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The Storm Before the Storm

By Carlo D’Este
11/28/2017 • World War II Magazine

Hundreds of thousands of troops were primed for the world’s largest amphibious operation. One man had the lonely burden of setting it all in motion.

The final countdown to the D-Day landings at Normandy began on June 2, 1944, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower moved from his London headquarters to a sprawling Regency mansion known as Southwick House on England’s south coast. Anyone else would have immediately taken up residence inside the palatial home. But Eisenhower eschewed comfort for a Spartan existence, living instead in a cramped, unpretentious trailer he dubbed “my circus wagon.” Set up under camouflage netting on the Southwick grounds, it was devoid of heat except for the tiny bedroom, which was adorned only with a jumbled pile of Western novels, and photos of his wife and son.

That setting soon became the scene of the most trying hours of Eisenhower’s life. Ike had come to Southwick to oversee the mounting of the largest amphibious invasion ever undertaken. The logistics alone that mission planners had grappled with in the months leading up to D-Day were of a scale unprecedented in human history. The planning involved every single military element: the air, sea, and ground forces of many nationalities—American, British, Canadian, Polish, and Free French. But now, in those early days of June, the one variable the planners couldn’t control—the weather—was casting the entire operation in doubt.

And so the stage was set for Eisenhower’s most difficult decision of the war—arguably one of the gutsiest decisions in military history, and one that dispelled for all time allegations by his critics that he was merely a “chairman of the board,” better known for his trademark grin than for his military prowess.

Beginning when Ike arrived at Southwick House on June 2, he and his chief advisors—13 men in all—convened twice daily for weather briefings in the mansion’s library, a large, plain room with dark oak bookcases, easy chairs, and sofas, its windows hidden behind heavy blackout drapes. There was a three-day window in early June upon which the long-anticipated operation could commence. The moonlight required to land three Allied airborne divisions by parachute and glider the night before the invasion (to secure the vital flanks), and the low tides necessary to carry out the landings and demolish Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s underwater obstacles in the 40 minutes after first light, would only be present during the three-day period from June 5 to June 7. Any delay due to inclement weather would mean postponement for a minimum of two weeks. A delay after that would push the invasion back several more weeks—and imperil later operations that could reach into 1944’s fall and winter.

For most of May, the weather had been exceptionally favorable. It was also deceptive. As an experienced sailor, the Allied naval commander in chief, Adm. Bertram Ramsay, knew better than to trust this as a good harbinger for D-Day, which was set for June 5. The weather in the English Channel was traditionally uncertain and changeable in early June.

Eisenhower’s weather team, consisting of experts from the Admiralty, the air forces, and American and British weather services, was headed by Royal Air Force Group Capt. James Martin Stagg, the chief meteorologist for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) since November 1943, and the weather group’s spokesman. A tall, soft-spoken 43-year-old whom Eisenhower once described as a “dour, but canny Scot,” Stagg had led a polar expedition to the Canadian arctic in 1932–1933, and had served as the superintendent of London’s centuries-old Kew Observatory in 1939.

What Stagg and his colleagues saw on their charts and in signals from the United States on June 1 was portentous. Weather aircraft flying over Newfoundland and ships at sea gathering weather data were reporting the first major change in the previous weeks of clear weather. A high-pressure system moving south from Iceland was resulting in the formation of several deep, low-pressure depressions in the mid-Atlantic, which characteristically signal unsettled weather.

The problem, other than growing uncertainty, was that Stagg’s team was unable to agree on the extent of the expected changes, or on how those changes would affect the invasion on June 5. Later that day Stagg reported their disagreement to Maj. Gen. Harold R. Bull, SHAEF’s chief of operations. “For Heaven’s sake, Stagg, get it sorted out by tomorrow morning before you come to the Supreme Commander’s conference,” Bull decreed. “General Eisenhower is a very worried man.” Such stipulations were familiar to Stagg; one Overlord planner had sent Stagg off to Southwick with the admonition, “May all your depressions be nice little ones: but remember, we’ll string you up from the nearest lamp post if you don’t read the omens right.”

The weather the next day, a Friday, provided no hint of what was to come. By the time of the morning briefing, the SHAEF weathermen had already wrangled for hours over the Atlantic depressions and their probable impact on D-Day. But other than to note that the present good weather would begin changing over the weekend with increasing winds and clouds, they offered no assessment of its impact on D-Day, nor was one demanded by Eisenhower or the other participants. They had nearly 12 hours before the next briefing to refine their own conclusions before Eisenhower would be obliged to act on their findings.

