Allied forces Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower speaks with U.S. Army paratroopers of Easy Company, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (Strike) of the 101st Airborne Division, at Greenham Common Airfield in England June 5, 1944.
Allied forces Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower speaks with U.S. Army paratroopers of Easy Company, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (Strike) of the 101st Airborne Division, at Greenham Common Airfield in England June 5, 1944.

A killing frost struck the United Kingdom in the middle of May 1944, stunting the plum trees and the berry crops. Stranger still was a persistent drought. Hotels posted admonitions above their bathtubs: “The Eighth Army crossed the desert on a pint a day. Three inches only, please.” British newspapers reported that even King George VI kept “quite clean with one bath a week in a tub filled only to a line which he had painted on it.” Gale winds from the north grounded most Allied bombers flying from East Anglia and the Midlands, although occasional fleets of Boeing Flying Fortresses could still be seen sweeping toward the continent, their contrails spreading like ostrich plumes.

Nearly five years of war had left British cities as “bedraggled, unkempt and neglected as rotten teeth,” according to one visitor from the United States, who found that “people referred to ‘before the war’ as if it were a place, not a time.” The country was steeped in heavy smells, of old smoke and cheap coal and fatigue. Wildflowers took root in bombed-out lots from Birmingham to Plymouth. Less bucolic were the millions of rats swarming through 3,000 miles of London sewers; exterminators scattered 60 tons of sausage poisoned with zinc phosphate and stale bread dipped in barium carbonate.

Privation lay on the land like another odor. The British government allowed men to buy a new shirt every 20 months. Housewives twisted pipe cleaners into hair clips. Iron railings and grillwork had long been scrapped for the war effort; even cemeteries stood unfenced. Few shoppers could find a fountain pen or a wedding ring, or bed sheets, vegetable peelers, or shoelaces. Posters discouraged profligacy with depictions of the Squander Bug, a cartoon rodent with swastika-shaped pockmarks. Classified advertisements included pleas in The Times of London for “unwanted artificial teeth” and for cash donations to help wounded Russian warhorses. An ad for Chez-Vous household services promised “bombed upholstery and carpets cleaned.”

Government placards advised, “Food is a munition. Don’t waste it.” Rationing had begun in June 1940 and would not end completely until 1954. The monthly cheese allowance stood at two ounces per citizen. Many children had never seen a lemon; vitamin C came from “turnip water.” The Ministry of Food promoted “austerity bread,” with a whisper of sawdust, and “victory coffee,” brewed from acorns. “Woolton pie,” a concoction of carrots, potatoes, onions, and flour, was said to sit “like cement upon the chest.” For those with strong palates, no ration limits applied to sheep’s heads, or to eels caught in local reservoirs, or to roast cormorant, a stringy substitute for poultry.

More than 50,000 British civilians had died in German air raids since 1940, including many in the resurgent “Baby Blitz,” begun in January 1944 and just now petering out. Luftwaffe spotter planes illuminated their targets with clusters of parachute flares, bathing buildings and low clouds in rusty light before the bombs fell. One diarist described “great steady swords of searchlights” probing for enemy aircraft as flak fragments spattered across rooftops like hailstones. Even the Wimbledon tennis club had been assaulted in a recent raid that had left center court pitted; a groundskeeper patched the shredded nets with string. Tens of thousands sheltered at night in the underground tunnels of the Tube. The cots standing in tiers along the platforms of 79 designated stations were so fetid that the sculptor Henry Moore likened wartime life in these underground rookeries to “the hold of a slave ship.” It was said that some young children born in London had never spent a night in their own beds.

Even during these short summer nights, the mandatory blackout, which in London in mid-May lasted from 10:30 PM to 5:22 AM, was so intense that one writer found the city “profoundly dark, like a mental condition.” Darkness also cloaked an end-of-days concupiscence, fueled by some 3.5 million soldiers now crammed into a country smaller than Oregon. At dusk, Hyde Park and Green Park were said by a Canadian soldier to resemble “a vast battlefield of sex.” A chaplain reported that American GIs and streetwalkers often copulated standing up after wrapping themselves in a trench coat, a position known as “Marble Arch style,” after the famous monument across the street from Hyde Park. “Piccadilly Circus is a madhouse after dark,” an American lieutenant wrote his mother, “and a man can’t walk without being attacked by dozens of women.” Prostitutes -- “Piccadilly Commandos” -- sidled up to men in the blackout and felt for their rank insignia on shoulders and sleeves before tendering a price: 10 shillings ($2) for enlisted men, a pound ($4) for officers.

By day, pubs and street corners showcased the exotic military plumage of Norwegians and Indians, Belgians and Czechs, Yorkshiremen and Welshmen, and more Yanks than lived in all of Nebraska. Savile Row tailors offered specialists for every article of a bespoke uniform, from tunic to trousers, and a well-heeled officer could still buy an English military raincoat at Burberry or a silver pocket flask at Dunhill. Even soldiers recently arrived from the Mediterranean theater added a poignant splash of color, thanks to the antimalarial pills that turned their skin a pumpkin hue.


