Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We ask an expert on a particular topic to recommend five books on that topic and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.
June 6 will mark the seventy-ninth anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II. To mark the occasion, we asked retired Lieutenant Colonel ML Cavanaugh to contribute this edition of War Books. He earned his PhD from the University of Reading (UK), where his research on supreme command including a deep focus on Dwight D. Eisenhower, the overall commander of the D-Day invasion and the Allied war effort in Europe. We gave him the following prompt: What would you recommend for readers to better understand Eisenhower and the leadership lessons from his World War II experience as supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force?
At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, by Dwight D. Eisenhower
I was a cadet when I fell for Ike. It was during CTLT (cadet troop leader training, on-the-job training for soon-to-be second lieutenants) at Fort Riley, Kansas, in the summer of 2000. I had a day off. I drove a little over a half hour to Abilene—the location of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. At the end of my tour, I picked up a copy of At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, and I was hooked. His writing draws you in, sits you down, commands your ears and mind. You just know this guy was a general and president. I read the book under a red lens in the field and brought it home with a cover of mud. I still remember that book, decades later. It was my gateway drug to Ike, and it may be for you too.
Time passes, as it does, and in 2013 I took on a PhD dissertation. So what topic did I pick? Supreme military command, and remembering my affinity for Ike, I studied his thought process in command. It was hard work. Hard work. I remember sitting for hours in the West Point Library, just me in an empty corner, trying to live up to Robert Caro’s advice to “turn every page.” (I just may have.) Now and again, I struck gold—like a particular exchange between Marshall and Eisenhower. The issue was over where to drop the airborne component of the Normandy landings (a.k.a. Operation Overlord).
Here’s a selection from Marshall’s memo, “To Dwight D. Eisenhower, February 10, 1944,” in volume four of his personal papers:
My dear Eisenhower: Up to the present time I have not felt that we have properly exploited air power as regards its combination with ground troops. We have lacked planes, of course, in which to transport men and supplies, but our most serious deficiency I think has been a lack in conception. Our procedure has been a piecemeal proposition with each commander grabbing at a piece to assist his particular phase of the operation, very much as they did with tanks and as they tried to do with the airplane itself. It is my opinion that we now possess the means to give a proper application to this phase of air power in a combined operation.
I might say that it was my determination in the event I went to England to do this, even to the extent that should the British be in opposition I would carry it out exclusively with American troops. I am not mentioning this as pressure on you but merely to give you the idea of my own conclusions in the matter.
As he had originally been the top contender to command the invasion, Marshall’s thoughts on the subject likely carried heavy significance for Eisenhower. Marshall felt so strongly on the matter that he assigned three officers from his personal staff to study the issue, who generated three options for the use of airborne troops at Normandy. Of the three, Marshall preferred “Plan C,” which, he described:
Establishes an air-head in keeping with my ideas on the subject, one that can be quickly established and developed to great strength in forty-eight hours. The area generally south of Evreux [200 kilometers inland from Normandy and 100 kilometers to Paris] has been selected because of four excellent airfields.
This plan appeals to be me because I feel that it is a true vertical envelopment and would create such a strategic threat to the Germans that it would call for a major revision of their defensive plans. It should be a complete surprise, an invaluable asset of any such plan. It would directly threaten the crossings of the Seine as well as the city of Paris. It should serve as a rallying point for considerable elements of the French underground.
In effect, we would be opening another front in France and your build-up would be tremendously increased in rapidity. The trouble with this plan is that we have never done anything like this before, and frankly, that reaction makes me tired. Therefore I should like you to give these young men an opportunity to present the matter to you personally before your Staff tears it to ribbons. Please believe that, as usual, I do not want to embarrass you with undue pressure. I merely wish to be certain that you have viewed this possibility on a definite planning basis.
