The Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson

The Epic Story of the Liberation of Europe in World War II

To mark the upcoming 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, I've asked my fellow historian Joseph Balkoski, whose scholarship on Operation OVERLORD is unsurpassed, to write a series of short essays about preparations for the invasion. A new article will appear every two weeks between now and June 6.

— Rick Atkinson


Ike Selects D-Day
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted June 2, 2014

For four months Eisenhower had focused his undivided attention on OVERLORD, but as of May 8, 1944, he had yet to issue the fundamental order that every Allied serviceman in Britain needed to know: When would the invasion take place? “No single question had been discussed more often,” noted a U.S. Navy OVERLORD study, but at a May 8 SHAEF meeting, Ike resolved to answer that question once and for all. Since January, when Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff had agreed, at Montgomery’s insistence, to delay OVERLORD by a month, SHAEF had designated June 1, 1944, as “Y-Day,” code-named HALCYON; as of that date, Ike ordered, all air, land, and naval forces must be ready to execute their OVERLORD mission. However, before Eisenhower selected the invasion date and time, designated in OVERLORD orders as “D-Day” and “H-Hour,” he needed to hear his subordinates’ opinions on how Normandy’s tides—among the most spectacular in the world—and lunar conditions would influence their plans.

Ike’s airmen professed a straightforward requirement: given the hazards of flying thousands of aircraft along highly constricted flight paths in darkness, a full moon would help prevent midair collisions and ease nighttime navigation. The first full moon after Y-Day would occur on June 6 at precisely 6:58 P.M.; the near-full moon on June 5 or 7, the airmen declared, would also do. An invasion date before June 5 or after June 7, however, would make nocturnal flying much more challenging. Ike’s seamen, too, averred that OVERLORD’s convoys must make the perilous English Channel crossing at night to minimize the threat of German air attack. Many ground soldiers took that argument one step further by favoring a seaborne invasion in darkness, but SHAEF’s air and naval staffs vetoed that idea: the preinvasion air and naval bombardment would require at least minimal sunlight to neutralize the enemy’s many formidable coastal strongpoints, as bombers and warships could not hit with precision what they could not see. Finally, all of Ike’s senior commanders concurred that the seaborne assault must begin as early in the day as possible, maximizing the number of troops poured ashore by sunset in anticipation of the German counterattacks that would surely materialize within twenty-four hours of D-Day. That requirement, however, would severely curtail the window of time bombers and warships would have to saturate the beaches with bombs and shells before first-wave troops surged ashore.

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The D-Day Airborne Mission
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted May 13, 2014

Nothing like it had ever been attempted. Nevertheless, in Operation OVERLORD the Allies intended to try a multifaceted airborne mission on such a colossal scale that it would, they hoped, negate the oppressive disadvantages faced by seaborne troops forced to execute a frontal assault against a heavily defended coastline. The U.S. Army’s leading soldier, Gen. George Marshall, had clamored for operations of that kind—he called them “vertical envelopment”—to take advantage of the impressive surge in size and skill of Allied airborne forces since their tentative and admittedly defective operations in the Mediterranean in 1942 and 1943. True, Eisenhower’s senior airman, Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, harbored doubts that airborne warfare against an enemy as implacable as the Germans could ever rise to such a grandiose level. But Ike’s young Turks affirmed that limited, pinprick airborne operations were things of the past: using robust airborne units in small-scale missions, the 82nd Airborne’s brigadier general, Jim Gavin, snickered, “is like having Michelangelo paint a barn.”

An abundance of men and airplanes alone could not guarantee D-Day success; the Allies must also forge fresh ideas, based not only on past airborne experience but on their renowned cutting-edge technology. Moreover, ample time must be provided prior to the invasion for troops and aircrews to practice. And practice they did, like they had never done before, so rigorously from March to May 1944 that one confident American C-47 pilot, 1st Lt. Adam Parsons—a former paratrooper—averred with understandable ardor, “Every pilot in IX Troop Carrier Command on D-Day was well qualified.” On March 23, Troop Carrier’s 53rd Wing made a practice drop of 101st Airborne paratroopers that an Air Force historical study defined as “spectacularly good”; more important, it accomplished that feat with Eisenhower and Churchill as witnesses, two men whose faith in airborne prowess assuredly needed boosting. Seven weeks later Troop Carrier carried out a highly successful nocturnal dress rehearsal, Exercise EAGLE, involving over one thousand C-47s and gliders flying dogleg routes in tight formations over southwestern England, roughly similar to flight patterns they would follow on D-Day, to drop zones on Salisbury Plain. “The effect of Eagle,” the Air Force study concluded, “was to induce a mood of optimism as far as Troop Carrier capabilities were concerned.”

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Exercise TIGER
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted April 28, 2014

On page 191 of The Guns at Last Light, Rick Atkinson depicted the August 5, 1944, death of Rear Adm. Don Pardee Moon aboard his flagship Bayfield in Naples harbor. A steward “found the admiral, dressed in shorts and undershirt, sitting on the sofa with a .45 in his right hand, his eyes open, and a red worm of blood trickling from his ear. The spent bullet was found in the shower.” Moon’s suicide note pleaded, “The mind is gone…. I am sick, so sick.”

