(Many thanks to Mike Ellis-Smith for this article.)
The summer weather in southern England and in the English Channel was wet and stormy. Rain streamed down over the vast encampments in Sussex and Hampshire where more than a quarter of a million young men waited for the signal to embark on the greatest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare. It was Monday 5th June 1944. The wall clock of Southwick Manor House, five miles north of Portsmouth, showed the time: 14h00. Built in 1800, the three-story Georgian house was the ideal meeting place for the matter under discussion.
The seven men at the table faced a decision – Go or Postpone again? In ports along the coast of Dorset and Hampshire, seven thousand vessels waited to head southwards across the English Channel to five beaches in Normandy; code named: Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold, and Juno. On airfields across the southeast counties of England, more than 800 bomber aircraft each carrying paratroopers and towing a glider, carrying twelve men, waited for the signal to “Go!”
The invasion, code named Operation Overlord, had already been delayed. Bad weather in the Channel spelled danger for the thousands of the low freeboard landing craft that could easily be swamped by stormy seas. Tomorrow morning at 06h30 the tide at the beaches would be at its lowest, exposing the iron girders, spikes, mines, and obstacles placed by the Germans to prevent allied landings. The next occasion the tide would drop this low would be in a month’s time, which would allow German Field Marshal Rommel, to further strengthen the defences of the shoreline against possible invasion. Do we go or do we delay? The men round the table, were undecided.
At 14h15 the Met Officer entered the room with the latest weather report. A weak high-pressure zone would be passing over the Channel in the early hours before dawn the next day; this would lessen the severity of the storm. But its effects would be weak and short-lived. The clock showed the time to be 14h20. Opinions and experience swayed back and forth. Go or stay? Decision time was nearing and the voting around the table was still inconclusive. Yet everyone round the table knew that only one man could give the final word, to go or stay. He was the Supreme Allied Commander, a West Point graduate, and a four-star general. His name: Dwight D Eisenhower. The decision had to be reached by 14h30. It was going to be a long, stormy crossing to Normandy. Finally, at 14h28 Eisenhower, a chain-smoker, stubbed out his cigarette and looked down the table at the senior men. He had made his decision. “Ike” as he was known, cleared his throat. “Gentlemen; we go.”
In front of each of the men was a field telephone that would connect them to harbours and airfields across southern England. The men dialled through to the command posts, who in turn passed on the order further down the line. The greatest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare had begun. After months and months of training, planning, preparation, and phony messages to confuse the enemy, the army, navy, and air force were on the move at last. Over the next two days, hundreds of thousands of men would step ashore onto the mainland of Nazi occupied Europe. Many would die while attempting to do so. Bitter fighting across France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany would follow.
The rest is well-recorded history. The war in Europe ended on May 8th, 1945 and has become known as VE Day. The war in the Far East continued until August 1945 with the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In January 1953 Eisenhower, in a landslide victory, became the 34th President of the United States. He served two terms in office until January 1961, to be succeeded by John F Kennedy. After Eisenhower’s retirement from the White House, his biographer asked him: “What was the biggest decision you ever had to take in your lifetime, either as a soldier or as a politician?” Ike was silent for a moment.
“The biggest decision ever: to Go – to begin the D-Day landing, despite the weather, the rough sea and the terrible loss of life that would be bound to follow once the troops reached the landing beaches.” His biographer made some notes, then looked up with his final question.
“Sir, how did you know it was the right decision?”
Eisenhower smiled thinly; shook his head and replied: “In my life I have learned one truth; it is this: make a decision. Don’t ask, is the decision right or wrong? Because it doesn’t really matter. See, perhaps there is no such thing as the right decision; what’s more important is that once you’ve made it, you make the decision right.”
Author’s Note: This story naturally raises the question – Is there such a thing as the “right decision?” and does it matter? Some decisions are so obviously wrong, that even without the benefit of hindsight, one can tell that they were badly made. However, I have always felt that Eisenhower’s philosophy of not second-guessing one’s own logic is the courageous one and is frequently the best. Make the decision, and after that, it doesn’t really matter. Hang in there, you’ve done your best. And now make the decision right.
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