Operation Overlord was the code name for the Battle of Normandy, the Allied operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during WWII. The operation commenced on the 6th of June 1944 with the Normandy landings (Operation Neptune), commonly known as D-Day. While this operation was a great success in the end, Allied Command did plan for the prospect of failure.
Looking back at the battle now, it can be difficult to see how close the Allies came to defeat. Fortunate circumstance in many cases cost the German defenders dear when the outcome was on the tip of a knife edge.
With the foreboding possibility of vanquishment looming, General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and Operation Overlord, drafted a 66-word script which he would have read to the Allied powers following a failed invasion.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg Le Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.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 upon 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.” General Eisenhower, 5th July
(It should be noted that this draft is dated July 5th. In 1966, when the question about this date was put to him, he indicated that it was a minor mistake on his part and that he had written it on June 5, 1944.)
While Operation Overlord went down in history as a success and gave the Allies a foothold in Europe, this piece of paper almost shows how easily it could have gone the other way. The note certainly paints a picture of Eisenhower, while confident of success on D-Day, preparing for the worst-case scenario as 150,000 men were preparing to land on the beaches.
Had General Eisenhower had to use these notes on D-Day it would have meant that there would have been thousands of Allied casualties lying on the beaches of Normandy.
It would have meant defeat for the Allies in the west and left Germany to focus all their efforts on the Russians on the Eastern Front, giving the Second World War a very different outcome.
Eisenhower was going to read the message out either to reporters or over the radio had D-Day ended in defeat.
Fortune was with the Allies, however, as the German Command was slow to react to the Normandy invasion, failed to move crucial units to counter-attack and ultimately collapsed under the pressure of the Fuhrer’s orders and a two-front war. Equally, the Allies created their own luck and rode it to victory. Two American airborne divisions were scattered all over the Normandy countryside in the early morning of D-Day, missing their objectives by several kilometres. This proved to be both an advantage and disadvantage, as the US Airborne proved to be a massive thorn in the side of the Germans trying to reinforce the Normandy sector, and despite some targets going uncaptured, many of the units were able to recover and take their objectives.
Allied Intelligence was able to misdirect the Germans into thinking the primary invasion site would be Calais and that Normandy would be a diversion. Despite the protests of officers as the Battle of Normandy intensified, many German divisions near Calais were not moved towards the battlefield until it was too late.
American forces on Omaha Beach were very nearly annihilated thanks to ineffective pre-landing bombardments by the US Navy, the Royal Navy and the US Army Air Force, among a catalogue of other issues. Imagine if the German Command had reacted faster and deployed a Panzer Division to the Omaha Beach sector… that would have left the flanks of the Utah and Gold Beaches open to attack. Eisenhower could very well have ended up reading his letter.
Thankfully it wasn’t to be, and despite the set-backs and problems the D-Day invasion was an unparalleled success and remains the largest successful amphibious invasion in history.
The note was passed by Eisenhower to his adjutant officer just over a month after D-Day, and it has been held by the Dwight D. Eisenhower library.
22,442 men who gave their lives during the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy.