Eisenhower’s Yes: Operation Overlord

General Eisenhower’s official picture as the General of the U.S. Army | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

General Dwight D. Eisenhower knew he was fast approaching a crucial moment in the Western theater of the Second World War. In the early morning hours of June 5, 1944, Eisenhower was faced with one of the hardest decisions of his life, and one of the hardest questions regarding this War. He had to choose whether to delay the start of the D-Day invasion or give the go-ahead to one of the riskiest operations in the War, Operation Overlord, in spite of not having ideal conditions. This decision rested on Eisenhower alone, and would be the deciding point as to how the war would continue and would be a major step in taking Europe back from the Nazis. While trying to reach this decision, Eisenhower must have been thinking back to how he had gotten here and how the course of the war had unfolded up to this point.

Eisenhower was a graduate of West Point’s class of 1915. During World War I, Eisenhower was in charge of preparing troops in the States for the use of tanks once they were shipped over to Europe. This occupied Eisenhower’s time until the war was over, preventing him from getting a command position leading troops in combat. After the War was over, the Army resumed a peacetime footing, but this did not stop Eisenhower from advancing through the ranks. Through his ability to make a good impression and his ability to quickly respond to situations, Eisenhower was able to prove his worth to his superior officers and he earned many promotions.1 During this period of advancement, Eisenhower worked with some of the most well-known and brightest minds in the military. During this period, he got to work with General Pershing, General MacArthur, and General Connor, and he was able to learn and grow from dealing with these men. These men gained great respect for Eisenhower and believed that he would go far in the Army.2 Eisenhower was also great at making friends, such as with the future General Patton. All of this together set Eisenhower up for success by helping him learn to deal with many different clashing personalities and to maintain balance in volatile environments. Eisenhower further proved his worth during a set of war game maneuvers in Louisiana in 1941. This earned him his rank as a general and showed that he was able to command troops on the field effectively.3

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Eisenhower was called back to Washington D.C. and was then put on the War Plans Division alongside his senior officer, General Marshall. In this position, Eisenhower was able to learn about how complicated running a coalition could be, but it helped him learn the ins and outs of such an operation, and that prepared him for what was to come. Eisenhower soon found himself in charge of the European theater operations for the United States, and he had to handle the challenges that came with running a joint force operation in 1942.4 Eisenhower was committed to ensuring that there was cooperation between the British and American forces that were under his command. He made sure that if there were any issue within the Allied Forces that it was not seen as a British and American issue but rather as one of different ideas and viewpoints. His prior experience working with various personalities and with coalitions made him well suited to this role.5

Eisenhower’s commitment impressed the British commanders as well and many others, including Winston Churchill, most growing to like and admire Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s determination and relationship with the British is what led him to being appointed commander of the Allied forces for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, in 1942.6 One of the reasons that Operation Torch was commenced was Stalin’s insistence that the Allies open up another front to pressure Germany. During Operation Torch, Eisenhower was able to get the combat experience that he needed to assess the state of the U.S. Army. He was also able to get his soldiers some battlefield experience. Operation Torch helped to show Eisenhower where the failings in the Allied Forces were, so he could start adjusting the command structure to ensure that they were ready to keep fighting. Due to these growing pains, Operation Torch started off rough, due to the inexperience of American troops, but it ended successfully. The success of Operation Torch led to the invasion of Sicily and Italy, as the Allies continued their successful push into Axis territory.7 During the invasions of Sicily and Italy, Eisenhower was able to find a balance in how his forces would be managed going forward. Eisenhower himself would mainly focus on the political issues of the coalition, dealing with the many different personalities that made up the coalition, in order to hold it together. Other members under him would deal with the details of military operations. These members were mainly the British commanders working with him. This balance was necessary as Ike was lacking battlefield experience when compared to the other commanders, and they lacked Eisenhower’s diplomacy. This balance ensured that the Allied Forces were reaching their maximum potential.8 The Allies became emboldened after their victories in Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and were ready to make their largest push yet, Operation Overlord.

Josef Stalin was one of the first to call for a plan to invade Northern France. He proposed this in 1941, and was hoping that it would create a second front. This was before the Americans had joined the War. Churchill was not yet ready to commit to this plan. Stalin continued to push Churchill and Roosevelt to set a time and place for the invasion of Northern France, the plan for it to be called Operation Overlord. The Allied successes in Northern Africa and Italy enabled Churchill and Roosevelt to agree to enact Overlord, and they chose Eisenhower to lead the operation.9 Eisenhower was the obvious choice to lead Overlord, as he had developed an efficient command structure, and he was used to handling many moving parts and personalities. Eisenhower would have to draw on all his prior experience and push himself in order to succeed with this.

