The Post – 1944: Wait, or Go

From the book: Ike At D-Day

“The rain he worried about. The Camel cigarettes he chain-smoked. The letter he wrote in case of failure. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s defining moment comes to life in an excerpt from Michael Korda’s best-selling new biography.

As June 6, 1944—the date set for the massive Allied invasion of France—loomed, one man bore the full weight of that decision. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander, would alone decide whether the assault would go forward.”

The above excerpt from Michael Korda’s book, on the Smithsonian website, touches on the crux of the D-Day decision….and today’s gift post on decisions about waiting or acting.

Today’s gift post, though from a fictional adventure movie, notes how often in life waiting means loss…loss of time, loss of a rare window of opportunity, loss of the whole ballgame. There are of course, many times where it’s best to wait, assess, not rush in. But there comes a time where making a choice, taking a risk, is the only option.

In 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had the unenviable task of deciding whether to send thousands of men into a battle that could mean the beginning of the end of the war, or the end of those men, and the loss of the war for the Allies.

Eisenhower was caught between a bad weather forecast….and a worse one, between optimal tides or terrible ones, between the right position of the moon for paratroopers or having to wait several weeks for another chance if he delayed. He had hundreds of thousands of men, thousands of ships, and tons of supplies crunched together in close quarters in British ports that needed time to get rolling if his decision was “Go.” And he had to decide between the risks of going and losing men and possibly the war, or waiting and losing the advantage of surprise and the loss of secrecy.

To wait meant keeping all those men in a readiness state indefinitely locked up on bases so German spies wouldn’t find out critical information. It meant waiting until the tides and the moon were in the right positions again. And it meant rolling the dice again on the weather. Who was to say it wouldn’t be this bad then, or even worse? And what then? Wait again? And again? How long can you postpone the inevitable without things blowing up and losing your chance completely?

Yet to go….with fog, clouds, stormy seas, how could the planes deploy airborne troops or provide air cover? Would the ships carrying soldiers be swamped and sink before even reaching the shores of Normandy? The fate of so much depended on one man’s decision to wait or to go.

The dilemma is described below in excerpts from the website article: , Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part IV: The Great D-Day Decision, by Carlo D’Este: I’ve tried to excerpt only those parts that give the nuance of the problems, and the flow of the decision. The article itself is much longer and very well done. Consider visiting the link for the whole article. For now, the excerpt:

“The weather in late May 1944 was exceptional – and deceiving. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the naval commander-in-chief for Operation Overlord, the cross-Channel invasion of Normandy wrote in his diary on May 29, “Summer is here and it is boiling hot!” However, as an experienced sailor Ramsay knew better than to trust this as an especially good harbinger for D-Day. [1] At the end of May it was not the condition of the sea but rather the cloud cover over the English Channel and Normandy that was of primary concern. There was only a three-day window in early June upon which the operation could commence. The moonlight required by the three airborne divisions that were to be landed by parachute and glider the night before the invasion to secure the vital flanks, and the low tides necessary to carry out the landings and the demolition of Rommel’s underwater obstacles in the forty minutes after first light, would only be present during the three day period from June 5 to 7. Any delay due to inclement weather meant postponement for a minimum of another two weeks – a possibly fatal delay that might threaten the Allied foothold if the notoriously bad Channel weather closed down re-supply through Cherbourg and over the beaches before a breakout….Every element of the Overlord plan could be controlled except the volatile weather.

…The chief meteorologist [Stagg] disclosed that a series of depressions moving in from the west would make the weather in the Channel for the next three of four days “potentially full of menace” in the form of completely overcast skies and winds of up to Force 4 or 5, and a cloud cover of five-hundred feet to as low as zero. The seriousness of the occasion could be read in their faces and in the almost deathlike silence….

Saturday June 3, 1944….Without preamble, Stagg delivered the bad news. “Gentlemen, the fears my colleagues and I had yesterday . . . have been confirmed,” he said. His latest forecast offered little but wind, waves and clouds lasting until at least June 5. One by one, Eisenhower questioned his three invasion commanders. “Could the Navy manage it? Ramsay thought not. The assault might go ashore all right, but if the weather worsened there could be no adequate build-up.” The air C-in-C, Trafford Leigh-Mallory replied that his aircrews would not be able to see what they were attacking. Of the three, only the ground force commander, Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery thought the invasion should proceed….

Eisenhower had no choice except to provisionally postpone the invasion for twenty-four hours. The armada waited in grim anticipation of some glimmer of hope from the weather gods. Some of the troops crowded aboard landing craft like cattle were already seasick from the heavy tides without ever having embarked from their harbors and ports. A short time later Bull emerged to announce, “The Supreme Commander has made a provisional decision to hold up the operation on a day-to-day basis. Some of the forces will sail tonight but General Eisenhower and his commanders will meet again at 4:15 a.m. tomorrow (Sunday) morning to hear what you have to say.” At that time Eisenhower would have to decide the fate of Overlord….

