A forgotten British general built the plan that brought Operation Overlord to fruition.
NEVER IN HISTORY HAD so great a mission begun under such unusual circumstances. Frederick E. Morgan accepted the position of Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC). Morgan’s orders: nothing less than planning the invasion On March 23, 1943, British Lieutenant General of western Europe. However, the Allies had no Supreme Allied Commander, and would not have one until January 1944, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived in London. So Morgan started his enormous task in a militarily unthinkable position—as a chief of staff with no superior to direct his efforts. All the seasoned military man had to go on was vague, constricting guidance from the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff. Hemmed in by these limitations and beset by competing national priorities, Morgan and his staff nonetheless developed a plan that solved 90 percent of the problems facing the Allies on the coast of France.
Morgan achieved this amazing feat against terrible odds. The Americans and the British were in a shotgun marriage. The British, who saw themselves as the senior ally, knew American resources were bound to tip the balance. Influential Americans saw the British as war-weary, and some, such as Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King, were outright Anglophobes. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wanted to wear Germany down before attacking Europe. President Franklin Roosevelt and U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall were avid to vault the English Channel; two cross-Channel operations, Bolero and Roundup, had already been planned and shelved. In this fraught environment, Morgan kept a cool head, displaying extraordinary insight, deftness, and diligence—and in the process became one of World War II’s forgotten heroes.
TALL, FAIR-HAIRED FREDDIE Morgan, commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1913, was called back from India when the First World War erupted. On the Western Front, a German artillery round badly wounded him, but he stayed in uniform, rising to brigadier based on service in the Raj from 1919 to 1935. In the 1940 Battle of France, Morgan led the non-tank units of the 1st Armoured Division. After Dunkirk, he commanded the 55th Infantry Division, then I Corps.
In 1942 planners preparing the invasion of North Africa wanted to ready a parry should the Germans respond by driving through Spain, seizing Gibraltar, and trying to block the Straits. Morgan, 49, got orders to form I Corps into a task force to prevent that. Asked to meet his new boss, an American he had never heard of, Morgan dutifully reported to Norfolk House at 31 St. James’s Square, London, the seven-story building where Operation Torch was taking form. In an office there Morgan found Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “I was met with that grin which the world now knows so well and a welcome that could not have been more charming,” Morgan wrote in a 1950 memoir, Overture to Overlord. “Right from the first moment it was clear that here was a man that one would gladly follow wherever he should go.”
Morgan had entered a bewildering maze. Though collaborative, Torch was running on an American model, and the American military system differed sharply from Britain’s. Neither side understood the other—even when it came to writing. To Morgan, the Torch operations order embodied George Bernard Shaw’s quip about Britons and Americans being two peoples divided by a common language. “The words were all pure English, but the whole document as it stood meant not a thing to any of us,” Morgan wrote later. “So we began by getting ourselves instructed in U.S. staff language and procedures.”
Torch succeeded, the Germans stayed out of Spain, and Morgan’s task force dispersed, leaving him a corps commander without a corps. At Casablanca in January 1943, Roosevelt and Marshall overrode British reluctance and forced a decision to invade northwest Europe in 1944. Since the projected attack was more than a year away, FDR and Churchill held off naming a commander—expected, along with his chief of staff, to be British. However, commander or no commander, planning had to start immediately, and someone had to shepherd that work.
In March 1943 General Hastings Ismay, Principal Secretary of Britain’s War Cabinet, summoned the underemployed Morgan. Ismay handed his old friend a mountain of files addressing cross-Channel warfare, including the Bolero and Roundup plans. Ismay, who represented Churchill to the British Chiefs of Staff Committee, told Morgan to digest the stack and write a memorandum for the Chiefs on how he would invade Europe.
“No hurry, old boy,” Ismay said. “Tomorrow will do.”
Morgan delivered on time—and was not surprised when the Chiefs requested another pass. In his redraft, the author, who had admired Eisenhower’s integrated approach to Torch, strongly urged “complete British-American amalgamation of staff, effort, troops, and everything else from the very beginning.” All branches of both nations’ services had to buy in, he declared. When the Allies chose a supreme commander, Morgan said, he should inherit a fully developed force structure, an effective command and control architecture, a reliable supply system, and a solid yet adaptable plan. In his memo, Morgan likened the chief of staff in this setting to St. John the Baptist—a true believer proselytizing on behalf of a celestial figure yet to arrive. “Quite frankly, I could not see myself in the part of the character that I outlined,” he wrote later. “I had in my mind’s eye one who had borne much more of the heat and burden than had I. But seemingly, I had talked myself into it.”
As the Chiefs were mulling, Morgan dined with the Churchills. The evening included billiards with the Prime Minister’s two-year-old grandson and watching the new documentary, Desert Victory. Afterward, Churchill told the War Office that his dinner guest “would do.”
On April 13, 1943, the day the Allies confirmed Morgan as chief of staff to a nonexistent supreme allied commander, the United Kingdom was host to only a single American combat division. Morgan’s British masters were pessimistic not only about the invasion itself but the collaboration it would involve. “Well, there it is; it won’t work,” Brooke told him. “But you must bloody well make it.”
THE NEW STAFF CHIEF and his staff—at first, four enlisted men—colonized an office at Norfolk House that the self-effacing Morgan recognized as the very room in which he first met Eisenhower to discuss Torch. “The equipment consisted of a couple of desks and chairs,” he said. “And we were lucky enough to find a few sheets of paper and a pencil that someone had dropped on the floor.”
Morgan had to make a shotgun marriage into a true partnership. He had to defuse his countrymen’s doubts; with Americans, the task was one, he said, of “keeping their bubbling enthusiasm within practical bounds.” Another problem was the difference in how the British and the American systems conceived the staff chief’s role. A British chief of staff was one of two principals—the chief of staff dealt with operations and intelligence; the chief administration officer handled personnel and logistics. An American chief of staff controlled all administrative and operational staff functions and, as his boss’s alter ego, almost always had authority to speak for the commander. To the British, COSSAC—the acronym quickly came to mean not only the individual but also the organization—had authority disproportionate to his duties; not so to the Americans. Morgan embraced the American mode. Fortunately, U.S. Army Major General Ray Barker, assigned as his deputy, was a New York native who had been in England since the year before and was a confirmed Anglophile. “It was thanks entirely to his wise guidance and tutelage that I soon began to find myself accepted by the American authorities,” Morgan wrote later.
Except for the tail end of the last war and the occasional polo match, American and British officers had scarcely interacted. Morgan meant to change that. Ignoring nationality, he formed working groups that he populated relying on his familiarity with Britain’s officer corps and Barker’s knowledge of America’s. They also enlisted civilians—bankers, microfilm operators, agriculturists, journalists, foresters—“each the master of some technique that was needed to help get us where we wanted to go.”
On April 23, 1943, the Combined Chiefs of Staff communicated a planning directive for the invasion that was as broad as the Atlantic: “Our object is to defeat the German fighting forces in North-West Europe. To this end the Combined Chiefs of Staff will endeavor to assemble the strongest possible forces (subject to prior commitments in other theatres) in constant readiness to re-enter the Continent if German resistance is weakened to the required extent in 1943.” The Chiefs set strict limits: only three divisions would land, on a 25-mile front, with one airborne division also participating. The plan had to address displaced civilians and POWs—both captured Germans and liberated Allied personnel—restoration of liberated nations’ democratic institutions; and occupation and governance of a devastated Germany. Morgan had until July 1943 to deliver his plan.
Starting from the old Bolero and Roundup documents, Morgan’s team picked for the landing site not the obvious— and heavily defended—Pas-de-Calais, but the Caen-Cotentin region, which was more remote but within Allied planes’ combat radius. The 25-mile landing zone would run from Vierville-sur-Mer in the west, near the Vire River, to Lion-sur-Mer near the Orne River in the east. Once lodged, troops would turn toward the Cotentin Peninsula and within 14 days seize the port of Cherbourg. The paratroopers would drop on and take Caen.