Marshall’s vision for airborne drops was to send them two-thirds of the way to Paris. US Army Air Forces commander General Hap Arnold concurred with Marshall on this plan to threaten Paris. However, on both counts of the proposal, the objective and placement, Eisenhower disagreed and considered the option ill-advised. Nine days after Marshall’s memorandum was signed, Eisenhower responded with polite, yet firm, disagreement. (“[Entry] 1558, February 19, 1944, To George Catlett Marshall, Secret,” in volume three of Eisenhower’s personal papers):
My initial reaction to the specific proposal is that I agree thoroughly with the conception but disagree with the timing. Mass in vertical envelopments is sound—but since this kind of an enveloping force is immobile on the ground, the collaborating force must be strategically and tactically mobile. So the time for mass vertical envelopment is after the beach-head has been gained and a striking force built up. . . .
As I see it, the first requisite is for the Expeditionary Force to gain a firm and solid footing on the Continent and to secure at least one really good sheltered harbor. . . .
[T]he initial crisis of the Campaign will be the struggle to break through beach defenses, exploit quickly to include a port and be solidly based for further operations. To meet this first tactical crisis I intend to devote everything that can be profitably used, including airborne troops. . . .
The second consideration that enters my thinking on this problem is expressed in the very first sentence of your letter, in the phrase ‘air power as regards its combination with ground troops.’ . . .
Whatever the conditions in other Theaters of War, the one here that we must never forget is the enemy’s highly efficient facilities for concentration of ground troops at any particular point. This is especially true in the whole of France and in the Low Countries. Our bombers will delay movement, but I cannot conceive of enough air power to prohibit movement on the network of roads throughout northwest France. . . . We must arrange all our operations so that no significant part of our forces can be isolated and defeated in detail. . . .
An airborne landing carried out at too great a distance from other forces which will also be immobile for some time, will result in a much worse situation. . . .
All of the above factors tend to compel the visualization of airborne operations as an immediate tactical rather than a long-range strategical adjunct of landing operations.
This reveals Eisenhower’s judgment in operation. His priority was to gain a solid foothold in Europe. He determined that Marshall’s advice would result in immobile, isolated targets for German mobile reserves. The airborne troops in this operation were to be used in support of, and not as a separately independent effort from, the landings in Normandy.
And just like that, buried in a dusty couple books—we get a glimpse into a supreme commander’s decision in action.
Crusade in Europe, by Dwight D. Eisenhower
On May 30, 1944, Operation Overlord’s air component commander, a well-respected British air chief marshal, told Eisenhower the airborne drops wouldn’t work and that he expected an estimated 70 percent casualties. The drops would be combat ineffective. Eisenhower thanked his British subordinate for the frank assessment and thought very hard on the matter. His contemporaneous war diary notes on the subject later became the basis for his postwar memoir, Crusade in Europe:
[The] old question of the wisdom of the airborne operation into the Cherbourg peninsula was not yet fully settled in Air Chief Marshal [Trafford] Leigh-Mallory’s mind. Later, on May 30, he came to me to protest once more against what he termed the “futile slaughter” of two fine divisions. He believed that the combination of unsuitable landing grounds and anticipated resistance was too great a hazard to overcome. This dangerous combination was not present in the area on the left where the British airborne division would be dropped and casualties there were not expected to be abnormally severe, but he estimated that among the American outfits we would suffer some seventy per cent losses and glider strength and at least fifty per cent in paratroop strength before the airborne troops could land. Consequently the divisions would have no remaining tactical power and the attack would not only result in the sacrifice of many thousand men but would be helpless to effect the outcome of the general assault.
Leigh-Mallory was, of course, earnestly sincere. He was noted for personal courage and was merely giving me, as was his duty, his frank convictions. . . .
It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-racking problem. If my technical expert was correct, then the planned operation was worse than stubborn folly, because even at the enormous cost predicted we would not gain the principal object of the drop. Moreover, if he was right, it appeared that the attack on Utah Beach was probably hopeless, and this meant that the whole operation suddenly acquired a degree of risk, even foolhardiness, that presaged a gigantic failure, possibly Allied defeat in Europe.