The wrangling continued until shortly before the second briefing, but still there was no consensus. Like it or not, it was now up to Stagg to decide what to report. What made his task all the more difficult was that he had been warned by Britain’s premier meteorologist that predicting the weather anytime in the Channel, even for a one- or two-day period, was virtually impossible.

The second briefing convened at 9:30 that evening, attended as before by all the key players and senior staff officers. What Stagg had to report was troubling. A series of depressions moving in from the west would make the weather in the Channel for the next three or four days “potentially full of menace” in the form of completely overcast skies, winds of up to 25 miles per hour, and a cloud cover that could range from 500 feet to as low as zero. The seriousness of the occasion could be read in their faces and in the almost deathlike silence. Eisenhower ruled there would be no change of plan that day and authorized the navy to proceed with all necessary preliminary operations.

At the evening briefing the following day, June 3, Stagg delivered the bad news. The latest forecast offered little but wind, waves, and clouds that were expected to persist until at least June 5. One by one, Eisenhower questioned his three invasion commanders. “Could the navy manage it?” he asked. Admiral Ramsay thought not. The assault might go ashore all right, but if the weather worsened there could be no adequate buildup. More importantly, without adequate air cover it was simply too risky to launch the invasion. The air commander, Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, replied that his aircrews would not be able to see what they were attacking. Even Ike’s deputy, the usually upbeat Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, remained doubtful. Only the acting ground commander, Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, thought the invasion should proceed. “I’m ready,” he told Eisenhower, raising eyebrows among some for what they deemed a reckless response. (For more on Ike and Monty’s relationship see “High Stakes,” page 14.) Eisenhower’s final question to Stagg was whether there was unanimity among the weathermen on what had been presented, and for the first time Stagg could simply reply, “Yes, sir.”

Eisenhower had no choice except to provisionally postpone the invasion for 24 hours to June 6, a risky move for reasons of security and morale. Some forces had already been activated. Some of the troops, crowded aboard landing craft like cattle, were seasick from the heavy tides without ever having embarked, and the armada waited in grim anticipation of some glimmer of hope from the weather gods. The commanders agreed to meet at 4:15 the next morning, June 4, when Eisenhower would have to decide the fate of Overlord. By this time, he had been sleeping little and eating even less. “Probably no one who does not have to bear the specific and direct responsibility of making the final decision as to what to do can understand the intensity of these burdens,” an exhausted Eisenhower wrote in his diary that night.

Stagg reported no change at the 4:15 meeting. Although the weather outside was then virtually windless and clear, he assured the commanders that the predicted bad weather would arrive within four to five hours. “In that case, gentlemen, it looks to me as if we must confirm the provisional decision we took at the last meeting,” Eisenhower said. “Compared with the enemy’s forces ours are not overwhelmingly strong: we need every help our air superiority can give us. If the air cannot operate we must postpone. Are there any dissentient votes?” None were offered. The invasion was officially on hold.

As Stagg predicted, a full-blown gale swept in on schedule, not only rendering any hope of launching the invasion the morning of June 5 unthinkable, but also threatening to wreck the entire timetable. While the armada literally treaded water, the participants had become virtual prisoners in their encampments and aboard naval vessels; final briefings were postponed, and sealed instructions revealing their target remained unopened.

Although Montgomery retained his usual aura of confidence, others—particularly the senior airmen—worried that in spite of the detailed preparations and training, things might still go wrong on the beaches of Normandy. The grim atmosphere was not relieved by updates from Allied intelligence that Rommel had strengthened the Normandy front by several new divisions, with more possibly on the way.

During the day the winds rose. Eisenhower spent most of June 4 either closeted alone in his trailer or outside pacing aimlessly, his hands deep in his pockets, a lighted cigarette continually in his hand as he scanned the skies seeking some sign, any indication, that the weather might change for the better. During one of his strolls he recognized NBC reporter Merrill “Red” Mueller, and beckoned to him: “Let’s take a walk, Red.” Mueller recognized that this was not the time for questions, and the two men walked in silence. When they parted company it seemed to Mueller that Eisenhower was “bowed down with worry…as though each of the four stars on either shoulder weighed a ton.”