Analysts drilled into landing zone studies with exacting precision. Thousands of hours of intelligence gathering and review went into such data as the slope of the sea-bottom near shore; tide speed and strength; high- and low-tide lines; soil makeup and natural and man-made obstacles at the littoral; targets for naval gunners and pilots; signal communications circuits at the beachhead and inland; organizing a beachhead under fire; the strand’s capacity for stockpiling supplies; enemy defenses and troop concentrations at and behind the beaches; roads and other corridors inland; and areas inland useful for cover and staging.
And the planners went big. Before studying the stipulated 25 miles, Morgan and his planners, imagining the front might widen, scrutinized the area miles west beyond the Vire that became Utah Beach and, east of the Orne, a strand code-named “Band” but not used—in all, 60 miles of French shore. They did the same for the drop zones, putting adjacent locales under the lens in case more airborne divisions were allocated.
The lodgment would need a port capable of supporting 26 to 30 divisions engaged in combat, and simultaneously able to bring in three to five divisions a month of follow-on forces. Even if Allied troops took Cherbourg on schedule, the battle would disable facilities there. That brought the planners to the problem of supply over open beaches. Joked Commodore John Hughes-Hallet of the Royal Navy, “Well, all I can say is that if we can’t capture a port we must take one with us.” From his jest grew the Mulberry harbors, the manmade port facilities that rank as one of history’s greatest military logistical engineering feats.
MORGAN DROVE HIS PEOPLE he genially but relentlessly. He maintained rooms at the nearby and opulent Mount Royal Hotel but often slept at Norfolk House. He convened subordinates mornings and evenings but, to keep them moving forward, had principal planners meet weekly. He apologized for the hours; when inevitably kept his shorthand typist late, he had his driver ferry the young servicewoman home. To foster amity, Morgan had a mess installed on the top floor at Norfolk House. Posh meals for top-level planners encouraged what he called “discussion during digestion.” Democratic celebrations also occurred. After the initial Overlord plan went to the British Chiefs, a party rocked the block: “The normally rigidly repressed atmosphere of St. James’s Square was shattered to a thousand pieces by the onslaught first of a British dance band and later in the night by one of those red-hot combinations that America seems to own in such numbers,” Morgan recalled. Having filled Norfolk House, the staff—which would exceed 900— expanded around the corner into 80 Pall Mall.
Separately, the Combined Chiefs revived plans, mothballed since Anzio, to invade the south of France; the action would occur in tandem with Overlord. Morgan had to juggle this and myriad other factors while maintaining perspective on strategic concerns, such as how to enlist governments-in-exile and resistance movements in recivilizing Europe. Hearing of American warrior-diplomat Anthony Biddle, Roosevelt’s liaison to Europe’s exiled leaders and their anti-Nazi undergrounds, he wondered how he might pry Biddle loose to join COSSAC.
On July 27, 1943, the Chiefs approved Morgan’s plan, but no longer was British command a given. The United Kingdom was running short of men, and in the long run the majority of Overlord troops would be GIs. Talk arose of supreme command going to Marshall, who clearly desired the job. Morgan wondered if Marshall would keep him on. “The degree of intimacy that must exist between Commander and Chief of Staff could surely not be achieved across the frontier of even the closest alliance,” Morgan later wrote. When Marshall invited him to Washington, Morgan hoped the journey would speed a decision. “I wanted a commander,” he recalled thinking as he made his first trip to the United States in October 1943. “And I proposed to assume from the start that this was to be General Marshall.”
Marshall dashed that hope; domestic politics required he remain U.S. Army Chief of Staff. Morgan asked the Combined Chiefs for interim supreme command powers; American representative Admiral Ernest King was amenable, but the British refused. All right, Morgan said—how about a British deputy supreme commander? Oh, the Chiefs said, that had to be decided at “the highest levels;” in other words, FDR. So Morgan distilled his wishes: more GIs, Marshall in charge, Biddle to COSSAC. At the White House, Roosevelt—who had a slight cold—jibed that his guest was on the spot. “You see, General, that I have risen from my bed of sickness on purpose to see you,” the president said. “So what you have to say had better be important.”
