<i>This article was originally published in June 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.</i>
"Soldiers, sailors and airman of the Allied Expeditionary Force:
You are about to embark on a great crusade. The eyes of the world are upon you and the hopes and prayers of all liberty loving people go with you."
-- Order of the Day,
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower,
Allied Expeditionary Force,
June 6, 1944.
Fifty years ago, from May to June 1944, everyone knew the Allied invasion of France was coming.
It was the sixth year of World War II in Europe, the fourth year in the Pacific. By 1944, the Soviet army and people, after four years of fighting, and at a tremendous cost, had driven back the Germans from Moscow and Leningrad. That June they were getting ready for a summer offensive to drive the invader from Russia.
Americans had just entered Rome, breaking the German hold on central Italy. But dictator Adolf Hitler supplied his ally and Fascist leader Benito Mussolini's puppet government with German troops. They promised tough fighting for American GIs into the foothills of the Alps.
On the other side of the globe, American troops were slowly island hopping their way to Japan. The American military estimated it would be 1948 before an invasion of that island nation, estimated to cost at least a million American lives, brought the war in the Pacific to a close.
In 1940, France had been conquered by the Germans. England had barely gotten her forces out at Dunkirk. Until Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 and Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the English fought on against the Third Reich alone.
Since 1942 Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had been demanding the Allies open a second front in Europe against the Germans. He derided the American and British efforts in Italy and North Africa. But now, in the spring of 1944, the war machine of what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the "arsenal of democracy" was ready.
In English coastal towns an armada of 5,000 ships and armies of hundreds of thousands of men waited. French resistance fighters, huddled around their radios listening for the code that would mean the day of liberation was at hand. In the United States, censored letters from sons and daughters in the military offered hints to concerned relatives and friends.
Even the Germans knew that the Allies were coming -- and soon. But the exact date and place remained a secret. Most German officers thought it would be at the Pas de Calais, the narrowest point of the English Channel. But since March 1944 Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, looking at the intelligence information on Allied troop locations in England, had said Normandy would be where the invasion would take place. Fortunately for the Allies, the Third Reich was getting its best troops chewed up on the Russian front. It had little to spare for France.
Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German intelligence, had discovered that 48 hours before the invasion a code would be broadcast to the French underground over the BBC. It was the first line from the "Chanson d' Automne" ("Song of Autumn") by the 19th-century French poet Paul Verlaine: "The long sobs of the violins of autumn, wound my heart with a monotonous languor." This knowledge, it was felt, would give the Third Reich more than adequate warning.
The German High Command was divided as to how to repel the invasion. The overall commander for France, Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt argued that the Allies should be allowed to establish their beachhead and then be hit in a decisive battle.
Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who was in charge of the coastal fortifications known as the Atlantic Wall, disagreed. The Allies must be met on the beach with everything the Germans had. They had to be beaten before their superiority in men and material could make a difference. "Believe me, Lang," Rommel told an aide on April 22, 1944, "the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive ... for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day."
To make sure the Atlantic Wall held, Rommel ordered mines, mines and more mines. By June 1944, more than 5 million mines were spread along the coast in the water and on the beach. But Rommel wanted 60 million mines. Where French families once vacationed he created inventive beach obstacles designed to rip open a landing craft or blow apart a man. The fields behind the beach were flooded, turning pasture into swamp. Spiked poles with mines, called by the Germans "Rommel's asparagus," were set up to prevent glider and parachute landings.
But it was not enough for Rommel. On the morning of June 4, 1944, he left by car for Germany. With bad weather settling in over the Channel, Rommel was convinced it would be late June at the earliest before the invasion would take place. He planned to request that Hitler give him control of a Panzer division, a control the German dictator jealously guarded, so he could meet the Allies on the beach.
There was another reason that Rommel was going to Germany. On the seat next to him was a box with a pair of handmade woman's size 5-1/2 shoes, a present for his wife, Lucie-Maria. June 6 was her birthday.
Across the English Channel, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower stepped into the library of Southwick House, a large country home. Around him were military leaders of the United States and Britain. Everyone there knew June 5, 6, and 7 were possible D-Day dates. Ike had even ordered the invasion for June 5, but was forced to pull back because of rough weather.
As Group Capt. J.N. Stagg of the Royal Air Force, chief meteorologist for the invasion, walked into the library all eyes were on him. "Gentlemen" he began, "there have been some rapid and unexpected developments in the situation." Stagg said a fair-weather front had begun to cross the English Channel. From the night of June 5 to the morning of June 6 it would be clear enough for bombers to see their targets. After that skies would cloud up again.
"In short," writes Cornelius Ryan in his classic 1959 book on the invasion "The Longest Day," (Simon and Schuster; $5.95; 302 pp.) "what Eisenhower was being told was that a barely tolerable period of fair conditions, far below the minimal requirements, would prevail for just a little more than 24 hours."
After answering a barrage of questions Stagg departed. Eisenhower turned to his fellow Allied officers. His chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, said that an invasion on June 6 was risky but worth it. Two British officers, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur William Tedder and Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, opposed the plan. They said weather conditions would still not be good enough for accurate bombing. British Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, in direct charge of the D-Day assault, called it "chancy," but "I would say `Go.' "