That afternoon Churchill escorted the commander of Free French Forces, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, to Southwick. Eisenhower spent 20 minutes describing the Allied invasion plan to the Frenchman. His earlier experiences with the prickly de Gaulle had not dissuaded Ike from an appreciation of his military wisdom: he asked de Gaulle for his opinion and, flattered, de Gaulle replied, “I will only tell you that if I were you, I should not delay.”

At the evening briefing, the assembled generals, admirals, and air marshals could distinctly hear the sounds of rain and the wind howling in rage outside. Eisenhower’s trademark smile was missing, replaced by an unmistakable air of solemnity.

Although the weather was plainly vile, Stagg reported to the tense commanders that there was a glimmer of hope for June 6: while the weather would remain poor, visibility would improve, and the winds would decrease barely enough to risk launching the invasion. As one participant recalled, “A cheer went up. You never heard middle-aged men cheer like that!”

Stagg was peppered with questions. Tedder demanded, “What will the weather be on D-Day in the Channel and over the French coast?” For perhaps two minutes there was dead silence while Stagg pondered Tedder’s question. Finally, Stagg replied, “To answer that question would make me a guesser, not a meteorologist.” Ramsay asked about the condition of the sea and the expected wind velocity, while Leigh-Mallory was principally concerned about the extent of the expected cloud cover. Eisenhower wanted to know how many hours of decent weather could be counted on for the invasion.

This was arguably the most important weather prediction in history: a mistaken forecast for D-Day could turn the entire tide of the war in Europe against the Allies.

In preparation for this moment, Eisenhower and his weather team had practiced at Monday meetings for weeks. Eisenhower would select a hypothetical D-Day, and Stagg and his weathermen would make what had proved to be accurate predictions. Stagg was, as war correspondent Chester Wilmot later wrote, “a scientist to his bones with all of the scientist’s refined capacity to pass unimpassioned judgment on the evidence, a man of sharp mind and soft speech, detached, resolute, courageous. In these trial forecasts Eisenhower had learned that the man whose opinion and nerve he could trust in the hour of decision was Stagg.”

After consulting with each of the invasion commanders, Eisenhower swiftly learned his time had run out. “If Overlord is to proceed on Tuesday [June 6], I must issue provisional warning to my forces within the next half-hour,” Ramsay announced. Ike had to make a decision for or against, then and there. He polled his chief advisors, one by one. Leigh-Mallory remained troubled, calling it “chancy.” Tedder agreed. Pacing the floor, Eisenhower turned to Montgomery and asked, “Do you see any reason why we should not go on Tuesday?” Without hesitation the little British general replied emphatically, “No. I would say—Go!”

Before Eisenhower could decide, he was obliged to weigh not only the determination itself but its long-term impact. Failure was unthinkable. There was utter silence in the room; the only sounds were those of the wind and rain pounding Southwick House. Ike’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, a man rarely emotional about anything, was awed by “the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his judgment alone. He sat there quietly, not getting up to pace with quick strides as he often does. He was tense, weighing every consideration of weather as he had been briefed to do during the dry runs since April, and weighing them with those other imponderables.”

Although Eisenhower later agonized over what he had wrought, it seemed clear to him what his decision must be. In retrospect, it may appear to have been almost casually made but it was, in fact, a decision that Eisenhower had long prepared himself to make. His heart and his head told him to trust Stagg and his weather forecast. It was a very slender thread upon which to base the fate of the war, but it was all Eisenhower had, and he embraced it. The invasion must go ahead.

“I am quite positive we must give the order,” he said. “I don’t like it but there it is…. I don’t see how we can do anything else.” With that modest pronouncement, the invasion of Normandy was set to take place the morning of June 6, conditioned upon a final weather forecast the next morning. It was 9:45 p.m. Within seconds the room emptied as men scrambled to set the invasion in motion.

All but spent, Eisenhower emerged from Southwick House. There was not the slightest hint of improving weather to come; to the contrary, the wind, rain, and muddy ground seemed to make a complete mockery of his decision. Nor could Eisenhower have been uplifted by a remark by his driver, Kay Summersby: “If all goes right, dozens of people will claim the credit. But if it goes wrong, you’ll be the only one to blame.”

