D-Day: Weather, Planning, Luck and Guts

  1. June 4th, 2024  | 

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Published in Accountability, Event, Leadership, Organization Health, Problem Solving, Reputation

Thursday marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day. This post is an excerpt from Greg Bustin’s Decision Time: Inspiration, Insight & Wisdom from History’s Make-or-Break Moments. 

That the Allied invasion of Europe was imminent was no secret to the Germans.

The secret was when and where.

Invasion planning began in May 1943, months before Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was named Supreme Commander.

Ike liked to quote an old Army maxim: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything, recognizing nothing is “going to happen the way you are planning it.”

Yet he emphasized, “This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success.”

“Everything we have” meant the Allied preparation was unprecedented with more men, more ships, more planes, more equipment and matériel than had ever been assembled for a single assault. Thousands of questions had been asked, answered and scrutinized. By June 1944, the colossal preparation included:

  • 1,108 Allied camps in England
  • 163 new airbases built in England
  • 11,590 aircraft
  • Nearly 1,000 trains built with 20,000 tankers
  • 6,939 seagoing vessels

But on June 5, 1944, the worst weather in twenty years was wreaking havoc on months of planning, the lives of hundreds of thousands of military personnel, the world’s destiny and the nerves of commanders on both sides of the English Channel.

Weeks earlier, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commanding more than five hundred thousand German troops in France, wrote his wife, “Here the tension is growing from day to day . . . ”

About the same time, General Dwight Eisenhower, commanding nearly three million Allied troops, wrote to his son, “No other war in history has so definitely lined up the forces of arbitrary oppression and dictatorship against those of human rights and individual liberty.”

World War II’s outcome hung in the balance.

Now on June 5, 1944, Ike faced the free world’s biggest decision.

To go or not to go.

He postponed the Allied invasion the day before due to bad weather. Now he had to decide again. To go or not to go.

Tonight, the decision sending thousands of men to France rested solely on Eisenhower’s shoulders. He appeared to be “bowed down with worry . . . as though each of the four stars on either shoulder weighed a ton.”

Despite meticulous planning examining every scenario and expecting events to not go as planned, the world’s biggest invasion came down to one thing that could not be planned: the weather.

The weather tormented Eisenhower.

Paratroopers needed moonlight. The army needed calm tides to land its men and inwardly blowing winds to clear smoke from shelling. Everyone wanted long daylight hours, plus another three days of clear weather after D-Day to expedite arrivals of men and supplies.

Just three months of 1944 met these requirements. On May 17, Ike decided only three days in June—the 5th, 6th and 7th—were suitable, and the previous night, he had called off the invasion scheduled for June 5. He had two days left.

Another postponement risked discovery by the Germans, enabling them to answer “when”—now!—and “where”—Normandy, not the Pas de Calais as Hitler and others thought.

On June 5, at exactly 9:30 p.m., Eisenhower’s chief meteorologist Group Captain James Martin Stagg opened the briefing. He and his team had no satellites, no weather radar, no computer modeling to rely on—but they were good and Ike trusted them. They were asked to predict the timing, track, strength and distance of storms.

Stagg announced “some rapid and unexpected developments” that added up to a break in the weather.

Ike polled his commanders.

It was still a huge gamble, yet all said, “Go.”

Only Ike could make the decision. One general noted “the isolation and loneliness” of Ike as “he sat, hands clasped before him, looking down at the table”; some said two minutes passed, others said as many as five.

Then Eisenhower looked up and said slowly, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is.”

In the final hours of June 5, Eisenhower wrote a short statement taking responsibility for the failure of the operation, just as he had done before each amphibious operation he ordered. He planned to destroy the draft upon the operation’s successful conclusion. The statement he wrote was never destroyed:

         Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have
         failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have
         withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this
         time and place was based upon the best information
         available. 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.

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Eisenhower watched as the first of eight hundred eighty-two planes carrying thirteen thousand men took off for France. Tears filled his eyes.

Meanwhile, German leaders were fighting two wars: one with the Allies, the other with Hitler’s mercurial temperament that fueled his erratic decision-making.

The leadership styles of these two men were strikingly different: Eisenhower’s talent for getting results was built on trust, collaboration and empowerment. Hitler distrusted his generals and, as a result, micromanaged them. He believed he was infallible, despite his poor decision-making, especially surrounding key turning points during the final days of World War II.

Hitler and most German officers believed the Allies would not attack in weather this bad. They were wrong.

Hitler had ordered a military exercise in Rennes, a two-hour drive from Normandy’s beaches, so there were no senior officers on the front.

The Luftwaffe had only one hundred eighty-three fighter planes in France, and one hundred twenty-four were transferred from the coast the day before the invasion. And sixteen thousand two hundred forty-two seasoned Panzer troops were on alert twenty-five miles (forty km) southeast of Caen, awaiting Hitler’s personal order.

Hitler retired for the night as the first Allied paratroopers were dropping into France. Hitler’s aide, Admiral Karl Jesko von Puttkamer, found initial reports “extremely vague” and “feared that if I woke him at this time he might start one of his endless nervous scenes which often led to the wildest decisions.”

It was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s Third Reich.

How is your behavior as a leader preventing you from getting the best information, the most honest input, and the wisest counsel from those you count on most?

Ike made the tough decision to win the Allies’ Great Crusade.

What tough decisions must you make to win yours?

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises some of the world’s most admired companies and leaders, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 250 strategic planning sessions, he’s delivered more than 600 keynotes and workshops on every continent except Antarctica, and he coaches leaders who are inspired to take their career to the next level. His fourth leadership book— Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture (McGraw-Hill) —is a Soundview Executive Best Business Book.


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