EVE OF THE INVASION

1 June

On Thursday, 1 June, Eisenhower moved his HQ to Southwick House, north of Portsmouth. Meetings were held twice a day. The intense work and preparations of the previous months had prepared the way. Now, everything depended on the one thing even Eisenhower couldn’t influence – the weather.

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Group Captain James Stagg.

The weather played a huge part in the timing of the launch of Operation Overlord. In the days leading up to the invasion, Eisenhower received regular updates from his chief meteorologist officer, James Stagg, which included reports on tide movements and the position of the moon. The forecast was not good – the clement weather of late May was, according to Stagg, about to give way to a prolonged bout of rain, high winds and heavy cloud. The pressure on Stagg was immense, probably not helped by Frederick Morgan’s earlier quip, ‘Good luck, Stagg… but remember, we’ll string you up from the nearest lamppost if you don’t read the omens right.’ The longer the delay, the more time the Germans had to prepare, and the greater the opportunity of them learning more of Allied plans. The element of surprise was Eisenhower’s greatest weapon.

Each branch of the armed services required specific conditions in order to launch a successful attack. The army needed a rising tide in the hours before dawn; the airborne forces needed clear moonlight, while the navy required calm waters. Meteorologists favoured the days of 5, 6 and 7 June. After that, the tides would change. The next period that would meet all conditions would fall on the five days starting 17 June.

The Allies weren’t the only ones to assess June’s weather. The Germans believed that their enemy would need four consecutive days of fair weather before launching an invasion; thus the forecast ruled out early June – and, thanks to the British codebreakers, Eisenhower knew this. Indeed, the weather on 5 June was so foul, the Germans had to recall their Channel patrols. To add to the Germans’ disadvantage, the Allies controlled the Atlantic off Ireland; therefore the German forecasters had no access to emerging weather patterns coming in from the west and so, unlike Stagg, were not privy to the expected lull in poor weather.

In the morning of 1 June, the Daily Telegraph inadvertently caused alarm at SHAEF when its crossword included a clue to which the solution was ‘Neptune’. It wasn’t the first time – within the previous month, the crossword had included the answers ‘Utah’, ‘Omaha’, ‘Juno’, ‘Sword’, ‘Gold’, ‘Overlord’ and ‘Mulberry’. Surely, someone was sending messages back to Germany? MI5 tracked down the crossword compiler, Leonard Dawe, to his Surrey home and, to use Dawe’s phrase, ‘turned inside out’ until they were satisfied it was purely a fluke.

That evening, the BBC broadcast into France the opening three lines (‘The long sobs / of the violins / of autumn’) of a poem entitled ‘Autumn Song’ by popular French poet Paul Verlaine (originally published in 1866) as the prearranged call to action to cells of the French resistance. The Abwehr, intercepting it, knew it had to be significant, but knew not how.

2 June

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Eisenhower’s Order of the Day

On 2 June, the first Allied warships set sail from their ports at Belfast, Scapa Flow and the Clyde. Elsewhere, in twenty-two ports across southern England from Falmouth in the west to Newhaven in the east, troops prepared to embark. Among them were specially assigned reporters and photographers, including Life magazine’s most famous photographer, Robert Capa. Each man was issued with Eisenhower’s Order of the Day. The 243-word missive began:

Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

The Allies’ highly effective ‘Transportation Plan’, the strategic bombing of France that had begun in early March, continued, including a number of ‘deception sorties’. On the night of 3/4 June, ninety-six Lancaster bombers attacked and totally destroyed the radar station at Urville-Hague near Cherbourg, the Germans’ primary listening station in Normandy. Ten days later, on 13 June, a German report conceded that their ‘coast defences have been cut off from the supply bases in the interior… large scale strategic movement of German troops by rail is practically impossible at the present time’.

3 June

Rommel, also believing the poor weather would rule out an invasion, decided to return home to Germany, first to visit his wife, Lucie, on the occasion of her fiftieth birthday (a devoted husband, Rommel wrote daily to her while away on duty), followed by a trip to see Hitler at the Berghof to argue his case for moving more panzer divisions to the beaches. He planned to be back in France on 8 June.

