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Teaching with Documents
The Great Depression and
World War II (1929-1945)
D-Day Message from General Eisenhower to General Marshall
The historic events of June 6, 1944, D-day, are chronicled in innumerable documents in the National Archives of the United States, scrutinized and analyzed in thousands of books, and dramatized in several Hollywood motion pictures. The assault on the European continent that began that day during World War II was critically important to the Allied war effort and ultimately to the future security of all nations. Fifty years removed from the tensions of that time, one may dispassionately study the events of D-day. At the time, though, to those who crossed the English Channel and to the commanders responsible for setting the invasion plan into motion, the outcome was uncertain.
The featured document is a message drafted during the early hours of the D-day Normandy invasion by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Commander of the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), to his superior in Washington, DC, Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff. The document captures the immediacy and suspense of that day. Eisenhower's statement reflects his lack of information about how well the landings were going, even though they were well under way at that moment. His pride and confidence in the battle-tempered men he had met the preceding night—men he was about to send into combat—is also evident. A record from the holdings of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, KS, the message is found in Pre-Presidential Papers, 1916–52.
Preparing for the Invasion
Almost immediately after France fell to the Nazis in 1940, the Allies planned a cross-Channel assault on the German occupying forces. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt reaffirmed the plan, which was code-named Overlord. Although Churchill acceded begrudgingly to the operation, historians note that the British still harbored persistent doubts about whether Overlord would succeed.
The decision to mount the invasion was cemented at the Teheran Conference held in November and December 1943. Joseph Stalin, on his first trip outside the Soviet Union since 1912, pressed Roosevelt and Churchill for details about the plan, particularly the identity of the Supreme Commander of Overlord. Churchill and Roosevelt told Stalin that the invasion "would be possible" by August 1, 1944, but that no decision had yet been made to name a Supreme Commander. To this latter point, Stalin pointedly rejoined, "Then nothing will come of these operations. Who carries the moral and technical responsibility for this operation?" Churchill and Roosevelt acknowledged the need to name the commander without further delay. Shortly after the conference ended, Roosevelt appointed Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower to that position.
By May 1944, 2,876,000 Allied troops were amassed in southern England. While awaiting deployment orders, they prepared for the assault by practicing with live ammunition. The largest armada in history, made up of more than 4,000 American, British, and Canadian ships, lay in wait. More than 1,200 planes stood ready to deliver seasoned airborne troops behind enemy lines, to silence German ground resistance as best they could, and to dominate the skies over the impending battle theater. Against a tense backdrop of uncertain weather forecasts, disagreements in strategy, and related timing dilemmas predicated on the need for optimal tidal conditions, Eisenhower decided before dawn on June 5 to proceed with Overlord. Later that same afternoon, he scribbled a note intended for release, accepting responsibility for the decision to launch the invasion and full blame should the effort to create a beachhead on the Normandy coast fail.
Leaving headquarters at Portsmouth, Eisenhower first visited the British 50th Infantry Division and then the U.S. 101st Airborne at Newbury; the latter was predicted to suffer 80 percent casualties. After traveling 90 minutes through the ceaseless flow of troop carriers and trucks, his party arrived unannounced to avoid disrupting the embarkation in progress. The stars on the running board of his automobile had been covered, but the troops recognized "Ike," and word quickly spread of his presence. According to his grandson David, who wrote about the occasion in Eisenhower: At War 1943-1945, the general
At half past midnight, as Eisenhower returned to his headquarters at Portsmouth, the first C-47s were arriving at their drop zones, commencing the start of "The Longest Day." The confusion and carnage of the landing efforts as troops in full kit (combat gear) waded through choppy, blood-stained water amid the deadly, deafening thunder of enemy fire must be deeply etched in the memory of those who took part in or witnessed the assault. During the invasion's initial hours, Eisenhower lacked adequate information about its progress. After the broadcast of his communiqué to the French people announcing their liberation, SHAEF switchboards were overwhelmed with messages from citizens and political officials. SHAEF communications personnel fell 12 hours behind in transcribing radio traffic. In addition, an Army decoding machine broke down.
According to his secretary-chauffeur Kay Summersby, as recounted in David Eisenhower’s book, "Eisenhower spent most of the day in his trailer drinking endless cups of coffee, ‘waiting for the reports to come.’ Few did, and so Eisenhower gained only sketchy details for most of the day about the British beaches, UTAH and the crisis at OMAHA, where for several hours the fate of the invasion hung in the balance."
In the early morning message reproduced as this article's feature document, Eisenhower reported to his superior officer General Marshall that preliminary reports were all "satisfactory." At that time, he had received no official information that the "leading ground troops are actually ashore." The incomplete and unofficial reports, however, were encouraging.
His comments concerning the weather speak to the one crucial factor of the invasion over which he held no control. Meteorologists were challenged to accurately predict a highly unstable and severe weather pattern. As he indicated in the message to Marshall, "The weather yesterday which was [the] original date selected was impossible all along the target coast." Eisenhower therefore was forced to make his decision to proceed with a June 6 invasion in the predawn blackness of June 5, while horizontal sheets of rain and gale force winds shuddered through the tent camp. The forecast that the storm would abate proved accurate, as he noted in the document.
He closed his brief message on a confident note, describing the steely readiness of the men he sent to battle, recalling the resoluteness in their faces that he termed "the light of battle . . . in their eyes." This vivid and stirring memory doubtless heartened him throughout the day until conclusive word reached him that the massive campaign had indeed succeeded.
Eisenhower, David. Eisenhower At War 1943–1945. New York: Random House, 1986.
Hastings, Max. OVERLORD: D-day and the Battle for Normandy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Dwight D. Eisenhower Library
|General Dwight D. Eisenhower
gives the order of the Day.
June 6, 1944
National Archives and Records Administration