D-Day had to succeed. Unity of command helped.
From ancient times, military professionals rightly regard amphibious invasions as especially challenging. This week we recognize and honor the 75th anniversary of the greatest such operation, the Allies’ invasion of France in World War II, on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.
The Normandy invasion combined thorough planning, mobilizing vast matériel, and great imagination. When the vast operation underway was announced, a U.S. newspaper highlighted a front-page drawing of invading soldiers cascading into Europe, as a terrified Hitler fled. A year of extremely brutal, almost continuous combat lay ahead, but the end of Nazi Germany was in sight once the beaches were secured.
The leadership of Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was crucial. Ike demonstrated great executive ability in supervising the enormous logistics, and brilliant interpersonal skill that welded and held together the most diverse military alliance in history.
Remarkably, he was able to establish overall unity of command. This eluded even the American military alone in the Pacific, where Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur pursued one strategic vision, while U.S. Navy admirals implemented a different approach.
Extensive bombing of transport routes and supply depots in France was viewed by Eisenhower as crucial preparation. Such action would bring an estimated minimum of 60,000 civilian casualties, and perhaps far more. For various reasons, many American and British air commanders resisted, arguing for a more limited effort.
Eisenhower was adamant about the absolute need for extensive bombing, arguing that less would put the risky invasion in even graver danger. Free French Gen. Charles de Gaulle agreed and gave unequivocal support. Ike had managed to establish an effective working relationship with the insecure, temperamental French leader.
Simultaneously, the American commander never lost awareness of the terrible human costs of war, borne primarily by the enlisted ranks. He constantly stressed the fundamentally important role of the combat soldier, and regularly went to see troops in the field. This dimension is captured especially by classic photographs of his visit with young American paratroopers preparing to depart to initiate D-Day.
Finally, Eisenhower had brilliant imagination. During heavy fighting for Sicily in 1943, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. slapped two U.S. soldiers suffering extreme combat stress. Intense controversy resulted. Nazi leaders dismissed the entire matter as propaganda. The German military executed thousands of their own men, as routine.
Ike moved Patton to England, to reflect in isolation. Meanwhile, a fictitious army emerged around him. Actors were assigned roles, bogus information generated, phony buildings and vehicles constructed. On D-Day and immediately thereafter, crucial German units remained in reserve, partly because Patton’s (fictitious) forces had not yet moved.
Both Eisenhower and Patton were gifted leaders, naturally complementary. The first direct combat between American and German forces occurred in early 1943 at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Field Marshal Irwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps devastated inexperienced, often terrified U.S. troops and inept commanders. Approximately 2,000 American men were lost; the vast majority were captured. Many simply surrendered when faced by the Germans.
The already controversial Patton was then appointed their commander. Shortly thereafter, these U.S. troops defeated the Afrika Corps at El Guettar. Rommel observed he never saw soldiers more poorly prepared for real battle, or more able to improve quickly, than these Americans.
After the Normandy beaches were secured and the Allied position greatly reinforced, the new highly mechanized U.S. Third Army was activated, with Patton in command. This force proved spectacularly successful overall in driving German forces from France. In December, during the desperate Battle of the Bulge, Third Army was crucial in blunting the last great German offensive and relieving the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded in the crossroads town of Bastogne.
Eisenhower was a supremely gifted leader of Americans, and others as well. When he died, President Richard M. Nixon’s eulogy compared him to George Washington: “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”