In the final years of World War II, both the Allied and Axis Powers knew that there was no chance of defeating Hitler without cracking his grasp on Western Europe, and both sides knew that Northern France was the obvious target for an amphibious assault. Hitler’s army seemed to be everywhere. That said, the Allied forces knew they had to come up with a way to “fool” the leader of the Third Reich. Hitler arrogantly thought that he knew what the Allied forces were planning, and that was the best way to create his downfall. The German high command assumed the Allies would cross from England to France at the narrowest part of the channel and land at Pas-de-Calais. The Allies used that to their advantage and decided on the beaches of Normandy…some 200 miles to the west. The beaches of Normandy could be taken as they were, but if the Germans added to their defense by moving their reserve infantry and panzers to Normandy from their garrison in the Pas-de-Calais region, the invasion would be a disaster.
In what would become an ingenious plan, the Allied intelligence services created two fake armies to keep the Germans on their toes. One would wonder how they proposed to pull that off. The Allies created two “Ghost Armies.” One would be based in Scotland to create a supposed invasion of Norway and the other headquartered in southeast England to threaten the Pas-de-Calais. While the operation in Scotland relied mainly on fake radio traffic and the feeding of false information to double agents to create the impression of a substantial army, the southern “Ghost Army” had to seem much more real. The fortitude South was well within the range of prying German ears and eyes, so fake chatter alone would be uncovered too quickly. It had to look and sound like a substantial army was building up in southeast England. They needed boots on the ground there, without actually using too much of their precious manpower. That seems like a monumental task.
Enter George and his imaginary men. Patton was put in charge of leading a fake army, commonly known as the “Ghost Army” as part of a massive counterintelligence operation preceding D-Day. The “Ghost Army” was an army of inflatable tanks, rubber airplanes, and fake radio signals designed to trick the German army. The mission was insanely successful. The “Ghost Army” was a United States Army tactical deception unit used during World War II officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. The 1100-man unit was given a unique mission within the Allied Army. Their orders…impersonate other Allied Army units to deceive the enemy. It was simple, but it wouldn’t be easy.
By the evening of June 6, 1944, in what would become known as D-Day, the First Army landed at Normandy. The battle was on, and without the extra troops Hitler might have sent if he wasn’t misled so completely. By June 23, 1945, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was on its way home after having served with four US armies through England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. During their tenure, they put on what many would call a “traveling road show” utilizing inflatable tanks, sound trucks, fake radio transmissions, scripts, and pretense. They staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions, often operating very close to the front lines. While their missions and their work were amazing, their story was kept secret for more than 40 years after the war, until it was declassified in 1996.
There were a number of events that took place on June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day. The areas of the Allied attack were miles away from each other. Early that morning, the Allies dropped thousands of allied paratroopers behind enemy lines in anticipation of the invasion of Normandy. It seems a strange idea to drop them behind enemy lines…like it was a big mistake. Nevertheless, one of the main objectives of the 101st Airborne was to capture the small village of Angoville-au-Plain. Then, when intense fighting broke out over the village, they dropped two American medics, Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, in to set up a medical station in the tiny town church. So, now they had not only had troops behind the lines, but they have medics…without guns behind the lines too.
The plan to take over the village worked quickly and well. United States paratroopers established control of Angoville-au-Plain, but just as quickly, German units counterattacked and forced American troops back. Because of multiple injuries, Wright and Moore stayed behind. Suddenly they found themselves in danger when German soldiers entered the church. At first the German soldiers were hostile to the Americans, but then they realized that the medics were treating their wounded, as well the Allied wounded. The German troops could have attacked the men, and walked away without penalty, but instead, they left, posting a Red Cross flag at the entrance.
The fighting in the area raged on for three days, and the village changed hands several times, but the two medics never missed a beat. Over the course of the three days, they saved 80 lives, including a local teenager. The amazing part of the whole thing wasn’t just that they saved the lives, but also that the German soldiers didn’t kill them in the first place. I’m sure the medics thought that was an amazing thing. The little village of Angoville-au-Plain thought is was amazing too…not just the work of the medics, but also the work of the 101st Airborne. They thought it was amazing enough to make sure it was remembered
Today, all of the stained glass windows in the church (the originals were destroyed in the battle) are tributes to Wright, Moore, and the 101st Airborne. Wright visited the church in 2004, and some of his ashes were spread in Angoville-au-Plain’s cemetery as per his request, following his death on December 21, 2013. Moore passed away on December 7, 2014.