On December 6, 1943, Eisenhower was appointed as the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force and was in charge of overseeing and executing Operation Overlord. Eisenhower immediately started planning for the execution of Overlord. He started to choose the people he wanted to help him execute Overlord. He was unable to get everyone that he wanted, but he ended up with a great team that included a few familiar faces. General Omar Bradley was commanding the U.S. First Army, Patton was in charge of the U.S. Third Army, General Montgomery was the Assault Phase Commander, and Air Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory was in charge of the tactical air forces. Eisenhower oversaw this group of commanders, and he did his best to make sure that they were working together smoothly. Eisenhower preferred to empower those below him to make their own decisions and to take initiative, while he worked to make sure that they all worked together and accounted for the big picture.10 Even though this was Eisenhower’s preferred management style, there were four major decisions that rested almost fully on Eisenhower.

A picture of U.S troops as they wait on a pier in preparation of D-Day | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the first major decisions that Eisenhower had to make was to choose what bombing plan the Allied force was to use leading up to the commencement of Overlord. There were two main options to choose from. Either the Transportation Plan or the Oil Plan. The Oil Plan was focused on bombing German oil supplies in the hope of depriving them of their gas power and hopefully causing scarcity to be an issue for the Germans. The Transportation Plan was focused on taking out key bridges and communication systems in order to prevent the Germans from being able to efficiently send reinforcements to the invasion site, hopefully causing a delay. Eisenhower decided to go with the Transportation Plan even though many people, including Churchill, were urging him to chose the Oil Plan.11

The second decision that Eisenhower had to make was over the location of the invasion: would it be at Normandy or at the Pas de Calais? There were arguments for both of these sites. The argument made for the Normandy site was made by the British and they wanted a three-pronged landing at Normandy because this is where the German defenses were the weakest. The Americans were arguing for the Pas de Calais and they wanted a five-division landing into the main chunk of the German defenses. Eisenhower chose to compromise and went with the Normandy site but instead of a three-pronged landing, Eisenhower chose to go with the five-division landing so there would be more opportunities for success.12

Eisenhower’s handling of this situation is reflective of how he dealt with most conflicts he faced, with a willingness to compromise, and with a tactical view. This led to the third decision that Eisenhower would have to make: whether or not to drop U.S. paratroop units behind enemy lines in order to help capture the beachfronts. Many people argued that dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines would just lead to their deaths. Despite many advisers telling him otherwise, Eisenhower went ahead with the decision to drop paratroopers behind enemy lines. He did not make this decision lightly; he made sure to personally visit the airborne divisions that this order would affect.13

The last decision that Eisenhower had to make was to give the ‘go ahead’ order for the invasion on June 6, 1944. It was a hard choice on Eisenhower, as the weather conditions were not ideal. Overlord called for a crossing of the English Channel into Normandy, and in order to do so, the weather had to be perfect or it could disrupt the boat landings as well as the anticipated air support that was crucial to the invasion being successful. The Allies were constantly monitoring the weather, and it seemed like June 5, 1944, would be clear enough for the plan to succeed. As it got closer to the start of June, the weather reports were becoming uncertain about how the conditions would be on June 5, 1944. On June 1 reports started to come in that the weather could be slightly stormy, as there were storms approaching. No decision was yet made, but there was more monitoring of the storms until June 4, when it seemed certain that the weather would be too poor to make the crossing effectively. There was a chance that there might be a brief calm on June 6 where Overlord could be launched. If that option was not taken, the next opportunity would not be until June 19.14

General Eisenhower giving a pep talk to the paratroopers before they board the planes for the D-Day assault | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eisenhower had to decide if he wanted to hold off on the invasion for two weeks or if he wanted to risk it and launch Overlord on June 6. Both sides had points in their favor. Overlord was an all or nothing assault for the Allies. If it failed, the casualty count would be huge and there would be nothing to show for it. There was no Plan B, and such a failure would have crippled the American and British war effort. With this in mind, it would be incredibly risky to launch Overlord when the weather was uncertain and it alone might cause the failure. On the other hand, it had been a huge struggle to plan the logistics for the invasion and keep it secret from the Germans. If Eisenhower was to delay the invasion, there would be a risk that the Germans might catch wind of the invasion plans and the Allies would lose the element of surprise. It would also risk bringing down the morale of the troops if the invasion was further delayed. All of this weighed heavily in Eisenhower’s mind as he tried to decide on his plan of action. He knew that picking the wrong choice would be disastrous. Eisenhower looked to his advisers for advice, but they were also split on how to proceed; the final call was his. After many hours thinking about the decision, Eisenhower sat down and wrote a press release accepting full responsibility for any failure that might occur. He believed, as the man in charge of the operation, the only fault would be his, as he was the one to make the call. He knew that this release would effectively be his resignation if things went poorly. He then returned and gave the ‘go ahead’ order for Operation Overlord to commence.15