Nowhere were the uniforms more impressive on Monday morning, May 15, than at St. Paul’s School on Hammersmith Road, in western London. Here, the greatest Anglo-American military conclave of World War II gathered on the war’s 1,720th day to rehearse the deathblow intended to destroy Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Admirals, generals, field marshals, logisticians, and staff wizards by the score climbed from their limousines and marched into a Gothic building of red brick and terra cotta, where American military police -- known as “Snowdrops” for their white helmets, pistol belts, leggings, and gloves -- scrutinized the 146 engraved invitations and security passes that had been distributed a month earlier. Then, six uniformed ushers escorted the guests, later described as “big men with the air of fame about them,” into the Model Room, a cold and dimly lit auditorium with black columns and hard, narrow benches reputedly designed to keep young schoolboys awake.

Top-secret charts and maps now lined the Model Room. Since January, the school had served as the headquarters for the British 21st Army Group, and here the detailed planning for Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France, had gelled. As more senior officers found their seats in Rows B through J, some spread blankets across their laps or cinched their greatcoats against the chill. Row A, 14 armchairs arranged elbow to elbow, was reserved for the highest of the mighty, and now these men began to take their seats. The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, dressed in a black frock coat and puffing his usual Havana cigar, entered with the supreme allied commander, General Dwight Eisenhower. Neither cheers nor applause greeted them, but the assembly stood as one when George VI strolled down the aisle to sit on Eisenhower’s right. Churchill bowed to his monarch, then resumed puffing his cigar.

As they waited to begin at the stroke of 10 AM, these men, with their airs of eminence, had reason to rejoice in their joint victories and to hope for greater victories still to come. Nearly all the senior commanders had served together in the Mediterranean -- they called themselves “Mediterraneanites” -- and they shared Eisenhower’s sentiment that “the Mediterranean theater will always be in my blood.” There they had indeed been bloodied, beginning with the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, when Anglo-American forces had swept aside feeble Vichy French defenders and then pivoted east through the wintry Atlas Mountains into Tunisia. Joined by the British Eighth Army, which had pushed west from Egypt after a signal victory at El Alamein, these forces had battled German and Italian legions for five months before a quarter of a million Axis prisoners surrendered in mid-May 1943.

The British and the Americans pounced on Sicily two months later, overrunning the island in six weeks before invading the Italian mainland in early September. The fascist regime of Benito Mussolini had collapsed, and the new government in Rome had renounced the Axis Pact of Steel to make common cause with the Allies. But a death struggle at Salerno, south of Naples, foreshadowed another awful winter campaign, as Allied troops struggled up the Italian boot for 200 miles in one sanguinary brawl after another with entrenched, recalcitrant Germans at places such as San Pietro, Ortona, the Rapido River, Cassino, and Anzio. Led by Eisenhower, many of the Mediterraneanites had left for the United Kingdom mid-campaign to begin planning Overlord, and they could only hope that the spring offensive -- launched on May 11 and code-name Diadem -- would break the stalemate in central Italy and carry the long-suffering Allied ranks into Rome and beyond.

By this point, the collapse of Berlin’s vast empire in eastern Europe was well advanced. Germany had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 with more than three million men, but by the beginning of 1944, German casualties exceeded 3.5 million, even as Soviet losses were quadruple that figure. The tide had turned red in all senses, and Soviet campaigns to recapture the Crimea, western Ukraine, and the territory between Leningrad and Estonia chewed up German strength. The Third Reich now had 193 divisions on the eastern front and in southeastern Europe, compared with 28 in Italy, 18 in Norway and Denmark, and 59 in France and the Low Countries. Nearly two-thirds of German combat strength remained tied up in eastern Europe, although the Wehrmacht still mustered almost 2,000 tanks and other armored vehicles in northwestern Europe. Yet the Reich was ever more vulnerable to air assault: in May 1944, Allied planes flying from the United Kingdom dropped 70,000 tons of high explosives on Axis targets, more than four times the monthly tonnage of a year earlier. Although they paid a staggering cost in airplanes and aircrews, the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces had won mastery of the European skies. At last, after wresting air and naval superiority from the Germans, the Allies could make a plausible case for a successful invasion of the continent by the ground forces currently gathering in the United Kingdom.

In 1941, when the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union first formed their grand alliance against the Axis, “the only plan was to persevere,” as Churchill put it. Perseverance had brought them to this brink: a chance to close with the enemy and destroy him in his European citadel, four years after Germany had overrun France and the Low Countries. The Americans had long advocated confronting the main German armies as soon as possible, a muscle-bound pugnacity decried as “iron-mongering” by British strategists, whose preference for reducing the enemy gradually by attacking the Axis periphery had led to 18 months of Mediterranean fighting. Now, as the great hour approached, the arena would shift north, and the British and the Americans would monger iron together.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man: at 10 AM, Eisenhower rose to greet the 145 comrades who would lead the assault on “Fortress Europe.” Behind him in the cockpit of the Model Room lay an immense plaster relief map of the Normandy coast, where the river Seine spilled into the Atlantic. Thirty feet wide and set on a tilted platform visible from the back benches, this apparition depicted, in bright colors and on a scale of six inches to the mile, the rivers, villages, beaches, and uplands of what would become the world’s most famous battlefield. A brigadier wearing skid-proof socks and armed with a pointer stood at port arms, ready to indicate locales soon to achieve household notoriety: Cherbourg, Saint-Lo, Caen, Omaha Beach.