We don’t often think of generals feeling anguish over men lost in the battles they are sent to fight. It’s not that we don’t realize that they feel bad for sending these men into battle, to their possible deaths, even to their probable deaths, because we do. Still, they are the generals, and far above the rank and file…the little guys. Generals, Admirals, the President…could they even realize the consequences of their decisions in the lives of the people under them? I think most of us somehow think that the generals and even the president have no idea how many people they are condemning to death by the orders they give. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
General Eisenhower, known as “Ike” was the one with the final say in the D-Day attack that could potentially take the lives of more than 160,000 men, as well as the possible destruction of nearly 12,000 aircraft, almost 7,000 sea vessels. The attack was supposed to take place on June 5, 1944, but the weather was not cooperative. For the attack to work, several factors had to be optimally in favor of the Allies. Nevertheless, these were factors that could not be controlled by humans. Things like the tides, the moon, and the weather. They needed low tide and bright lunar conditions, limiting the possibilities to just a few days each month. The dates for June 1944 were the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh. It was a very small window, and then the weather on the fifth didn’t cooperate either. If the attack was not launched on one of those dates, Ike would be forced to wait until June 19 to try again. Not only did that mean more deaths because of the German occupation, but keeping the attack secret was harder, the longer they had to wait.
Finally, it looked like June 6, 1944 was going to cooperate. All of his advisors told him that their part was a go. Finally it was time for the final decision…one that belonged only to Eisenhower. He labored over the decision. It was not one where he could decide from his lofty position and never think about it again. He knew that he was sending men to their deaths…to certain death. He couldn’t pass the buck. He couldn’t call a dozen people to see how they felt about it. He had to decide. And so he did. History has argued what his exact words were, some said, “Ok, let ‘er rip.” or “Well, we’ll go” or “All right, we move” or “OK, boys, We will go.” or “We will attack tomorrow.” I don’t suppose it really matters what he said exactly, but rather, it mattered what happened after. We now know that the Allied casualties on June 6 have been estimated at 10,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action. Among those were 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British, and 946 Canadians. It ended with an Allied victory, but it was not without cost…the loss of lives was great. Eisenhower could not “celebrate” the anniversary of D-Day, thinking that it would be like patting himself on the back, but I think that the biggest picture of the weight that the attack placed on Eisenhower was when he was going to a reunion with the 82nd Airborne Division. Upon seeing him, the men stood, cheering and whistling. Reporter Val Lauder had spoken to him, and later watched the news broadcast of the reunion, when her mother noticed something odd. Says Lauder, “My mother, watching with me, said, ‘He’s crying. Why is he crying?’ I said, ‘He’s looking out at a roomful of men he once thought he could be sending to their death.'” That says it all. Ike didn’t just pull the plug and send those men to their deaths…never giving it another thought. The decision haunted him for years, and quite likely the rest of his life.
As the Allies were planning the massive D-Day assault which was intended to end World War II in Europe, some strange “coincidences” happened that almost threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. The planned assault on Normandy, France, in 1944, was to include over 5,000 ships, 1,200 planes, and almost 160,000 men. They were set to invade Europe from the British Isles, when something almost put a stop to it…a series of crossword puzzles. Personally, I hate crossword puzzles. They are boring in my mind, so if I were to find a clue in one, it would likely be a miracle.
The problem began with the Dieppe Raid on August 19th, 1942. Dieppe is also in Normandy, but further North. In Dieppe, over 6,000 Allied troops, mostly from Canada, attacked at 5 AM. “They had four main goals: (1) to prove that it was possible to capture a slice of Nazi-occupied Europe, (2) to boost Allied morale, (3) to gain intelligence, and (4) to destroy coastal defenses and other sensitive installations.” The mission failed miserably, with the loss of, capture of, or retreat of almost 60% of the invading forces by 3 PM. This couldn’t have been just coincidental, and the Allies wanted to know what had happened. It seemed quite likely that the Germans had been warned of the attack. How could this have happened. Somehow, the suspicion fell on The Daily Telegraph, a British paper still in business today. I’m sure there were a number of newspapers over the years that were used to pass coded messages to the enemy. And I guess it would take a spy’s mind to figure it all out. It had to be discreet, because the paper can’t just give advance warning notice to the enemy, but they did (and still do) have a crossword puzzle section. What better avenue for coded messages. The thing that really triggered suspicion was that two days before the Dieppe invasion, the clue, “French port” was given. And the solution was “Dieppe,” given the following day…the day before the invasion. When I think about the 6,000 men that walked into an ambush because of that one puzzle, I feel furious. This wasn’t a coincidence, this was deliberate, and it was criminal.
The intelligence personnel quickly focused on Leonard Sydney Dawe…the headmaster of Strand School, who was responsible for the crossword puzzle. They were surprised to think it might be him, because he was a veteran of World War I. In addition, nothing linked him to Nazi Germany. In the end, MI5 concluded that it was just that a chilling coincidence, but was it…really? The Strand School for boys in south London, which no longer exists, still stuck out as being somehow involved. It was learned that when the Germans began their bombardment of the city in 1939, Strand was moved to Effingham in Surrey, which was close to where many American and Canadian forces were based.
The French invasion was called Operation Overlord. It was to take place on June 5th, 1944 and involve a series of joint sea and air landings along the Normandy coast. Rather than mass themselves at one spot, however, they were to land at five different areas according to nationality. The Americans were to land at two places. The first was on the left bank of the Douve estuary…codenamed Utah Beach. The second was the stretch which included Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, and Vierville-sur-Mer…referred to as Omaha. The British were also given two landing sites – the first along Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to Ouistreham…Sword Beach, as well as the strip from Arromanches-Les-Bains, Le Hamel, and La Rivière…Gold Beach. As for the Canadians, they were assigned the stretch from Courseulles, Saint-Aubin, and Bernières…Juno Beach. To ensure the quick off-loading of cargo, portable bridges called “Mulberry Harbors” were built. Ships would tow these to France, assemble them at sea, then drive equipment onto the beaches.
The massive size of the invasion, made it almost impossible to keep a complete secret from the Germans, so the plan was to keep them guessing as to exactly when and where the invasion would take place. It was then that the Allies launched Operation Bodyguard…a series of diversions which convinced the Germans that Normandy was simply a distraction, while the main invasion was to take place elsewhere. The Germans bought it, they didn’t want to take any chances. As a result, they stretched their forces thin in a desperate attempt to cover all of their bases. To keep them off balance, absolute secrecy was vital.
Then, in February 1944, one of The Daily Telegraph’s crossword answers was “JUNO.” The following month, it was “GOLD,” and the month after that, it was “SWORD.” Coincidence? MI5 thought so. Then, when the next puzzle included the clue, “One of the US,” they began to wonder. The next day, the answer given was “UTAH.” This was really too much, and MI5 was getting worried. As soon as the May 22nd edition came out, MI5 anxiously grabbed a copy. Scanning the crossword section, they found yet another suspicious clue…“Red Indian on the Missouri River.” And what was the answer given the next day? “OMAHA.” Lets just say, they were getting nervous. Still, it got worse. The May 27th edition had another damning clue…“Big-Wig.” And the answer was? “OVERLORD.” The clincher came on June 1…four days before lift-off. The solution to 15 Down was “NEPTUNE.”
Dawe was arrested at his school to the astonishment of the students and staff. They then banned the paper’s next publication in case “DDAY” appeared in the next crossword. The US Coast Guard manned USS LST-21 unloads British Army tanks and trucks onto a “Rhino” barge during the early hours of the invasion on Gold Beach, 6 June 1944. Dawe was released after the invasion but refused to speak about his ordeal till 1958. He admitted that they did turn him “inside-out,” and had D-Day turned into another Dieppe, he might have been shot. Many people thought it was all just a coincidence…at least till 1984 when Ronald French, a former student at Strand, came forward. As it turns out, Dawe didn’t create crossword puzzles. He instead had students arrange words on a grid, and when he was satisfied, provided clues to solve them by. Then he’d send the finished work to the paper, taking credit for the work. According to French and other former students who later came forward, everyone in Surrey knew the code words. It seems that because they all hung around the Americans and Canadians, the words had leaked out. The French didn’t know what the words meant, only that the servicemen often said them. So when told to work on the crossword puzzles, he included the codes. After his release, Dawes confronted French and accused him of putting the entire country at risk, but how had this happened. It seems that despite their own secrecy, the MI5 had apparently forgotten to tell the army to keep their mouths shut. It all came about because when the Allies believed that the war was turning in their favor, the Third Washington Conference…also called the Trident Conference…was held in Washington, DC in May 1943. It was there that plans for an Allied invasion of Sicily, France, and the Pacific were discussed. The careless soldiers that spilled the code words almost cost the Allies the victory. D-Day was a battle that cost the Allies many lives, but it could have been much worse, if the secrets had been passed to the enemy in a way that they could have understood them.
As I have researched the infantry soldiers of World War II, my thought was that I was really thankful that my dad, Allen Spencer was not one of those men on the ground during the fighting. I felt bad for those men who were on the ground, fighting from the foxholes. I still do, because they were in constant danger. Bombs fall from the sky, and bullets fly from across the battlefield. If those things didn’t kill a soldier, the freezing cold, trench foot, or dysentery from the horribly unsanitary conditions could. It seemed that my dad’s situation was by far safer, but now, I’m not so sure that’s true.
The book I had been listening to, that took in World War II from D-Day to The Battle of the Bulge, talked mostly about the ground war, but then at the end, the reader said something that really struck me. It was about the look that crossed the face of a bomber crew’s faces before certain missions…those that would inevitably find the plane flying through flak. The look was one of fear. I knew flak was dangerous, but somehow I didn’t really connect flak with bringing down a plane, or seriously injuring its occupants. Nevertheless, it is quite dangerous for them.
As I researched the dangers of flak, a shocking revelation made itself known. I had written a story about the life expectancy of the ball turret gunner. My findings were that that life expectancy was about 12 seconds. That may be true when one is talking about the prospect of being shot, but when it comes to flak, that cannot be said. Apparently, where flak is concerned, the best place to be is in the plexiglass structure of the ball turret. Plexiglass holds up better against flak than other areas of the plane, so the ball turret gunner is much more protected…at least from flak. The same cannot be said for the bullets flying through the area. I was thankful that my dad was not a ball turret gunner, and that he only filled in as a waist gunner periodically. The waist gunners were in the open, where protection from bullets, and from flak was minimal…at best, non-existent at worst. I can’t imagine how those memories must have affected my dad, but in the book I listened to, the main reason many of the men didn’t want to talk about their experiences in World War II, or any war, was because talking about it brought those memories flooding in again.
After researching flak, and how it works, I can see why the men would get a look of fear on their faces as they prepared to go through areas anti-aircraft weapons shooting flak into the air. Some men said that they could see the red hot glow in the center of the flak, if it was very close. That tells me that it was like a small explosive devise. No wonder it could bring so much damage to a plane. I had known that flak could put holes in the fuselage, but somehow I hadn’t tied that with bringing down a plane. I surmise that it was the B-17 bomber top turret gunner’s daughter in me that wouldn’t allow me to place that danger around my dad. I didn’t want to think about the dangers of his every mission in World War II. My mind seems to have placed his plane in a bubble or a force field, so that no danger could come near him. I think every veteran wonders why they were spared, when others didn’t make it back home. I don’t think anyone can answer that question. As a Christian, I have to credit God for bringing my future dad home.
After World War II, many of the veterans were hesitant to talk about their experiences. My dad, Allen Spencer was one of those men. We were never exactly sure why he didn’t talk about it, but thought that he didn’t want to brag. I don’t really think that was it at all.
While listening to an audiobook called Citizen Soldiers, which covers the D-Day battle and the Battle of the Bulge, it hit me…even before the author said it. The reason soldiers didn’t talk much about war was a deliberate effort to forget. Unfortunately for most of her them, forgetting was impossible. Their minds were filled with haunted memories. The book mostly covers the thoughts of the infantry, but touches on the air war too.
After listening to the author’s account of the battle, I don’t think I could ever forget either, and I wasn’t there. Memories of the 19 year old farm boy away from home for the first time, and not really trained for combat. When the shooting started, he stood up to fire. Other soldiers told him to get down, by it was too late. His first battle had become his last, as an enemy bullet pierced his forehead. The soldiers who witnessed it, felt sick to their stomachs. It was a time when a seasoned veteran was just 22 years old…and he had been made an office when his commanding officer was killed. There weren’t very many of the older men left…and by older I mean 30.
There were memories of a young prisoner of war, packed into a train to the POW camps was singing in his beautiful tenor voice, all the Christmas music he could think of to help raise moral. It was working, but suddenly the trains were under attack. The prisoners couldn’t get out, and the guards had run away. Finally a skinny boy was able to get out through a tiny window. He opened the door to his car and the men moved to free the other prisoners. There was really nowhere to go, but they escaped the attack. Then, the guards came back and loaded them back on the train. When someone asked the tenor to sing some more, they were told that he hadn’t made it back. His sweet voice was forever silenced. The men on the train were silent too…sick at heart.
The fighters in the plane’s overhead knew that it was kill or be killed, but whenever a plane went down, enemy or one of theirs, they counted the parachutes, hoping the men got out alive. For them non the planes dropping bombs, they knew that someone below went to work that day, having no idea tat they would not be returning home again. They had been simple factory workers, just doing what they were told. And what of the missed targets that landed bombs on schools and other civilian locations. The men in the planes above had to live with that. They had done their duty, but it certainly didn’t feel good.
Most people from the Baby Boomer Generation know the significance of D-Day, but it occurs to me that many people in the younger generations may not really know what it was all about. Operation Overlord was the Allied invasion of northern France, commonly known as D-Day. The operation was under the direction of Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The operation had a brief 3 day window in which to take place, and June 5th had been chosen to be the day, but the day dawned gloomy, so the operation had to be scrubbed for the day.
Then on June 6th, the orders came down that Operation Overlord was a go. By daybreak, 18,000 British and American parachutists were already on the ground. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion, among them the B-17, Raggedy Ann, which was carrying my dad, Allen Spencer, who was a Top Turret Gunner and Flight Engineer. At 6:30 am, American troops came ashore at Utah and Omaha beaches. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, as did the Americans at Utah. Omaha beach was a much different situation, however, where the US First Division battled high seas, mist, mines, burning vehicles, and German coastal batteries, including an elite infantry division, which spewed heavy fire. Many wounded Americans ultimately drowned in the high tide. British divisions, which landed at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches, and Canadian troops also met with heavy German fire.
The troops persevered, even though the loses were great, and in the end the operation was declared a victory. There were many reasons that D-Day was successful, even against all odds. The Allies had fooled the Germans, who thought the attack was going to occur farther along the coast at Calais because this was the shortest route by sea, even when the attack began on the beaches Hitler was still convinced the attack was going to occur at Calais. What a shock that must have been when he found out that the attack took place on the beaches of Normandy. False intelligence spread by the allies spread false information to the Germans, and they bought it.
There were many factors that all worked together to make the plan work. Wooden guns on the South Coast of England, wooden planes, dropped plastic dummies out of planes, they put mirrors up on their ships and the Germans were fooled as they saw themselves going the other way. New technology specifically designed for the landing enabled the Allies to gain an advantage over the Germans. Mulberries, the floating docks the Allies used to land, enabled the Allies to land safely and disembark while firing. Some of the beaches were practically empty, however, on Omaha beach the Allies suffered heavy losses numbering 2000 in total. Operation Overlord had been planned for many years and so they were ready. The Germans had to keep control of the other parts of their empires, so their troops were elsewhere. Hitler denied that his forces were losing in Normandy, and would not authorize the mobilization of forces stationed near Normandy.
As for the Allies, the troops involved were highly trained, equipped and motivated. Their battle plan was well prepared. All the necessary manpower and logistics were available to them. The air space was controlled by the Allies. The sea lanes were very short and the seas were in Allied hands. The deception plan was flawless. The Germans had no idea what was coming. The French Resistance was highly effective. The German troop who were there were poorly motivated. Hitler’s Defense Planning was completely flawed. But, the biggest victory is that the troops did their job.
