Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day - June 6, 1944.
On that fateful morning, thousands of American and Allied troops made their way onto the European continent, as “Operation Overlord” began what was to be the ultimate conquest of Nazi Germany on the western front.
Twenty years after D-Day, in 1964, the Supreme Commander of the Allied effort in Europe - future American President Dwight D. Eisenhower - returned to Europe with CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite.
General Eisenhower toured the beaches of Normandy with Cronkite and returned to the command center outside Southhampton, England, for a special CBS documentary production.
In the documentary, Eisenhower spoke at length about the preparations leading up to D-Day. The following quotes from the former Five-Star General and President are sourced from that 1964 CBS documentary production.
“The detailed planning (of D-Day) started about the fall of 1943, under the charge of General Fred Morgan of the British Army. It took months of planning. In many ways, he (Morgan) was the father of the plan that was executed here, with the start being on D-Day,” Eisenhower said, with typical humility.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the two western governments (the United States and the United Kingdom) had told (Soviet) Generalissimmo (Joseph) Stalin that we would attack in May. So we began to examine the weather.”
“We had to have a particular combination of tides, light, and moon,” Eisenhower explained. “You had a few days in June where you could have the perfect conditions, or nearly perfect conditions, and a few days in May. We’d like to have gone on the 5th of May. But in order to get the breadth of attack that was necessary, we had to wait until June. The ideal day was June 5, but the 4th, 6th, 7th, and possibly 8th were satisfactory.”
Eisenhower had initially hoped to begin the European invasion on June 5. But weather conditions forced the Allied forces to push back the invasion 24 hours.
“We came down here (to the English Allied command center) hoping and praying that the weather would be sufficiently good that we could go on June 5,” General Eisenhower stated. “Early in the morning of June 4, Captain (James) Stagg, the Chief Meteorologist of the Allied Forces, made a presentation. He gave us the worst report you ever saw. He talked about gales hitting the Normandy beaches, and winds up to the rate of 45 miles per hour. Landing would be impossible. So I just said we had to postpone. We postponed for 24 hours.”
“We’d had our troubles in the Casablanca beach when you’ve got surf pretty high. We’d also had some (problems) in Sicily. So it just wasn’t in the cards. We couldn’t go. The morning of the 5th, the weather was terrible. This house was shaking. It certainly increased my confidence in Captain Stagg and his crowd. It was really storming.”
On June 5, Eisenhower received word from Stagg that the weather would improve the following day. So it was that June 6 would become the day of days.
“As I remember, Captain Stagg predicted this good weather would last between 24 and 36 hours. That wasn’t too good, because you could get so many troops ashore, and then have to stop landing. That would be pretty bad. We hoped that with this break (in the weather), we could do it. It was still a chancy thing,” Eisenhower explained.
Before the invasion commenced, Eisenhower made his way around to various troops preparing to leave England for France. He visited with members of the 101st Airborne - the paratrooper division that would help the invading troops on the beaches by clearing roads and taking out large German machine guns counter-attacking the beach landings.
“I went into the 101st Division, and it was a very fine experience,” Eisenhower recalled. “They were getting ready - camouflaged, their faces blackened. They saw me and recognized me, and they said, ‘Now quit worrying, General. We’ll take care of this thing for you.’ It was a good feeling. As they started off, I watched them out of sight.”
A reporter later recalled seeing a tear in the future President’s eye as he watched the paratroopers take off towards the English Channel.
“Here’s the kind of operation you start - you know there are going to be losses along the line,” Eisenhower said. “They’re going to be bad. We knew there were German mobile troops in that area. There was all sorts of flak, anti-aircraft stuff. And there could have easily been fighters coming into these helpless troop carriers. I would think if a man didn’t show a bit of emotion, it would show that he probably was a little bit inhuman. And goodness knows, those fellas meant a lot to me. When you’re in war, you just had to make these decisions based on what would be to my country’s advantage, for the least cost. You can’t say without cost. You know we’re going to lose some.”
As he contemplated the massive operation that ultimately resulted in the fall of Nazi Germany, Eisenhower recalled the intense intelligence efforts that were taken behind the scenes in order to confuse the Nazis regarding the location and timing of the Allied invasion.
“We had to try to surprise them on location and timing,” Eisenhower said. “Not only general timing, but the time of day. Any way you could surprise them, that was all to our advantage. Extreme measures were taken. When we moved the troops south, we pinned them up, and wouldn’t let them out. There was no running around in the villages. We went so far that we stopped all diplomatic exchanges from the embassies of the world with London. This was embarrassing to their government, but they were sturdy. They stuck right by it.”
“We did a lot to confuse the enemy,” he continued. “We put phantom armies and radios with phantom messages going back and forth. Our deception measures worked well.”