With only a hint of his famous grin, Eisenhower spoke briefly, a man “at peace with his soul,” in the estimate of a U.S. admiral in attendance. He hailed king and comrades alike “on the eve of a great battle,” welcoming them to the final vetting of an invasion blueprint two years in the making. A week earlier, he had chosen June 5 as D-Day. “I consider it to be the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in the plan not to hesitate to say so,” Eisenhower said, his voice booming. “I have no sympathy with anyone, whatever his station, who will not brook criticism. We are here to get the best possible results.” The supreme commander would remain preoccupied for some weeks with the sea and air demands of Operation Overlord, as well as with sundry political distractions, so he had delegated the planning and conduct of this titanic land battle in Normandy to a British officer, General Bernard Montgomery.

A wiry, elfin figure in immaculate battle dress and padded shoes, Montgomery popped to his feet, pointer in hand. His narrow vulpine face was among the British Empire’s most recognizable, a visage to be gawked at in Claridge’s or huzzahed on the Strand. But before he could utter a syllable, a sharp rap sounded. The rap grew bolder; a Snowdrop flung open the Model Room door, and in swaggered Lieutenant General George Patton, a ruddy, truculent American Mars, newly outfitted by those Savile Row artisans in a bespoke overcoat, bespoke trousers, and bespoke boots. Never reluctant to stage an entrance, Patton had swept through London in a huge black Packard, bedizened with three-star insignia and sporting dual Greyhound bus horns. Ignoring Montgomery’s scowl, Patton found his seat in the second row and sat down, eager to take part in a war he condemned, without conviction, as “goddamned son-of-bitchery.” “It is quite pleasant to be famous,” Patton had written his wife, Beatrice. “Probably bad for the soul.”

With a curt swish of his pointer, Montgomery stepped to the great floor map. Glancing at his notes -- 20 brief items, written in his tidy cursive on unlined stationery -- Montgomery began in his reedy voice, each syllable as sharply creased as his trousers. “There are four armies under my command,” he said, two composing the assault force into Normandy and two more to follow in exploiting the beachhead. “We must blast our way on shore and get a good lodgement before the enemy can bring sufficient reserves to turn us out,” he continued. “Armored columns must penetrate deep inland, and quickly, on D-Day. This will upset the enemy plans and tend to hold him off while we build up strength. We must gain space rapidly, and peg out claims well inland.”

The Bay of the Seine, which lay within range of almost 200 fighter airfields in the United Kingdom, had been designated as the invasion site more than a year earlier for its flat, sandy beaches and its proximity to Cherbourg, a critical French port needed to supply the invading hordes. True, the Pas-de-Calais coastline was closer, but it had been deemed “strategically unsound” because the small beaches there not only were exposed to storms in the English Channel but also had become the most heavily defended strands in France. Planners under the capable British lieutenant general Frederick Morgan had scrutinized other possible landing sites, from the French region of Brittany to the Netherlands, and found them wanting. Secret missions to inspect the Overlord beaches, launched from tiny submarines during the dark of the moon in what the Royal Navy called “impudent reconnaissance,” had dispelled anxieties about quicksand bogs and other perils. As proof, commandos brought back Norman sand samples in buckets, test tubes, and Durex condoms.

The location of the landings was crucial, for if Overlord failed, the entire Allied enterprise faced abject collapse. But before the invading force could take any territory, it would have to contend with “an ugly piece of water called the Channel,” as the official U.S. Army history of the invasion would later describe it. The English Channel was only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. Yet for nearly a thousand years, invading armies facing a hostile shore across it had found more grief than glory. “The only solution,” one British planner had quipped, “is to tow the beaches over already assaulted.” The U.S. War Department had even pondered tunneling beneath the seabed: a detailed study deemed the project “feasible,” requiring one year and 15,000 men to excavate 55,000 tons of spoil. Wiser heads questioned “the strategic and functional” complexities, such as the inconvenience of the entire German Seventh Army waiting for the first tunneler to emerge. The study was shelved.

Montgomery’s presentation focused mostly on the technical details of the landings, but the general closed it on a different note. “We shall have to send the soldiers into this party seeing red,” he declared, eyes aglint. “Nothing must stop them. If we send them into battle this way, then we shall succeed.” After lunch and a number of briefings by other officers, Eisenhower stood for a few words of thanks, noting that Hitler had “missed his one and only chance of destroying with a single well-aimed bomb the entire high command of the Allied forces.” Churchill gave a brief valedictory, grasping his coat lapels in both hands. “Let us not expect all to go according to plan. Flexibility of mind will be one of the decisive factors,” he said. “Risks must be taken.” He bade them all Godspeed. “I am hardening on this enterprise. I repeat, I am now hardening toward this enterprise.”

Never would they be more unified, never more resolved. They came to their feet, shoulders squared, tramping from the hall to the limousines waiting on Hammersmith Road to carry them to command posts across the United Kingdom. Ahead lay the most prodigious undertaking in the history of warfare.


Shortly after 6 PM, Eisenhower sped southwest through London in his chauffeured Cadillac, drawing deeply on a cigarette. In these fraught times, he often smoked 80 Camels a day, aggravating the throat and respiratory infections that had plagued him all spring. He also suffered from high blood pressure, headaches, and ringing in one ear; he had even begun placing hot compresses on his inflamed eyes. “Ike looks worn and tired,” his naval aide, Commander Harry Butcher, noted in mid-May. “The strain is telling on him. He looks older now than at any time since I have been with him.” The supreme commander was 53 years old.

