Southwick House, Southeast England June 4, 1944

Tomorrow, June 5, 1944, a Monday, was to have been an epic day—the day Allied forces invaded a 50‑mile stretch of Ger­man-occu­pied beach on the French Nor­mandy coast. The cross-Chan­nel inva­sion of North­western France, code­named Oper­a­tion Over­lord, had been pushed from May, when there had been roughly 18 days of near-perfect weather, 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 make-or-break 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 at Eisen­hower’s forward com­mand post near Ports­mouth, South­east England, Over­lord’s 43‑year-old Scottish meteo­ro­logist Group Captain James Stagg of the Royal Air Force and his deputy U.S. Army Air Forces Col. Donald Yates cau­tiously pre­dicted improve­ment for June 6 and part of June 7. The second day was cru­cial for pro­tecting and resup­plying the landing zones. 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 and Yates’s pre-invasion weather fore­cast—the liber­a­tion of West­ern Europe quite lit­er­ally hanging on the mete­or­ol­o­gical team’s best guess in an era with­out weather satel­lites, weather radars, and sophis­ti­cated com­puter fore­casting—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 France than over the English Chan­nel, and believed no Allied inva­sion was pos­sible for sev­eral days. (Lucky for the Allies that German mete­o­rol­ogists could no longer harvest weather data from hidden sta­tions in Green­land and ships in the North Atlantic that detected the brief inter­val of improved weather the Stagg-Yates team had pre­dicted.) Brutal winds and torrents of rain grounded the few Luft­waffe recon air­craft still left in North­western France. Sim­i­larly, down­pours, choppy Channel waters, and heavy swells deterred the Kriegs­marine from dis­patching patrol boats from their safe moorings. Had the service done so on the night of June 5, it might have detected the ini­tial Allied flo­tilla of over 290 mine­sweepers, followed by 1,200‑plus war­ships and 1,500 landing craft (figures vary greatly) heading toward the Normandy coast.

Some German troops stood down and many senior offi­cers were away for the week­end. Even Marshal Erwin Rommel—the man entrusted with defending the French coast between Nor­mandy and the Pas-de-Calais—sneaked in a few days of sanc­tioned leave to unwind and cele­brate his wife’s 50th 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 in Brittany, 120 miles south of the Normandy beaches, 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 and the 100,000 men under his com­mand 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, November 1943 to June 1944

l-r: Rommel, von Rundstedt, Zimmermann, Paris, January 13, 1944Normandy on eve of D-Day: Rommel (right) and Chief of Staff Hans Speidel on inspection tour, April 18, 1944

Left: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (left, age 52), Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief West (Ober­fehls­haber West, OB West) Gerd von Rund­stedt (center, nick­named the “old Prus­sian”), and Lt. Gen. Bodo Zimmer­mann, Rund­stedt’s oper­a­tions offi­cer at a staff con­fer­ence in Paris, Janu­ary 13, 1944. The 68‑year-old von Rund­stedt had oper­a­tional respon­si­bili­ties for Wehr­macht forces in France, Bel­gium, and the Nether­lands. Hitler sent Rommel to von Rund­stedt in early Novem­ber 1943 to pre­pare plans and make sug­ges­tions for the best ways of strength­ening the coastal defenses of the Atlan­tic Wall. Rommel and many on his staff, over 200 offi­cers and men from Army Group B, con­sisting of the Seventh and Fif­teenth armies, trudged the length the Atlan­tic Wall from Pas-de-Calais (since 2016 part of Hauts-de-France), imme­di­ately oppo­site the English port city of Dover, to Normandy and Brit­tany and further south along the coast of the Bay of Biscay 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 the German Mili­tary High Com­mand (Ober­kom­mando der Wehr­macht, OKW) and almost all German gen­erals, believed that the Pas-de-Calais (French name of the Dover Strait), where the con­ti­nent was closest to England (at one point 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 and much of 1944. Intui­tion led Hitler to think Nor­mandy was where the inva­sion would come. The OKW, in a May 10 sum­mary, appears to have agreed that the Schwer­punkt (prin­ci­pal target) was Normandy, followed by nearby Brittany, not Pas-de-Calais. Hitler hedged his bets, though: for more than a week after D‑Day, he need­lessly tied 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, 1944Normandy on eve of D-Day: Rommel (left) and Gen. Erich Marcks, Seventh Army, near Sword Beach, May 9, 1944

Left: Rommel at a special weapons demonstration of self-propelled artil­lery, tank destroyers, and other mili­tary hard­ware at the Riva Bella bat­tery next to the Orne estu­ary, May 30, 1944, a week before the cross-Channel inva­sion. Riva Bella was about 10 miles north of Caen in the area that would become Sword Beach, the eastern­most D‑Day landing site. In the distance behind Rommel (hands folded in front) is a jury-rigged French half-track trans­porter of the newly intro­duced 80mm multi-barrel roc­ket launcher. The “Screaming Mee­mies,” named for the eerie screech the elec­troni­cally fired 80mm rockets made in flight, were the most fear­some wea­pon the Allies faced during the Nor­mandy Cam­paign. The whooshing pro­jec­tiles had a range exceeding 7,500 yards. Twelve days earlier Rom­mel had given Major Alfred Becker and the enter­prising group respon­si­ble for manu­fac­turing the unique mobile rocket launchers a pro­duc­tion order for a thou­sand to be delivered in short order.

Right: Rommel and Gen. Erich Marcks, Seventh Army, 84th Infan­try Corps observe artil­lery shells shot from coastal bat­teries falling into the sea at Riva Bella, May 9, 1944. German coastal bat­teries ranged in size from 75mm to mas­sive 380mm guns. Less than a month later, on June 3, Marcks groused to Rommel that the defen­sive con­struc­tion pro­gram in his zone in Normandy (it turned out to be the D‑Day inva­sion beaches) was only half done. For example, high-tide obsta­cles were mostly in place but low-tide obsta­cles were prac­ti­cally non­exis­tent; omi­nously, German intel­li­gence reported that the Allies had recently prac­ticed low-tide landings. The pre­vious sum­mer Rommel, in his role as a “milit­ary advisor” to Adolf Hitler at the Fuehrer’s East Prus­sian head­quarters, argued for with­drawing all 2.6 mil­lion German sol­diers on Germany’s Eastern Front behind a “suit­able pre­pared line” of forti­fied posi­tions and avoiding any new offen­sives against the Soviet Union “for the next few years.” Less worried about surren­dering the stra­te­gic initi­ative to the Red Army for several years was the thought that his coun­try could wind up fighting on two fronts: “Our main effort must be directed toward beating off any attempt of the Western Allies to create a second front . . . If we can once make their efforts fail,” he explained to his former chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayer­lein, “then things will be brighter for us” when Germany can again con­cen­trate on a single front. 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. “The war will be won or lost on the beaches,” Rommel told anyone with two ears to listen.

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