Despite having a domineering father, who was never pleased with anything he did, Edsel Ford, the son of the founder of Ford Motors is mainly remembered for the Edsel, a failed 1958-60 car model. In reality, he was one of the masterminds of the Allied victory in World War II. Against the wishes of his father, Edsel Ford telephones William Knudsen of the U.S. Office of Production Management on June 12, 1940, to confirm Ford Motor Company’s acceptance of Knudsen’s proposal to manufacture 9,000 Rolls-Royce-designed engines to be used in British and United States airplanes. In all, they would build, 9,000 B-24 Liberator bombers, 278,000 Jeeps, 93,000 military trucks, 12,000 armored cars, 3,000 tanks, and 27,000 tank engines, but it was not without a few stumbling blocks. Edsel and Charles Sorensen, Ford’s production chief, had apparently gotten the go-ahead from Henry Ford by June 12, when Edsel telephoned Knudsen to confirm that Ford would produce 9,000 Rolls-Royce Merlin airplane engines (6,000 for the RAF and 3,000 for the U.S. Army). However, as soon as the British press announced the deal, Henry Ford personally and publicly canceled it, telling a reporter: “We are not doing business with the British government or any other government.”
Unlike other automakers, Ford had already built a successful airplane in the 1920s called the Tri-Motor. That fact made them the logical choice when the war effort needed more planes. In two meetings in late May and early June 1940, Knudsen and Edsel Ford agreed that Ford would manufacture the new fleet of aircraft for the RAF on an expedited basis. The one significant obstacle was Edsel’s father Henry Ford, who still retained complete control over the company he founded, even though he had turned the figurehead control over to his son. Henry Ford was well known for his opposition to the possible U.S. entry into World War II, so it would be up to Edsel to convince him that it was necessary.
According to Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Ford, “Wheels for the World,” Henry Ford had in effect already accepted a contract from the German government. The Ford subsidiary Ford-Werke in Cologne was doing business with the Third Reich at the time, which Ford’s critics took as proof that he was concealing a pro-German bias behind his claims to be a man of peace. Nevertheless, as U.S. entry into the war became more of a certainty, Ford reversed his position, and the company opened a large new government-sponsored facility at Willow Run, Michigan in May of 1941, for the purposes of manufacturing the B-24E Liberator bombers for the Allied war effort. Ford Motor plants also produced a great deal of other war materiel during World War II, including a variety of engines, trucks, jeeps, tanks and tank destroyers. The production needs met by Ford Motor Company during World War II were instrumental in the Allied victory in that war.
On this D-Day, a subject I have previously written about, I began to wonder about a different side of the story of this age old battle that everyone has heard of, even if some don’t know what it was all about. My thoughts turned to General Eisenhower. It was he who had the unfortunate task of deciding to attack the Germans who were occupying France, by way of the beaches of Normandy, France. It was he who had to carry the emotional burden of knowing that if the attack was made, he would be sending men to die. I would not have wanted to be in his shoes as he pondered this monumental decision. Nevertheless, someone had to make the decision. Things could not go on as they were. The future of the free world was dependent on the decisions made by this one man.
As families listened to their radio stations on the morning of June 6, 1944, one Valerie Lauder, who was 18 at the time, had graduated from Stephens Junior College that May and was not due at Northwestern University and the Medill School of Journalism until September was among the listeners. Her father was listening too, until he had to go to work. She said that President Roosevelt came on the radio and offered a prayer. Then, she heard General Eisenhower’s recorded reading of the order of the day, the troops in LSTs and transports heard it over loudspeakers. At that point, Val decided that she would really like to meet General Eisenhower, and given her chosen profession as a journalist, she was able to eventually make that happen. In fact, she was not only able to meet General Eisenhower 2½ years later, but was also able to preside at his press conference with the student press club that she had created and the Chicago Daily News sponsored.
She related the scene, “On January 18, 1947, Wearing two battle ribbons on his waist-length “Eisenhower jacket,” the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe stood to my left, facing 165 student editors and photographers from high school and college newspapers throughout the greater Chicago area gathered in the Drake Hotel. Dressed in their Sunday best, pencils poised, notebooks open, they were seated on straight-back chairs set out in rows of 10 on either side of a center aisle. Ike stood at the end of the center aisle, about three feet in front of me. I introduced him.” As Val introduced General Eisenhower, she asked him, “General Eisenhower, what was the greatest decision you had to make during the war?” Eisenhower contemplated her question for a moment, and then answered her in a somber and serious tone about the D-Day landings. “To ensure the success of the Allied landings in Normandy,” he explained, “it was imperative that we prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. All roads and rail lines leading to the areas of fighting on and around the beaches had to be cut or blocked. If reinforcements were allowed to reach the areas of fighting there, in our first, precarious attempts to get a foothold on the continent, the whole operation could be jeopardized. The landings might fail. The success of the landings on the beaches,” Ike said, reaching the end of the first row, starting back, “might well turn on the success of the paratroopers behind the lines.”
