“It has been contended that the decision to proceed was in reality made not so much by the commanders eventually appointed as by the plan itself—that is, by the planners. There is belief that this robot, the plan, had acquired such impetus of its own by the time the supreme commander took command that neither he nor any other authority could have prevented its evolution to fulfillment. This was not and could never be so. It is true that all was far advanced by January 1944 and that from this time onward the implications of an order to halt became almost hourly more serious and far-reaching. By January 1944 one may truthfully say that odds were manifestly on some great enterprise taking place in and from Britain in that year. No longer could the great and ever growing concentration of force in the British Isles be hidden, and this could portend but one happening. It could only be a matter of time. It was undoubtedly the easier way, as it so often is, to allow matters to take their ordained course, to let the plan unroll itself, but that to imply that our leaders were merely content to follow the line of least resistance is absurd. Had they been men of this quality, it is unlikely that we should have found ourselves in the favorable position in which we did at the start of 1944. Had there been any question of leaders being led, then, when the day eventually came and when almost every circumstance existed that would have justified a decision by a lesser man to hold back even at this late hour, the answer would have been ‘no’ in place of the historic ‘yes.’”
– Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, Overture to Overlord, p. 280
This passage by British General Frederick Morgan from his 1950 book Overture to Overlord is memorable today for his evaluation of where things stood in January 1944 when General Dwight Eisenhower arrived in London to fulfill and execute the plan that Morgan had begun for the invasion of Normandy (initially code-named COSSAC). COSSAC stood for the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander. Appointed as the Chief of Staff in March 1943, Morgan had worked for nine previous months on plans for the invasion before his Supreme Commander was ever named, much less arrived on the scene.
During 1943, Morgan’s team drew up plans for operations in 1944. These included an operation that aimed to deceive German forces on the continent about Allied intentions; plans in case of a sudden German collapse on the European continent; and most importantly, plans for a full-scale assault on Western Europe (Overlord). The original COSSAC plan that Morgan drew up only included British resources, as that was all he had been authorized to include.
It is important to note that when Morgan was appointed Chief of Staff, it was thought that he would eventually serve a British Commander, as it was assumed that the two positions would have to work so closely together that they would both have to be held by men of the same nationality. When the American Eisenhower was appointed as Supreme Commander and established SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, Morgan and his COSSAC staff were absorbed into it. However, Eisenhower named Major General Walter Bedell Smith his Chief of Staff. Reflecting the fact that American resources would come to dominate the Normandy campaign, Eisenhower and his team expanded the resources for Overlord, and changed and fine-tuned aspects as necessary. Although he was offered command of a British Corps in Italy, Morgan chose to remain on the planning team in London as a Deputy Chief of Staff to Smith.
Given those circumstances—where some might have harbored resentment from a perceived loss of status or implied criticism of one’s work—Morgan’s evaluation of Eisenhower and his team in this passage shows a remarkable honesty and comradeship. What strikes the reader is that the man arguably most responsible for the plan gives fulsome credit for the success of the invasion not to the plan, but to the leader and team that executed it. Moreover, Morgan goes further to make clear that in the face of German intuition that some action must be coming, Eisenhower and his team had the ultimate responsibility of risking all on June 6, 1944, with Eisenhower giving his historic “yes” decision when a negative decision was justifiable. As we today anticipate the approach of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy while considering all the obstacles that had to be overcome, we can see in this passage by Frederick Morgan the spirit that ultimately made the Overlord operation an unprecedented historical success.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.