“Mr. President, I don’t want to overtax you in your delicate health and will be brief,” Morgan replied. “All I need of you is your Army, your General Marshall, and your Ambassador Biddle.”
“The United States Army you can have tomorrow, if you can tell me what you want it for and if the reasons are good,” FDR said. “I doubt very much if General Marshall can be spared, and my Ambassador Biddle—you certainly can’t have him. I need him.”
Morgan wanted more U.S. Navy muscle for the invasion. Against American friends’ advice, he buttonholed King. As the naval chief listened, Morgan asked him to divert warships and landing craft from the Pacific to Overlord. King calmly explained why that would not happen. Morgan wrote later that when he emerged from King’s office smiling, head still attached, American officers assured him that, “had I been either an American soldier or a British sailor, I might well have not been seen again!”
Back in London, Morgan took heart—“It seemed to confirm that the American half of me was doing all right”—but lamented the skepticism he felt at home: “The British custom is almost invariably to mistrust the man on the spot.” He and Barker set about remaking Overlord to fit the leadership they now expected, so they were ready when, with Churchill’s assent, Roosevelt selected as Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, then commanding Allied troops in the Mediterranean. Bucking Marshall, Eisenhower said he would be bringing along his current chief of staff, Major General Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith.
By letter, Morgan assured Eisenhower that all was ready in London and that he was prepared to serve in any capacity. In reply, Eisenhower made clear how important Beetle Smith was to him and how key Morgan was to the undertaking. “My present thought is that originally [Smith] would enter COSSAC as your deputy until he could absorb the background that you now possess and gain the benefit of all your experience in the tough job you have had,” Eisenhower wrote. “After that I have been assured by [Brooke] that there is always an important job awaiting you, and I gained the impression that he had in mind something like a corps command.”
Before coming to London, Eisenhower had to go to Washington. He sent Smith ahead and authorized Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, now Overlord ground forces commander, to act in his absence. Montgomery and Smith decided Morgan’s plan was too small. They recommended that at least five seaborne and three airborne divisions land along 60 miles of beach—an enlargement Eisenhower endorsed. With Ike’s arrival in London on January 15, 1944, the COSSAC organization ceased to exist. Most of its personnel stayed on as the nucleus of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). New staff members included Anthony Biddle, now SHAEF’s emissary to the captive nations.
On February 1, 1944, the Chiefs approved the larger invasion. Planning the additional actions delayed the assaults—but only by five weeks, thanks to Morgan’s prescient study of adjacent beaches and drop zones. The challenge became where to find additional naval lift, especially landing craft—a knot sliced by postponing the assault in southern France to later in the summer.
THERE WAS ANOTHER MATTER: what to do with Morgan. COSSAC was gone. Smith, Eisenhower’s number two, asked informally about a corps command for him in Overlord. Brooke and Montgomery vetoed that idea. Morgan “has hurt himself with Brooke by his square dealing with our people,” Smith told Eisenhower.
Ever a team player, Morgan set aside ego. He was a three-star general; Smith was in his final days as a two-star. Then, as now, a three-star willing to work for a two-star was as rare as hen’s teeth. But Morgan chewed the bullet. “I was conscious of a strong paternal feeling towards this Operation Overlord that was about to come to birth,” he wrote. “If, by any mischance, things went wrong, I had no illusions as to where as much as possible of the blame would be placed and I felt it would be better to be on the spot alongside those who had borne the heat and burden of the planning.”
Soon after the Allies successfully invaded Europe, King George knighted Morgan, who as Smith’s deputy served effectively to campaign’s end and, after Germany surrendered, headed United Nations relief efforts there. “There is nothing too good to say for the work he did,” Eisenhower wrote in a SHAEF memo dated August 9, 1944. “Moreover, there is no possible way of exaggerating the complexity of his task and the difficulties he had to overcome.”
Morgan retired from the army in 1946 and in the early 1950s was controller of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. But by the time he died, on March 19, 1967, Sir Frederick Edgeworth Morgan was a completely forgotten man.
He deserves better.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.