Then, on May 30, just six days before the scheduled landings, which were to have been June 5, a trusted aide and personal friend came to him, deeply concerned about the airborne landing. Val later that learned it was British Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had been assigned to the Allied forces, with the title of Air Commander in Chief, which made him the air commander of the Allied invasion. He was apologetic about how late it was, so close to the jump-off time. But, he’d gone over it, and over it, and over it, and felt it simply would not succeed. The casualties would be too great. He pleaded with Eisenhower. “Casualties to glider troops would be 90% before they ever reached the ground,” he said. “The killed and wounded among the paratroopers would be 75%.” Eisenhower knew that would mean an unbearably high percentage of the 18,000 men who would drop into the darkness over Nazi-occupied France would become casualties. This would also mean that the survivors would be too few in number to succeed in their crucial mission of seizing, and holding the causeways. “The man was absolutely sincere, absolutely convinced it wouldn’t work,” Eisenhower said. “As a highly respected, capable officer, I trusted his judgment. I told him I’d think it over.”
After agonizing over the possible losses, he was still undecided just four days before the planned date. Eisenhower slowing, turned to face the students, he said, “I let the order stand.” With the words, his face seemed to relax. I suppose you would have to decide that you were going to be ok with the decision, or else it would drive you crazy. The students sat in stunned silence. “The airborne boys did their job.” Eisenhower went on with relief almost bordering on elation. “And, I am happy to say, the casualties were only 8%.” Eisenhower was not just a general setting up a battle, but rather a man with a heartfelt concern for the men in the airborne divisions and the men in the landing craft headed for the beaches. As he put it in his book, Crusade in Europe, “It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-racking problem.” I have to agree. To only lose 8% of the men in that situation, well that is…unbelievable!!
It’s hard for me to think about D-Day, without wondering what things were going through my dad, Allen Spencer’s mind on that day. Each branch of the military had their own part to play and each was in much danger. I suppose it’s possible that the men on the ground were in the most danger, but in reality, anyone who was involved that day faced grave danger. Soldiers could be shot and killed, ships could be sunk, and planes could be shot down. No matter how the attack came, death was often the result, and in battle it was inevitable.
My dad was a young man of just 20 years. That is the age of my two oldest grandchildren, and I simply cannot imagine either of them being in that position. Of course, they could handle it, because twenty year olds have been fighting wars for as long as wars have been fought. It is me, and my mind, that can’t wrap itself around the idea of them being in an airplane providing air support over a battlefield. For my dad, every mission held an adrenalin rush, a degree of excitement, and a large degree of dread, mixed with the need to push back fear. Flying in the B-17G Bomber was an exciting thing for him, but unfortunately it had to be mixed with the reality of the fact that those bombs were killing people…even if they were the enemy. They often had no say in the matter, they were an enemy of the Allied Forces simply because they lived in the country they did.
The air war was vastly different from the ground war, but that didn’t make either more of less dangerous. The Luftwaffe was not widely used on D-Day, but did come racing in over the following days. The weather was bad that first day, and that was definitely to the advantage of the Allied troops. Nevertheless, there were German forces involved, and without air support, they could not have pulled off the victory they did at Normandy. The planes that were there to provide air support, were basically magnets for the Luftwaffe, and any other enemy forces on the ground. Flying over Normandy was not a task to be taken lightly. Their job was to keep the bombers, tanks, and other soldiers off of the ground troops. The men risked their lives every second that they were in the air. The men on the ground were so vulnerable, and it was imperative that they have good air cover to keep as much enemy fire off of them as possible. It was very clear that without the air support, D-Day would not have been possible.
I am very proud of the part my dad played in D-Day, as I am of men like my Uncle Jim Wolfe, who was one of those men on the ground on that fateful day. Their job was a very dangerous one, and many of them would not see the sun set that night, but they had a job to do, and so they went out to battle for the freedom of those who were oppressed by the evil that was Hitler. It is a battle we will never forget, nor will we forget the men who fought there, especially those who gave all.