London, England June 4, 1944

Tomorrow, June 5, 1944, a Monday, was to have been the big day, the Allied inva­sion of a 50‑mile stretch of Ger­man-occu­pied beach on the French Nor­mandy coast. The inva­sion of North­western France, code­named Oper­a­tion Over­lord, had been pushed from May, when the weather had been perfect, to June to allow another month’s buildup of landing craft. (There was a world­wide short­age of landing craft at the time.) But gloomy weather reports pre­dicted un­suit­able con­di­tions for an amphi­bi­ous landing in early June: launching landing craft from mother ships in strong winds and high seas would be nigh to im­pos­sible. Supporting Allied war­ships and aircraft would be hampered by low clouds and bad visibility.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Com­mander Allied Expedi­tion­ary Forces, had ten­ta­tively selected June 5 as the start date (D‑Day) for the long-rehearsed assault on Fes­tung Europa. But now he ordered Allied troop con­voys already at sea to take shelter in bays and inlets on the south coast of England for the night. It seemed entirely pos­sible that the cross-Chan­nel inva­sion, which had been more than a year in planning, would have to be delayed two weeks, and the ship­borne troops, para­troopers, and glider-borne infantry­men ready to embark must return to their embar­ka­tion camps on lock­down. In their forced anchor­ages, 130,000 anxious men whiled away the hours playing dice and poker games, attended improvised church services, or kept to themselves.

At meetings late on this date, June 4, and early the next, Overlord’s Scottish meteo­ro­logist, Royal Air Force Group Captain James Stagg, cau­tiously pre­dicted improve­ment for June 6 and part of the next day (a total of 36 hours). British Gen. Bernard Law Mont­gomery, over­all ground com­man­der for the inva­sion, and Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, Eisen­hower’s chief of staff, pressed Eisen­hower to proceed. On the strength of Stagg’s weather fore­cast—the libera­tion of Western Europe quite lit­er­ally hanging on Stagg’s mete­or­ol­o­gical best guess, for that is what it was—Eisen­hower ordered the invasion to proceed one day later, on Tuesday, June 6.

Meanwhile the enemy took comfort from the existing poor weather con­di­tions, which were worse over North­ern France than over the English Chan­nel, and believed no Allied inva­sion was pos­sible for sev­eral days. The Kriegs­marine decided against sending naval patrols into the choppy Chan­nel the night of June 5. Had it done so, it might have detected the Allied flotilla of 277 mine­sweepers heading toward the Normandy coast. Some German troops stood down and many senior offi­cers were away for the week­end. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel—the man entrusted with defending the French coast between Nor­mandy and the Pas-de-Calais—took a few days’ leave to cele­brate his wife’s birth­day back in Germany, while dozens of divi­sion, regi­mental, and bat­ta­lion com­manders were away from their posts con­ducting war games and a map exer­cise at Rennes, 90 miles away, just prior to the inva­sion. Their absence and those of large armored units and Luft­waffe squad­rons close by meant that the 24‑hour period Rommel had given himself to defeat the invaders had no chance of happening.

Carlo D’Este’s Decision in Normandy provides stunning insight into the Allied high com­mand during the 1944 Normandy Cam­paign. What makes D’Este’s account of British General (later Field Marshal) Bernard Law Mont­gomery’s leader­ship so effec­tive is his analy­sis of the historio­graphy that has muddied the waters of Normandy for histo­rians. D’Este reveals how the poli­tical cli­mate of post­war Europe forced Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Com­mander, Allied Expedi­tion­ary Forces, to up­hold the myth (in D’Este’s eyes) that Monty, in com­mand of all Allied ground forces, had been the archi­tect of vic­tory in the Normandy Cam­paign. Harboring presi­dential am­bit­ions, Ike was unwilling to upset Anglo-Ameri­can rela­tions in the atmo­sphere of the Cold War by criti­cizing Britain’s most beloved general. D’Este there­fore demon­strates how the counter­argument was sup­pressed by the very man who had the most cause to criti­cize Monty. Indeed, after having pro­mised far-reaching results, Opera­tion Good­wood (July 18–20, 1944), a British opera­tion east of Caen and just south of the Normandy beach­heads, failed to achieve the break­through Mont­gomery had promised his boss. Eisen­hower evidently came close to losing his patience with Mont­gomery over this, exclaiming that “only seven miles were gained—can we afford to drop a thou­sand tons of bombs per mile?” Besides his fas­ci­nating analysis of the history of Monty’s leader­ship as well as the prob­lems that plagued him (a short­age of infan­try reserves, the inade­quacy of British tank design, and the offi­ciousness of Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill), D’Este proves how in reality the British Army cannot be said to have played the key role in liberating Normandy.—John Merrington

