As the commander of successful campaigns in Africa, Sicily, and Italy, showing growth throughout his career unequaled in military history, Eisenhower was the perfect choice for Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Europe.
Though the Allies had learned invaluable lessons during the previous campaigns and even in the disastrous failure at Dieppe, D-Day would be much more complex and the stakes much higher. There was a clear understanding amongst the Allies that this single operation would become the make-or-break defining moment of the entire war.
The authorization for the Invasion of Normandy (Operation Overlord), issued by the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff to Eisenhower, February 12, 1944 stated in part:
You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces . . .
With this directive in hand, he got down to work. When he undertook the procurement of landing craft for Normandy, the strongest resistance came from Churchill, gravitating toward a second landing in the south of France. While Eisenhower agreed that this was essential to opening more seaports and supply routes to the war effort, Operation Overlord was his primary objective. He succeeded in acquiring sufficient landing craft for the invasion force.
When he requested that bombers be reallocated from missions inside Germany to target railroad stations and bridges in France in order to hamper German reinforcements from getting to the beaches, it was argued that he would be removing proven effort at undermining the German war machine. He prevailed.
He insisted that, using paratroopers, the beaches could be locked down from behind, SHAEF argued that such actions would result in the destruction of valuable airborne divisions. The airborne landings proved essential to the success of the operation.
After the war, Eisenhower would go on to become the supreme commander of NATO. As the 34th president of the United States, he would conclude negotiations with China to end the Korean War, and reduce the bulk of the military in favor of nuclear weapons whilst keeping pressure on the Soviets during the cold war. He would spur the space program to great successes in response to the Soviet Sputnik launch, enlarge social security, and champion the Federal Aid Highway Act. Eisenhower is generally regarded as one of the top ten presidents.
With successes (and failures) in Africa, but also with an undeniable air of confidence that inspired his troops, Monty was the natural choice to lead British and Canadian troops in Normandy. The same demeanor that won the admiration of the British people rankled Americans to no end, representing the sort of arrogance that caused the failure at Dieppe and later, in the concept of Operation Market Garden.
We have a false idea that on D-Day, American forces did the bulk of fighting whilst the British and Canadian beaches were relatively easy affairs. While Omaha Beach – as seen in Saving Private Ryan – was the most heavily defended, resulting in the most casualties, Utah Beach had the least casualties in the entire operation.
More importantly, the overall plan for D-Day required the British and Canadians to engage the bulk of the German forces while the Americans broke through and opened up a beachhead. For the most part, things worked out as planned.
After the war, Montgomery would keep on doing what he did best, saying and doing things that tended to upset and annoy those around him. When his mother died, he did not attend her funeral, claiming to be busy. He remained stiff, and out of touch with the politics of the day, speaking out in support of Apartheid, Maoist Communism, and against rights protecting gays (though he may have been a closeted homosexual himself). In the end, Montgomery lived a life of meager means, cashing welfare checks and becoming an odd relic from a previous age. He died in 1976, at the age of 88.
Appointed to take over operations in North Africa, Omar Bradley requested that George S. Patton be installed as military commander. Bradley himself would later prove to be a capable military leader in Tunisia and Sicily. On D-Day, he oversaw American operations on Utah and Omaha beach.
While he was always overshadowed by Patton in the public eye, Bradley was the steady, reliable, dependable sort one needed in charge of the big picture. Polite, gentle, and courteous, he never issued an order to anybody, even of a lower rank, without first saying ‘Please.’
Bradley would go on to become head of the Veterans Administration and play a major role in improving health care and education for the military. He later became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in that position was the chief military decision-maker during the Korean War.
Perhaps the most important trait Bradley showed was his patience with those under his command, none more difficult to get along with than Patton. Of his fellow officer and dare I say, friend, Bradley wrote:
His vigor was always infectious, his wit barbed, his conversation a mixture of obscenity and good humor. He was at once stimulating and overbearing. George was a magnificent soldier.
The pit bull. Old Blood and Guts. Perhaps impossible to separate from George C. Scott's iconic portrayal of him in Patton, the real man was every bit the rough, gruff persona we see there. And, he was also a brilliant strategist.
He was from the ‘school’ that said what they meant and meant what they said. This was the ‘ugly’side of him. In a hospital camp in Sicily, Patton became enraged with a crying soldier and slapped him across the face with the back of his hand. His career almost ended with that incident. After a reprimand from Eisenhower, Patton apologized to the soldier who it turned out was later diagnosed with malaria.
Also a progressive thinker, he had a closer relationship with his black valet, Sergent Meeks, than with any other officer.
Encountering the butchery at Buchenwald, Patton wrote to Eisenhower asking that the press be sent there to document what was found. He also ordered that citizens of nearby Weimar be marched through the camp so that they could see the ovens, and the bodies piled in mounds.
Patton, like Churchill, understood the long-term threat that the Soviets would become both to Europe and the rest of the world, predicting that they would stop being allies after the war ended. He asked that the United States military remain ready to attack Russia and push them out of Europe. Of course, that didn’t happen, and the world suffered the effects of the cold war for decades.
George S. Patton would die in December 1945 after being paralyzed from the neck down in a freak accident involving the jeep he was being driven in, and an army supply truck.
But I haven’t discussed his role in Normandy. That is because he wasn’t there. In the months before D-Day, Patton, as the obvious leader of the landings was kept in England, preparing a fake army for an invasion in Calais, France. Perhaps the greatest decision Eisenhower made in his storied career was when he decided to keep his best general out of the invasion in order to fool the enemy.