- Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 June 2014 11:28
- Published on Wednesday, 04 June 2014 11:28
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Seventy years ago, on the day before the Allied landings on the coast of France were to begin, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, prepared a short statement to be read in the event the landings proved a failure. He wrote it out in pencil and began with the words, “Our landings in the Cherbourg have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold…” He closed by saying, “…if any blame is found to attach to this attempt, it is mine alone.”
It’s a haunting note to read. And while we know through the hindsight of history that D-Day was a success, at the time, Eisenhower fully appreciated that this was one of the riskiest and most dangerous military operations in history.
The Allies had committed their full might to the D-Day landings; the numbers are staggering. The invasion would be launched from multiple ports all over the south coast of Britain. It would involve a massive armada of over 4,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft. But most importantly, 150,000 men – some having experienced battle before and most facing it for the first time – were waiting to be the first ones to land in France.
One of the biggest risks to the operation was that the Germans would find out when and where the landings would take place. The longer the Germans were kept guessing, the more difficult it would be for them to concentrate their forces for a counterattack. Hoping to create a deception, the Allies created a phony army with General Patton appointed to lead it, a buzz of daily radio traffic, and inflatable tanks and trucks; all positioned so that German reconnaissance aircraft would think something was up. But no one was sure that the Germans had taken the bait. Would they withhold their forces expecting the main assault at Calais, or would they put all they had into repelling the Normandy landings before the Allies could gain a foothold?
The other gamble was the weather. The operation was set to commence on June 5, but the weather remained unusually bad. Eisenhower delayed the start of the invasion for 24 hours. The situation was tense; hundreds of thousands of men waited on ships; seasickness was rampant; Eisenhower’s chief weatherman, British Royal Air Force Group Captain John Stagg, predicted that a fast moving high pressure system would give the Allies a 48-hour lull in the weather, starting early on June 6. Stagg, incredibly, relied on a single observation from a ship in the North Atlantic. It wasn’t much to go on, but Eisenhower took the risk and gave the order to go.
For a while, it looked like Ike’s worst fears might become reality. Because of low visibility, the Allied Air Forces missed most of their targets on the beach. German defenses, the pillboxes and the artillery were still intact. Also, most of the tanks and heavy vehicles were lost in the heavy surf. The soldiers reaching the beach had to fight it out by themselves. The British were getting ashore alright; they had three beaches to assault, but the Americans, particularly at Omaha Beach, were having a tough time. For several hours, seeing no movement at all, the Navy stood ready to carry out an evacuation. But, thankfully, that’s not what happened.
With a growing resolve, facing incredible danger, American troops along this narrow battlefield began to breach the German defenses to start moving inland. By day’s end, all of the landings had succeeded, and it was obvious that Ike didn’t need his other statement. Instead, he was able to give the world the message, one that millions in Europe and America had prayed for, that Allied forces were ashore in France. D-Day, perhaps the biggest gamble in military history, was a success.
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