1: In early June of 1944, the success or failure of the D-Day invasion rested on the shoulders of Dwight D. Eisenhower, write Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.
In early December of the prior year, the President told Ike to move to England to become the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces. After six months of planning, “the critical variable, out of all massive complexity then facing him, was simple: the weather.”
That decision, the authors note, was highly complex: “The invasion required a combination of clear skies for air operations, a full moon for the paratrooper drop behind enemy lines the night before, moderate seas for the ships, and tides low enough to allow the landing craft to run ashore before striking the obstacles, many of them mined, that the Germans had placed on the high water mark.”
On the morning, June 3, 1944, Ike faced a momentous decision. “For miles around Eisenhower’s tent, and indeed all around the coast of England, the invasion force sat tense, as [Ike] put it, like ‘a great human spring, coiled for the moment when its energy should be released, and it would vault the English Channel in the greatest amphibious assault ever attempted.’
“And on Eisenhower’s shoulders alone would rest the decision whether to uncoil the mighty spring two mornings hence.”
Author Stephen Ambrose writes that “one of Eisenhower’s characteristics was his desire to simplify. Faced with a complex situation, he usually tried to separate it into its essentials, extract a principal point, and then make that point his guiding star for all decisions.”
This particular morning Ike did precisely that, thinking through the various factors until he wrote out a single rule to guide him: “We must go unless there is a real and very serious deterioration in the weather.”
2: The following morning, a “very serious deterioration” was precisely what Eisenhower encountered. “Each day that first week of June, at four A.M. and again at nine-thirty P.M., in the library of a nearby Georgian mansion called Southwick House, Eisenhower and his top lieutenants met with their top meteorologist, Captain J. M. Stagg. A Scotsman with an air of dignified reserve, Stagg was an unsung hero of D-day, a scientist to his bones with all of the scientist’s refined capacity to pass unimpassioned judgment on the evidence, a man of sharp mind and soft speech, detached, resolute, and courageous.”
J. M. had predicted fair weather for June 5, the scheduled date for the invasion. But at the meeting the morning of June 4, he now reported an unwelcome change: “a meteorological vessel seven hundred miles west of Ireland had reported a powerful incoming storm, bringing with it the lowest barometric pressures ever recorded that century around the British Isles in June.”
Ike’s test was met: He pushed back the invasion to June 6.
Seventeen hours later, at the nine-thirty P.M. meeting on June 4, the meteorologist noted another change. Although the wind and rain were still pelting against the windowpanes, J. M. believed the storm would soon relent, followed by decent weather the night of June 5 and throughout the day on June 6. But perhaps followed again by storms on June 7.
Ike faced a dilemma: “If he proceeded on June 6, he might get the first waves of troops ashore but then be prevented by bad weather from reinforcing them the following day. If [he] now delayed the invasion even a single day, however, the moon and tides would not permit another attempt until June 19, an almost unbearable prospect with hundreds of thousands of men on the knife’s edge of readiness all around him.”
Ike walked over to a window and looked out at the “driving, nearly horizontal rain.” For a long while, he was silent. Then, he calmly said, “I am quite positive that the order must be given.” Ike had already identified the critical variable for his decision: “We must go unless there is a real and very serious deterioration in the weather.” The prospect of bad weather for June 7 was still only that: a possibility.
The following morning during the four A.M. meeting, with the invasion fleet already having set forth, but still not too late to turn them back, Ike considered the question a final time. The meteorologist reported his forecast had not changed but cautioned that it had not gotten any better either.
Ike asked the group a final time, “pacing with hands clasped behind his back as he did so. Then he sank into a sofa, where for an agonizing five minutes, he silently pondered his decision. Finally, he broke into a broad smile and said, “Well, Stagg, if this forecast comes off, I promise you we’ll have a celebration when the time comes.”
Then he gave the order, which was now final: “Okay, let’s go.”
3: Within a minute, the room emptied, leaving Ike all alone. He headed to his tent, where he wrote out a press release to be used in case of failure: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
That evening he visited the 101st Airborne “as they blacked their faces and packed their gear for the flight to Normandy, now only hours away,” the authors write. “Finally, he stood by the runway, watching the twin-engined C-47s take off one by one into the night, filled with those ‘thousands of our flower of youth’—all of them headed into the fire of Normandy.”
As the last plane roared away, now after midnight, Ike’s shoulders sagged. Then, his eyes full with tears, he turned to his driver and said: “Well, it’s on.”
Reflection: Consider a current decision. Think through the various factors at play. What is the principal point on which the decision should be made?
Action: Discuss with a colleague or friend.