The following piece by Relman Morin, who died in 1973, is excerpted from his biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as Supreme Allied Commander during D-Day.
Dwight D. Eisenhower stretched out in the back of his staff car, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep. He was bone-tired. A feeling of numbness began creeping over him. For many months all his thoughts had been concentrated on this hour, planning and working toward it, and now it was at hand with all the unimaginable consequences for good or evil, for success or the most disastrous military debacle in history. His watch showed 9:10. It was the night of June 5, 1944, the night before D-Day.
The car rolled through the gates of the airfield and started the long journey to his headquarters in Portsmouth, passing through the blacked out towns and villages. His aides in the front seat of the car remained silent. They thought he was sleeping.
Instead of sleep, a montage of memories passed through his mind, pictures new and old. They all pointed toward this hour and came together in it, the apex of a pyramid.
The paratroopers on the airfield he had just left were camouflaging their faces with linseed oil and paint and they had said, “Don’t you worry, General. We’ll take care of this for you”…men of the 101st Airborne Division…he shook hands and turned away and a tear glistened in his eye…theoretically, to an officer, soldiers are just “bodies”…you don’t think of them in terms of Joe Jones or Charlie Smith; you think of casualties in terms of percentages, statistics…some of these men, Eisenhower knew, would be dead very soon and he did not think of them as statistics…he stayed with them until they began boarding the C-47s and gliders and now they were on their way to the drop zones, the Douve and Merderet Rivers and the town of Sainte Mere Eglise.
Would the weather hold?…Eisenhower put his hand in his pocket and fingered three coins, his “lucky” coins American, British, French…he had been forced to postpone the start of the invasion for 24 hours because of near-gale conditions in the Channel…then the meteorologists brought better forecasts, a break in the winds that might last just long enough…not ideal conditions but better than any they could see for the next few days…each day was precious to the Germans, frantically fortifying the invasion coast.
After the meteorologists sketched the weather picture at 4:15 on the morning of June 5, they all sat in silence…the decision lay in his hands and he took a long moment, weighing all the factors while the Generals and Admirals waited, looking at him…finally, he said, “Okay, we’ll go.”
D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The first alerts rang shortly after 1 a.m. in the German strongpoints frowning above the invasion beaches. Paratroops! Some time later (records disagree) the German Seventh Army in Normandy sounded the alert. Then the hail of bombs hit the invasion coasts, smashing gun positions, detonating strings of mines, touching off a fury of explosions from blazing ammunition dumps, chewing up telephone communications. In one blockhouse after another, the telephone went dead.
Next came the naval bombardment. In the hours of darkness, a mighty concentration of ships, troopships, supply ships, warships, moved quietly up the Channel and made their rendezvous in the Bay of the Seine. They slipped across completely undetected. German radar stations in the area had been put out of action by earlier bombings. But the weather was the main factor. It had been so bad that German reconnaissance planes stayed on the ground and German outpost ships remained in the harbors. Battleships, cruisers, 122 destroyers, 360 motor torpedo boats and some 6,000 other ships approached unseen.
The same foul weather that worried Eisenhower so deeply, and forced a 24-hour postponement of the attack, now permitted him to achieve a complete strategic surprise. “Weather luck” in reverse!
At 5:30 a.m., a shattering broadside from heavy and light naval guns slammed into the German beach defenses, the hammer blow of a giant. Paul Carell described its accuracy: A field gun from one strongpoint fired at a destroyer. The ship turned broadside and fired back. First shell, long. Second shell, short. Third shell, dead on target, blowing the field gun to bits and killing the crew. Carell pictured the scenes in the blockhouse:
“And then a cry went up: ‘The ships!’
“Jahnke pressed his eye against the scissor telescope. What he saw seemed beyond comprehension. Ships big and small…They were coming by sea in spite of the bad weather. And they were coming at low tide. The ‘Czech hedgehogs,’ the wired ramming blocks with their mines, the stakes with the primed shells, and all the other cunning underwater obstacles they had built were now standing high and dry.
“‘Rommel’s blundered!’ flashed through Jahnke’s head. They were coming at low water.” (Rommel had always said the assault landings would be made at high tide.)
The First Infantry Division, the “Big Red,” hit the beach at Omaha, followed by the 29th Division. They came under fierce fire and the attack stalled. Pinned down in front of the cliffs, the wounded and dying fell and in those hours the scene fulfilled Churchill’s dire foreboding, “the waters running red with their blood.”
The planes and warships had done all they could. In the end, it was the raw courage of the soldiers who said, “Come on you guys—I’m sick of this. Let’s try it.” And in twos and threes they rose and pressed home the attack. Human courage tipped the balance in that perilous hour.
One other circumstance, possibly critical on D-Day, favored the Allies: Hitler was asleep and Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, at his headquarters, refused to waken him. German commanders in the invasion area telephoned for permission to bring up the First Panzer Corps, which was northwest of Paris. They could not call these units into action without authority from Hitler. Jodl thought the Normandy operation might be a feint. Not until 12 hours later did the First Panzer Corps move toward the scene.
Not long afterward, it became apparent that Eisenhower could forget the communique he had written taking full responsibility for the “defeat” in Normandy. In fact, he already had forgotten it.
Excerpt from Dwight D. Eisenhower by Relman Morin, courtesy of The Associated Press – Available exclusively from Amazon.com