Sunday, June 4, 1944: Some naval forces had to be recalled and there was a measure of disarray and some loss of life when several landing craft overturned in the rough seas. At the 4:15 A.M. meeting Stagg reported no change….the predicted bad weather would arrive within four to five hours. “In that case, gentlemen, it looks to me as if we must confirm the provisional decision we took at the last meeting,” said Eisenhower. “Compared with the enemy’s forces ours are not overwhelmingly strong: we need every help our air superiority can give us. If the air cannot operate we must postpone. Are there any dissentient votes?” None were offered. Overlord was officially on hold….

As predicted, a full-blown gale not only rendered any hope of launching the invasion the morning of June 5 unthinkable, it now threatened to wreck the entire invasion timetable. While the armada literally treaded water, the participants had become virtual prisoners in their encampments, and aboard naval vessels; final briefings postponed and sealed instructions revealing their target remained unopened….

At the late evening briefing ‘Eisenhower presided over one of the most important councils of war in military history.” The assembled generals, admirals and air marshals, could distinctly hear the sounds of rain and the wind howling in rage outside. Eisenhower’s trademark smile was missing, replaced by an unmistakable air of solemnity…’

Although the weather was plainly vile, Stagg reported to the tense commanders there was a glimmer of hope for June 6: while the weather would remain poor, visibility would improve and the winds decrease barely enough to risk launching the invasion….

This was arguably the most important weather prediction in history: a mistaken forecast for D-Day could turn the entire tide of the war in Europe against the Allies. After consulting with each of the invasion commanders, Eisenhower swiftly learned time had run out. He had to make a decision for or against, then and there….

He [Eisenhower] was obliged to weigh not only the decision itself but its longer-term impact. There was utter silence in the room. The only sounds to be heard were the howling wind and rain. Beetle Smith, a man rarely emotional about anything, was awed by “the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on his judgment alone…

Although he later agonized over what he had wrought, it seemed clear what his decision must be. Like Stagg earlier, the time for equivocation was long past. In retrospect, it may appear to have been almost casually made but it was, in fact, a decision that he had long since prepared himself to make. His heart and his head told him that he must trust Stagg and his weather forecast. The invasion must go ahead. It was a very slender thread upon which to base the fate of the war, but it was all Eisenhower had and he embraced it. “Finally he looked up, and the tension was gone from his face.”

Still pondering, Eisenhower said, “The question is, just how long can you hang this operation on the end of a limb and let it hang there?” [5] Despite the presence of men accustomed to making life and death decisions, it was as if Eisenhower’s query was merely rhetorical. No one in the room responded; it was equally clear to them that the time for discussion had passed and that the matter rested solely with Eisenhower. “I am quite positive we must give the order,” he said. “I don’t like it but there it is . . . I don’t see how we can do anything else.” With that low-key pronouncement, the invasion of Normandy would take place the morning of June 6, based on the most important weather forecast in history.”

____________

Few of us will ever have such a weighty decision on our shoulders. I for one, am glad. I would never want to have stood in his shoes that day. And once the invasion began, there were no doubt, thousands of more decisions made, from generals down to privates, imperfect decisions made under fire, with much uncertainty, but were made because time had run out and someone had to decide. Right or wrong, they showed much courage by not running from whatever they faced. So today, a nod of honor to so many who gave so much, and showed so much courage.

In our own lives, we are faced with decisions, big or small, of wait or go. They are never easy. Always, someone or something’s fate rests on a decision. Always the decision is fraught with questions like: “Have I done all I could?” “Did I miss any important factors?” “Is this the right time?” “What if I am wrong?” And yes, waiting has its own costs.

No one has a crystal ball to tell you what to do. From what I’ve seen in my own life, most decisions demand to be made at a time that doesn’t seem quite right yet, with less than optimal circumstances. I’ve also noticed that the decisions that seemed like bad choices and that I expected to blow up in my face, often turned out best. And I’ve come to conclude that big decisions or small, we all show a touch of the heroic whenever we step up to be counted. Ask any parent out there if all the decisions they made were correct. I suspect no one will raise their hands. But good parents still try, and they make decisions, sometimes wrong ones, but they make them….because they have to…it’s their job….and they just do the best they can.

The best I guess any of us can ever do in life, is do our best to cover the bases, to analyze and prepare, then when the time for decision comes, make your choice…then release the outcome into higher hands. It takes courage…especially that last step about “releasing.’ But whether it turns out right or wrong, sometimes to not decide is worse. And Monday-morning quarterbacking is easy. Standing alone in the moment with your decision, is a lonely place. Take comfort in knowing it is also the place of heroes, big and small.

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