As the dreary suburbs rolled past, Churchill’s final remark at St. Paul’s gnawed at Eisenhower: “I am now hardening toward this enterprise.” The tentative commitment and implicit doubt seemed vexing, although Churchill had never concealed either his reluctance to risk calamity in a cross-channel attack or his dismay at the cautionary experience of Anzio, where four months after that invasion a large Anglo-American force remained bottled up and was shelled daily in a pinched beachhead. Yet for Overlord, the die was cast, spelled out in a 30-word order to Eisenhower from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, his superiors in Washington and London: “You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other united nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” Now was the time, as Eisenhower put it, for “ramming our feet in the stirrups.”

For years, he had pondered just how to successfully enter the continent of Europe -- first as a War Department planner; next as the senior American soldier in London in the spring and summer of 1942; then as the general superintending the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and mainland Italy; and now as the commander of what was officially known as the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. No one knew the risks better. No one was more keenly aware that three times the Germans had nearly driven Allied landings back into the sea -- on Sicily, at Salerno, and at Anzio.

Growing in stature and confidence, Eisenhower had become the indispensable man, so renowned that a Hollywood agent had recently offered $150,000 for the rights to his life (plus $7,500 each to his wife, Mamie; his mother; and his in-laws). “He has a generous and lovable character,” Montgomery would tell his diary before the invasion, “and I would trust him to the last gasp.” Other comrades considered him clubbable, articulate, and profoundly fair. His senior naval subordinate, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, asserted simply, “He is a very great man.” U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt had chosen him to command Operation Overlord in part because he considered him to be “the best politician among the military men.” In a memorandum, Roosevelt described Eisenhower as “a natural leader who can convince other men to follow him.”

Yet he had not convinced everyone that he was a great captain, a commander with the ability to see the field both spatially and temporally, intuiting the enemy’s intent and subordinating all resistance to an iron will. Montgomery, whose ambivalence toward Eisenhower’s generalship would only intensify, offered private complaints as well as praise: “When it comes to war,” he told a colleague, “Ike doesn’t know the difference between Christmas and Easter.” Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, confided to his diary an assessment of the supreme commander’s role at St. Paul’s: “No real director of thought, plans, energy or direction! Just a coordinator -- a good mixer, a champion of inter-allied cooperation, and in those respects few can hold a candle to him. But is that enough? Or can we not find all the qualities of a commander in one man?”

Eisenhower sensed such doubts, and perhaps harbored a few himself. In his own diary, he lamented the depiction of him in British newspapers as an administrator rather than a battlefield commander. “They dislike to believe that I had anything particularly to do with campaigns. They don’t use the words ‘initiative’ and ‘boldness’ in talking of me,” he wrote. “It wearies me to be thought of as timid, when I’ve had to do things that were so risky as to be almost crazy. Oh, hum.”

He had indeed taken risks, crazy risks, but more lay dead ahead. Eisenhower was neither a philosopher nor a military theorist. But he believed that too few commanders grappled with what he called “subjects that touch the human soul -- aspirations, ideals, inner beliefs, affection, hatreds.” On such broken ground during the coming weeks and months, his captaincy and his cause would be assayed. For more than any other human enterprise, war revealed the mettle of men’s souls.


By the tens of thousands, souls in olive drab poured into the United Kingdom. Since January, the number of GIs had doubled to 1.5 million, a far cry from the first paltry tranche of 4,000 in early 1942. Of the U.S. Army’s 89 divisions, 20 now could be found in the United Kingdom, with 37 more either en route or earmarked for the European theater. Through Liverpool they arrived, and through Swansea, Cardiff, Belfast, Avonmouth, Newport. But most came into Glasgow and adjacent Greenock, more than 100,000 in April alone, 15,000 at a time on the two Queens -- Elizabeth and Mary -- each of which could haul an entire division and outrun German U-boats to make the crossing from New York in five days.

Down the gangplanks they tromped, names checked from a clipboard, each soldier wearing his helmet, his field jacket, and a large celluloid button color-coded by the section of the ship to which he had been confined during the passage. Soldiers carried four blankets apiece to save cargo space, while deluded officers could be seen lugging folding chairs, pillowcases, and tennis rackets. A brass band and Highland pipers greeted them on the dock; Scottish children raised their arms in a V for “Victory.” Combat pilots who had fulfilled their mission quotas and were waiting to board ship for the return voyage bellowed, “Go back before it’s too late!” or “What’s your wife’s telephone number?”

Just over eight million men had been inducted into the U.S. Army and Navy during the past two years -- 11,000 every day. The average GI was 26 years old, born the year that “the war to end all wars” ended, but manpower demands in this global struggle meant the force was growing younger: henceforth, nearly half of all U.S. troops arriving to fight in Europe in 1944 would be teenagers. One in three GIs had only a grade school education, one in four held a high school diploma, and slightly more than one in ten had attended college for at least a semester. War Department Pamphlet 21-13 would assure them that they were “the world’s best paid soldiers.” A private earned $50 a month, a staff sergeant $96. Any valiant GI awarded the Medal of Honor would receive an extra $2 each month.