Just two months before, Moon had held command of Force U, designated in OVERLORD plans to convey the U.S. Army’s VII Corps across the Channel to Utah Beach on D-Day. It was an oppressive responsibility: Force U had been a late addition to the D-Day repertoire, brought into existence by Montgomery’s January 1944 OVERLORD revision, and Moon had little time to concoct a feasible invasion plan. A dress rehearsal for the Utah landing known as Exercise TIGER, scheduled from April 22 to April 30, 1944, would test whether the mountains of paperwork churned out in short order by Moon’s staff amounted to a viable operation of war.

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Allied Engineers Plan for D-Day
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted April 14, 2014

Rommel had kept the German garrison in Normandy busy—so busy, in fact, that when photos snapped by Allied reconnaissance aircraft along the Calvados coast in early April 1944 were forwarded to OVERLORD planning staffs, a shock wave promptly rippled through Eisenhower’s command. The Allies had already churned out mammoth D-Day plan books, but this latest intelligence revealed something entirely new: for weeks the enemy had been working fervently to erect thousands of obstacles on the Normandy shoreline, an alarming development that would force the Allies to rethink their invasion methods just two months before D-Day.

Hardly prime examples of Germany’s capability to produce Wunderwaffen—wonder weapons—the contraptions Rommel’s men had begun to embed in the Normandy sands appeared absurdly antiquated, little different from war matériel employed by Alexander or Caesar: logs propped at a forty-five-degree angle, facing seaward; iron rails welded together at crazy angles, known as “hedgehogs” by the Allies; gate-like contraptions, nicknamed “Belgian barn doors” by intelligence staffs. One could scarcely believe that such archaic devices would seriously impede a modern army, but, as of April 1944, no enemy activity in Normandy worried Ike more. Fixed on tidal flats, at low water the German obstacles were fully exposed, but they would be submerged little more than three hours hence as the volatile Norman tide rose with its astonishing rapidity. At high tide, when the obstacles were underwater and invisible, Allied coxswains guiding their landing craft shoreward risked impaling their vessels far short of the beach or, much worse, ramming an obstacle topped with a Teller mine—a catastrophic event that would surely kill or wound most passengers.

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OVERLORD Security Measures
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted March 31, 2014

In April 1944 the restaurant in Claridge’s, the renowned Mayfair hotel just blocks away from Ike’s London headquarters at 20 Grosvenor Square, was not a good spot for an American general to gossip about D-Day. At an April 18 party thrown for Red Cross nurses by the U.S. Army’s chief intelligence officer in Britain, Brigadier General Edwin Sibert, a <em>Time</em> reporter noted: “Cocktails were sipped”—perhaps in sufficient quantities to loosen the tongue of Major General Henry Miller, the head of Ninth Air Force’s Service Command. The fifty-three-year-old Miller, nicknamed “Izzy” at West Point, was described by 1915 classmate Ike Eisenhower as an “old and warm friend,” but that friendship was about to disintegrate. Miller later swore to Ike that he had done nothing wrong, but three witnesses—one of whom was Sibert—noted that they had heard Miller in discussion with some nurses pronounce loudly and authoritatively: “Upon my honor, the invasion will come before June 15.” Sent home at reduced rank for that one-sentence breach of security, Miller was no longer in uniform by November. “I get so angry,” Ike cabled Marshall about this and other security lapses, “that I could cheerfully shoot the offender myself.”

Ike’s proclivity to chain-smoke surely worsened when he contemplated the impact of security slipups on OVERLORD. If the Germans could crack the Allies’ wall of secrecy—even just a day or two before D-Day—their ability to turn back the invasion would expand by a significant factor, and as Ike well understood, a defeat in Normandy would cast the Anglo-American war effort into chaos. Inevitably, Eisenhowerwould have to let hundreds of thousands of men in on the secret: how could ruinous security blunders possibly be averted?

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Operation FORTITUDE Fools the Germans
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted March 17, 2014

By the third day of the Teheran summit, code-named EUREKA, that trinity of statesmen known in the Western press as “The Big Three”—Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin—finally began to relax. Just a few years in the past, one could hardly have envisioned FDR, a Hyde Park aristocrat, or Churchill, an old-school imperialist, bantering with Stalin, whom George Marshall described as “a rough son-of-a-bitch who made his way by murder and everything else.” But at four P.M. on November 30, 1943, near the close of their third plenary meeting, Churchill brought up the pressing need to deceive the Germans about the imminent D-Day invasion. According to the transcript, “The prime minister observed that truth deserves a bodyguard of lies.” Rejoined Stalin: “This is what we call ‘military cunning.’” An amused Churchill concluded that “he considered it, rather, ‘military diplomacy.’”

By the close of 1943, astute German intelligence officers could hardly miss the Allies’ military buildup in England; that Anglo-American troops would soon storm the Atlantic Wall was obvious. As the historian Michael Howard wrote, “For the past six months [the Allies] had been trying to persuade the Germans that they faced a major invasion threat from the United Kingdom, when in fact they did not. Now they had to persuade them that they did not face such a threat, whereas in fact they did.” Operation FORTITUDE, which Howard depicted as “perhaps the most complex and successful deception operation in the entire history of war,” strove to keep enemy generals guessing, both before and after the invasion, about the Allies’ intent.

