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Remembering D-Day

Omaha Beach landing
American Omaha Beach landing, June 6, 1944 (US Public Domain)

You know what they say, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Over 75 years ago this week the World War II Allied invasion of Europe was poised to deploy on a grand, unimaginable scale. According to British and American military meteorologists, the days 4-6 June 1944 held the best combination of full moon (night visibility for airborne drops) and low tide (to expose the German beach obstacles) for the Allies to take full advantage of their enormous force successfully crossing the English Channel. All they needed was the third factor--clear skies. The month of May had been beautiful across southern England. But, by the first couple days of June, the weather grew nasty with gusty winds and pelting rain. It turned out to be some of the worst Channel weather in 40 years.

Supreme Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower of the Allied Expeditionary Force smoked cigarette after cigarette those nervous first days of the month, as thousands of troops were being assembled on England’s south coast, all geared up to go, waiting for his word to move out and engage Adolf Hitler’s forces on the beaches of Normandy, France. Already postponed for 5 June, a Channel crossing appeared out of the question now. If the weather didn’t improve in the next day or so, “Ike” would have to reschedule the operation until the next time period of an acceptable moon-tide combination, which was another two weeks away.

That could be disastrous.

Two weeks was too long. By then, word would certainly leak back to the Germans. All Eisenhower and his military staff could do now was hope and pray for a miracle. To prepare for a 6 June invasion, the point of no return had to be by the evening of 4 June, at the latest. By that time, Eisenhower would have to decide on whether to go…or don’t go, keeping in mind he held the fate of over 250,000 men in his hands.

D-Day invasion map of Normandy
June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion map of Normandy, France (US Public Domain)

The clock was ticking…

Then…early evening, 4 June, Royal Air Force Captain James Martin Stagg, the chief meteorological officer for Operation Overlord--the codename for the Allied invasion of Europe--approached Eisenhower with some fast-breaking news. At a closed-door meeting at Allied Headquarters on the south coast of England, Stagg informed Eisenhower and his high command that a temporary break in the deplorable weather was coming within the next 36 hours, time enough to allow the assault force to invade the Normandy beaches and, even more important, stay planted on French soil. However, it would still remain overcast during those 36 hours, but with less-choppy seas. Stagg didn’t really have a whole lot to go on back in 1944. With no satellite imagery, no computers or no weather radar, he could only take an educated guess based on weather reports from forecasters in the north Atlantic and as far away as the southern coast of Greenland. Someone out there saw a small window of opportunity for 48 hours.

With this latest breakthrough, Eisenhower turned to his trusted staff, a joint Anglo-American group of high-ranking naval, army, and air force officers whom he trusted. He wanted to hear what they had to say. A couple of men stated it would be “chancy,” at best. Two of them voiced the opposite. In particular, General Bernard Montgomery of the British 21st Army Group, the commander in chief of all land forces, didn’t hesitate. “I say--Go!

His people split, Eisenhower knew it was now up to him. He carefully lit another cigarette, and inhaled a few times, before finally uttering, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is. I don’t see how we can possibly do anything else.”

General Dwight D Eisenhower with US paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division  on 5 June 1944
Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower with US paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division on 5 June 1944, the day before D-Day (United States Public Domain)

With those words the largest amphibious invasion force in the history of mankind was launched…5,000 ships, 2,300 landing craft, and 13,000 support aircraft. It began with an airborne assault of 24,000 troops shortly after midnight on Tuesday, 6 June, followed by the naval bombardment from 195,700 navy personnel off the shores of Normandy, then the amphibious force of 160,000 well-armed infantry and armored divisions--61,700 British, 73,000 Americans and 21,300 Canadians who disembarked at 6 AM on a 50-mile stretch of land consisting of five codenamed beaches. On the east end, Gold, and Sword were assaulted by the British, and Juno by the Canadians; and on the west end, Utah and Omaha by the Americans.

The Americans had the easiest sector and the worst. The landing craft slated to hit Utah were pushed off course by strong winds and missed their target by more than a mile. Staying put and meeting only slight resistance, the commander in charge, General Teddy Roosevelt Jr, the eldest son of the “Rough Rider” ex-president, decided to change tactics. He radioed back for the rest of the Utah invasion force to be dropped off at the same spot.

“We’ll start the war from right here,” Roosevelt told his commanders.

On the other hand, Omaha was a near disaster, at first. Aerial bombing that week had not taken out the German defenses as expected. The surprised Americans were pinned down, with no place to go, while more of their soldiers were piling off the invasion crafts, causing a jam-up. By noon, General Omar Bradley, who commanded all American land forces, considered pulling back and trying another invasion beach somewhere between Omaha and Utah. But his men finally broke through in early afternoon. By the end of the day, the Allies had established themselves on all five beaches. Within the next few days, they began moving inland at a steady rate thanks to a well-organized supply line.

In retrospect, Eisenhower made the right move ordering the invasion for 6 June because during the week of the next available moon-tide dates--19-21 June--Normandy was socked in with a vicious storm that destroyed the artificial harbors at Omaha Beach. But by then the Allies were firmly entrenched in France.

Juno Beach
Canadian soldiers at Juno Beach, June 6, 1944 (Canadian Public Domain)

The D-Day landings proved successful for a number of reasons. Two, however, were most significant. Aided by a detailed, well-conceived intelligence operation, the Allies had fooled the Germans into believing that the invasion would occur at the shortage distance across the English Channel--the 22 miles from Dover to Calais--and not Normandy, thus keeping thousands of battle-hardened German troops and three entire Panzer units sitting around in Calais, their boys sipping schnapps, waiting for an invasion that never came their way. That’s a story in itself. This I wrote about in an earlier blog called “Operation Fortitude” dated 17 August 2013, under the World War II section. The other significant reason was the weather, the most deceptive operation of all, something out of everyone’s hands. Caught off guard, the Germans never expected an Allied invasion in such awful weather.

Less than a year later, with the Russians closing in from the east and the other Allies from the west, Nazi Germany collapsed, bringing an end to the Second World War in Europe. Without D-Day and the decisions made by Captain Stagg and General Eisenhower on the evening of 4 June 1944, the war would have gone on much longer and cost more lives.

On 6 June 1944, the weather--and what the Allies did in spite of it--meant everything to the European war effort. Instead of complaining about the conditions confronting them, the Allies made the wind, rain, and overcast work to their advantage.

It was an era when men were men...and the women were too.


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