Those brave men who stormed the beaches at Normandy would later be called “The Greatest Generation.” Eisenhower reiterated his opinions on the gallant nature of the Allied soldiers, of which many more wanted to take part in Operation Overlord than to sit on the sidelines.
“All the people had been trained. They thought it was their duty and their job,” Eisenhower said. “Of course, no one likes to be shot at too much. But I must say, there were more people who wanted to get on (the warships) than those that wanted to get off.”
One of those who wanted to come was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Eisenhower recalled a conversation with Churchill in which the British leader insisted that he would be participating in the Overlord invasion. Fortunately, Churchill was convinced not to take part.
“He (Churchill) wanted to come. And he told me of his intention to come. And I told him he couldn’t do it. I was Commander in Chief of this operation, and I wasn’t going to risk him, because he was worth too much to the Allied cause,” Eisenhower recalled. “He (Churchill) thought a moment, and said, ‘General you have the operational command of all of these forces.’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s right.’
“But you’re not responsible administratively for the makeup of the crews,” Churchill responded to Eisenhower.
“No, that’s right,” Eisenhower said.
“I can sign on as a member of the crew of one of his majesty’s ships, and there’s nothing you could do,” Churchill replied.
“I said, ‘That’s correct. But Winston, you will make my burden a lot heavier by doing it,’” Eisenhower remembered. “So we left it there. Luckily, the King (George VI) learned of his intention. So the King sent word and said as long as the Prime Minister feels it desirable to go along on this operation, I think it should be my duty now to go along with you. He sent word to the Prime Minister that he (the King) would also go. Of course, the Prime Minister didn’t want to take any chances with the King. That’s the way it stopped. He (Churchill) was a staunch old fighter, that fella.”
Eisenhower also recalled Churchill’s stiff opposition to the Overlord campaign until the final weeks leading up to the operation.
“For a long time (Churchill was opposed),” the future President explained. “You must remember this - the British had visions of their experience in World War I. Of getting on the ground fighting in France, and you had Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele and all those other terrible battles, where you would lose a couple hundred thousand men and not gain a foot, or at least not gain any mileage. So I think it was only natural that he should be cautious about authorizing, or giving his blessing, to an operation where that might happen. And I told him that we were coming ashore equipped to make this a war of movement.”
Just in case things didn’t go according to plan on D-Day, the Supreme Commander left a note in his desk - a note that symbolizes this earnest, responsible man who in time would gain the love and trust of millions around the world.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” Eisenhower wrote. “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.”
Fortunately for Eisenhower - and the world - he never had to read that note.
At daybreak on the morning of June 6, 1944, those German soldiers stationed in pillboxes and other fortifications along the Normandy coast were exposed to a spectacular sight - hundreds of American and Allied warships dotting the horizon, along with planes and zeppelins heading directly towards them.
“One German observation officer was supposed to have said, ‘I’ve just looked out and seen all the ships that there are in the world,’” Eisenhower said. “The fog lifted a little bit, and it came all of a sudden, as if on a screen. It was just unbelievable to see all these things put together.”
The first troops hit the Normandy beaches just before 7:30 a.m.. While some of the five main landing areas, such as Sword Beach and Utah Beach, were seized with minimal casualties, it was a different scene on Omaha Beach - the steeply cliffed, heavily-fortified point where the Allies planned to establish a beachhead.
“They hit the beaches about 7:25 a.m.. The support ships started firing about 6:30 (a.m.). The beach (at Omaha) was very heavily fortified and manned,” Eisenhower recalled. “There were four batteries of field artillery in here, and there were 85 machine guns nests - not to say anything of the concrete fortifications, some of which still remain. There were eight big bunkers, each of which had a 75 (caliber) gun with local support for that gun. There were 35 pillboxes, each of which had guns ranging from machine guns up to 88 millimeters. They had 18 anti-tank guns, and there were rocket launching sites. I think it was about twenty.”
Approximately 2,500 American men would die on Omaha Beach - a large chuck of the approximately 10,000 Allied Soldiers, ranging among American, British, and Canadian forces, believed to have given their lives on June 6, 1944.
Five years before his own death in the early spring of 1969, General Eisenhower sat in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial - situated just a few hundred yards from those deadly killing grounds of Omaha Beach - and described his thoughts not only of D-Day, but how he hoped that infamous and tragic day will be the final one of its kind in world history.
“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,” Eisenhower said.
“These men came here - British and our other allies - 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 had to come across the ocean to defend those same values.”
“These young boys - so many of them, whose graves we have been looking at, wondering and contemplating their sacrifices - they were cut off in their prime,” Ike continued. “They have families that grieve for them. They never knew the great experiences of going through life. I devoutly hope that we’ll never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope - pray - that humanity has learned more than we had learned up until that time.”
“These people gave us a chance. They bought time for us so that we can do better than we have before. So every time I come back to these beaches, or any day when I think about that day, I say once more, we must find some way to work to peace, and to gain an eternal peace for this world.”