The typical U.S. soldier stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed 144 pounds, but physical standards had been lowered with respect to defects that once would have kept many young men out of uniform. A man with 20/400 vision could now be conscripted if his sight was correctable to at least 20/40 in one eye; toward that end, the armed forces would make 2.3 million pairs of eyeglasses for the troops. The old jest that the army no longer examined eyes but instead just counted them had come true. A man could be drafted if he had only one eye, or was completely deaf in one ear, or had lost both external ears, or was missing a thumb or three fingers on either hand -- including a trigger finger. Earlier in the war, a draftee had had to possess at least 12 of his original 32 teeth, but now he could be utterly toothless. After all, the government had drafted a third of all the civilian dentists in the United States; collectively, they would extract 15 million teeth, fill 68 million more, and make 2.5 million sets of dentures, enabling each GI to meet the minimum requirement of “masticating the Army ration.”

A revision of mental and personality standards was also under way. In April 1944, the U.S. War Department decreed that inductees need have only a “reasonable chance” of adjusting to military life, although psychiatric examiners were advised to watch for two dozen “personality deviations,” including silly laughter, sulkiness, resentfulness of discipline, and other traits that would seemingly disqualify every teenager in the United States. In addition, the army began drafting “moderate” obsessive-compulsives, as well as stutterers. Men with malignant tumors, leprosy, or certifiable psychosis still were deemed “nonacceptable,” but by early 1944, 12,000 venereal disease patients, most of them syphilitic, were inducted each month and rendered fit for service with a new miracle drug called penicillin.

Nearly 400,000 prefabricated huts and 279,000 tents had been erected to accommodate the Yank horde, supplementing 112,000 borrowed British buildings and 20 million square feet of storage space. GIs called this new world “Spamland,” but the prevailing odor came from the burning feces in the army’s coal-fired incinerators.

No alliance in the war proved more vital or enduring than that of the English-speaking peoples, but this vast American encampment strained the fraternal bond. “You may think of them as enemy Redcoats,” each arriving GI was advised in a War Department brochure, “but there is no time today to fight old wars over again or bring up old grievances.” Detailed glossaries translated English into English: chemist/druggist, geyser/hot-water heater, tyre/tire. Disparities in pay caused resentment; a GI private earned triple what his tommy counterpart drew, and the U.S. staff sergeant’s $96 monthly salary was equivalent to a British captain’s. The U.S. Army tried to blur the difference by paying GIs twice a month. But British penury was as obvious as the pubs that required patrons to bring their own beer glasses, or the soap shortage that caused GIs to call the unwashed United Kingdom “Goatland,” or the fact that British quartermasters stocked only 18 shoe sizes, compared with the 105 provided by the U.S. Army.

American authorities urged tolerance and gratitude. “It is always impolite to criticize your hosts,” a guide to the United Kingdom advised GIs. “It is militarily stupid to insult your allies.” Not least important, British producers stocked the American larder and supply depot with 240 million pounds of potatoes, a thousand cake pans, 2.4 million tent pegs, 15 million condoms, 260,000 grave markers, 80 million packets of cookies, and 54 million gallons of beer.

The British displayed forbearance despite surveys revealing that less than half viewed the Americans favorably. “They irritate me beyond words,” one housewife complained. “Loud, bombastic, bragging, self-righteous, morals of the barnyard, hypocrites” -- these were among the terms Britons commonly used to described the GIs, according to one survey. Meet the Americans, a manual published in London, included chapters titled “Drink, Sex and Swearing” and “Are They Our Cousins?” An essay written for the British army by the anthropologist Margaret Mead sought to explain “why Americans seem childish.” George Orwell groused in a newspaper column that “Britain is now Occupied Territory.”

Occasional bad behavior reinforced the stereotype of boorish Yanks. GIs near Newcastle killed and ate the royal swans at the king’s summer palace. Paratroopers from the 101st Airborne used grenades to fish in a private pond, and bored soldiers sometimes set haystacks ablaze with tracer bullets. Despite War Department assurances that “men who refrain from sexual acts are frequently stronger, owing to their conservation of energy,” so many GIs impregnated British women that the U.S. government agreed to give local courts jurisdiction in “bastardy proceedings”; child support was fixed at a pound per week until the little Anglo-American turned 13, and 5 to 20 shillings weekly for teenagers. Road signs cautioned, “To all GIs: please drive carefully, that child may be yours.”

Both on the battlefield and in the rear, the transatlantic relationship would remain, in one British general’s description, “a delicate hothouse growth that must be carefully tended lest it wither away.” Nothing less than Western civilization depended on it. As American soldiers by the boatload continued to swarm into their Spamland camps, a British major spoke for many of his countrymen: the Yanks were “the chaps that [matter]. . . . We couldn’t possibly win the war without them.”


On Tuesday, May 23, a great migration of assault troops swept toward the English seaside and into a dozen marshaling areas -- Americans on the southwest coast, British and Canadians in the south -- where the final staging began. Marching rates called for each convoy to travel 25 miles in two hours, vehicles 60 yards apart, with a ten-minute halt before every even-numbered hour. Military police wearing armbands specially treated to detect poison gas waved traffic through intersections and thatched-roof villages. Soldiers snickered nervously at the new road signs reading “One Way.” “We sat on a hilltop and saw a dozen roads in the valleys below jammed with thousands of vehicles, men, and equipment moving toward the south,” wrote Sergeant Forrest Pogue, a U.S. Army historian.

