,499 Americans.
A decade after D-Day, Ike was in the second year of his presidency but kept a low profile on the anniversary. Ike harbored much grief for the men under his command who made the ultimate sacrifice: during his 1952 presidential campaign he was overcome with emotion and had to compose himself when talking about the Allied troops killed on D-Day to a veterans groups. Choosing to spend the day with his family at Camp David (which Ike named for his grandson), Ike released a statement which read in part:
"Despite the losses and suffering involved in that human effort, and in the epic conflict of which it was a part, we today find in those experiences reasons for hope and inspiration. They remind us particularly of the accomplishments attainable through close cooperation and friendship among free peoples striving toward a common goal."
For the 20th anniversary of D-Day, Eisenhower returned to Normandy working with CBS News’ Walter Cronkite to produce an 82-minute special about the invasion. At the 75-minute mark, Ike offered the following comments at the American St. Laurent Cemetery (now known as the Normandy American Cemetery) overlooking Omaha Beach:
“Walter, this D-Day has a very special meaning for me. And I’m not referring merely to the anxieties of the day. The anxieties that were a natural part of sending in an invasion where you knew that many hundreds of boys were going to give their lives or be maimed forever. But my mind goes back so often to this fact -- on D-Day my own son graduated from West Point. And after his training he came over with the 71st Division but that was some time after.
But on the very day he was graduating these men came here -- British, and our other allies, and Americans -- to storm these beaches for one purpose only. Not to gain anything for ourselves. Not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest. But just to preserve freedom, systems of self-government, in the world. Many thousands of men have died for ideals such as these. And here again in the 20th century for the second time Americans, along with the rest of the free world, but Americans had to come across the ocean to defend those same values.
Now my own son has been very fortunate. He has had a very full life since, he’s the father of four lovely children who are very precious to my wife and me. But these young boys, so many of them, over whose graves we have been treading, looking at, wondering and contemplating about their sacrifices. They were cut off in their prime. They have families that grieve for them. But they never knew the great experiences of going through life like my son can enjoy.
I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think, and hope, and pray that humanity has learned more than we had learned up until that time. But these people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we could do better than we had before. So every time that I come back to these beaches, or any day when I think about that day, 20 years ago, I say once more that we must find some way to gain an eternal peace for this world.”
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Unknown U.S. Army Photographer - National Archives / Public Domain)
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