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Air Support for OVERLORD
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted March 3, 2014

Ike Eisenhower had to admit that his best friend “Gee” Gerow’s soldierly skills surpassed his own. Those talents would be needed, the supreme commander presumed, when Major General Gerow’s command surged ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day. However, just thirty-eight days before the invasion—on April 28, 1944—a concerned Ike noticed that the strain of command had deeply affected Gerow. That afternoon, on a railroad siding near Taunton, England, Eisenhower and Gerow sat in Ike’s Pullman coach, code-named BAYONET, to hash out solutions to the intractable challenges of amphibious warfare. “Gerow seemed a bit pessimistic,” a witness wrote, “and finally Ike said to him that he should be optimistic and cheerful because he has behind him the greatest firepower ever assembled on the face of the earth.”

Ike had a point. When one totaled the bomb tonnage of the warplanes based in Britain and contemplated the impact of that immense destructive power on the enemy, surely the Germans’ ability to resist the invasion would be crippled. But as the frustrated supreme commander would soon learn, the Anglo-American high command’s divergent views on strategic air power generated acrimonious disputes that came close to nullifying the “firepower” boast Ike had made to Gerow. True, even the most enthusiastic proponents of strategic air power, such as the U.S. Army Air Force’s Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz and the RAF’s Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, agreed that heavy bombers must contribute in some way to OVERLORD. Squabbles over the nature of that contribution, however, nearly ripped the Allied high command apart. Who would command strategic air in OVERLORD? How long would that command arrangement last? What missions would the heavy bombers be expected to carry out?

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Rommel and the Atlantic Wall
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted February 17, 2014

General Montgomery’s revised OVERLORD plan strove to ensure victory by relying on that venerable military principle known as “concentration of force.” Even more essential, however, were the tenets of secrecy and surprise: if the Germans figured out where and when the D-Day invasion would take place, even the most brilliant plan’s chance of success would be diminished by an alarming factor.

Once the Anglo-American high command agreed in August 1943 that Morgan’s OVERLORD scheme would be the Allies’ chief military operation of 1944, keeping the invasion plan secret for nine or more months would be a formidable challenge. Still more disquieting was the determination by Allied intelligence in early 1944 that the Germans were energetically enlarging their armies in western Europe and bolstering the coastal defenses of their “Atlantic Wall.” True, Adolf Hitler possessed only meager talents as a military strategist, but he had correctly deduced the Allies’ intent more than a year before D-Day when he warned his generals, “A major landing of the enemy in the West would bring us to a generally critical position.” In a November 3, 1943, directive, Hitler avowed, “Only an all-out effort in the construction of fortifications, an unsurpassed effort that will enlist all available manpower and physical resources of Germany and the occupied areas, will be able to strengthen our defenses along the coast within the short time that still appears to be left to us. . . . Should the enemy nevertheless force a landing by concentrating his armed might, he must be hit by the full fury of our counterattack. . . . I expect that all agencies will make a supreme effort toward utilizing every moment of the remaining time in preparing for the decisive battle in the West.”

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Montgomery Tackles OVERLORD
by Joseph Balkoski
Posted February 3, 2014

On New Year’s Day 1944, the two most famous Englishmen of their day drove north toward the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech, Morocco, for a picnic. Winston Churchill considered Marrakech “the most lovely place in the world” and wanted to share with Gen. Bernard Montgomery, late of the legendary Eighth Army, the breathtaking vistas of snowcapped mountains, azure skies, and bloated clouds that Churchill himself had often tried to capture on canvas. It was, Churchill wrote, “an oasis in the vast desert of human conflict,” and after lunch near a “dazzling stream in fresh air and brilliant sunshine,” the troupe pushed up into the hills. Recovering from a bout of pneumonia that had almost killed him, Churchill remained car-bound, but Monty, he recalled, “leaped about the rocks like an antelope.”

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by Joseph Balkoski

Posted January 20, 2014

The name of Dwight Eisenhower will forever be intertwined with the history of D-Day. But for most of 1943, virtually no one, including President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, considered Ike the leading candidate to command that momentous operation. Instead, insiders judged the British Army’s chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, or the U.S. Army chief of staff, George C. Marshall, the best men for the job. Sooner or later Churchill and Roosevelt would have to pick one of those two astute soldiers for the post that was considered so vital that it already had been assigned the lofty title of “supreme commander.”

Even when the Combined Chiefs of Staff accepted Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan’s OVERLORD plan at the August 1943 Quebec conference as the Allies’ foremost military operation of 1944, the supreme commander for whom Morgan was supposed to be working had not been named. By that summer, however, Churchill remarked that the man to whom he had thrice promised the slot, Brooke, would no longer be acceptable to the Americans because of “the very great preponderance of American troops that would be employed after the original landing.” It would have to be an American, avowed the prime minister. Churchill recalled that Brooke “bore the great disappointment with soldierly dignity”; Brooke, however, noted that “the blow . . . took me several months to recover from.”

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