Picture of British troops approaching the shore for landing on D-Day | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Operation Overlord was launched on June 6, 1944, a day now commonly referred to as D-Day. There were over 7,000 ships and landing crafts used in the invasion and it ended with 850,279 men landing and taking the Normandy beaches over the next few days. The landing on the five beachheads was successful, and after a lot of fighting, the Allied forces were able to successfully start their push into German-controlled France.16 While the initial invasion was successful, there were still some setbacks, but this marked an amazing victory for the Allies and would be crucial in the push back against German forces. The Allies eventually went on to win the war, with Germany surrendering on May 7, 1945, and thus marking victory in Europe.17 Eisenhower’s amazing leadership qualities, especially his ability to deal with many different personalities, is what enabled Operation Overlord to go off successfully. Eisenhower would continue to be a great leader for the Allied Forces in Europe and would eventually get himself elected President of the United States. The great relationships that Eisenhower forged with the leaders of this period allowed Eisenhower to become a great president.

  1. David G. Chandler, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 208.
  2. Anne Commire, “Dwight D. Eisenhower,” in Historic World Leaders, ed Anne Commire, vol. 4. 1st edition (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1994), 252.
  3. David G. Chandler, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 208.
  4. David G. Chandler, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 209.
  5. I.C.B. Dear, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The Oxford Companion to World War II, ed. I.C.B. Dear,1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 325.
  6. Anne Commire, “Dwight D. Eisenhower,” in Historic World Leaders, ed Anne Commire, vol. 4. 1st edition (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1994), 254.
  7. I.C.B. Dear, “North Africa Campaign,” in The Oxford Companion to World War II, ed. I.C.B. Dear,1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 818.
  8. David G. Chandler, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 209.
  9. David G. Chandler, “Stalin, Josef,” in “The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 528.
  10. David G. Chandler, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 210.
  11. David G. Chandler, “Allied Air Strategy” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 32-33.
  12. David G. Chandler, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 210.
  13. David G. Chandler, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 210.
  14. David G. Chandler, “Weather,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 588.
  15. David G. Chandler, “Eisenhower, Dwight D,” in The D-Day Encyclopedia, ed David G. Chandler, 1st edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, 211.
  16. I.C.B. Dear, “Overload,” in The Oxford Companion to World War II, ed. I.C.B. Dear,1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 853.
  17. I.C.B. Dear, “Normandy Campaign,” in The Oxford Companion to World War II, ed. I.C.B. Dear,1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 805-809.

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35 Responses

  1. Nice article! General Eisenhower was quite a formidable leader. It is interesting that he spent much of his early career working with the United State’s brightest minds in military strategy such as general John Pershing. His tactical work in the early 1940s earned him the rank of general and made him one of the top brass of the United States Army during WWII. He won the respect of men such as Winston Churchill, even though the two disagreed on strategy for D-Day! I also appreciate that Ike was willing to take responsibility for his failure if D-Day was unsuccessful. Some contemporary American leaders do not take responsibility for their failures as their high offices dictates they should.

  2. It is a very impressive article. I knew that our former President Eisenhower was a very strategic person, but the decision that he took must have been very difficult for him. For a leader is always difficult to take decisions that probably will sacrifice people, but without that decision there will not be a new tomorrow. We were blessed to have a determined President during that time.

  3. This article was very fun to read, and it gave, in my opinion, a good description of the many stresses of war for Eisenhower, in hindsight we see Operation Overlord as one of the most successful operations in the history of warfare, and without it, there’s a possibility that the allies may have never won the war. I was never aware that Eisenhower was the one to give the go-ahead so learning that was interesting, and that he was ready to accept fault and resign if the operation failed showed that he was a leader.

  4. I can’t even imagine how difficult these decisions were for Eisenhower to make. Having the final word on all of these decisions must have been horrible. Deciding where to attack, knowing that you’re going to lose people, just seems like a stressful nightmare. However, Eisenhower handled the situation incredibly well. It’s amazing that Operation Overlord even happened with how many different ideas for approaching the invasion of Fortress Europe seems like it would’ve brought the entire invasion to a crawl because no one could decide what to do. I think that Eisenhower made some of the toughest decisions of the war and it eventually paid off, but at the same time, his entire plan could’ve blown up in his face and he would’ve been met with major backlash from the public and allies.

  5. I find past presidencies interesting, especially Eisenhower’s. He made such a drastic decision that would lead to a monumental chain of events. World War II was a war that would not be forgotten. I feel that Eisenhower’s decision was rational in the sense that much more would have possibly happened, had he not taken the actions to stop foreign powers. This article is great because I learned more information about some events in WWII and also about Eisenhower’s take on the instance.

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