Mothers held their children aloft from the curb to watch the armies pass. An old man “bent like a boomerang” and pushing a cart outside London yelled, “Good luck to yer all, me lads!” a British captain reported. On tanks and trucks, the captain added, men chalked the names of sweethearts left behind so that nearly every vehicle had a “patron girl-saint,” or perhaps a patron girl-sinner. Almost overnight, the bright plumage of military uniforms in London dimmed as the capital thinned out. “Restaurants and night clubs were half empty, taxis became miraculously easier to find,” one account noted. A pub previously used by U.S. officers for assignations was rechristened the Whore’s Lament.

By late in the week, all marshaling camps were sealed, with sentries ordered to shoot absconders. “Do not loiter,” signs on perimeter fences warned. “Civilians must not talk to army personnel.” GIs wearing captured German uniforms and carrying enemy weapons wandered through the bivouacs so that troops grew familiar with the enemy’s aspect. The invasion had begun to resemble “an overrehearsed play,” complained the newspaper correspondent Alan Moorehead. Fantastic rumors swirled: that British commandos had taken Cherbourg, that Berlin intended to sue for peace, that a particular unit would be sacrificed in a diversionary attack, that the Wehrmacht possessed both a death beam capable of incinerating many acres instantly and a vast refrigerating apparatus to create icebergs in the English Channel. The U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes tried to calm jumpy soldiers with an article promising that “shock kept the wounded from feeling much pain.” Another column in the paper advised, “Don’t be surprised if a Frenchman steps up to you and kisses you. That doesn’t mean he’s queer. It just means he’s emotional.”

Security remained paramount. Planners had concluded that Overlord had scant chance of success if the enemy received even 48 hours’ advance notice, and “any longer warning spells certain defeat.” As part of Churchill’s demand that security measures be “high, wide, and handsome,” the British government imposed a ban in early April that kept the usual 600,000 monthly visitors from approaching coastal stretches along the North Sea, the Bristol Channel, and the English Channel. Two thousand counterintelligence agents sniffed about for leaks. Censors fluent in 22 languages, including Ukrainian and Slovak, and armed with X-Acto knives scrutinized soldiers’ letters for indiscretions until, on May 25, all outgoing mail was impounded for ten days as an extra precaution.

Camouflaged inspectors roamed through southern England to ensure that the invasion assembly remained invisible to German surveillance planes. Thousands of tons of cinders and sludge oil darkened new road cuts. Garnished nets concealed tents and huts -- the British alone used one million square yards -- and even medical stretchers and surgical hampers were slathered with “tone-down paint,” either Standard Camouflage Color 1A (dark brown) or SCC 15 (olive drab). Any vehicle stopped for more than ten minutes was to be draped with a net “propped away from the contours of the vehicle.”

Deception complemented the camouflage. The greatest prevarication of the war, originally known as “Appendix Y,” until given the code name Fortitude, tried “to induce the enemy to make faulty strategic dispositions of forces,” as the Combined Chiefs of Staff requested. Fifteen hundred Allied deceivers used phony radio traffic to suggest that a fictional army with eight divisions in Scotland would attack Norway in league with the Soviets, followed by a larger invasion of France in mid-July through the Pas-de-Calais, 150 miles northeast of the actual Overlord beaches. More than 200 eight-ton “Bigbobs” -- decoy landing craft fashioned from canvas and oil drums -- had been conspicuously deployed beginning on May 20 around the Thames estuary. Dummy transmitters broadcast the radio hubbub of a spectral, 150,000-man First U.S. Army Group, notionally poised to pounce on the wrong coast in the wrong month.

The British genius for deception furthered the ruse by passing misinformation through more than a dozen German agents, all of whom had been discovered, arrested, and flipped by British intelligence officers. A network of British double agents with code names such as Garbo and Tricycle embellished the deception, and some 500 false radio reports were sent from London to enemy spymasters in Madrid and thence to Berlin. The Operation Fortitude deception spawned a German hallucination: enemy analysts now detected 79 Allied divisions staging in the United Kingdom, when in fact there were only 52. By late May, Allied intelligence, including Ultra, information gathered through the British ability to intercept and decipher most coded German radio traffic, had uncovered no evidence suggesting “that the enemy has accurately assessed the area in which our main assault is to be made,” as Eisenhower learned to his relief. In a final pre-invasion fraud, Lieutenant Clifton James of the Royal Army Pay Corps, after spending time studying the many tics of Montgomery, whom he strikingly resembled, flew to Gibraltar on May 26 and then to Algiers. Fitted with a black beret, he strutted about in public for days in hopes that Berlin would conclude that no attack across the channel was imminent if “Monty” was swanning through the Mediterranean.

