TORONTO — This June 6 marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Second World War allied landings in Normandy. Described as the largest seaborne invasion in history, it was a critical turning point in the war.
And the scale was certainly enormous. Facilitated by an invasion fleet of over 6,000 ships, 132,000 troops were put ashore on five beaches during the first day. In support, allied aircraft flew almost 13,000 sorties.
Unsurprisingly, immediate allied casualties were significant — about 10,000 men that day. The toughest going was on Omaha, one of the two American beaches. Indeed, things were initially so difficult there that consideration was briefly given to abandoning it.
Planning for the invasion had been a complex affair. There was the issue of an appropriate strategy, the need for surprise in terms of timing and landing destinations, and the sheer logistics of assembling a suitable invasion force. In addition, nature presented its own challenges, specifically, tides and weather.
Because the tides would be right, June 5 to 7 was the summer of 1944’s first window of opportunity. But if the weather didn’t co-operate, it would be another two weeks before the tides were right again.
Accordingly, June 5 was targeted as the invasion date, with the ultimate call residing with the supreme commander, Dwight Eisenhower. In addition to his senior command team – an American and four Brits — Eisenhower’s support circle included RAF Group Captain J.M. Stagg, who, as chief meteorologist, was indispensable.
On the evening of June 3, Stagg brought bad news. The weather was deteriorating rapidly, so much so that forecasting more than a day in advance was problematical. But he’d have an update early the following morning, June 4.
Historian Jean Edward Smith summarises that update succinctly: Stagg “predicted low clouds, high winds, and formidable wave action on the French coast for the morning of June 5. Air support would be impossible, naval gunfire would be inefficient, and the handling of landing craft would be hazardous.”
Although his command team was split, Eisenhower opted to postpone. Air support, after all, was essential.
But Stagg’s next updates, on the evening of June 4 and the early morning of June 5, offered a ray of hope. There’d be a brief break in the weather, sufficient to make June 6 possible. While visibility wouldn’t be ideal for air support, it was the best shot available in the current window.
So, after reviewing it with his command team, Eisenhower decided to go. And at 6:30 in the morning of June 6, the first wave of the seaborne invasion went ashore.
Once the decision was made and the machinery set in motion, there was little for Eisenhower to do but wait. On the evening of June 5, he paid a visit to the American airborne units that would constitute the invasion’s vanguard, all the while privately aware that their casualty rate could go as high as 70 per cent.
Then, after the last transport had taken off, he retired to his trailer with Kay Summersby, the Anglo-Irish woman who served as his personal driver and to whom he was romantically attached. As she subsequently recounted, “he was so tired that his hand shook when he lit a cigarette.”
Apparently, while the British high command was unimpressed with Eisenhower’s military skills, they considered him to be a lucky general. And fellow American George Patton remarked that Eisenhower’s “D.D.” initials stood for “Divine Destiny.” Be that as it may, June 1944 certainly brought its share of good luck.
Believing that the D-Day landings were a diversion, the Germans held back 19 divisions and 800 tanks for what they thought would be the real invasion at Pas-de-Calais. And had Eisenhower postponed again and waited two weeks, the weather would have been even worse.
Back home, D-Day’s success sealed Eisenhower’s reputation. The words beneath his image on the Time magazine cover of June 19, 1944, put it this way: “He loosed the fateful fighting.” And as America’s most popular war hero, both parties sought him out as a presidential candidate.
Luck, however, still wasn’t done with Eisenhower. Mid-20th century American moral conventions being what they were, had the nature of his relationship with Kay Summersby been in 1952’s public domain, he might never have been elected president. But it wasn’t and he was.
Perhaps Patton was on to something.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.