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"

 Montgomery

straightened up,

looked 

Eisenhower in

the eye and 

replied: “I would

say, go!?/font>

"


THE CAPRICE OF

WINDS AND WAVES

“I seem to live on a network of high tension wires,?General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, wrote to his wife Mamie a week before D-Day, set for 5 June, 1944.

Stephen E. Ambrose, in his masterly two-volume study of Eisenhower (Volume I as Supreme Commander and Volume II as President of the United States) describes how the major cause of Eisenhower’s tension was the treacherous weather over the English Channel.

“The weather in this country is practically unpredictable,?Ambrose quotes the General as lamenting. If it turned bad, he knew he would be advised by at least some of his associates to call off the invasion. That might mean a delay of some weeks. “Probably no one that does not have to bear the specific and direct responsibility of making the final decision as to what to do,?he declared, “can understand the intensity of these burdens.?Only the Supreme Commander could sort out conflicting weather reports and decide which one to act on. Only he could make the kind of judgement which involved the lives of millions of his men.


Wreckage of a German Tiger tank in Saint Giles, Normandy, scene of
the American breakthrough in World War II.

Ambrose describes in fascinating detail how the most meticulously planned military operation in history was dependent, in the final analysis, on the caprice of winds and waves. If the weather was suitable, the operation would be successful. But if it was not, wind-tossed landing craft could flounder before reaching the shore, or the waves might throw the troops up on the beaches, seasick and unable to fight effectively. The Allies would not be able to use their air superiority to cover the beaches. If the operation failed, it would take months to plan and mount another, too late for 1944.

 


German prisoners are led back past advancing American armour in World War II.


German prisoners on the beaches of Normandy awaiting deportation to a POW camp.

Never perhaps in the history of human warfare, had the fate and lives of millions depended on the decision of one solitary human being. Captain J.M. Stagg, chief weatherman, had bad news. A high-pressure system was moving out, and a low was coming in. The weather on June 5 would be overcast and stormy, with a cloud base of 500 feet to zero and Force 5 winds. Worse, the situation was deteriorating so rapidly that forecasting more than 24 hours in advance was highly undependable.

At 4.30 the next morning, 4 June, the forecast was that sea conditions would improve, but the overcast would not permit use of the air forces. Eisenhower reckoned that since ground forces were not overwhelmingly powerful, the operation would be feasible only because of Allied air superiority. General Montgomery, in command of the ground forces, wanted to go ahead anyway. But out of abundant caution, considering the number of lives at stake, Eisenhower declared a 24-hour postponement.

That evening Eisenhower met with his generals and staff officers at Southwick House. “The fierce wind and the heavy rain rattled the window frames in the French doors. The forecast, however, suggested a possible break, at which a cheer went up. The forecast was that the rain would stop in two or three hours, to be followed by 36 hours of more or less clear weather. The breaches would be able to operate, though hampered by clouds. It was felt particularly by Arthur Tedder of the Air Force that the operations of heavies and mediums were going to be ‘chancy? Eisenhower countered this by arguing that the Allies could call on their large force of fighter bombers.?/font>

The temptation to postpone was again strong. It was resisted because the operation would have to be put back to 8 June. And, by that time, the tidal conditions would not be right, so in fact postponement now meant a delay until 19 June!

Eisenhower paced the room, chin pressed against his chest, hands clasped behind his back. He shot a question at General Montgomery: “Do you see any reason for not going Tuesday?? Montgomery straightened up, looked Eisenhower in the eye and replied: “I would say, go!?Tedder still maintained that he thought it was “chancy? Eisenhower looked around at his Commanders and said: “The question is just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there??/font>

The alternative was to go now or postpone again till 19 June. A dread alternative. A wind of hurricane proportions was shaking the General’s trailer. The rain seemed to be travelling in horizontal streaks. The ships were already sailing into the Channel. It was still not too late to call off the operation. Eisenhower frowned in thought. Then, quietly but clearly, he said: “Okay, let’s go.?/font>

The forecast was right. There was a break in the weather and it held. Early reports from the beaches were that the landing was succeeding, in spite of heavy casualties.
So it came to pass that “at a cost of only 2,500 casualties, mainly at Omaha, his men had gained a striking victory. More than 23,000 airborne troops had dropped into Normandy the night of June 5-6, and 57,500 Americans and 75,215 British and Canadian troops had come ashore during the day. More than 1,56,000 Allied soldiers had breached Hitler’s much-vaunted Atlantic Wall.?/font>

And, for the first night in several months, the Supreme Commander retired for a good night’s sleep.

Courtesy: Eisenhower: Soldier-General of the Army, President Elect, 1890-1952, Volume I by Stephen E. Ambrose. Published by Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983.