As May slid toward June, the invasion preparations grew febrile. Every vehicle to be shoved onto the French coast required waterproofing to a depth of 54 inches with a gooey compound of grease, lime, and asbestos fibers and outfitting with a vertical funnel from the exhaust pipe that “stuck up like a wren’s tail,” to keep the engine from flooding. A single Sherman tank took 300 man-hours to waterproof, occupying a five-man crew for a week. On May 29, Eisenhower also ordered all 11,000 Allied planes to display three broad white stripes on each wing as recognition symbols. A frantic search for 100,000 gallons of whitewash and 20,000 brushes required mobilizing the British paint industry, and workers toiled through the weekend. Some aircrews slathered on the white stripes with push brooms.

Soldiers were provided with seasickness pills, vomit bags, and life belts, incidentals that brought the average rifleman’s combat load to 68.4 pounds, far beyond the 43 pounds recommended for assault troops. A company commander in Dorset with the 116th Infantry, bound for Omaha Beach, reported that his men were “loping and braying about the camp under their packs, saying that as long as they were loaded like jackasses they may as well sound like them.” On June 2, the men donned “skunk suits,” stiff and malodorous uniforms heavily impregnated against poison gas. Each soldier placed his personal effects into a quartermaster box 12 inches long, eight inches wide, and four inches deep, for storage at a depot in Liverpool. Like shedding an old skin or a past life, troops bound for France would fill 500 rail boxcars with such accoutrements of peace every week for the rest of the summer.


Across the fleet, the war cry sounded: “Up anchor!” In the murky, fretful dawn of Monday, June 5, from every English harbor and estuary spilled the great effluent of liberation, from Salcombe and Poole, Dartmouth and Weymouth, in tangled wakes from the Thames past the Black Deep and the Whalebone Marshes, all converging on the white-capped channel: nearly 200,000 seamen and merchant mariners crewing 59 convoys carrying 130,000 soldiers, 2,000 tanks, and 12,000 vehicles.

The early light revealed cutters, corvettes, frigates, freighters, ferries, trawlers, tankers, subchasers: ships for channel marking, cable laying, and smoke making; ships for refrigerating, towing, and hauling food. Leading the fleet was the largest minesweeping operation in naval history. Some 255 vessels began by clearing Area Z, a circular swatch of sea below the Isle of Wight that was ten miles in diameter and soon dubbed Piccadilly Circus. From there, the minesweepers sailed through eight corridors that angled toward a German minefield in the middle of the channel, where a week earlier Royal Navy launches had secretly planted underwater sonic beacons. Electronically dormant until Sunday, the beacons now summoned the sweepers to the entrances of ten channels, each of which was 400 to 1,200 yards wide; these channels would be cleared for 350 miles to five beaches on the Bay of the Seine, in Normandy. Seven-foot waves and a cross-tidal current of nearly three knots bedeviled helmsmen who fought their wheels, the wind, and the sea to keep station. As the sweepers swept, more boats followed to lay a lighted buoy every mile on either side of each channel. The effect, one reporter observed, was “like street lamps across to France.”

As the invasion convoys swung toward Area Z, the churlish open English Channel tested the seaworthiness of every landing vessel. The flat-bottomed LST (landing ship, tank) showed what one observer called “a capacity for rolling all ways at once,” and the smaller lci (landing craft, infantry) revealed why it was widely derided as a “Lousy Civilian Idea.” Worse yet was the LCT (landing craft, tank), capable of only six knots in perfectly calm waters and half that when faced with oncoming waves or currents. Even the U.S. Navy acknowledged that “the LCT is not an ocean-going craft due to poor sea-keeping facilities, low speed, and structural weakness”; the last quality included being bolted together in three sections so that the vessel “gave an ominous impression of being liable to buckle in the middle.” Miserable passengers traded seasickness nostrums, such as one sailor’s advice to “swallow a pork chop with a string, then pull it up again.”

For those who could eat, pork chops were in fact served to the 16th Infantry, with ice cream. Aboard the Thomas Jefferson, 116th Infantry troops ate what one officer described as “bacon and eggs on the edge of eternity.” Soldiers primed grenades, sharpened blades, and field-striped their rifles; a U.S. Navy physician recommended that soldiers wash themselves well, sponging away skin bacteria, “in case you stop one.” Some Yanks sang “Happy D-Day, dear Adolf, happy D-Day to you,” but tommies preferred “Jerusalem,” based on William Blake’s bitter poem set to music: “Bring me my bow of burning gold.” Sailors broke out their battle ensigns, stripped each bridge to fighting trim, and converted mess tables into operating theaters.

To inspirit the men, officers read stand-tall messages from Eisenhower and Montgomery, then offered their own prognostications and advice. “The first six hours will be the toughest,” Colonel George Taylor of the 16th Infantry told reporters on the USS Samuel Chase. “They’ll just keep throwing stuff onto the beaches until something breaks. That is the plan.” Brigadier General Norman Cota told officers aboard the USS Charles Carroll, “You’re going to find confusion. The landing craft aren’t going in on schedule and people are going to be landed in the wrong place. Some won’t be landed at all. . . . We must improvise, carry on, not lose our heads. Nor must we add to the confusion.” A tank battalion commander was more succinct: “The government paid $5 billion for this hour. Get to hell in there and start fighting.”

Far inland, at more than a dozen airfields scattered across the United Kingdom, some 20,000 parachutists and glider troops also made ready. Soldiers from the British Sixth Airborne Division blackened their faces with teakettle soot, then chalked bosomy girls and other graffiti on aircraft fuselages while awaiting the order to enplane. “I gave the earth by the runway a good stamp,” one private reported.