To protect him in case his advice was disregarded, I instructed the air commander to put his recommendations in a letter and informed him he would have my answer in a few hours. I took the problem to no one else. Professional advice and counsel could do no more.
I went to my tent alone and sat down to think. Over and over I reviewed each step, somewhat in the sequence set down here, but more thoroughly and exhaustively. I realized, of course, that if I deliberately disregarded the advice of my technical expert on the subject, and his predictions should prove accurate, then I would carry to my grave the unbearable burden of a conscience justly accusing me of the stupid, blind sacrifice of thousands of the flower of our youth. Outweighing any personal burden, however, was the possibility that if he were right the effect of the disaster would be far more than local: it would be likely to spread to the entire force.
Nevertheless, my review of the matter finally narrowed the critical points to these:
If I should cancel the airborne operation, then I had either to cancel the attack on Utah Beach or I would condemn the assaulting forces there to even greater probability of disaster than was predicted for the airborne divisions. If I should cancel the Utah attack I would so badly disarrange elaborate plans as to diminish chances for success elsewhere and to make later maintenances perhaps impossible. Moreover, in long and calm consideration of the whole great scheme we had agreed that the Utah attack was an essential factor in prospects for success. To abandon it really meant to abandon a plan in which I had held explicit confidence for more than two years.
Finally, Leigh-Mallory’s estimate was just an estimate, nothing more, and our experience in Sicily and Italy did not, by any means, support his degree of pessimism. Bradley, with Ridgway and other airborne commanders, had always supported me and the staff in the matter, and I was encouraged to persist in the belief that Leigh-Mallory was wrong!
I telephoned him that the attack would go as planned and that I would confirm this at once in writing.
In the end, though the drops were scattered, they provided successful support to the invasion. Eisenhower later said the airborne casualty figures were about eight percent. He also recorded that when the beachhead was secure, Leigh-Mallory “was the first to call me to voice his delight and to express his regret the he had found it necessary to add to my personal burdens during the final tense days before D-day.”
“In Case of Failure” note, by Dwight D. Eisenhower
Many will recall the invasion’s never-used failure note, jotted in the hours approaching D-Day. The fact that he wrote it is typically where that basic knowledge ends. But what’s far more impressive is Eisenhower’s self-edit. He intentionally crossed out passive lines in favor of active voice. The first draft read, “The troops have been withdrawn,” which, after his edit, became, “I have withdrawn the troops.” He was willing to take full personal responsibility for failure if it ever came to pass (“If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone”). He stretched his own neck across the guillotine.
“Victory Message,” by Dwight D. Eisenhower
He was ready to lose, but still—when the war was over and the mission complete, Eisenhower chose not to gloat or dwell on the victory. After the formal surrender was signed, his chief of staff recalled,
The staff prepared various drafts of a victory message appropriate to the historic event. I tried one myself and, like all my associates, groped for resounding phrases as fitting accolades to the Great Crusade and indicative of our dedication to the great task just completed. General Eisenhower rejected them all, with thanks but without other comment, and wrote his own. It read: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.”
Guildhall Address, delivered by Dwight D. Eisenhower in London, June 12, 1945
This one makes you tear up. You can listen to it as well, if you prefer, as it was recorded for posterity. When you read this, remember, Eisenhower wrote this himself. He agonized over it. It’s hard to fathom that quality of thought in a general, but then again, this guy was far, far more than just any general. Read below and see what I mean.
Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends. Conceivably a commander may have been professionally superior. He may have given everything of his heart and mind to meet the spiritual and physical needs of his comrades. He may have written a chapter that will glow forever in the pages of military history.
Still, even such a man—if he existed—would sadly face the facts that his honors cannot hide in his memories the crosses marking the resting places of the dead. They cannot soothe the anguish of the widow, or the orphan, whose husband or father will not return.
ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a retired Army strategist, cofounded the Modern War Institute at West Point, and, as a living kidney donor, serves as the president and chief operating officer of the National Kidney Donation Organization. Follow him on Twitter: @MLCavanaugh.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.