The Allied commanders in chief reconvened at 4:15 a.m. on June 5 to confirm the decision to go after a last- minute weather update. The atmosphere at the meeting was again somber. Stagg reported no substantial change; nor, he cautioned, was there any tilt toward a more optimistic forecast. Nevertheless, Stagg’s prediction of the D-Day weather and beyond brought smiles all around from the grim expressions that had only moments before permeated the room.

According to Ike’s chief intelligence officer, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Strong, “Eisenhower got up from his chair and walked slowly up and down the room…. His head was slightly sunk on his chest, his hands clasped behind his back. From time to time he stopped in his stride, turned his head quickly and jerkily in the direction of one of those present, and fired a rapid question at him…then resumed his walk. Montgomery showed some signs of his impatience, as if to say that had he had to make the decision it would have been made long ago.” Strong thought it was the face of a brave man having to confront his fear that many other brave men would soon needlessly be sacrificed. Eisenhower retreated to a sofa where he sat for some five minutes to ponder his decision.

There was still time to postpone. Whatever Eisenhower decided would stand. But Stagg noted that the tension had evaporated. “Well, Stagg,” Eisenhower finally said with a broad smile, “if this forecast comes off, I promise you we’ll have a celebration when the time comes.” After a brief discussion, Eisenhower reaffirmed his decision to launch Operation Overlord. “Okay, we’ll go,” he said. The invasion was now unalterable for June 6, 1944.

The impact of their pronouncements upon both Eisenhower and Stagg was profound. Each had staked everything on his professional judgment, which would soon be put to the most severe test imaginable. Once unleashed, the Allied genie could not be put back into the bottle to await another day. Having made what was arguably the most important decision of the war, Eisenhower was now incapable of either reversing it or of altering in any way the outcome of the invasion, which was now in other hands. For the time being the immediate role of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe was all but irrelevant. As he later told Walter Cronkite, “That’s the most terrible thing for a senior commander. He has done all that he can do.”

Following the war, Rommel’s chief naval advisor, Vice Adm. Friedrich Ruge, who went on to become a respected military historian, marveled that Eisenhower had made such an important decision without recourse to higher authority, something that no one in the German chain of command would have dared. But Ruge had higher praise still: General Eisenhower’s lonely decree was, he said, “one of the truly great decisions in military history.”

In public, Eisenhower continued to exude confidence. In pri- vate, however, he was a seething bundle of nervous energy. For once, Ike would have sympathized with his nemesis, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had once observed, “A general’s life is loneliness.” Eisenhower understood, perhaps better than anyone else, that the success or failure of the landings lay in the hands of the ordinary soldiers, NCOs, and junior officers who were obliged to carry out the grand scheme planned on high. All the arrows on maps and millions of words of orders, instructions, and plans came down to making it happen, if possible in the manner planned; if not, making it happen regardless of the circumstances.

Throughout the long hours of June 5, Eisenhower drank one pot of coffee after another. His smoking had increased to four packs a day, and he was once heard to mutter: “I hope to God I know what I’m doing.” Some time after lunch he sat down and scribbled out a note, found weeks later in his shirt pocket by his naval aide and, fortunately for the Allies, never used. It read, “Our landings have failed…and I have withdrawn the troops…. 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 and mine alone.”

That evening Eisenhower made an unplanned visit to the 101st Airborne Division, which was staging for their parachute and glider landings in Normandy. With tears in his eyes, he remained on the roof of division headquarters until the last aircraft took off.

As he silently strolled back to his staff car, Kay Summersby thought him at that moment the loneliest man in the world. “Well, it’s on,” Eisenhower said. “No one can stop it now.”

The outcome is well known to history. Stagg’s weather forecast held and, despite choppy conditions in the Channel, the D-Day landings were a stunning success, with 156,000 troops successfully landed by air and sea on June 6. Once ashore, Ike’s armies quickly carved out a secure bridgehead and began the long, often painful process of winning the battle of Normandy and ending the war in Europe.

Mamie Eisenhower once asked her husband how in the world he ever had the nerve to set all that in motion. His simple reply bore evidence of leadership at its finest. “I had to,” he told her. “If I let anybody, any of my commanders, think that maybe things weren’t going to work out, that I was afraid, they’d be afraid too. I didn’t dare. I had to have the confidence. I had to make them believe that everything was going to work.”

 

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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