American paratroopers smeared their skin with cocoa and linseed oil or with charcoal raked from campfires along the taxiways. A few company clowns imitated the singer Al Jolson’s minstrel act and joked about the imminent “$10,000 jump” -- $10,000 being the maximum death benefit paid by government insurance policies. When a chaplain in the 101st Airborne began to pray aloud, one GI snapped, “I’m not going to die. Cut that crap out.” Every man was overburdened, from the burlap strips woven into the helmet net to the knife with a brass-knuckle grip tucked into the jump boots. Also: parachute, reserve chute, life jacket, entrenching tool, rations, fragmentation and smoke grenades, blasting caps, TNT blocks, brass pocket compass, raincoat, blanket, bandoliers, rifle, cigarette carton, and morphine doses (“one for pain and two for eternity”). Carrier pigeons were stuffed into extra GI socks -- their heads poking out of little holes cut in the toe -- and fastened to paratroopers’ jackets. Some officers trimmed the margins from their maps in order to carry a few more rounds of ammunition.

“We look all pockets, pockets and baggy pants. The only visible human parts are two hands,” wrote Louis Simpson, the poet who belonged to the 101st Airborne Division. “The letter writers are at it again,” he continued, “heads bowed over their pens and sheets of paper.” Among the scribblers and the map trimmers was the 37-year-old assistant commander of the 82nd Airborne, Brigadier General James Gavin, who confessed in a note to his young daughter, “I have tried to get some sleep this afternoon but to no avail.” The impending jump likely would be “about the toughest thing we have tackled,” added Gavin, whose exploits in Sicily were among the most storied in the Mediterranean. In his diary, he was more explicit: “Either this 82nd Division job will be the most glorious and spectacular episode in our history or it will be another Little Big Horn. There is no way to tell now. . . . It will be a very mean and nasty fight.”

The prospect of “another Little Big Horn” gnawed at Eisenhower in these final hours. After watching British troops board their lcis from South Parade Pier, in Portsmouth, he sat down to compose a contrite note of responsibility, just in case. “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” he wrote. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” Misdating the paper July 5 -- symptomatic of exhaustion and anxiety -- he slipped it into his wallet, for use as needed.

Just after 6 PM, Eisenhower climbed into his Cadillac. Leading a three-car convoy, he rolled north for 90 minutes on narrow roads clogged with military trucks. “It’s very hard really to look a soldier in the eye when you fear that you are sending him to his death,” he told his driver, Kay Summersby. At the Greenham Common airfield, in the Berkshire Downs, outside the eleventh-century town of Newbury, he strolled among the C-47s newly striped with white paint. Troopers with blackened faces and heads shaved or clipped Mohawk style wiggled into their parachute harnesses and sipped a final cup of coffee. “The trick is to keep moving. If you stop, if you start thinking, you lose your focus,” Eisenhower told a young soldier from Kansas. “The idea, the perfect idea, is to keep moving.”

When he returned to the manor house at his headquarters, in a royal preserve outside London, Eisenhower climbed to the roof to get a final glimpse of his men. “The light of battle was in their eyes,” he would write George Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff. To Summersby, he confessed, “I hope to God I know what I’m doing.”

Red and green navigation lights twinkled across the downs as the sun set at 10:06 PM. Singing voices drifted in the gloaming -- “Give me some men who are stout-hearted men / Who will fight for the right they adore” -- punctuated by a guttural roar from paratroopers holding their knives aloft in homicidal resolve. Into the airplane bays they heaved themselves, with a helpful shove from behind. Many knelt on the floor to rest their cumbersome gear and chutes on a seat, faces bathed by the soft glow of cigarette embers and red cabin lights. “Give me guts,” one trooper prayed. “Give me guts.” Engines coughed and caught, the feathered propellers popping as crew chiefs slammed the doors. “Flap your wings, you big-assed bird!” a soldier yelled.

From the west, the last gleam of a dying day glinted off the aluminum fuselages. “Stay, light,” a young soldier murmured, “stay on forever, and we’ll never get to Normandy.”

The light faded and was gone. Deep into the English Channel, 59 darkened convoys went to battle stations as they pushed past the parallel rows of dim buoys: red to starboard, white to port. “This is like trying to slip into a room where everyone is asleep,” an officer on the USS Quincy observed.

Small craft struggled in the wind and chop. “Men sick, waves washed over deck,” an LCT log recorded. “Stove went out, nothing to eat, explosives wet and could not be dried out.” Short seas snapped tow ropes, flooded engine rooms, and sloshed through troop compartments. Some helmsmen held their wheels 30 degrees off true to keep course. Several heaving vessels blinked a one-word message: “Seasick. Seasick. Seasick.”

Down the ten channels they plunged, two designated for each of the five forces steaming toward the five beaches to which planners had given the code names Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Wakes braided and rebraided. The amber orb of a full moon rose through a thinning overcast off the port bow, and the sea sang as swells slipped along every hull bound for a better world. Hallelujah, sang the sea. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

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  • RICK ATKINSON is an author and military historian. His most recent book is The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945 (Henry Holt, 2013), from which this essay is adapted. Copyright © 2013 by Rick Atkinson. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
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