Erwin Rommel: Planning the Defense of Festung Europa, January–May 1944

Rommel (left) and von Rundstedt (middle), Paris, December 1943 Normandy on eve of D-Day: Rommel (right) and Chief of Staff on inspection tour, April 1944

Left: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (left, age 52) and Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief West Gerd von Rund­stedt (center, nicknamed the “old Prussian”) at a staff con­fer­ence in Paris, Decem­ber 19, 1943. The 68‑year-old von Rund­stedt had respon­si­bili­ties for France, Belgium, and the Nether­lands. Hitler sent Rommel to von Rund­stedt to pre­pare plans and make sug­ges­tions for the best ways of strength­ening the coastal defenses of the Atlan­tic Wall. Rommel’s entire staff, over 200 offi­cers and men from Army Group B, trekked much of the length the Atlan­tic Wall from Pas-de-Calais, imme­di­ately oppo­site the port city of Dover on the English coast, to Nor­mandy further south in early 1944 right through the end of May.

Right: Rommel (right) and his chief of staff Lt. Gen. Hans Spei­del use a map to inspect poten­tial inva­sion beaches at Pas-de-Calais, April 18, 1944. Von Rundstedt, like almost all German gen­erals, believed that the Pas-de-Calais, where the con­ti­nent was closest to England (just over 20 miles away) and the sea voy­age short and air opera­tions over the landing beaches sim­pler, was the most likely site for the anti­ci­pated Allied inva­sion. (The ill-fated August 1942 Dieppe Raid by 6,000 Cana­dian and British com­mandos [Opera­tion Jubilee] had taken place there.) The Allies’ bril­liant decep­tion plans, which included false radio traffic and dummy vehicles, artil­lery, and air­craft from phantom field armies in Scot­land and England, rein­forced that belief in 1943–1944. Intui­tion led Hitler to think Nor­mandy was where the inva­sion would come, but he, too, believed that the Pas-de-Calais was the Schwer­punkt, prin­ci­pal target. Hitler con­tinued to believe that for more than a week after D‑Day, need­lessly tying down badly needed German divi­sions in the Calais area. By D+10 (June 16), it was too late to contain the Allied beachheads at Normandy.

Normandy on eve of D-Day: Rommel (hands in front) near Caen, May 30, 1944 Normandy on eve of D-Day: Rommel (left) near Sword Beach, end of May 1944

Left: Rommel inspecting troops and a half-track trans­porter of the newly intro­duced 80mm multi-barrel roc­ket launcher (Nebel­werfer) at Riva Bella in Nor­mandy near Caen, May 30, 1944, a week before the cross-Channel invasion. The “Screaming Meemies,” named for the eerie screech the elec­troni­cally fired rockets made in flight, were the most fear­some wea­pon the Allies faced during the Nor­mandy Campaign. The projectiles had a range exceeding 7,500 yards.

Right: Rommel and an officer observe artil­lery shells shot from coastal bat­teries falling into the sea at Riva Bella, about 10 miles north of Caen in the area that would become Sword Beach, the eastern­most D‑Day landing site, end of May 1944. German coastal bat­teries ranged in size from 75mm to massive 380mm guns. Rommel was keenly aware from studying previous Allied amphib­ious opera­tions that once the enemy had secured a beachhead, it was impossible for the defenders to repel him.

German Newsreel Showing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel Inspecting Atlantic Wall Defenses, January 1944 (in German)