4 June

Meeting at 4.15 a.m. at Southwick House, Eisenhower and colleagues listened as Group Captain Stagg offered his latest update. The forecast for 5 June was still not good – poor weather threatened to disrupt Allied plans. Heavy cloud would impede bombing, while low cloud would hinder airborne operations. Stagg, relying on forecasts from three different and sometimes contradictory sources, still reckoned that there would be a respite in the foul weather blowing in from the Atlantic to the west, and therefore 6 June might provide a twenty-four-hour lull and acceptable visibility between two bouts of depression. D-Day, Eisenhower decided, was to be set back by a day. Ships already out at sea had to be recalled. Troops geared up for action had to endure an agonizing extra twenty-four hours of waiting.

Just as worrying now for Eisenhower was news that the Germans had moved one of their crack divisions into the area facing Omaha beach. It was too late to change plans or even to warn the American troops heading for Omaha.

Eisenhower knew that 6 June would provide the last opportunity. After that the high tides of the new moon period would cease and delay an invasion by at least a whole two weeks.

By now, Churchill decided that Charles de Gaulle needed to know what was happening. The leader of the Free French, who, in May 1943, had relocated to Algiers, was called back to England. Initially, de Gaulle refused, still angry that Roosevelt was refusing to acknowledge him as the president of a liberated France. But come back de Gaulle did. On the evening of 4 June, near Portsmouth, Eisenhower and Churchill met with de Gaulle and informed him of the impending invasion. Eisenhower informed the Frenchman that he himself would be broadcasting a proclamation soon after the landings, exhorting the French nation to play their part. Inflamed, de Gaulle demanded to know ‘by what right?… What will you tell them?’

At 9.30 p.m., Eisenhower chaired another meeting. Captain Stagg confirmed his earlier forecast – although far from ideal, the weather on the 6th would be favourable. The fact that Eisenhower knew the enemy had effectively ruled out an invasion during these early days of June countered the less than ideal weather conditions. Conditions were as good as they were going to get. The time had come. At 9.45 p.m., 4 June, Eisenhower issued his order: ‘OK, we’ll go.’ The largest amphibious invasion in history was launched.

5 June

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Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses US paratroopers prior to D-Day.

A brief early morning meeting at Southwick House confirmed Eisenhower’s order the previous evening. There were to be no more delays. All along the south coast, British troops listened as their commanders read aloud a message from Montgomery, starting with the words, ‘The time has come to deal the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe’; and finishing with, ‘Good hunting on the mainland of Europe.’

Commanders issued their orders; officers were permitted to open sealed envelopes that contained the location of the landings; troops, while still kept in the dark as to their precise destination, were issued with French money and phrase books, so they knew, at least, what country they were heading for. Among the vital supplies issued were self-inflating life jackets and twenty-four-hour ration packs that included pouches of self-warming meals.

During the course of the evening, Eisenhower, unannounced, visited three airfields starting at Newbury in Berkshire where the first US airborne troops were due to depart. He shook many hands and wished his men good luck. ‘Don’t worry, General, we’ll take care of this thing for you,’ one typically upbeat soldier told him. He watched as they boarded their planes. With tears in his eyes, Eisenhower saluted as each of the hundreds of planes took off. ‘Well, it’s on,’ he said to his driver, as he walked glumly back to his car. ‘No one can stop it now.’ Knowing that the casualty rates among these men would be high, he added, ‘It’s very hard to look a soldier in the eye when you fear that you are sending him to his death.’

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Message drafted by Eisenhower in event of the D-Day invasion failing.

At some point on 5 June, Eisenhower wrote a short dispatch, mistakenly dated 5 July, to be read in the event of failure:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Later that evening, at 9.30 p.m., the BBC broadcast the next lines from Verlaine’s poem: ‘Wound my heart / with a monotonous / languor.’ Again, the Germans, realizing some hidden meaning, issued an invasion alert. But their field commanders, suffering from ‘alert fatigue’, failed to act; anyway, surely the BBC would not be daft enough to announce the invasion over the airwaves? Meanwhile, on the night of 5 June, the resistance managed to carry out almost a thousand acts of sabotage.

In Italy, late on 5 June, American troops led by General Mark Clark liberated the city of Rome, the first Axis capital to fall. It was a significant occasion, but Clark was thoroughly put out that his moment of fame had been eclipsed by D-Day.

That night, Churchill, as he got ready for bed and having informed Stalin that the invasion was about to take place, said to his wife, Clementine, ‘Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning, twenty thousand men may have been killed?’

Meanwhile, back in Germany, Rommel was wrapping his wife’s presents for her birthday in the morning.

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