From ancient times, amphibious military invasions are rightly regarded as particularly difficult. Today marks the 70th anniversary of the greatest such operation, the Allies’ invasion of France in World War II, on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.
The Normandy invasion combined thorough planning, mobilizing vast materiel, and great imagination. When the operation — already underway — was publicly announced, a U.S. newspaper highlighted a front-page drawing of invading soldiers cascading into Europe, as a terrified Hitler fled. A year of extremely brutal, almost continuous combat lay ahead, but the end of Nazi Germany was in sight once the beaches were secured.
The role of Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was crucial. Ike demonstrated great executive ability in supervising an unprecedented logistical challenge, and his remarkable interpersonal skills welded and held together the most diverse military alliance in history.
Related to this, he was able to establish overall unity of command. This was never achieved even among the American military in the Pacific, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur pursued one strategic vision, while Navy admirals implemented a different approach.
Extensive bombing of transport routes and supply depots in France was viewed by Eisenhower as crucial preparation for the land invasion. Such air action would bring an estimated minimum of 60,000 civilian casualties, and perhaps far more. For that reason, many American and British air commanders resisted this widespread destruction, arguing for a much more limited effort.
Eisenhower was adamant about the absolute need for extensive bombing, arguing that less would put the invasion at severe risk. He was able to turn to the leader of the Free French, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, whose nation was the target. De Gaulle agreed completely, and gave unequivocal support. Uniquely among senior Allied commanders, Ike had managed to establish an effective working relationship with the demanding, difficult French leader.
Simultaneously, the American leader never lost awareness of the terrible human costs of war, borne primarily by the enlisted ranks. He constantly stressed the fundamentally important role of the combat soldier, and regularly went to see troops in the field. This dimension is captured especially by classic photographs of his visit with young American paratroopers preparing to depart to initiate D-Day.
Ike had the gift of imagination. During heavy fighting for Sicily in 1943, Gen. George S Patton Jr. slapped two U.S. soldiers suffering extreme combat stress, and in the ensuing intense public maelstrom he was almost fired. In reaction, Nazi leaders dismissed the controversy as fabricated propaganda; the German military annually routinely executed thousands of their own men for various infractions.
Eisenhower responded by isolating Patton in England, where an entirely fictitious army was created around him. Actors were assigned roles, bogus information generated, phony structures constructed of cheap materials. The great trick worked. On D-Day and immediately thereafter, crucial German units were held back, in part because Patton’s (fictitious) forces had not yet moved.
Carthage College teachers over the years have made good use of the ancient classic "The Art of War" by Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, who stressed the importance of deception. Ike may or may not have read the book; he could have written the volume, easily.
When Eisenhower died, newly inaugurated President Richard M. Nixon’s insightful eulogy compared him to George Washington: "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
On this anniversary, Ike provides enduring lessons for all of us.