"Again I had to endure the interminable wait that always intervenes between the final decision of the high command and the earliest possible determination of success or failure in such ventures. I spent the time visiting troops that would participate in the assault. A late evening trip on the fifth took me to the camp of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, one of the units whose participation had been so severely questioned by the air commander. I found the men in fine fettle, many of them joshingly admonishing me that I had no cause for worry, since the 101st was on the job and everything would be taken care of in fine shape. I stayed with them until the last of them were in the air, somewhere about midnight. After a two-hour trip back to my own camp, I had only a short time to wait until the first news should come in."
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 251-252.
What makes the above passage unforgettable is how the man, the men who will follow his commands, the anxious time waiting, and then the historic moment all come together to meet a destiny from which there can be no turning back for any of them, and for some no return at all.
In a pelting rainstorm at Southwick House in southern England at 4:15 a.m. on the morning of June 5, 1944, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), General Dwight Eisenhower, gave the command to proceed with the invasion of Normandy. From that moment, the timetables and orchestrated movements of men and material were initiated, and the most vast and complex military operation ever conceived began to take form. It could not be halted. Upon the success of Operation Overlord, the eventual outcome of World War II hung in the balance.
But for General Eisenhower, once the order was given a strange lull of powerlessness and passivity ensued. Up to that moment, he could order changes in all aspects of the operation. Now he had to depend upon other men from the highest to the lowest positions under him to do their jobs, and make it a success. As he relates, at the end of the day he visited members of the 101st Airborne before they took off and parachuted behind enemy lines early in the morning of June 6, 1944. The visit held special significance, because although the paratroopers could not have known it, Eisenhower had twice had to contend with sincere arguments by his air commander, the British General Trafford Leigh-Mallory, that the paratroopers could not succeed in fulfilling their mission and were being condemned to slaughter. Although he surely knew that paratroopers would die in the assault, Eisenhower had twice reviewed their chances to succeed in their mission in context with everything it would take for the entire Overlord operation to succeed, and twice had overruled his air commander.
Now, after he had issued the command for Overlord to proceed, at the end of a long day Eisenhower stood and talked with the young men who would be the first to drop into Nazi-occupied France. He even waited until after their last plane had taken off, “somewhere about midnight,” before returning to his lodgings. By the time Eisenhower returned two hours later, he knew that some of those young men would have French soil on their combat boots, and that some boots would be filled with lifeless young men. Eisenhower could now only await the incoming reports, and hope that through the efforts of the men he had sent into battle in the air, across the waters, and on the beaches of Normandy that morning, he would again seize the initiative to direct the war against Nazi Germany.
“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.