What Ike Remembered When Returning to the Beaches of Normandy 20 Years After D-Day

June 4, 2024
What Ike Remembered When Returning to the Beaches of Normandy 20 Years After D-Day

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division tried to ease the concerns of Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had just given the go order for the D-Day landings after one last bout of wrangling with the allies.

Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force, now was out on the wharves and at the airfields to meet with the soldiers, airmen and sailors he was sending into battle.

The 101st Airborne troops could sense the stress he was under, and several piped up along the lines of “Quit worrying, general. We’ll take care of this thing for you,” Eisenhower recalled in a 1964 CBS special report: “D-Day Plus 20 Years, Gen. Eisenhower Returns to Normandy.”

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CBS correspondent Walter Cronkite pressed Eisenhower on a report that he had tears in his eyes when he left the paratroopers. “Well, I don’t know about that,” Eisenhower said, but “it could’ve been possible.”

The hours before a major battle is joined “are the most terrible time for a senior commander,” he said. “You know the losses are going to be bad,” and “Goodness knows, those fellas meant a lot to me.”

Earlier on June 4, in the “war room” of Southwick House, a Victorian mansion near the Royal Navy base at Portsmouth, Eisenhower had settled the ongoing debate with allied commanders on when to launch the invasion.

Eisenhower said he had picked June 5 as the best date, but he deferred to British Group Captain James Stagg, the chief meteorologist, who warned of gale force winds on June 5 that would scuttle the landing.

“I believe Montgomery wanted to go on June 5” despite Stagg’s prediction, Eisenhower said of the famously fractious British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, but Eisenhower stuck with Stagg’s forecast of a break in the weather on June 6.

The time had come for Eisenhower to make his final decision. The war room at Southwick fell silent as the general pondered the call. He noted that some of his aides later said it took about five minutes for him to make up his mind, but Eisenhower insisted that it took only about 35 to 40 seconds.

Finally, “I just stood up and said, ‘OK we’ll go'” on June 6. “It was still a chancy thing,” but “I thought it was the best of a bad bargain,” he said. “Finally, the thing that pulled this thing out was the bravery, courage and initiative of the American GI.”

The last comment was typical of the self-effacing Eisenhower, who lacked the blustery ego of other generals but rose from obscure staff colonel at the beginning of the war to supreme allied commander on the strength of his ability to work with others and inspire confidence in those he led.

U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt still had not made a decision on who was to be the overall commander of allied forces in the European theater by the time of the Tehran Conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin in late November 1943.

The betting in Washington was that Gen. George C. Marshall, the respected Army chief of staff, would get the job to command Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion of northern France.

But in a stop in Cairo on the way back to the States from Tehran, Roosevelt dictated a note to “Marshall Stalin” that read: “The immediate appointment of General Eisenhower to command of Operation Overlord has been decided upon,” according to the records of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in the general’s hometown of Abilene, Kansas.

In the CBS special, Eisenhower related some of the stories of the D-Day landings that may have escaped the historians to that time — about struggling to keep Churchill off the British warships on June 6, and about running aground himself aboard a British minelayer off the D-Day beaches on June 7, the day after the landings.

“I told him he couldn’t do it,” Eisenhower said of Churchill’s plan to be aboard a British ship to get up close to the landings, but then Churchill began to lawyer him. He asked whether Eisenhower could still stop him if he signed up as a member of the crew. Eisenhower said he couldn’t, but “luckily, the king [King George VI] learned of his intentions.”

The king said that if Churchill was going, he was going too, and Churchill backed off. Churchill “was not going to risk him [the king] because he was worth too much to the allied cause,” Eisenhower said.

Eisenhower had only himself to blame for the embarrassment that would meet his efforts to get to the European continent swiftly — running aground off the Normandy beaches on the day after the landings. He had asked for and boarded the fastest ship available, the British minelayer HMS Apollo.

Eisenhower admitted to pressing the captain to go at full speed. “It was partly my fault. We got in a little too close” and hit a sandbar. “Everything shuddered and shook. Nearly all of us fell on our faces,” he said.

A destroyer eventually came by to take him and his party off the Apollo, but Eisenhower noted that German shore batteries were active while he was stranded.

Perhaps the highlight of the 90-minute CBS special took place in the small French town of Sainte-Mère-Église, just off the beaches where a bench was set up in front of its iconic church for Eisenhower and Madame Simone Renaud, wife of the wartime mayor of the town. She became known as the “Mother of Normandy” for tending to the graves of the allied troops who fought on D-Day.

Renaud said the first American paratroopers dropped from the night sky at about 10 p.m. on June 5. “It was a wonderful surprise. It was a wonderful thing that happened to us,” even though about 60 civilians were killed in the battle, which touched off raging fires in houses and barns, she said.

That night, she also saw that the parachute of one of the 82nd Airborne paratroopers, later identified as Pvt. John Steele, had been caught on one of the church’s pinnacles, leaving him dangling above the firefight raging below.

Some of the townspeople shouted up to him, trying to tell him to play dead. “I suppose he had a very bad time,” Renaud said.

“I don’t think many of us would have liked that,” Eisenhower said of the plight of Steele, who survived the war and later returned to visit Sainte-Mère-Église.

The American paratroopers were scattered widely, but in a way “that was quite lucky for us,” Eisenhower said. “Because they were scattered so badly, the Germans didn’t know anything about what we were doing.”

Renaud agreed with Eisenhower, saying of the Germans, “They were terrified. They did not know what happened. It was a disaster for them to see the airborne troops.”

The only frustration Eisenhower showed during the course of the CBS program was with the leak of the handwritten statement he had prepared in case the landings had failed.

“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 alone,” the statement said.

“I don’t know who found out about it,” Eisenhower said of the statement, “but it was published. It must have been an aide got this thing out.”

“I was going into oblivion anyway” if the invasion had failed, he said, so his thinking at the time was that “I might as well take full responsibility.”

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